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GiveLife.ca

    

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Ivory tower, eh?
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Thursday, September 25, 2008 – Page A16

Vancouver -- Stephen Harper's take on arts and culture puts me in mind of an old joke: A conservative is someone who doesn't think anything should happen for the first time.


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Unlocking the Victorian within
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JOHN MacLACHLAN GRAY's new thriller, The Fiend in Human, is a tale of murder, sex and sensationalism. It's set in 1850s London, but in many ways, the author reflects, we haven't changed at all
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
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Monday, March 17, 2003 – Page R3

VANCOUVER -- It's a sociological cliché that the new immigrant seeks to preserve the culture of the country he or she came from, for the existential benefit of the children and grandchildren.

Problem is, what is passed on (and on) is a cryogenic version of that culture -- while the country of origin continues to evolve, the "old country" envisaged by the émigré remains frozen. For example, Dutch-Canadians, many of whom came to Canada in the 1950s, went into shock upon visiting Amsterdam in the 1970s, for obvious reasons.

In the same way, I, whose family immigrated to Canada from Scotland in the mid-19th century, am in many ways a Victorian.

In our home in Truro, N.S., the front parlour took up a third of the downstairs and was empty unless we had visitors (except at Christmas -- when we hung socks over the fireplace). The front door was similarly for the quality, whereas the back door was for tradesmen and children.

As the "head of the house," my father sat at the head of the table and was served first. We did not play cards on Sunday and Saturday dances had to end by a quarter to 12. At church, we listened to entire sermons on the evils of Sunday sports. Our bookcases were packed with Dickens and Kipling and Scott and Tennyson. Crossing the Bar was a staple at funerals, at which we were expected to wear black.

At school, girls and boys used separate doors as though it were a lavatory; taverns, likewise, had an entrance for Men and another for Ladies and Escorts. Students were encouraged to join a temperance society called Allied Youth, as well as the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides.

Young men were expected to sow their wild oats, then to marry a virgin. Girls who lost their virginity were "damaged goods," with limited prospects; as the saying went, why buy a cow if you can get the milk for free?

Forty years on, and I'm still a Victorian, or so it seems. I live in a province called British Columbia (whose capital is, yes, Victoria), in a city from which 60 women disappeared, many of them murdered, and nobody noticed, because they were Fallen Women. This is precisely the central situation in The Fiend in Human. News of the murders hit the press while I was writing the thing. They haunted me, those women, and still do. They forced me to make my victims at least as human as my villains.

Meanwhile, my fellow citizens worry that criminals do not spend enough time doing penance in a "penitentiary," and that social programs to help the poor detract from the work ethic. (This is why there were so many Victorian prostitutes -- the pay scale, set to discourage out-of-wedlock pregnancies, ensured that the Fallen Women would fall farther. According to a modern estimate, 40 per cent of single women at some point participated in prostitution to make ends meet.) Parent groups worry about the teaching of Darwin's theory in the schools, and that tolerance of homosexuals detracts from the sanctity of the nuclear family.

The challenge in life is to know thyself. Who are you? Where are you? When are you?

For us Victorian-Canadians, it's not such a stretch to live in a world with one superpower whose commerce dominates the world (in the Victorian era, England produced 69 per cent of the world's manufactured goods); which boasts unrivalled military strength (the British Navy had more shipping tonnage than the rest of the world put together); which maintains a belief in its cultural superiority over other nations; whose multinational corporations -- the East India Company, the Hudson's Bay Company -- define its foreign policy.

We Victorians are familiar with a world altered by technological revolutions (the locomotive, the factory), in which skills become obsolete overnight and the cities bulge with the unemployed and the out-of-date.

The communications revolution is nothing new. By 1850, information could be transported instantly by telegraph, with much hand-wringing over the fate of the printed word.

When every home contained a telegraph, newspapers were doomed.

Overpopulation, pandemics, violent crime, terrorism, evangelism, feminism, pornography, prostitution, recreational drugs, sensationalism in the popular press -- all Victorian preoccupations.

"The Fiend in Human Form" was a term in usage by sensational journalists in the mid-1800s, in describing a Ted Bundy or a Paul Bernardo -- a descriptor which, in typical cockney slang, was shortened to "The Fiend in Human."

Oddly, the abbreviation unintentionally changed the meaning utterly. Whereas "The Fiend in Human Form" was coined to establish the murderer as a person apart from the human race, "The Fiend in Human" implies that the evil is in everyone, that the Homolkas and the Olsons of the world are distillations of something that exists in everyone -- evident in the Victorian enthusiasm for public hangings, in which thousands travelled for miles to see someone killed in cold blood.

Lacking public hangings to serve this purpose, we contemporary Victorians like to see people killed in our entertainment media, as symbolic representations of people we would like to see killed for real.

A bit dark, you say? You betcha.

I used to write musicals, until they became complicated and serious and nobody wanted to produce them. So I turned to prose, written as musically as possible. With a novel, what's on the page is all there is: Even if my manuscript is the only copy in existence, it's still a novel. Unlike a script, I don't have to ask someone's permission for it to become what I see in my mind's eye.

The thriller, the mystery, the plot-driven narrative designed to induce tension over what happens next -- that's how I see the future, full of hope and dread; it's what I think, therefore it's what I write.

For me, the most powerfully affecting events in life are the questions without answers. Sadly, what we get in our popular media are mostly answers without questions -- advertising of one sort or another.

Meanwhile, as I get older, the questions become more interesting, while the answers on offer by those who claim to have them seem increasingly facile and false.

About the writing process itself I have little to say. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

When I was a kid in Nova Scotia, I used to visit the bootlegger upon occasion and would stagger home using telephone poles as crutches. I would grasp a pole, restore myself to an upright position, then stagger off to the next pole. That's how it is with a story: You see a series of events ahead of you, and you get from one event to the next, any way you can. What a relief -- just to make it to the next pole.

As many novelists have noted, something strange happens when the characters start to make demands on their own. Three-quarters through writing A Gift for the Little Master, I realized that I had the wrong villain, that the character I had in mind wasn't the murderer. It wasn't like, "It would work better this way;" or, "It would be more interesting this way." It was that I had fingered the wrong guy. In other words, for me the book was no longer fiction, but a series of events of which I had only partial knowledge, but which really happened, somewhere, sometime.

Even back when I wrote musicals I suspected that the word "creation" is a misnomer for what really happens; that in fact the process works in the opposite direction -- not creation, but reception.

A writer is like a short-wave radio: You sit there in your chair, with the little you know, and your antennae up, and you tune the mental dial this way and that, to what's out there -- and you hear what comes in.
John MacLachlan Gray's The Fiend in Human was released last week by Random House Canada.


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A fugue on the theme of big cars and Big Gulp
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, January 21, 2003 – Page R1

Growth:
1) Gradual development
toward maturity.
2) Increase in size, weight,
power, etc.
3) A tumour or other
abnormal mass of tissue.

Webster's

Amid the current war fever, any liberal American columnist whose function is to Sense the Pulse of America and who needs steady employment (meaning, neither Lewis Lapham nor Ariana Huffington), will have to perform some fancy metaphorical footwork for the time being.

Political correctness is one thing; but become too politically incorrect -- meaning, incorrect in a way that offends somebody important -- and you will be out on your ear, having been labelled as incorrectly political incorrect, like Bill Mahr, when the key is to be (ITAL)correctly(ITAL) politically incorrect, like Mark Stein.

Nor can you count on the normal essay format - a logically formulated argument, backed with statistical and historical fact. That sort of writing will only mark you as an "intellectual" - worse, an "elitist" - and nobody wants to be one of those. (You'd think policy-makers were grain farmers, not millionaire lawyers and executives with degrees from Harvard.) Nor will sincerity do any good, if you're sincere in the wrong way - in other words, sick. Infected with the liberal germs: self-delusion, naiveté, hypocrisy.

Welcome to a taste of the Soviet Union, where party leaders made much of their connection to the land and their rapport with the plain, honest workers of the world; where liberals such as Gorbachev and Bulgakov were mocked, marginalized, or both.

In such a climate of know-nothing righteousness, you'd think satire would wither and die, only that isn't what happened. In fact, Soviet anti-intellectualism had precisely the opposite effect on its target, thanks to figures of speech - metaphor, hyperbole, irony -- plus the mysterious human capacity to speak in, and delight in, code.

In cabarets all over the USSR, a satirist could make a devastating point with a simple juxtaposition of facts, no comment whatsoever. A comedian could elicit howls of laughter by delivering a monologue showering a party official with excessive praise. Sometimes it was sufficient simply to read an article from Pravda, deadpan, to bring down the house. The right framework, the right theme, the right juxtaposition, the right audience and the right psychopaths at the helm, and the facts spoke for themselves, leaving the messenger in the clear and party censors scratching their heads over the transcript.

I'm beginning to see how this happens -- how, in victory, an ideology makes itself ridiculous.

Take the following narrative, culled from two articles in one issue of The New York Times:

The International Auto Show in Detroit this year, as always, featured "concept cars," pointing to a brighter future. Ford's Model U had a hydrogen engine that uses sunflower-seed oil and a body made of vegetable products (in an emergency, you can eat your car); yet the Model U was easily upstaged by a Cadillac four-seater with a V16 producing 1,000 horsepower; which was, in turn, overshadowed by the Chrysler Tomahawk -- a red, silver and blue motorcycle named after the cruise missile (and nicknamed "the crotch rocket"), with a 500-horsepower V10, able to reach 100 kilometres per hour in 2.5. seconds.

In the quest for bigger engines, manufacturers plan a new generation of 10- and 12-cylinder gas-burners. "Partly, it may be a patriotic thing," muses an executive from Ford; while a psychologist with Chrysler who consulted on the PT Cruiser calls it "the return to pride and power."

Response has been overwhelming. No major publication has failed to snap a picture of these Brobdingnagian machines. Chrysler now plans to produce a few hundred Tomahawks, at a quarter-million dollars apiece. As Chrysler's CEO put it, "Grown men fell to their knees and wept."

Okay, fine, now this:

Americans, 60 per cent of whom are overweight, are the fattest people on Earth -- deliberately, by design. It seems that, with advances in seed production, fertilizers and crop yields, the American food supply grew faster than the American population, so that, in order for the industry to enjoy healthy growth, each American must now eat 500 more calories a day more than he did 30 years ago.

The solution? Bigger servings.

Given that the cost of American food -- pop, sugar, potatoes, hamburger -- represents a tiny fraction of its retail price (compared with labour, packaging and advertising), the Big Gulp, the Big Mac, the Jumbo fries proved the way to go. As well, psychological studies have shown that with bigger portions, people will eat up to 30 per cent more than normally (lest someone chastise us for failing to "clean our plate").

Other industries have responded to this growth pattern with larger seats in restaurants, larger turnstiles and recalibrated sizes in men's and women's wear (wouldn't want the consumer to become depressed in the dressing room). Meanwhile, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease have produced excellent revenue streams for the medical and pharmaceutical sectors, while growth opportunities abound in the legal profession with class-action lawsuits against fast-food chains on behalf of morbidly obese clients.

Just the facts, ma'am. I have no further comment on the above, or on the Pulse of America, except as a kind of fugue, or variations on a theme -- of growth, power, hunger and dread.
jmgray@shaw.ca


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So What? Miles Davis is dead
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, January 14, 2003 – Page R3

Every weekend I do the Books sections in The Globe and Mail and The New York Times, mentally sorting their contents into three categories: 1) books I want to read and intend to; 2) books I think I should read but know that I never shall; and 3) books I would not read any more than I would drive a nail into my forehead.

In the third category, last week I ran across a book by David Frum about George W. Bush; even so, as a must-avoid, Mr. Frum takes a back seat to So What? -- the new biography of Miles Davis by John Szwed, a professor of American studies at Yale.

According to the Times, So What?, which claims to be a "meditation" on the musician's life, "brilliantly situates Davis's work in the context of parallel developments in classical music, theatre and film," and "links Davis's music to postmodern epistemology."

Unflinchingly, Mr. Szwed examines our man's brutal, unadmirable life, leading to the old question: the Picasso question, the Sinatra question, the Evelyn Waugh question: How is it possible for such a miserable man to create such clarity and beauty?

I will not read this book. Guaranteed. Mr. Szwed needn't take it too hard though, because neither would I read Miles Davis -- The Autobiography in 1989.

Not that I'm uninterested in Miles Davis. Far from it. Hardly a day goes by when I don't listen to him. Stacked on my shelf are 16 Miles Davis CDs, with more scattered about the house. As far as I'm concerned, the man never made an uninteresting record -- even in his electro-syntho-fusion phase, when he was sneered at as an opportunist; or when his lip had gone and he played ringmaster, sticking in a few notes here and there. Even so, listen now and it's surprising how fresh they sound; Aura could have been recorded last year.

