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Carlo Rovelli: On Science (what it is, what it does)

Rovelli, a book, and a blackboard covered with inscrutability. He’s great with words, too.

[3-minute read]

Rovelli is a physicist who inhabits a realm of thought I couldn’t find with any GPS. Grade 12 physics had already left me behind. But Rovelli is an intellectual star, with a degree of celebrity from a series of articles he’d written for an Italian newspaper; Seven Brief Lessons on Physics became a slow-moving international sensation. It has been on my vague gotta get around to that sometime list for about five years. I was surprised and impressed to find Rovelli’s Reality is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity among the books I picked up from the library for my enterprising life partner, who is even less science-literate than I am. (N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy novel The City We Became was a choice she struggled even more to explain; knowing a bit more about quantum physics suits her pragmatism better than fantastical battles between eccentric good and brooding, yucky evil, even though she loves New York City. Yup, I’m reading that one, too.)

I thought I’d try to be pragmatic. I would read the introduction to Reality is Not What It Seems during a half-hour walk to the library. That would do it: grasp the basic outlines of the physicist’s thinking, pop the thing in the Return slot, and bypass the thornier bits to come. Good plan! It didn’t work, because Rovelli writes with grace and conviction as he outlines the ancient roots of the bewildering investigations of modern physics. Reality is Not What It Seems, written before Seven Lessons, has been widely translated after the success of the Seven Brief Lessons that followed it. It is profoundly engaging. I was all the way in after reading this portion of “Walking Along the Shore”, Rovelli’s introduction to the Reality of quantum gravity. (Yes, I’m going to be reading about quantum gravity. I’m 70 pages in, have winged from Democritus to Newton and am now beginning the summary on our dear 20th-century friend Albert. My brain has not yet been broken.¹ It’s a wonderful read.)

In his introduction, Rovelli recalls Plato’s allegory of The Cave. Remember? One man escapes his chains, leaves the cave and encounters initially blinding new vistas, a sequence of approaches to “reality” he couldn’t have imagined from the cave’s shadowy depths. He “returns excitedly to his companions, to tell them what he has seen. They find it hard to believe.” Plato’s philosopher-king, the one who transcends the limited understandings of his benighted companions,  is Rovelli’s image of the scientist:

“We are all in the depths of a cave, chained by our ignorance….If we try to see further, we are confused; we are unaccustomed. But we try. This is science. Scientific thinking explores and redraws the world, gradually offering us better and better images of it, teaching us to think in ever more effective ways. Science is a continual exploration of ways of thinking. Its strength is its visionary capacity to demolish preconceived ideas, to reveal new regions of reality, and to construct new and more effective images of the world. This adventure rests upon the entirety of past knowledge, but at its heart is change. The world is boundless and iridescent….We are immersed in its mystery and in its beauty, and over the horizon there is unexplored territory….[O]ur precariousness, suspended over the abyss of the immensity of what we don’t know, does not render life meaningless: it makes it interesting and precious.”

Carlo Rovelli, Reality is Not What It Seems, p. 8

To think in progressively more useful ways. To refine our perception of what truly is. To refuse to be bound by traditional constraints on understanding. I love this poetic description of science.

I infer from much of his commentary that Rovelli is firmly anti-religion in his views, seeing the impulse toward faith as necessarily a reinforcement of tradition, authoritarianism and reason-held-hostage. I do think he’s mistaken in this, falling into the same trap religionists have, all too often; dogmatism among scientists has a long rap sheet of its own, some of which Rovelli recounts. However, I am no less attracted by his excellent, accessible explanations. I am also confirmed in my own unsystematic, accidentalist approach to deciding what I’ll read next. Good to meet you, sir.

¹ I spoke too soon. My brain pan started to leak noticeably last night, around page 72, as Rovelli explained Einstein’s special relativity to me. I’m not giving up yet, but it appears that my ability to roughly grasp physics ended in 1904. (Einstein was twenty-five in 1905, when he submitted three journal articles “each…worthy of a Nobel Prize”, according to Rovelli.)

Flipping My Lid: “It’s a Revolution!” (Well, it was *something*…)

 

An attack on goodness. (Image from abcnews.com.)

