Banned

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President Trump’s ban on various people entering the US doesn’t affect me. I have been banned from entering the country since 2006, just after my first-hand account of the Iraq invasion, A War Against Truth, was published. I had been invited to a peace conference at the University of Colorado, Boulder, campus, and was told at US Customs in Toronto that I was inadmissible. No reason given by the Homeland Security official who went off with my passport until the flight I was due to catch had left. Since 1969, I had freely entered the USA, often spending months there. My literary agent was in New York, as was my publisher at that time. These arguments had no effect, although the official refused to state why I was inadmissible, saying he was not obliged to do so. Subsequently, I deduced that there was something in my book that severely aggravated the Pentagon, for neo-conservative cabals in Canada and the US waged a concerted war on my war against truth, eventually coming up with a flimsy argument accusing me of plagiarism. It was just a few sentences that I confessed were merely the result of shoddy note-taking in a war-zone, but it was enough for my gutless – or perhaps complicit – publisher to pulp the book, destroying over two years’ work and much of my career. It is still available on Amazon, however, but the loss of my eyesight prevented me from fighting the issue for many years. It did teach me, though, that there are powers with which one cannot easily contend. What was it that so offended elements of the US Government? I think it was documented evidence given in the book proving that the US Military in Iraq were using cluster-bombs in which the bomblets scattered were disguised as childrens’ toys. It’s not difficult to see that this would be hard to explain to the American public. I am still banned from entering the country, and will probably always be banned – these orders are nearly impossible to get rescinded.

 

America has a long history of banning undesirables, however. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act kept out Chinese nationals for petty reasons. Long considered the harshest act of its kind, it still permitted the admission of students, academics and persons with business commitments. But, as with later bans – the Phillipinos, the east European Jews, the Japanese – there was blowback. In 1905, the Chinese government issued a boycott of all US goods in the country. Similar reactions were caused by other bans, but the real effect was on US global prestige. The nation claiming exceptionalism does not enhance its claim by exclusionalism – not to mention the oxymoronic nature of exceptionalism, which states that we are exceptional and you should be like us.

I promised to avoid commenting on the kakristocracy forming down in Washington, so I will restrain myself to one thought. As amusing as Trump and his cohorts’ “alternative facts” may be to the media, we ought not to forget that his base takes them seriously. Such people hear a few times that the media are covering up terrorist attacks, and they believe it. Why they believe the lyging media that tell them this is another question. America has the least-well-educated population in the western world – and herein lies the problem. Propganda only works on those who do not perceive it as propaganda, where a lie repeated becomes the truth. If I were an editor or an executive producer of news programming, I would be very careful about printing or broadcasting any statement issued by the White House before it was thoroughly fact-checked and vetted. To not do so is pouring gasoline on this already-raging fire.

 

Paul William Roberts

The Terror Comes to Quebec

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The response of Canada in general and Quebec in particular to the murder of five men and the wounding of many more in a Quebec City mosque has been deeply gratifying, and it defines the difference between this country and the United States. The violence of a self-professed white supremecitst neo-Nazi, along with his guns, is clearly very alien here – and so it should be – shocking the entire nation merely by its appearance, which is a quotidian affair down south. For the first time, Prime Minister Trudeau Le Petit proved he is not the invertebrate he has seemed to be over the past year, delivering a number of impassioned speeches – remarkably free of his usual neurotic gasps and ahs – that hit precisely the right note of unification within diversity, of a common identity despite trivial differences, of neighbourliness, mutual assistance in troubled times, and a common understanding that overrides all the hateful actions of a miniscule minority. This may well be Trudeau’s Winston-Churchill-Moment, his Finest Hour, his Blitz. Despite snide comments from the useless Opposition Party leaders, he has continued to walk the fine line between Canada’s vital trade with the US and the need to uphold and protect our values as an open and welcoming nation for refugees and immigrants, no matter where they come from or what faith they profess. Given the recent and interminable provocations from the White House, this is no easy thing for someone of such avowedly liberal inclinations. As leader of the not-always-so-liberal Liberal Party, it is a balancing-act requiring enormously deft skill. If Trudeau emerges unbloodied from his soon-to-be meeting with the new American President, and if our trading relationship is still intact — $ 2 billion crosses that border daily – then his stature will be increased manifold, the once-concealed titanium backbone visible for all to see. After the gamboling and shilly-shallying of this past year, it is remarkable to find that Le Petit has a much deeper and stronger core in him, and can at times seem to understand truly what he talks about – or maybe it is just a matter of truly caring about that of which he talks?

 

It is fortunate that the Quebec City shooter proved to be a lone wolf. Early reports had stated that there were two assailants, one with a Muslim name – a claim that Fox News was still posting three days later, 72 hours after it had been disavowed by the police here. More kudos to Trudeau for a letter from his office accusing Fox of “playing identity politics” and demanding that the post come down — which it duly did, complete with a rare apology. Trudeau termed the mosque murders “a terrorist attack”, which was true enough, but it may have made the more feeble-minded media fixate upon the usual terrorist act, which to them is so-called Islamist agents mowing down us infidels wherever we gather. It is more complicated than this, of course, but terrorism is also US drone attacks that “inadvertently” slaughter hundreds of innocent civilians. It is the invasion of sovereign states too, and the CIA financing or fomenting of rebellions against democratically-elected governments all over the globe. Since September 11th 2001, there have been less than 50 citizens killed in the US by identifiable terrorists working on behalf of an “Islamist” organization – and those few killers were all US-born American citizens, who only imagined they were Muslims. Worldwide, the death-toll of innocents as a direct result of US covert operations is unknown – the Pentagon openly states that “we don’t do body-counts” – but it is believed to number, over the past decade, in the high six figures. So the balance of terror is well in Washington’s favour, or to its shame – and this is what principally motivates those we view, rightly or wrongly, as the Enemy. What happened in Quebec City does not therefore easily compute in the minds of all too many journalists, who are now focussing like hungry vultures on all the grief and heartbreak, as well as, with immense satisfaction, on all the national peace and love, all the weeping vigils, the flowers and gift-baskets. The term “lone wolf” equals “homicidal psychopath” – nearly impossible to predict or prevent – which means his motives are not worth seeking out, because insanity is its own impermeable motivation.

 

I cannot help thinking, however, how different the reactions of Canadians would be had the victims in Quebec been us, the white majority, and the murderers self-alleged Muslims. People forget that western Islamic communities are also much in need of support, comfort and sheer neighbourliness after such events as the Paris attacks or the Brussels bombings, when they feel most unsafe and fearful. What they most fear and feel unsafe about is what just happened in a Quebec mosque. It is good that we are finally hearing this from the lips of Canadian Muslims, many of whom now tell of more minor hate-crimes they’ve experienced, or the random hostility of strangers that makes wives, daughters and mothers afraid to walk the streets in daylight. But we must remember all of this when next we hear of Islamist terror attacks.

 

 

The Islam of 99.999 percent of Muslims is a religion of peace, compassion and fraternity — period. And Muslims are, after all is said and done, only 0.3 of Canada’s population. If we took in a million more refugees – which we could do and should do – they would only amount to 0.6 of the population. Nothing.

 

 

Just as the Torah, Tanakh and the Gospels contain passages of an horrendously bloodthirty or hateful nature, so, unfortunately, does the Holy Koran. But these texts were all written by and for a nomadic and clannishly warlike peoples many hundreds of years ago – yet all orthodox believers contend that they are the words of God, and thus cannot be edited or revised. The Kabbalists, just like the Sufis and Christian mystics, have found an interpretive way around this dilemma, and it is to be hoped that the mainstream of all three monotheisms will eventually follow suit. The Koran (which means “recited verses”) is, as its name suggests, meant to be chanted aloud, not read in silence. The classical Arabic in which it was written makes a good third of the text impossible to understand with any certainty, because, at its earliest stage, the written language more closely resembles a mnemonic device to aid those chanting the suras from memory – as the faithful are urged to do, because the words are, if often opaque in meaning, surpassingly beautiful to hear. This linguistic difficulty also means that all translations are necessarily interpretations, just as all interpretations are not necessarily accurate transmissions of meaning. Any devout Muslim scanning a terrorist website – many of which are funded by the fabulously wealthy and heretical Saudi Arabian Wahhabite sect – will instantly recognize quotations taken out of context, or drawn from writings other than the Koran and posted without any ascription. But the untutored youthful rebel looking for a cause will not know this. We must now remember that the radicalized Muslim kid is no different than Alexandre Bissonette, the 27-year-old Quebec neo-Nazi shooter – except you don’t really have to sift through or take out of context anything in the rantings of Adolf Hitler to find something suitably repulsive, hateful and violent for a causus belli.

