Easily Fooled, by H. Nigel Thomas
Guernica Editions, 2021, 293 pages
It does not matter how sharp and on top of things we are, we have been duped and hoodwinked too easily at some point in our lives – be it by siblings, by neighbours, by family, by lovers, by priests, by religions or by ideologies.
Whatever grabs us as extraordinarily sensuous, comforting and reliable is a toss away from possible disappointment and ultimate disillusionment. Easily Fooled is about this, and about the source of our being fooled: the double-talk in all branches of theology.
This novel is also about the savage cruelty dispensed towards homosexual love. Its exposure enables Thomas to condemn the sepulchres, mausoleums and walls of holy books erected by religions – to wield the wrath of God and commandeer social norms and social acceptability.
In the first twelve pages of Easily Fooled, we are introduced to a dozen and a half characters who play a significant role in the novel, not to mention St. Paul (often referred to as Paul) – the chronic fabricator of twisted tales, in my opinion. It is quite a swarm that the reader has to deal with, and it might be wise to take notes so as not to miss out on the meticulous writing, set-up and editing informing this novel.
Having said that, the reason why there is a “swarm” is that Nigel Thomas needs his readership to understand that he is originally from the island of St. Vincent, where right now there is an active volcano… But if there were no ashes and rocks showering down on villages and towns, there would be folks pouring onto the streets and speaking up from balconies and playing Rasta on porches – jiving, hollering, badgering and teasing people, lying and spreading unwarranted rumours.
It is a fairly boisterous atmosphere we are drawn into at the outset – and it comes in welcome sharp contrast to that trend of moody psycho-sexual novels about two or three lonesome people in downtown high-rises or sitting on rock cliffs in lonely coastal fishing towns. I mean, it’s okay to ponder over just-released criminal pedophile uncles in isolated towns, but there is a world outside worth talking about as well, and that is what makes Thomas’ novel invigorating, intelligent and persistent about the original sin of religious doctrinairism.
Millington, a practicing and celibate Methodist preacher who is well-respected, honoured and a tortured soul, flees St. Vincent and his “celibate-osis” to settle in Montréal – an escape that is facilitated by his marriage to another St. Vincentian named Jay, who had a crush on him during their school days together and is now a Canadian citizen.
Doris, girl, I gotter be running. I know is delicious Bajan coo-coo you gi’ing the reverend today. I done smell it. Like you scheming to turn he into a real Bajan.
That is Horton – Millington’s one-time fling, a wicked palm-tickling, crotch-beholding, double-life-leading shadow man, patois-ing his way through life and now talking teasingly to Rev. Millington’s housekeeper, Doris, and suggesting that Millington never gets down! Meaning, he is too serious!
And yes, there are pederasts, too, in this novel, as there are in a lot of other Canadian novels! Thankfully there are no exotic exiles peddling incense furiously. And yet Nigel Thomas slices and dices in life in and around McGill University in Montréal and back into the streets and boroughs of St. Vincent and Barbados, through the eyes, voice and thoughts of Millington. Thomas has honed Millington as a trained parish priest, a very believable, polite, dignified intellectual who has had homosexual desires since his early childhood.
He has been parroting the Lord’s prayer and the Apostle’s Creed since he was four. Woe to the mother whose child couldn’t.
The chance encounter with that skin that seduces so smoothly, is so difficult to look away from – never mind touch – and may very well have been masked, is the deception that leaves Millington hiding behind a facade of inscrutability. The suffering itself from self-doubt makes him a refugee. Makes him travel away, after he defrocks himself intellectually. It is that skin, that bearer of the cross, that pain and suffering of hiding away, which Thomas conveys deftly, holding our hands as we navigate through this life.
Thomas uses a single incident with Horton as a long, curving, cantilevered bridge transporting us from St. Vincent all the way to Montréal, through the somewhat dubious arrival of Horton’s wife, Gladys, the bearer of his two kids. Her objective is purportedly to carry on her own theological studies. Thomas takes us back and forth between the two countries to document and portray the life of the tormented Millington, arriving in Montréal “penniless and dependent,” and gradually sharpening his convictions in his beliefs and the need for rationality in the human soul. Flat-earthers beware!
While Millington’s torment about his sexual preferences could be central to the novel, it is the deeper torment about the disingenuity and “original word” doctrinairism of his commitment to the Wesleyan Orthodox Methodism (AMC – the Authentic Methodist Church) that carries the book through.
There is an extraordinarily infectious array of characters that sweep through this novel. Halfway through it, the following description captures the essence of the story and the stylish literary cadence of its author. I will end this review with that segment about a group of religious discussants that Millington had joined while still in the Caribbean.
When Millington joined the group, they were five. Membership was by invitation only. Before Millington’s time, three members had left: Ezra, a rabbi he had met briefly—a short man with olive complexion, squarish build, and uncommonly black and thick eyebrows—had wanted meetings to be reflections on theology; Bennet—an ash-coloured Moravian, a palm-tree of a man (at least seven feet) with large teeth, an orange-sized Adam’s apple, and a booming bass voice that all envied—had left because Horace had called Christ’s resurrection story a primitive Middle-Eastern myth. Sacrilege for Moravians. Christ’s resurrection is the foundation of their theology.
An intense and well-written novel indeed, for the times we are living through!
Keywords and key phrases often capture the heart of a poem.
Blossom Thom, Montréal poet and writer, reflects in “Auntie Ida’s Thanksgiving Blessing:”
Our truth grounds us. Our roots
dig deep, searching for magma to
fuel our warmth or to burn those
who expect us to accept their
outdated stance of ignorance.
Her poems offer a lesson in unravelling history, as well, for those who want to look up the names referenced. Please do, as it was an educational experience for us.
In “Ghosts of Mercy,” Cora Siré, poet, novelist, and now revealed to be a screenwriter as well, states:
My beacon beams as I pan the waters
to let them know I’m here, careful to disguise
distress, my shivering. The sliver of moon
floats detached. I too hide my fears.
In this significant departure from the beaten path by our editorial board, we chose to dispense with the “theme statement,” which we have been using consistently for some time now. Instead, we chose “Just Poetry” as our invitation to submit works. We were flooded with submissions and, given the numbers, some significant works had to be set aside. We do have some of Montréal’s best-known poets here in this issue – and that is not meant to exclude other well-known poets that Montréal has brought forth. In fact, this city has spawned some of the best poetry shindigs on a regular and weekly basis, be it the Lectures Logos Readings, Speakup, Lapalabrava, the Argo reading Series, the Visual Arts Centre Poetry Readings, and several live venues that were forced to go virtual, due to the pandemic.
We have a riot of colours and signals, including the “slivers of moon and magma” flowing all over in words, music and ballads – including one performed by Montréal’s Ian Ferrier, the founder of many poetry and performance initiatives in this city. Ian performed live at Serai’s 32nd anniversary celebration and has provided us here with the words for his performance of “Emma’s Country” – a moving and eerie portrayal of the plight of Gaspé fishermen. It is the video of his performance that we have selected for this issue.
We have outstanding poets like Louise Carson, Catherine Watson and veteran Montréal curator and prolific poet Ilona Martonfi in the house. And then there is Endre Farkas – going back to the Véhicule Press era of #vehiculepoets – who asks in “Good Friday” why the rich must casually complain about the stench of poverty everywhere. In “Landscape of Abandonment,” Dinh Le Doan, a poet and engineer from Beaconsfield (Québec), traces the trees’ abandonment of “their hard-working leaves to the cruel November winds.”
Widely-published poet and writer Savita Singh, a former McGill University alumna now living and teaching in New Delhi, dedicates her poems “Palestine” and “Autocracy” to the memory of the late Prof. Sam Noumoff, a supporter of Serai who had contributed articles for us in the past. Savita’s poems have been translated from Hindi by Medha Singh, who is herself a well-known and extraordinary poet.
Always ready to take poetic license, we couldn’t resist including a short story by novelist Mayank Bhatt in the mix. “Activist” plunges us into the hidden life of a young woman fighting for the rights of Bombay’s destitute, and a rookie reporter who doesn’t know when to stop.
Former Montréaler Michael Mirolla – prize-winning writer, poet, film scenarist, novelist, and the cornerstone of the premier Toronto-based publisher, Guernica Editions – has provided us with his surrealistic, magical essence in a clutch of poems that are many-layered, technology-inquisitioning, and cheerful as well.
And we are not at all done! We have an extraordinary review of Jocelyne Dubois’ new poetry compilation by Montréal poet Hugh Hazelton. And the indefatigable Maya Khankhoje provides us with an extensive review of When the Light of the World was Subdued, our Songs came Through, a Norton Anthology of Native Nations poetry.
And finally, an absorbing review of Louise Carson’s Dog Poems and Carolyn Marie Souaid’s The Eleventh Hour, by Montréal musician and much-loved troubadour, Brian Campbell.
And was there some discussion as to whether we have a Montréal bias?
The shrillness of “normalcy”
Can this phase of capitalism known as globalization kill itself and then reinvent itself? Or can it come up looking good, with another brand name? What would that post-COVID-19 society look like, socially, culturally and politically?
That is the essence of our theme statement for this issue. But in order to proceed, we need to define what constitutes globalization and when it actually started.
Globalization, as per popular mainstream wisdom, was initiated in 1492 – when Christopher Columbus fumbled, stumbled and made landfall on what the local Lucayan people called Guanahani… later called the Bahamas! Some others say it all began in 1498, when Vasco da Gama made it to Calicut, on the Malabar coast in India.
There is evidence to suggest that Christopher was not only a commissioned explorer, but also a rogue adventurer and bounty hunter, with poor math skills. (He got the earth’s circumference wrong and thought he could reach India faster by sailing westwards.) Eventually, after four trips he was brought back in chains to Spain. By that time, he had cut off the hands of a number of his sailors as well as of Indigenous people, for mutinying, and had effectively decimated several Indigenous pre-Columbian civilizations.
There are others who would like to suggest that Genghis Khan, with his conquering and unifying skills along the Silk Route, or Marco Polo as he headed for China to discover and embrace noodles and silk, were pivotal characters for globalization.
But hold on! These are the Investopedia, World Economic Forum (WEF) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) versions of “exploration, discovery and the opening up of trade routes,” packaged and sanitized to look and feel like a tribute to “man’s” insatiable quest for “discovery and adventure.” The mission, as we came to know later, was to carry away quantities of black pepper, coriander, red pepper, bay leaves, mustard, tea and turmeric, in bulk, while concurrently decimating the rights of the Indigenous population, and making “settlerism” a universal doctrine of colonization, occupation and genocide.
So, with some salt, some pepper, some chocolate and vanilla, and plenty of multi-coloured sprinkles – like religion, moral education, building ports and railway lines – the opening up of the raw material requirements for the first industrial revolution were initiated. Now, all this was about colonization – about extraction, about carrying away various ores by ship and rail, about settling and displacing, about forced eviction! About the advent of industrial capitalism. About cotton, indigo, sugar, coffee, potatoes and plunder. About forcing cash crops on peasants worldwide and wiping out self-sustaining food production.