We’re three weeks out now and it seems so calm. Capitol Hill has now seen another Presidential inauguration, quiet and with a brooding military aspect to it, but also a reaffirmation that maybe the adults are back in charge of the Excited States of America¹. Major media are celebrating the Biden/Harris Reset, at times with a gushing “America is back! This is who we really are!” relief that is mildly embarrassing. Canucks like me are used to American excess, like what my football-loving big sister always eye-rolled as “another Pride-Of-America halftime show”. They still believe in comic books, redemptive violence and superheroes. The noble sheriff is back in town. Batman Returns! But listen, don’t get me wrong here: I’m also relieved, as many are, that the American government seems to be on more solid footing, but these are not days of wine and roses.

¹ Tip o’ my ballcap to the great Allan Fotheringham, another one we lost in 2020.

Three Wednesdays ago, as we were treated to video of a tear-gassed woman giving her name and city, and the explanation “We’re storming the Capitol! It’s a revolution!”, and much more jaw-dropping footage, I flipped my lid. I stomped about. I muttered darkly. (I couldn’t write at all.) I was outraged. Indignant. My bride was bemused. She was thinking, It’s not my country. It’s sad to watch it suffer, of course. But it quickens the process – people are going to be shaken up and realize how much they’ve ignored the cracks in the walls. Racism. White privilege. Bipolar resentment. System failure. She’s a pragmatic person. But she wanted to understand, in the days that followed, why I was so combustible, and simultaneously so deeply disheartened, by a mob – stoned on deception and wired on the skewed perception of having been robbed – storming the Capitol building in a mighty country next to my own. I tried to explain my bubbling anger to her. I mean, I know I was fried that day, having run too far for my fitness level. And I *am* an old fart. Maybe Seasonal Affective Disorder is an Actual Thing. (“SAD AT.”) Covid-crankiness? I can’t dismiss that, either. But this was much more.

I came up with three “reasons” to explain how January 6 had knocked me on my arse. (Rationality played only a minor role.)

Actual Reason the First: I love white men. My father, brother, and most of my best buddies and mentors have been white men. I feel a brotherhood, narrow as it might seem, with white men, and in the way that family arguments can grow bitterly excessive, incidents like the Capitol storming turn me inside out. I friggin’ h–e white men. (How dare they stoop so low?) When they kill women they can’t manage, or abandon them; when they take faux-heroic stands against unsuspecting targets of their twisted resentments (a synagogue here, a Black church there); when they “revenge” themselves against innocents who happen to wander into their crosshairs (Virginia Tech, Las Vegas) or target women at a Montreal engineering school, or children at Sandy Hook elementary school – well, I’ve been known to flail about and blister the Interwebs with angry words then, too.

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Remembering Karl

Karl King, 1969-2020. (courtesy of his family)

[Shorty: 3 mins. Full story: 20-minute read. Tea time.]

The blank screen intimidated me. So did my own inadequate expressions of friendship, and the futility of making up for them with words of inadequate tribute after his passing. I filled the emptiness with things I had written under no expectation or goal except to tell somebody. Describing Karl’s departure to Dave (who knew him, and his family) or Louise (who didn’t) – that was necessary, urgent, and without the chance to overthink. Easy.

(That was in October. I didn’t think my written farewell to a friend would be excruciating – I’d had months to prepare and several hospital visits. I’d said my goodbyes, hoping that he heard them at some level. But here I am, in the middle of a grey and chilling December, our tenth month of living small in the midst of an Earth-wide pandemic, and finally I’m ready to punch ‘Publish’ after fitful months of squeezing words from one of life’s bitter fruits.)

My blood brother and sisters are living, so lucky me. Fifteen years back, I was startled (though not surprised) to lose what felt an awful lot like the good kind of Big Brother. “Donny’ coached and quietly guided me early in my circuitous approach to manhood; I later worried over and covered for and, maybe, helped him a little, in his final years of circling the drain. He was a basketball coach who gave far more to the game and his players than it or they would return to him. Rest, Don.

This farewell also began with basketball. Again, that ever-so-American game drawn up by a displaced Canuck foregrounds another bit of Howdy family history, this time a gradually-acquired Younger Brother. I first knew Karl King when he was that southern Ontario rarity, a 1980s small-town hoopshead, and I was learning to teach English and coach high school ball. The good news: we got much farther than basketball in the ways that we knew each other, though until recently we still annoyed our puck-centric buddy Mike with hoops chatter. The bad news is that he’s gone, as we were beginning to deepen and better understand what bound us together. Worse, he has left behind a surprised and surprising second wife, widowed a bewilderingly short time after love and devotion suddenly bloomed. Karl’s mother has now buried her eldest, and his genuine siblings mourn the eldest child. Also pacing about is Karl’s 17-year-old son, slowly becoming aware that his pops might’ve been more than he suspected.