 

The Province of Quebec, where I live, seems to be embarrassed or shamed by this horrible act, and she protesteth too much methinks. Such a strong showing of many thousandsturning out in support of the Muslim community, and many politicians, both provincial and federal – including the Prime Minister – joining them, belies the fact that Quebec has a darker and uglier side. You know this is true when the Premier denies it is true – not to mention the revelation that French radio shock-jocks in the province often broadcast racist rants. I don’t listen to French radio, but obviously someone does – and not a few someones, either, if advertising incomes are to be profitable enough to warrant keeping the shouters on air. Mordechai Richler recalled seeing hotel signs in the fifties reading No Jews or Dogs, and we still often hear of defiled mosques, synagogues, religious community centres, and of desecrated Jewish cemetaries. There are no Muslim cenetaries here – yet. The simple truth is that hate-crime stats in Quebec are far higher than those for the rest of this country. As Jean-Paul Sartre observed, the Jew exists only in the mind of the anti-semite – and it follows that the Muslim only exists in the mind of the Islamophobe. This glimpse of real Quebec Muslims that we are now getting, curtesy of their immense tragedy, ought to dispel the fantasy-images based on fear and ignorance. As Premier Cuillard wishfully stated, perhaps this is a turning-point in Quebec history. But, if it is merely hinged upon the nature of another terrorist attack, perhaps it is not.

 

French Canadiens imagine they have a long history of grievances against the English – whom they also imagine dominate federal government and are imposing multiculturalism on them – when in fact the British, after their 1759 consquest, could hardly have treated them more equitably. They kept their language, their legal system and the Catholic faith, when the norms of conquest dictated that English language and law should be imposed. No one in Britain at the time was allowed to practice Catholicism, so the Quebecois were in effect treated more liberally than British citizens. But a conquered people are never allowed to be content – it’s human nature. They complain endlessly, just as the Israelites in the Wilderness complained to Moses about everything. A largely imaginary grudge has now festered here for something short of 300 years, and it views anything deemed alien as an imposition by the despised English, who are believed to run everything with malign intentions – even though no government can be elected without the vast Quebecois vote. Despite the fact that Canada declares itself to be a multicultural country in the Charter of Rights, Quebec, which is even recognized by Ottawa as a “nation”, officially announces that it is proudly not multicultural. Everyone just shrugs: c’est les Francais. Many hardliners here, always seeking referenda to separate from Canada and be a litral sovereign nation, view such things as Indigeneous reservations and rights, as well as the current high immigration stats to be malignant impositions by the English-speaking majority, and designed to undermine or erode Quebecois values. Hardly anyone in the whole country denies their right to speak French, more or less, or pursue a unique and somewhat French-like culture, more or less. I for one find it an oasis of charm and politesse in the North American desert. But the Internet and social media are slowly eroding this from within, and young Quebecois are becoming increasingly bilingual, cognizant of their place in a still largely Anglo continent. This is bound to suffer blowback – and so it is. Just as the advent of Donald Trump is really all about a yearning for simpler, greater, whiter times, so the rise of Quebecois racism is really all about Francophile xenophobia and the pipe-dream of sovereignty – which is rapidly fading in the harsh light of a new day. But much of Quebec remains a backwater of startlingly primitive and ignorant communities, sheltered from North American realities by a media of stunningly narrow and parochial concerns. It is not unlike conditions in rural areas of the southern US states, fed on Fox Opinions and the intemperate tirades of Trump, along with the mad barrage of right-wing radio and fundamentalist Christian televangelists. Education is of course the only answer to this woeful condition, and education in Quebec – as it is in much of the US – has deteriorated into a muddle of confusion and nonsense, depriving first to sixth-graders of the bilingualism they most need and which could be most easily taught as conversation to kids of that age. Not a few here believe that this failure in the school system is designed to prevent the Quebecois from exploring the Big World, and thus retaining their Anglophobia, which will enslave them to atavistic sovereignist values and concerns. It will not and cannot work, for human beings are inevitably drawn to a critical mass – and what happened in that mosque does seem to be forming a new mass-opinion of some considerable size.

 

It is also trashing the vain hopes of Canada’s Francophobic wannabe Trump, Kevin O’Leary – who actually seems to live mostly in America. True to the idiotically insensitive form of his role-model, Kev – wealthy entrepreneur of dubious ethics, and abusive reality-TV co-host – posted online a video of himself laughing maniacally as he fired off a machine-gun in a Florida shooting range. You might say this was somewhat lacking in empathy after the Quebec slaughter – and many did say it. So many indeed that one of his lackies apologetically took down the offending video. But Kev had to lie, saying he took it down “out of respect” for the slain. Well, it was what Trump would have done, wasn’t it? What Trump wouldn’t have done, however, is run for the leadership of a party three years away from any general election. Perhaps Kev miscalculated this? In the unlikely event that he wins, he will have to spend over two years as Opposition Leader in the terminally boring House of Parliament – and show up nearly every day for even more terminally boring and stultifyingly trivial or petty debates. The media will be watching. He can’t return to his Big American Life, can he? Worse still, he can’t be sure of winning the 2019 eklection either – especially if sunny-boy Le Petit retains his backbone. Worse than that is the gambit of modelling himself after Trump, and thus being tied to the Trump fortunes – which even the most flamboyant bookmakers are currently not giving good odds on. The Puritanical dinosaur, Mike Pence, is by far the favourite in this race to avoid a  common doom. No, Kev has not thought this through at all. At what point will he say it’s all rigged? In fact it is rigged in my opinion – rigged to end in preposterous confusion whatever happens. Like the US system, ours is broken beyond repair. It’s an 18th-century relic that belongs in a museum of governance. But you cannot replace it by running as a candidate who will dismantle government, can you? The only question worth asking is: can it be done peacefully, and then what will replace it? I suggest a look at the Vedic texts on this subject, and a study of the Torah’s social laws. Wise men always knew how best to organize and govern any society. It has been unwise men who’ve fouled the nest.

 

Paul William Roberts

 

 

             Paganaissance?

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I have often wondered what happens to old gods when their worshippers move on to greener Elyssian fields, Where do they go, and what do they do? But perhaps they are just patient? We all know that so-called paganism, especially in the hybrid form of Wicca, has enjoyed a little resurgence in bosky groves and ancient stone circles in the West. Yet it would seem that Icelandic pagans have gone one better. For the first time in a thousand years – when Iceland was very forcibly converted to Christianity – a new temple to the thunder god, Thor, has been constructed there and is, by all accounts, now doing a brisk business. Although a chicken was ritually slaughtered on the altar during opening ceremonies, blood sacrifices are apparently not to be a regular feature – although Thor once liked them to be. But feasting still plays a major role, as it always did back in the mead halls of yore. Horse flesh is consumed in large quantities, as are “sour testicles” and “rotten shark”. Well, if the god can’t have his human sacrifices, I suppose one cannot begrudge him a few favourite delicacies. A spokesperson for the temple told the CBC that interest in the old gods has been growing over recent years, because the standard religions are too wrapped up with corrupt corporate and political interests. Frey and Freya – a husband and wife team of divinities, ostensibly for war and love – have devotees similarly hoping to build them a fine new temple. The Pope can’t be happy, and Martin Luther must be ranting away furiously in Hell – but it strikes me as a harmless and beneficial trend. Those old religions are so refreshingly free of dogma and so deeply connected to realities, like cycles of nature and the sanctity of Mother Earth. Whereas orthodox Christianity and Islam in particular can all too often seem to be political appendages of the state, with an unseemly interest in wars and obesience.