For me, like many non-jazz players, it began with Sketches of Spain, his interpretation of the Rodrigo guitar concerto. I was 14, and what got to me was nothing more complex than the tone he produced on his instrument -- a Martin played with almost no vibrato and with the aesthetic confidence to use just a few notes where another player might show off; to allow the bell to crack rather than interrupt a phrase and hit the spit valve.

"Mistakes are part of the music," he explained when asked about this. Lipstick that sentence on your bathroom mirror if you want to improve your life.

That sound sizzled through to some primitive part of my head, in a way similar to the great French horn player Dennis Brain, or Jimi Hendrix's Fender Telecaster on the opening riff to Foxy Lady. When Davis used a Harmon mute, his tone became a needle which hurt the eardrums.

I saw him live only once -- in 1972, when he was in the Bitches Brew phase. The band included young Keith Jarrett and the great percussionist Airto Moreira (talk about an ear for talent!), and they began playing before the house had gone to black, while people were still finding their seats, so that when the curtain went up it was as if a window were opened onto something which had been going on anyway. The concert was one extended medley, no applause breaks, and when the curtain dropped two hours later they were still playing -- no curtain call, no encore, they just petered out back there and everybody went home.

I don't remember Davis (big sunglasses, white fringed jacket, long, pomade hair, like an African Elvis) acknowledging the audience once, even looking at us, yet he controlled us physically -- all over the theatre you could see people simultaneously sitting upright, bouncing on their seats, then lolling back, as though choreographed, like it was Reveen the hypnotist up there.

In 40 years with the man, only one thing bothered me: Personally, he was a nasty piece of work.

His misanthropy, his violence against women, his drug binges, his gratuitous cruelty to friends, his lack of generosity when it came to taking credit, his contemptuous exploitation of groupies and prostitutes: Miles was one general all-purpose son-of-a-bitch. I truly believe that if he weren't a musician, he would have become a pimp.

And he had none of the usual excuses. The son of a prominent dentist, he grew up not in the ghetto but on a 180-acre hobby farm; his parents sent him to Juilliard -- just like Wynton Marsalis, the young-old virtuoso with the nostalgia act, Davis's diametrical opposite.

Still, he managed to collect all the bohemian vices. He died at 65, of so many health problems his obituaries didn't have the space or the heart to list them all.

And yet it's all right now, in fact it's a blast.

Because Miles Davis is dead. His life on the planet is over. Like the Monty Python parrot, he has left the stage to join the choir invisible. His soul has vacated his body.

Meaning, all that's left is the good part. He has become an angel, flying through the air.

For an artist's fans, sometimes death can be a blessing.
jmgray@shaw.ca


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If Tony the Tiger pumped out health care
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, January 7, 2003 – Page R1

To provide Canadians with a peek at what our health-care system might look like were we blessed by the magic wand of the free marketplace (poof!), our friends at the Fraser Institute like to cite the North American food industry -- a model of quality, economy and variety, even if the genes have been fiddled with. (Unless you're a farmer, but farmers are always belly-aching.)

However, like so many examples cited by that fine institution in making its usual point about the "free" market, the comparison is utterly specious.

True, protein, carbohydrates and vitamins are essential for human survival; yet the same cannot be said for Pepsi-Cola, Cheez Whiz or Froot Loops. Moreover, while convenience of use is important to both industries, health care offers no equivalent to values such as flavour and packaging. A hernia operation is neither stylish nor fun, nor do heart medications come in mint and wild cherry.

Strange, that our libertarian think tank persistently overlooks or ignores a far more apt comparison -- between a "privatized" health-care system and the oil industry.

As President Bush reminds us, we cannot survive without that murky commodity, as corporations, communities, or consumers. In North America, oil is blood; without it the economy withers and dies. (No wonder the President is prepared to pay for it in blood -- preferably foreign.) Furthermore, it seems obvious that a free-market hospital would not remain a local mom-and-pop operation for long, but would be snapped up and managed by a sizable superstructure with massive capital, like, say, Exxon.

At first glance, a service station certainly has an advantage over a hospital when it comes to convenience and freedom of choice. Within a quarter-mile of my dwelling, for example, I can purchase gasoline from either Shell or Chevron, with Gulf and Exxon stations located less than five minutes away. Vancouver General, on the other hand, takes 20 minutes and the lineups are murder.

Within the oil industry, choices abound: My Shell serves gas in no fewer than three grades -- Bronze, Silver and Gold, like Olympic medals; Chevron serves four grades, some of which contain something called "Techron"; if I choose from the top two categories, I get "more Techron."

True, such choices might appear arbitrary to the untrained eye. For example, at Shell, I receive Air Miles with my purchase -- which seems like McDonald's giving A&W vouchers. (Remember when Air Miles were earned by flying in airplanes?)

Meanwhile, at Chevron, while pumping gas, I am comforted by the familiar photo of a friendly, avuncular, worldly wise gentleman in a Chevron uniform, making a visual joke. This gentleman I know to be Miles Ramsay, a Vancouver advertising executive and an actor who excelled in a local production of The Odd Couple.

Miles was absent from the pump today -- no doubt a temporary lapse, otherwise I may drive an extra five minutes to see Tony the Tiger, whom I find cute as well.

On the other hand, as with hospitals, both Shell and Chevron charge precisely the same price for their products, as do nearby Gulf and Exxon stations.

As I write this, a litre of Chevron (with no Techron whatsoever) will cost me 75.9 cents (which, if I calculate correctly, is almost 76 cents).

However, one never knows: Overnight, the price might soar to 79.9 cents, and if I look for a better deal, I could run out of gas.

From these brief notes, let's envisage what a free-market health-care system might look like, were it managed like the oil industry:

We would have a wide choice of medical facilities, conveniently located, offering varying degrees of treatment, in quality and price, from Regular Care to Premium Care and Optimum Care; some hospitals would offer additional, secret ingredients, with copyrighted titles such as, say, "Sterilon (TM)."

However, we would find the price structures of supposedly competing companies to be identical; as well, prices would vary from one day to the next, for reasons known only to the companies themselves.

As with gasoline, canny consumers could fill up with optional health care during cheap periods to save money; however, in an emergency, the patient would pay more, as when the tank is dry.

As we feel about the Chevron spokesman, Canadians are sentimental about medicare, flawed as it is -- perhaps because it is the only existential statement we ever uttered, the only time we put the money where the mouth was: Everybody gets sick. Everybody dies. Sooner or later, everybody runs out of gas.

On the other hand, as trained North Americans, we long for smart ads and attractive spokespersons.

We want to be convinced -- as with cold medicines and mufflers -- that we got what we paid for, that we haven't been taken for suckers.

A private system might, by advertising alone, provide this level of comfort. However, I suspect that other characteristics will remain, whichever system we choose:

The institution will be controlled by an unaccountable elite, whose principal mandate is its own protection.

When asked, Who is going to pay for this? the answer will be, as now, The public.

And if anyone finds a way to genuinely improve the system, he will be told to piss up a rope.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Should making sense be forgot and never brought to mind?
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, December 31, 2002 – Page R2

A thing well said will be wit in all languages.
-- John Dryden

My New Year's longing for 2003 is to hear a member of the Canadian political class say something authentic. Something exact. Something interesting. To my ear, this hasn't happened in a decade.

Certainly such a thing hasn't emanated from former finance minister Paul Martin (On Kyoto: "The choice before us is unequivocal: Either Canada will be a follower or we will be a leader"); nor from Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper (On health care: "We challenge the government to stop the shameful charade of raising the issue of health care, then attacking the provinces and providing no solutions whatsoever"). As for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, well, it's hard to tell. ("Why buy repeater carbines and nuclear armament -- if this is kept at home a child can play with it.")

As someone who believes that language is not the result of thinking but an aspect of thinking itself, what I find not only boring but dangerous is not the lack of imagination, nor art, nor insight, nor even intelligence -- but the absence of specifics. When Canadian public figures speak, I literally do not know what the hell they are talking about.

I was especially confused and depressed by the response, native and non-native, to the mad anti-Semitic raving of David Ahenakew, who managed to outdistance even the infamous Jim Keegstra in his assertion that the Holocaust was not, as the latter claimed, exaggerated, but rather that it was a good thing; who went on, oxymoronically, to denounce immigrants as harbouring racist attitudes; all of which came out of his beak apropos of nothing, at a conference on health care.

Predictably, a storm of rebuttal and denunciation poured from the public mouth. The Saskatchewan Government sent a "strong message" against bigotry, while Svend Robinson led an initiative to strip Ahenakew of his Order of Canada. Matthew Coon-Come and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations both found it necessary to apologize -- on behalf of whom? The Inuit? The Haida? Mohawk construction workers in New York?

Even an insightful writer like Roy MacGregor speculated on the rift this might create between First Nations and Jews, as though Ahenakew were the leader of some fringe political party. (Another longing for 2003: that an editorial writer will find the courage to tell people to calm down.)

It was as if the man had exhibited positions and not clinical symptoms; as if he had followers; as if his remarks represented a cultural attitude and not a personality disorder. People treated him as though, albeit in some twisted way, he made sense.

Only he wasn't making sense. It wasn't a "speech" at all, but a series of disjointed, self-contradictory assertions which no more merited acceptance or rejection than the symptoms of a man with an untreated case of Tourette's syndrome. If anyone I knew started saying things like that, I should call a doctor, not the RCMP.

I wonder: Just what would have been made of the incident had the speaker been non-aboriginal?

The Keegstra case was far more alarming, given that he taught Holocaust denial to high-school students for years before anyone in Eckville, Alta., said boo; then there was Ernst Zundel in his blue hardhat, who held anti-Semitic rallies in Toronto a few years back, and even appeared on 60 Minutes -- I mean that one has followers. Yet I don't remember the premiers of Alberta or Ontario finding it necessary to apologize on behalf of Canadians of European descent, to reassure Jews that the Aryan Nations don't speak for the provincial government.

What people did was to seize upon Ahenakew's rant as an opportunity to make self-serving statements to the effect that they regarded it as vile and "un-Canadian." Paradoxically, the combined effect of these generalized rebuttals was to trivialize the topic with tolerant noises, whose only purpose was to characterize the speaker as very, very nice. Only, somebody set fire to a synagogue in Saskatoon last April, and I doubt that it was David Ahenakew. White supremacists, on the whole, do tend to be white.

Meanwhile, at the opening of an Aboriginal centre in Manitoba, in a speech about the disappearance of native languages, our Heritage Minister had this to say: "This government is committed to Canadian diversity in all of its beautiful colours." Then she went on to ask, rhetorically: "How can a people be strong without having as a foundation something as symbolic of their culture and identity as their language?"

Again, somebody is not making sense. Yet in a way I find Sheila Copps more alarming than Mr. Ahenakew, because the former occupies a position of power.

Beautiful colours? Is this a country or a Coke commercial? Language is symbolic of culture and identity? You mean like a brand logo?

Maybe it's because she sees language in that way that Ms. Copps manages to say so little about anything.

As a unilingual Anglo, I challenge the Department of Canadian Heritage in the coming year to take a leadership role in restoring some respect for English, by swearing off the goodwill boilerplate and the opportunistic slop-speak; by saying something about a given topic other than, "aren't we all so very, very nice?"
jmgray@shaw.ca


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Amid talk of war, an unruly innocence
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Tuesday, December 24, 2002 – Page R2

Why is the news always bad?
Because the good news is the ads.

Marshall McLuhan

F
or a media hack like myself, feeding upon other media in a process of filial cannibalism similar to certain species of freshwater fish, one's view of the world can become jaundiced to the point where one imagines the human being as a species of rat (metaphorically -- I mean no disrespect to that fine rodent). Wire services provide a limitless supply of human iniquity and cruelty, and whether the atrocity occurs in one's own city or halfway around the world matters nothing once it has penetrated the locality of one's own brain.

A professional hazard for which the only antidote (other than the journalistic tradition of drinking oneself footless) is to head downtown and, for an hour or two, take an inventory of what might be described as innocent activities, pastimes and encounters -- human behaviour which is neither destructive, deceptive, manipulative nor mean.

To view the world in this way requires a visual adjustment akin to the gestalt exercise in which a picture could be either two profiles or a chalice, depending upon one's perception of foreground and background.

In an urban environment, altering one's focus can take time to achieve, given that the typical downtown street amounts to one continuous sales pitch of one kind or another, expressly designed to get in your face, failing the innocence test on the first two counts at least.

As well, one must contend with the operation of the city itself, whose deference to the car is nothing if not destructive, whose treatment of its less fortunate citizens is nothing if not mean.

Nonetheless, innocence abounds.

I'm driving onto the Lions Gate Bridge from West Vancouver where four lanes of traffic must merge into one -- a sadistic flow pattern in effect, if not intention. With effort, I stop seething over this maddening situation and focus on the participants -- and suddenly a sense of wonder comes over me at the spontaneous way in which, without prompting or policing, motorists weave together into two queues, then alternate again into one, a ballet of urban courtesy, costumed in metal and plastic.

