The West and the Rest and the Fate of the Environment

May 2, 2014 § 2 Comments

I just read a quick book review in Foreign Affairs of Charles Kenny’s new book, The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West.  This comes on the heels of a spate of books in recent years about why it is that the West rules now, but why it won’t shortly.  The best of these books (at least amongst those I’ve read) is Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules — For Now: The Patterns of HIstory and What They Reveal about the Future. The worst is my favourite village idiot, Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest, and not just because of his incredibly stupid device of the “killer apps” that the West downloaded first, but have since been downloaded by the rest, but because of Ferguson’s inability to hide his triumphalist ethno-centrism.  I also teach a lot of World History, so the topic interests me.

Kenny argues that, in contrast to Ferguson and others, that the rise of the Rest isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the West.  Moreover, Kenny also claims that the rise of the Rest isn’t due to any failure on the part of the US, but, rather, is a function of Washington’s global leadership.  And, unlike any other writer I’ve read on the matter, Kenny is also concerned about the possibilities for environmental degradation due to global economic advancement.  This is interesting, actually, making me think of Doug Saunder’s Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Re-Shaping Our World (I reviewed that here on this blog).  Saunders is also a triumphalist, arguing that urbanisation is a great boon to humankind, but he overlooks the environmental degradation from cities.

However.  Where Kenny falls down, at least according to this review (I do look forward to reading The Upside of Down), is that he expects the free market (along with education and innovation) to take care of that problem.  This is where I get suspicious, given that the free market has done very little for environmental degradation, and left to our own devices, we humans would destroy the environment without some kind of governmental intervention.  I don’t see why it would work any better in the developing world, frankly.

But, Kenny also redeems himself in his concluding argument wherein he favours the establishment of global rules and regulations to regulate global development and environmental damage.  Of course, I’m not sure how this squares with his faith in the free market, but I suppose I’ll have to read the book to find the answer to that.

The Dehumanising Process of Imperialism

November 7, 2013 § 2 Comments

I’m reading CJ Shivers’ book, The Gun, which is essentially a history and biography of the machine gun, though he focuses primarily on the AK-47.  Shivers, though, goes into great depth about the development of machine guns, back to the attempts of Richard Gatling’s attempts back in the 1860s to develop an automated firing system.  So far, I have to admit, this book is worth the hype it received when it came out in 2010.

However. Shivers spends some time discussing the deployment of the Gatling Gun, as well as the Maxim, amongst others in colonial endeavours in Africa in the late 19th century during the Scramble for Africa.  For the most part, Shivers follows British troops on their attempts to pacify the natives.  The descriptions of the efficacy of the guns are chilling.  Shivers quotes one British soldier who casually mentions the piling up of African bodies as the British advanced with their Maxim guns.  Numbers get thrown around, here 3,000 dead, there 1,500, and so on and so forth.  These are from single battles, large African forces against small British ones.  And yet the British win, because of the guns.

The book summary on the back cover says that this is “a richly human account of the evolution of the very experience of war.”  It is, at least so far, if we are talking about white Europeans and Americans.  When it comes to the black Africans, however, they’re no more than body counts.  This, however, is NOT really Shivers’ fault.  This is the nature of imperialism, this is the very core of imperialism.  The colonised “other” is a faceless, shapeless mass.  The imperialist dehumanises the victims of the imperial process.  The colonised are reduced to something not quite human.  The fault here doesn’t lie with Shivers (let me state that again), it lies with colonial sources.  By design, the Africans were dehumanised by the British (or the French, the Italians, the Germans, or whomever) during the Scramble.  They were reduced to an irritant in the forward march of progress.

None of this is news to anyone who knows anything about imperialism.  It’s not news to me, but sometimes I feel like I’ve just been smacked in the face with this knowledge.  It is almost like reading it again for the first time.  And reading The Gun, I feel that way.

The New Yorker and Serbian Aggression: Re-Writing History

September 12, 2013 § 5 Comments

I like reading The New Yorker.  It’s generally a pretty good general interest magazine and I appreciate its particular slant and humour.  But sometimes I read things that are profoundly stupid.  Like in the 2 September issue, in a profile of the Serbian tennis player (and world #1), Novak Djokovic.  Djokovic grew up during a difficult time in the former Yugoslavia, as it disintegrated.  And he grew up during a difficult time for Serbia, while it was committing genocide.  So, when the author of this piece, Lauren Collins, casually mentions that NATO began bombing Belgrade, without any context, I was left gobsmacked.  Belgrade was bombed by NATO during the Kosovo War, during which the Kosovars fought for their independence from the remaining rump of Yugoslavia, which was really just Bosnia.

