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An Oldie-But-Not-Too-Baddie Sees the Light

I just posted an old piece on love and identity and renewal and birds-crashing-into-windows.  I’d nearly forgotten about this one, written in the long-ago days Before JamesHowden.com — if you can even imagine such a sketchy existence. It’s in the On Second Thought section. Also, if you’ve been snoozing, the so free and easy to subscribe it’s almost sinful button is once again working. (It’s just over there on the right.)

Where do I start? you may be wondering. One way is to look at Eighteen Great Posts from 2013. You can see the list here, with delectable links if you want to go read them (again).

JH.com is now followable on Twitter @JamesHowdenIII. Thanks for looking in. If you’re new here, read on to find out more of what JH.com is all about

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Better Read Than Never: COURTENAY’s The Power of One

The Real Nelson Mandela, being sworn in. (Not Morgan Freeman.)

Sometime during the weeks following Nelson Mandela’s death, I started thinking of The Power of One, a novel that had meant a lot to me in the early ‘90s. (In a fit of bad poetry, I once wrote, “The loneliness birds are croaking…” and feared and heard them often that decade. I still do, sometimes, though I now remember that those birds were inspired, if not stolen, from the novel’s narrator.) Among the many articles and tributes that I read to Madiba, there were references to his enjoyment of boxing as a young man, and the things that he had learned from it. Right! And The Power of One is set in South Africa, centred on the boxing obsession and exploits of a white boy, and wait, wasn’t there a black man in prison who inspired his fists and his mind? I went looking, and found a free on-line torrent (okay, my wife did), but I didn’t really get into this second reading until I was holding a paperback copy. I could say it was an unconscious desire to respect author’s rights, but it was mainly a bibliophile’s bias. I like the feel of 500 pages between my fingers.

The Power of One was a first novel by Bryce Courtenay, an Australian advertising executive who wrote the book as a mid-life challenge¹, setting his adventurous and spiritual and polemical – and, I wasn’t surprised to discover, highly autobiographical – story in his native South Africa. This rambling tale, which he’d planned as a “practice novel”, sold millions. I liked it.

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April Foolishness

Fool’s Errand No. One: I check my site statistics as if they were, like, I don’t know, like an obsession or something. I have accepted (provisionally) that I do want my work to be read, however, so my growing readership is interesting and possibly even significant, at least to me. So: my weekly page views are regularly hitting a previously too-ambitious target, and March was nearly 40% higher than my previous best month. Yay! Thanks for reading and recommending, folks. Subscription is an option. I’d like to hit a hundred.

(April is already muttering, with surly menace: Yeah, but what’ve you done lately? You better keep cranking, because if my numbers take a dump, then March don’t mean nothin. I think April is like the worst kind of sports fan. Or father.)

F.E. No. 2: I predicted exactly zero of the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four. After the tournament Madness had been reduced to 16 teams, I tried again. I still only got one of the four teams right. Mind you, I was picking with a maple-syrup flavoured hockey puck for a brain, and maybe now that there are no Canadian players left in the Dance, I’ll be more rational, but I doubt it. I’ll be voting the ABK ticket: Anybody But Kentucky. Even if I lose, I win (sort of): my worst fears about the corruption of college hoops will be confirmed, and the sporting apocalypse will be one step closer. Yay!

And in other April Foolishness: The Fourth turns 14 in a few days, and has been pumped about gags he could pull on his stodgy, sticks-in-the-mud parental units.

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Better Read Than Never: Livingston’s Gecko Tails

I’m still thinking about Cambodia. When there, when I wasn’t reading faces, or reading between the lines of the socio-economic polka of carefree tourists and often profoundly poor locals, or skimming for the wisdom in ancient piles of stone such as Angkor Wat, I read Carol Livingston’s 1997 memoir of Cambodia. Gecko Tails sounds like a children’s book; at first I thought it must be Livingston making punning reference to the stories she heard in a Phnom Penh ex-pat bar, the Gecko. But this benign little lizard, climbing walls wherever one travels in southeast Asia, has the ability to grow a new tail after sacrificing the old one to predators. This must be symbolic of Livingston’s hope for the country. (It’s still a weak title.) The book recounts her earlier tours of love and duty, and it’s pretty average¹, though the subject is strikingly unaverage: the latter days of the bitter Cambodian civil war. It’s nearly 20 years old now, but I still found it useful in fleshing out my dim and youthful impressions of killing fields and other by-products of the bloody Vietnam War. As an introduction to Cambodia that goes beyond beaches, cheap travel and temple tourism, it works well.      