In 20 years driving over that bridge, not once have I seen a driver attempt to jump the queue. Nor roll down his window and present the finger to someone unfamiliar with the practice. Nor ram his vehicle into someone's fender out of frustration and spite.

Eventually we drive across the bridge, in a continuous line, meeting oncoming traffic, two metres apart, at a combined speed of about 160 kilometres per hour; in 20 years, to my knowledge, never has a motorist snapped, turned his wheel a mere 20 degrees to the left, and initiated a head-on collision.

Talk about peace on Earth!

Crossing Burrard Inlet 10 minutes later, across the water one views a number of high, concrete retaining walls, supporting a series of upscale homes worth a million plus. I look at those homes and, having experienced the gauntlet of homeless begging for spare change, bristle at the widening gap between rich and poor, the result of deliberate social engineering, the taxation policies of a neoconservative elite looking after its own.

Even so, by altering my field of vision from the dream homes to the wall itself, I note that they have been covered with graffiti -- carefully painted with huge, colourful designs and energetic compositions; and I learn from my 16-year-old that these are designated "free walls," open to anyone with a can of spray paint.

Nevertheless, by some unwritten covenant, nobody paints on the free wall who cannot improve upon what is already there. As a result, over time, the quality of work has progressed until now the walls display flawlessly executed murals, whose imagery remains miraculously unmarred: no scrawled gang tags, no obscenities, none of the defacement which the word graffiti suggests.

Talk about goodwill among bipeds -- teenagers, yet!

With practice, one observes more innocence in action. A woman with a rottweiler on a leash (an animal I view as a shark in a dog suit) pauses while the pooch relieves himself on someone's lawn, then bends over with a plastic bag wrapped over her hand, picks up the fresh stool, reverses the bag -- and puts the disgusting thing in her coat pocket!

Looking for civility? Tidings of comfort and joy?

Meanwhile downtown, at every street corner stands at least one newspaper coin box, its front window trumpeting the latest enormity, anxiety, mendacity. Some glutton for bad news deposits his 75 cents, opens the oven-like door -- and extracts only one newspaper! Probably 10 bucks worth of product inside, yet never have I witnessed someone extract more than he paid for. I'm sure it must happen, but not often.

Would that the various political sages preparing us for a foreign war shift their focus for one moment to recognize and acknowledge that, leadership aside, daily life in those distant societies is comprised, as it is here, almost entirely of innocent activities -- walking dogs, riding bicycles, playing music, collecting stamps, cooking dinner, going to school, doing the laundry.

Grace be unto them, and peace from that which is to come.

jmgray@shaw.ca


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Welcoming all faiths to join in our retail frenzy
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Tuesday, December 17, 2002 – Page R3

Humbug: Something made or done to cheat or deceive.

Webster's

Crawling into my local coffee outlet, three times I heard the server initiate the 10-second interaction required while money and liquid are exchanged, with the enquiry: "Are you ready for Christmas?"

Another small pleasantry, the seasonal variant of "Enjoy your day," yet I find such ritual formulations between strangers interesting, as indicators of the current Zeitgeist.

To go by tone and eye contact, the shared emotion on offer was not of anticipation, as in, "Are you going to have fun this weekend? I sure am!" More like a tender of sympathy, as in, "You poor thing, I know just what you're going through!"

Likewise, the rehearsed response from the patron -- eye-rolling sigh; philosophical wag of the head -- cemented a momentary rapport based on tragicomic Yuletide angst.

'Tis the season, not of giftgiving, but of guilt giving. 'Tis the season of lists. 'Tis the season of greeting cards received, not with pleasure but with a pang of regret, having failed to include the sender on one's own list. 'Tis the season of searching for a gift for someone who needs another object or service like he needs an albatross around his neck -- an albatross of approximately the same size and stickerprice as the albatross he sent us last year. 'Tis the season to field myriad requests for donations -- some worthy, some not.

Which brings us to the recent outrage over attempts to take Christ out of Christmas by altering Christian symbols, by means of sectarian-neutral labels -- as in the Royal Canadian Mint's Twelve Days of Giving promotion, or the City of Toronto's Holiday Tree.

'Tis a familiar complaint going back to the Season's Greetings flap in the 1950s; yet that old corpse of a controversy has been jolted back to life, thanks to the term "politically correct," invented in the 1980s to connect issues of the American left -- bra burning, tree hugging, gay lib, and especially social programs bundled under the label of affirmative action -- with Chairman Mao, Pol Pot and the excesses of the Red Guard.

In other words, from its first utterance the term has been the cultural creation of angry conservatives, intended to evoke a Through the Looking Glass dystopia in which heterosexual white men of merit are passed over for employment because of racial prejudice; in which some antifamily harpy becomes president because she wears a bra (or refuses to); in which Lincolns and gas lawnmowers are confiscated by the police.

Take a contingent of angry white men (or newspapers pandering to them), add a touch of aggrieved Christianity, and you have a remarkably dumb contretemps in which one side accuses the other of hijacking a religious festival through political correctness -- the Yuletide equivalent of racial quotas -- while the other side claims it's all about the need for "inclusion" in a multicultural Canada. Note the assumption on both sides that Canadians who celebrate Hanukkah and Ramadan are anxious to join their Christian brethren in this idolatrous indulgence, exchanging toasters in the name of God; that Sikhs feel hurt to be left out of the shopping spree.

What, do they think these people are crazy?

What bullshit, when really it's all about broadening a saturated retail market by spreading the artificially induced consumer hysteria known as gift giving. Consumers have been keeping the economy growing for the past two years by putting ourselves deeper in debt than at any time since the war -- and as most retailers know, Christmas is make-or-break time. If not Buddhists and Hindus, who is going to put more Noma lights on their eaves? Who will buy this season's Pet Rock or Cabbage Patch Kid?

Note that coverage of the controversy died down after the Gap story, in which a directive had came down requesting clerks to wish customers Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. As a business story, this didn't get nearly the editorial coverage the Holiday Tree did, though both items were about precisely the same thing.

Meanhile, you could almost hear the sighs of relief in the report from Halifax, entitled Atlantic Provinces Awash with Holiday Spirit. Apparently East Coasters are prepared to spend more than $1,000 apiece on presents this year. You can't get more spiritual than that.

I remember the Season of Giving, Down East. A long time ago I worked the Christmas rush at Margolians, a Truro, N.S., retailer, when consumer charge accounts were in their infancy. A company called Central Charge collected the loans, and we had to call in each one for approval. I remember the taut faces of women whose credit had reached its limit with two more presents to buy. I remember the baritone voice on the phone saying, "Tell her we'll approve this one, but not another cent."

At 15, I felt so sorry for these Christmas shoppers; later I got used to the fact that there are people in Nova Scotia who will not pay off this Christmas until next Christmas; who will forgo a family dinner in a restaurant in January, because they bought the mood ring little Sarah wanted so badly.

Leave Christmas to the Christians, I say. Welcome to it.
jmgray@shaw.ca


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From Orwell to Kafka in one easy step
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, December 10, 2002 – Page R1

The illegal we can do right now;
the unconstitutional will take
a little longer.

Henry Kissinger

In a previous incarnation, I wrote and performed political satire on TV and radio, but not any more. There's no point; either current events satirize themselves, or the definitive satires have already been done.

It seems the Pentagon, in partnership with a company called Syntek, is constructing a computer system called Genoa, which is to operate as a vast electronic dragnet -- a military-grade search engine which will not only gather and collate personal information over the Internet, phone and fax lines, but will enable "peer-to-peer review" -- meaning the American government will become not a series of discrete departments with specific purposes and mandates, but one gigantic, all-seeing eye. This will be a big help in the search for terrorists -- or any other search to which a bureaucrat might feel inclined.

Want to try and improve on 1984?

Okay, fine. To spearhead this new level and extent of public surveillance, the President has appointed a gentleman named John Poindexter, apparently for two reasons. First, as vice-president of the above-mentioned government contractor, Poindexter's appointment fuses the public-private partnership into one unified whole -- or one gigantic conflict of interest, depending; second, Poindexter gained experience during a terrorist episode 20 years ago, as an ex-Naval officer and advisor to Ronald Reagan.

How forgiving of this President -- but then, it's Christmas.

Having been fired as National Security Adviser, Poindexter co-starred in the infamous Iran-Contra scandal and was subsequently convicted of criminal conspiracy, lying to Congress, defrauding the government and destroying evidence. These convictions were overturned, based on the fact that Congress had given him immunity in exchange for his testimony -- although the testimony he gave Congress turned out to be false.

From Orwell to Kafka in one easy step -- satirize that if you can.

In some ways, the situation then does appear similar to the one now, except the terrorists were from Iran and not Saudi Arabia. Then as now, Canada backed our friends shoulder to shoulder. (Remember Ken Taylor? Escape From Iran? We were such pals then. Oh, never mind.) Then, as now, the President had categorically refused to negotiate with terrorists on moral grounds. It was a similar, if lesser, confrontation between West and East, right and wrong, with similar arguments on both sides.

Meanwhile, the CIA, in its wisdom, wanted to fund and support another gang of terrorists, who intended to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, which was just about to be re-elected, having overthrown a dictator named Somosa, who was like Noriega, only worse. Congress, for the most part reasonable, honourable people, didn't think much of the idea. It had something to do with respecting democracy.

Despite a vote by Congress, and behind the President's back (supposedly -- Reagan's memory was at issue), our man Poindexter dispatched the mildly psychotic Oliver North and his henchmen to sell weapons to terrorists in Iran, then to funnel the money to terrorists in Central America.

This too has a precedent in the self-satirical James Bond series popular to this day -- a mission statement expressed in the phrase Licence to Kill, or, more accurately, Licence to Murder.

In his most recent role, Poindexter joins a strong cast of elderly traitors and sneaks. Take Eliot Abrams, for example, whom the President has appointed to the National Security Council, as director of its Office for Democracy. (An Orwellian title in itself, but never mind.) Abrams will be remembered for his role in concealing the atrocities committed by Poindexter's terrorists in Nicaragua. As assistant secretary of state under Reagan, our man pleaded guilty in 1991 to two counts of withholding evidence from Congress over his role in the Iran-Contra affair. The current President's father pardoned Abrams, for reasons unknown.

I think Voltaire had something to say about this. It certainly feels like Louis XV.

And now for the star of our show: Henry Kissinger, the Richard III of Nobel laureates, whose murderous meddling a generation ago in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, East Timor and Chile accounts for much of the anti-American sentiment in the Third World today. Kissinger has been put in charge of finding the truth behind 9/11, the worst terrorist outrage in American history.

The rationale is delightful if you have a black sense of humour. According to William Safire of The New York Times, Kissinger, as a notorious manipulator and liar, will be able to see through the manipulations and lies of the culprits.

Taken altogether, it sounds like a bureaucratic version of the 1970s series The A-Team -- about a squad of escaped criminals whose lack of anything like common decency empowers them to barge through the limitations of legal process and win one for the good guys. Welcome, Henry (Hannibal) Kissinger, Eliot (Bad Attitude) Abrams, and John (Faceman) Poindexter. How long, one wonders, before Oliver (Howling Mad) North roars onto the scene?

Okay, so maybe there's room for satire after all.

Meanwhile, our Deputy Prime Minister has been making noises again to the effect that Canada is not morally superior to the U.S. Given the above, is Mr. Manley suggesting that Canada has employed arbitrarily pardoned criminals and conspirators to guide our domestic response to terrorism? Is Mr. Manley toadying to the Republicans -- or is he trying to tell us something?
jmgray@shaw.ca


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Let the Games begin -- and the doublespeak, too
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, December 3, 2002 – Page R1

Way out here on the West Coast, where the news media and the political leadership, like the cast of The Full Monty, change their tune with their shorts and in unison, I suppose it's too much to ask for a shred of consistency when a proposal comes up stinking of money. I refer of course to Vancouver's bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the trashing of our new mayor's proposal for a referendum on the prospect.

Oh no, we can't have that, says the Premier, having on our behalf paid for a provincial referendum on the constitutional rights of First Nations -- a thumping success, democracy at its best, woof, woof. A referendum on the Olympics, on the other hand, would be a waste of money; worse, it might scotch our chances of a "winning" bid.

Quite so, quite so, harumph, go our business leaders, echoed in the editorials of the various Asper possessions. Mustn't send the wrong signal, stay positive, world-class city, hack-kaff.

These are the same media outlets that, in between spasms of Olympic boosterism, pump out one finger-wagger after the other about Canada's smug unpreparedness in the face of international terrorism, our porous border, the deadly threat we're not taking seriously. Didn't bin Laden himself mention Canada in his latest al-Qaeda infomercial? Not to mention the front-page photo spreads featuring potential local "targets," including B.C. ferries -- and let me tell you, while on the Queen of Surrey, my eyes have been peeled for swarthy people in lumpy vests ever since.

