Friday, July 28, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Healing the Sores

Angel Wings: 1:22
“Happy is the man…”

“The lost dog who sleeps on a bed of rags
behind the garage won’t appear
to beg for anything. Nothing will explain
where the birds have gone, why a wind rages
through the ash trees, why the world
goes on accepting more and more rain.”
Philip Levine [1928–2015],
Rain in Winter” (2016)

In pairs,
as if to illustrate their sisterhood,
the sisters pace the hospital garden walks.
In their robes black and white immaculate hoods
they are like birds,
the safe domestic fowl of the House of God.

O biblic birds, who fluttered to me in my childhood illnesses
—me little, afraid, ill, not of your race, —
the cool wing for my fever, the hovering solace,
the sense of angels—
be thanked, O plumage of paradise, be praised.
—A.M. Klein [1909–1972], 

There is much to be said and found in the poetry of A.M. Klein, a Canadian poet but more of a Montrealer as I am one (since the city is so instrumental in forming the man), whose use of religious imagery make us acutely aware of earthly concerns, including those of place and identity. Much of the politics of identity that we are witnessing today comes from a place of hurt, and more often than not is a result of many unhealed sores that inflict people’s souls, taking away their sense of  self, their very dignity.

Much of the anger evident today comes from this place of humiliation; anger is a response to loss of belief, a sense of betrayal, to thoughts that “no one cares.” Belief leads to hope. And real hope as it implies can never be an abstract idea; it must be taken as real and robust. Someone should care; even if most don’t; someone with a sense of righteousness and the ability to do something should care. I recommend also the reading of Philip Levine, an American poet born during the Great Depression, and who never forgot the past and the importance of giving voice to the voiceless. Building life.

Toronto is an expensive city in which to live, and our money does not purchase much in the way of comfort. It is more American than Canadian (“Toronto is a kind of New York operated by the Swiss,” actor Peter Ustinov said of the city’s efficiency in a Globe & Mail interview (August 1, 1987)). Even if the actor meant it as a compliment, it sounds as if he was damning with faint praise the city. After all, Toronto has neither the charm nor the beauty of Montreal, yet for now I remain here, looking for signs of renewal and redemption, for a softening of the ground.

As an outsider, as one living in exile, I have witnessed many incidents of humiliation and this is one of those things that having lived it, you wish with deepest desire to escape. Writing provides an intellectual and an emotional space, a place to work out the sacred vision, but it does not contribute in my case to any significant secular means of provision. Upward mobility is a chimera, a winged creature that falls to the grounds, never taking flight, never cooling the wrinkled brows of failed dreams and broken crowns.

Lack of success (in many cases) has nothing to do with lack of trying or lack of willpower. That’s only in Hollywood movies, where the pep talk leads to success. I wish this were true, but it’s not. Neither is getting a good education, or having years of work experience, or knowledge or intelligence or being a decent guy; the facts are all there to see. One or two losses (job, house, health, etc.) can set you back indefinitely; three or four will set you back even longer. The problems are much deeper and much wider than even the media know or report, although admittedly the media manage to do a good job in telling such stories.

No, I don’t fault the government, since Canada provides a generous and comprehensive social safety net and this safety net remains in place no matter the political party in power. (There is no guarantee, however, that this can’t change.) No, the fault lies elsewhere, deriving from a certain ethos that predominates south of the Canadian border, one that has infiltrated and infused our thinking with malevolent intentions.

An ethos that takes delight in violence and hostility; an ethos that thrives on disorder and chaos, an ethos that operates on lies and deceptions. An ethos that gives license for the rich to exploit the poor, thus uplifting higher only the few that require no uplifting. All for the love of money–a love of so deep a devotion that it causes a multitude of others so much pain and suffering, so much humiliation and anger. So many places venerate the dumb gods of materialism and consumerism, in keeping with their spiritual denudation.

There is no other word to describe this ethos of selfishness and greed than “cruel.” This is a gross failure of understanding, hiding behind policy and political trickery so as to not appear cruel. But cruelty is cruelty, no matter how you slice it or pretend otherwise. The solution to pain and suffering is not more pain and suffering; yet, this is what some think and do. They are cruel men and women, unlike the “Sisters of the Hotel Dieu.” If you have walked in such shoes for only a while, you will understand. The sores are painful; the scabs are formed on top of the old ones.

This is what I have been writing about the last seven years; and now I am screaming. My voice is raw and now it hurts. I can't continue to scream. Others must now keep on writing, so as to protect the values that we care about, protecting society’s most vulnerable, including the land under our feet, and holding on to a religious belief that values social good and common good—a religion that doesn’t benefit or bank on the accumulation of cruelty. A religion that improves the human condition, that uplifts people and gives them dignity and hope is the only faith that anyone should consider. Religion needs to remember what its ultimate purpose is for us.

A devotion to goodness, love and truth; a devotion to healing the sores.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Mordecai Richler: Last of the Wild Jews (2011)

Mordecai Richler: Last of the Wild Jews (2011): The scriptwriter is Charlie Foran; the director Francine Pelletier. Here is a short clip. As for the title, it is a nod to Isaac Babel [1894–1940], the writer from Odessa and the first modern “wild Jew.” In comparison to Babel, it appears that Richler was less wild and better able to direct his prodigious talents. If only Babel had been born in Montreal, his future would have been better, more secure.

In Last of the Wild Jews (2011), made a decade after the Montreal writer’s death, the implicit question raised are the chief influences on Mordecai Richler [1931–2001], those that formed the man and writer that he famously became. The answer, like so many such questions, can be found in his early childhood, in the streets in which he grew up, the streets of St. Urbain, in the period before and after the Second World War. As an English-speaking Jew, Richler straddled the two solitudes of English and French Montreal (an expression made famous by Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 novel, which we read in high school). These experiences formed many of his views of the world, as they did for me growing up on Park Avenue, a few blocks from St. Urbain in the same Mile End neighbourhood. (Yes, to be sure, the back streets and alleyways, also called lane-ways played a role.) It also made him an honest witness, which made him unpopular with the rich and dominant classes and popular with the outsiders, those who identified as true what he wrote and said. It is equally true that Richler’s satire was biting and humorous; and in its writing and publishing he articulated, both in his novels and in his essays, what many who were from the third solitude keenly felt. He was a true Montrealer.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Leonard Cohen: It Seemed the Better Way (2016)

Via: Youtube

Leonard Cohen sings “It Seemed the Better Way,” which is the seventh track on the 2016 album You Want It Darker, released on October 26th. The album was released 19 days before Cohen’s death; he was 82. There is much to recommend in these four lines; the wisdom of the world sees this as full of literal truth; the poet and dreamer as full of irony: It sounded like the truth/ It seemed the better way/ You’d have to be a fool /To choose the meek today. There are few such fools evident today, and even less who admit such in a public fashion. Romance died when the better way was denied.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Reading Now (July 2017): Like One That Dreamed

Montreal Poet

Like One That Dreamed: a portrait of A.M. Klein (1982), by Usher Caplan
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Like One That Dreamed: a portrait of A.M. Klein (1982), by Usher Caplan, is published a decade after Abraham Moses Klein’s death at the age of 63. When you make attempts to write about such a multi-dimensional man, you find that you are not writing about someone who can be easily described, easily delineated. Such is the case of Abraham Moses Klein [1909–1972], the Montreal writer and poet, a lawyer, a dreamer, a worker for Jewish causes, an admirer of James Joyce [1882–1941] and in particular his modernist masterpiece, Ulysses (1922).