Far from being globalization, it was plunder and occupation. Now, cotton, sugar and the harvesting of various plantation products needed handpicking. And therefore, this became the basis for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Slaves did not get wages. Not a cent. Treated as human chattel, they were bought and sold to erect the massive foundation of this settler economy that emerged as a world imperial power. Slaves did everything. They covered a whole gamut of skills, from working as bakers, barbers and basket makers to blacksmiths, brewers, cooks, dairy workers, coachmen, dancers, fiddle makers and fiddlers, as well as firemen, shipbuilders, sailors, weavers and wheelwrights. We do not often realize how ingenious this brutal system was in building the foundation of what is now the US.
Chemistry and Hollywood!
In 1979, however, a chemistry major turned barrister, Margaret Thatcher, and a grade C actor turned President, Ronald Reagan, jointly scrapped government entitlements and regulatory controls, fist-pumped for a more “robust free-market economy,” and upheld British and US exceptionalism in world domination. Through force (continuous military interventions abroad) and the mantra of “free trade,” their followers in Canada, like Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Jacques Parizeau, Paul Martin and now Chrystia Freeland and Trudeau Jr, have continued to pray at the altar of globalization.
Neatly folded in to these “exciting” new policies was a series of paralyzing attacks on unions, erosion of human rights, a privatization spree of existing public infrastructural arrangements, and further undermining of public health, pensions, education and housing.
This was promptly followed by a rather deft “common sense” approach to lifting cross-border tariffs, with favoured nation status given to some but not all, and “free trade” sold as a panacea for the economic crisis the West was facing. In fact, the UK at that time, which was then in such a dilapidated state, was the only developed country ever that got a 3.2-billion-dollar rescue package from the IMF.
One of the key components of the grand Free Trade mission was to encourage the companies to move their manufacturing (and the related skills) to “LCC:” low-cost countries. The sales pitch clearly suggested to large, mid-sized and small enterprises to look for raw materials and finished goods abroad, if they wanted to profit. Move machinery – even head offices and the means of production – abroad!
Now that is the true starting block of the globalization race. Not Columbus, not Da Gama, not Genghis Khan or Marco Polo. It was Reagan and Thatcher.
Nestled in these arrangements was total impunity for multinational corporations to profiteer scandalously, while stepping all over environmental requirements. It gave birth to a new economy, based on a dynamic “supply chain” – an economy of bulk-buying at enormous discounts, bringing in and storing materials in massive, digitized, automated and robotized warehouses, and creating the concept of third-party logistics. Independent organizations that owned or leased 53-footers to haul and deliver just-in-time goods and materials, albeit in small quantities, became contractual deliverers, based on local demands.
Now these warehouses still needed humans to run them! And so came the advent of entire warehouses populated by underpaid people of colour, recent immigrants, refuge seekers – on a contract basis, with no job permanence or adequate health and safety provisions – who could of course be hired and fired, to guarantee “low-cost wages!” All the conditions were then in place to ensure the highest possible margins in the supply chain from factories abroad to households in North America and Europe.
Today, this very warehouse-based economy has been defined as “essential” in the context of the success of the globalized economy. In his incisive essay, Mostafa Henaway, an organizer with the Immigrant Workers Centre and a Concordia University lecturer and doctoral student, surgically unmasks this development of the warehouse- based economy and deftly exposes its “chokepoints.” In the context of COVID-19, this economy was defined by governments as “essential.” This is an element of globalization that must have caught the big unions by surprise.
Sam Boskey, former Montréal City Councillor, civil rights activist and perennial learner and teacher of world history (right down to each borough in Montréal), expands on the issues raised by the theme, Can this phase of capitalism kill itself and then reinvent itself? Or can it come up looking good, with another brand name? What would that post-COVID-19 society look like? His answers are blunt and vigorous. He says, “…the pandemic lockdown has demonstrated that in the immediate aftershock of such social upheaval, it is possible for both government and civil society to identify some of society’s most vulnerable members and fashion some short-term palliative measures. In this, we are able to harness the initial spirit of ‘we’re all in this together.’ But entrepreneurial interests will soon regain ascendancy, and our caring about ‘each and every one’ will wane, with the private sector once again overriding the public good.”
Amrit Wilson, a well-known UK feminist and South Asian anti-racism activist for decades, and the author of several books, was interviewed on-line recently by Montréal Serai. In response to the question of whether the essentials of globalization (de-regulation, free trade, etc.) would be phased out, she says “… it is important to remember that we are not simply talking about neoliberalism, but about the shaping of hyper-neoliberalism into fascism. This is certainly the case in India, Brazil, and Hungary where we now see full-fledged fascism, but also in the US and increasingly in the UK.”
Frequent contributor to Serai and well-known journalist and activist from India, Nilanjan Dutta, hauls up the state by the collar, arguing that it is using the pandemic as an excuse and is exploiting lock-down measures and terror to erode people’s will to resist the larger enemy of systemic, widespread profiteering – also known as neoliberal capitalism and globalization. Nilanjan refers to “the mask” not only as a protective device, but also as a metaphor for gagging and prodding the population so that “we are becoming amicable to the idea of a strong and omniscient state.”
You will notice that sprinkled throughout this editorial essay, we have included some paintings by Juan Raggo. Juan is an artist of Chilean origin, now living in Montréal. After studying architecture and art in Chile, Juan arrived in Québec in 1974 for reasons we all can guess. Once in Canada, he worked at the Bureau de prisonniers politiques du Chili and contributed to publications such as El rebelde (The Rebel). The intimate paintings featured in this issue are part of the series “Confinement and Insomnia,” a reflection of the current times, particularly as experienced by the elderly.
Our co-editor Nilambri Ghai reviews the latest book by Egyptian-American writer and aphorist, Yahia Lababidi, Revolutions of the Heart. “In our divided world today, [Lababidi’s book] seeks our transformation as people first, then as citizens of one planet earth, envisioned beyond the divisions of political boundaries… with elements that, like pandemics, do not differentiate one from another.”
Montrealer Sharon Lax’s new book, Shattered Fossils, is reviewed in depth by Jane Affleck. An extraordinary book of short essays on multitudinous issues, “Lax’s stories leave us with a final question: What stories can we begin to tell, in order to remake norms and create an equitable and just post-pandemic world?”
Frequent Serai contributor and Montréal-based author Veena Gokhale injects her own experiences and familiarization process into the review of Raquel Fletcher’s Who Belongs in Quebec? If the title sounds trite after so many decades, it is because the matter remains to be resolved!
Our landing page features the work of Gavin Morais, a Montréal sculptor and video artist whose visceral, alien-like works are reviewed by James Oscar, a past contributor to Serai.
And Montréal’s masked poet Brian Campbell unveils his COVID poem, “Stranger.”
Globalization, as a phase of capitalist mutation, received a punch in the face from COVID-19. The predatory nature of globalization came to a point where the environment, life forms, the food chain and health controls for both animals and humans were prodded until slumbering viruses residing in animals got released into the atmosphere.
Suddenly, we were told to get personal protective equipment (PPE) overnight. We were garrisoned and politely told to stay at home! In Canada, that is. In other countries, like China, India, Italy and elsewhere, it was a punishing lockdown. With curfews, no less. No flying, no travelling, no hanging out, no going to work, and even talking to your neighbour across the balcony was scoffed at.
Factories closed down, except those categorized as “essential.” “Gig” workers were told to stay at home or apply for relief. Landlords were told to hold back rent collection, and banks promptly offered loans with deferred payback (and compounded interest). The pandemic was declared. Governments around the world started pulling out their real money and mixing it in with the money they printed, betting on speculative futures, and began to spend billions on COVID relief. The deal was to return to “normal.” Governments started to look magnanimous, except the few that thought “herd” immunity could save the world and “balancing the budget” was more important than people’s health.
In retrospect, it looks like the essential elements of globalization may be revived again… after a while. But some things will have to change. Liberal and democratic Canada will have understood that the exhortation of public measures like the ones Tommy Douglas fought for would not be enough in this day and age. The government would have to budget for far stricter controls over senior citizens’ care homes (be they public or private), extensive reserve capacity at intensive-care facilities, a far greater emphasis on and protection of frontline healthcare workers, self-sufficiency in the domestic manufacturing of PPE and intensive-care equipment, and a dignified approach to re-educating a large segment of the population that our collective welfare is more important than the fickle notion of “personal freedoms.”
Only the likes of Genghis Khan, Robert Clive, Winston Churchill and their ilk would dispute that kind of change.
In the past couple of years, we have all discussed and dissected, with intensity, the man-made climatological changes that have hit our earth. It has become frustratingly clear that it is not enough to debate the science, the predictions and the impact on our future lives on earth, as our only channel of activism. Climate change is not simply a result of bad habits and poor science, but a systemic overpowering of peoples’ choices through the erosion of the strength of the commons and the right to assemble freely and converge together for a more cooperative and sharing society.
The commons generally refers to:
“… the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. Commons can also be understood as natural resources that groups of people (communities, user groups) manage for individual and collective benefit. […] Commons can be also defined as a social practice of governing a resource not by state or market but by a community of users that self-governs the resource through institutions that it creates.” (Wikipedia)
Vast segments of the country are part of the commons, places where public jurisdiction or public access is not something that can be constrained. Parks, forests, river areas, wetlands, falaises, the migratory pathways (in the skies and on the ground) of birds and animals immediately spring to mind. But the commons also includes parts of a city – the urban landscape, the parks and plazas outside subway stations. These are areas where the poor can congregate to afford themselves some pleasure… the public version of the backyards of folks in gated communities.
The commons is where people meet and have a right to congregate. It has to do with human rights and individual freedoms, where access to essentials like water, food and shelter are controlled by local populations and not by private interests.
Political decision-making in the shadows
There is a nebulous political structure that decides how many school playgrounds a borough will have. In local government, who decides where social issues can be resolved? Who decides to cut trees to build a soccer field – and how many trees to cut? How is the process of implementing public welfare decisions constructed (such as decisions on social housing, growing trees, forming cooperatives, etc.), and by whom? The whole cooperative decision-making process and cooperative living style – community living style – is not really in the cards, even though heroic movements have fought for it for decades, right here in Montréal.
All this is being discussed in various forums, but there is not enough impetus for preserving the public wetlands, forest areas, parks, mountains – everything that surrounds the city and everything in the city that could be defined as the commons.
Many of us are deeply concerned and worried about what is going to happen, not just for the next five years but for the next twenty. Where do we stand with all this? It seems to us that the climate movement has waged a fairly decisive battle in making sure that this man-made crisis is clearly identified for what it is. However, the same climate movement has very limited controls over any decisions that governments may have arrived at as a result of signing on to certain targets.
Very simply put: large, polluting, fossil-fuel-using nations routinely renege on targets or opt out of programs. Canada is one of them. We have decided to deliberately miss our 2030 targets by 15%. There are limited political watchdog surveillance systems that monitor the provincial and federal governments’ actual performance in curbing our ever-increasing capacity to exploit our natural resources.
There is something else looming large that is not being discussed enough: a shadowy image in our minds of an ever-growing political structure that is preparing subtly to oppose environmental measures through a variety of sustainability-friendly measures that are combined with coercive policies in non-sustainable areas. The forces of privatization and the fossil fuel industry are surreptitiously rebranding their claims. The climatological battle cannot be won unless we curb privatization and fight for the public commons.