Serbian troops, with their wonderful record of genocide in Bosnia/Herzogovina (in conjunction, of course, with Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb army) were suspected of committing genocide, or at least engaging in genocidal massacres, against the Kosovars.  Hence, NATO, as it had done in 1995 during the Bosnian genocide, stepped in.  In the end, it turns out that Serbia wasn’t exactly committing genocide in Kosovo, merely “”a systematic campaign of terror, including murders, rapes, arsons and severe maltreatments” (to quote from the BBC), the Serbian army sought to remove, not eradicate the Kosovars.

Whether NATO was right or wrong to drop bombs on Belgrade, Serbia has a history of committing genocide and other crimes against humanity.  There’s a reason former Serbia President Slobodan Milosevic died in prison in The Hague whilst on trial for war crimes and former Serbian general Ratko Mladic is presently on trial in The Hague.

Clearly Collins is trying to engender a sympathetic audience for Djokovic, who, as an 11-year old boy had nothing to do with Serbian genocides, and it is largely an entertaining article.  Nonetheless, she is guilty of a gross misappropriation of history in describing the bombing of Belgrade in an entirely passive voice: “When he was eleven, NATO began bombing Belgrade…”, she then goes on to explain the young Djokovic’s means of survival.  She goes onto write “In the aftermath of the war, as sanctions crippled Serbia’s economy, Djokovic’s family struggled to support Djokovic’s ambition [to be the world No. 1 tennis player].”  Again, this is a tragedy for the Djokovics, but there are very real reasons why Serbia was hit with economic sanctions by NATO and its allies, and that’s genocide.

The New Yorker and its editors, as well as Lauren Collins, should know better.  It’s that simple.

Bono Vox, Corporate Stooge

June 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

In today’s Guardian, Terry Eagleton gets his hatchet out on Ireland’s most famous son, Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, the ubiquitous frontman of Irish megastars/corporate behemoth, U2.  Eagleton is ostensibly reviewing a book, Harry Browne’s, Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power), which sounds like a good read.  Eagleton’s review, though, is a surprisingly daft read by a very intelligent man, one of my intellectual heroes.

He takes Bono to task for being a stooge of the neo-cons.  For Bono sucking up to every neo-con politician from Paul Wolfowitz to Tony Blair and every dirty, smelly corporate board in the world in the line of his charity work.  Eagleton even takes a particularly stupid quote from Ali Hewson, Bono’s wife, about her fashion line, to make his case.  Now, just to be clear, I think Bono is a wanker.  I love U2, they were once my favourite band, and The Joshua Tree is in my top 3 albums of all-time.  But Bono is a tosser.  He can’t help it, though, he’s like Jessica Rabbit, he was just made that way.  Eagleton, for his part, essentialises the Irish in a rather stupid manner as an internationalist, messianic people, and says, basically, Bono and his predecessor as Irish celebrity charity worker, Bob Geldof, were destined to be such.  Whatever.

I’m more interested in Eagleton’s critique of Bono as a corporate/neo-con stooge.  It’s a valid argument. Bono has coozied up to some dangerous and scary men and women in his crusades to raise consciousness and money for African poverty and health crises.  But, I see something else at work.  A couple of years ago, there was news of a charity organisation seeking to use Coca-Cola’s distribution network in the developing world to get medicine out there.  I thought it a brilliant idea, but, perhaps predictably, there was blowback.  Critics complained that this would then give Coca-Cola Ltd. positive publicity and that it did nothing to stunt Coca-Cola’s distribution, blah blah blah.  Sure, that’s all true, but perhaps it would be a good thing if needed medicines were distributed through Coke’s network, especially since Coca-Cola Ltd. was more than willing to help out?  Maybe the end result justified the means?

And so, reading Eagleton on Bono today, I thought of Cola Life (the charity working with Coke).  And I thought, it’s certainly true that Bono has worked with some skeezy folk.  But, if the end result is worth it, what’s the problem? If working with the likes of Tony Blair (hey, remember when everyone loved Tony Blair?!?) and Paul Wolfowitz and Jeffery Sachs actually can lead to positive developments for Africa and other parts of the developing world, is it not worth giving it a try?  Or is it better to sit on our moral high grounds in the developed world and frown and shake our heads at the likes of Cola Life and Bono for actually trying to work at the system from within for positive change?