This is where the yearning for consistency arises: Given that terrorists tend to target highly symbolic places and events having to do with Western business (the Trade Towers), Western decadence (a nightclub in Bali) and anything perceived as a sign of Western hegemony, is this the ideal decade for a Western city in its right mind to host an event that is all three at once?

Faced with a war whose battleground is any place with satellite coverage and something to blow up, perhaps the citizens of a potential host city might be asked if we wish to be subjected to the security precautions attending our moment in the electric sun. What will life be like at the Vancouver airport, in its state of perpetual renovation? How tight must we zip our borders to satisfy American security fears, while preventing our American guests from bringing their guns for personal protection? Can we expect roadblocks and spot checks at Lion's Gate Bridge? Metal detectors at every Starbucks? Will we all wear ID badges?

Yes, I know, Salt Lake City managed its security spectacularly well -- at a cost of about a quarter-billion dollars. This feat involved an effort by, among others, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI, the Department of Defence, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard -- in what FBI Director Robert Mueller called a "model of interagency co-operation."

Well, let's see now: In Canada that would mean the RCMP, the Vancouver Police, the Whistler Police, the Canadian military and . . . er, that's it, really.

And how about that road to Whistler -- 120 kilometres of tortuous S-turns through the blasted-out walls of the Coast Mountain Range, subject to mudslides in winter, sheathed in steel netting so that loose boulders don't hurtle down onto the cars below. Buy a truckload of phosphate fertilizer, some hydrochloric acid and a condom, and you have a bomb capable of moving a couple of hundred tonnes of mountain; not to mention what you can do to a bridge with a few handfuls of explosive.

Given the vulnerability of a free society to anyone who happens to want to make us miserable, wouldn't the best defence be to keep one's head down, maintain a low profile until the coast is clear?

Unless, of course, our opinion leaders are confident that the problem of international terrorism will be solved by 2010 -- and I don't hear a lot of support for that view, not even from the President of the United States. More the opposite in fact, with the prospect of "weapons of mass destruction," and the spectre, dear God, of a "suitcase-sized nuclear device."

In the meantime, we can expect more little wars against dictators we don't like, as our troops -- under American leadership, of course -- prance through country after country, spreading freedom, making enemies, showering depleted uranium about the landscape like confetti at a wedding.

I remember these same provincial leaders, following Sept. 11, urging Ottawa to adopt the Zip Lock Bag concept, in which a sealed North American defence perimeter would keep the freshness in and the germs out. Of all the fear-mongering since that terrible date, they have produced more than their share -- parroted by our local Pravda, getting the party's message out there in both tabloid and broadsheet versions.

On the other hand, for all the security costs, the Salt Lake City Olympics made a profit of $110-million. Is it possible that all this terror, so eagerly marketed and spread, can be made to evaporate the moment the opportunity arises to make a fast buck? Kind of looks that way.


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The new class system at Canadian high schools
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, November 26, 2002 – Page R3

In my current incarnation as a columnist with The Globe, the three pieces to elicit the most passionate reader response have been: 1) a pipe smoker questioning the amount of public deference we accord religious belief; 2) a cultural gripe suggesting that Yesterday isn't really a very good song; and 3) the piece which appeared last week concerning proposed changes in British Columbia schools.

Make what you like of it, but what astounds me is that the latter column was about what I thought to be a local issue.

I have always found it puzzling that education is a provincial responsibility; all very grassroots, but it also localizes an institution which affects the country as a whole -- at least as much as, say, agriculture -- so that by the time we acknowledge a national trend it may be a done deal.

My complaint had to do with a B.C. initiative in which children at the age of 16 choose Pathway Concentrations focusing them in a specific career direction and putting behind them other interests they might have pursued, such as Fine Arts. To me, this presented the ominous spectre of a class system based upon artificially induced personal horizons.

In response, a writer from Quebec wryly observed that, as a more advanced province, its education department introduced a system virtually identical to the B.C. proposal some 20 years ago, entitled: Collège d'Enseignement Général et Professionnel. Apparently it's a disaster, in which only about a quarter of students in the General program graduate on schedule.

Remember the old days when General was a euphemism for Stupid? Talk about self-fulfilling.

Next I hear that Ontario has created something called Destination Streams -- which are like Pathway Concentrations, only more wet and subject to the pull of gravity.

Apparently, Ontario students who reach Grade 8 must decide whether to take Applied or Academic courses in Grade 9. However, if the student's chosen Destination Stream is university, she will need at least an 85 per cent average to get in -- if the family can afford it at all. (I went to Mount Allison on 65 per cent in 1965.) Meanwhile, about 20 per cent can't cope with the curriculum as it is.

Which means about 63,000 kids currently in high school have no hope of graduating, to accompany B-average academics with no hope of getting into university. Perhaps they can team up on the planning and execution of bank heists and break-and-entry -- there's a Destination Stream for you.

What's going on? Is this an attempt to lower wages through supply and demand, by flooding the market with labour? Or does the concept that individuals can slot into denominations like coins in a vending machine represent the one model our provincial politicians understand?

I'm reminded of the Laffer Curve, an elegantly simple economic model whose only drawback is that it is false. Nonetheless, the Laffer Curve formed the basis for Reaganomics -- because it suited Reagan's personal ideology, and because he could get his head around it.

Just as the Laffer Curve appealed to Republicans in the 1980s, just as phrenology and eugenics appealed to conservatives of the last two centuries, I wonder if the theory behind this trend in education represents a similar attempt of conservatives to remodel Canadian civil society from the ground up. After all, many prominent and vocal Canadians don't like Canada much. Their arguments are well-represented in the National Post. And if you want to change a country, get them while they're young.

At the same time, given that we live in a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world, how in hell do these people think Canada got this way?

Was it our natural resources? Russia has plenty of natural resources, as do Brazil and Argentina. Proximity to the United States? So has Mexico. Is it our social cohesion, our huge population base, our brilliant leaders, our military might? Oh, please.

What has set Canada apart, especially since the Second World War, has been a relatively egalitarian public-school system -- a relative meritocracy in which, by effort and talent, it's possible for a person to choose and excel in the field in which she is interested, whether or not she chose the right parents.

Something wrong with this idea? A bit messy for some people? Too many arrivistes hopping onto the class above, lacking proper table manners, accents, skin tone?

Where are we going here? Do we want to be like France, where positions in the bureaucracy are bequeathed like heirlooms from one generation to the next? Or the U.S., where it's not considered the least bit strange to name a future industrialist Henry Ford III? Do we want a British-style aristocracy, whose offspring develop underbites at the right schools, with positions of privilege awaiting them like seats at the opera?

Of course I may be biased. My great-grandfather was a farmer; my grandfather was a yardman for the CNR; my father worked for an insurance company; my siblings include two musicians and a teacher. Not so upwardly-mobile on the income scale perhaps, but in terms of personal horizons it represents an expansion I had always assumed to be the Canadian way.

If this is no longer the way things work, someone should at least explain why.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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The way to the future is off the beaten path
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, November 19, 2002 – Page R1

I see that British Columbia's Minister of Education has proposed changes to high-school graduation requirements, in order to Better Prepare Students for the Future.

Heaven knows we want our children to enter the future in a prepared state. To Move Forward. To Meet the Challenges of a Competitive World.

(Who writes this vacuous twaddle in government notices? A Cliché-matic? A Plati-tron? Can I buy one at Office Depot?)

In accomplishing this imprecise goal, one proposal, wouldn't you know, is to eliminate Fine Arts as a requirement for Grades 11 and 12. Instead, students would choose "pathway concentrations" in Grade 10 -- between a program which includes Fine Arts, and another called Applied Skills, which does not.

Does the same person who devises the phrase, Prepare for the Future also write Pathway Concentrations and Applied Skills? Because all three employ the same propaganda technique -- what we might call the Misleading Visualization.

It's not that the words don't correspond to what the speaker intends, as in "lying;" it's that the metaphor utterly misrepresents what's going to happen as a result.

Hear the words Applied Skills and Pathway Concentrations, and the mind's eye envisages a lone student at an intersection, contemplating a number of paths leading from the present to the future. By focusing on her Personal Goals and by concentrating her Applied Skills, the student will be able to select a pathway early, thereby to maximize her effectiveness. And when she enters that golden city of the future, she will be prepared.

The image does not envisage an Applied Skill becoming obsolete; nor do Pathway Concentrations lead to a dead-end -- as many specialists of my generation discovered. Note also how the Misleading Visualization plays upon the student's fear of what the future holds, and the parents' fear of having him living in the basement at age 35. Because whatever your station in life, unless you are clairvoyant, the one thing you can say about the future is that it is unknown. And while I am aware that the adjective "unknown" has no comparative, somehow the future seems even more unknown now than it did 20 years ago.

On the negative side, anything can happen. On the positive side, er, anything can happen.

How is one to best prepare for the unknown? Is it by funnelling down a Pathway Concentration, based on current interests, peer pressure and world-view? By making a choice between thinking with the right brain and thinking with the left, at the visionary age of 16?

This appears to be what the choice between Fine Arts and Applied Skills amounts to: Be a creative thinker, or be a problem-solver; be someone who comes up with new ideas, or be someone who works with someone else's ideas. You choose. Right now.

Of course, people in business and government know better -- for themselves and their own children at least. Managers love creativity seminars and visualization think tanks; and somebody is buying all those books by Edward de Bono.

Offspring of the professional classes (mine included) attend art schools and private music lessons, talented or not, whatever it takes -- why? Because their parents know that an undeveloped imagination condemns you to a kind of cultural automatism no matter what your Skill Set: a life spent fitting in to a job description prepared by somebody else.

Such an outcome is not for the managers in life.

It's for the staff.

Depending on which neighbourhood you come from, the world is made of a variety of materials. If it's a working-class area, the world is mostly rock -- a hard, unyielding surface containing a limited number of crevices, in which you must find a place or go homeless. For someone used to looking at the world that way, nothing makes more sense than Pathway Concentrations and Applied Skills.

For others, the world can be made not just of rock but of air and water too, which will accommodate your individual shape -- provided you have one. Hence, families with money/power/education take the broadest possible approach to their children's education, in order to face the Challenges of the Future.

Clearly the unconscious assumption behind the above proposal is that of Management: that the children of auto mechanics, salespeople and waiters should be encouraged to set their sights on technology, retailing and the service industry; to prepare for the labour market early, so that competitive employers can cherry-pick the best of the crop.

That's how we get a class system: Different expectations, enforced from within, and supported from without by Misleading Visualizations.

Misleading Visualizations proliferate whenever the government wants people to work harder for less money. Scale back Unemployment Insurance, and it becomes Employment Insurance. Attach new conditions to Welfare, and it becomes Workfare. Cut the minimum wage, and "working opportunities" appear. We're not sticking it to the working class, no, no, we're buffing up the work ethic, honing the competitive edge.

A deep weariness comes over me.

In my early teens I was encouraged by a teacher to think in terms of joining the Canadian Army, there to train in a reliable trade, such as welding.

Words cannot describe what a terrible welder I would have become.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Canadian TV and natural (channel) selection
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, November 12, 2002 – Page R1

According to CRTC Chairman Charles Dalfen, Canadian-made TV drama is "on the verge of extinction," the population of English-language TV series having plunged from 12 to five. I sense, however, that Canadians do not feel the same anguish over the disappearance of Side Effects and Street Legal as they do over the Burrowing Owl and the Piping Plover.

For those who have made a living from TV drama, its decline is a source of sadness and disenchantment. As executive producer Peter Lauterman (Street Legal, North of 60) put it in Canadian Screenwriter magazine, "There are so many choices out there that no one in Canada feels as passionate about Canadian content as they did 20 years ago. . . . My sense of it is the younger generation of people under 30 are not going to martyr themselves on the cross of Canadian nationalism." (One envisages Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, heading due south, past row upon row of crucified Canadian nationalists in the setting sun.)

However, as endangered species we note both differences and similarities between, say, the Vancouver Island Marmot and the Canadian cop show, which may prove instructive in charting the latter's demise.

To begin with, unlike most Canadian series drama, the Island Marmot is not a spinoff of an American marmot -- say, a Yellow-Bellied Marmot or an Olympic Marmot. Unlike the Canadian versions of L.A. Law and ER, it is unique to its terrain. Were the Canadian marmot to disappear, importing an American marmot instead would not suffice.

Several possible reasons exist for this difference in what we might call species integrity, depending on whether you believe in evolution or intelligent design.