 

Talking of which, what most surprised me about Donald Trump’s inauguration speech was not the groaning banality or the ranting jingoism but the numerous references to “God”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but he’s not a religious man, and God never came up on the campaign trail – except, perhaps, for the one who is always perfunctorily urged to bless America, yet never required to respond. Suddenly, however, we have a God who looks over America and will protect her, a God who will bless possibly all Trump supporters – less possibly all listeners – and of course a God who is told in no uncertain terms to bless America. Twice – for the Donald never says anything important once. Is he so vacuously cynical that he just threw in Amerigod along with all the other emotive claptrap about pride, wealth, safety and greatness, because his purpose was merely to please those who believed in him more than they did in God? “I will never, never let you down,” he said, telling all those whose voices had been ignored that they would never, never be ignored in future – that the great country and its government was theirs again. Again? Theirs and the three billionaires and numerous millionaires now running it, alongside people of – how shall we put it? – rather dubious and suddenly furtive intent. I thought, man, O man, if ever words were custom designed to come back and haunt you nightly like Marley’s ghost, these were they – but then I realized that this was Trump. He’ll just deny he said it, or that his words were taken out of context – the media are all liars, terrible, terrible people, the news is fake, it’s all fake, and everything is rigged against him. If he even talks to most media by then. I dislike the expression “post-truth”, since truth is an absolute. This must then be the Age of the Liar, no? No, because, as I.F. Stone used to say, “All politicians lie about everything all the time.” When I heard Stone say that at the opening of a talk in the seventies, I thought he was exaggerating for effect. I’ve since realized he wasn’t.

The only slight attraction Trump held for me was the prospect of a new broom in Washington. It is clear that much of the public has wanted a change for years – it was, after all, the clarion call of Obama’s campaign message – and that they have now decided politicians cannot effect change. But billionaire businessmen can and will? Surely this is not getting rid of “elites”? I didn’t like Hilary Clinton’s reference to “deplorables” either – and I didn’t like her – but you have to admit that anyone who believes Trump can achieve even a few percent of what he promised upon taking the oath of office is… well, quite a lot naïve. And that includes him – if, that is, he believes it. Despite relying heavily on a healthy economy, a nation is not a business, and it cannot be run like one to generate quick profits. None of Trump’s much-advertized plans for domestic or foreign policy will be quick or easy to achieve – and many are not even remotely viable. He must know this, so is he lying?

Is this why he’s suddenly set his sights on a more manageable goal? From a very reliable source – although I haven’t personally verified it yet– I am told that he now intends to close down National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System – much as the Harper government here sorely wished they could dismantle the CBC. Why? The short answer is that public broadcasting is independent, not tied to vested corporate interests, and presents a reasonably balanced version of current affairs. In other words, it isn’t Fox News or the Rebel – and it cannot be. It has to represent the public as a whole, and virtually all coherent political views. This would seem to be a principal criterion of the news media in general – yet it is not. For whatever reasons – and I don’t dispute their right to it – some people prefer the news to reflect only their political opinions – which is to say they do not really want the truth. This would be no problem at all in a healthily diverse media market, such as the one in which I grew up in England during the fifties and sixties. In North America today, however – and this cannot be stated too often – all major media are owned and controlled by corporate interests which have much invested in a certain political outlook that favours them and their future prosperity. It amounts to an attack on free speech. In the recent US election, most mainstream media initially favoured Clinton, because her outlook was seen to guarantee business as usual. Trump was seen as a wild card, the Uncertainty Principle – and business hates undertainty. But something changed the corporate mind, and the stock market mysteriously rose after his electoral win. The opinion of media changed too, to one of it won’t be as bad as you think. This can only mean that corporate Titans and media-owners were reassured, during the many recent covert and overt meetings in Trump Tower, that the new President would be on their side.

For a long time, the lines have been tenuously drawn – the 99 percent against the one percent – but nothing tangible has emerged from this sloganeering. Yet something other than impotent outrage ought to emerge. The Constitution that Trump swore to uphold and defend, from enemies foreign or domestic, was written at a time when the structure of American society could hardly have been different from what it is now. Then, 95 percent of the population was self-employed – now only five percent is. There was no standing army, just a militia – which thus needed everyone to be familiar with firearms. 95 percent of the gross national income was from farming or manufacturing, and only five percent was from rentier sources, or other non-productive activities. These figures are now reversed, with most income derived from various forms of ownership and non-productive investment – much of it in the stock, bond and commodity markets, which, as any honest financier will admit, are a gigantic scam that only benefits a small handful of people, and actually harms many businesses and, most all, the smaller farmers. The America for which that Constitution was written has long gone, along with its relevance to anything. Like most state rituals, they are just hollow words.

As Leonard Cohen would say, everybody knows this – that the boat is sinking but the rich get richer – yet no one is able to, or capable of acting to change it. Perhaps, as Karl Marx said, action only occurs when all that is solid melts into air? And the only possible actors are the proletariat.

In this light, destroying public broadcasting is a very canny move. Who listens to or watches it? Liberal middle-class intellectuals, for the most part. In that sense, it would be like destroying Harper’s magazine – which, as I noticed in Iraq, didn’t bother US authorities at all, because it was only read by a few hundred thousand bookworms. What the mainstream national media did, or where they went, bothered the commandants a lot, however – because their audience is tens of millions of average citizens. So this move – if indeed it is to be – is just a spiteful lashing-out at that small minority Trump knows beyond all doubt despise him.

The Women’s March today was too decorus and generally-focussed to have any real impact as a protest – and do well-organized and well-behaved protests really ever have anything beyond a symbolic effect? It remains to be seen if the disaffected half of America will or can do anything truly pragmatic and transformative about a situation that they all, though in vastly differing ways, find intolerable. But, at least in Marxian terms, the country has not been more ripe for revolution since the late sixties. As always, though, it depends upon a small cadre of people who know what they are doing, and, ultimately, on which way the army decides to go – and, with the number of blacks and Hispanics in the armed forces, this is by no means certain anymore. It is true, though, that an overthrow of the status quo is nothing like as easy today as it was for the Paris mob in 1789, or for a rural middle-class in mid-17th=century England. Ironically enough, Trump, as he now still is, reminds me of an Oliver Cromwell, with business as a religion, and manufactured outrage as zeal. The question is will he turn out to have unpredicted qualities of genius in areas of endeavour he has never tackled before? Cromwell went with amazing agility from farmer to political activist to impressive military leader and to admired statesman. Can Trump go from entrepreneurial huckster to reality-TV star and thence to globally-renowned statesman? Nothing is impossible.

Unless something too awful to ignore emerges, however, I have resolved to give him six months before deciding that the revolution must happen before we’re all sunk…and everybody knows this too…

 

Paul William Roberts

 

The Tyranny of the Majority

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Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and social historian, who visited America in the 1830s, made some remarkably astute and percipient observations about US society and the nature of its democracy just over fifty years after Independence from England. His social rank opened doors in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, but he also travelled to the frontier lands of Michigan, and sailed down the Mississippi on a steamboat, and he met many, if not most of the key figures during that time. Three things struck him most forcefully. Firstly there was the cupidity and sheer greed of the general populace, all of whom reveled in the idea that anyone could become very rich – and that wealth equaled fame, prominence and thence power. He was distressed that the line between public and private life was blurred, and that it was accepted that private financial skullduggery should transmute into public corruption. At a high-society gathering, he was warned not to mention the subject of bankruptcy, since half the men there had been bankrupt at least once in their lives – for this was how one achieved financial success in spite of past failures. It was the American Way. Secondly, Tocqueville closely examined the structures of American democracy, admiring some aspects, but having grave reservations about others. Most grave of all his reservations was his belief that the US Constitution had no adequate protection against the advent of a tyrannical rule. All that was required to create such an administration was a majority vote, and, in his view, most voters were too ignorant to know in any real sense for what or whom they were casting ballots. Thirdly, he marveled at the profusion and influence of newspapers, which he termed a “living jury” judging issues of the day and those involved with them. At that time, there were 1,300 entirely unrestricted papers in the US, compared with 300 tightly censored ones in France, whose population was then not much smaller than that of America. Tocqueville focusses on these three issues – money, democracy, and the media – arriving at conclusions that are eerily relevant today.

 

The equation of wealth with success and thence power, he decided, was dangerous, and led to the disturbing tendency he saw in people to view wealth as a validation for anyone seeking high governmental office. It alarmed him to find there were no impediments to someone without any political experience running for and obtaining positions of immense systemic power. Among the important people he met was President Andrew Jackson, a wealthy entrepreneur with no experience of public service, and thus someone in the Executive Office who most closely resembles Donald Trump. Jackson was elected, Tocqueville observed, precisely because he had a proven track-record of financial wizardry, and absolutely no experience in politics. Obviously without any idea where media would be headed in 200 years, Tocqueville still saw that, lacking any controlling authority, newspapers were able to plant opinions and ideas in the minds of those too busy or tired trying to get rich to think over issues for themselves. He observed that journalists – who, on the whole, he regarded as uneducated and ignorant – dealt far more with emotions than with ideas or facts – and that emotions far more determined how people voted than reason did. While being a bastion of freedom, these newspapers are also, he tells us, a threat to public order – because there is no established class or social group to guide their editors and contributors in portraying correctly a stable course for the evolution of society. They promoted their own interests and prejudices over the general welfare of society. This would result in what Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority”, a right of those least qualified for the task to elect people least qualified for the office for which they run. This is known as a kakristocracy – and we are about to see one in action, for Mr. Trump has placed in the highest offices men who are extravagantly ill-qualified for such positions. Since half of the electorate clearly felt that politics should not be in the hands of politicians, we and they will find out how correct this idea is.