This is what I wrote to Dave to share with other retired staff of that 1980s rural high school, the Home of the Hurricanes, who had just heard of his death:

Karl suffered a shocking double-diagnosis of two cancers, one of them advanced and rare, early last fall. He and his second wife Savinna were a sweet if doomed story (they weren’t married that long ago) as they went together through all the rigours of treatment, hopeful possibilities and painful reverses. He went home from St. Joseph’s Hospital to die at home on the Credit Reserve, directly across Indian/Town Line Road from the house where Max and Karen raised him. He found great solace and inspiration in marrying the Anishinaabe heritage he had via his father and grandfather (and which he explored deeply and passionately), with his embrace of the Baha’i Faith. He was a gentle soul, a whip-smart mind, a helluva teacher, a man of the people and a global citizen.

I jump ahead to this piercing irony: on the very day that he died – October 13, 2020, the first day of school after the long weekend of Canadian Thanksgiving – the Chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit appeared on Karl King’s doorstep. (Lots of Kings on the Credit. Saults. Laformes.) The “New Credit Eagle”, as Karl’s email address proclaimed him, had just come home from weeks of palliative care in a Hamiton hospital to spend his last days. Chief Laforme was be-ribboned in the formal attire of his office, and he had just missed out on his intention to confer honour upon Karl while he yet lived. I can hear Brother King having a quiet chuckle about the timing, but it tore me up when I heard about it.

Reading the letter from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation (MCFN) eased my heart: “has worked to increase the quality of life of our Community”; “significant and continuous service”; “promote[d] health and healing”; “role model for young people”; “ongoing dedication to teaching our young people about their culture and heritage”; “demonstrates integrity, generosity of spirit and collaboration”; and finally, its tribute to Karl’s demonstration of “the Seven Grandfather Teachings of Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility and Truth”. Covid-19, unsurprisingly, had delayed the MCFN Council’s process. They had hoped for some form of public ceremony. The letter Chief Laforme delivered spoke of possible media availability – it’s poignant, and given how long and how sturdily Karl had hung on before his sudden dip in the previous months, perfectly understandable. Sigh. The MCFN had everything right but the timing. That wasn’t the only temporal glitch, even beyond the obvious fact that Karl died before he reached his 52nd birthday.

That’s the short version. If you’re willing, I’d like you to know more.

+++++++++

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A.O. Scott (on writers, on Mank)

Gary Oldman in the title role, and Amanda Seyfried as a muse-buddy. It’s an interesting film, best viewed after Citizen Kane (the Howdy formula).

                                                                        [2-minute read]

 

Anthony Oliver Scott is best known as a movie reviewer for the New York Times. He is a superb writer, enjoyably read even when he’s figuring out what he thinks about a movie I’ve never seen. I’m also excited about his recent bookBetter Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, especially after reading a series of his essays, called The Americans. Rather than film, here he offers a fresh look at living writers who are under-read and overlooked – Wallace Stegner, Edward P. Jones (a fascinating oeuvre and a real revelation to me ) and Joy Williams. It’s eye-opening, a real service to someone who wants to better know a work, an author, a nation’s literature. These essays belie the common idea of “criticism”, that it must be acid-flavoured and archly (or furiously) dismissive. They are also wonderfully crafted in themselves, and refute the lazy notion that a critic must be a bitterly disappointed artist.

At my distressingly soon-to-be-departed Ottawa treasure, the ByTowne Cinema, I saw Mank in November. It’s the modern, black-and-white biopic in which Gary Oldman plays the legendary Hollywood screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who more or less wrote the 1940 classic  Citizen Kane. (Mank argues that it was his baby entirely, which is an old and highly debatable statement; director/star Orson Welles shared the screenwriting credit with Mankiewicz.) I liked the movie and planned to see it again. And I did, in a way, reading Scott’s recent review in the Times. In it were exactly zero stars, no thumbs, not a single tossed tomato, whether rotten or beautifully seasoned, but only well-crafted prose that deepened my understanding and regard for a film, and strengthened my commitment to seeing it again. This is all fine.

