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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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George Bernard Shaw (on the virtue of disagreeableness)

I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, David and Goliath. Like most of his books, this one takes things that we blandly believe to be true and asks questions, tells stories, and cites research to suggest that they ain’t necessarily so. In Blink, for example, Gladwell challenged the idea that sound decisions come only after long reflection, that following an impulse is always a bad idea; his Outliers is one of several recent books that punch holes in our belief in the solitary genius, the I-did-it-my-way exaltation of individualistic accomplishment.

David and Goliath argues that it wasn’t such a big upset when the shepherd boy stoned the slow-moving giant — he made what appeared to be a disadvantage into his ace-in-the-hole, by not playing the game the way the Philistine Tallboy arrogantly assumed it would be. In a chapter that spotlights the unusual proportion of noted entrepreneurs who suffer from dyslexia, Gladwell cites an advantage they have: used to being outcast, at failing repeatedly, they are not only inured to difficulty but they may also be less afraid to be disagreeable. At which point, Gladwell quotes a beloved old chestnut from George Bernard Shaw, and I get to my point!

Contrarian, egalitarian, smarty-pants.

Contrarian, egalitarian, smarty-pants.

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Abdu’l-Baha (on the greatness of goodness)

“Is there any deed in the world that would be nobler than service to the common good? Is there any greater blessing conceivable for a man, than that he should become the cause of education, the development, the prosperity and honour of his fellow creatures?…The highest righteousness of all is for blessed souls to take hold of the hands of the helpless and deliver them out of their ignorance and abasement and poverty, and with pure motives, and only for the sake of God, to arise and energetically devote themselves to the service of the masses, forgetting their own worldly advantage and working only to serve the general good…”

‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921), The Secret of Divine Civilization (1875), p. 103. This then-anonymous treatise, an open letter to the people of Iran (then Persia), is still an incredibly valuable perspective on human progress, true happiness, and the development of nations. The line “only for the sake of God” has had me thinking. Yet another re-read of this seminal book this summer has been contributing to the general good of this man’s mind.

Abdu’l-Baha (on greatness and wealth)

At age 31, the exiled Abdu’l-Baha — son of the Founder of the Baha’i Faith and one of its central figures — wrote an anonymous plea to his homeland. He wanted Persia (Iran) to rise from its lethargy and backwardness; this sternly affectionate letter to a nation that had persecuted his community and rejected its call to progress was later called The Secret of Divine Civilization. The following describes the characteristics of the truly great, those who better their own countries or the whole world:

“The happiness and greatness, the rank and station, the pleasure and peace of an individual have never consisted in his personal wealth, but rather in his excellent character, his high resolve, the breadth of his learning, and his ability to solve difficult problems….

It should not be imagined that the writer’s earlier remarks constitute a denunciation of wealth or a commendation of poverty. Wealth is praiseworthy in the highest degree, if it is acquired by an individual’s own efforts…and if it be expended for philanthropic purposes….If, however, a few have inordinate riches while the rest are impoverished, and no fruit or benefit accrues from that wealth, then it is only a liability to its possessor…”