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Tall Poppies

Bernard-Henri Levy is celebrated, so I understand, in his native France as a “public intellectual”, as if this was a good thing. It seems their culture tends toward approval of such a beast, which is likely one of the reasons many Americans are suspicious or

“Don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful. And tall. And I see the sunrise before you do.”

dismissive of the French, even before they opposed G.W. Bush’s designs on Iraq. (Remember that? “Freedom fries” were being served at burger joints, because nothing French was palatable to a vociferous portion of American society.) Canadians are also leery of the so-called ivory tower; many think that intellectuals – “smarty pantses” – live nowhere else but white and high and mighty impractical.

Our John Ralston Saul is, therefore, a curious case. He’s not short of praise from various corners of the world: The Unconscious Civilization won Canada’s Governor General’s Award (prior, it must be noted, to his wife Adrienne Clarkson’s mandate), among many honours for his non-fiction and his novels; he’s been the President of International PEN (writers in global advocacy  of reading, writing, and freedom of expression) since 2009; he’s a Chevalier of the French Academy of Arts and Letters and has received honorary doctorates around the world; he’s been acclaimed among the “visionaries” of the world by Utne Reader, and a “prophet” by Time magazine. Now, he’ll never make the cover of People, but he’s a Certifiably Celebrated Dude in some pretty lofty circles. But a Canadian? A public intellectual? Surely that sort of thing should be done only in private!  

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Better Read Than Never: SAUL’s “The Unconscious Civilization” Part SIX

I’ve been studying and writing about this book off and on for months, and today I’ve finished. My first look at The Unconscious Civilization (and its author, John Ralston Saul) was here, and the summaries of the first four chapters are also linkable (and brief):

I The Great Leap Backwards

II From Propaganda to Language

A practical humanist.

III From Corporatism to Democracy

IV From Managers and Speculators to Growth”  

The final instalment of the 1995 Massey Lectures series by the notable Canadian writer/activist John Ralston Saul was titled “From Ideology to Equilibrium”. All were published in book form later that same year, and it’s a measure of the enduring value and bold vision of the book that a tenth-anniversary reissue came; I wouldn’t be surprised to see another edition come out next year for the 20th. (His 2004 The Collapse of Globalism came out again in ’09, with some extra commentary in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis that he had predicted.) In this lecture/chapter, Saul advances and finally summarizes his argument; these thoughts also point towards his later book, On Equilibrium. He doesn’t believe in air-tight utopian dreams, but in the same way that Socrates advocated a lively but humble journey “towards knowledge without the expectation of finding [absolute] truth”, Saul describes his philosophy on genuine societal progress this way: “Practical humanism is the voyage towards equilibrium without the expectation of actually arriving there.”

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Temples of Ancient Stone. One of Pure Imagination.

Once or twice a year in my childhood, our tiny Baptist Church’s congregation would join the Presbyterians up the street. They had “Reverend Mac”, a wryly smiling minister who acted Noel Coward and Charles Dickens on the side, made jokes during sermons, and never complained about our footballs and baseballs bouncing on to his front lawn. We had a tightly-wound young fundamentalist who’d have been shocked to know of my Mum’s bridge club, cards being the devil’s playthings. Coming from our plain, cramped sanctuary, the

Awesome as a kid, and still a fine small-town centre.

Presbyterians looked rich and their church seemed a soaring, grand and holy place. It had the highest bell tower in our little town, and in early adolescence I took to sneaky climbs inside the steeple that led to a view of houses, river, ball diamonds, trees, and the farmland beyond them. I’ve found holiness in forests and fields, in looking out over water, in song and in word, even sometimes in the steady rhythm of running or flinging a ball toward its home. I’ve loved, too, architectural prayers: shrines, cathedrals, temples, any place built to honour and inspire loftiness of mind, an enlarging of spirit. (Sometimes, even a gymnasium will do.)

In China, such places have been hard to come by. Before we leave, I hope we’ll get to one of the sacred mountains, but even those sound discouraging, given the masses of people that visit with little that I recognize as reverence; small-town Canuck that I am, I still equate spirituality with solitude, quiet, elevated language and, where possible, green-ness and sky. However, our teaching of English in Dalian does qualify us for more than visas, salaries, and our small service to the torrential societal change in our temporary Chinese home. As we beef up our world citizenship credentials, we also have the luxury of south Asian travel that we couldn’t have managed from Canada.

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Lost in Cambodia

I’m back! I’ll be writing about my Vipassana meditation experience, which took me away from reading and writing and phones and friends and music and talking for ten days, but I’m still processing. That was in Thailand. We now continue our Chinese Spring Festival migrations just to the east, in another of the countries that our nearly five-year residence in the Middle Kingdom has made affordable and reachable. I got lost, twice in twelve hours. Story of my life, but a pretty fortunate tale and an extravagantly lucky existence it’s been, and remains. And how are all of you doing today?