This is about a man who believed in the virtues of intelligence and decency, as part of his noble and moral vision of the world. When you carry the names of two of Judaism’s leading visionaries (Abraham and Moses), your path is probably set out for you at an early age. Even so, when he viewed his fight for justice as not achievable, as his poetic voice no longer heard, in his forties he not only stopped writing, but, equally important, stopped communicating with the outside world, which is what this biographer says filled Klein’s last 20 years.

In the book’s Foreword, Leon Edel [1907–1997], a contemporary of Klein and part of the Montreal Group or McGill Group, writes: “And so bit by bit the will to achieve was eroded” (11). True, one can achieve only when the will to do so is present and active, when the Self believes that this will lead to an artistic achievement. In view of the sparsity of facts of this period of silence on the part of Klein, the biographer fills the lacunae with mostly fact and some speculation, doing so with a determined detachment that has become the de rigueur for biographies.

No doubt, he does a commendable and worthy job in presenting Klein’s words, both public and private, and we have a better understanding of Klein the man. Yet, I am left with a gnawing feeling that there must be more to know, especially what took place the last decade of his life. What were his thoughts? That what this biography presents cannot be all of the facts? Perhaps it is, and there is no more to know; the story has been written.

So, we read about Klein’s descent into “irrational suspicions and unprovoked bouts of anger” (205), his subsequent electroshock treatments at both the Douglas Hospital and the Jewish General Hospital, and then a deepening withdrawal from public life and a continuing silence. Today, he would likely be diagnosed as having some form of depression, and treated by some anti-depressant and cognitive-based therapy. The outcome might have been better or worse. We can’t really say.

Yet, allow me to add an addendum, a postscript, another thought based on my personal observations. After all, what else can a man of dignity, a man of depth, a man of decency, who was humiliated by defeats of the soul, do? What happens when your work is not understood or sufficiently appreciated? Klein wanted to be known as a poet, and in keeping with his knowledge of the Bible, as a poet of righteousness; everything else that he did was secondary to his primary desire. Poets, like prophets, are rarely acknowledged in their lifetimes.

Not everyone can easily shrug off such indignities. It is true that all dreamers suffer, because dreamers are made of finer feelings, which the world tends to ignore. Klein’s behaviour, including his increasing insularity and his “vow of silence” makes perfect sense to me; and I don’t think I have yet descended the “stairs of madness.” There is no denying, given my sensibilities, that one day I might.

—Perry J. Greenbaum, July 25, 2017

Monday, July 24, 2017

A.M. Klein: The Mountain (1948)


Beaver Lake Pavilion:
Photo Credit: MartinVMtl; 2008

Many of us have memories of the mountain, Mont-Royal, especially those of us who grew within close proximity to it during our youth, as the poet A.M. Klein [1909–1972] did during his and I during mine. The mountain was a place to explore, and find out history and plan futures to match the fantastic dreams of our imaginings, made more real when and while looking at the skies, blue and white. It was where magic was made and where the mysteries of the universe were viewed, with awe and understanding.

If you lived near the mountain, you couldn’t help but notice its cross, which some consider an intrusion, but many a welcome intrusion. There has been a cross atop Mont Royal since the days of Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, Jeanne Mance and the founding of the city (officially celebrated as May 17, 1642; the City of Montreal is 375 years old); the current cross dates to 1924.

The second terrace recalls Dante’s Purgatorio (Cantos XIII, XIV), the place where envy is purged, only to be replaced by love. It is a place where covetousness, which includes the love of money, is expunged. Truly, “the love of money” and a devotion to it has contributed to and resulted in much human suffering.

As noted in the poem, one was always aware of the mountain’s illuminated cross, bathed in a white luminescence; its steel-metal structure visible from a distance. Its presence familiar and comforting, clothed in dignified strength, always calling you to come closer. Many heeded its invocation; many undoubtedly did, making declarations of love and obedience.

The Mountain
by A.M. Klein

Who knows it only by the famous cross which bleeds
into the fifty miles of night its light
knows a night—scene;
and who upon a postcard knows its shape —
the buffalo straggled of the laurentian herd, —
holds in his hand a postcard.

In layers of mountains the history of mankind,
and in Mount Royal
which daily in a streetcar I surround
my youth, my childhood —
the pissabed dandelion, the coolie acorn,
green prickly husk of chestnut beneath mat of grass—
O all the amber afternoons
are still to be found.

There is a meadow, near the pebbly brook,
where buttercups, like once on the under of my chin
upon my heart still throw their rounds of yellow.

And Cartier's monument, based with nude figures
still stands where playing hookey
Lefty and I tested our gravel aim
(with occupation flinging away our guilt)
against the bronze tits of Justice.

And all my Aprils there are marked and spotted
upon the adder's tongue, darting in light,
upon the easy threes of trilliums, dark green, green, and white,
threaded with earth, and rooted
beside the bloodroots near the leaning fence—
corms and corollas of childhood,
a teacher's presents.

And chokecherry summer clowning black on my teeth!

The birchtree stripped by the golden zigzag still
stands at the mouth of the dry cave where I
one suppertime in August watched the sky
grow dark, the wood quiet, and then suddenly spill
from barrels of thunder and broken staves of lightning —
terror and holiday!

One of these days I shall go up to the second terrace
to see if it still is there—
the uncomfortable sentimental bench
where, — as we listened to the brass of the band concerts
made soft and to our mood by dark and distance—
I told the girl I loved
I loved her.

The Mountain is part of a collection of poems in A.M. Klein's The Rocking Chair and Other Poems, published in 1948 by The Ryerson Press; it won the Governor General’s Award for poetry.

—Perry J. Greenbaum, July 24, 2017

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Leonard Cohen: Show Me the Place (2012)

Via: Youtube

Leonard Cohen sings “Show Me the Place,” which is the third track on his album Old Ideas, released on January 31, 2012. Show me the place where the suffering began.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Dreams of Peace

Moral Good 1:21
“Happy is the man…”

“Of all our dreams today there is none more important—or so hard to realise—than that of peace in the world. May we never lose our faith in it or our resolve to do everything that can be done to convert it one day into reality.”
Lester Bowles Pearson Acceptance Speech
Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, Norway, December 10, 1957

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer,
to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
Abraham Harold Maslow,
Toward a Psychology of Being (1962)

We are far away from peace today, since we read everywhere and all the time that conflict is all around us, the same conflicts for the same reasons that have started conflicts for thousands of years (i.e., land, resources, power, greed, etc.). Truth be told, politicians from the same countries have a knack for starting conflicts they cannot end, for making messes they cannot clean up. There are no stories of peace breaking out, but many of war and conflict and the threat that each pose for humanity.