 

Of course, Tocqueville saw the press then as an epitome of independent free speech. Every town had at least one newspaper, and each day it printed whatever came into the editor’s head the night before. Back then it was impossible to envision that one day great monied interests would almost entirely dominate the media and selectively control their content of news and opinions. Yet, nonetheless, Tocqueville perceived the hazards involved in journalists, who are not politicians, boosting the virtues of business Titans, who are also not politicians. The public life is not remotely like the private life. An experience of governance, he says, makes it impossible, or at least reprehensible to make the kind of election promises that unexperienced and less credible candidates tend to broadcast in order to get elected. While he had a restrained admiration for the new and supposedly classless society, he also saw its pitfalls. An overclass is bound to emerge, but its values will probably not be fructifying or even sound – and people of doubtful character, unschooled in tradition, in the value and importance of social structures or institutions, will be able to assume the highest offices solely because an ignorant media sanctions them through manipulating the emotional aspects of their campaign messages. Where reason is abandoned, he says, the suffrage is worthless.

 

Anyone interested in a quick appraisal of Tocqueville could do worse than find a two-part podcast about him by the exceptional CBC Radio program, Ideas – CBC. ca/ideas. Anyone not interested can switch the remote back to Fox News.

 

Paul William Roberts

 

The Tower of Babble

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I want to be open-minded about Donald Trump, and see positive signs emerging from his gilded Tower, but he is making this task onerous indeed with his unending barrage of tweeted falsehoods and willful ignorance. I wonder how long the mainstream media will be prepared to tolerate his customary response to any well-founded accusation – “It’s a lie” – and what they will end up doing about it. It is hard, and rather saddening to picture the New York Times running headlines like PRESIDENT LIES YET AGAIN, but, however an incident like that is recorded, the national paper of record must record it one way or another, and in the most objective, non-partisan tone possible. Similarly, the screen networks, stations and web-sites should attempt to shed the auras of bias that have, until now, both typified them and defined their audiences. This gimmick will no longer work in the Trump Era. It worked when the Donald and his supporters felt themselves to be a beleaguered minority – as most Republicans laughably believed they were too during the Obama years – but when the Underdog becomes the Overdog righteous indignation doesn’t play so well. Fox News can only thrive as Fox Opinions as long as the tautological assumption that the real news is too distasteful to report exists. With their hero in the White House, the hacks at Fox will have to report on what he actually does and says, rather than their opinions of what is done and said. This is going to involve some hard decisions, and a major overhaul of the modus operandi there, because it will surely be deeply embarrassing to report favorably but ignorantly on an event that is rightly and factually excoriated by other news outlets. The people who only watch Fox, or only read the more scurrilous tabloids, are not completely unaware of what is on the Internet and in the more respectable media, and they also probably know that their information-of-choice has always come from a somewhat tainted and biased source. Again, this is fine for the Underdog, when all there is to do is express hostility and complain, but it leaves the Overdogs and their Emperor rather naked. Opinions are fine and necessary, but they belong in editorials, columns and places like this. To be credible, any news organization must devote most of its time and space to the objective and unselective reporting of events, leaving perhaps five percent to the opinionated bias of interviewees and columnists – and even this portion should reflect a balance of glower. This is undeniably not easy, and hardly anyone pulls it off. Journalists and writers are only human – maybe — and humans have their specific opinions and beliefs, none of which are wrong unless they clash with truth.

 

It is too simplistic to say that the flagrantly outrageous bias of right-wing media has goaded the left-wing into reacting in kind – it’s the chicken-or-egg scenario – but I think it is safe to say that they have both encouraged excesses in each other. The response from the right to Trump’s pathological tweeting will perhaps settle the issue once and for all, because, as we have just seen, this is going to become a very serious problem, and one that cannot be overlooked, since the Internet provides everyone with access to all global media, at least one outfit of which will not overlook a presidential catastrophe even if every source in America does.

 

 

As I said, I want to give Trump a chance and believe that his more unacceptable outbursts were just campaign tactics, but this recent tirade against Meryl Streep’s remarks at the Golden Globes endorses the views of those who have long claimed that the President-Elect cannot tolerate any criticism and reacts to it with blind rage. Back in the old money-grubbing days of bricks-‘n-mortar scams, he could probably say anything at all to that handful of people trapped in some business venture with him and get away with it. Prior to The Apprentice, and certainly prior to his most recent show, The Candidate, Twitter, and indeed most of Big Social Media did not of course exist – but if they had, how many followers and FB-Friends would the Donald have had? Ten? Endlessly amusing as the stereotypical Bad Capitalist for as long as I can remember, he is infinitely unamusing as Leader of the Free World. Does he not realize the nature of that medium he uses with such a frothing frenzy of childish intemperance and glee? Admittedly, it is questionable whether or not Streep should have used the podium and massive audience of an awards show to express her heartfelt dismay over Trump’s vile mimicking of a disabled person – but she did, and she too has a right to her opinion. Except it wasn’t an opinion. Maybe Trump watches too much Fox, but he obviously cannot easily tell the difference between stark fact and self-serving fiction. Immediately – he must always be glued to a TV screen – he tweeted that Streep was lying, that he had never done such a foul thing; and then, predictably, he threw in some puerile slights about the actress. These might have resonated with some and would have probably stung the recipient badly had she been some bimbo starlet. But to call one of the finest screen actors in America “overrated” is just pathetic and hi-lights his churlishness and the helplessly infantile nature of his reactions to adverse criticism. It also indicates that he is mindlessly dumb at times. For the media response was to run a clip of him mimicking the unfortunate disabled person a hundred times an hour. We should also not forget Trump’s Hollywood addiction, which no doubt explains why he was wasting time on an awards show he dearly wishes he could be a winner on instead of defining his foreign policy or ways to make America meek again. Some time ago, he was outraged not to receive a Grammy for his fine TV series, and griped that the awards were “rigged”, just as the election was going to be until he won it. It has long been observed that some German art gallery should have given Hitler a successful one-man show in the 1920s, to spare the world a decade of misery; so, similarly, the Academy in LA ought to give the Donald an Oscar to keep his dopamine flowing and the rest of us alive. Best impression of Homer Simpson as a financial Titan, perhaps?

 

 

At this point, I am not sure how he has responded to such an extremely adverse critique, or rather the irrefutable revelation that he was lying – which in fact has always been his reaction when confronted with an inconvenient truth. He may not have noticed, but opinions cannot be refuted – and they are cheap for a network to put on air – but now it is increasingly easy to confirm or deny facts. No one has any right to an opinion based on lies or distorted facts – for free speech must have some limits (there are concrete ones too: you cannot falsely yell “fire” in a crowded public space, for instance, and you cannot publically deny the Shoah or Nazi Holocaust. Both of these prohibitions concern the tranquility of society, which is disturbed by panic or hate. We might ask ourselves how far anyone should be allowed to go in actions clearly disturbing the peace. At what point does freedom of speech become an enslavement?).

 

I was keen for a fresh wind to blow into fetid Washington, but I am decidedly less enthusiastic about a hurricane with a disgusting miasma in its wake to escalate the existing stench. It might have been simple to bamboozle a few eager businessmen with cooked books and skewed statistics, but the dealmaker as politician faces a very different prospect – one videoed on an immensely large and exposed stage – a performance in which there is no opportunity for, or possibility of retakes.

 

The episode I envisioned – Apprentice Meets the Czar – is already in preproduction, it seems, and thus needs some preparatory program notes to clarify its storyline. Faced with the disagreeable news from his sixteen security services that the Russians had undoubtedly hacked into US computer networks in order to influence the recent election, and, moreover, that this venture was authorized by Vladimir Putin, Trump’s response was, “I don’t believe it – you can’t prove that!” Again, this reveals his confused attitude towards truth – because they could and did prove it. Of course, Putin’s objective in the scheme was to discredit Democrats and assist Trump’s campaign, so it is understandable that he, the Donald, wouldn’t want to believe it publically – and he cannot possibly be angry about it – but, as President, he is going to be obliged to feel slightly concerned about the Kremlin Hackers and what they might be tampering with next.