Creationists argue that TV drama is the brainchild of a canny Executive Producer, who assembles a production team, whose aim is to fulfill a demonstrated market, so that the Broadcaster might fulfill a necessary quota. At the same time, there is an element of Darwinian evolution according to Mr. Lauterman: "Night Heat begat everything. It spawned Adderly, it spawned North of 60, it spawned E.N.G., it spawned Due South in one way or another. . . ."

I'm no zoologist, but I recall from some nature program that it sometimes occurs that a species will evolve in such a way that it acts as a decoy for the predator of another. If so, again we have something in common between nature and TV drama, which has come to exist solely as a decoy to lure the wandering consumer into the jaws of the corporate sponsor.

However, over time a species can become so host-dependent that it lacks a natural support system of its own. This seems to be the case with the TV series, whose very heartbeat is timed to the sponsor, within the boundaries of a rigid schedule of predetermined "time slots."

Thus, by probing the wonders of nature we gain insight into the demise of Canadian TV drama: Having evolved into an American offshoot, the Canadian breed grew closer and closer to its hardier, more populous cousin until it became like a fungus or tumour, virtually indistinguishable except for its smaller budget.

Indeed, were it not for government protection, the American variety would utterly dominate the feeding grounds while its northern cousin, its junior doppelganger, would wither and die, and nobody would notice.

However, despite this bleak picture there have always existed exceptional, even spectacular examples of Canadian drama series which have not only survived but thrived in the environment, and it is instructive to examine their adaptive mechanisms.

One current exception is Da Vinci's Inquest, a CBC drama about a flawed but honest coroner, investigating deaths on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

It is a common misconception to connect Da Vinci's Inquest with the American Quincy, when in fact its roots stem from the 1960s CBC series Wojeck, starring John Vernon. Thus, in nurturing the crusading coroner breed, Canada has the prior claim. (Wojeck was based on Morton Shulman, Toronto's chief coroner during the 1960s; DaVinci is inspired by Larry Campbell, the Vancouver coroner currently running for mayor of the city.)

Note that both Canadian series are based on actual people, as opposed to heroic stereotypes. Note that in both cases the location is a real Canadian place, and that the plots are derived from issues found there -- leading, in the case of Da Vinci's Inquest,to a documentary shooting-style reminiscent of the best work of the National Film Board.

In sum, here we have a unique Canadian species, popular with Canadians, whose antecedents are Canadian, whose roots go back to the late 1950s, when Canada was the third-largest exporter of programs after the United States and England.

When a species becomes endangered it is usually for one of two reasons: either it has been overharvested or the habitat no longer supports it.

Given that with Da Vinci's Inquest neither circumstance applies, we must consider a third possibility, analogous to problems experienced in northern communities such as Churchill, Man., where polar bears become so accustomed to feeding on human garbage that they become a dangerous nuisance.

Magnificent beasts though they are, endangered though they may be, if these animals cannot reaccustom themselves to living in the landscape they must, with regret, be put to sleep.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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When the demons of war come back home to roost
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Tuesday, November 5, 2002 – Page R3

In Joe Orton's play The Erpingham Camp, a churchman recalls the miracle of the Gadarene swine, in which Jesus exorcised a madman by transferring his demons into a herd of farm animals, who ran down a cliff and drowned in the sea.

Parishioner: "And what moral do you draw from it?"

Pastor: "In a disturbance, it's the bystander who suffers the inconvenience."

This exchange came to mind upon reading that Robert Flores, 41, a failing Arizona nursing student, murdered three staff members in cold blood -- the third Gulf War veteran in my recollection (first Timothy McVeigh, then John Allen Muhammad) to indulge in what might be described as a grotesque public expression of a grievance.

Is this a coincidence? The Bush administration says so, and one understands why they would prefer to. Besides, these days, to suggest a cause-and-effect chain leading to a terrible crime is tantamount to blaming the victim. In the Republican universe, people are either good or bad, and the bad people should be executed as soon as possible.

On the other hand, an acknowledged characteristic of war is that it drives soldiers crazy.

Of all the wars of the 20th century, the Gulf War stands out in two ways: as the only war named after an oil company, and as the only war with no dead bodies. In the North American mind it lingers as a video war, in which the danger was from friendly fire, like a sports mishap, or chemical poisoning, like an industrial accident.

I remember watching an aerial view of the "highway of death" on CNN, littered with shreds of Iraqi vehicles and equipment -- and no bodies. It was as if the desert were a sandbox and all the children had run away, leaving their toys behind.

Only, there were bodies. Lots.

Consider the battle of Medina Ridge, where the Republican Guard attempted to hold their ground against four Allied divisions. (One division, the U.K. Armoured, if lined up bumper to bumper, would stretch about 350 kilometres.) This vast phalanx of tanks the size of a major city -- what General Franks described as a "massed fist" -- flattened the enemy from more than two kilometres away, in less than one hour.

By morning, the Medina Division had evaporated off the face of the Earth. An impressive expression of the Powell doctrine -- victory through overwhelming force, from a safe distance.

In all, in a war of 100 hours, Iraq suffered about 100,000 military deaths, while aerial attacks killed perhaps double that number of civilians. Allied casualties stood at about 150.

Surely no greater power exists on Earth than the power to annihilate anyone, at will, without fear of retaliation.

Still, killing people exacts a price. It's a cultural thing. Shakespeare is full of it. We for whom the Gulf War was a video game or a press conference may have trouble catching on.

For the soldier, mental anguish is not just for the vanquished, who at least share the pain of losing with the civilian population; meanwhile, the winner does the victory parade, the testimonial dinner, and is expected to blend into the work force as if nothing happened.

But each war has its own distinctive madness, even for the winners. The First World War invented shell shock, many of whose victims were shot for cowardice or malingering. After the Second World War, my father would describe an ex-pilot as "flying low" -- meaning that he lived fast and drunk and dangerous. To read Michael Herr's Dispatches, Vietnam was a hallucination whether you were on acid or not.

These past wars inspired veterans to kill themselves, out of grief for fallen friends, the unworthiness of survival, the pettiness of peacetime, many reasons.

What did Gulf War veterans bring home? What brand of madness does a war inspire with 0.1 per cent casualties on the winning side?

Much has been written about the effects of sarin gas and depleted uranium, but I wonder what thoughts Allied soldiers experienced? If we run with the madness-as-metaphor theme, is it possible that the sniper who terrorized America was demonstrating the Powell doctrine in his personal life -- overwhelming force as a bargaining tool, with a demonstrated readiness to follow through?

In a way, the Powell doctrine is the one thing our three murderers have in common: McVeigh used overwhelming force; Muhammad attacked from a safe distance; Flores followed through. All three murderers set out to demonstrate, to a real or imagined enemy, something about the nature of power.

The United States has the world's most powerful military, with the most well-trained and well-equipped soldiers the world has ever seen, whose purpose is to maintain the dominance of one superpower for the next century at least.

To ensure the approval and co-operation of Americans who might feel uneasy about the Powell doctrine, the Pentagon has created a televised, Net Nannie version of war with the dirty bits left out.

But despite the most sophisticated media management, the madness at the ragged edge of empire goes on, to return home as a demon in the mind of a soldier, then to terrorize fellow citizens who know nothing about what really happened -- innocent bystanders, going about their business, shopping and pumping gas.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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In praise of style over substance
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, October 29, 2002 – Page R3

That Saddam Hussein is one stylish dresser, with the Italian suits and the porkpie hat. Who do you suppose is his tailor?

Is it somebody famous, like Armani or Zegna? Is it possible that Saddam and someone like, say, John Gotti, had the same tailor at one time? Who is Saddam's hair stylist? (A bit heavy on the Grecian Formula, to balance the eyebrows and mustache.) Is anyone reporting on these things?

Many like to complain that the North American media are too shallow, that we neglect the Vital Issues in favour of supercilious sensation. I disagree. I say we're not shallow enough. When it comes to assessing the potential leadership of a city, party or country, it seems to me that the media would do a better job informing citizens about the candidates were we to pay less attention to the portentious catch phrases that come out of their beaks, and more attention to what they look like.

God knows we get enough sartorial comment when it comes to public figures who happen to be female. Wherever she appears, we get no dearth of commentary on the Governor-General's dress, her hair, whether or not she has put on weight. If Adrienne Clarkson's weight is worth mentioning, why not Paul Martin's weight -- given the propensity of men in upper middle age, with a certain style of paunch, to keel over while shovelling snow?

Think back on the miles of column inches spent on John Manley's view of the monarchy. If that merits discussion, and if Clarkson's hair merits discussion, why no discussion about Manley's hair?

Obviously, a process has been taking place, away from the frat-boy bangs, toward something with more gravitas, an evolution which might tell us something about the evolution of Manley's prime-ministerial ambitions -- how the man sees himself in relation to that high office. Does he worry that Canadians think he's insufficiently deep? Has a poll suggested that he's too earnest, too gauche? Do his people think it might be the hair?

Nothing tells you more about a public figure's world-view than his effort (or lack of effort) to control television, to send out the right message -- successfully or unsuccessfully, as the case may be. In the latter category, no more tragic example exists than the figure of Preston Manning, who transformed before our eyes from the manager of a small bank, to a television personality along the lines of Dick Clark or Monty Hall. (And to think his new book is entitled Think Big!)

Given that Reform already dominated the West, and that any changes were aimed to appeal to Eastern Canada, the implications of the makeover strategy seem a tad unflattering to Eastern Canadians -- that they would be more open to the Reform Party platform if only their leader looked a bit more like a game-show host.

Nor did the Manning makeover reflect well upon the world-view of his consultants, who buffed the man to such a sheen, he looked like the handiwork of an Alberta undertaker. Nor did it reflect well on Manning himself -- that he had no better sense of the man in the mirror than that, after so much shaving.

Eventually it became evident even to the Reform Party that it would take more than eye surgery and a set of capped teeth to make inroads in Ontario, even with a new brand name. From this position, tellingly, the warp and woof of the party decided to dump the founder, and replace him with someone who appeared even more like a game-show host than Manning did. (In the case of Day, the role came more naturally as well.)

Meanwhile, in the wider world of politics, players dominate who have a more accurate sense of their own strengths and weaknesses, and are comfortable with them.

You have only to look at what they're wearing to see that George W. Bush and Jean Chrétien are macho galoots who like dark suits with shoulder pads, whose wives choose their ties, who tend to lock antlers with any male they meet. (No wonder they don't like each other.) Unlike Chrétien, Bush dresses primarily for other men, with accessories designed to proclaim allegiances in the way of car salesmen and union leaders: the cowboy belt buckle, the flag stuck on the lapel like a bumper sticker.

I suspect that Stephen Harper dresses a bit like an accountant I know who owns three blue suits, two red ties, and five white shirts -- the same suit, the same tie, the same shirt. When one suit wears out, he orders an identical version from his tailor, who was his father's tailor before him. I could be wrong about this -- an uncertainty that would instantly clear up if only one CBC interviewer had the journalistic courage to turn to the man and ask, "So, Mr. Harper, who picked out your suit and tie?"
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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The last word on sex, crime and werewolves
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, October 22, 2002 – Page R3

Having toiled in the fiction-writing trade for about seven years now, I find myself from time to time perusing the bestseller lists. Of course, these coarse statistics have no bearing upon my devotion to the art, nor do I envy more successful (luckier) colleagues. No way. Really.

Determining bestsellers is not so simple as it sounds. Unlike the Top 10 tunes and the Top 10 movies, no two lists are alike. In American hardcover, occupying the No. 1 spot this week we find either Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones (14-year-old narrates the aftermath of her own kidnapping and murder) or The Murder Book,a crime novel by Jonathan Kellerman. In paperback, depending whom you check, most Americans are reading either a mystery by James Patterson or a romance by Danielle Steel.

Still, one detects an overall tendency toward what we condescendingly refer to as "genre fiction" -- story-driven accounts that deal in suspense, whether physical or emotional or both. Similarly, in the bestseller rack at the local Shoppers Drug Mart, I encounter a comparable list with the same American names.

Check The Globe and Mail, however, and the eyes nearly pop from their sockets to find The Lovely Bones playing second fiddle to Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing, a Canadian novel about a 19th-century quest to find a missing brother by a disillusioned artist and a disgraced military captain. Meanwhile in paperback, Kellerman's Flesh and Blood cedes pride of place to Clara Callan,the Governor-General's Award-winner in which two sisters exchange letters during the Depression.

The moral? So long as we stay out of drugstores, Canadian readers prefer at least one Canadian writer at any given time, and we prefer it to be someone whose work is more, shall we say, sensitive than the Americans -- sensitive, both in its lack of violence and sex, and in the fact that the story turns not on how people act, but on how they react.

Check some backlists and it's the same story: Hannibal Lecter trails Alistair MacLeod's doomed Maritime family; Danielle Steel proves powerless against the Carol Shields juggernaut.

The heart wants to burst with national pride.

For a beginning novelist, the lesson is obvious: If you are Canadian, the key to success is spider-web sentences, resonant characters, and a fund of trenchant observations about historical and contemporary life.