We seem to be at a phase where we cannot find a way to get people together to end it; well, we are always stuck at this phase for one reason or another. So, peace cannot come until there is a serious effort to end the many conflicts around us. This will only take place when humans have exhausted their will to continue conflicts, to act violently, to feed their “impure,” albeit normal and common, impulses.

On one hand violence is abhorred; on another it is applauded. For many, “the hammer” seems the only tool to use, since everything under the sun—every human problem, every human himself—can be reduced to “a nail.” Some might call this a natural state of being, a part of practical politics. I call it madness. Most would agree if they would consider this statement, but most do not, since they are indifferent, asleep, fearful. Some, however, believe that war and violence are necessary; that the earth needs to be cleansed of all that is evil.

Religions, notably the three Abrahamic faiths, would suggest that peace is achievable by giving oneself over to the norms of the religious life, adhering and following its traditions and its restrictions. In other words, peace is found only by leading a life devoted to the religious ways first told and taught thousands of years ago by a founding religious and spiritual leader. Some, perhaps many, find comfort and truth in such teachings and attempt such a way.

Others do not, including many who have tried and left the religious way of life; and view the idea of peace as living a moral life devoted to good that is not necessarily bound up in ideas primarily found in religious teachings and instructions. It might be better and far more beneficial to read Maslow’s book, notably his astute observations on the “higher human motives.” There is also a video interview from 1968 here.

Human ideas on the place of man in the universe have evolved over the centuries and decades. One example of such changing moral views is on slavery; another is on our views on animals; while another is on extending individual freedom. All three hold views that confer humans the right to think and act independently, with dignity, but also to treat animals fairly and justly, without violence.

It is a modern idea that both humans and animals have the inalienable right to live without fear, to live without repression, to live with dignity, to live in freedom in accordance to their essential being. In many places and during many times, regimes have, as Vaclav Havel says, “reduced man to a means of production and nature to a tool of production.” That they have done and much worse; and this continues unabated today and in the foreseeable future, until we decide that we’ve had enough.

Nature will survive man’s indifference and cruelty, since it is itself indifferent and is often harsh, if not seemingly cruel and violent. Nature lacks a morality, a moral center, but despite this can offer beauty.  Americans talk about conquering nature, likely as a way to achieve order. (Canadians, on the other hand, would rather accommodate themselves to nature.) Our own human natures are another matter; the most ambitious among us have taken on the role of political leaders.

As for these modern humans who rule over us, they have often failed to see the necessity of goodness, truth and justice clothed in humility and have made legit hatred, lies and deception bound in the large cloth of expediency and personal gain. The acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake is the clarion call today; it sounds absurd, no doubt, but such is the way it is today and for the foreseeable future. Pile it higher and higher and make a cathedral of money.

Greed in all of its forms and faces is at the center of it all; this is better left unsaid. It might make the greedy uncomfortable. After all, they are not a outwardly violent lot. Their tools are pen and paper or digital versions of it. Can one call it violence if no one is physically hurt? if no one lays hands on your person? if it only leaves permanent marks on your psyche? on your ability to work? There is that kind and there is the everyday greed called normal business practices that does lead to great loss of life.

Whom does it profit? Financially and economically, it profits many, it seems, with very little consequence (whether legal, social or moral) to their perfidious and unethical ways (“all things are lawful” when you are the ones who make the laws). After the public outrage subsides, there is often a public inquiry, a few are fined, even less are indicted and even less go to jail, but no real or significant changes are ever made. Things return to “normal.”

A good part of normal in the world of economic transactions is to follow the Objectivist principles of Ayn Rand (a proponent of laissez faire capitalism, or pure capitalism, and an opponent of altruism), and apply these to business, at least superficially. Never really a good idea, since there is much more to business than reason, including human relations, which often defy cold, calculating reason. Yet, this fact alone is sufficient to make her the hero of extreme libertarians, who view reason and self-interest as solely sufficient to conduct their lives.

But the majority of humanity is pro-social and wants to be helpful and get along; altruism is not only normal, it is normative. That some don’t view the world and human relations in this way is not only exceptional, it is an exception to the way that most people view the world, an exception to most people's ideals. The sad fact is that the opposite appears true today; that one must think only of one’s self and no one else.

When this seems the norm, which it is in many cases, you have unthinking, thoughtless man “scratching and fighting” his way to the top of the pyramid, which is what it takes to be at the top of a system built solely for financial gain. Such a model is unsustainable, yet it continues along the same fault lines of human greed and human self-interest (without any enlightenment to moderate it). Most, however, will fail in their climb to the top, despite putting in great and many years of effort, but some will no doubt “succeed.”

It’s truly nasty brutish stuff. I hardly think that it’s worth the effort, even in my younger years it was a turnoff. I found it far better to work on other things that can elevate or at least better the human condition. An example is becoming a self-actualized individual, which is a lifetime devotion, a way of thinking and of being.

This used to be religion’s calling and strength, its universal appeal, while also providing both answers and comfort to all of humanity. Yet, how can it be so when religion gets into bed with politics, despite dire prophetic warnings of long ago of what would occur in such a relationship. And politics with big business. “What a tangled web we weave…;” religion has not only welcomed big business, it itself has become big business, thus making a mockery of all that it ought to be. The rich are admired much more than the poor, no matter their personal ethics or morality.

Is it any wonder that the union of religion and politics can provide no real answers for any of the problems it has created, even if such were their chief desire, which today seems more doubtful than ever. The “business as usual” approach offers little consolation. I guess that it is never too late to return to what it should be saying and doing, but this will take great effort in apprehending and understanding, with the risk of offending the rich and powerful. Toward this effort. I recommend an excellent opinion piece, by Prof. George Yancy, in The New York Times entitled “Is Your God Dead;” June 19, 2017.

As much as this is important, there are deeper concerns that need airing; it is about another side of Christianity, notably as practiced in America, one that does not speak about peace and love. It is true that in a large and established religion like Christianity, one can find many sets of beliefs; one that I find particularly problematic is Armageddon, a violent showdown, in Israel, to end the world, which takes literally the prophetic passages in the New Testament’s book of Revelation and the Old Testament’s books of Daniel and Ezekiel. Such a worldview informs the everyday thinking of many Christians (notably dispensationalists, a group who make up about one-third of America’s 40–50 million evangelical Christians) in so many ways—this is hardly a recipe to end conflict and bring peace to the world.

But it might explain America’s preoccupation with Israel (e.g., Christian Zionism), and how it views its relationship, one that is based in the end on a final battle of good versus evil—one in which one-third of the earth is destroyed and two-thirds of Israel. It is important to say that there is no mention of America in the Bible, since America did not exist and was not known to exist when the Bible was written and codified. Yet, Americans view their nation (as well as Russia) playing a prominent role in what is referred to as “end times prophecy.” This might explain, on some level, why the U.S. (and perhaps also Russia) cannot acknowledge the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

In such a way of thinking, part of God’s plan to redeem mankind is to destroy a large part of it and rebuild a new kind of people, one that would be more obedient and faithful. After all of the death and destruction, there would be a thousand-year messianic reign of peace; the third temple will be rebuilt and animal sacrifices will begin again for reasons that are not entirely clear. There are many problems with such a scenario, not least of which is “the need” for billions of people to die, including children and babies—all necessary to satisfy and placate a vengeful and angry God. Is there no other way?