But Scott finished with a flourish. In the review’s final paragraph, he describes Mankiewicz, by all accounts a brilliant writer and wit, and his turbulent relationship with Hollywood. He hates and loves the life. He knows he’s a small player in the industry yet feels himself above it. Mankiewicz was striving to bring a higher literary sensibility to the work, and meanwhile was drinking himself into highly public embarrassments and a premature grave. (Pauline Kael once described him as “Hollywood’s loser-genius”.) Scott ends with this dazzling turn, which I keep re-reading:

Neither a maverick nor a visionary, he’s an alienated insider, a participant observer, a kibitzer at the table where the big guys make the big bets. Which may just be a verbose way of saying that he’s a writer. I’ll drink to that.

GUEST Post: MP Freeman on Persons With Disabilities

[This is a short guest post by my friend Michael Freeman, written to help us think about one of the many designated “days” we have to raise our consciousness. Mike knows from the *inside*; he’s one of the most stubbornly capable people I know. It’ll take you 2 minutes to read this.]

 

Don’t Forget to Remember

Persons with disabilities are some of the most resilient and strong-willed people that I know. They seem

to take bumps and hiccups all in stride; something of a challenge, yet still achievable. Not

insurmountable. To some, those bumps and hiccups look all-consuming, or even life-crippling. But to a person with a disability, there is a way to manage.

There has to be.

There is no other choice.

It just needs to be found.

And find it we do.

But for some, that strength and resilience is only a façade that is held tightly, as if in a display for the public. In some strange way they believe that that strength and resilience is what the public wants to see, even needs to see so that they can go about their day and their business without giving a second thought, and for some without giving even an initial thought, as to the actual well-being of another.

Because, let’s face it, why would they?

Everything seems okay.

Everything looks okay.

What do you mean, “Things may not be as they seem?”

Out of some sense of self preservation, some insular sense of self-protection, the public gets the façade while behind the façade is not what the public would be led to believe.

The truth of the matter is that living with a disability is exhausting and isolating. It’s those little things that seem so insignificant that add up to a mountain of extra load. It’s those missed opportunities, or the avoidance of situations, that further deepens the sense of isolation. Persons with disabilities sometimes do things for all the right reasons, yet achieve all the wrong results.

Don’t forget to remember.

Check in with people, all people; persons with a disability or not. Establish, or deepen a connection on a heart-to-heart level.

Respect the façade but also look through it; let wellness be your guide. Be a part of the lives of the exhausted and isolated. Help them to remain resilient and strong.

Michael Freeman is a teacher, union leader and writer. (He is also a never-say-die fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs.) He works for the Education authority of the Six Nations of the Grand River, Canada’s largest Indigenous reserve.

Kurt Vonnegut (on what to pitch, and some things to keep)

I’m still listening, Kurt. Still moved. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

When I write about something I’ve learned from the Baha’i system of knowledge and practice – or rather, in trying to understand it better – it sometimes appears at the Baha’i Teachings website. I also go there for small doses of perspective, wisdom and hope, and find them. David Langness is one of my favourite writers at BT, not least because on what Canucks call Remembrance Day, he posted a piece called “Veterans’ Day: Let’s Call It Armistice Day Again”. Although short, it was weighty, since Langness is himself a veteran of what the Vietnamese people don’t call the Vietnam War. Yes, and he also led off with a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut is a hero to me.

I just re-read KV’s preface to that famous American novel. My vision blurred and I commenced breathing like a beat-up old machine. (This often happens when I read Vonnegut. He murders me, when I’m apparently supposed to laughing like a loon at his satire. ) He calls Breakfast a 50th-birthday present to himself, a mid-life attempt “to clear my head of all the junk in there….I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet….I suspect that this is something most white Americans, and non-white Americans who imitate white Americans, should do…” (Sheesh. 1973!)

David Langness, in his argument for re-naming Veterans’ Day, goes on to cite his reasons: the growth of jingoism, hero-worship and militarism associated with November 11 in his country. “Perversely, we’ve turned the day into a recruiting tool for further war instead of a celebration of peace.” It’s well worth a read. But thanks to Mr. Langness, I’m pleasantly obsessing today over the incredible Kurt Vonnegut (how I miss him!) and these closing words of his preface to Breakfast of Champions. He explains why Armistice Day – from the Latin for “a cessation of arms” – is a holy concept that he will hang on to:

 

“So this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.

