Ursula Franklin, physicist, feminist, peace activist, and Holocaust survivor died last week in Toronto at the age of 94. I had the great privilege of knowing her and of serving with her on the panels of several conferences devoted to the subject of how to make this world a place where peace and justice replace war and violence. Her voice was as gentle, quiet and generous as her beautiful soul, yet its words and thoughts resonate like thunder, and will continue to represent humankind’s highest ideals until those ideals are made a reality. She was our Gandhi, our Bertrand Russell and our Einstein in her insistence upon placing the public good above politics, philosophy and science. But most of all she was our Ursula Franklin, an uncompromising advocate for pacifism and universal justice, a unique and truly great Canadian whose like we shall never see again. Like many who knew her, I will miss her forever.
The memories that came flooding back when I learned of her passing were often chastening, since I have frequently given vent to anger over those events to which she would have viewed with a calm reason in their contextual causality. Particularly, I recall her discussion with Paul Kennedy on September 13th, 2001. CBC Radio had cancelled all programming for two days in the wake of the attacks in Manhattan, broadcasting only news updates; so the discussion with Ursula Franklin was one of the first programs to be aired. Paul Kennedy, still the most intelligent man in broadcasting, was well aware of the pervasive mood then afflicting most people after the twin towers were demolished – the fear, horror, and desire for bloody revenge – and, although he had a long relationship with and an admiration for Franklin, he asked the kind of tough questions an anguished public demanded. Franklin’s answers acknowledged the shock we all felt during those awful days, yet they were still consistent with her ideals – and she received a backlash of outrage for this. Kennedy asked her what she would say to such terrorists if the opportunity for dialogue arose. She replied, very simply, that men willing to die for an ideology would surely opt for a better way to resolve their issues if one were presented. The coin of peace has on its flip side justice not war, she said. Kennedy asked if we were now at war, to be told that the world is always at war somewhere, yet also most places are at peace. To Ursula Franklin the issue was always one of justice. Without justice there is nothing but violence and war. Peace goes hand in hand with justice.
To her, justice was the most wide-ranging of subjects, incorporating everything from education and health-care to proper nutrition. She viewed wars and violence as the consequences of injustice; and she regarded the function of governments as an eradication of injustice for the good of all. For this alone they are elected to serve us. When asked if it was even appropriate to discuss peace after such a diabolical attack, she said it was the best time to do it, since the public mind is more concerned with such issues than it is when life proceeds calmly and danger seems remote. As always, she was right, and there was indeed a brief window open after September 11th through which could be glimpsed the possibility of a multilateral body devoted to quelling terrorism through dialogue and the addressing of those grievances at its root. That window was slammed shut by George W. Bush, whose wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Islamic world were and are the direct cause of a terrorism now afflicting all western nations and their allies.
Ursula Franklin was by profession a scientist, and, like E.O. Wilson, Einstein, and numerous other scientists, she was more aware than most laymen of both the benefits and dangers inherent in technology, as well as being highly critical of governments which seem to think their purpose is a promotion of technology in its countless manifestations without considering the effects of these technologies on human lives. Franklin saw the Nazi Holocaust in terms of monstrous injustice; yet she viewed the atomic bombs dropped by US warplanes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an act of injustice too. Einstein and Russell bought a page in the London Times to issue a joint warning about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, calling for an international ban on atomic weapons – weapons Einstein’s theoretical mathematics had originally proved were possible. E.O. Wilson has written a book showing how this planet could be transformed into a paradise within 100 years if governments committed to the project. Ursula Franklin, back in the dawn of our computer age, was concerned about the isolating effects on workers of devices that obviated the need for interactive discussion, creating the loss of a crucial sense of being part of a joint project, a sense that provides life with meaning. She also said that wars in Africa were facilitated by arms sales but could be ended by money spent on public health projects and agricultural developments.
Another abiding concern of hers was the increasing commercialization of public life. Most events, festivals, holidays, and so forth, were now based upon the transaction, which in her view had become the major mode of human interaction. A celebration for which you pay, and pay in numerous ways too, is a business enterprise and not really a public gathering. By contrast she would cite Medieval fetes, where people gathered freely, only buying foods or drinks if they could afford them, with everyone able to enjoy the dancing or performances, since fun was and should always be free. Over the course of my sixty years I have noticed this burgeoning mercantilism in every area of society, and I also blame governments that have come to place business above all other aspects of their work as alleged public servants. The trade deals and contracts we hear of weekly as if they will enrich us personally in fact hold few if any benefits for the average citizen. Profits go largely to a tiny elite of plutocrats, who pay less in taxes than their employees. The government, in a very real sense, works for them in negotiating trade deals. Even the slogan ‘Canada is open for business’ is obnoxious. We are not a shop, and politicians are not salesmen. The public will be better served by a government principally concerned with reducing the criminally high taxes in Canada by ceasing to squander billions on war machines, wars and the armies that wage them. Those companies in the arms business – which profits by facilitating worldwide violence – can easily be retooled for the construction of useful devices and essential infrastructures. Arms dealing ought to be as illegal on a large scale as it is on the street. There is no difference, except for that old maxim: one law for the rich, another for the poor. This pullulating commercialization of life ties in with irrational fluctuations in prices (for example, why should gasoline companies be allowed to raise prices on Friday because more people drive on the weekend? They will cite the dubious theory of supply and demand, no doubt. But this is not cited when oil prices plummet yet pump prices remain the same. Yet when oil prices rise pump prices instantly rise, even though the gas being sold was purchased at a lower price, since it takes some time for the barrels of crude to be refined and shipped off to gas stations. On the street this would be termed ‘profiteering’ – as in selling ten cent candles for a dollar during a massive black-out – and it is illegal, despite the theory of supply and demand. This is but one example of how governments do not work for those who elect them). Many will have noticed the deterioration in quality now common to many once-fine products. Two factors cause this. Firstly, the Chinese have learned or been taught to manufacture items that appear to be of exceptionally high quality, identical to similar western products but far cheaper. ‘Appear’ is the key word here. The core of such products, the actual mechanisms, are trash. I have no qualms about advising you not to buy anything made in China; and read the box carefully, since marketing is now a branch of fraud and will attempt to fool you by things like ‘assembled in the USA’, which may well mean it was put in the box, or even just made in a Chinese labour camp renamed Usa. I bought a Chinese-made carving knife identical to one made in Germany but a quarter of the price. It was blunt after two days and required sharpening for every use. Finally, I threw the thing out and bought the German model, which has been sharpened once in two years and is so sharp that, being blind, I use it with care. Why the difference? German steel is the finest on earth; Chinese may do well for manufacturing sardine tins.