I’ve always been struck by a Leonard Cohen lyric, the first line of “First We Take Manhattan”: “They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom/For trying to change the system from within.”  Cohen there summed it up, working within the system for change and revolution is boring, it’s not glamorous, it’s not glorious.  But my experience has taught me that it works, and more positive change can be affected through pushing from within the system than from without it.  It doesn’t mean it’s always all that ethically clean, either, sometimes you have to get dirty to do a wider good, and I think that’s what Cola Life and Bono are doing on a much bigger, grander, and more impressive scale.  And I think the Terry Eagleton’s of the world are living in the past, with their moralistic tut-tutting, all the whilst sitting on their hands and doing little to actually do something to bring about positive change.

The Terror of History

June 8, 2013 § 8 Comments

I’m teaching a summer course, a quick, 6-week course wherein I’m supposed to cover World History from approximately the Enlightenment in Western Europe in the mid-18th century until the late 20th century.  It’s impossible to do this topic justice in a 15-week semester, let alone a quick summer course.  For that reason, and because I’ve been teaching variations of this course for far too long, I decided to try something new with this class.  In essence, my students are my guinea pigs this semester.  I am teaching the Terror of History/The History of Terror.

A few years ago, I read a fantastic book by UCLA History Professor Teofilo Ruiz, The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization.  Ruiz expanded on something that had been travelling around the back of my own brain since I first read Boccaccio’s The Decameron some twenty years ago.  In his Introduction, Boccaccio lays out the response of people in Florence to the Plague: What they did.  According to Boccaccio, there are three basic human responses to terror and misery: 1) Religion; 2) Debauchery; or 3) Flight.  To that, Ruiz adds that there’s a 4th category: those who remain in place, who attempt to carry on in the midst of chaos.  Since I read Ruiz, I’ve been thinking about this more explicitly, and I have re-read The Decameron (as an aside, I find it rather insulting that my MacBook insists that Decameron is a spelling error).  Sometimes it’s hard not to become a miserable cynic when teaching history.  We humans have come up with so many ways to terrorise, torture, and kill each other. If you don’t believe me, look at how Romans dealt with traitors: crucifixion.  Or the Holocaust or any genocide you want.

Religion, it occurred to me when I was a teenager, was simply a means of ordering the world in order to allow ourselves not to lose our minds, to try to find wider significance and meaning for the bad things that happen.  When I was a bit older, I dabbled in Buddhism, which was much more explicit about this.  This isn’t to demean religion, it is a powerful force for some, and it allows an ordering of the universe.  But, as the Buddha noted, life is suffering.  What we control is our response to that.

So, Ruiz pointed out the terror of history, of the endless crashing of shit on our heads.  Pretty much everything in our world is predicated on it.  We live a comfortable life in North America because my shoes were made in Vietnam in a sweat shop.  My car emits pollution into the air.  Historically, systems of power are predicated on fear, terror, and awe.  That’s how order is kept.  Uplifting, isn’t it?

So, this semester, I’ve made that explicit in my class.  I cannot even hope to do justice to World History, so I am trying to cherry-pick my way through all the mire.  I am focussing on the chaos and terror at moments like the American War of Independence or the French Revolution.  Or the terror of slave owners in the American South or in Brazil.  Or the use of terror by the world’s first terrorist, Maximillien Robespierre, who explicitly declared that he wanted to terrorise his enemies.  Lenin and Trotsky rolled in a very similar manner.  So, too, did the Qing Dynasty in China.  Or the British imperial system in Africa or India.  Or the Belgians in the Congo.  But this wasn’t an export of Europe.  Slavery has existed since approximately forever, and was an integral part of Ancient Warfare, but it was also central to African warfare in the 18th century.  The list goes on and on.

How do we survive in this endless cycle of bad news? We do what Boccaccio said we do.  We find religion.  We despoil ourselves in debauchery.  We find joy in religion or debauchery.  Or we find it in flight.  Flight doesn’t have to be literal, like the 10 young men and women in The Decameron, flight can be symbolic.  It can be a search for beauty, awareness, or knowledge.  In many ways, the three categories can overlap, like in the mystic cults of the Roman Republic.  But we are remarkably resilient creatures, and we find our joys and happiness in the midst of the shit of life.

Ruiz notes that people almost always attempt to step outside the colossal weight of history by following these paths to religion, debauchery, or flight.  Events like Carnival, whether in Medieval Europe or Rio de Janeiro (or Québec City in winter, for that matter), is exactly that, an escape, temporary as it might be, from history.  We escape systems of power and oppression for brief moments.

The hard part in teaching the Terror of History is finding the escapes and not making them sound like they are hokey or unimportant or trivial, which is what they sound like in the face of this colossal wave of bad news.  But we all do this, we all find means of escaping the news.  Right now, the news in my local newspaper concerns the government spying on its own citizens, a war in Syria, and people trying to recover from a bomb going off during a marathon.  If I took each at face value, I’m sure I’d be lying prostate on the floor, sucking my thumb.  So, clearly, I have coping mechanisms.  And humans have always had them.  But it remains difficult to talk about these in class without making them sound hokey.

