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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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 3

My first look at this book (and its author, John Ralston Saul) was here, and the first chapter was summarized here.

Saul called Chapter 2 of The Unconscious Civilization – the second of the speeches he originally gave as the 1995 Massey Lectures in Canada – “From Propaganda to Language”. To bring (Western, or maybe even global) civilization to a more conscious state, to encourage genuine democracy and real citizenship in pursuit of the general good, he advocates fundamental changes in the way that we communicate, and in the role of

JRS at the lectern.

education in producing such true and meaningful expression. These are big ideas. Saul is often criticized for his sweeping generalizations. Even his fans might find occasional pronouncements positively tsunami-like in their breadth, force and where-did-that-come-from suddenness. This is also his greatest strength: he describes philosophical and historical forests to a public too often entranced by the trees.

And speaking of sweeping general statements, then, here are my no-more-than-500 words in summary of “From Propaganda to Language” by John Ralston Saul:

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John Ralston Saul (on corporatism and individualism)

In The Unconscious Civilization (1995), Saul traces the rise of individualism in the West, but complains that the term has been “hijacked” in modern times:

“Nowhere…was the individual seen as a single ambulatory centre of selfishness. That idea of individualism, dominant today, represents a narrow and superficial deformation of the Western idea….[We are] a society addicted to ideologies – a civilization tightly held at this moment in the embrace of a dominant ideology: corporatism…[It] causes us to deny and undermine the legitimacy of the individual as a citizen,…which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good….The overall effects on the individual are passivity and conformity in those areas which matter and non-conformism in those which don’t.”

John Ralston Saul is a Canadian thinker, writer and activist for the public good. I was lucky enough to watch from close range, in the mid-2000s, as he continued to develop the ideas he put forth in The Unconscious Civilization (1995) and to poke and provoke conversation about ideas that matter, from the neighbourhood to the globe. He’s an intellectual fireball. In the midst of watching too much basketball and reading too many student papers, I’m stealing the chance to re-read Saul.