Tuesday, September 30, 2008

America's fall from power

John Gray, in The Guardian (excerpts):

Our gaze might be on the markets melting down, but the upheaval we are experiencing is more than a financial crisis, however large. Here is a historic geopolicial shift, in which the balance of power in the world is being altered irrevocably. The era of American global leadership, reaching back to the Second World War, is over...

The American free-market creed has self-destructed while countries that retained overall control of markets have been vindicated. In a change as far-reaching in its implications as the fall of the Soviet Union, an entire model of government and the economy has collapsed...

Despite incessantly urging other countries to adopt its way of doing business, America has always had one economic policy for itself and another for the rest of the world. Throughout the years in which the US was punishing countries that departed from fiscal prudence, it was borrowing on a colossal scale to finance tax cuts and fund its over-stretched military commitments. Now... it will be the countries that spurned the American model of capitalism that will shape America's economic future...

The fate of empires is very often sealed by the interaction of war and debt... Despite its insistent exceptionalism, America is no different...

Meltdowns on the scale we are seeing are not slow-motion events. They are swift and chaotic, with rapidly spreading side-effects. Power is leaking from the US at an accelerating rate... A new world is coming into being almost unnoticed, where America is only one of several great powers, facing an uncertain future it can no longer shape. 
Image source here.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A little problem with capitalism

Thomas Walkom, in 
The Toronto Star (excerpts):

What's happening now on Wall Street is seen as a new story. It is not. It is a very old one. This old story is quite simple: Capitalism is unstable. It is an economic system that can be ruthlessly productive. But it is also one of wheels within wheels -- internal contradictions, Marx called them -- that can, and regularly do, spin out of control...

Keynes, a British economist, saw them as problems that could destroy a world he rather liked. The welfare state edifice that bears his name was designed in the post-1945 period to, literally, save capitalism from itself. Banks would be regulated to keep financiers from scamming the economy into the ground. Labour unions would be encouraged, in order to give workers a stake in the status quo and inoculate them against radical politics. The rich would agree to government tax-and-spend policies, knowing that -- in the end -- it's always better to feed the poor than have them slit your throat. It was a giant, unspoken bargain...

For a long time, it worked...

Phase one of the retrenchment -- the destruction of the welfare state. In England, it began as Thatcherism, in the U.S. Reagonomics... Their aim was not traditional fiscal conservatism. Indeed, under Reagan, U.S. federal finances spiralled into deficit. Rather it was to alter the balance of forces within society... As a result, the income gap widened throughout much of the industrial world. The rich got richer; the middling classes lagged; the poor got poorer...

Even politicians are beginning to recognize that any lasting solution must deal with more than the bare bones economics of the crisis. Ironically, what they are groping for is the kind of solution that we've spend the past 40 years dismantling. It's time for another grand bargain... And it will go something like this: We'll save your damned old capitalism; we'll let you have the big houses and big salaries (although not quite as big as they were). But in return, you'll have to give us something back -- on jobs, on wages, on the things that we need to live a civilized life. Nor will we let you destroy everything we hold dear just so you can make a buck.

And don't give us all that free-market guff. Because we know, just as you know, that at times of great stress, the free market doesn't work. 
Image source here.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

'An integral part of the national wealth'

The presence in Canada of many people whose language and culture are distinctive by reason of their birth or ancestry represents an inestimable enrichment that Canadians cannot afford to lose. The dominant cultures can only profit from the influence of these other cultures. Linguistic variety is unquestionably an advantage, and its beneficial effects on the country are priceless. Integration, with respect for both the spirit of democracy and the most deep-rooted human values, can engender healthy diversity within a harmonious and dynamic whole.

The presence of the other cultural groups in Canada is something for which all Canadians should be thankful. Their members must always enjoy the right -- a basic human one -- to safeguard their languages and cultures. The exercise of this right requires an extra effort on their part, for which their fellow Canadians owe them a debt of gratitude. Their presence facilitates communication between Canada and the rest of the world. Their cultural values find expression not only in popular traditions but also in arts and letters. In our opinion, those values are far more than ethnic differences; we consider them an integral part of the national wealth.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Thursday, September 25, 2008

'To be creative is, in fact, Canadian'

Margaret Atwood, in the Globe and Mail. Excerpts: 

At present, we are a very creative country. For decades, we've been punching above our weight on the world stage... But we've just been sent a signal by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he gives not a toss for these facts. Tuesday, he told us that some group called 'ordinary people' didn't care about something called 'the arts.'...