 

Revealed by the Panama Papers as someone with billions stashed offshore, Putin has handled his personal hacking scandal adroitly – what scandal? – but the temporary embarrassment must have given him food for thought. No doubt he views with derision the relative freedom of western media. The reason few Russians are aware of his large-scale and undeniable corruption is because he has a foolproof method for guaranteeing media reliability: he orders journalists and publishers threatened with ruin or simply murdered. Pravda, long the Russian newspaper of record, has enjoyed nearly a century of reporting the Truth, as its name suggests, but this truth has generally been officially sanctioned, or, you might say, cooked up near Red Square. Russian media function much like the medieval Church, with the Pope in his Kremlin determining dogma, any objective free-thinkers excommunicated, and all heretics burned at the stake, or else left to rot in the bleak dungeons of Lubianka Prison. Even those intrepid souls who escape the secret police end up poisoned or otherwise terminated, even in the apparent safety of Reformist European Media capitals. It’s a grim situation, and one that ought to give us pause – for Russian media are not a bow-shot from where the likes of Trump, and the plutocrats behind Fox et al, would like to drag US media. To assist the pushback against this nefarious trend, let us clarify the classic Russian position on interfering with western elections with a few hard facts – whether or not Mr. Trump believes them.

 

In 1968, Soviet Russian agents offered then presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey a considerable sum of money in return for several kinds of favorable treatment during his term of office. Humphrey refused the offer and reported the incident to authorities – which probably had nothing to do with him losing the election.

 

In 1976, Senator Henry Jackson, a rabid anti-communist, was for some time a hot Republican candidate for the presidency, and Moscow feared for its safety if he was elected. Again, Soviet Russian agents went to work with a campaign of lies about Jackson – allegations of homosexuality etc. – that seem to have found it ridiculously easy to gain an eager audience in the US media. They may well have scuttled the Senator’s hopes of a win, since, after a fiery start, he dropped out before the ballot.

 

In 2007, the new Russia was revealed to be interfering in Estonia’s electoral process, using the old tried and trusted methods. By then, of course, Putin was at the helm, and satellites of the old Empire seemed most to interest him. And ‘interest’ is the key word in these forays. If Moscow’s interests are in some way involved, it would seem, then any kind of underhand adventure is sanctioned, as the two best-documented US cases show. Just as Kremlin interests in, say, the Ukraine, the Baltic States and Crimea are easy to understand, so should the advent of Trump be. I doubt if Mr. Putin ever imagined an American presidential candidate would one day sing his praises, but one did, and he was clearly not slow to jump at the opportunity, lavishly rewarding that noble American friend with all the considerable resources at his disposal. It remains to be seen how grateful and loyal Trump will prove to be, but the Czar has played a deft hand of late. His cards may never be particularly good, but he always plays them with consummate skill.

 

As usual, however, US outrage at Russian malfeasance in tampering with democracy is a Himalayan summit of hypocrisy. It is not as if Washington is itself innocent of trashing democratic governments and movements all around the globe, is it? They may well also do it by computer these days – although the Iraqis will dispute this – but America’s history of violence against democracies has been unremittingly bloody and hands-on for over sixty years. It probably began officially in Iran, where the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953 and replaced with a brutal military dictatorship run by the US puppet, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a.k.a the Shah. This may help explain half a century of very strained relationships between Teheran and Washington. Main reason: Oil. After such a glorious early triumph, there seems to have been no holding back the CIA, which conducted dozens of assassinations, staged coups, backed rebels, or just called in the troops to trash democratic governments in South-East Asia, West Asia, the South Pacific, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and God only knows where else. I doubt if anyone has a correct number, but it is well over fifty countries, with a body-count approaching forty million. Reasons: ideology, oil, military bases, and a good ol’ land-grab. Number of US bases worldwide: approaching 1,000. Cost of wars plus bases: over a quadrillion dollars. In every case, the American public was lied to or fed propaganda to justify the expense of wars lacking rhyme, reason and any tangible benefit. Even their ideological benefit was surprisingly meagre, since few US allies – always ingrates – could perceive any real threat to their well-being since Hitler went down in flames. The unnecessary nuking of two Japanese cities – over 200,000 civilians dead in one day [ Reason: to test an atomic weapon and rub Stalin’s nose in it] – appalled some European leaders, because Japan was then trying to surrender, but it set the stage for hideous things to come, as well as revealing a characteristic disregard for international law that has burgeoned over the last twenty years into a frightening psychopathology.  I advise anyone seriously interested in learning why the United States is currently the most barbaric nation on earth, and the greatest threat to world peace there has ever been, to watch Oliver Stone’s 14-hour documentary, The Untold History of the United States, which is currently available on Netflicks. I’d be eager to hear from anyone who can find a factual error in this monumental series, which every America ought to see in order to understand how deeply flawed and dangerous their governmental system really is, as well as how many good men and women have been denied political office, persecuted, or murdered by the very dark forces that gained a stranglehold over the country around a century ago. This is very far from a conspiracy theory, for Stone names names and cites solid sources for every contention. His documentary – clearly a labor of love – is a sad and sobering experience, but a necessary one for all of us entering the greatest era of uncertainty yet in a highly uncertain world. I guarantee that anyone watching it will dismiss Putin’s little hackathon as poor stuff, not even worth a response when compared with the global ravishment of a dozen occupants of the Oval Office. Never say never, but Trump can hardly do worse than his predecessors – except, alas, he can. I really don’t want to hear Armageddon announced by a tweet…

 

Paul William Roberts

RIP John Berger & Ottawoes

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RIP John Berger

 

Last week the esteemed writer and Marxist art critic, John Berger, died at the ripe old age of 95. Best known for his seminal book Ways of Seeing, and the four-part television series based on it (currently available free on U-Tube), Berger began his career as a painter, but abandoned this for writing, because “painting seemed to be irrelevant in a world so chaotic and conflicted”. Irrelevant or not, he certainly devoted much time to thinking about it once he had ceased to practice. Notable among his acute perceptions was the fact that photography has transformed the way art is viewed. Renaissance masterpieces were generally spiritual or religious in nature, designed to be viewed in a single location – most often a church of some sort – where they were installed as a central part of the overall structure. Icons were even believed to possess a numinousity of their own which merited extreme veneration. But now these images can be viewed in our homes, with our wallpaper, carpets and furniture as their background. They can also appear in books, as postcards, beer-mats, posters, and be imprinted on T-shirts or any other fabric. All of this radically alters the meaning and nature of the image itself. In referring to the National Gallery in London’s Virgin of the Rocks, by Leonardo Da Vinci, he observed that, in the gallery’s catalogue, the description of this painting ran to fourteen pages of dense scholarship about provenance and previous owners. None of this, he said, really concerns the picture. It is there to affirm the work’s authenticity – and mainly to disavow the authenticity of the same painting hanging in the Louvre, where the French insist that it is the English not they who have the copy. So art becomes about its value, about money rather than beauty or genius. The very hefty gilded frames that adorn these masterpieces suggest no less than this. Berger must have marvelled at recent auction sales, where both Lucien Freud and the still-living Peter Doig had works sell for close to 30 million. He noted that information also changes our perception, citing the familiar example of the cornfield with crows painted by Van Gogh an hour before he shot himself. Then he turned to Franz Hals vast portrait of the almoners’ directorate, observing that our view of these stark and sombre, white-frilled faces is dramatically changed by knowing that, before he embarked on the painting, the alms house had given grindingly poor old Hals three loads of peat to prevent him freezing to death over the winter. Berger wryly pointed out that the music played over images in art documentaries like his can transform our understanding of the work in often unhelpful or erroneous ways. Paintings, he said, are meant to be viewed in silence. He also criticized the zooming and panning in films, which distorts our comprehension of something made to be seen as a whole. Asking a group of school children to comment on Caravaggio’s portrait of Jesus with two argumentative men, he found that the girls all thought the figure of Christ was female, and the boys thought it was male – but, without being aware of the painter’s homosexuality, every kid recognized a gender ambiguity.

Ahead of his time in the very early seventies, Berger espoused a feminist view of the nude in art, assembling a panel of prominent women in his series to discuss their impressions of how the female form was presented in classical paintings. He himself saw the women in many, if not most of these major works as pliant, hairless and sexless, but always receptive to the male advance, noting adroitly that nudity here is a form of dress that is undressed. Sometimes even the flimsy garments are as revealing as a naked figure, falling suggestively in places, or clinging to prominent features. Berger was always quick to say that we ought not to take his word for anything – we ought to look and see for ourselves. And, as King David said, we have eyes but we do not see. As a way of seeing, Berger’s work is invaluable, and his was a life well lived – God speed, Johnny.