This week, we’re reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s, SlaughterHouse 5, which takes place in part at the end of the Second World War and was Vonnegut’s attempt to make sense of having been in Dresden in 1945, when the city was firebombed by the Allies.  The terror of that, the horror, the devastation.  All throughout the novel, the narrator declares “So it goes” when dealing with death and other calamities.  We have a philosophy, then, here, one of stoicism.  Stoicism and Buddhism are fairly closely related.  This is an attempt to deal with the Terror of History.

At any rate, this is making for an interesting summer course, and it seems as though my students are, if not exactly enjoying it, are learning something.  Along with SlaughterHouse 5, we’re also going to watch Triumph of the Will this week.

Canada and the North American Triangle

January 5, 2013 § 3 Comments

imagesTwice in the past few weeks, I have been caught up in discussions about the role of the monarchy in Canada with Americans.  These discussions rather astounded me, I have to say. In all my years, I have never really thought all that much about the role of the Queen and her representatives in Canada.  Sure, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state in Canada (as well as everywhere else in the Commonwealth), but her actual role in Canadian politics is close to nil.  Governors-General have been little more than figureheads, responding to the whims of Prime Ministers since the 19th century, not the Queen.

For my American interlocutors, however, the Queen was a big deal for Canada.  They’ve all spent a fair amount of time north of the 49th parallel, and they’re all insightful people.  The argument goes something like this: Canada has been prohibited from achieving a full sense of independence of its own because of the on-going association with the former colonial parent through the person of the Queen.  Because Canada is not completely sovereign, it cannot be a fully independent nation.  It will always be beholden to the United Kingdom. To a person, they all argued that Canadians (at least Anglo Canadians) are very British, in all manners, from our dry sense of humour to our stiff upper lips, and even down to our accents.  I was dumbfounded.

I argued that the Queen means very little to Canadians.  Aside from the hardcore monarchists, she’s just this grandmotherly woman who pops up on TV now and then.  I pointed out that Americans are actually more obsessed with the royal family than Canadians, as evidenced by the marriage of Prince Receding Hairline to whatshername last summer.  Sure, the Queen is on our money, but how is that different from Washington and Lincoln being on American money?  And certainly Washington has reached the status of a monarchal icon in the USA by now.  I argued that, despite the fact that the Queen is the head of state, the Prime Minister is the one who wields power, and quite a lot of it.  The Prime Minister decides when elections are to be held, what the policies of government are, etc.  In short, sovereignty lies in the Canadian people as expressed through our elected representatives and the Prime Minister; the Queen has nothing to do with this.

But then one of them brought up Prime Minister Harper’s underhanded attempt in 2010 to avoid an election by asking Governor General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament.  He argued that we had an unelected representative of the Queen deciding the fate of the Canadian government.  Good point, I conceded, but, the Governor General in 2010 acted in accordance with established constitutional law in Canada and the entire Commonwealth; she acceded to the wishes of the Prime Minister.  This wasn’t good enough, the fact remained that the Governor General is unelected.  Full stop.  And this is proof of Canada’s lack of full sovereignty.

UnknownNow I certainly do not buy into the argument that Canada was born on 1 July 1867. As far as I’m concerned the date that we chose to celebrate the birth of our nation is entirely arbitrary and artificial.  I have also argued on this blog that Canadian independence has been achieved piecemeal.  From the granting of responsible government in 1848 to the patriation of our Constitution in 1982, Canada has inched towards independence.  I’d go so far as to argue that in many ways, 1982 is the true date of Canadian independence, as finally our Constitution was an Act of our own Parliament.  I certainly do not buy the argument that Canada is doomed because the nation wasn’t born in violence and a war of independence like our American neighbours.

There is also the argument that Canadian unity can never be, due to the fact that upwards of 40% of the population of the second largest province (at any given time) wish to separate from the nation.  And, for this reason, Canada is an artificial nation.  I think this is a simplistic, and even stupid, argument.  It assumes that all nations were born of the nationalist movements that swept across the world from the early 19th to the late 20th centuries.  The continued existence of massive multi-ethnic nations such as Russia and China bely this. So, too, does the on-going persistence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, despite the continued threat of the Scots nationalist movement.  Instead, I argue, Canada is successful precisely because it is not a national nation, it is post-national and can house more than a single nation.  Indeed, this is what makes Canada not just bi-cultural, but multi-cultural, as we learned in the 1960s, whatever government policies of the day might be.