Less than 10 per cent of writers actually make a living by their writing, however modest that living may be. They have other jobs. But people write, and want to write, and pack into creative writing classes, because they love this activity -- not because they think they'll be millionaires. Every single one of those people is an 'ordinary person.'

Mr. Harper's idea of an ordinary person is that of an envious hater without a scrap of artistic talent or creativity or curiosity, and no appreciation for anything that's attractive or beautiful. My idea of an ordinary person is quite different. Human beings are creative by nature. For millenniums we have been putting our creativity into our cultures -- cultures with unique languages, architecture, religious ceremonies, dances, music, furnishings, textiles, clothing and special cuisines. 'Ordinary people' pack into the cheap seats at concerts and fill theatres where operas are brought to them live. The total attendance for 'the arts' in Canada in fact exceeds that for sports events. 'The arts' are not a 'niche interest.' They are part of being human.

Moreover, 'ordinary people' are participants... Canadians, it seems, like making things, and they like appreciating things that are made... They show their appreciation by contributing... Mr. Harper has signalled that as far as he is concerned, those millions of hours of volunteer activity are a waste of time. He holds them in contempt...

Every budding dictatorship begins by muzzling the artists, because they're a mouthy lot and they don't line up and salute very easily. Of course, you can always get some tame artists to design the uniforms and flags and the documentary about you, and so forth -- the only kind of art you might need -- but individual voices must be silenced, because there shall be only One Voice: Our Master's Voice. Maybe that's why Mr. Harper began by shutting down funding for our artists abroad. He didn't like the competition for media space...

It's an impulse that's been repeated many times since, the list is very long. Tear it down and level it flat, is the common motto. Then build a big statue of yourself. Now that would be Art!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Maybe rethink that trip to the States, eh?

for Domestic Operations
Beginning in October, the Army plans to station an active unit inside the United States for the first time to serve as an on-call federal response in times of emergency. The 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team has spent thirty-five of the last sixty months in Iraq, but now the unit is training for domestic operations. The unit will soon be under the day-to-day control of US Army North, the Army service component of Northern Command. The Army Times reports this new mission marks the first time an active unit has been given a dedicated assignment to Northern Command. The paper says the Army unit may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control. The soldiers are learning to use so-called nonlethal weapons designed to subdue unruly or dangerous individuals and crowds.

The only way they can possibly pay for all these bailouts is to inflate the money supply. This means hyperinflation in America like you had in Germany in the 1920s. This is what the average American will experience: destitution, poverty, social unrest. Only the US and Britain are going to experience this horrible disconnection. They spent 20 or 30 years with this neoliberal model hoisting trillions of dollars of debt onto themselves and now it's gone belly up. The fear at this point is that the laws have been changed. Hank Paulson has done a power grab. When George Bush came into office he did a power grab. When 9-11 happened they did another power grab. They have dictatorial powers now. All these crooks are going to be leaving the country. They're not going to stay for the rioting. Image source here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Hidden Hand and the handwriting on the wall

The globalization agenda has been closely linked with the market fundamentalists -- the ideology of free markets and financial liberalization. In this crisis, we see the most market-oriented institutions in the most market-oriented economy failing and running to the government for help. Everyone in the world will say now that this is the end of market fundamentalism.

In this sense, the fall of Wall Street is for market fundamentalism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for communism -- it tells the world that this way of economic organization turns out not to be sustainable. In the end, everyone says, that model doesn't work. This moment is a marker that the claims of financial market liberalization were bogus. Image source here.

Accounts and corruption

Image source here.

Canada is the least corrupt country in the Americas and ranks as the cleanest of the G8 industrialized countries, according to Transparency International.

