Reboot 7.5: Late Night Thoughts on Mahvash Sabet

I had a few things to say, six months ago, on reading the story of a little-known Iranian woman named Mahvash Sabet. She was the focus, on May 14, for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign that tried to train a spotlight on her imprisonment, and those of six of her fellow Iranian Baha’is. Iran ought to be ashamed of itself.

The world was briefly more aware of the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for seven outrageous years, but as of right this minute it’s now seven and a HALF years. There is no sign of their imminent release from an incarceration that would be ridiculous if it weren’t such a serious injustice, such an outright loss to Iranian society. So if you missed it, here I was, trying to get to know Mahvash a little better.

Ms. Sabet was the first among the seven Baha’i leaders to be arrested, in March of 2008. These seven had taken on an ad hoc role of guiding and encouraging the oppressed Baha’i community of Iran, since its local and national institutions had been banned in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Over a year after her arrest, Ms. Sabet was charged with “espionage” and “spreading propaganda against the [government]” in a kangaroo court proceeding, more of a political harangue than anything we’d recognize as judicial. There she is, and here am I, wondering about her life as I read a brief biography.

Greyer, but what a kind, calm face.

Greyer, but what a kind, calm face.

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Salman Rushdie (on whether we circle the drain)

In Canada, we have (steadily more meagre and occasionally even contemptuous) government-funded radio. Alarmists – unlike the always-judicious, ever-moderate me – might call the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation an endangered species. Last Chance to Hear! Broadcasters, Artists and Thinkers in Their Natural Habitat! It’s a pretty pale safari, but I’m on it. The CBC’s a national treasure.

Yesterday I listened to Q, Radio One’s flagship weekday arts ‘n’ culture show. It’s hosted by a grandson of Rwanda, a Canadian-as-socially-conscious-rap MC known as Shad. (By night, he’s a bouncy, smiling hip-hop groove-ster with a real band. By day, he talks to Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood and Darryl McDaniels, the DMC in rap/rockstar band Run DMC. In between, he’s Shadrach Kabango.) Actually, I was re-listening to an extended podcast recording of a conversation I’d heard part of earlier in the week. (I think I was sweeping. Or washing dishes?)

They were talking dystopias, especially regarding Rushdie’s new novel Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights. It’s full of malevolent genies, time travel, a corruption-exposing baby and a whole lot of thinly-disguised Now. It’s also apparently very funny, as Rushdie is no permanent pessimist and wanted to explore the “strangenesses” of our time with some inventive and comic strangeness of his own. He wasn’t trying to outgrim Margaret Atwood, in other words. (Though it must be said that her MaddAddam trilogy is nastily, wryly funny if you can suspend despairing recognition, at least for a moment.)

*Certainly* no pessimist! (This is not his daughter.) Padma Lakshmi was Mr. Rushdie's 4th wife.

*Certainly* no pessimist! (This is not his daughter.) Padma Lakshmi was Mr. Rushdie’s 4th wife.

This was only the first (and then second) time I’d heard Rushdie interviewed, surprisingly, and I found him an engaging and generous interviewee.

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2014: A Howdy-Do Year in Review

Last January, I didn’t get my 2013 lookback, The Great Eighteen, up until the 20th, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to call this prompt. Efficient. Timely — at least for me! Reflection on accomplishments never comes at a bad time. (Does it? Of course, you ninny! Okay, but — Which doesn’t mean it’s always foolish to look backwards, either. Alright then, so maybe — Just get to it!)

I posted to 93 times last year, which is as productive as I’ve ever been, and that with December nearly ringing up a doughnut. (That’s jock-talk for nada. Zero. Hole in the JZone layer. Nuttin’, honey. I missed that bizarro perfection by one lonely post, so the rest of the year must’ve been excellent.) Starting with my self-conscious blurts in the middle of 2005, now has an archive of 637 posts. That seems like quite a few.

So, I consulted a panel of experts. What were the most meaningful, artistically satisfying and world-changing posts of 2014 on No. I didn’t. I trawled through 2014 and asked myself, “Okay, self, what do you still like and think others might, too?” Oh, I did take my readers into account, based on what got read most, or what found life elsewhere on the ‘Net, but mainly this is me Me ME. So here is a quick skate through some of the things I wrote here last year. It gives a reasonable portrait of what gave my head a shake in 2014. It’s a quick read, and you can click on anything that appeals. Here, then, are the

Fabulous Fifteen!

1. Sequel: The (Not Quite) Christmas (Late) Show* Must Go On (Jan. 2)                 (with Chinese Characteristics)

For the last three years in China, my wife and I taught in the School of International Business, a small college within our university in Dalian. Every December, there was a spangly student SHOW. Here, I reviewed this incredible, excessive, odd, passionate, obligatory celebration of something-or-other. Warning: this is only the second half of the extravaganza, and you may not be able to resist dipping back into December 2013 for the full jaw-dropping effect. It was amazing. (And only occasionally depressing.)