The environmental movement in Canada has parked itself outside the obvious areas where jurisdictional decisions are taken. Having a Green Party or an NDP with a competitive green policy is patently inadequate unless these parties are part of a political movement that operates in the commons. And the movement for the commons has to integrally respect Indigenous land rights and cultural heritage.
In this issue
Our issue features a photo essay on the Wixárika people’s opposition to a Vancouver mining company’s operations in Mexico. Photographs by José Luis Aranda and commentary by Serai editor Claudia Itzkowich highlight these Indigenous activists and the sacred land of Wirikuta that they are committed to protect.
Freelance journalist Patrick Barnard makes the climate crisis personal in “First Person Climate Change.” Reflecting on science and the weather and key figures shaping his consciousness over his life time, from CBC’s Bob Carty to Moby-Dick, Patrick implores us to halt the “mad narcissism… the driving force of the world as it is organized today.”
Blossom Thom, poetry co-editor of Jonah Magazine, speaks in her poems of yearning, love, and oceans shouting to the shore, sleep collected in remnants, gold dust coating our throats. In “The Garden of Dutiful Women […] whirling, we step on the edges of blades.”
Rae Marie Taylor, author of The Land: Our Gift and Wild Hope,” ponders the distance separating humans from the natural world since the Industrial Revolution, and the need to reclaim our wildness and preserve the commons. In “The Root of It,” she writes: “We need each other and the land that speaks to us of life other than our own. We need the tides and the shores of our planet […] the forest and the hills, the plains and the rain, the elk […] We are necessary to their survival. They are as necessary to ours.”
Better known for directing plays and films, Guy Sprung reflects and muses in his poem, “Dusk on Loukes Lake:” “I float | downside-up | in a darkening world…”
In her poem entitled “Dhrupad of Destruction,” Savitri Sawhney evokes the eternal dancer of creation, conservation and destruction in Hindu mythology, Nataraja, dancing “to the sound of crushing ice, melting glaciers and rising seas.”
Vrajesh Hanspal’s dark poetic prose piece, “Forest Floor,” plumbs our more sinister imaginings of the forest and its carpet of organic detritus teeming with the crawling, ticking and cooing creatures that respected no boundaries…
Two incisive poems by Paris Elizabeth Sea tear into our theme without mincing words, in Moment, arriving.
Maya Khankhoje reviews a highly original novel by Brenda J. Wilson entitled TAKEWING a.m., which centres on the yearly migration of the monarch butterfly from Canada to Mexico and back.
And this editorial features a drawing by Canadian cartoonist Oleg Dergachov, commenting on human obliviousness as we fly too close to the sun.
We hope our issue boosts your spirits and stirs your creative juices as we spin new filaments of community in this uneasy time of Corona.
When we say first principles, we claim we are going down to the basics. To a fundamental truth. Being totally iterative, methodical and without prejudice. We are arriving at a fundamental principle. Scientists are not supposed to assume anything until they arrive at a first principles truth. Can we be sure that we have arrived at the core of a mathematical argument or a behaviour analysis? Can we plot that behaviour according to the fundamental first principles? Can we dig deeper until we arrive at a foundational truth? As Descartes suggested, we have to doubt till we reach that truth.
When it comes to first principles the core axiomatic belief – the basic assumption that cannot be deduced any further – becomes paramount. Several centuries ago, Aristotle defined a first principle as “the first basis from which a thing is known.” A similar tenet in engineering physics is illustrated in the following equation:”
The derivative of square root ( √ ) of a function is considered a first principle. The basis, not the results derived from it. The fact that 92 is 81, or that the square root of 81 is 9, is not a first principle. Basic science analysis requires going to the root cause and not the results, symptoms, or behaviour. The latter would amount to a clinical study.
Scientists keep asking the question “why” until they reach the indubitable truth. What does the “truth” look like? Can we represent the truth visually? How would it look? We can offer an example, as it has been possible for several decades to represent a fundamental functionality based on a surface plot in 3-dimensional axes.
Here is a rather neat representation of the square root function in a 3D plot. Thanks to this site, however distant we are from mathematics, we can grasp that there is a first principle that governs variables and their behaviour. Every tweaking results in an aesthetic representation of the order. Taking one of the plots as an example:
The author states the following: “The logarithm of the absolute value of √z where z = x + i y in the upper half‐plane. The surface is colored according to the square of the argument. In this plot, zeros are easily visible as spikes extending downwards and poles and logarithmic singularities as spikes extending upwards. The square root branch point, that also is a zero at Z = 0 is visible.”
This is not about surfaces and neat colours. It is about our ability to represent certain truths – not all – at the present time, with fundamental behaviour patterns that are extraordinarily aesthetic.
Forming ideas and holding on to opinions
Going further, how do we form our ideas? How do we develop our opinions and affiliations? Who teaches us or makes us aware or lays the seeds in our brains about what is right and what is wrong? Are we simply impressed and attracted by the charisma of individuals and their writings or personalities at a formative period in our lives? Are we convinced by aesthetics or rectilinear logic, or simultaneously by both? Can form-fit-functionality (as understood in the engineering sciences) be an unconscious urge toward order, or is it an optimized comfort zone? Are the first principles in physics and mathematics convergent with first principles in philosophy? Or are they the same?
And, for that matter, at a more advanced stage in our lives, do we cling to our beliefs, ideas and affiliations out of obstinacy, egotism or plain laziness? Are we branded for life for our beliefs and opinions, or do we have an epiphanic transformation – à la Francis Fukuyama – later on?
BTW, Fukuyama, a leading proponent of neocon politics and author of the document The End of History, asserted that a civilization based on Western concepts of a free market economy had finally triumphed over socialistic ideas, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. His book became a Bible for Cheney, Bush, Perle, Wolfowitz and a whole list of neocon philosophers and believers in military domination of the world. But recently Fukuyama has dramatically reversed some of his opinions, distancing himself from a few of the neocons he had associated with, and has reconsidered some of his beliefs.
According to Wikipedia:
“In a 2018 interview with New Statesman, when asked about his views on the resurgence of socialist politics in the United States and Great Britain, he responded:
It all depends on what you mean by socialism. Ownership of the means of production – except in areas where it’s clearly called for, like public utilities – I don’t think that’s going to work. If you mean redistributive programmes that try to redress this big imbalance in both incomes and wealth that has emerged then, yes, I think not only can it come back, it ought to come back. This extended period, which started with Reagan and Thatcher, in which a certain set of ideas about the benefits of unregulated markets took hold, in many ways it’s had a disastrous effect. At this juncture, it seems to me that certain things Karl Marx said are turning out to be true. He talked about the crisis of overproduction… that workers would be impoverished and there would be insufficient demand.”
What brought about such a transformation in the mind of a hard-core neocon guru? Or was it simply a temporary ploy? Have Fukuyama and others like Joseph Stiglitz (the head of the World Bank, who has completely turned around and announced that “globalization” was a disaster) begun to see a creepy darkness rising up in the shadows, overtaking the colourful and glorious horizons they had contemplated?
Beliefs and affiliations
There are many people who relate the concept of “class” to level of income. This is understandable given that a majority of people see “class” as an extension of an archaic English approach towards social “classification” based on upbringing, education, social standing, behaviour, etc., which emerged out of a baron/landlord and tenant relationship rooted in land ownership, inheritance and land exploitation at a pre-industrial stage of development. This affliction of class attitudes, however, was not confined to the countryside and still persists in large cities of the UK, with infinitely boring and goofy behaviour patterns that the English themselves laugh at endlessly. The definitions of class, however, have changed significantly since the mid-nineteenth century and are grounded in the evolution of industrial production.
Some have also identified inherited wealth and the lack of taxation on inheritance as additional elements in defining class divisions. Inherited wealth is less of a significant factor in equality when it comes to developing countries, but remains of consequence in the old industrialized nations. However, this income (sheer interest from funds long bestowed down the family lineage) and the resultant inequality provide a “class” basis for social segregation. Thus, affiliations and beliefs about class, rather than definitions of class, have come to influence the discussion.
Class has always been defined as a relationship to production and capital. In the mass production industrial realm, the owner of a business (typically in an industry that manufactured commodity goods) acquired wealth by personally running a productive enterprise, hands on. In the current world we live in, however, confusion is compounded because traditional manufacturing has taken flight overseas, leaving behind service, leisure, soft skills and runaway profit-making ventures, often based on speculative capital and leading to escalating compensation for “C”-level executives (CEO, CIO, CFO, COO, etc.). Such executives, who move around amassing 300 to 400% more compensation than the average worker, cause increasing confusion regarding class, the super rich, etc.
Why am I bringing this up? Because class is frequently used in a casual manner, and for the past several decades the issue of identity has often been conflated with class to compound matters further and confuse the unity of the poor and the disenfranchised. In the past, this conflation and the resultant confusion ensued in the growth of extreme right-wing movements that led to WWII and the advent of fascism in Spain, Germany, Italy and certain other regions of Europe. The spectre of another such rise seems apparent today. It has terrified even arch-conservative philosophers like Francis Fukuyama (The End of History) to limp along to new conclusions about the Bush era, the Iraq war and the neocon rise and to suggest that the “war on terror” could very well have given birth to a new wave of “identity-bound” intolerance, requiring a “softer” remedy. Sinister as his conversion is (it seems that our government in Canada has also been somewhat inspired by such ideas in seeking a “soft-coup” approach overseas), it is one more deflection from the essential problem that there is a 1% that owns capital and there is a 99% that does not!
Identity movements that matter!
In the sixties and seventies, the women’s movement and the black consciousness movement were the harbingers of social forces asserting identity as an important and potent weapon in uniting largely ignored or deliberately sidelined sections of the population – uniting against unfair and exploitative relationships practised by the state or against the policies of the state when it came to waging war against other nations in the name of “freedom and democracy.” Thus identity was and has been a significant unifying force against the main adversary, the state and its policies. In both the great wars, the poor mobilized against war based on the understanding that the rich fought wars for resources and expansion. Hatred and intolerance thus became handy tools for inciting divisions among the poor. Genocidal extermination was carried out against Jews and the Romani, and the killing of communists and socialists became acceptable practice in Nazi Germany. It became fair game to cite identity as an excuse to exterminate those who struggled for justice and fairness, against class exploitation. In that context, identity slowly became the basis for disuniting those opposed to fascism.
Most of us today live at the junctions of identity and class. “Identity” is generally billed as unifying as a social category, be it race, gender, gender orientation, sexuality, disability or similar factors; and regardless of whether one is poor or rich, identity stands on its own. “Class” usually involves economic factors, including wealth by ownership of the means of production, which enable access to superior health care, housing, education and social status. British filmmaker Ken Loach wastes no time establishing where he stands on “class” being fundamental to understanding social change. See http://politicalcritique.org/world/uk/2018/ken-loach-class-struggle/.
That post-modern thing!
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War (in the mid-seventies), a certain triumphalism emerged in left-wing academic corridors. Despite carpet-bombing, defoliating and napalm bombing Vietnam, the United States suffered devastating losses – 60,000 soldiers. The Vietnamese won. The United States was defeated. This had unfortunate consequences for political philosophy, as some came to realize. A period of intellectual slackness emerged as academics found ways and means to define social conflict in terms of identity alone, and the question of class conflict was put on the back burner or regarded as an implicit given, or simply defined as being defunct! While courses on “class” and the economic basis of class continued to be offered, the sexiness of certain excursions into the world of post-colonialism evolved into studies in post-modernism.