“I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy … all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

“Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

“So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

“What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

“And all music is.”

20-20 Remembrance

Touching the past. Poppies are sacred here. (Image from TV Ontario.)

[November 11 is Remembrance Day in Canada, and it’s not so far behind me that I’ve forgotten it already. Hurray for me!  This being Covid Year and all, it was a slightly oddball experience but I cherished it all the same. Here’s a quick look-back.]     [4-minute read]
[Oh, and over THERE in the “He Said/She Said” section is a short piece setting up a related quotation from the mighty Kurt Vonnegut, on why Armistice Day is just a better name for what his countrymen call “Veterans’ Day”. It’s a companion to this piece.]

 

She dragged me outside again on the 11th. (Let’s be dramatic – Bruce Cockburn sang it this way: You tore me out of myself, alive!) It was, to be precise, about ten minutes to the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of this old year.¹ In Canada we call it Remembrance Day. Once upon a time, it was Armistice Day, honouring the moment when the guns of the Great War (when ‘great’ meant ‘ginormously large’ rather than ‘famously supercool’) stopped blasting in November of 1918. I was going to stay home, listen to CBC Radio’s Remembrance broadcast, but instead I went Outside. And, of course, my lovely Accompanist was right again.

                         ¹  Yes, ‘Oct-‘ refers to ‘8’ and ‘Dec-‘ to ‘10’ and November was the ninth month of the ancient Roman calendar. And in 2020, it is the ninth month (at least in my part  of the world) of what seems several years of Covid-19.

It doesn’t take me long to remember, Ah, right, moving. That’s a good thing. I like this body-working hypothesis. We walked, my bride and I, who tends to think that sacred acts are better done with other humans. It was only a few blocks to a little patch of green, a corner lot that developers didn’t get; it’s been preserved not only for kids to swing and play, or for elders and others to perch on a maple-leafy bench and watch the world go by for awhile (or to monitor their likes). No, the Riverside Memorial Park, though tiny, is a local monument to the neighbourhood fallen and to all the veterans from our corner of the capital.

We were around 20 souls, two city councillors and a greying crew of neighbourhoodies. It turned out that for the ceremony, we listened, around a memorial stone be-wreathed and poppified, to a Bluetooth speaker that transmitted the CBC Radio broadcast. Public radio, indeed! It felt odd and tinny at first but then suddenly was Actually Just Fine, Thank You! And I remembered these things, all in a serried line:

  • How grateful I am for a solo bugle and the Last Post. I loved hearing it live, some years, during my high school’s 11 am Remembrance Day program. It was often some old fella in an ill-fitting uniform that probably brought bemusement to some students, eye-rolls for a few, until he started blowing that horn. Chokes me up without fail, even via Bluetooth at the corner of Queen Mary and North River as the bus goes by.
  • That repeated short last line of a poetic verse that most of us – the older ones, anyway – have more or less to heart in Canada; it’s so powerful. There’s not much militarism here on November 11, but rather a widespread attitude of “never again!” and “consider what we’ve lost” and “let’s pray for peace”. I fiercely muttered, along with my handful of fellow Rememberers, the fervent echo, “We will remember them.” They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: / Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. / At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.

(Every Remembrance Day ceremony in “America’s attic” now includes this fourth verse of seven in Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen”, written in 1914. It’s called “the act of Remembrance”, and is a reminder that there are also some fine things about the post-colonial British heritage in this here Canada. We will remember them. Nous nous souviendrons d’eux.” And I remembered other things, too, as the prayers and tributes went on:)

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The Creature Dreams

Gary Larsen, The Far Side. (Did you hear he’s back and creating fresh content?) I’ve missed Mr. Larsen.

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Welcome to JH.com. This is the default location for this site, but you might also want to look *over there on the right* for stuff that’s more sport-centric (“It’s All About Sports!”) or for longer essays (“On Second Thought”). For example, I recently posted THIS DEEP DIVE on a super-amazing aspect of The Whole Baha’i Thing

 

[5-minute read]

I don’t think of myself as an anxious person, particularly, but performance-anxiety dreams are my bedbugs. My bride still dreams, decades later, of being on stage in full costume but without an idea of what the choreography is. For me, it takes the form, occasionally, of long-gone athletic worries (suddenly I can’t judge a fly ball and there it goes, over my head!) or whistle-blowing tensions (wait, these kids have no clue and where are the basketballs anyway? Hold it, there are no baskets in this gym?!). Most often, though, after three decades in the classroom, it’s Teaching Anxiety that troubles my sleep.