Canadian banks stand out on the new North American landscape as among the most stable institutions on the continent and among the strongest in the world. Image source here.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Consensus and consent

Besides providing cohesion and unity, value systems give a sense of rightness to the social order and legitimacy for particular practices and usages, including class and power structures, within a given society. For individuals, the value system with which they have been indoctrinated provides a view of the world and an explanation of life in society. Thus the beliefs and values of the society are used for individual, private needs. In the private assimilation of social beliefs subtle transformations take place, but at the same time a sufficient consistency remains to ensure that the social function of the value system is not impaired. The very fact that the vocabulary of a belief system ("freedom," "equality," and so forth) is used so frequently results in the loss of any precise meaning of the words used to describe the values. The loss of meaning makes it easier for individuals to feel that their private interpretations conform to a general social consensus.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sevens and Eights

Kevin Phillips, interviewed by Bill Moyers:

There are seven sharks in the tank with the [US] economy:
1. Financialization, because we're so dependent on this industry that's sort of half lost its marbles.
2. Huge buildup of debt, absolutely unprecedented anywhere in the world.
3. Home prices collapsing.
4. Global commodity inflation building up.
5. Flawed and deceptive government economics statistics.
6. Peak oil, where the world is running out of oil.
7. The collapsing dollar.

Now, whenever you get this sort of package in one decade, you got a big one. And when [Alan] Greenspan says it's once a century, I think it's another variation but on a par with the thirties.

Variables significantly associated with conservatism include:
1. Fear and aggression
2. Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
3. Uncertainty avoidance
4. Need for cognative closure
5. Personal need for structure
6. Terror management
7. Group-based dominance
8. System justification

Friday, September 19, 2008

The rich and the program

"Don't you feel a sense of foreboding?"

My host laughed. "What a 19th-century thing to say," he replied.

Clearly the rich were worried -- but about what?

I said to my host, "Can't we prevent a recession?"

"I hope not," he replied. "The economy is society's heart. It contracts and expands because it's alive. If it stopped it would be dead."

"Can I quote you on this?"

"No," said my host. "Pretend you figured it out for yourself."

Is is possible to look at a recession, not as a calamity, but as the economy's living, beating heart? Yes. All you need is to be (a) rich and (b) diversified. Then, it's a breeze.

Their end game isn't to make you a harder-working and better person, it's to avoid having to show you any respect. They don't respect you and they don't want to have to pretend they do. They want you to show them deference and they know you won't do that if you feel like a free person in a free society who doesn't have to take crap from some petty tyrant who thinks you should feel honored to kiss his ring. Republicans are pissed off because it's so hard to get good help these days --  help that knows they are just the help, that knows their place, that uses the servants' entrance and calls them "sir" and doesn't question them. A strong middle class -- that is, a secure workforce -- gets bolshy and tells abusive employers to bugger off, and the ruling class doesn't like that.
Image source here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

David Burdeny

Mercator's Projection, Antarctica, 2007: 32 x 32 ed 10

David Burdeny: North|South 
Photographs from Greenland, Iceland and Antarctica
Jennifer Kostuik Gallery, through 5 October 2008
Vancouver Sun review here.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sartre: 'encore mieux'

S'il devait se tourner en pure propagande ou en pur divertissement, la société retomberait dans la bauge de l'immédiat, c'est-à-dire dans la vie sans mémoire des hyménopteres et des gastéropodes. Bien sûr, tout cela n'est pas si important: le monde peut fort bien se passer de la littérature. Mais il peut se passer de l'homme encore mieux.

If [literature] should turn into pure propaganda or pure entertainment, society will slip back into the wild den of the immediate -- which is to say, the memoryless existence of hymenoptera and gastropods. None of this is so important, to be sure. The world can get by nicely without literature. But without human beings it can get by better yet.

-- Jean-Paul Sartre, Qu'est-ce la littérature? (1947).

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Qujannamiik! In gratitude

The Great Sea has set me
in motion
set me adrift
and I move as a weed in
the river.
The arch of sky
and mightiness of storms
encompasses me,
and I am left
trembling with joy.

-- Uvanvnuk, of Igloolik, as translated by Tegoodligak, of South Baffin Island
Image source here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Fear Factor: American voters

Steve Burgess: Talk about the importance of the US election is just a smokescreen. Their campaign is just more compelling than our own. As a spectator sport, there is no comparison. There's more at stake in the US race. The principal players are larger than life. And behind it all lies the Fear Factor, the unpredictable element that has turned every recent US election into a potential horror movie: the American voters. There's no telling what they'll do.