This sounds as it were right out out of the annals of modern sci-fi, part of what is called dystopian fiction, but it is in the Bible, a story that is thousands of years old. After all, what such describes is a nuclear holocaust of unprecedented proportions. There is nothing good about it. The future will show that holding on to nuclear weapons is the wrong decision, the wrong choice. If the fear of annihilation doesn’t work to convince world leaders, what will? The world is in a very nervous state, full of anxiety. Some would say despair, given the direction that we are going.

Here’s a thought. It is time for nations like Canada, which has no nuclear weapons, to take a greater leadership role in world affairs, taking to heart the words of Lester B. Pearson almost 60 years ago. This is the model that the world can now apply. It is about dreams of peace. I know that it is an impossible dream, but it is a dream about a future the now does not exist or seem possible. But it might, if only …

Lester B. Pearson was prime minister of Canada between 1963 and 1968. He was a member of the Liberal Party.

Abraham H. Maslow was an American psychologist, best known for his hierarchy of needs, which culminates in an individual who has reached self-actualization. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Maria Callas: Puccini’s ‘O mio babbino caro’ (1965)

Maria Callas [1923–1977], soprano, performs the aria, “O mio babbino caro” (Oh, my dear father), from Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Gianni Schicchi (1918); the libretto was written by Giovacchino Forzano, based on an incident from Dante’s Divine Comedy (“Inferno;” Canto XXX). This one-act comic opera, Puccini’s last, writes Sameer Rahim in The Guardian, “is only an hour long. It is the concluding part of a trilogy (Il Trittico) that also comprises Il Tabarro, a melodrama set on a Paris dockside, and Suor Angelica, set in a 17th-century convent.” It premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on December 14, 1918. This performance, conducted by Georges Prêtre, is with the Orchestre National de l’ORTF, in Paris, in May 1965. As for an explanation of the aria, it is a simple youthful declaration of love (Lauretta, the daughter of Gianni Schicchi, for Rinuccio), its purity in contrast to the general atmosphere of deception and double-dealing. For those interested, there is a review (December 14, 1975), by Harold C. Schonberg, in The New York Times [here]. For your pleasure, you can enjoy more of Maria Callas at London’s Royal Festival Hall on November 26, 1973 [here]; this formed part of her farewell concert tour (1973–1974). Callas gave her last public performance in Sapporo, Japan, on November 11, 1974.
Via: Youtube.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Not For, Not Against

False Dilemmas

“He that is not with me is against me;
and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.”
Jesus of Nazareth,
Mathew 12:30, The New Testament, circa 30 CE

"It is with absolute frankness that we speak of this struggle of the proletariat;
each man must choose between joining our side or the other side.
Any attempt to avoid taking sides in this issue must end in fiasco.”
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks,
speech made on November 3, 1920

“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make.
Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
President George W. Bush,
speech before the U.S. Congress, September 20, 2001

Is it possible to have a view that is not for an idea, a person or a thing and yet, also, not be against it? In other words, neither for nor against. There might be other choices or options besides these binary choices. There might be a host of options.

For example, I am neither for religion and religious belief nor am I against it or the practice of it. I participate in many of the traditions and rituals of Judaism, the religion of my youth. Yet, while doing so does not greatly or generally inform my worldview, it does have an important place in my life and in my thinking. While I can and do understand and appreciate the importance of religion, I myself am not overly religious. At the same time, I am not a committed atheist.

You see, it is complicated, as are many such difficult questions of life. Going from the particular to the general, my example of the complexities of religious belief can also describe many things that others might find important. That I do not actively support an issue, an idea, a cause does not mean that I am against it. This might mean that I have no interest in it, or that I have some interest, or that I have not sufficiently examined the evidence, or that I have changed my views (in the face of new evidence, often overwhelming), or that I remain unsure, unconvinced of the argument’s veracity or validity. 

One of the most famous examples of “for/against” reasoning in history is when Jesus of Nazareth made this argument in the New Testament, the chief historical account of the seeds and beginnings of Christianity. He uses emotional language as a means to to compel/encourage the Judeans, his coreligionists and fellow Pharisees, to join him in his messianic mission “to proclaim liberty to the captives” (see Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18).

The record shows a few did; most did not, at least not openly (see John 12: 42). We do not know all of the reasons why most did not. It might have been as simple as they did not view him, the Galilean from Nazareth, a man raised outside the power centre of Jerusalem, as the messiah, as the man who would eventually bring peace to the world, starting with their world of Judea. That he did not then and there fulfill his messianic mission must have been disappointing to the large crowds who head him speak.

Modern Christian teaching taken from this parable, however, is that those who did not join the side of Jesus thus rejected his message, his teaching, and thus hindered his earthly mission for heavenly justice. This kind of thinking has inculcated modern Christianity (sometimes taking on the form of Manichaeism); it is thus no surprise that this phrase is invoked during times of crisis as a rallying cry for action and the meting out of justice or vengeance. This suggests that they hold a view of Jesus as a zealot.

Often, this means violence and violent action will be justified as a solution.

It is no surprise, then, that Vladimir Lenin (who was aware of Christian teachings) used such a code phrase in a a speech in the middle of the Russian Civil War (November 1917–October 1922), and in the crucial days leading to the formation of the Soviet Union, which eventually became an autocratic one-party communist state. To use a more recent example, President George W. Bush employed such polarized language shortly after the terror attacks of 9/11 in the U.S. He did so with a purpose in mind: to prepare the nation and the American people for invasion and war.

In doing so, political leaders are appealing to a socio-religious history known by their citizens, as a basis to support their actions, which they naturally view as “imbued with righteousness.” The results have all been disastrous, or to use Lenin's words, taking sides has had the opposite intended effect: “end[ing] in fiasco.” So, the next time someone uses this rhetorical device, you can know that it is being used to bring about emotional dualistic thinking, which is also called binary thinking: either/or; for/against, good/evil, etc.

This does not mean that you have to think this way or that you have to be drawn into an argument that is polarized, politicized, or militarized. There are times when you have to take sides—such as defending liberal democracy, particularly in regimes that deny it—but far less than political and religious leaders say or would like you to think or believe. One must also be aware of false dilemmas, which present a solution to a problem with only two choices.

Often this is not the case; often there are many choices, many possible solutions.

Some view this as wishy-washy or weak or indecisive. I view this as being thoughtful, as being a critical thinker, as being careful, gathering all the relevant facts, and not being swayed by emotions. You will not be compelled to do so by fiery speeches, or by appeals to nationalism, or by talk of vengeance from the bully pulpit; you will know that this is the right thing to do. It will be “your own mind” that you make up.

—Perry J. Greenbaum, July 17, 2017

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Defense of Liberal Democracy, Again (2017)

Politics of Freedom

A handful of times, I repost articles that I wrote; this is one of those times. I originally posted this article, “A Defense of Liberal Democracy,” on Monday September 17, 2012—almost five years ago. I read it again and agree with the general sentiment, thus there is little reason to change anything, other than to add that China lost a courageous voice of conscience and a principled champion of truth and human rights in the death Thursday of Liu Xiaobo [1955–2017], the Nobel Peace Prize winner (2010), who was not allowed by the Chinese government to appear in Oslo, Norway, to collect his prize and make a speech. Xiaobo died from liver cancer while in custody (he was not allowed to travel outside China to get treatment); he was 61.