Every August they’d kick into top gear, without fail. Even after retirement – or during interludes when I wrote for a living – I knew September was coming not so much from cooling nights and red-tinged trees as from at-school-sans-pants, can’t-find-my-classroom midnight adventures. Classic symptoms. After a week or so of starting-the-year nightmares — I can’t say they were terrifying, but my sub-conscious was clearly hard at work already — I’d head for my classroom on Day One wondering, “Can I still do this? You’re only as good as your last lesson, buddy, and it’s not like you’re gettin’ younger!” And two minutes in I’d know, without fail, “You were made for this. Let’s GO!

Now, a few years into retirement, the Teacher Dreams are still with me, but they’re changing. They started at about the same time of year, but there’s been no First Day of School to dismiss them, and it’s no longer the start of school that get me so much as the dread of an Ending. I loved teaching, but although I long for more of those dynamic interactions, those performances, I don’t miss the professional duties or their daily grind at all, especially with the added load teachers carry due to Covid. But I’ve been on a steady diet of dreams like this: I’m teaching, my usual assortment of high school English courses, and it seems they’ve been going along well except that I don’t think I’ve showed up for that grade 10 writing class in a month and it dawns on me that marks are due next week! and I don’t have a single grade recorded for any of these kids and I’m not totally clear on all their names and how the hell am I going to do report cards when I haven’t given even one quiz or essay?

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A View From the Mountain: Covid-19 and the Condition of the World. (Or: The Universal *WHAT*?)   

Big hands, small world.

 

 [18-minute read]

Imagine: what if the world had a governing council, democratically elected, whose only mandate was to guide humanity towards oneness and global renewal? What if such a body were commissioned to rise above partisanship, indeed above the limited advantages of individual nation states, to consider thoughtfully the needs of all the world’s peoples? And while we’re in full-on fantasy, let’s imagine that this council’s members were chosen exclusively because of their capacity to serve, and not due to their power or fame or their desire for either. Wait, how about this? Let’s dispense with nominations, any sort of advantage for the rich (fundraising of any sort), narrowly based constituencies a candidate must favour, and the whole road-show of promises, slandered opponents and vote for me! What do you think? Which is stronger in your mind – the appeal of this flight of utopian fancy, or its impossibility?

 

Well, I have news. In truth, there’s no need for imagination. Such an institution is no mere dream. Did you know that there is a Universal House of Justice in the world? It was conceived in the writings of Baha’u’llah, the 19th-century Persian nobleman who was stripped of his social position and exiled far from his homeland, and why? For championing the renewal of religion, a new age of human prosperity, and the oneness of humankind. (If you have heard of the Baha’i Faith and its principles, Baha’u’llah is their author.) After steady growth in its numbers and capacity, the Baha’i community first elected what is now its supreme institution, the House of Justice, in 1963 in a remarkable process, completely free of campaigning or ambition. The electors, themselves chosen in a series of prayerful, conscientious procedures, privately vote every five years for those whom they feel have the best capacity to serve. This selection is based on assessments of the maturity, cooperative ability, mental strength, loyalty and selflessness of an individual. Not fame. Not good hair. Not vaulting ambition. Not wealth or privilege or lobbying or a telegenic smile. The difference between this process and the national elections we’re most familiar with – Baha’u’llah might have described them as “lamentably defective” – is as wide as your favourite ocean. Two particular qualities mark the distinctness of the Universal House of Justice from any other prominent governing body in the world. One is that most Baha’is in the world, I suspect, couldn’t even name a member of the House, such is its character and the nature of its elections. (A fame-watcher like me? I think I could name three, tops.) Second, and perhaps most important, not only are Baha’i communities everywhere in the world amazingly responsive to its requests, but they also love the institution of the House of Justice! Bizarre but true.

So now you know a little about this unparalleled system of governance, one that I’ve been mildly obsessing over and immoderately enthusing about for most of my life. Now, if you’ve never even heard of the Universal House of Justice, or barely have, don’t feel badly. This is a governing body that doesn’t send out press releases or trumpet its accomplishments, at all. Besides, with some astounding exceptions (such as the “Peace Message”, its 1985 letter to the peoples of the world), most of its communications are addressed to the Baha’i community, and in a human sea of over seven billion, Baha’is constitute only about one human in a thousand. I guess you could call this a minority report.