European philosophers with obscure credentials appeared and disappeared, finding ways and means of dismissing the class nature of social conflict. Often slotting the subject under post-modernist discourse, academic circles were very busy promoting various non-class notions of struggle. At some point, these courses and their various proponents leap-frogged their ideological tendencies and secured a position as “cultural Marxists.” Many never agreed to such a label, but ideologues from the Right found it very convenient to bash them for their excessive zeal for “correctness.” The results have been disastrous, as we all know. There has never been anything in the annals of Das Capital that suggested a “cultural identity” chapter! But, of course, there has always been a sound basis for “de-hegemonizing” mainstream political and cultural discourse, which has conspired to raise concepts like “freedom, democracy, western civilization, elections, law and order, parliamentary forms of government” as sacrosanct, and assigned an elevated notion of superior rule to them. Many identity-bound movements have consciously or unconsciously bought into such political discourse and hardened their positions on a non-class approach. This is where the disenfranchised and marginalized slotted themselves separately. Whether black or brown or yellow, transgendered, transsexual, gay or two-spirited, the question is: who rules? Look up the Capital chain, friends!
One of the horrendous distortions of the new identity crises is found among certain white folks who feel oppressed and depressed about their current state of affairs and have the idea that they’re becoming a minority in certain urban centres! The white supremacist movement has come out, shedding its Klan-hoods and sporting short-sleeved shirts and MAGA caps. And they’re not the only distortion. There are also the men who claim they feel they’re oppressed!
New realizations are imminent!
Irrespective of the distortions and deflections, the good news is that some of the irreconcilable differences and tensions between class and identity seem to be waning. With the utter failure of the concepts of free trade, globalization and deregulation, there may be new realignments of identity and class due to forces beyond the control of the common person. Flattening economic opportunities (due to intellectual and technical mobility on the web and functionalities related to it), deepening inequality and corrupt political systems where politicians are bought and sold like cattle are upsetting the confidence of the 1%.
Mythic beliefs in the old world order and the conviction that the apple cart can never be kicked over and the dream of the “self-made man” still holds true have suffered some serious fender-benders. Class and identity are gradually unifying in many contexts, and even the fact that poor and working-class people supporting Trump have not always done so based on a sense of white privilege but out of extreme frustration with joblessness and poverty has some bearing on the complex relationship between class and identity.
In response to a three-page critique of the film by Boots Riley, the first point I want to make is that labelling, categorizing, denouncing, and tearing apart a filmmaker’s entire IMDb may be cool posturing, but it is not necessarily educational for those who haven’t been exposed to Spike Lee’s entire body of work. Brother Lee has not always been the most thoughtful presenter of ideas. He dabbles and walks away. When he does not, he swings. But there is a strain in him that highlights issues that many in the Afro-American community tend to skirt around. Is he anywhere near being a James Baldwin or a Malcolm X? He would not make a size 6 if Malcolm X wore a size 12. But when it comes to mass culture, he is important – like Michael Moore – because that is where work needs to be done to de-hegemonize manufactured cultural consent. And look where identity and PC politics have taken us! The backlash feels like a roto-rotor.
The film makes high-speed probes and covers many episodes of the civil rights movement, with excellent reminders of dance and music tracks from the late sixties to the present, including Prince’s fantastic rendition of Mary Don’t You Weep, released posthumously.
BlacKkKlansman holds the promise of a spliff. A well-conceived and high-powered film that includes the Charlottesville killing of Heather Heyer suggests that Spike Lee continues to bring together a left popular (not populist) perspective on what needs to be continuously reinforced among people who have had limited exposure to the civil rights movement, the Black Power Movement, and the entire cultural battle against white settlerism and racism, a seething and mutating core heritage of the US – not just the Southern confederate rage against de-segregation and civil rights, but the more refined east-to-west, coast-to-coast neo-liberal consensus to maintain and reinforce a system that denies equal rights through well-thought-out official means such as voter deregistration.
The Birth of a Nation as sign on
The movie starts off brilliantly with Alec Baldwin and a snapshot from Gone with the Wind, as well as Birth of A Nation by D.W. Griffith, as grim reminders of where the roots lie, of what it was to continue to wage war against civil rights. Spike Lee has chosen a story about a Colorado Springs black undercover police officer who noses his way into a predominantly white police force, literally begging to infiltrate the local chapter of the Klansmen. Incredible!
He eventually succeeds, and that is where a new tragedy starts. He shows them up and exposes them when one of the most vicious and stupid Klansmen blows himself up accidently, possibly aided and abetted by another dimwitted white police officer and sympathizer. Denzel Washington’s son, John David Washington, is excellent as the black officer, showing cool reserve, poise and an enormously wicked (but often naïve) sense of humour.
The film unfortunately makes too many forays into caricature – caricatures of black imagery from the ‘60s and ‘70s: beehives, Afros, bellbottoms, African jewellery, strutting heels and, of course, music that’s just unforgettable. But there’s vacuousness in the language that is spoken. That is the start of caricature.
Stokely Carmichael, less well known as Kwame Ture, was one of the greatest speakers in the Black Power movement. He worked on the audience with facts instead of empty rhetoric. If his words had been used in the film followed by a speech from H. Rap Brown, I would have felt better. However, Spike Lee chooses not to educate, and makes a caricature of Stokely Carmichael. Kwame Ture is played by an uninspiring Corey Hawkins – dull and uncharismatic. As a director and scriptwriter, Spike Lee knew he had creative license, but lost focus in that area. The depth that Kwame Ture spoke to is reflected in his speech beginning with: “Thank you very much. It’s a privilege and an honor to be in the white intellectual ghetto of the West.” Speakers who educate are important during these times, and focusing on slogans and posturing does not help as much as facts and figures from the past.
This movie fails to separate the informed and the educational from the rhetoric – it ribs too far in self-absorbed humour and plunges into the superficial anger that often seems to attract Spike Lee. Unfortunately for him, it was right at that time that the Black Power movement started its fight against black capitalism, the Vietnam War, and the imperial history of the United States following Hiroshima. Spike Lee did a good job with the movie he made on Malcolm X in the ‘nineties. However, in BlacKkKlansman, he misrepresents the Black Consciousness movement. Quite comically, I would say.
What this movie does, though, is that it brings together a broad spectrum from the civil rights movement itself – from the time of the birth of the Ku Klux Klansmen – and updates it to expose the continuity of ignorance through shots of David Duke today, the ex-grand wizard of the KKK and ally of President Donald Trump, spewing racism as never before. It is astounding how this entire undercover exposure pans out to the extent that it rationally brings together these peculiar inflections in white policemen, racist as hell, but still capable of grandstanding for “law and order,” nailing down bigger bigots and even arresting them, exposing them, and showing a sort of respectful condescension towards a black undercover agent.
What does this movie achieve?
Not a lot, but something…
It has the feeling of a “spliff” – as Spike Lee always referred to his movies in the past – but then it becomes a drag, due to the caricature element that keeps slipping in. However, a sort of quick run off to the present is educational and excellent, including a rather fantastic appearance by Harry Bellafonte at ninety, who holds down a Mr. Turrentine, remembering a lynching he had witnessed. He does this in the most gentle, articulate and storytelling nature – like a griot. Much appreciated!
The movie is erratic in some ways, spoofy, but still a kind of hard blow to the current state of America. And despite it being unsettled at times and unsophisticated, it still carries a necessary element of exposure. It’s a drag because you can easily tell what’s coming. There are no surprises. Bigots play bigots. Black Power harangues tend to be portrayed as just that, often comical diatribes, since the militancy of the Black Power movement lay somewhere else. Although that type of portrayal is probably closely bound to the book written by Ron Stallworth, a doc film based on a personal story must eventually mobilize people, inform people. It is no secret that filmmakers do not always follow the script. It is not the kind of movie that people go to see and say, “Is that really what happened? Is that what happened? Oh my God! Is that in the book?” But the film doesn’t raise the level of dignity of the civil rights movement.
The civil rights movement was an extraordinarily dignified movement. Loving to dance, sure – you can’t take that away – but it was not all about strutting and attitude. It was not about clenched fists only. There was a lot of organizing and unity among blacks, whites, and people of colour. This movie unfortunately makes a 70 percent mark. It is useful nonetheless.
Jews and civil rights
There’s something else to this movie that needs to be pointed out, and Spike Lee does a fantastic job at it. He continuously brings up the fact that the treatment of Jews in the entire history of the United States has been vicious and violent. Jews and Communist progressives were the real targets of the Christian Evangelical Deep South nexus. This is important because there are many grey areas that float around today in the Black Consciousness movement when it comes to the bond between Jewish intellectuals, Jewish activists, Jewish scientists, Jewish civil rights workers and their enormous contribution to the civil rights movement – a political heritage rooted in class struggle and the history of settlerism. It wasn’t blacks or Muslims who mobilized against Jews and Communists/Socialists, but Christian Evangelists and Catholics. Spike Lee as a black filmmaker makes it very clear that the left-wing Jewish contribution to progressive politics is crucial and must be known.
It’s not about what we see and hear today. It’s about a much longer tradition of stereotyping and caricaturing of Jews, starting out long before the portrayals of Shylock or Jesus-killers. The movie sets out to ensure that people understand that racism was directed formidably against Jews, and that it was wielded by Christian fundamentalists. Today that is masked with all kinds of proto-Zionist and Zionist notions of defending Israel as if Israel and Christianity stand for each other. Perhaps Israel today is highly dependent on evangelical support.
Having said that, the movie adds one of the undercover agents who is a cultural Jew, who doesn’t even know he is a Jew, who has never lived the life of a Jew, but who nevertheless shows extraordinary chutzpah and intelligence in going undercover into the Klan as a white person (Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver). His intellectual compassion with the civil rights movement is clear.
Man on a Rocking Chair in San Juan
In San Juan I found a man
rocking on his balcony,
the floors creaking,
the glaze in the gaze,
a daffodil stem
hanging from his lips.
I asked him
was he truly
He shot me a glance,
red in the eyes,
stopped his rocking,
spat in a can,
just to say
that for now,
all he wanted
was his libertad,
a free man, with free choice,
that’s it, that’s all!
In an ice-bound heaven,
the dream had been
hung from a hook
some years ago,
a concerto in repose.
with bows frozen,
with faces caught,
in a moment of despair.
“À la prochaine,”
with a tilt of the head.
As tears flowed,
it became a still shot,
an interim movement,
an opus for all.
But, here, in the Alps,
in a village called D,
where the snow drifts,
where pin-striped bellies
GDP per capita goes Y-ways,
Growth and debt goes X-ways,
and interest rates,
no rocking chairs
in this castle regal.
No one chews tabac.
Limos drive in and out,
tinted windows and
Independence, my friend,
is like Capital sans Labour –
a flippant issue, perhaps,
but worth a note –
that sovereignty today,
ça n’existe pas.
The polished floors don’t creak.
The daffodils don’t weep.
“And the wind whispers Mary…
After all jacks are in their boxes
And the clowns have all gone to bed,”
Jimi says, so softly.
There is nothing to sweep away,
as everything is already swept.