There is a good opinion piece, by Xiaorong Li, in The New York Times (“Liu Xiaobo’s Unflappable Optimism;” July 13, 2017) on Liu Xiaobo’s decades-long fight to open the doors of liberal democracy for the Chinese people, which includes working on and signing Charter 08, a document calling for human rights, “a blueprint for fundamental political change in China in the years to come.” Dr. Liu (he earned a doctorate in literature) fought the good fight and he planted the seeds; now it is up to others to continue to do the necessary good, including working to free his widow, Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since 2010.  I highly recommend that you read an excellent piece, by Perry Link (“The Passion of Liu Xiaobo; July 13, 2017) in The New York Review of Books.  

—by Perry J. Greenbaum, July 13, 2017

John Locke [1632–1704]: Locke, considered the Father of Classical Liberalism, writes in Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1689): “New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.”
Photo Credit: Painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723); Painted in 1697. Currently at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Source: Wikipedia

It is a sad commentary of the state of political awareness that liberal democracy, whose ideas of government emanate from the Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century, need a defense, let alone an explanation, here in the West. Yet, it does. For one, liberal democracy is not the same as the Liberal Party, although the latter assuredly uses ideas drawn from the former. The words liberal, liberalism (from the Latin liberalis) and liberty all come from the Latin root liber; to be free. To be liberal means to be an individual free from restraint, chiefly from the state in its imposition of laws and religious edicts that restrict the individual from free expression, free association and free movement; for some regimes that is a bad thing, leading to chaos, civil disorder and public immorality. Such are some of the arguments put forth by opponents to liberal democracy and they need be examined.

While various groups within the western tradition tend to argue about how much freedom is necessary— when does free speech cross the line and become hate speech?— no one would argue against the idea of liberty. The idea of liberty and liberalism is a fundamental belief of all western democracies. An important clarification is in order. There is a mistaken belief in the mass culture that individualism belongs solely to conservative or libertarian thinkers, and that calling someone “liberal” is an invective in that such individuals subscribe to statism; such is not necessarily true. For example, in many areas I am a liberal, in others conservative, and yet I agree wholeheartedly to the ideas and ideals of liberal democracy in the classical sense, which holds views contrary to the Divine Right of Kings, to the establishment of state religion and to economic protectionism.

The centrality of the individual informs much of the writings of liberalism; in fact, a great part of the European Enlightenment was centred on the need to free humans and grant them with individual rights and responsibilities, which until then was granted by "divine decree" only to monarchs. It took hundreds of years to arrive at the point we are at today where civil rights and human rights take centre stage; there is a lot of discussion on human rights and civil rights, but little real desire lately by western states to encourage its adoption by the many non-western nations. That point is worth noting; it and the reasons why this is so will be taken up in another essay.

Generally speaking, governments subscribe to either universalism or individualism. A great part of the European Enlightenment was based on the idea that free individuals who would think on their own, by using reason and their intellectual powers, would become active participants in civil society and in the political process, having distinct rights and responsibilities. Society would greatly benefit by harnessing the collective powers of individuals acting thoughtfully and morally as mature individuals, unshackled from superstition, myth and unmerited authority. (In Maslow's level of psychological development, such an individual has reached a level of self-actualization.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent explanation, beginning with the fundamental thinking of Immanuel Kant:
Kant defines “enlightenment” as humankind's release from its self-incurred immaturity; “immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another.” Enlightenment is the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one's own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act. Enlightenment philosophers from across the geographical and temporal spectrum tend to have a great deal of confidence in humanity's intellectual powers, both to achieve systematic knowledge of nature and to serve as an authoritative guide in practical life. This confidence is generally paired with suspicion or hostility toward other forms or carriers of authority (such as tradition, superstition, prejudice, myth and miracles), insofar as these are seen to compete with the authority of reason. Enlightenment philosophy tends to stand in tension with established religion, insofar as the release from self-incurred immaturity in this age, daring to think for oneself, awakening one's intellectual powers, generally requires opposing the role of established religion in directing thought and action. The faith of the Enlightenment – if one may call it that – is that the process of enlightenment, of becoming progressively self-directed in thought and action through the awakening of one’s intellectual powers, leads ultimately to a better, more fulfilled human existence.
Thinking for oneself and awakening the intellectual powers can and does lead to a more fulfilled human existence. So, for the last hundred years, the centrality of the individual has defined modern society, which has led to the great and wide-ranging innovation and discovery evident in western societies. All that we now take for granted is due to a large degree to the influences of western liberal democracy. That point cannot be overemphasized; and freedom is the hallmark of the modern age. The modern man is free from any collective responsibility, apart from the associations that he willingly chooses to form. The modern man has a right to reject associations, including religious ones. Likewise, the individual has a right to join ones voluntarily and without compulsion in any way, whether explicit or implicit.

In this reasoning, the needs of the individual are placed above those of the collective, and such explains the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In short, the centrality of the individual is sacred in modern thought. It also explains why so many modern novels have as their central thesis “the search for meaning.”

In nations which have not undergone the European Enlightenment, which are the majority of the world's nation-states, the individual is not considered as central as the state, or collective, to the needs of civil society. In simple terms, the individual serves the needs of the state. Such describes Second Temple Judaism, feudal Christianity and the many Islamic states operating today; it also describes Marxism and Socialism. All of these systems of thought, although differing in their approaches to governing, share a common and overarching belief in the need for a central authority to govern the people.

Thus, in such societies, the role of the individual is in service of the state and to benefit its overarching ideology or religion; there is no decision on the part of the individual on whether or not he "believes" in the tenets of the faith. He has no choice about it, at least outwardly and publicly. And in return the state promises to take care of all his needs—both material and spiritual—in a "cradle to grave" way of life. For those of us born, raised and educated in the West, with its traditions of individual rights and responsibilities, with its use of reason and intellect, with its rational approaches to problem solving, such pre-modern thinking seems reactionary, if not circumscribed, restricted and authoritarian.

Yet, for many of the persons raised in a collectivist society, the centrality of the individual is a foreign, unknown and unwanted idea; it seems “selfish” and “heretical.” Yet, the need for liberty is strong and some individuals in collectivist societies, notably intellectuals with access to other ideas, want to live the liberal life; once they get a taste of individual liberty, they enjoy it. If they can, they leave the restrictions imposed by their societies, never to return. Individual liberty is that intoxicating, that freeing.

Now, I am a firm “believer” that the ideas and ideals of western liberal democracy are the best for humanity, that these represent an evolution of ideas over thousands of years. Again, what we see in nations like Canada, the United States, England, France, Israel and Germany is the incorporation of European Enlightenment thinking into the political, social and economic norms of their societies. States that have not undergone the transition to modern nation-states will find these ideas suspect and troubling. Such explains why in economic-rich nations like Russia and China, which have successfully incorporated capitalism as their economic system, there is resistance to grant more political autonomy to its citizens; it will take some time for such nations to consider the necessary reforms to their political systems to make them more open, more transparent.