The seat of the Universal House of Justice, part of the Baha’i World Centre on the side of Mt. Carmel.

Dear reader, this has also been your preamble to a longer discussion of a superb talk I heard recently. The above introduction will help make sense of what follows, and explain why a group of us were so compelled to hear from a gentleman agricultural scientist we had previously known almost nothing about. (It’s a Baha’i Thing.)

*****

For the second time in a year, the Ottawa Baha’is and their like-minded friends recently benefited from the insights of a former member of this institution, Dr. Firaydoun Javaheri, on current conditions in the world. The first was in a sweltering lecture theatre at the University of Ottawa – we shook hands! hugged! listened and perspired, packed shoulder to shoulder! – and, the times being what they are, the most recent talk was on Zoom.

Originally from Iran, Dr. Javaheri trained as an agronomist, then made a pioneering move to Africa where he worked in several nations, primarily The Gambia and Zambia, finally as technical director for the Food and Agriculture organization of the United Nations. As a volunteer activist, he was in the forefront of the Baha’i community’s growing efforts in social and economic development and served on elected local and national councils – Baha’is call them “spiritual assemblies” – and subsequently as an appointed “Counsellor” for the African continent.¹ In his 50s, he was then elected to serve as a member of the Universal House of Justice, and did so for three 5-year terms, living and working on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, where the Baha’i World Centre is located.² He is now retired and living in southern Ontario, Canada, where he has family ties..

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Darkness in Nova Scotia

A riff on Nova Scotia’s provincial flag: one extra lion for solace. Sad times. An outrage. (by Halifax artist James Neish)

                                 [4-minute read]

I’ve been circling around this all day. All week, really, ever since I heard the first grim (single-digit dead) reports last weekend. Lemme guess, white guy with grievances? Women not giving him the respect he so deeply deserves? Kills himself so he doesn’t face the music?

I had, purposely and studiously, paid little attention to the details of the story. Scared to. Not another one. I didn’t want to know more. Not only would I refuse to name the Damaged Denturist – a personal rule – I actually didn’t know the jerkwad’s name, this morning at 4:43 a.m., when I began obsessively turning over in my mind the few facts I knew. Death toll 23. Rural Nova Scotia. An RCMP officer is dead. There were fires and shootings and prolonged confusion. I tried hard to get back to sleep, but my brain was composing and couldn’t stop.

Sadness has flowed like the North Atlantic, but it’s as if the news has only intermittently, slowly breached the dikes of, what, my numbness? My fear of being overwhelmed? Isolation fatigue? Dread of another bout of Impotent Rage? (Yup, all that.) Whatever the why, one of the best stretches of sleep I’ve had in ages ended in a mid-night thought-cycle that I couldn’t escape. Maybe the first cracks opened last night, 6:28 p.m., as the CBC “World at Six” newscast ended with Nova Scotia fiddle queen Natalie McMaster scraping out “Amazing Grace” in a painful lament. She played for her province, her people, and it plumbed my own sorrow, too. All those innocent people.

Sadness was first through the barricades, but rage was right behind. These events are outrageous. I couldn’t sleep this morning because I was rehearsing ways to make words, to make sense, out of my anger. We’re a lot the same, this seething, violating numbskull and me, and I’m outraged by it. (Canadian. Educated. White. Male.) I ask, as I too often do, Why are men so goddamned WEAK? He shatters every blessed principle that any Brotherhood I’d want to belong to could possibly hold dear. Self-control. Humility. Endurance. Protectiveness. Humour. Dignity. Respect. Strength. Gentleness. Forbearance. Forgiveness. (Getting the hell over yourself and your petty disappointments, you shit!) I wasn’t planning on writing this AGAIN, but no doubt having it happen in Canada, in rural Nova Scotia, fergawdsakes!, has produced in me more than the usual disgust and dismay when cowardly men Just Won’t Take It Anymore, when they Take a Stand, when they imagine, in a fever-dream of phony heroism, that they arise to “take Arms against a Sea of troubles / And by opposing, end them…”

Hamlet was considering suicide there. It turns out this clown didn’t even have that much courage. What in overheated hell did he think he was ACCOMPLISHING? Because I have no doubt of this: at whatever level of deranged thought he was operating, the prick was riding an absolute tidal wave of we’re gettin’ some shit DONE here!

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