So much has been lost in this country, which is the embattled remainder of a once-mighty medieval Khmer empire. I came here knowing little of that, other than something of the dreadfully crazed policies of the Khmer Rouge political movement, its maniacally destructive leader Pol Pot, and the fierce heat of words like “killing fields”: millions of dead in a country with less than half the population of Canada. We came for the more

An astounding pile of rock. How’d they do it? Stay tuned to this radio station for some of the details!

substantial fruit of an earlier monomania: the astounding Angkor Wat temple complex, the most outstandingly ambitious of the hundreds of tributes to gods and kings and god-kings in the area near the city of Siem Reap. We got lost in merely inconvenient, petty or even amusing ways. Again and still, the moral of the story is right up front: people of my time and place are such privileged people. We can tell stories, like these, where the worst peril is blisters, unmerited indignation, or the story falling flat in my telling. Danger! So, let’s see:

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Better Read Than Never: Saul’s Unconscious Civilization 5

I’ve been studying, considering and writing about this book off and on for months. My first look at The Unconscious Civilization (and its author, John Ralston Saul) was here, and the previous installment was summarized – in 500 of the best available words – here.

The middle lecture of the 1995 series of five Massey speeches was titled “From Corporatism to Democracy”, and today I’m concerned with the fourth of these lectures, titled “From Managers and Speculators to Growth”. All were published in book form later that same year, but I’ve been repeatedly struck, in this re-reading, by how fresh and even daring some of his insights still are. Partly this comes from Saul’s determined practice of the “art of the long view”, as it has been called, founding his arguments about contemporary life on long looks back at history, philosophy, even literature. He is no hermit, though, and is very plugged in to the most essential debates on social policy, city design, the place of the arts; what he is not plugged into, I suspect, is a computer. He wrote this book in a left-handed scrawl on a legal pad. However, he does have a Twitter presence, so he’s no Luddite. (And as this chapter makes clear in one historical reference, none of us are, as John Ludd and his followers were not the quaint, so-retro-they’re-almost-cute, dopey but harmless technophobic non-adaptors that our modern usage of the term implies.)

John Ralston Saul, when he employs the word “manager”, or the term “managerial elites”, is not being complimentary. He compares such people to power-seeking but ultimately irresponsible ‘courtiers’ that would gather around kings or any locus of authority. He blames much of our social and economic malaise on the prominence of people our society has trained to confirm and conform to and perpetuate corporatist “self-interest”; he contrasts this with the “disinterest”, the detachment that true and enlightened citizenship requires in seeing past our own good, and the benefits accruing to our particular group, to imagine and organize the common good.

As I’ve previously done, here are 500 words that try to capture Saul’s argument in this second-to-last chapter of The Unconscious Civilization:

  • The Industrial Revolution brought prosperity only to the few, producing “a full century of unimpeded social decline and disorder”, the full Dickensian nightmare.
  • Widespread prosperity eventually came from the work of “citizens [who] publicly opposed the conditions created by the Industrial Revolution”; social balance came via the practice of democracy.
  • McCall’s Magazine in 1929 celebrated the boom economy just as the stock market crashed. We still haven’t learned the lesson: “we keep on hoping that we will rediscover prosperity through…market forces”, merely an absorbing game for the elites.
  • “Our belief in salvation through the market is very much in the utopian tradition.” Corporatism is a religion, and the managerial class its priesthood. Forget conspiracy theories; technocrats aren’t super-conscious visionaries, they just benefit from the existing structure.
  • They fear all the most effective qualities of capitalism itself (risk, innovation). “No matter how badly the MBAs are doing, they just go on hiring clones of themselves.” They preach capitalist ideology, but only simulate it through unproductive preoccupations like mergers and acquisitions. Their incomes skyrocket, the economy founders, the middle class erodes.
  • They profit by flipping between nationalization and privatization; “an unnecessary move in either direction merely makes money for the political friends of the party in power”. Privatization of government functions is foolish, as business is better suited to fuelling real growth.
  • We have “lost all sense of Adam Smith’s concept of ‘useful labour’”, and lost historical and philosophical perspective in favour of econometric game-playing. Do the “four pillars” of economic life help or hinder our progress?
  • Pillar One: the marketplace. Not only does it “not balance or encourage democracy”, it “cannot give leadership even on straight economic issues”. Consider fish stocks, depleted because it was in nobody’s self-interest to maintain them, or industrial pollution, whose “inclusive costs” are not calculated in a market-driven, profit-based economy.
  • Pillar Two: technology. We learn to worship it because corporations profit from it, yet it often interferes with or trivializes the need it supposedly serves. Windows 95, for example, provides impetus “not to thought but to minor technical manipulations”. The computer craze in education results in classrooms “full of students behind machines where they can be educated in isolation by something less intelligent than a human”. Modern machines follow centuries of invention that were supposed to “reduce work hours rather than to reduce workers”, proving their service of corporate, not social, interests.
  • Pillar Three: globalization. The “invisible hand” mentioned by Adam Smith referred to comprehensible local markets, not unregulated global ones. Trade increases, general prosperity doesn’t. Corporate taxes decrease because jurisdictions fear they’ll flee to tax-friendlier regions, where corporatism reigns in “a sort of limbo, devoted solely to production…[but] devoid of the characteristics of human society” (sweatshops) Extra profits go to managerial game-playing, not to productive innovation. Cynical neo-conservatives ignore “the repeated admonition of their idol, Adam Smith, that high wages are essential to growth and prosperity”.
  • The Luddite movement warned against “impossible work conditions, uncontrolled preference for technology over humans, and a market-led society”. Two centuries of “impossible social division” followed, provoking the great disruptions of recent history. Years of relative general prosperity since WW2 are again threatened in the name of globalization. Only democracy can truly lead, using the advancements that enabled globalization to regulate it.
  • Pillar Four: money markets. A “tragicomedy”. Minimal taxation of currency trading would easily finance public institutions, if this money was real. “Money markets unrelated to financing real activity are pure inflation…, false growth [promoting] a feeding frenzy of delusion”. We have skewed views of assets and liabilities, in which health and education are technically financial liabilities, while “the illusion of growth through the sale of golf balls remains firmly in place”. We must reconceive growth and our societal priorities as more than consumerism, and “only a persistent public commitment by the citizenry can bring that about”.   

When I started this chapter, I thought this might be the easiest summary – that is to say, the least interesting of the lectures, given my general inattention to the nuts and bolts of economics. Instead, my first draft ran towards 1500 words, axing so many good ideas was painful, and this time I lied to you: in fact, this précis runs at 650 words, and I hadn’t the heart to cut further. I’m a little worried, because the last lecture, “From Ideology Towards Equilibrium”, might be even better.

Better Read Than Never: Saul’s Unconscious Civilization 4

My first look at this book (and its author, John Ralston Saul) was here, and the first and second chapters were summarized – in 500 words or fewer – here and here. Wow. I’ve been two months getting to this chapter since the last one. Sorry.

The middle lecture of the 1995 series of five Massey speeches was titled “From Corporatism to Democracy”. If you have read some John Ralston Saul, or even my previous summaries, you won’t be surprised at his opposing of these two currents of civilization. Indeed, much of The Unconscious Civilization dwells on the insistent, apparently inextinguishable rise of corporatism – the elite groupings that oversee the manipulation of capital –  and its constant undermining of the democratic process and principles which Western nations allegedly hold dear. (I resisted using the word “zombie” in that last sentence. Decorum, and so on.) However, corporatist “self-interest” erodes the “disinterest” that broad expressions of conscious citizenship produce, which are aimed toward the general good. Saul defines such thoughtful, big-picture citizenship as the expression and the consequence of humane individualism, which he contrasts with bands

Milton Friedman, RIP. In 1995, Saul ridiculed his equation of democracy with capitalism, among other things. He is gone now, but his economic disciples remain strong.

of minority elites pursuing their corporate agendas.

As was done for the previous two lectures/chapters, here are 500 words that try to capture Saul’s argument:

  • Individualism is not isolationism; we live in society, and “the most powerful force possessed by the individual citizen is her own government(s)”. This source of social legitimacy encourages citizenship; “gods, kings or groups” diminish it.
  • Advocating reduced government for the sake of personal “freedom” puts “artificial limits on their only force”; the power vacuum will be filled by corporate interests and their bureaucracies.
  • Hume’s assertion that people are “governed by interest” is misused by advocates of market forces to “suggest that the public good is a fiction”. Hume urged civic duty as a replacement for the superstitious rule of the Church, not to substitute the marketplace as a new deity.
  • Democracy is independent from economic theories, and citizens (and governments) must not become corporate subjects.
  • In the rise of humanism, “democracy and individualism have advanced in spite of and often against specific economic interest”, while anti-democratic corporatism is always aligned with economic power. Market theorists and demagogues like Mussolini share an “inability to see the human as anything more than interest-driven…[or] to imagine an actively organized pool of disinterest called the public good”.

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