The man from San Juan,
with the daffodil stem
hanging from his lips…
The balcony creaks.
The chair rocks.
No man can be seen.
I Shot a .38
(or Skylight Phobia Version 2)
I shot a .38 through the skylight,
a neat hole, no cobweb
Just an accident! I said,
No tension, no threat!
rose steep, parabolic!
Reached its pungent peak
1500 yards up,
climbed down, slowly
passed a cackle
Look, I said,
taking the cue
from VP Gore,
who I’d just seen,
the day before,
on a group discount
at the Paramount.
It hit a neighbour’s clothesline,
in the pocket of a kitchen bib
by Ms. Turcotte,
who worked in forensics
for a company
could be basis
for a series, dark,
called CSI Parc!
That rue they called Bourassa
for a week only.
She spied the hole in the skylight
with a telescopic sight
made in Italy,
calculated the impact and velocity,
and determined me to be guilty.
She invited me for dinner.
Gracious! I said,
but dubious, mos def’ly.
She made carbonara, horribly,
and pastry that was pasty,
crusty and oily.
I shuddered mildly
at her hospi-tality.
The blue neon lights,
the quivering maroon lips,
were brand CSI.
Incredible! I said to her,
feigning total intrigue.
I found the errant cartouche
in an Akhavan sack.
And when she turned her back,
I lifted it promptly,
holding the .38 to her head.
I’m taking my cartridge back, immediately! I said.
She agreed politely
and I left quietly,
knowing she would
study my saliva on a plate,
for DNA left behind.
Traces of skylight phobia
in the ancestral blood
of my émigré utopia…
My parents arrived
in the dead of night,
in a boat from Sri Lanka.
(November 2006/January 2018)
Sometime in 1976, Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher, suggested that saturating the media with carefully selected flash news disables the concept of historicity, depth, intelligence and transparency in following daily events, and creates a hyper-reality that challenges or drowns out reality. The “War against Terror” in the aftermath of 9/11 has been a perfect example of turning history on its head. Irreality has become a hallucinatory haze – a Lucy in the Sky with Drones! Totally in the realm of possibilities.
War becomes redefined as “necessary regime change” and an essential “democratization” process. Terror is defined as the act of lonely, insane fundamentalists who live in caves and deserts. These deliberate fantasy stories are soon rebranded as conspiracy theory, and the past is erased or simply drowned out, while the absurdity of the present is dressed up to look like pervasive truth. “Breaking news” is a carefully constructed exhortation to white-out the past and whip up populist discord. Mainstream liberalist/Clintonist obscenities are part and parcel of this demagogic sleight of hand. Remember Hilary’s exhilaration at the killing of Muammar Gaddafi: “We came, we saw, and he died, ha ha!”(with the last part shrieked like a hyena). In essence, the achievements of Libya – the wealthiest country in Africa with the highest standards of living and education, the lowest levels of poverty and inequality, and zero debt – get wiped out in one fell swoop. What happened before is obliterated.
In some countries, fascist attributes are passed off as the “need to preserve continuity.” In others, the idea of discipline and order is upheld as a historical necessity to achieve growth. Chaos is considered devilish. The chaos of economic and political crises is explained away as a collapse of traditional belief systems. An aesthetic is created that impresses the uninformed, and easily creates the basis for populist yay-sayers.
Populism may also be a product of fatigue from imposed values, excessive proselytizing, hypocrisy and extreme coding – formulaic prescriptions on how to live life. But it would be erroneous to confine it to that. This would amount to a denial of why populism erupts differently under different eras and economic circumstances. Some folks react to interference or doctrinaire philosophies, while others may react to transgressions of Biblical, Vedic or Koranic belief systems. There is the factor of economics. There is war. And there is migration. There are phobias about others (and their religions), and then there is the fear of the unknown. The populism that haunts us today is not only about tiresome responses to formalism, but also the stirring-up of those who are reticent or instinctively opposed to equal opportunity, reserving jobs under affirmative action programs, paying the price of colonization. The thought of squaring your ancestors’ unpaid bills causes discernible unease and rancour amongst those whom I would not hesitate to call argumentative imbeciles.
The well-known American rapper, Kanye West, is a recent example of such idiocy when he says slavery was a “choice.” That’s exactly what Jordan Peterson would suggest! In fact, Kanye publicly confesses that he is influenced by Peterson. If you have not heard about Jordan Peterson, you are probably not in the buzzfeed gen, but that’s hardly a bad predicament to be in anyway. (There’s an article worth reading that offers a well-placed takedown of Peterson: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/03/19/jordan-peterson-and-fascist-mysticism. It actually unnerved and unravelled Peterson to the point where he started to scream every time he heard the name Pankaj Mishra.) Hunger, starvation, colonization, kidnapping, ransom, lynching, auctioneering are erased from history, and not surprisingly, new research is being initiated by some profs in Oxford on the “good ethical things about the British Empire.”
Populism is a spectre
It has haunted liberal western and developing democracies: whenever grassroots empowerment began to happen, whenever people talked about community, environment, localization; whenever people asserted the rights of minorities or tried to reverse a “plantation” mindset or made feeble attempts at reversing inequality; whenever there were initiatives to liberate food and water chains from the grip of corporations; whenever attempts were made to turn health care and Pharmacare into state-held responsibilities… And on the other side, populist arguments strike a chord when young people are told that they should not be held responsible for the atrocities committed by their ancestors. The thought of that kind of accountability sends shivers down the spines of those who are themselves faced with economic uncertainty, job loss and extinction. Populist theories then concatenate notions of racial preservation and “purity.”
The New Populists in their clean-cut attire
Populists and their white short-sleeved-shirt-wearing, university-educated mentors of both the Breitbart and the Jordan Peterson variety have taken to a new form of subversion. This new generation of suave populists believes in “direct intervention” in the media and in academic forums. Its proponents are divisive and confrontational and hide behind the right to free speech to divide and disable. Division is paramount, because it turns black into white as a starting argument. It makes a splash. They stir up dormant and raw emotions. They come in several varieties, but they all espouse populism.
There are Nazi-emulators who love Zionists but hate Jews (generally keeping their anti-Semitism under wraps). They are tantamount to house slaves wanting to become plantation owners. In developing countries, there are regressive feudals who think it’s ok to commit gang rape on eight-year olds (because the children belong to minority communities), but nevertheless embrace bitcoinery and digitization and love the “free market” despite their pre-industrial culture. They rewrite school and college curricula in the name of “fighting colonialism,” whereas they themselves are prime retrograde ideologues, passing off religious obscurantism as patriotic.
There are also the poor who feel that progressive ideas have led to poverty instead of richesse. There are the de-skilled who hate the “intelligent” hiring of newcomers. In the developed world, there are those who think people of colour are either criminal or crazily entrepreneurial: blacks are lazy and Natives waste taxpayers’ money. The populists of today see themselves as once-protagonists who have lost out and now feel under attack. They feel disinherited!
De-regulation and whipping up repressed neurosis
Since the advent of the Reagan-Thatcher deregulatory era and the subsequent triumphalism over the collapse of “Berlin Wall socialism,” there has been a back-to-the-basics brand of populism from the counter-subversive right. Adamant claims abound: “abortion is clearly wrong,” “intact heterosexual two-parent families” are the necessary bedrock of a “stable polity,” transgender ideology is “completely insane.” Encouraging parents to oppose the “indoctrination” of so-called comprehensive sex-education and advising college students not to appease left-wing professors or submit to political correctness is the populism of the day. The words in quotes are from Jordan Peterson, that outspoken, articulate and sometimes out-of-control Canadian guru of Ayn Rand-style revivalism. How did this all come about? Especially after the extraordinary gains made worldwide, from the era of Our Bodies, Ourselves (Boston Women’s Health Book Collective) right up to the time of exemplary progressive stands by Dr. Henry Morgentaler on behalf of women’s rights over their bodies in our own city of Montréal?
Well! The other spectre that has been haunting us is that period at the end of the Vietnam War, when academics settled into their tenured swivel chairs and experimented endlessly with the politics of culture, sub-culture, affiliations and identity… and essentially channelled the politics of economic clashes between the haves and the have-nots into the politics of tent societies that camped out on different issues rather than gathering under the same tent to deal with systemic inequality.
Populism became the neurosis of the repressed. In terms of behaviourism, populists indulge in being deprived. Old conflicts are regenerated in new packaging, and established cultural détente is unravelled by fixations on deprivation, which revive hate-filled memories of the past. Ezra Levant’s rag, Rebel Media, horribly entrenched in rightwing hate-mongering, laces his neurosis-bound trash with activist language. There is rhetoric of “activism and engagement,” in their “About Us” tab. Populism is thus carefully constructed as a “re-examining of history.” Or deletion, if you will.
Cultural freedom, artistic expression in a time of discord
“In the early days, I didn’t even know what to call the stuff my life was made of. You can imagine my delight when I discovered that someone in a distant land had the same idea—AND a nice, short name for it.” Frank Zappa, on learning about Dadaism.
Right after the end of the First World War, groups of cool artists laid siege to the horrors of promoting war and the distraction and utter chaos it caused, and attacked everything else that formalized social consent for preserving the machinery of the State. Diverse artists leapt into the fray and demolished “high” and elite art through their writings, poetry, songs, sculpture and installations, and established their anti-bourgeois bearings. They challenged the shallowness of blind faith and set out to dismantle the formalism of art and poetry.
Sound poetry, nonsense poetry emerged as a rebuttal to the stultifying formalism of art and art appreciation. An upside-down toilet bowl and a moustache on Mona Lisa were hallmarks. This was a “left” revolt of some sort against war and the rigidification of values. A welcome subversive populism in the wake of inter-imperial war. It came to be referred to as the Dadaist movement. The origins of the word are still not very clear to me, but are most probably a mocking of the Romanic “yes, yes” mindset. Da, Da is Yes, yes. Some say that a German artist randomly stabbed a dictionary and the knifepoint landed on the word dada, which in French means “hobby horse.” A rocking horse. Perhaps held as a symbol of boring, predictable and yet diminishing momentum. This movement took an axe to formalism.
Populism and disaster economics
When poverty festers amongst communities of colour, predatory “developers” capitalize on ways to obliterate the “ghetto” or the projects and look for a silver lining… for their wallets. They pray for (and prey on) environmental trauma, and push contrived urban plans that displace the poor. Once that happens, they seize the tremendous opportunities to flatten the “ugly” and displace the folks of colour.
Canadian writer and social activist Naomi Klein has extensively covered the disaster that followed Hurricane Katrina. Predictably, entire blocks of African-American livelihoods were never rebuilt. Displacement was transmuted into a real-estate campaign and a gentrification objective. The populist hankering for “clean-up” resulted in entire communities and their histories being wiped “clean.” Close to a year after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, nearly 50% of the population still does not have electricity. There is a quiet populist sentiment that God paid a timely visit to these people. Here is a link to Klein’s well-made video (including Puerto Rican community initiatives) in The Intercept. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTiZtYaB3Zo
So, this is where we’re at. Populism is too often an “attractive” way to wipe the slate clean, expunge feelings of guilt, forget the past, and let repressed psychoses play out in the public arena.