In other nations like North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia, foreign ideas are considered “foreign”and likely dangerous to the rights and well-being of the ruling class; these regimes are considered authoritarian. This is not to say that such nations like Iran cannot ever become liberal democracies; they can—eventually. For example, there is a tradition of liberalism in Iran, but its citizens will need help from NGOs to draw attention to the human-rights abuses in Iran. As Shirin Ebadi, Nobel laureate (2003) and human-rights lawyer, says:
All defenders of human rights are members of a single family. When we help one another we’re stronger. It is important to give aid to democratic institutions inside despotic countries.
Although I disagree with her on many other political matters, I agree with Ebadi on the above. Nothing more can be said other than such measures often strengthen liberal democracy everywhere. That is a good thing.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Helping Others

Social Education: 1:20
“Happy is the man…”

“He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.”
Laozi [6th to 5th century BCE], 
Dao De Jing, Ch. 46

We seem to understand more and more about less and less, which includes how to raise children to become good citizens of the world. There is always The Golden Rule, which has universal applications; within its central teaching are found ideas like it’s better to be kind and helpful to each other; when someone needs a helping hand, you offer it; or that it’s good to know when you have had enough. The chief implicit premise, and it’s a good one, is that you not only do no harm, but also alleviate suffering when it does occur.

Some people have great surpluses. Sometimes they give a fraction of it to charity through some trust or foundation. I am thankful that such foundations exist, particularly those that benefit health, education, arts and culture. Americans are generally a charitable people—including helping those who are deemed less fortunate—giving $373 billion to various charities, equating to almost 2% of the nation’s GDP. As much as foundations and corporations are important philanthropists (donating $75 billion, 10.4%), the majority of charitable giving in America comes from individuals (donating $268 billion), almost three-quarters of the total.

There are interesting statistics found on the state of charitable giving in the U.S. at the site, The Philanthropy Roundtable. One is that religion, education and marriage influence and encourage people to give generously. Moreover, those who give also tend to volunteer. Another interesting statistic is that the U.S. is the most generous nation in terms of charitable donations (measured as a percentage of GDP), followed by Israel and Canada. The full top-ten list can be found here.

As good and important as charity is, it does not replace government responsibility to its citizens. Governments have an important role in helping others, and they ought to do all they can in providing, as a minimum, social services such as food, housing, health, and education. Some call this helping out others, giving a hand up, socialism or communism or, gasp, wealth redistribution. These are fancy words that most people don’t really understand, but think and say they do. I might not fully comprehend economic policy, but I do understand helping others and the need to do so. Governments in power tend to do so, however, in proportion to how people in power see this as important, as necessary.

This requires leaders, the political and business elite, who view equity as important and instrumental when formulating government policy. This idea, however, no longer seems popular today in Washington, but program cutting for the most vulnerable citizens of America does have widespread support, even though there is no rationale for it. (Pettiness is never a good reason.) Apparently, it must be the lower classes that are “sucking America dry,” and ”Making America Less Great Again.” Once again, it might prove that facts and politics don’t go well together; it is likely they never did, but this becomes increasingly more evident today.

How does one then explain the poor, the working poor, the sick poor, the veteran poor, the disabled poor, and the poor who would like to work but can’t find a job? Then there are the many elderly poor who worked all their lives, for decades, and yet ended up poor in their final years—such an ugly outcome despite following the advice of financial planners and experts. Things didn’t work out in the end.

Some people are born under a lucky star, and some are even born into wealth, starting off at great advantage. Most are not. You might even conclude, as hard as this is to believe today, that not all poor people are “shiftless lazy bums.” That the problem of poverty is not solely a result of indolence, or making bad decisions, or being spendthrifts. Of course, for some this might be true, but probably not as many as some like to think.

Such is the “gospel truth,” say the wealthy Republicans who like to take from the poor and give to the rich. They are an unusually cruel lot, even by conservative standards, and even by old Republican standards. They have taken the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves,” to new levels of meaning, including believing that it is a biblical injunction. (Note: It is not found in the Bible, although a majority of Americans (82%), including a similar percentage of Christians (81%), think it is. Biblical illiteracy is to blame.)

This is an America by kakistrocacy, ruled by the worst. It is hard to believe that this will lead to any positive outcome. It is hard to not believe that this will lead to the absurd situation where the government helps mostly those who do not need help, and who never know when they have had enough. This is the New America, which replaced the Old America decades ago. But it is far better that you find out for yourself, in your area of the world, what’s what.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

NBC Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven’s “Eroica”(1939)

Via Youtube (RS3D Archive)

The NBC Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, perform Beethoven’s Symphony No 3 in E-flat major, opus 55Sinfonia Eroica (“Heroic Symphony”), which was first performed publicly in Vienna on April 7, 1805. This particular recording was as a live public performance before 1,400 people at NBC studio 8-H on October 28th, 1939; it was originally released on the Victor album M-765. This is a restored recording using RS3D technology.  For some background on how the NBC Orchestra was formed, there is a wonderful article in The New Yorker [here]. It also explains what this famous Italian conductor brought to the orchestra and to American audiences in New York. America’s gain was Europe’s loss, and a great loss it was when authoritarianism, and in particular fascism, overtook the continent. (Toscanini remarked: “Promises no longer exist. They don’t remember today what they said yesterday. It’s shameful!”). It always is when this takes place, when people begin the process of forgetting what is important, and replacing it with what is not. Once a way of thinking and seeing (and being) is lost, it is lost forever. This is the beginning of sadness.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Reading Now (July 2017): The Finkler Question

Circles of Conformity

The Finkler Question (2010) by Howard Jacobson.
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

The Finkler Question (2010), by Howard Jacobson, is an English comic novel that falls short on humour, chiefly because it works too hard to teach and explain rather than make the reader join in on the cosmic joke showing one of life’s many absurdities. The novel’s title refers to the modern age’s “Jewish Question,” which is always about how the world views the Jewish People, as if it were the monolith that it’s not.

Even as I say this, I know that anti-Jewish sentiments exist, and in many forms and in too many places; I also know that it will never go away, since hate and hatreds continues to exist, having as long a half-life as plutonium. These defy rational arguments, since the hatreds feed on the irrational, and people love and enjoy their pet hatreds. This seems, in many cases, to fuel the purpose of their existence—their hatreds are justified in their minds and calloused hearts.

Thus, the novel does not so much answer “the question”as give various modes of expression to the anxiety it produces. What it produces is often overwrought, leading the reader by the hand to the only logical conclusion—run to the bosom of safety behind walls, real or imagined. Yet, this answer does not apply to everyone who is born Jewish, or is Jewish or self-identifies as Jewish.

This question of identity becomes overly complicated today, when various groups, both religious and political, have taken on themselves the “responsibility” to to tell us how to live, even how to think, yet do so in a supercilious manner. This equates to living in a small circle of conformity. While some do, not everyone can find comfort in such a life. This is often based on self-deception and reinvention, but not on an honest assessment of personal history.