On the other hand, if we go by the contents of both the books section and Shoppers, Canadian mysteries and thrillers are at best a marginal enterprise, and for a Canadian to stoop to the grubbiness of crime and the stickiness of sex would be not only crass but futile. Genre fiction is for Americans, who have so much more experience at being American.

Fine. So our enterprising beginner is 20,000 words into his intergenerational saga about a women in a small town in Saskatchewan, burdened by a terrible family secret, still hopelessly in love with the son of the local undertaker, who was conscripted into the army in 1914, died in the trenches and was secretly gay.

Then, while taking a sensitivity break perhaps, our scribe happens to check the entertainment Web sites, and behold: Warner Bros. (an American firm known to produce movies) has just purchased the rights, on behalf of Angelina Jolie (an American actress), to Bitten -- a novel about a female werewolf who becomes a journalist, written by one Kelley Armstrong from Southwestern Ontario.

This bit of industry trivia appears amid sonorous éclat in People magazine, Entertainment Tonight, The Wichita Eagle, The Melbourne Sun, all of whom take note of the fact that the author is from Canada -- except for, well, Canada actually, where it eventually appears on the Canoe Web site a couple of days later.

God bless the restraint of the Canadian press, for in the material world this deal will net Ms. Armstrong a good deal more than the G-G and the Booker combined. Not, mind you, that literary awards have anything to do with money. For a serious writer, it is enough to know that a jury of one's peers has declared one to be almost as sensitive as they are.

In fact, if it weren't for the sensitive proclivities of our books editors, we might one day see more valuable column inches devoted to narrative-driven, popular fiction such as Bitten -- in which characters act, as opposed to being acted upon; in which key events occur in the present, not the past; in which trouble does not come from a defect in character but, rather, shit happens no matter who you are. In which a person can be shot by a complete stranger at random, while reading a book outside a drugstore.

Writers write what they can, about the way they see things. The difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is really a matter of world-view -- though one is far more respectable, and appeals to the better sort of reader.

Were the books sections of Canadian newspapers to devote a bit more space to Canadian efforts at this sort of crass commercialism, we might see a Canadian occupy that coveted No. 2 spot presently occupied by a Kellerman or a King, resulting in tax revenue sufficient to fund a hundred Governor-General's Awards.

We might even find a Canadian in Shoppers.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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When culture becomes heritage
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Tuesday, October 15, 2002 – Page R1

One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human voices: the simple quality of being well-made.

Bill Reid

W
e all experience moments of epiphany on certain topics, and on the subject of multiculturalism, I keep returning to the time a Korean mathematician voiced in my presence the following complaint:

"Let's say that I and some other Koreans wish to start a Scottish pipe band -- never mind why, we like Scottish music. So we apply to the government for a grant to cover bagpipe lessons. Of course the grant is disqualified: Some tactful, embarrassed young person phones from Ottawa and explains, 'We can't support your grant, because, you see, you aren't Scottish. The bagpipe is a Scottish instrument, not a Korean instrument. However, if as a Korean-Canadian you formed a group which performs Korean music, we would look very favourably on that. Is there a Korean instrument you wish to play?' "

To which my friend posed the rhetorical question, "But isn't a Korean-Scottish pipe band what multiculturalism is supposed to be about?"

This conversation came again to mind as I watched our Minister of Canadian Heritage, pinned and wriggling on the wall, trying to explain her department's response to a British Columbia initiative that sought to secure for Canada a collection of jewellery by the late Bill Reid.

To fill you in properly, let me be ethnically specific: To make sure it stays in Canada, Martine Reid (French-Canadian) offered her own collection of jewellery created by her late husband Bill Reid (Haida-Scottish-German-Canadian), at half its value, to be administered by a non-profit foundation she helped establish upon Reid's death.

Fine. With this in mind, let's revisit our Heritage Minister's objection, based on the presumption that the project ceded control to, as Ms. Copps put it so vividly, ". . . a board of directors of primarily white Anglo-Saxon people, deciding what to do with these incredible artifacts." As an aside, she suggested that the collection might be better located in Haida Gwaii, an archipelago some 800 kilometres north of the city in which Reid lived, worked and died.

You have to admire the sheer efficiency with which the minister dissed so many people in a couple of sentences: First, the Haida members of the board, insulted by her implication that they might allow themselves to be railroaded into something objectionable to their people; as well as non-Haida board members, sporting such Anglo-Saxon names as Auerbach, Pedersen, Faris and Martiniuk, appalled by the minister's blithe equation of culture and race, sometimes known as "racial profiling." (At least the board now has a sense of the way B.C. first nations feel, with cultures spread over an area bigger than Europe, when they hear land-claims issues described as "race-based.")

Note also the insult to Martine Reid, who may not be pur laine Haida (neither was her husband), but was very married to the man and had something to do with his sublime productivity throughout the long endgame of a miserable illness; plus, of course, the insult to Reid himself -- I mean, would Minister Copps describe a Rembrandt as an "incredible artifact" that should be sent back to Amsterdam because it belongs to the Dutch?

Finally, the affront to living Haida artists, many of whom owe their training to Bill Reid. Apparently they're not real artists, but producers of "artifacts" -- which is rather like being called an artifact oneself.

I remember getting a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach when the Government of Canada first changed the name of the department responsible for arts, culture and broadcasting from Communications to Canadian Heritage.

Call me paranoid, but this felt like surrender -- as if Canadian culture suddenly belonged in the past tense. After all, that's what heritage means, isn't it?

By switching from Communications to Heritage, culture ceases to be an activity and becomes a possession, to be treasured, hoarded, protected, owned. As heritage, Canadian art ceases to be a dialogue between the individual and the world and becomes an embalmed artifact, the remnant of a culture that no longer operates in real life, like a midden or a statue of someone on a horse.

What I find dispiriting is that here we have an example (there aren't many) of an interchange between a first nation and the rest of the population that actually works. Unlike other provinces, B.C. accepts that first-nations art provides our only distinctive cultural symbolism. Other than ocean, mountains and trees, nothing identifies B.C. to the world like a totem pole or a mask. What Dutch Masters are to the Netherlands and Impressionists are to France, carvers are to British Columbia, and we don't mind a bit.

Cultural appropriation? Please. If there is one thing we have discovered about globalization, surely it's that no culture can survive without support from outside itself. Celtic culture will find no better protection than the enthusiasm of Koreans, and Haida culture will find no better protection than the existence of a Haida artist who belongs to everyone.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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A novel approach to the Great Game
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, October 8, 2002 – Page R3

Now I shall go far and far into the North, playing the Great Game . . .

Rudyard Kipling, Kim, 1901

One beef (of many) that I have with arts critics has to do with the way they take a binary good-bad approach to an analogue activity, squandering public attention on what is really the least interesting thing about it. I suppose it's all part of the consumer culture we live in, but when you consider the tiny percentage of readers or viewers who will actually read a novel or see a play, it seems a pointless activity -- especially when a reviewer recommends or disparages a concert after the artist has already left town!

How discouraging, as we head inexorably into another bloody war, to see analysts behaving like arts reviewers: Is this a good war or a bad war? Should we attend the war or should we stay home? How do we rate President Bush's performance on last night's news -- three stars?

Then we get speculation as to the war's box-office potential: whether European audiences will purchase tickets, whether it will make its nut. Finally, a prediction as to future trends, in which the writer becomes a soothsayer, except that the entrails he consults are his own.

What if we set aside the critic's good-bad two-step in favour of the analogue approach of a novelist, whose job is to connect events into a plausible narrative, with a context that makes historical sense?

No novelist other than Ian Fleming would accept that the Iraq conflict begins and ends with a bad-guy tyrant equipped with "weapons of mass destruction." For one thing, the current Middle East policy was articulated two years ago, in a document commissioned by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld called Rebuilding America's Defences: "While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein."

So much for The Madman Who Must Be Stopped.

Should our novelist do some research, it might be amusing to recall that the first time the United States attempted a "regime change" in the Middle East was in Tripoli -- in 1803. (A historian friend dishes out this sort of thing, provided I buy the beer.)

Or he might find an interesting analogue for the Bush-Saddam conflict in the nine-week standoff in 1904 between Theodore Roosevelt and a tribal leader named Raisuni (a self-styled warrior against Western imperialism), in which U.S. troops sat in Tangier Bay, ready to fire. As with Saddam (and bin Laden for that matter), Western governments were happy to use Raisuni as a surrogate for their ambitions in Morocco, until he began to take off on his own. Then he kidnapped a wealthy American -- an incident reminiscent of Iran in 1980 -- and the U.S. saw red.

Another task for the novelist is to establish the historical resonance of a story, its style. This one has a Victorian feel: a unipolar world with one superpower (Britain in 1880 had as much shipping tonnage as the rest of the world put together); in which corporate interests and foreign policy become blurred (the East India Company, the Hudson's Bay Company); in which the superpower invades other countries for outwardly benevolent reasons (parliamentary democracy and British justice). All of which combine to form the geopolitical policy that, in the 19th century, became known as the Great Game.

In crafting a Great Game plot out of the Iraq situation, our scribe might characterize the U.S. as the last European nation-state not to give up its colonial aspirations; a nation (more likely a faction within it) whose aim is to create a dominion upon which the sun never sets.

As such, the underlying game plan here might go something like this:

Saddam is really a straw man to whip up public enthusiasm for an attack (Hitler remains a useful model for the villain du jour), whose underlying objective is to destroy the Baath Party, which rules both Iraq and Syria as the last of the pan-Arab political movements. Iraq is at least 25 per cent non-Arab (about 20 per cent are Kurds), and Shiites outnumber the ruling Sunnis two to one. With the Baath Party gone, the Arab world will fragment -- for corrupt Saudis, it's only a matter of time -- and then, peace is unlikely in our time or any other time, let alone democracy in Baghdad.

With the Arab world a patchwork of warring tribes, America can safely turn the policing duties over to its client state Israel, in order to concentrate on its next objective: Iran -- a non-Arab country with seven trillion metric tons of oil reserves that, under the Pahlavi regime, served as a virtual colony of the U.S. for nearly 40 years -- an era the President's father remembers well and, no doubt, fondly.

The goal? Turn back the clock a half-century, and get the American empire back on track.

The Great Game scenario may be way off the mark; it's a what-if approach to the situation. But even as fiction, at least it's consistent with history and fact -- which is more than you can say for the James Bond movie we call news.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Media that obediently speak the language of war
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Tuesday, October 1, 2002 – Page R3

Reading President George Bush's case for a "pre-emptive strike" against Iraq, I am reminded of a Polish joke (by Poles, not about them), from the hard-line regime of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, following the Soviet-led invasion of 1968:

It seems two officers in the militia are marching down a Warsaw street on patrol, ready to enforce the curfew in 15 minutes. They see a man cross the street just ahead of them -- whereupon one of the officers lifts his rifle and shoots the man dead!

"What did you do that for?" asks the other officer, aghast. "The curfew is not up for another quarter-hour!"

"I know that man," replies the shooter. "I know where he lives. He would never have made it."

This seems to be the position of the U.S. government, as it produces more "solid evidence" of Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" while declining to state specifically what that evidence is -- which, by the way, reminds me of a Czech joke by Franz Kafka called The Trial. All of which is eagerly reported -- reiterated, rather -- by CNN, which compensates for the lack of pictures with archival footage of people blowing things up in the desert, and containers of some substance or other, to supply visual support where none exists.

Showdown Iraq is the CNN theme, evoking Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee's image of America as Gary Cooper, facing down Frank Miller and his gunslingers in the streets of Hadleyville. A stirring reference to be sure -- except that in this case Will Kane is at the controls of a colossal, impregnable tank, Frank Miller is down a hole somewhere and his gunslingers are teenage Iraqi conscripts equipped with sharp sticks, crouched in the mouth of a cannon quivering with fear, having seen a hundred thousand of their comrades slaughtered last time.

Some showdown -- and for what? To effect a "regime change," of course -- which sounds about as painless as having your hair done, only with a little more off the top than usual.

The credulity of North American media over Iraq is matched only by their willingness to accept the administration's use of language -- parroting invented terms such as "pre-emptive strike" and "regime change" as though they actually portray what happens when a superpower attempts to transform enemies into client states by dropping bombs on them.

Which puts me in mind of a Vietnamese joke some 40 years ago, when the gentlemen of the press of that era dutifully reported official claims as proven fact.

American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression, trumpeted a Washington Post headline. President Johnson orders retaliatory action against gunboats and supporting facilities after renewed attacks against American destroyers, proclaimed The New York Times.

The official narrative had it that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had launched an "unprovoked attack" against a U.S. destroyer on "routine patrol," followed two days later by a "deliberate attack" on a pair of U.S. ships.