“About halfway through a particularly tense game of Go held in Seoul, South Korea, between Lee Sedol, one of the best players of all time, and AlphaGo, an artificial intelligence created by Google, the AI program made a mysterious move that demonstrated an unnerving edge over its human opponent. On move 37, AlphaGo chose to put a black stone in what seemed, at first, like a ridiculous position. It looked certain to give up substantial territory—a rookie mistake in a game that is all about controlling the space on the board. Two television commentators wondered if they had misread the move or if the machine had malfunctioned somehow. In fact, contrary to any conventional wisdom, move 37 would enable AlphaGo to build a formidable foundation in the center of the board. The Google program had effectively won the game using a move that no human would’ve come up with.”
Will Knight, MIT Technology Review, July 31, 2017
Recently, a letter and appeal signed by Stephen Hawkins, Tesla/Space-X/Solar Tile and Hyperloop founder Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, linguist and activist Noam Chomsky and 1,000 other robotic scientists and sociologists warned that the ultimate (mis)direction of Artificial Intelligence could be the convergence of the military industrial complex with disruptive technology. https://futureoflife.org/ai-open-letter/
They forewarn that it could result in automated robo-military warfare that would be uncontrollable. An ultimate unholy alliance. Very much like the chain reaction that Rutherford did not really foresee in splitting the atom, and what Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, lamented in resignation: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lb13ynu3Iac
Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, sounding millennially effluvious, criticized Musk, saying that he was pressing a panic button unnecessarily. This is possibly better understood when one realizes that Elon Musk, a manufacturer of tangible products – be it an electric computer that drives you around, a solar tile that is affordable, or experiments with a public transportation system that can get you to Toronto from Montreal in an hour, on the ground – is clearly someone who has integrated at least some of his entrepreneurial zeal to the idea of creating an economy for all, where work, employment, cash or credit flow, eating, living, education and leisure become a reality for the common person. Meanwhile Zuckerberg deals with virtual, social, flirtatious, emoji-based long-distance fucking as the basis for increasing the stock value of his company. Incidentally, those graduate students who map the floor of the ocean and marvel with starry eyes at the shape and forms of sea creatures, topography, ocean shelves and tectonic peculiarities should wake up when they realize that their studies are funded by naval research. The navy is not exactly interested in the mating behaviour of starfish. Hello!
A marketing and sales force automation company is developing an artificial neural network-based customer relations software module that will mimic a biological brain-signalling system. It will try to gauge customer sentiment through voice recognition, email or optical character recognition evaluations. In fact, this is already happening in other sectors of industry. Such systems are attempting to learn to recognize and identify voices, images, vocal tones and facial expressions, and develop a response that will go beyond a databank-based response system. Innocently disruptive technology, is it not? It will, however, not end there. This is evident to some of us who are concerned or already traumatized, while the rest of us – those who are simply uninformed or unserious – are blissfully busy picking our noses, imagining that all science is good science.
The idea that is now quite current is that data-based analytics – the business of spewing out aggregated responses to input data – is not adequate any longer in the world we are intending to live in. Super computers based on 2-bit binary logic are already somewhat passé. We are on the threshold, we are told, of quantum computers. In other words, computers that can maintain a cubic phase. Or to put it another way, computers that operate in a two-in-one state, based on a composite of two rather than on two separate entities like 1 and 0. Computers that make their own selection criteria while being fed data. They can essentially operate at two wavelengths, with a mind of their own operating outside the realm of binary logic.
The quantum target, so to speak, is to develop machines that can be taught to make their own independent choices, learn the language of emotions and short attention-span reactions, and build the language systems that can create satisfaction (or anger) quotients in a fast-moving world. In short, machines will be taught code – sorry, the language that constitutes the building blocks of code – so that they can interact “without data” in a near intelligent and autonomous format. They will create their own machine language, develop their own “emotion.” In effect, they will be “armed” to create their own code, which could be totally indecipherable to the original code and original intent.
Traditionally, the word “algorithm” has been used to develop rules-based programs that have attempted to achieve a linear, exponential or logarithmic response by mining massive amounts of data. There are obvious limitations to such binary code-based decision-making systems, in terms of both data handling and encroachment on that threshold where emotions, feelings and instinctive impulses can be binarized. The shift to being inspired by biological networks is significantly different. Artificial synaptic connections will release neuron-like signals that will have their own decision-making thresholds. For example (and we are not being mischievous here), if a customer hasn’t yet reached a critical degree of irritation, ploys of counter offers or alternatives may be used to push him/her further (which, incidentally, are quite “human” techniques that any car salesman could warm up to).
The original intent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) experimentation was to attempt to come closer to the functioning of the human brain in decision-making processes. A matter of “handling efficiently” large data, as it has now come to be referred to. Today, with increasing ability to process larger amounts of information, we are looking at adjusting the intelligence of the machine itself.
In other words, if we leapfrog forward somewhat – let’s say, as humans – to a point in time where humanity is on the verge of going criminally insane… and instead of applying biological or therapeutic antidotes to insanity, an artificially intelligent machine may try to adjust the insanity level by adjusting its own ethics and morals (using self-diagnosis), and create a state of “being” that could unleash ummm… a robot apocalypse! Ok! That maybe a bit far-fetched, right? Wrong!
Last month when Chinese scientists sliced a photon and sent its partner into space on a satellite, 1,400 km away, the two started changing spin direction instantaneously in relation to each other when one of them was tweaked on the ground, and for the first time teleportation was no longer a Star Trek script word in hippie physics. And did we talk about it much? Not really. We’ve now become gradually immune to impossible physics being made casually possible. Also, coincidentally, our attention span and landmark achievement retention capabilities are now indescribably fleeting, and our responses are non sequitur, so to speak. Laika, Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong are as resonant in our memory banks today as the explanation of gravity, momentum and buoyancy was a couple of centuries ago. We say, “When it happens, we shall see.” And when it does happen, we say, “Ho hum. So what!”
If there is to be an alliance of the unfettered and scientific with the conniving and domineering camp, then this alliance between artificial intelligence and the deep, dark world of military strategists would qualify as the most unholy of alliances. The imperative of regulating AI is undeniable. For my part, I will choose to delude myself that clearer heads will prevail and the sanctimonious new kids on the block won’t meddle in artificial ethics. I will therefore end on an optimistic note:
“Perhaps it was a passing moment of madness after all. There is no trace of it any more. My odd feelings of the other week seem to me quite ridiculous today: I can no longer enter into them.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
Of late I have taken a liking to Anthony Hopkins. The Sir. The man with the iridium first stare in every movie that lets you know he has full knowledge of you and your family’s skeletons from several decades back. He strips you bare with his first stare.
Having played Hitler,Nixon and a range of serial killers and social screw-ups, and Picasso, for that matter, the aura surrounding his presence in a frame shot is devilishly complete. This is the face of a cannibalistic serial killer. Fiendish. This is not about playing the counter-hero or bad guy. This is about the disturbance that he leaves behind. The unholy concatenation of a series of evil desires and the instinct for righteous revenge. I would say that I have stayed away from him for a long time. Instinctively. In real life, I would not meet him in an elevator. Not even be across from him in escalators moving in opposite directions. An un-adulting childish instinct. His presence on the screen had a moon and crypt quality. An X-raying blueness that singes the back of your skull.
And I realize now how silly I’ve been in attempting to delete and backspace every fear that lurks in me when watching his films. Because in general, it is that sense of self-preservation and safety that gnaws away at any adventurous desire to experiment, to savour life beyond that zone of comfort… undiluted, life, is it not? It is finally that sense of la-la-ness that overtakes and ossifies you down to the bone!
But now, in my own darkness, I find his eyes and composure comforting and even grandparental. There is a penetrating kindness that attracts. In another recent film (Fracture) where, opposite Ryan Gosling, his skills at conveying a commitment to righteous revenge – a driven justification for fairness, no matter what, and not just a pedestrian notion of retribution – are extraordinarily desirable. He loses out, but exits with superlative composure. And then there was the Zorro film with Banderas, where aged composure and cool triumphs over impetuous brattiness.
Hopkins has turned my hesitation about uncertainty and the unknown into a sense of calm about the rest of our lives. The concept of sunset has dawned. I am now a grandfather myself, and I understand that it would be most pleasurable to recite the words of a powerful unending poem as the sun sets on a beach where I have been left alone, and celluloid terrors and a sense of the unknown are no longer of consequence. I do affirm that Anthony Hopkins has mingled easily in the rare air that Oliver, Bergman or Pacino occupied. In evil, there is superlative composure and yet the frightening radiance of life experiences that go beyond a world of smileys and emoticons.
A eureka moment happens once in a while. But given our irreversible physical decline, we must opt not to run naked down the street, as the discoverer of buoyancy once did. In any case, the potential for embarrassing our watchful neighbours remains a deterrent.
A few weeks ago, as I walked down the immaculately paved blocks in one neighbourhood, the eureka moment happened. I stopped short and looked straight ahead. A run-naked-down-the-street moment had arrived and I had frozen to a halt, mesmerized by the uniformity of the rectangular concrete slabs and the refractory effect on my vision. I realized that my steps were controlled without my acquiescence. I was stepping in line to the equally spaced cement blocks under my feet. In a borough where houses are equally spaced and uniformity or congruence is promulgated by the city’s no-nonsense facade enforcers, I realized how the pavements, houses and the spaces in between have shaped our physical behaviour as well as our political and philosophical discourse, and vice versa. I am sure the rectilinear approach to town planning originates in the logic of linear assembly lines and in turn generates a craving for order and sequential behaviour. When I go to another, less endowed neighbourhood of my very liveable city, I find that the balconies are sometimes precariously inclined, the alleys are like war zones, the pavements are cracked, often missing large sections, quickly patched up with ungainly heaps of tar. I also know that in these neighbourhoods, most folks do not have dental coverage, do not always bow politely as you pass them on the sidewalk, and do not care to stand in a line at the dépanneur. They remind me of where I came from. They let me know that where there is uniformity, there is order and compliance and if per chance there is some break, some discord may happen. Where there is un-uniformity, the potential for discord lurks. A perverse type of extreme rationalization, the logic of the “supply curve meets the demand curve,” and the drive for absolute utilization and control necessitates that every space should be defined, made orderly and also manageable.
Like worms in the soil, we love to slide and wriggle down this wonderful rectilinear cement-way of uniformity. We like space, we like neatness, we like equal distance on each concrete slab and we are proud to have sidewalks that slope gently down at the corners and provide friction-inducing slats for the disabled to gently roll down in their electric wheel chairs, coffee mugs in hand. Water, gas, cable, telephone, fibreglass lines are flagged discretely on the ground with little spray-painted identifiers in regular intervals. We assign moral superiority to our existence here in this remarkably rectilinear sense of organization. We care for each other, or at least that is what we radiate with every breath we exhale. It is a civilizing, relaxing Zen state we have achieved. We like order as an aesthetic. As I walk down the rectangular blocks of uniformity, there is something in me that feels itchy. For some disorder, some divergence, disparity, some disconnection. There is none. This neighbourhood will not tolerate it! I am not looking for poor workmanship, cracked pavements, lack of quality assurance or sink holes and stress cracks. Those are another issue. I am looking for loss of rectilinearity. I cannot find any. I can see straight ahead, two blocks away. Through the trees that don’t have leaves at this time of the year. And I see unending straightness. The streets don’t curve. Block after block. As far as I can see. A master plan based on a certain consensus has occurred here!