2. Lost in Cambodia  (February 5)

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Some Poor Sap in a Big-Box Store (on mis-education & fear)

So there I was, looking for a little brainless recreation, a (slightly) guilty pleasure that doesn’t expand the horizons of my waistline. It was the latest edition of Sports Illustrated, which is about sports (and has lots of photos). I thought I’d be reading about football and basketball, and I was, but I wasn’t far into a profile on an NCAA hoopster I’d never heard of before I got slapped in the face with a frozen sociocultural mackerel.

Honest, I wasn’t planning on extracting any Higher Meaning from this piece. Luke Winn tells the story of Alan Williams, a master of one of the less glamourous aspects of basketball, rebounding. Snaring missed shots is deeply important to successful teams (and even more to unsuccessful ones, like the one I’m trying to coach these days), not to mention under-valued. I thought maybe I’d try to convince a few of my players to read his story and learn from his approach, with no great expectations or hopes even on that lukewarm front.

But then this chunk of backstory happened: Williams, as a nine-year-old, offers himself as a translator for a Hispanic man in a Toys “R” Us. (Deep prejudices leapt forward from the shadows: I used to call the place Toys “R” Satan when my kids were young, because it was a hellish place to take little boys. I swore I’d never enter one again, and so far I’m good, something like 23 straight years.) Alan Williams is black, and his parents are prominent in the legal and law enforcement communities of Phoenix, Arizona.

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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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J.R. Saul (on Adam Smith, Rolling in his Grave)

I’m no historian, and my knowledge of economics is even thinner, but I never liked Adam Smith. This was due mainly to my ignorance, as well as the company he keeps. Right-wingers and trickle-down theorists invoke him as if he was a bearded Old Testament patriarch, and as a younger man I assumed that their often-heartless, always plutocrat*-friendly policies made St. Adam someone to reflexively dislike and ignore. I still haven’t actually read much of Smith himself, but Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization points out, several times, the ways in which Adam Smith’s thinking has been cited selectively and often incorrectly by modern “voodoo economists”. Here’s one excerpt:

noun (derogatory) 1. a person whose power derives from their wealth. (syn. : rich person, magnate, millionaire, billionaire, multimillionaire)

“This idea that sympathy for others is the essential characteristic of the human condition was…central to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, a treatise that is rarely mentioned by the false disciples of his economic theories. They limit themselves to a narrow reading of The Wealth of Nations and then apply it to the general…society….How poor Adam Smith got stuck with disciples like the market economists and the neo-conservatives is hard to imagine. He is in profound disagreement with their view of society.”

John Ralston Saul (1947- ) in the closing chapter of The Unconscious Civilization, a 1995 book that echoes his delivery that same year of Canada’s remarkable annual Massey Lecture series. The talks and the subsequent book are a good capsule of Saul’s views on individualism, corporatism, and the building of a humane and progressive society. I’ll soon be posting my final look at this excellent and admirably brief publication, the end of a series of posts that began here.  

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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INVITATION: Pick Your Fave JH Posts From 2013

A Backward Glance, A Second Thought. (Whadiddy Sayagin?)

‘Tis the season, friends and neighbours.

Evanescence is the new solidity.

No, not the season of rampant materialism, though crassness happens. And I don’t mean the time when thoughts of peace on earth, good will towards men quietly insist on being heard amid the din and the hurrying, though I’m all in favour. (Not of the noise and the haste, but of the good will part.) It’s Mirror Time! The Annum That Was! What the Heck Just Happened? The Year in Review!

Sports Illustrated has chosen the NFL quarterback Peyton Manning as its Sportsman of the Year, and the December flood of instant nostalgia is rising. No doubt Time (do we still have Time?) and People and Cool Gossip About Rich Folk I’ll Never Know are putting out their reflections on 2013; and good-for-them, I thought, might not be a bad thing for this humble gathering of electrons.

So, without further mumbling, an Invitation For You:

Faithful readers, occasional lurkers, subscribers loyal and visitors frequent, I would like to know what you’ve liked here at in 2013. Over the past year, this site has featured 39 “At First Glance” pieces on everything from fireworks to novels; 34 short essays that were “All About Sports”; five longer meditations that are found in the “On Second Thought” section; and, 45 quotations under the heading “He Said/She Said”. (I got a bit nutty, maybe, about HS/SS the past few months, but increasingly I use them as thought exercises, and append my responses to the notable words of others and my reasons for posting them.) So, lots to choose from!

Ideal scenario: you’ve read lots, remember some well, and don’t mind traipsing through the archives to remind yourself of what you’ve read here. You’ll fire me a Top 10 list (or Super 7, or…), and I’ll compile it with those of others to produce a Year in Review.

Another scenario: you haven’t been around here for long, or don’t come often, or just don’t have time to mess around with rankings, but you have read a thing (or three) that you like. Let me know the titles, and I’ll feed your choices into the blender, too.

In any case, please send me the list of your favourite titles by December 31, and I’ll try to get the 2013 results up before 2014 gets too old. Thanks! Send your list — and any other feedback, commentary, suggestions — to INFO@JAMESHOWDEN.COM .

YES, and is now followable on Twitter @JamesHowdenIII. Thanks for looking in. If you’re new here, read on to find out more of what is all about, including how to SUBSCRIBE…

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