 

Ottawoes

 

Politicians have always been excruciatingly shallow and terminally hypocritical, but they usually conceal these traits better than is currently being done. Had Trump lost the election – which, according to the popular vote, he actually did – his name would by now be a byword for ridiculous failure. As it is, though, we have two candidates for leadership of Canada’s Conservative Party openly boasting that they are Trump-style politicos. The aptly-named Kelly Leach brays about her proposed draconian policies towards Muslim immigrants – policies which in fact would violate our Charter of Rights. The oafish loud-mouth Kevin O’Leary tells us how rich he is, and abuses contestants on his – yes! – reality-TV show. You can’t blame the multi-millionaire businessman for seeing a slight resemblance between himself and the Donald. But neither of these opportunistic reptiles seems to understand that there is a difference between Canada and the USA – the main difference being that they don’t have a hope in hell of getting elected leader. The prospect of them, however, makes me realize why I voted for Trudeau le Petit. Better sunny ways than bilious hubris.

 

Paul William Roberts       

To 2017

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        He was livin’ on a high note

        But everything changed

        And all of his high hopes

        Were washed down the drain…

 

  • Mavis Staples

 

To whom will this grim fate apply in the year that now yawns ahead of us? Someone, to be sure. Will it perhaps be Czar Putin? With 2016 such a triumph behind him, he has every reason to expect more munificence ahead – which in itself is never a good sign. Having achieved – so far at least – the first effective cease-fire in six years for the Syrian civil war, he has positioned Russia as a major player in the Middle East for the first time in fifty years – or since the Egyptian government of General Nasser was replaced by an American hegemony under President Sadat. Furthermore, Putin now has the distinct promise of closer ties with a United States run by President Trump, and operated internationally by a Secretary of State with whom he is, by all accounts, on very friendly terms. But, historically, Russia has never proved to be a reliable ally to anyone for very long. Even Napoleon was bamboozled by the apparent friendship of Czar Alexander – and Trump is certainly no Napoleon. I take it for granted that Putin is far more savvy than Trump’s whole cabinet put together. So what will he want from this evidently proffered amity? Well, globally, besides the unlikely demise of America, it will be a weakening of China, and an increase in Russian stature on the world’s shaky stage. This is going to require all of Putin’s considerable ingenuity to pull off, entailing, as it must do, the abandonment of some old Russian client-states, like Iran and North Korea. Since the current Syrian cease-fire permits the US to continue attacking bases of the Unislamic State in Iraq, there would seem to exist already a tacit agreement in which, effectively, America gets to control Iraq, and Russia gets Syria. Necessity may make for strange bedfellows, but such fellows do not sleep easily in their beds. The present hubbub about Russian hacking of US computer networks is not going to die away quickly, and it is hard – though not impossible – to imagine President Trump ignoring the evidence presented by his own numerous security agencies. Of course, America is also hacking into networks worldwide, so it is conceivable that two rational Titans could mutually agree to cut the nonsense out – and let that be an end to it. Conceivable it may be, but it is also unlikely. Perhaps Putin’s greatest test will be in not blowing the first offer of US friendship since the halcyon era of Premier Gorbachev – halcyon, that is, from America’s perspective. In order to resume the old familiar hostility, the Russian Czar would have to find something that put Washington firmly in the wrong – but since he has a stranglehold on Russian media this might not prove that onerous.

Will it be Donald Trump who sees his hopes washed down the drain? History seems to indicate that the American Presidency can greatly compress even the most stalwart ego. Who had the most stalwart ego? In the post-war era, there was Truman, dumb enough to imagine he had the job because of his own brilliance. Then there was Eisenhower, too much a soldier to think he controlled anything. Next came Kennedy, who knew his father had bought him the post. Lyndon Johnson merely succeeded to the Oval Office. Nixon’s self-esteem was never high. Ford got there by default. God put Jimmy Carter in the White House. Reagan was too genially air-headed to think much at all. George Bush the First believed he was there by doit de seigneur. Perhaps Clinton thought he had clambered up there through his own merits and hard work. Bush the Second saw it as the family business. Obama seems to have known who he had to be grateful to, along with a cheerful dash of tokenism. Before this rather sorry crew, of course, there was Franklin D. Roosevelt, the last President who actually had some ideas. Which leaves us with Trump, who undoubtedly ascribes his success to a Himalayan range of personal genius. But will he prove to be a weary self-deluded Truman, or a battered but still ebullient Clinton? To say the least, it is not an easy job, and nothing goes as you planned it should. As far as one can see, the Pentagon generals will be handling most of the more iffy aspects of US foreign policy, along with a free rein to indulge in their real career of prospering the trillion-dollar US arms industry by continually fomenting small but long wars, as well as trumpeting omnipresent threats by various satanic forces. This will leave Trump more or less free to concentrate on domestic issues – and that is the area where most of those who voted for him will be relying on some genuine action. Jobs are what people really care about, not immigration or a wall. Yet it is hard to picture Trump threatening to penalize corporations for outsourcing jobs. For a start, corporate law forbids the making of decisions that will negatively impact shareholders. Hence it is actually illegal to consider implementing expensive ways to handle toxic waste, and so forth. As a businessman not averse himself to employing cheap wetback labour, Trump would have a very hard time explaining to corporations that, in order to make America great again, their profits have to become less great. As we know all too well, he thinks politics is all about making deals, but it is not – politics is all about making compromises. Whatever the old Trump scorned, the new Trump will eventually have to embrace, if his term in office is not to be an embarrassing disaster. I do wish him well, but it will not be an easy year.

Will it be Trudeau le Petit’s hopes that wash away here in Canada? With the Sesquicentennial, it ought to be a banner year – but he has promises to keep, and many miles before he sleeps (even though he took a road much-travelled by his family). My Oxford college recently celebrated its 800th anniversary (even though a part of it is 1200 years old), so 150 doesn’t seem very old at all. Can Canada possibly only be twice my age? 150 years might not be long, but I’ll wager that 2017 will seem like eternity to le Petit. With a 30 billion debt and scant sign of any serious economic recovery, the Prime Minister will have to concentrate on boring domestic issues, rather than the tinsel and frippery of state visits and international charity. Even his more frivolous and wantonly inessential pre-election vows – like legalizing marijuana (who care?. It’s been easily available and tax-free for my whole life) – are proving inconceivably pricey, and are now probably understandably regretted. The far graver problems of indigenous peoples are also proving to be impermeable to money – really, who ever thought they would be? Even the police are turning into a problem. Then there are the intractable provinces with their uniquely local issues and peculiarly self-interested demands (ah, the perils of federalism!). Add to this mountain of woe the prospect of a US President who, as CEO of our largest trading partner, will not be – how shall I put it? –exactly easy to deal with. No, Trudeau le Petit will be ten years older by this time next year. When the best you can hope for is that things will not get any worse, you are very close to being hopelessly embroiled and helpless to extricate yourself from the mire that time, not you, has created.

As always, my own hopes are for earthlings to wake up, treat one another with human dignity, and put this planet back on the path to Paradise it has always aspired to follow and can easily achieve (if you don’t believe me, read E.O. Wilson’s wise and wonderful books). I do also pity those whose hopes will be washed away, whoever they are. Happy New Year to all.

 

Love from Paul William Roberts

Enter the Czar & Illegal Legalities

 

 

‘Twas the week before Xmas

And all through the Kremlin

Apparatchiks were busy

Except for the Gremlin –

Czar Putin, by name

He cackled with glee

Hardly believing what he could see.

Lame duck Obama

Rattled his blunt sabre

While awaiting the advent

Of someone more favored –

Trump and Tillerson,

Putin’s sworn buddies.

If they couldn’t, who could

These waters to muddy?