There are advanced digital GPS-based theodolites that have measured angles, vertical and horizontal, and brought absolute order. Even on occasions when I travel to the suburbs of this city, the crescents are, as well, theodolite-controlled, curved but manicured. It seems even every blade of grass in the park in the middle of the crescent sways in the same direction, as if the energy of the wind were measured to tilt the blades of grass away in a quantified azimuthal direction. A carefully placed bench under a tree is painted every summer by dissatisfied-looking young students, hired by the borough. Such is the love of order and aesthetics in this society. Chaos is forbidden or painted over. Green. Weedery is impermissible.
I came forty-five years ago from a city where pavements were irregular or non-existent, not a single street was rectilinear, the spaces between houses were practically non-existent, the concept of heritage preservation was barely nascent, green spaces between houses were unknown, and sound insularity between neighbours was an absurd assault on common sense. We could see everyone, always on the streets or balconies; horns blared and people shouted across verandas to people across the street. Streets were curved, cracked, distorted, and in fact my favourite street name was Serpentine Lane. Being a tropical nation, windows were left open, wrought iron balconies had their doors open always and noise levels were acceptable – well above 120 decibels at any time of the night, never mind the day. Ambulance sirens meant nothing. The dead were on their way out. Why delay the inevitable?
In effect, we were comfortable with lack of distance, inadequate private space; we were used to a certain dis-empathy and lack of order and very much comfortable with chaos as standard. Indiscipline and lack of linearity fortified us. We jumped queues as standard operating procedure. We crowded around counters instead of waiting in line. The concept of “taking a number” was alien. The notion of individual rights and responsibilities was usurped or sneered at because of pride in community, collective and national priorities. After all, overcoming colonial occupation and looting, and the restoration of national wealth and access to a threadbare existence were significantly more important than sound levels in the city, heritage architecture and “waiting your turn.” I also eventually learned, by my sheer act of migration, that democracy as understood by advanced industrialized states was groomed by universalisms that did not have to comprehend the particularisms of neo-colonies and pre-industrial states. Issues of tribe, clan, caste, cultural behaviour and indigenous rituals had no meaning for the logistical layout of cities.
I learned further, in the past few decades, that the same industrialized societies had to advance to post- industrialized societies (by a predatory logic inherent to it) where the chase to advance the bottom line had predicated that technology be exploited to the hilt; basic and commodity skills were no longer necessary, and our societies had to satisfy themselves with temporary skills, changing skills, temporary lives and temporary cities.
Of course, things are changing, and the world is definitely becoming a flatter place when it comes to behavioural norms. In China, railway stations are an example of industrial orderliness through colour- coded LED screens. Everything is digitized. People, laughing and weChatting, move to their respective marked-up lanes on railway platforms, based on colour-coded signals on LED screens. When the train is 5 kilometres away, the lights switch from amber to green, advising the passengers to move to their designated line-up lanes. In China, trains are often hurtling through at 400 km/hour on magnetic levitation technology. So order and timeliness are on the cards! It is not regimentation, as some would opinionate, but digitized automation that channels democratic respect for the space and priority of the one next to you.
But therein lies the point of departure. What is the philosophy of democracy in pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial societies? Those who were born in a rectilinear, theodolite-controlled democracy have a somewhat aloof but superior sense of human rights and responsibilities. I am talking about the European experience of social development, of industrial and social revolutions. And that includes North America, where cities were developed (with theodolites!) in virgin territories, beyond the control of agricultural barons. As such, here we are insistent upon universalizing our notions as the common ethical and moral standard. There is only one standard for what constitutes rights. Because here, the other issues of social development like colonial displacement, feudal land control and sharecropping, easy access to public toilettes, warehousing and food distribution, clean air and water for our children, comfortable public transportation, education that does not blatantly discriminate based on tribe, caste and skin colour, and sewage and garbage-disposal systems that work mostly in a clockwork manner have all facilitated a sense of uniform calm and order. And thereby, other forms of eking out a living and surviving are no longer central themes of discord. Indigenous people have been shoved out of sight and those who meander around subways are herded away by making the space hostile to them, especially in winter. Gentrification converts poor neighbourhoods to suit the needs of people who no longer cook at home, and yet they need nice pavements to walk on and lounge in cafes that extend onto the pavement. The issue now is rectilinear pavements, distance, space and a non-jostling civility. So our sense of democratic debate is now heavily centred on opinions, fake and real news, rumour massaging, content verification, fact checking and control of emissions from wood fireplaces in city neighbourhoods that have their own competing mayoralties. In India, fake eggs are a bigger news item. Yes, they found fake plastic eggs in a carton of six. So, fake eggs versus fake news – that is the delta between linear and non-linear settlements.
I am satisfied, therefore, to have arrived at a eureka moment of realization about the roots of our democracy, but I will not run down the streets naked, because unlike in the time of Archimedes, there are neighbours and community watchdogs watching out for correctness in public behaviour. I am resigned to the notion that chaos, lack of privacy, green spaces and civil rights cannot be so bothersome in pre-industrial societies. There, rights are of a constitutional nature – meaning the constitution of the body. The biology of existence. The failure of the food chain and the artificial famines. Here, in the theodolite world, rights are of a constitutional nature – meaning the constitution that defines the principles of governance. And that includes amendments to the constitution that undermine those very rights, all too often. So, as we evolve, the notion of rectilinearity, order and livelihood necessitates that we get comfortable with temporary notions of existence.
In a quiet moment in a café in Montréal this past week, I sat down and asked myself why the concept of sustenance as a right has taken a back seat? What is the reason for our inability to connect the dots and therefore connect the issues? Is it acceptable to scatter and disperse our energies over a number of issues and not unite on root causes? I started scribbling down some notes. In a nearly purgative moment, I realized that I had managed to spew out nearly twenty pages of notes on the S-pen on my Android, without stopping. Here they are, then.
Why “sustenance” gets sidelined in these times
Our impetus to get to the root of a problem is often curbed by our enthusiasm and the immediacy of a victorious moment. Positive forces override the negative. We rejoice when we are vindicated on a single issue. We have won one battle. We wait unconsciously for the next one. We go from one issue to another.
Sometimes the negative forces triumph. Then we are engulfed in the dastardliness of an act, and mobilization against the offending forces becomes a matter of course, an immanent reflex. We congregate in solidarity. A demonstration locks down traffic on rue Ste-Catherine. A mosque witnesses a massacre of cruel proportions. Almost the entire population is moved, ashamed, disgusted, and expresses extraordinary support for the community. Two weeks after the carnage, once again a bill proposes a renewed discussion on national identity. What is the connection between National Identity and Global Capital, we may ask? Who is behind revamping these debates? And why?
A mosque witnesses a massacre of cruel proportions. Almost the entire population is moved, ashamed, disgusted, and expresses extraordinary support for the community. Two weeks after the carnage, once again a bill proposes a renewed discussion on national identity.
A nasty homophobic incident happens in the neighbourhood, and people stand by the victim, like a rock. Police misconduct, which seems to be increasing exponentially against indigenous communities, especially women, galvanizes us.
In Paris, a 22-year-old Black man gets assaulted by police with batons. His wounds show evidence of sexual assault causing anal tearing. The police finally say it is “unintentional rape.” Paris lights up as the disenfranchised riot again.
Standing Rock mobilizes us. Black Lives Matter brings us together in Cabot Square, Montréal. Then all falls quiet as the lines of defence held by indigenous protesters and their supporters are bulldozed and their camps are removed. We launch a campaign against Breitbart, the “alt-right” mouthpiece that has launched a crafty campaign to mobilize right-wing populism. Some of us succeed in informing advertisers that they are supporting racists and misogynists. The ads get pulled. These are big victories in our world of “issues.” But after the outrage comes a period of calm. A poignant lull. Until the next issue comes along. Issues that touch us and yet allow us to move on to the next issue, which could also be profoundly disturbing. We do not always find the connection between one issue and another. We cannot always trace things down to their root cause.
Address the root cause? Or the symptoms?
As an engineer, I am trained to look for a root cause, not just the symptom. If we wish to prevent a flaw or problem from recurring, we keep asking WHY it occurs – at least 7 to 10 times. When the Challenger exploded, the immediate wisdom was that an untested O-ring was the guilty party. It caused flammable gas to escape, which ignited on the vehicle’s re-entry. Was the specification for the temperature range of the O-ring clearly stated? Was the specifying engineer knowledgeable about the temperatures that could be attained during re-entry? Were the insulation tiles adequately secured to provide the insulation required? Also, was a specifying engineer fully aware of all the failure modes? And in that case, did the engineer inform his/her superiors? If so, did the superiors get overruled by senior management? Was there a rush to launch this vehicle on a particular symbolic date? Arriving at the root cause is often a long drawn-out process of asking WHY several times. Treating the symptoms rarely solves the problem. It delays resolution while offering what is always a temporary reprieve. This discussion on sustenance requires us to pursue a discussion on the larger scope of systemic change based on a vision of society, and not simply travel from one issue to another, however just.
Right to drinking water
Let’s put root cause diagnosis aside for now and examine the issue of what really constitutes sustenance. The thematic statement for this particular issue states the following: “Sustenance implies minimum nourishment. Physical and intellectual. Adding agency, encouragement, facility to subsist and survive.” Let us consider water as a fundamental requirement for sustenance.
According to an article on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website, “Two-thirds of all First Nation communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade. The numbers show that 400 out of 618 First Nations in the country had some kind of water problem between 2004 and 2014.”[i] The same article further notes, “Chronic government underfunding of water systems is to blame for the lack of progress, said Emma Lui of the Council of Canadians. She said a national assessment commissioned by the federal government found $470 million was needed per year over 10 years.” Is it a priority for the Government of Canada to spend 470 million per year for the next ten years? Is there a vision to ensure this particular aspect of sustenance? Possibly not! The government has other priorities, carefully cultivated for the needs of those classes whose interests are significantly more important to it than those of indigenous communities or the rest of the 99% of the population.
Perhaps the notion that indigenous people living on reservations should have the same constitutional right to clean drinking water as non-indigenous people has not really dawned on the city people! Can you imagine the Borough of LaSalle in Montréal not having clean water for two decades?
The issues are also complicated, many will explain. There is Native sovereignty. There are broken treaties. There is the Indian Act and all its amendments. There are broken communities. Alcoholism, suicides, misappropriation of funds – all the usual deflections that a settler state finds appropriate to lay the blame on. There are remote communities where contractors do not want to work to build water treatment plants. Difficult to haul materials there, they say. In the end, it is not a priority and a settler state will do anything to wish it away, until and unless all “Indians” become Canadians! Does anybody really want to solve the problem at the root? This is an issue that could perhaps be solved. But there is an institutional gridlock in place. It goes beyond the single issue of water rights. Perhaps the notion that indigenous people living on reservations should have the same constitutional right to clean drinking water as non-indigenous people has not really dawned on the city people! Can you imagine the Borough of LaSalle in Montréal not having clean water for two decades? Indigenous communities simply do not have political and economic clout. They are powerless. They are like a shadow of guilt that appears from time to time over the skies of Canada. Root cause is never reached. Sustenance is bypassed.