Such ways of being are hardly persuasive or appealing. But more important, such essential ideas of how to live are always both individual and personal, and there are many paths to an ethical and morally purposed life. It is important, now as always, to fight against the tyranny of conformity, the tyranny of identity politics and collective think, and the tyranny of class shame. (Mordecai Richler writes about these with humour.)

These persist and many of our present battles are the battles of the past, of our childhood. It often comes down to family ties (or lack thereof), and how these were formed in our early formative years. Such inform how the individual resides in the space of truth and reality. If the individual is under attack, this is the greatest shame of all. It is the right of all citizens, including “the other” with all their “otherness,” if such is their desire, to apprehend and take in the culture of the nation in which they reside (or not), to escape the past before finding a way to make peace with it.

Avoid hanging your hat in places that lack a hat rack for you. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Edwards Gardens in July (2017)

Toronto Botanical Garden

We spent last Sunday, the day after Canada Day, at Edwards Gardens, a place that we visit regularly. Here are some of the photos that I took. Everything was in full bloom, including Eli, our 9-year-old, who took to flight, albeit briefly. Our cat (George) also came along for the ride; he’s the silent type.

Red & Whites: Some pinks and yellows, too; and the leaves of green, grew.
By the Flagpole

Flying in the Air

Our Cat George:

The Stream: Although not evident in this photo, a family of ducks made their way on this waterway. The water was at its lowest level since we have been coming here, which is odd considering the amount of rain we have had this year.

All Photos (with the exception of George): ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum
Photo of George:  ©2017. Eli G. Greenbaum

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Defending Journalism

Freedom of the Press:1:19
“Happy is the man…”

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter,
and to argue freely according to conscience above all liberties.”

John Milton, Aeropagitica (1644)

“The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

Hannah Arendt, in a 1974 interview with French writer Roger Errera,
and subsequently published in The New York Review of Books (October 26, 1978)

This post is about defending journalists and the profession of journalism, which was the subject of my first post many years ago. It is no secret that journalists have always faced attack from governments around the world, notably those that are led by dictators and other authoritarians. (A worldwide ranking of press freedom can be found here; Norway is ranked first, Canada is 22nd, the U.S. is 43rd, and not surprising, North Korea is ranked last of the 180 nations.)

To be fair and accurate, the U.S. was ranked 41st in 2016, 47th in 2011/12, both during President Barack Obama’s terms in office. Its lowest ranking was 53rd in 2006 under President Bush's presidency. (Its highest rank was 17th on the first list published in 2002, before the “war on terror” became normative.)

By way of comparison, Canada’s rank is comparatively higher, in the top ten, but not always: 5th in 2002, 18th in 2006, 8th in 2015 and 18th in 2016, and a decrease of four spots, as noted above, in 2017. Some of this might be a carryover from the tenure of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who viewed the press with less equanimity than Canada’s current political leader, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Back in America, a pattern limiting the freedom of the press has been set in the last decade, and it’s not likely to improve soon, for reasons that revolve around the current president’s inability or unwillingness to tell the truth. Bear in mind that the U.S. has never been among the top ten nations of press freedom, which is somewhat surprising given its strong and robust First Amendment. Even so, the situation might actually become worse, since it is the institution of the press that is now routinely attacked, undermining its importance and credibility.

I write this almost six months after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the  United States. For those who like the man and his views, the attacks are not only appropriate and necessary but also long overdue and entertaining. Such describes a certain view of America, one that I could never subscribe to. Putting aside partisan politics, attacking the media as an institution is just plain wrong and short-sighted. And counter-productive. And harmful to democracy.

In the worst of cases, in the least-democratic nations, the media has little or no freedom and becomes an organ, a mouthpiece, of the ruling regime. What results is not news, but propaganda. There is great difference between the two. And an important one, too. The latter is based on falsehoods; the former on truths. The press works on the premise of accessing, finding and revealing such truths—no matter the cost. It’s a high and worthy ideal.

The mainstream media plays a fundamental role in civil society that no other institution can duplicate or replace. This includes getting your “news” from social media and talk radio, where opinion can masquerade as fact. Again, there is a distinction. A fact is a statement that can be proven true or false; whereas an opinion is based on one’s feelings or beliefs. Attempting to reduce the scope and influence of the mainstream media by calling its reportage “fake news” undermines democracy and the values it represents. Professional journalists work within stated guidelines and ethics that have been tested over time.

Getting the story right, which means getting the salient facts, is the basis of journalism. For example, last month The New York Times published (“President Trump’s Lies;” June 23, 2017) a detailed and comprehensive list of President Trump’s lies. This is good journalism in that it clearly shows how often this president lies. These are verifiable facts. The article, after so much factual evidence, builds a case, offering an opinion on the consequences of such outlandish behavior: “He is trying to create an atmosphere in which reality is irrelevant.”

This is good journalism, since it shows the reality of what is taking place in the White House, using the truth of facts to support it. Or, in other words, truth is the basis for reality, which is fundamental for democracy. Hannah Arendt, the philosopher who wrote about totalitarian regimes and how they are formed, says that “a lying government”—and this is now the case in America—corrodes the confidence that people have in in their government, much in the same way a lying spouse corrodes the trust in a marital relationship.

Vaclav Havel wrote about “living in truth” to ensure that you live in reality. Dictators and other authoritarians always distort reality; dictators and other authoritarians always lie to engender fear and confusion; dictators and other authoritarians always view the press with suspicion and hostility, since the last thing they want published are facts, the truth and what is really taking place, or in other words, reality.

Thus, there is good reason why freedom of the press is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The press acts as a countervailing force, a watchdog, if you will, to government over-reach; yes, there are the courts, but these are legal means, which often take time to make the necessary corrections to executive branch over-reach. The press, on the other hand, provides quick news, information and salient facts to its citizenry so that they will have the right knowledge to be better informed citizens. Given the pressures that the press faces, it is truly exemplary that journalists more often than not get the story right.

I, myself, studied journalism more than 20 years ago and received professional training from an excellent university with a respected journalism program. During the years, I have met and worked with many good journalists; I know the character of these men and women, and it would be fair to say I have yet to meet one who was dishonest or who desired to make up or fabricate news stories. Journalists are human and sometimes make mistakes, but all serious publications then issue retractions as soon as the facts are known.

The best journalists see themselves as public servants, and I am thankful for their sense of civic duty, for their diligence and for their professionalism. Journalists have points of views; and journalists cannot be expected to be completely objective (but the methods are objective), despite best efforts for fair and balanced reporting. This comes out in how the story is written, formulated and presented, but this is a far cry from “fake news.” This is why it is always important to read many news sources from reliable publications. But when the major publications are all  saying the same thing, you can be assured that the story is verifiably true. It is factual. It is accurate.

In its basic essence, journalism is a story about people and what is happening today, giving us a sense of how this will effect on our society. Journalism has a long and noble history of giving voice to the voiceless, since the wealthy, the influential and the powerful already have a strong voice in society. By weakening the media, and in particular the liberal media, the Trump Administration wants to quiet those voices. Doing so, however, will weaken civil society and the ideas common to a free and unfettered press. Doing so will only weaken democracy. Doing so will weaken the free flow of ideas.