The second reason for quality-slump is that most large companies are now no longer in the business they seem to be in; they are in the business of enriching their shareholders, which means keeping share prices high, which means keeping profits high, which means doing whatever’s necessary to make that next quarterly bottom line fat and healthy. And whatever’s necessary can mean anything from firing half your staff to dramatically reducing costs by purchasing the cheapest crap you can find to manufacture whatever it is you make without altering its appearance. Brands that were bywords for reliability are now obsolescent in a year. Since no one seems to repair anything these days – partly because things are made in such a way that repair is either impossible or requires an expensive tool – and this means you will have to buy another one. And beware here, because the other company you may choose to buy from might well be owned by the same people who sold you crap, and their device may look different but will actually be the same crap. Ursula Franklin believed governments were responsible for making sure the public was not being duped or swindled, and that this involved examining business structures potentially or actually forced to make unrealistic profits which would run counter to the public good. In theory, capitalism is an excellent method for raising the funds needed to start business ventures. In practice, however, unless restrained, it will devour itself. Companies that go public today are generally not raising funds to expand operations; they are allowing the original owners to cash in without actually selling the company. Facebook hardly needed a cash infusion, did it? The transition from private to public corporation means that your responsibility is now to shareholders, most of them investors for pension funds and vast concerns. If these investors do not like your latest figures they will dump so many shares that your price will plunge, which can cause panic selling and a hundred dollar share suddenly worth five bucks inside a single day. Also, a corporation has the legal status of a person, with concomitant rights, some of which get close to making crime legal. A corporate board is also not allowed by law to make any decision that will lose the corporation money. This might sound sensible, yet in practice it can mean that a plant polluting some river is unable to install filtration systems because these will affect profits. Shareholders want and need profits to increase yearly so that their shares grow in value. Common sense alone ought to tell everyone that profits in the same business cannot continue growing. Executives may be threatened by this into working themselves to death, but eventually any company will reach its profit-zenith. A private company will not be much bothered by this; but the public corp will be so bothered by it that they’ll have to lie in their report, fatten up the figures, and then think hard. Deceitful reports are issued so often that even Forbes magazine only troubles itself with reporting the most outrageous ones. A corp in this state has only one real option: merge with someone you hope isn’t also lying about the bottom line. Usually this boosts share prices and allows shareholders swap options and a decent profit. Internet businesses are more malleable since they produce absolutely nothing and thus don’t have to worry over commodity prices. But a board meeting of, say, a major clothing line will barely mention what they do. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the next bottom line and the trend in their share price. The next bottom line is like a New Year’s Day that happens four times each year. Each ulcerated exec views his life in three-month stretches. He always has just three months to live, this commuted to another three months if that last bottom line raised no eyebrows among his executioners. It must be a hideous way to live, but he can’t afford to lose it because then his debt would be his death. Thus he is the one who cuts all possible costs, no matter if this means having clothes made by prepubescent slave girls in a North Korean prison to save a dime. Ursula Franklin believed we, as a society, need to buy less, socialize with one another more, and ceaselessly lobby governments until they serve us by ending war, guaranteeing justice for all, distributing wealth equitably, and committing to pacifism as the only way to solve the evils of violence and injustice.
To honour the memory of Ursula Franklin I shall endeavour in future to remain loyal to her ideals. War does not create peace; violence is not a solution to anything. The countless trillions spent on technologies of warfare are in themselves sufficient to fund solutions to all of the world’s worst problems, and to ensure there is justice for all wherever they are and whoever they are. A pacifist constitution would soon pay off the national debt of every nation. I have little doubt that a global consensus to renounce war and abolish all of its technologies in order to impose peace, justice and equality could be arrived at if governments consulted the will of their people. Arduous as this task may be, it is surely worth striving to attain. Indeed, is there anything more worthy of our efforts? Peace, plenty, and paradise for all within a hundred years – who can seriously refuse such an offer?
Thank you, Ursula Franklin, for a life lived well, and for the light you shone into our darkness. God bless you.
Paul William Roberts