The Vietnam War as a turning point
Radicals and dissenters reached a period of success and credibility after the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam War. Civil rights, Black consciousness, social revolution, alternate lifestyles had assumed centre stage, and an intellectual overthrow of the family-centred, family-values oriented conservative mindset had occurred. A victory of some sort had been won. The US ruling class and whatever it represented to the world was essentially defeated in Vietnam, physically and morally. A US president had been impeached. Over 60,000 GIs had come back in body bags. (Of course, the fact that 1.5 million Vietnamese and Indo-Chinese people had perished was not of consequence to most Americans, really.) Many conscientious objectors had crossed the border into Canada, who by now have thousands of grandchildren growing up as Canadians. A state of victory had been proclaimed.
The “paper tiger” was shown up for what it was! Imperial might was not just military. It was also the pinnacle of a complex system involving industry, employment, livelihood, financial definitions, finance export, banking systems and cultural hegemony. All this had been exposed for what it was and still is. The proclamation of victory by the majority of the masses was actually a dulling moment. A pivotal point of numbness had been achieved. Exuberance was followed by complaisance. The idea of analyzing and understanding the comprehensiveness of institutional and systemic controls was put on the back burner. Complaisance was kind of inevitable after this “victory.” The contradiction between labour and capital, between owners and owned, between the haves and have-nots – or to put it very simply, the root cause of inequality, poverty, loss of buying and saving power – was set aside.
The universities that gave birth to dissent were also the ones where academics now had relatively new freedoms (this is much after all the post-HUAC,[ii] post-McCarthy period). Courses and curriculum were being incubated that essentially gave birth to cultural politics. Academics had started to redefine the entire Left perspective from a variety of ways – away from the fundamental contradiction between labour and capital. Social groups decided to identify themselves as class conscious groupings, and the meaning of class was being redefined or appropriated.
Issues and identities
Actually, at the end of the Vietnam War and perhaps even earlier, the politics of cultural identity became an easy outlet, as long as it identified white patriarchy as the main enemy. So every confabulated issue that could rally a few dozen people became a cause that could mobilize against the symbolic image of the misogynist beer guzzler who sat at the end of the day in front of a TV and spewed out ignorance about the rest of the world. In effect, Carrol O’Connor’s role as Archie Bunker in All in the Family became the classic target to diss the white working-class family and get a great laugh out of it. Homophobia, environmental waste and pollution, racism and white privilege, and biblical white supremacy, anti-evolutionary groups became the easy target and basis for education and organizing. And you could always add on First Nations rights, settler colonization, eco-feminism, anti-science, the drug and health insurance lobby and also the chemical, GMO, military-industrial complex, and eventually even human rights as a worldwide concern, to teach about and mobilize around. Amnesty International, a dour, boring, geopolitically-motivated NGO, gained left-wing celebrity status. Sexual preference and gender orientation became strong lines of segregation within the movement for social change.
In an unintended sort of way, academia gave birth to the politics of identity – and issues that had to do with economic exploitation, colonization, deprivation, inequality and poverty were consequently either sidelined or taught by a dwindling group of “orthodox Marxists,” for the most part.
This is not the place to debate these issues in detail, but it is clear that people came together more around issues and went back to their separate enclosures afterwards, rather than coming together to challenge the system that spawned the issues. A universal enemy had been consciously or incoherently targeted. No wonder the white working class and middle class had a brooding feeling that when all was all said and done, they were being put against the wall.
On the one hand, there were orthodox theorists who stuck to their guns (Kantian morality or Hegelian idealism) and insisted that the classical transitions in European social development were universally applicable. That feudalism was followed by capitalism. That the bourgeoisie was universally liberalist and was destined to outwit the barons and that this was true of the whole world. That workers were paramount and peasants and lumpen-proletarians had to be tutored and led. On the other hand, there were the post-colonial theorists who asserted that subaltern consciousness could not be absorbed into the Eurocentric framework. That cultural identities, super-structural consciousness of folklore, rituals, methods of resistance and ways of organizing were not necessarily universal. That the West could not impose its exalted philosophies on the East. In an unintended sort of way, academia gave birth to the politics of identity – and issues that had to do with economic exploitation, colonization, deprivation, inequality and poverty were consequently either sidelined or taught by a dwindling group of “orthodox Marxists,” for the most part.
The real corporate conglomerates, meanwhile, sat around, smiled and even donated here and there to causes like the inner-city housing blight, anti-KKK-church-bombing-related charities, AIDS foundations, women’s self-help causes and refugee relief. Not that these issues were not important. They were significantly necessary, but they were all done at the expense of looking away from something else. Liberalism had arrived and was on fire! Neo-liberalism was about to arrive!
The real plight of labour (those who create value in the economy) as the fundamental element in creating tangible products during an eight-hour work shift that would then be costed and priced and put into competition in the “market place,” became a side issue. Except for traditional Marxists, nobody was interested in how the “worker” was a transferable commodity between capital and the worker’s labour. If he or she worked eight hours a day, and the owner of the factory chose to keep a gross profit margin of let’s say 25%, then two hours of the shift went straight into the “contribution.” To put it another way, this mode of production could have allowed the worker to go home at the end of six hours and be paid adequate wages for sustenance, if the owner took home no profits! Six hours was enough for his/her sustenance! Sustenance was directly counterposed to profitability. More profits, less sustenance.
The issue of conflict between those who produce and those who own the means of production was not vigorously discussed. The issue itself of sustenance for the individual was forgotten.
Of course, this kind of logic is untenable, is it not? We are bombarded with questions: “Who manages the business? Who organizes the cash flow, the banking, the floor management? Who takes on the risks and thinks of innovation?” The issue of conflict between those who produce and those who own the means of production was not vigorously discussed. The issue itself of sustenance for the individual was forgotten. The issue of the transferability of labour and capital in the societies we live in was made passé. In fact a recent OECD document[iii] no longer talks about human labour and capital. It refers to “human capital.” The human input has become so marginal in the new economy that it is agglomerated. This article goes on to suggest that with the evolution of technology, a speeded up, knowledge-based “human” can actually substitute the “labour” aspect and transform itself into “human capital.”
As the Reagan-Thatcher behemoth rolled in (somewhat surreptitiously) and further disenfranchised the working poor, the stage was set for identity and cultural politics to be the main staple of humanities and social science education in the universities. Actually the “alt.righters” are quite correct in stating this. Academia had spawned a libertarian soapbox of sorts, where anything but the real issue was good for a 3-credit march to a baccalaureate. The essence of “free trade” and globalization, meanwhile, was being quietly seeded in the soil outside. The Left was oblivious that within their own fold, fissiparous trends had set roots. The lowering of material and labour costs, de-regulation, making taxes look like anti-people legislation, the notion that tariffs needed to be removed and the concept of “trickle-down” wealth was carefully nurtured. People bought into it because a cathartic social change in the West was inconceivable. Gradual change, peaceful change, social democratic change was the unwritten mantra. Meanwhile, in the wake of atrocious experiments in lab-grade socialism as with the Khmer Rouge, the totally chaotic attempt at a “cultural revolution” in China, and lastly, the collapse of the Soviet Union (which had by then completely degenerated into a ruthless, bureaucratic state capitalist entity), left-wing social revolutionaries were disoriented and marginalized. They were ready to tag along anywhere. And tag along they did, with identity and cultural politics. The fundamental contradiction between labour and capital was put aside.
The unions and students, you ask?
For those of you who may remember, during the May ’68 strikes that paralyzed France, workers with spanners in their hands came to the barricades in large numbers. The workers of Renault and other auto manufacturers, along with steel workers and their unions came with large banners and stood with the students. It is symbolic that they had their spanners in their hands, because the technology then necessitated that a spanner or a bolt-tensioner was an essential tool in the hands of the worker. So, when they struck work, as in a “tool down strike,” they brought things to a halt. In today’s technology, a worker most often does not need a spanner. A robot comes and does the torqueing after the worker has pressed a button or placed parts in a carriage. The knowledge of the worker is embedded in software or firmware. Not necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion. It facilitates consistent quality. But from the larger issue point of view, the worker is much more marginalized.
Later on, when “free trade” morphed into “globalization,” the students who had come through a generation of identity and cultural politics in universities began to understand that something was fundamentally wrong. Because factories were closed down, entire city blocks were in a state of abandon, parents no longer had sustainable home economies, tuition fees had skyrocketed and education itself was being made into a class-based privilege rather than a right, household savings had dwindled, and the very real possibility of not going to college was looming – the resistance against free trade and globalization started. In cities across Europe, Turkey, Japan, Chile, Brazil, Seattle and Quebec City, riots against the G7 broke out.
Yes, there were unions in some of the marches, but they did not approach the barricades. Actually, there was very little co-ordination or interest on the part of the unions. Their politics were invariably centred on economistic struggles. Steelworkers’ unions historically were rarely interested in equal opportunity for women, let alone abortion rights. Students and young people did not mobilize around factory gates as they had before when workers were picketing. (In the ’70s and ’80s, there was widespread community support for garment workers’ strikes in England and taxi workers’ mobilization in NY, and a new labour militancy was built. These were industries where exiles and migrants suffered enormous indignity, and the ruthless working conditions and built-in racism of the employers spurred the community to rally around the workers.)
In many respects, the defeat of the US in Vietnam resulted in a lackadaisical Left, forgetting about the political vision of a sustainable society.
So, in this new context of globalization, students and youth had very little preparation for understanding the fundamental contradictions in society. Instead they were quite well-versed on the environment, cultural rights, group consciousness and affiliation on gender issues, sexual preference, solidarity with migrant labour, anti-racist coalitions, anti-war mobilizations, and forms of anti-capitalism that were far removed from the factory gates and more interested in the shatter-potential of attractive glass facades of head offices. Globalization, the Davos cabal, the banking mafia and the origins of the IMF-engineered meltdown led to calls for grassroots democracy and “Arab Springs,” which in turn inspired the Occupy Movement. Once again, workers’ unions were not really present. The economy had also evolved from a manufacturing-driven economy to a service/leisure/knowledge-driven economy. The most intense presence, if any, came from health workers’ unions and other service-oriented industries like hotel, transportation and postal workers. The traditional unions lent their names but had little presence. Basically they became politically listless.
Sustenance is a demand for just payback for the value created at the point of work, and the right to survival and leisure.
So, the pacifists and anti-war activists went back to their tombs of despair – the universities – and taught an eclectic mix of subjects, vaguely pointing to the evil system we all inhabited. Everyone was fed up with foreign wars, and the embryonic Right was born out of the insults and defeat in Vietnam. In many respects, the defeat of the US in Vietnam resulted in a lackadaisical Left, forgetting about the political vision of a sustainable society. Often obscurantist and sometimes valuable affiliations and identities became a sandbox for academic meanderings.
Sustenance is a demand for just payback for the value created at the point of work, and the right to survival and leisure. Leisure is a right. Personal liberation is a right. Freedom! Freedom for an individual of discrete physical and intellectual contours and dimensions in a co-operative society is a right. Free association is a right. Sustenance is not debatable.
[ii] House Un-American Activities Committee – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_Un-American_Activities_Committee
[iii] See the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development website: http://www.oecd.org/site/progresskorea/44109779.pdf