At this point, if you're not paranoid about US voters, you haven't been paying attention. We depend on them to do the right thing, but it's like having your investment portfolio handled by an insane uncle. In order to properly understand American presidential politics, you must first disconnect your common sense receptors. Factors and developments that would seem to have obvious consequences turn out to mean nothing, or even have the opposite effect than what a sane person would expect.

The current Oval Office tenant was elected and re-elected by campaigning as a guy you might like to have a beer with. Now comes the Republican vice-presidential nominee, hailed by right-wing pundits as being "someone just like us." It is the boundless narcissism of many average voters that they believe themselves to be ideal models for a potential president. The Canadian election campaign may not be thrilling, but at least it will be somewhat comprehensible.

Joseph Heath: Whereas the left wing tends to attract bleeding hearts, the right wing tends to attract jerks. Of course there are all sorts of fancy intellectual reasons why one might want to shrink government, reduce taxes, and curtail entitlement programs. But a lot of people support these policies simply because they don't care about anybody but themselves. They are, in other words, self-interested jerks. Our proximity to the United States has proven extremely unhelpful to the Right here in Canada, simply because the tolerance for jerks is so much higher south of the border. Image source here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Politics and magic tricks

The seven principles 
of sleight of hand 
(according to Penn and Teller):
1. Palm - To hold an object in an apparently empty hand.
2. Ditch - To secretly dispose of an unneeded object.
3. Steal - To secretly obtain a needed object.
4. Load - To secretly move an object to where it is needed.
5. Simulation - To give the impression that something that has not happened, has.
6. Misdirection - To lead attention away from a secret move.
7. Switch - To secretly exchange one object for another.
Image source here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Nouriel Roubini: 'Let them be shamed in public'

"Like scores of evangelists and hypocrites and moralists who spew and praise family values and pretend to be holier than thou and are then regularly caught cheating or cross dressing or found to be perverts these Bush hypocrites who spewed for years the glory of unfettered wild west laissez faire jungle capitalism (and never believed in any sensible and appropriate regulation and supervision of financial markets) allowed the biggest debt bubble ever to fester without any control, have caused the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression and are now forced to perform the biggest government intervention and nationalizations in the recent history of humanity, all for the benefit of the rich and well connected. So Comrades Bush and Paulson and Bernanke will rightly pass to the history books as a troika of Bolsheviks who turned the USA into the USSRA. Fanatic zealots of any religion are always pests that cause havoc and destruction with their inflexible fanaticism; but they usually don't run the biggest economy in the world. But these laissez faire voodoo-economics zealots in charge of the USA have now caused the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression and the nastiest economic crisis in decades. So let them be shamed in public for their hypocrisy and zealotry that has caused so much financial and economic damage." Image source here.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A difference in values

From Michael Adams, "Canadian and American Values Divergences," in Canada and the United States: Differences That Count, ed. David M. Thomas and Barbara Boyle Torrey (2008):

Canadians reacted so strongly to the Bush administration because it embodied and emphasized precisely the values on which Canadians and Americans diverge most sharply: hierarchy, patriarchy, religiosity, and openness to violence.

By any measure, Americans are considerably more religious than Canadians, more likely to believe that religion and morality are inextricably linked. Canadians, who tend to espouse more autonomous values, are more likely to trust their own reasoning and intuition. Americans are more likely to believe that there is an ultimate truth about right and wrong -- and that that truth emanates from a single divine source.

Patriarchy, family, gender, and social belonging
Americans are vastly more likely (52 per cent) than Canadians (18 per cent) to believe that "The father of the family must be master in his own house." In perhaps the purest formulation of sexism, more than a third (35 per cent) of Americans believe that "Men have a certain natural superiority over women and nothing can change this" (vs. a quarter of Canadians). In Canada same-sex couples gained the right to officially marry in 2005. Gay sex has been legal since 1969; seven in ten Canadians (69 per cent) believe that "Homosexuality should be accepted by society." Canadians were by far the most likely (77 per cent) to believe that overall, immigrants had a positive influence on the country. Only about half of Americans (49 per cent) thought so.