 

George W. Bush said of Vladimir Putin, “I saw in his eyes that he was a man I could work with”. To this, the venerable John McCain – who would probably have made a better President than the Great Deceiver, Obama – remarked, “I saw in his eyes three letters – KGB…’ Unlike Joe Turner, Vlad Putin is a man I do despise. 1917 will be a big year in Russia… maybe – it’s the centennial of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Revolution. Not much – if anything – is left of that, and the Marxist ideals for a communist state never even saw the light of day. But we must never forget that Russians have a deeply poetic soul, and, since Peter the Great, have clutched to their hearts the notion that Russia is destined to be the “Third Rome”, inheritor of a third Roman Empire (the second being the “Holy” one). President Gorbachev – a visionary warrior for peace in western eyes, but not to his own people – left a nation in shambles and without an empire. After some embarrassingly catastrophic presidential replacements, onto the scene strides ex-KGB senior operative and front-man for a plutocratic cabal, Vladimir Putin, a figure easily cast as an eminence grise during the dark days of Rasputin and the monarchic twilight. Now, to his credit, he has turned the economy around and set Russia on a course to regain its former stature as a player in the Great Game – the old struggle with European powers, particularly Britain, to control the reachable world, now transposed to a wrestling match with the US. With the notoriously pro-settlements David Friedman named as Ambassador to Israel, and Exxon chief plutocrat Tillerson as Secretary of State, Donald Trump is putting his cards on the table. Israelis are not in fact happy to have as their channel to Washington a man whose attitudes are ideological and not pragmatic. He wants to move the Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a symbolic act that will help nothing at all, but will anger the Arabs in general, and much of the world too. Jerusalem will always be the stumbling block in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and the only viable solution for the place is that it becomes an international city, governed by neither side. I have had a wait-and-see attitude to Trump’s presidency until now, when it isn’t necessary to wait in order to see. This administration will be governed by ideology, not practical common sense. The Arabs – and by extension all Muslims – are already feeling singled-out as foes, and I don’t think the Donald realizes that this ostracizes nearly a fifth of the world’s population, not to mention a great deal of its wealth. But the Czar of Russia must be laughing his arse off. Tillerson is already a tight buddy, awarded by Putin Russia’s highest civilian honour (for what, I cannot make out), and Trump an avowed wannabe pal. Now, the Great Deceiver, otherwise known as the Magniloquent Oreo, Obama, is brandishing his wooden sword in the Oval Office, saying Russia should stop cyber-attacks, because “we can do stuff to them” in retribution. One trusts a month is sufficient for him to do that “stuff”. Failing other gambits, the Democrats are now trying to blame the lost election on Russian interference. Republicans are saying this should have been brought up before the voting began. In fact it was. On October the 11th of this year, the National Security Agency, on behalf of the seventeen other national security agencies, announced that there was little doubt Russian techno-terrorists were behind a series of cyber-attacks in the US, most of them aimed at disrupting the electoral process. In fact, Putin’s Russia has a history of interfering with elections in parts of the old Soviet Empire, like Kazakhstan, Baluchistan, and other central Asian states, as well as the Crimea, Georgia and the Ukraine. They do seem to have extended their reach now, though. In a month’s time, the Russo-American Alliance will probably be laughing off the pathetic threats to “do stuff”, but what will the balance of power be in this new alliance? Russia — undisputed victor of World War Two, we must remember — has just made its brutal come-back mark in Syria, bombing all opposition, including the Unislamic State, out of the north-east. But is it now going to leave Bashar al-Assad’s forces to clean up the rest? Unlikely, because his army has been decimated and would be incapable of tackling the last concentration of opposition to the south of Damascus. Sunni soldiers are also sick of killing their co-religionists, which leaves the field clear for Iranian-financed fighters from elsewhere in the Shia world – unless Russia stays to consolidate its military superiority and reap the benefits. For those who think war is an altruistic exercise, this is what Putin will unquestionably do. Which leaves Trump-Tillerson in an embarrassingly awkward situation. In a vacillation that would have made Hamlet seem potently decisive, America has um-ed and ah-ed from West Asia to Afghanistan, leaving nowhere any clear idea of a policy – to the point where no one believes there is a policy. Now, however, Trump has to make America great again by coming up with a game-plan for Syria-Iraq that has to terminate the Unislamic State and also restore peace and prosperity to regions where no one even remembers what that was like. And he has to do it with Putin bestriding western Mesopotamia like a colossus. Hard to see how this cozy friendship will survive the strain, but, soon enough, the next US President will have Unislamic terror to contend with all over the region, into Africa and Indonesia as well. If Obama has a shred of decency in him, he ought to pardon the whistle-blowers, like Edward Snowden and Julian Essanges, before he leaves office, since they performed the only noble, selfless acts of his entire soggy administration. Good riddance, Barry!

 

Illegal Legalties

 

Anyone who imagines the RCMP are mindful of our hard-earned tax-dollars ought to look at the crap-fest going on in Montreal. Today, the six newly-opened stores selling cannabis products were raided, and reefer celebrity-advocate, Mark Amory was taken into custody. We are told by the media and government that marijuana will be legalized this coming spring. Judy Amory, Mark’s wife, who is behind the six stores, claims she opened them today in order to push government notions about how pot should be sold. Understandably, the erstwhile underground merchants fear an incursion by Big Greed when legalization is implemented – and these fears are evidently well-founded when Shoppers Drug Mart can apply for a weed-vending license. It seems fair that the pioneers, who suffered ignominy and arrest, should emerge triumphant when rational laws prevail. These police raids are then not only vindictive and ludicrously petty – they are suspicious. Would Jean Coutu have been raided? Yes, the defense is that it’s still illegal – but in three months it won’t be. Are all these cases and the staff arrested going to appear in court long after legalization? And what kind of reasonable judgment could be passed down then? The blather over what will happen, and who can buy it where, is bad enough without this rank nonsense. It’s not as if people haven’t been easily buying and smoking weed for over fifty years, is it? Pot shops must not be near parks and schools – please! Are the police so annoyed that pot will no longer be illegal – all those wasted years and useless busts! – that they can wreak a vendetta on the presumptuous weed-merchants at tax-payers’ expense? The Quebec police services have already brought down enough shame on themselves with racial profiling and abuse of indigenous women that one wonders why they want more. Evidently fighting crime is outside their mandate, so, presumably, more persecution of the innocent, by whatever means present themselves, is about the only option left. It’s not as if we are legalizing burglary, is it? The legalization of drugs – and I mean all drugs (who asked the government to be a parent?) – would defang organized crime in a serious way, cutting off a major cash-flow. In my book, Smokescreen, I pointed to the relationship between the government and organized crime in Montreal. I had assumed this was over now – but perhaps I’m wrong? Write to the Police Chief and tell him what you think about the way he wastes your money – I certainly have.

 

Paul William Roberts

Anecdotal Evolution & the Nobel Laureate

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I have been told that my Leonard Cohen-Dylan anecdote was recently in the New Yorker magazine. I do not get the New Yorker anymore, although I wish I did and could still read it, because, as I recall, it was the best magazine on earth. Their version of the great Cohen-Dylan meeting was unattributed, set in Paris rather than Montreal, but contained a few of the key elements from my own version. I should stress that I was only told about the piece and did not actually read it myself – or listen to my robot reading it. The fact that a 30-year-old celebrity yarn has taken on a life of its own intrigued me. Of course, I have related the tale to dozens of people over the years, one of them a stand-up comic who used it in his act with himself as the narrator. Naturally, Leonard told the story too, and I once heard him spin a highly embellished version of it – but it was not set in Paris. I don’t know if Cohen and Dylan ever played concerts in Paris at the same time, but they would have had to for the anecdote to work there. However, it is the longevity and adaptability of these snippets about our idols that interests me. Certain incidents, like the Great Summit of Two Troubadours, take on a numinous significance and embed themselves in the larger myth, where they become an intrinsic part of the whole. We see it in every hagiography, from the Buddha to Bowie. Who knows if the young Siddhartha Gautama was really shielded by his father from the harsh realities of life? From what we know of the Buddha’s discourses, he was not given to autobiography, and there are also Nepalese folk-tales concerning a prince who became a holy man after facing life’s grimmer issues – but, attached to the Buddha’s narrative, the story, whatever its provenance, becomes an indispensable metaphor, and is thus intrinsic to the greater corpus. The Christian myth is similarly fleshed out with anecdotes that permit Jesus to say something wise – and some of them are even clearly spurious. When Jesus is asked, in Matthew (I think), about a woman’s right to divorce, he confidently cites Roman law on the subject – when he presumably would have only subscribed to Halachic law, under which a woman has no right to divorce. Gospel exegetes generally concur that the text began simply as a collection of wise sayings, which was then turned into a narrative, mostly by Mark, who created incidents where certain expostulations of wisdom were appropriate. But it seems that many of these anecdotal episodes were from the lives of other people – especially from James, the so-called “brother of Jesus”, who has all but vanished from history, although, unlike his famous sibling, he is in fact an historical figure. When an anecdote enters and is embedded in the myth, its actual truth ceases to matter, and it will continue to exist in whatever form best suits the myth, rather than the truth. In a John Lennon biography, I once read an anecdote of mine that was attributed to Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia. In fact, though, coming from her mouth, it gained a significance in the overall legend that it would not have gained had it come from my lips. In a documentary I watched, a Beatles anecdote I had been told by the horse’s mouth was attributed to Yoko Ono, which increased its aura of sanctity but detracted from its credibility, since Yoko had yet to appear on the scene when the incident recounted occurred. The sculptor David Wynne told me this story, and it revolved around him. He had been commissioned by Kellogg’s Cornflakes to sculpt the Beatles for tiny plastic figurines that would be included in each box of the cereal. Naturally, his maquettes were life-sized and not an inch tall. The work was concluded in Paris, and a dinner celebration had been planned. David wanted to give each Beatle a present to commemorate their relationship, and he found, on the Left Bank, four Egyptian scarab beetles. Not a modest man, he recounted his speech to the four mop-tops something like this: “I told them the history of these scarabs and ancient Egypt, and of course they were amazed – they’d never heard anything like it before, because they were wretchedly uneducated, almost illiterate…” So inspired were the lads, evidently, that, when Ringo discovered his scarab had been cleared away with the dinner things, “he had the whole metropolitan rubbish tip of Paris combed through until it was found…’ Now, you’d think that this anecdote would only work if the sculptor told it himself, no? Well, no. Ascribed to Yoko, it became an entirely different story, one about how she brought culture to the culturally-deprived Lennon, whose scarab beetle was lost and then found through her amazing grace. Ortho-anecdotes might be the term. It is, ultimately, the requirements of the myth that determine the version of an anecdote that survives and thrives, but this does give them a kind of spuriously eternal existence in which they become chameleons, taking on the characteristics of their new surroundings and shrugging off their humble origins.