So I’ve been left stewing over the role of the monarchy in Canada, thanks to my American interlocutors.  I’ve also been stewing over different conceptions of democracy.  Britain is the modern birthplace of democracy.  It is where the people slowly gained control over their nation from the monarchy.  At one point, the House of Commons was filled with men hand-picked by the king and his minions, true. But by the 19th century, this was no longer the case.  In the UK, the Queen is little more than a figurehead, just like in Canada.  But, of course, Elizabeth is English, she’s not Canadian.  Thus, she is a foreign queen, according to my American friends.  But it’s not that simple.  That is an American argument.  American democracy works very differently than British or Canadian democracy.  And notions of what democracy mean differ as well.

To wit, a few weeks months ago in the Boston Globe, the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby, was making the argument that the best way to determine whether or not gays and lesbians should be granted rights was through referenda.  Only by giving voice to the majority could we determine whether or not a minority should be granted civil rights.  That, concluded Jacoby, is how democracy works. To my Canadian mindset, this idea was shocking and appalling.  Pierre Trudeau once opined something along the lines that the best determinant of a free and open society is how that society protects its minorities.  In short, the rights of minorities should never be left up to majorities.  That is what democracy is.

And maybe that’s what this argument boils down to: Canadians and Americans have very different ideas of what democracy is.  And for that reason, whilst my American conversants were appalled that Canada would have an unelected, foreign queen, I, a Canadian, could care less.  The Queen has no real impact on Canadian life and politics.  Her “representative” in Canada, the Governor General, is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister.  And the Governor General has, since 1848, deferred to the wishes of the Canadian Prime Minister.  Canada is no less a sovereign nation for this.

And Canada’s inferiority complex has nothing to do with this relationship to the UK, it has everything to do with being the junior partner in North America with the United States and Mexico.  Canada is the smallest of the three countries in terms of population, and ranks only slightly higher than Mexico in terms of the size of its economy.  The only way in which the colonial relationship with the UK actually does matter is in the sense that Canada has never had the chance to fully stand on its own.  It WAS a British colony.  And today, it is by and large an American colony.  I mean this in terms of the economy, Americans own more of Canada’s economy than Canadians themselves do.  And we currently have a governing party, the Conservative Party of Canada, that acts like a branch plant of the American Republican Party.

Le Reigne Elizabeth

October 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Queen Elizabeth Hotel on blvd. René-Lévesque has fascinated me ever since I was a kid.  Structurally and aesthetically, it is one of the ugliest buildings in the downtown core of Montréal.  Built in a neo-brutalist style usually reserved for university campuses, the Queen Elizabeth is nonetheless the swishest hotel in Montréal.  It is also the largest hotel in Montréal and Québec, with over 1,000 rooms.  The other thing that has fascinated me since the mid-70s is the name of the hotel.  How does a hotel in the middle of Montréal, the metropole of Québec, end up being named after the Queen?  Better yet, what’s with the incongruity of the name in French, Le Reigne Elizabeth, with the masculine article there before the feminine monarch?

When the hotel was first proposed back in 1952, there was an upsurge of love for the monarch in English Canada.  Queen Elizabeth II had just ascended the throne, and around the former British Empire, people were gaga over the queen, somewhat like people are currently in a tizzy over the former Kate Middleton.  However, the 1950s also saw the rumblings that led to the eruption of the Quiet Revolution in Québec in 1960.  There was an upsurge of québécois nationalism in the city and province as well.  Indeed, nationalists argued that the Canadian National Railways should name the new hotel after the founder of Montréal, Paul de Chomedy, sieur de Maisonneuve.  Nonsense, responded the CNR’s president, Donald Gordon: Canada is a Commonwealth nation, and the head of the Commonwealth is Queen Elizabeth II.  Since he was the one building the hotel, he won the debate.

As for the masculine article in the hotel’s French name, well, it turns out that refers to the implied ‘hotel’ in the name, and hotel is masculine. There you have it.

The Queen Elizabeth Hotel, of course, has lived up to its reputation.  The Queen herself has rested her head on its pillows four times, and her son, Prince Charles, has also visited.  The NHL entry draft was held there pretty much every year until 1979.  But, of course, the most famous event to have occurred in the Queen Elizabeth is the “bed-in” of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 26 May-2 June 1969.  Lennon and Ono had been denied entry to the United States, because Lennon had a cannabis conviction from 1968.  A bed-in was planned for New York City.  So now the plan had to be changed, and so Lennon and Ono bedded down in the Queen Elizabeth for their second Bed In for Peace (the first had been in Amsterdam 25-31 March).  During the Montreal bed-in, the anthem “Give Peace a Chance” was recorded by André Perry.

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