Extremes and moderation
The United States is a relatively traditional society in contrast to Canada's relative liberalism and flexibility. The interaction between the simultaneous license and moralism of American society is no secret; the moralism may be a reaction to the license -- and vice versa. The United States has been the nation that has tended more toward extremes, while Canada has tended more toward moderation. The rub of living in a nation where anything is possible is that the possibilities are not all good ones.

English Canada and US border states
The Canadian-American border does matter. Values related to traditional social codes are not the most important sites of difference between these two regions. More striking are differences in the orientation to status-seeking, hierarchy, and competition. Conveying social status through material possessions, particularly the home, is a more important priority south of the border. The United States is a profoundly aspirational society, whose dominant metaphor is a dream of material fulfillment. Every American region is more likely than any Canadian region to see a car as a reflection of personality. In a culture where the material signs of success suggest so much about the individual -- one's intelligence, work ethic, creativity, moral worth, as well as one's grasp of the symbols of the social system -- the fruits of success sometimes supersede success itself as desired ends.

There is not an inevitable one-to-one relationship between social values and political outcomes; but political systems and institutions do not invent candidates or dream up ideas that do not come from the society itself. Americans will remain more religious, more deferential to patriarchal authority, more intent on order and tradition. Canadians will remain on their trajectory of secularism, gender equality, and multiculturalism. It is an uncertain world, and values are not immutable, but nor will they be undone in a day on either side of the border -- whatever that day might bring. Image source and background article here.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


Canada is far more a part of the spiritual cold belt of western Europe than of the hot flashes of America's current Great Awakening, and a country whose history of the past half-century has been one in which the Christian Right has experienced unmitigated failure in promoting its agenda. We are a different country with a different cultural history.

Canadians, unlike Americans, are remarkably cohesive in their values. Logic suggests that any religious movement that appears forcefully indiscreet, that rejects iconic values, institutions and behaviour central to the fabric of Canadian cohesion -- multiculturalism, the equality of women, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, civility, acceptance of the Other -- is going to have a hard time expanding its support and strengthening its message.

-- Michael Valpy, "The Noisy Christian Right," in The Literary Review of Canada (September 2008)

Large majorities voice disagreement with politicians discussing religion, and religious leaders talking about politics

Canadians are adamant about keeping politics and religion away from each other. In the online survey of a representative national sample, 82 per cent of respondents consider it inappropriate for religious leaders to urge people to vote for or against a political candidate. The highest level of rejection for this practice comes in Quebec (89%) and Manitoba and Saskatchewan (89%). Respondents over the age of 55 (88%) and those with a high school education or less (87%) also deem this action inappropriate. Two-thirds of Canadians (66%) believe it is inappropriate for political candidates to talk about their religious beliefs as part of their campaigns. Image source here.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Joyeux anniversaire...

...To Susan, Written in Grass

Soft in the breathing, you lie knees loose,
breasts slide each down a rib to the floor.
Tucked into an egg, I roll where you reach me;
your reaping fingers glide through my hairs,
blades in a grainfield, each stalk
bending and returning, in the moving
making patterns with the others.
I wonder, with what's left of thinking,
if the Earth feels her fields sway
and trembles with the living roots
in her thin scalp, when the wind touches.

-- Jody Aliesan, 1969

First published in APHRA (Autumn, 1971), then Soul Claiming (1975).

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

American psyche

It might be useful to look at those chapters of Mark Twain's endlessly reflective mirror of the American psyche. The irony of the Duke and the Dauphin is not how bad they are at what they claim to do, or how good they are at what they actually do, but rather the fact that their crimes -- faked pedigrees, a rotten show, a thwarted attempt at larceny -- provoke the moral outrage of a slaveholding society that finds it perfectly acceptable to buy and sell human beings.

On nearly every occasion when I've been invited to speak about both fiction and nonfiction writing, someone has asked my opinion of the scandalous disclosure that James Frey had fabricated sections of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. I reply that I'm puzzled that people seem more upset by a lie about how long a writer spent in rehab than a lie about whether Saddam Hussein had access to weapons of mass destruction. Inevitably, nervous laughter ripples through the room. In fact, I couldn't be more serious.

Is the steady barrage of Big Lies so terrifying and numbing that Americans can only respond to the Small Lies?

-- Francine Prose, in "The politics of literary scapegoating," Harper's (September 2008). Image source here.