The display of naked aggression inspired Lyndon Johnson to appear on national TV that very evening, announcing a huge escalation of the war in the form of direct air strikes against North Vietnam.

Johnson's TV performance was a smash hit and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution -- the closest America came to declaring outright war -- sailed through Congress.

"The President," The New York Times noted approvingly, "went to the American people last night with the sombre facts." Meanwhile, The Los Angeles Times urged Americans to "face the fact that the Communists, by their attack on American vessels in international waters, have themselves escalated the hostilities."

Only, none of it was true. The U.S. destroyer Maddox was in fact spying on North Vietnamese positions, co-ordinating attacks by the South Vietnamese navy and the Laotian air force. And the subsequent torpedo attack never happened at all. There were no PT boats. They made it up out of whole cloth.

Of course, when then-defense secretary Robert McNamara and the Pentagon lied to Americans, it was for their own good. Like current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, these wise men could see what the future held if America failed to act -- that Ho Chi Minh would enslave all Southeast Asia; that Australia and New Zealand would eventually labour under Communist tyranny. They called this the "domino effect" -- a linguistic invention dutifully echoed by the editors of Time magazine, for whom domestic "peaceniks" (clever, that second syllable) were guilty of an almost criminal naiveté, not unlike that of David Suzuki, Margaret Atwood, Bruce Coburn et al., and comparable to Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler.

Thus began the Vietnam war, and a pattern of government lies, dutifully reported as fact by compliant media.

Fifty-thousand young Americans dead. Millions of Vietnamese casualties -- generations, if we include birth defects from chemicals such as Agent Orange. And all, as it turned out, for nothing.

I wonder what would have happened had the media maintained a rigorous skepticism about what they were told by officials who, like Mr. Rumsfeld, had already expressed an eagerness for war. And I wonder how those reporters and columnists slept later on when it became clear that, out of sheer mental laziness, they had bought into a pack of lies.
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Laurier, not Trudeau, defined Canada
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Tuesday, September 24, 2002 – Page R3

We may not assimilate, we may not blend, but for all that we are the component parts of the same country. We may be French in our origin -- and I do not deny my origin, I admit that, I pride myself on it. We may be English, or Scotch or whatever it may be, but we are Canadians: one in aim and purpose. . . .

Wilfrid Laurier

For a supposed Canadian nationalist I've done an impressive job avoiding whole swatches of Canadian history. Entire decades a blank; Prime Ministers faceless, voiceless and dead, as though they always were that way, even while they lived.

Please let's not make a moral issue of it. Put it down to crappy reading habits, a touch of ADD, and leave it at that.

However, ignorance, in general, is not good. I wonder, how many assumptions would be different, had I a better grasp of the historical facts? (This does not, of course, affect in any way the veracity of this column.) To reinforce this suspicion, every so often a Canadian fact comes along which substantially alters my perception of the country.

For example, amid current discussions about the inadequacy of the Canadian military and how humiliating it all is, it's interesting to note that, for a short period following the Second World War, Canada was the fourth strongest military power in the world. And for anyone who supposes we are intrinsically peace-loving and gentle, how about those gas attacks at Ypres, when the Princess Pats alone pissed in their handkerchiefs, pressed them to their faces and stopped the enemy?

Frankly, I don't remember whether I was taught Canadian history in school or not. I guess I wasn't listening. But my son gets a healthy dose of it, and I like to provide him with my non-existent wisdom whenever I can. It was in this connection that I was astonished by the above quote, from a speech delivered by Laurier in Toronto, in 1886.

(Mind you I am easily astonished, since all I know about Laurier is that he was a prime minister and a Liberal who bore a slight resemblance to Art Garfunkel.)

Go ahead if you like, take a look at the speech (http://www.nelson.com/nelson/school/discovery/cantext/speech/1886laci.htm).

Note that, in an address on the Canadian identity (yes, it was a preoccupation then too), Laurier doesn't mention the United States once. Even Britain exists purely in the context of the Empire to which the "Dominion" belonged back then.

Note also that at no time does Laurier define Canadians by what we are not.

How different from Canadians today, sloshing about in poet Milton Acorn's metaphorical rowboat, pointing forward while facing backward, conscious only of who we're not, where we're not, and where we might be now if we knew where we were headed at the time.

Another interesting thing: Laurier's definition of a Canadian refers not to a past legacy but to aims and purposes, providing unity to what we now recognize as multiculturalism: the idea that in pursuing shared objectives it's possible for Canadian citizens to possess more than one cultural identity, without diminishing any of them.

I don't know about you, but I was under the impression that the hyphenated Canadian was a bit of social engineering concocted by Pierre Trudeau in order to annoy Alberta; and if we are to believe current arguments against the principle, so think a lot of other people.

Remarkably, Laurier's speech occurred when the nation-state was globally at its height; when the relative insignificance of race in the human genome was not understood; when a "nation" was seen as a breeding ground for the identity of a "race" (Laurier refers elsewhere to the "French race," the "Irish race," the "Scottish race"), as a biologically separate entity with its own special blood flowing through its veins.

When Canada coined "multiculturalism" sometime in the 1960s (don't look at me for dates), the aim wasn't to alter the country so much as to reinforce a principle which had been in place almost as far back as Confederation. (What was the Canadian Pacific Railway if not a steel hyphen, joining isolated communities and enabling them to become more than one thing at the same time?)

Why did 1960s Ottawa feel the need to create the multicultural brand? Perhaps because by then American cultural dominance had reached an all-time high, along with its melting-pot assumptions. As well, the neighbour to the south was embroiled in the Cold War, not to mention Vietnam; as seems to be the case today, America was not in a multicultural mood.

Thus began our preoccupation with being different from them, which didn't trouble Laurier a bit.

Differences between Canada and our southern neighbour may run deeper than we suppose, and may not be as superficial as Mr. Manley and Mr. Harper seem to think. Nor may our differences have to do with the "anti-Americanism" of which we stand accused.

If Laurier is any example, it's a case of apples and oranges, even if we occupy the same orchard. Multiculturalism doesn't detract from the Canadian identity -- it is the Canadian identity, and has been for at least 120 years.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Getting to the root cause of pro-American toadyism
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, September 17, 2002 – Page R1

The tendency of our chattering and scribbling classes to mask a taste for social engineering with a coating of faux-populist claptrap continues apace (Tom Long for PM!), as a chorus of editorialists, politicos and pseudo-populist loudmouths censure the Prime Minister for a "disgraceful" TV clip in which Mr. Chrétien suggested a connection between Third World poverty and Third World support for terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda.

Never mind that the quote originated last July, as part of a pitch for increased foreign aid. Never mind that the Prime Minister's remarks were more-or-less identical to the editorial positions of The New York Times, Harper's, The New Yorker, The Economist and The Los Angeles Times. Never mind that they coincide with the views of 84 per cent of Canadians, much of the U.S. population, Bill Clinton and Joe Clark.

Clearly, there exist editors working for Canadian publications who will not be satisfied until Canadians are more pro-American than the Americans; and sadly, Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper are right in there.

"False, shocking and morally specious," honks the former prime minister, overrehearsed as usual, speaking in trilogies like a blurb for a Hollywood movie. "The root causes of terrorism are terrorists."

Yes, of course. And the root causes of crime are lawbreakers, and the root cause of AIDS is sexual intercourse, and the root cause of the Alberta drought is lack of rain, and the root cause of our economic overdependence on the United States is Brian Mulroney.

Meanwhile, our Leader of the Official Opposition pokes his snout out of his hidey-hole to parrot a selection of Bush-isms -- "forces of evil," etc. -- denouncing the comment as "shameful . . . particularly coming on the anniversary of 9/11."

Evidently Mr. Harper was under the illusion that the quote was actually said on the anniversary of Sept. 11, and not three months earlier. Someone should tell him about videotape; perhaps he thinks there are little men inside the picture tube as well.

These are difficult political times for my age group. I'm old enough to remember when Canada was denounced in the U.S. as a Communist satellite for opening relations with China; as a false friend for our lack of enthusiasm for the war in Vietnam; and as a haven for traitors, draft-dodgers and deserters. I suppose, were Mr. Mulroney in power in 1968, he would have deported the scum -- for, as loyal Americans knew at the time, the root cause of draft-dodging is a lack of patriotism.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it doesn't seem to me that any of those exercises in independent statesmanship turned out all that badly, for either country. Would Nixon's summit with Mao in 1972 have gone so smoothly had Canada not preceded him? Would America be better off today had thousands of college students rotted in jail until Jimmy Carter got around to declaring an amnesty in 1977?

When Ronald Reagan invited Canada to join America's Star Wars initiative, Prime Minister Mulroney, with splendid understatement, characterized Canada's support as "restrained." Now that the global threat is a diverse array of transnational suicide bombers, hijackers and poisoners, how much money would have gone down the toilet had Canada gone along with that one? (And to judge by the number of boardrooms Mulroney occupies, I see no indication that Americans have held a grudge.)

One can imagine several possible root causes for this unprecedented degree of toadyism in the public mouth, the most ominous scenario being that Mulroney's free-trade agreement has fulfilled the Council of Canadians' most paranoid fear: that the relationship between Canada and the U.S. has altered not in degree but in kind, and we have become America's gravel pit.

Less worrying, though scarcely more flattering, is the possibility that what we are witnessing is nothing more than a reflexive spasm of hatred for Chrétien himself, a form of St. Vitus' dance: Having been bested by the wily old coot time after time, all it takes is one whiff of that familiar pea-soup patois and, in the words of Rufus Thomas, "They can't stop kickin'! Now they doin' da Funky Chicken!"

Somewhere in between these two poles of subservience and malice is the possibility that a significant proportion of our journalistic elite have their eyes on a career in the United States. Witness the careers of David Frum and Mark Steyn -- fixtures of the conservative brain trust who fled the socialist dystopia to the north and profited well by demonstrating themselves to be more American than, well, the Democrats, at any rate. This may explain why respectable editorial writers have latched onto the Prime Minister's clip as anything other than his usual ungainly statement of the obvious.

Think of the Canadian media biz as a form of ideological futures trading. Moist fingers held to the wind, a generation of Ryerson and Carleton grads have determined that, for the remainder of their careers at least, Canada is not likely to veer further right than it already has.

As a result, a lot of résumés and video rolls are being fired off to the States. Likewise, many commentators aren't expressing opinions any more -- they're auditioning.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Beware the terrorists paddling our way in kayaks
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, September 10, 2002 – Page R3

Deputy Prime Minister John Manley, the middle-aged marathoner who has been photographed running until his nipples bled, wants Canadians to grow up.

In this case, in "growing up" he urges Canada to progress beyond the mindset of a middle power with an independent foreign and defence policy, and learn to behave as an equal partner with the United States, promptly and proudly doing exactly what the superpower wants us to -- not because they want us to, no, no, but because it's the right thing to do.

This, he says, would be a mark of national adulthood; not, as would seem to be the case, a devolution to our former status as a child of the British Empire.

At the same time, Mr. Manley's foray into developmental psychology seems clumsily reminiscent of the Commonwealth: "There are no people on the planet that are more close to us in terms of the value structure and everything else" than the Americans, he says.

Value structure and everything else?

Hard to tell which Americans he means. I doubt that a Spanish-American in southside Los Angeles shares our value structure and everything else. Nor might an Afro-American in Jackson, Miss., or Chicago; nor a hardware-store owner in Amarillo, Tex., for that matter. Perhaps Mr. Manley has relatives in the States.

Or maybe what he means is that Canadians and Americans share the same brands, the same movie stars, the same rhetoric about freedom and democracy, just as we share the same continent -- and when you look at a map, gee, the two countries are damn near the same size, aren't they?

To understand how this cartographic delusion might have come over Mr. Manley, think where he spends his time -- in airports, hotel suites, conference rooms, offices and TV studios. And he's right, they all look the same, whether in Atlanta or Halifax or Hong Kong. But just because the staff at the Four Seasons smile and say "Have a great day!" all over the world, it doesn't follow that they share the same values.

Of course, it's a common rhetorical trick to refer to people who disagree with you as stupid or hypocritical or childish. So chances are, the minister was simply mouthing off.

But even if so, how revealing.

I doubt whether the concept of maturity with which he scolds Canadians is the one he tries to inculcate in his own family. Conscientious father that he is, I bet Mr. Manley teaches his children to look past the brand names and slogans, to get to the underlying truth behind appearances, and to think for themselves.

This, however, is not what he's saying to the rest of us.

A similar discontinuity seems to disrupt the thinking of Colin Kenny, chairman of the Senate defence committee, when he characterizes our huge coastline, its multiplicity of outports, as a huge gap in the defensive fabric of North America, a "soft underbelly" through which terrorists might sneak undetected with their "weapons of mass destruction."

Like Mr. Manley, Senator Kenny has been looking at a wall map of Canada -- and, yes indeed, there's a lot of coastline there, and it all looks rather empty.