 

The Nobel Laureate

 

Has anything so eagerly anticipated been as deeply disappointing as Bob Dylan’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize? One was hoping for a Dylan in white tie and tails dining with the Swedish monarch, and even possibly singing a new song instead of delivering a dignified speech. One was also assuming that Bob would actually bother to travel there and accept the world’s most prestigious literary honour in person. He’s nothing if not unpredictable, however. Perhaps he had good reasons for not attending, but he never shared them with us or the Nobel Committee. Instead, the hapless US Ambassador to Sweden read a speech especially written by Bob for the occasion. Actually, it sounded more as if it had been especially dictated in ten minutes on a tour bus. Whether or not it was deliberately moronic is impossible to say, but it displayed the ignorance of a Grade 10 student with Internet access. First, Bob informed us of the prestigious exclusivity of the literature prize, rattling off a short list of previous laureates – but only previous laureates from the US – which did serve to point out how erratic the criteria for awarding this honour can be. Then our humble bard informed us how far from his thoughts winning a Nobel Prize had been for most if not all of his life. He confided that he had played concerts for 50,000 people, and also ones for fifty people, and that it was harder to play for fifty, since they were more demanding and critical – which reminded him that the Nobel Committee was also small in number and therefore more critical, making his award all the more marvellous because… Well, it was hard to say whether it was because, being so small and critical, the panel of judges must have thought very highly indeed of the Dylan oeuvre, or whether such a tiny committee was bound to make grievous mistakes. The new laureate then mused on the nature of literature, opining that literary giants like Shakespeare never thought they were writing literature, just as he, Bob, only thought about scribbling the next song, getting the right musicians for it and the right studio to record in. Warming to his theme, he returned to Shakespeare, who, he usefully reminded us, was “a famous dramatist”. Will the dramatist, said Bob the bard, was writing plays to be seen and heard, not read. He wasn’t writing literature — he was an entertainer. Bob assured us that, when Hamlet thinks about “different thing”, his creator, Will, was thinking about box-office receipts, the right scenery, where he could get a human skull, and whether the play should really be set in Denmark. I laughed my arse off, but it was still hard to say if the Minnesota Maestro was serious about this or not. In his mind, the Nobel had now placed him in some very rarified company, and, by all accounts, he felt quite comfortable there, privy now to the Bard of Avon’s most inner concerns. Dylan wrote long ago of Shakespeare being “in the alley with his pointed shoes and his bells…”, or something, which, at the time, made me think his views of the Elizabethan dramatist were derived more from folk tales than history. Is he still so ignorant of the greatest star in the English literary firmament? Is Elizabethan English beyond his repertoire? Anyone with even a mild passion for Shakespeare can see that the curious thing about his plays is they are written to be read on a page rather than seen in a theatre. The poetry and themes are far too dense and complex to be comprehensible to a first time audience – especially one at the old Globe, where you were lucky even to hear more than half a play coherently. As for the Avon Bard not writing literature, on a number of occasions in the Sonnets, he makes it eerily clear that he knows his poetry will outlast time – just as Dante does in the Divine Comedy. Bob also seemed confident that, with the Nobel’s stellar endorsement, his own work was now guaranteed a cozy eternity, and had certainly already resonated with people around the world. He was very grateful for the honour Sweden had accorded him, etc. Not so grateful that he’d bother to collect it in person, however. One felt deeply sorry for America’s Ambassador having to read this rambling twaddle to the King of Sweden, when he could have penned a far more fitting eulogy for Bob himself. But, as always, Dylan vanishes into his own mythic enigma, leaving us wondering if we’ve just been treated to a form of ironic satire, or if it was only another taste of Bob Dylan’s patent scorn for his audiences and fans. Plus ca change…

 

Paul William Roberts

Voodoo Economics

 

 

Here is a question. A woman, a wife, dies in an accident that was in no way her fault. She does not work, but her husband still has to be compensated for her loss. So, in terms of cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, and love, what is her life, or her death, worth? Believe it or not, but professional economists are frequently asked to answer such questions, with reasoned arguments, annotated spreadsheets, and so forth — by insurance companies. And they do the work – for a fee – either as honestly as possible, or, often, with the interests of an employer in mind. Thanks to the superlative CBC Radio show, Ideas – It’s the Economists, Stupid, November 28th – I came across Professor Richard Dennis of the Australia Institute, an economics think-tank. A former university economist and lecturer, Dennis is a very interesting fellow, who, as some might say, is now the bane of his fellow economists. He points out that economists have become the new priests or shamans, telling us what the ‘markets’ say or want, the way priesthoods in antiquity, or in primitive cultures, would invoke dictates of the gods. The markets, Dennis says, tell us nothing but what people with millions invested in them want us to believe. But he reserves his greatest scorn for ‘economic modelling’. Just as a model train or car is not a real train or car, Dennis says that economic models do not necessarily reflect reality in any way, but rather indicate an outcome desired by whoever commissioned them. In other words, to put it kindly, they are just opinions – and not the hard evidence they are usually proclaimed to constitute. A notorious example, says Dennis, is that of oil-pipeline companies. He has some egregious examples from Australia – where a company boasting 44,000 new jobs could actually provide none, when their numbers were unravelled – but he also points to claims currently being made by companies in Canada. They all use something called ‘Input-Output’ modelling, which ostensibly fudges funds and labour invested with profits and jobs to be delivered. Dennis uses the analogy of a GDP incorporating the goods and services provided by every single privately-owned house in a country – the value of warmth, protection, shelter, accommodation, pleasure, and so forth. According to his critique, we should examine far more carefully the claims of Kinder-Morgan, Northern Gateway, and the others, all of whom make extravagant boasts about the jobs their pipelines will bring people along the way, and the immense tax-benefits their vast profits will accord governments. More often than not, says Dennis, these claims are lies based on deliberately skewed economic modelling. As prognosticators, economists have an especially dismal record – yet no one remembers it, because the shamans are busy predicting the next catastrophe, or sometimes the next great thing.

The rat’s breakfast of contemporary economics is not without levity. A pundit wrote that nurses ought to be poorly paid, because low wages attracted only the most altruistic to the profession – and, wrote this wretch, altruism is the most necessary quality for a nurse. This prompted another economic wag to counter that CEOs ought to be poorly paid, since this would ensure the kind of essential altruism that puts shareholders and staff above personal concerns.

It used to be said that, ‘There are lies, damned lies, and statistics’. Clearly, we did not realize that, behind the concocting of statistics, were always economists. In an era where so many major decisions are based on fiscal oracles, perhaps we need to take these spurious prophecies with more than a pinch of salt – which, after all, was a prime form of currency for the Romans.

 

Paul William Roberts