One can argue for the general truth of this statement, but also agree that in the particular case of the U.S., which has strong constitutional protections and where journalists seem generally undeterred by such attacks, it may be less so. Even so, there is worry and concern that it will weaken Americans, who will find themselves with little substantive and real news, other than what the White House releases. Constant lies and the immoral defense of them. This is what authoritarian regimes do; this is what dictators do. The world watches what takes place in the U.S. and its effects spill over to places where the institutions of democracy are weak and where the chilling effect will be keenly felt. This is never a good thing.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Love the Carnations (2017)

Canada 150

Red & White: There is always a good time for flowers, notably for special occasions; we got this small bouquet of carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus in Latin) to celebrate Canada Day 150. Carnations are often referred to as “the flowers of the gods.” Red and white carnations connote feelings of deep and pure love. The festivities last all summer; and it’s worth celebrating that we live in Canada, a nation that is built on the liberal values of tolerance, fairness, diversity and accommodation. While so many other nations are turning inward, Canada is looking outward. The twenty-first century might be our century, after all.
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Extraordinary Canadians: M.G. Vassanji on Mordecai Richler


This is the continuation of my series on Canada 150; we look at Mordecai Richler, a writer of extraordinary talent and insight.

Extraordinary Canadians (S1; E10): M.G. Vassanji on Mordecai Richler. This series is introduced by John Ralston Saul; the narration for this episode is by M.G. Vassanji, the author of seven novels and a biography of Richler, which was published in 2009. Vassanji writes: “[Richler] escaped, discovered himself, and returned, but stayed at an angle with his world, always the exile, the writer.” Vassanji might also be speaking of his own experiences. He was born in Nairobi, Kenya and raised in Tanzania. Vassanji is a well-known Canadian writer, who has won both the Giller Award twice for fiction and the Governor-General’s Prize for nonfiction. He holds a doctorate in nuclear physics from the University of Pennsylvania, and immigrated to Canada in 1978.
Via: Youtube

Extraordinary Canadians is a series on CBC-TV looking at the lives of famous Canadians who left a mark on the collective consciousness of our nation. That Mordecai Richler is one of these individuals selected for this series is no surprise; at least not for me, since Richler remains one of my favorite writers, not only for his good use of satire but also because he was an old-fashioned moralist, without any of the encumbrances and unpleasantness of religion or of modern secular ideology that reduces man to non-importance, or at least to secondary status.

Richler’s novels explore the corruption of values, which make them timely even more than 15 years after his death (July 3, 2001) at the age of 70. Richler's writings will likely remain timely for a number of years. His work was borne of his growing up in Montreal’s Jewish community during the post-war period, a city which although he left physically for many years, the city never left him. Montreal of a certain period was forever in his memory, as was the environs of St. Urbain Street.

Montreal, like Canada itself, is often a place that many appreciate from a distance. It is often important for writers to get some distance from his subject, and for Richler it was the city of Montreal, the province of Quebec and the country called Canada. Even so, as Richler matured, so did his novels, becoming more universal. Again, we return to old-fashioned morality, so lacking today in public discourse. This is not the same as religious morality, although at times the two might overlap.

The above two-minute clip is a short introduction to Mordecai Richler; you can view the full show [here].

Monday, July 3, 2017

John Ralston Saul: Canada is a Métis Nation


This is the continuation of my series on Canada 150; we look at Saul Ralston Saul’s views on the historical influences that shaped Canada and how these might play out today and in the near future.

Canada is Canada: This is a serious and sober lecture on Canada’s history with its Indigenous peoples. This is one of John Ralston Saul’s main themes when discussing Canadian history and the building of our nation, including on the characteristics of citizenship and national good. Canada makes a concerted effort to make immigrants citizens; this includes having a Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, a cabinet level post. The current minister is Ahmed Hussen, who arrived in Canada as a 16-year-old refugee from Somalia in 1993. This makes Minister Hussen at least knowledgeable of what newcomers to Canada face. The more that we know the more that we can do to build a better country.
Via: Youtube

John Ralston Saul, a Canadian philosopher and public intellectual, explains in a lecture that he delivered a few years ago on why Canada is the most “American of nations;” and the United States is the “child of Europe,” with its founding principles of Enlightenment and Rationalism. Canada’s history is tied neither to the U.S. nor to Europe, Saul says, but to its Indigenous peoples—the various Aboriginal people that were already here when explorers from France and Britain first arrived and then settled in Canada almost 500 years ago.

This fact of history is taught in schools and already known by most Canadians, that is, the long presence of Aboriginals in Canada (named by Jacques Cartier, from the Iroquoian word kanata, meaning “village”). Yet, Saul takes this argument a step further in this lecture, which is based on the book that he wrote, A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada (2008)In a review article (Are We a Métis Nation?; April 2009in the Literary Review of Canada, Andrew Potter, himself a Canadian philosopher, writes: 
Instead, he argues that we are actually a Métis nation, our ideas and institutions shaped by the original and ongoing interaction between the English- and French-speaking immigrants and the First Nations who were running things when the white men arrived. Indeed, Saul goes even further and claims that we are far more aboriginal than we are European, and our failure to recognize this is what prevents us from becoming the strong, confident and progressive country that is our birthright.
Anyone who has lived in Canada for some time, and spent at least one winter here, will agree that our geography and climate are fundamental keys to understanding us. But what really makes us unique is our historical relationship (i.e., that of the “early European settlers” from Britain and France) with Aboriginals, who found a harmonious way to live in this geography and climate, which is so often harsh and unaccommodating.

This being the case, the early people from Europe adapted themselves to ideas of restraint, of a civilization of minorities, of balance and equilibrium and not to the monolithic ideas of culture and identity such as is common in America (“a child of Europe”), which is primarily about conquering and dominance and determining the lives of others within its sphere of influence. That makes this philosopher’s idea an meritorious and noteworthy one, and one that I easily find acceptable.

Given our history, Aboriginal communities and the Aboriginal people need to be strengthened. Real power and real money need to be shifted to these Indigenous peoples, which means stopping “the mean-spiritedness,” Saul says, which has been so common the last hundred years or so in negotiations between governments and one of the pillars of Canada. In other words, we Canadians need to accord these peoples the respect that they deserve. About 1.4 million people self-identify as Aboriginal; this is 4.3% of Canada’s population.

This is both important and worth considering during our Canada 150 celebrations; for example, one could not help but notice a teepee on Parliament Hill (near the main stage at Centre Block) that a group of Indigenous people set up as a symbol of grievance and hope for reconciliation. Our prime minister spent 40 minutes talking to its occupants. They do not view the celebrations the same way as most Canadians likely do, and understandably so. But there is hope for real change.

Canada is like no other nation, chiefly because of its history and the decisions that it has made. Watching the celebrations on the CBC on Saturday, and listening to the speeches from the dignitaries, including from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, I can see that this idea put forth by Saul is already taking fleshly shape in the halls of parliament, in Ottawa, our nation’s capital. It will, however, take time; even as I note this I am optimistic that Canada will do the right thing, and progress forward, because this is the Canada that most Canadians love and respect.