But has Mr. Kenny been to a Canadian outport? Certainly if he had, he could not have done so anonymously.

You want surveillance? I'd like to see the vessel that can get within 50 kilometres of a Canadian outport without people knowing about it for 50 kilometres up and down the coast. I'd like to see a foreigner set foot on Canadian soil without a dozen telephone busybodies speculating on every item of luggage -- let alone if it involved odd-looking machinery.

And then what? Where do our terrorists sleep? What do they eat for the minimum three-day journey south? Where do they buy gas? These small interactions are unavoidable -- more people on the telephone, new ripples of gossip and speculation.

Or perhaps Mr. Kenny thinks our terrorists might land on a stretch of deserted coastline.

Once again -- and then what? Navigate the rivers in kayaks? Carry their weapons of mass destruction on their backs through 600 kilometres of roadless bush? For the moment they hit a road and a single pickup truck goes by, word will travel down the line about some damned unusual-looking backpackers.

Compare the above deterrents with a busy port such as Vancouver or Halifax, where you bribe or infiltrate the officials and take your chances with the spot inspections. If you were a terrorist, which would you choose?

An essential part of growing up, it seems to me, entails an awareness, an understanding, of who and where one is. Without this insight, a person can never be truly effective in life, for his actions will be based on the wrong set of facts or an outright fantasy.

This is why we drag our kids away from their TV shows and computer games, why we send them to camp and on cultural exchanges, why we encourage them to get part-time jobs -- as an aid to growing up in the real world.

Some have suggested that it is Mr. Manley who needs to grow up. I think these guys just need to get out more.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Spite and naiveté on the Downtown Eastside film set
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Tuesday, September 3, 2002 – Page R1

Seldom have we heard a weaker, more unsophisticated social initiative than that of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, an offshoot of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, arguing in favour of "compensation" for drug addicts, buskers, prostitutes and other fixtures of the Hastings-Main hellhole, for discomfort and dislocation resulting from film shoots in the area. It was as if their spokespeople had just come across the lingo of negotiation -- that "legitimate issues" should be put "on the table," "for discussion."

What the Eastside delegation seems to have left out of account is that, for negotiation to take place, one must have the law on one's side, and something of value to offer in return.

Vancouver, as you know, is a favoured location for American film production, not only for our low dollar and our compliant work force, but because it is possible, within a half-hour drive from a downtown luxury hotel, to replicate any locality in North America, provided that the mountains, the flags and the mailboxes stay out of frame.

Our one handicap is a shortage of urban decay. When the script calls for the intrepid American hero to stalk the urban jungle with a gun in his fist, he has about six blocks to choose from before he finds himself in Chinatown, or someone's back garden, or the Pacific Ocean.

Which means that the street locals -- drug addicts, runaways, winos, prostitutes, Lysol and Sterno enthusiasts -- receive more than their share of klieg lights, bullhorns, power lines, makeup trailers and all-you-can-eat craft service trucks. Hookers are shooed off their customary corner by off-duty cops, while workmen hose the alleyways free of condoms and sharps, in case the $10-million hero stumbles and cuts his finger while fighting Evil.

After years of this activity, suddenly these marginal people have got it into their heads that, when they settle into their fleabag hotel rooms and their newspaper sleeping bags for the night, they have as much right to a decent sleep as a person in Kitsilano or Kerrisdale.

To which the industry has responded with both boots.

For the past couple of weeks, a deluge of radio call-ins and letters to the editor from film people have countered this fragile position with arguments both devastating and utterly predictable, a series of variations on the all-Canadian mantra: Who do you think you are?

"What do they do to better their environment?" writes one producer. "How much personal effort have they put to getting themselves clean?" Our man goes on, breathtakingly, to compare a prostitute working a street corner with Adolf Hitler. Another industry type harrumphs with rhetorical scorn: "Do these people pay taxes?" and goes on to assure us that he does. On a CBC call-in show, an industry guest greets the inarticulate mumbles of a street person with gales of derisive laughter.

Fascinating, such an utter lack of empathy, from an industry that trades in empathy -- in the vicarious thrill of walking in someone else's shoes, to a place the viewer would normally avoid. To that end, billions are spent hiring actors, dressing them up as whores and bums and addicts and lowlife, whisking them by limo to the "set," there to counterfeit the gritty reality of the inner-city slums. Meanwhile, the human beings on whom these characters are based, for whom the "set" is not a set at all but the neighbourhood where they eke out their tenuous existence, are expected to disappear out of sight and mind, to make way for the real people, the valuable people, the almighty taxpayer.

(No wonder 50 women were murdered in that small quarter before anyone noticed: They neglected to fill out their tax returns!)

People become vicious when threatened, and the Vancouver film business is off something like 40 per cent. Hence this spiteful, unimaginative reaction to a naive, unworkable demand, this unwillingness to see that what lies beneath is a sense of cultural appropriation not unlike the feeling a member of the Algonquin nation must have had watching Disney's Pocahontas -- of having one's life experience transformed into commercial entertainment, but with no sincere regard for the reality that inspired it.

To a line producer, whether it's a costume drama or a cop show or a screwball comedy, every project is basically the same: a series of setups on a series of locations, in which the objective is to "get the day" -- to stay on schedule and on budget. Art (meaning an imitation of life, which delights and instructs and all that) is the domain of the above-the-line people -- producers, screenwriters, directors and major stars, virtually all of whom are imported.

As such, one can see commonalities between the Canadian film people who work below the line, and their Eastside bugbears who work below the poverty line. Both groups suffer from a sense of marginalization -- that they exist at the mercy of unseen forces that control the content of their lives. A piece of protectionist legislation in Congress, a law-and-order mayoral candidate in city hall, a backlash on the part of the all-suffering taxpayer, and they could be swept from the streets overnight.

Both sides deserve our pity.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Propaganda barking up the wrong tree
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, August 27, 2002 – Page R3

Seldom has the function of the media as a conduit for propaganda become so evident as with the footage, obtained by CNN and reproduced by virtually every newspaper in North America, of a dog put to death in an Iraqi experiment involving poison gas.

Unless, of course, the dog was undergoing obedience training and was instructed to lie down and play dead. It pays to be skeptical -- especially in a culture that happily slaughters animals by the millions for various purposes every year.

Was Saddam present? Did he take pleasure in the death of the dog? Is there evidence that the event was fun? And even if so, where do we find our moral superiority?

In the Middle Ages, a popular sport among young men in England was tying a cat to a wall, and then, with hands tied behind their backs, competing to see who could kill the cat with his forehead. Bull- and bear-baiting were finally outlawed in 1835, but ox-driving -- the sport of driving a bullock mad with fear and pain until it collapsed -- persisted for many years and was an established part of holiday festivities in the countryside. In one instance, locals became so outraged at official interference it became necessary to call out the troops.

Even today, we note that in Saskatchewan, sporting gentlemen can enter a private hunting range -- the prairie equivalent of a fish tank -- and kill an animal for the sheer enjoyment of it. The argument for this activity is that the animal dies in less pain and fear than does a cow in an abattoir or a martin in a leg-hold trap; and yet, even though people eat meat and wear fur, that is not quite the same as killing for the enjoyment of killing.

The animal-rights people are jumping the gun, so to speak. They want to halt the eating of meat and the wearing of leather and the experimentation on animals, when the culture in which we live has not yet progressed beyond the notion that killing is fun.

Mind you, my experience in this area is limited. I have never caught a fish and never hunted an animal. But I killed a rat once, and the memory is still with me.

It was a few years ago and I was working on a novel. For various familial reasons, I had taken to writing in the wee hours, and when I arose, it was still dark. On this particular morning, as I made my first cup of coffee, I heard a peculiar rattling sound.

Some background: Suspecting mice, I had set a few traps, baited with peanut butter and one of my installations had borne fruit; only, this wasn't a mouse but a rat -- an adult Norway rat about 1½ feet long. The mousetrap, ridiculously small, had fastened onto its nose and, in the process, became lodged between the dowels of a fancy bread-cutting board. The rat was struggling to dislodge the trap from the cutting board and make its escape. (If rats have a fondness for slapstick comedy, this might prove a winning vehicle -- like the banana peel on the floor or the upturned garden rake.)

Observing the rat, for the first time I understood the fever of the hunt, the awareness of another life form present, no telling what it will do. For all I knew, the animal might suddenly escape from its tentative snare, leap up at me (naked beneath my dressing-gown), and sink its little pointed teeth into my eye.

Stealthily, I retrieved a plastic garbage bag from the cupboard, eased my way to the counter, grasped the cutting board, dumped rat and trap together into the bag, tied the bag in a knot, and dropped it onto the kitchen floor, where it twitched and rustled alarmingly. Can rats untie reef knots? Who knows about these things?

In my view, three options presented themselves: 1) I could take the bag, place it in the garbage can, and pretend none of this happened; 2) I could set the rat free to invade the home of a neighbour; 3) I could kill the rat, as humanely as possible.

Of the three, only the latter seemed reasonable at that hour in the morning.

But how? Flush it down the toilet? Drown it in the bathtub? Stab it? Should I drop it from a tremendous height into the sea?

Right or wrong, I did the following: I took the bag containing the rat into the driveway, set it down, retrieved a 25-pound weight from a barbell set in the rec room, and crushed the thing.

I remember it as though it happened yesterday, morning light trickling down through the trees, illuminating the scene as I lifted the weight high overhead and, with a primordial cry from deep within, dropped the weight upon the rat. And again. And again.

It must have looked strange to the neighbours, sipping morning coffee in their breakfast nooks.

I still feel kind of uneasy about it. I took a life, and it was no fun.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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All is not ship-shape in the theatres of the nation
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, August 20, 2002 – Page R1

I've been asked to speak to a conference of theatre technicians, which feels a bit strange. As a writer and performer with maybe 10 years of touring on the old résumé, the one thing I know about technicians is that I'm utterly at their mercy. So it's a bit like a patient who has been on life-support speaking to the Canadian Federation of Nurses.

The mind of a technician functions quite differently from the mind of a performer or director. For the technician, patience is not a virtue but a necessity -- a working life of extended pauses interspersed by sudden, precise actions, like a sniper or an outfielder. For an actor or director, on the other hand, a short attention span is fundamental -- the capacity to twitch with boredom long before the audience does.

Take, as an example, my upcoming speech. I asked my contact how long the technicians wanted me to talk:

"Oh, 30 minutes, maybe. Forty would be nice."

Forty minutes? Excuse me? Who do you think I am, Fidel Castro?

If I were asked to speak to a conference of actors and directors, the reply would have been more like: "Speak as long as you like, John, but keep it under 10 minutes. Unless you could make your point in three -- or do you think you might just sing a song?"

Performers and directors, meanwhile, subdivide in interesting ways: Some identify with the cast, others identify with the crew; some identify with management, others identify with the audience; some identify with the rehearsal hall, others with the stage. My partner on-stage a few years back, the actor Eric Peterson, could gnaw on a single line or gesture for hours in rehearsal; meanwhile, I'm in a coma with my face in the piano.

I hate rehearsing but I like the stage -- especially when it's empty. I like the soaring height of the fly gallery, shrouded in blacks, the lead counterweights dangling overhead, the pipes and ropes. It's like being on a ship -- especially if it's a hemp house such as the Grand in London, Ont., which continues to use real rope to fly its scenery.

Perhaps for that reason, I get along reasonably well with technicians, far better than with directors and producers. Or maybe it's a class thing.

My grandfather worked as a yardman with the Canadian National Railway, and my father was middle-management, so I tend to look at things from the end where you get bossed around. To this day, I never know how to behave with producers, and tend to ricochet between behaving like a toady and being downright rude.

Interesting, to me at least, how the organization of a stage production is modelled after the British navy, with the director as captain, the stage manager as first mate -- and, of course, the crew. It all makes such elegant sense: You're on a ship whose mission is to take its cargo and passengers on a specific voyage, and is staffed accordingly. Some people take charge of the cargo and passengers; others take charge of the ship itself.

We think of management systems as determined from the top down, by a prescient CEO or by a committee with a Vision Statement. Only, theatre evolved from the other end of the hierarchy, its personnel structure defined by the fact that it employed navy veterans -- thanks to skill-set similarities between flying scenery and crewing a sailing ship. In the 20th century, the pattern was reinforced by similarities between electronic gear on a vessel (sonar, telegraphy), and the lighting and sound equipment required for the stage.

With, of course, major differences. Unlike in the theatre, sailing ships and destroyers didn't have to employ public-relations departments to make passage, nor did they have to set up departments of corporate and government begging in order to stay afloat.

One paradoxical effect of the 1990s government cutbacks in arts programs (except here in British Columbia, where there were hardly any programs to begin with), is that every theatre company in Canada was forced to create for itself a parallel bureaucracy to make up for the shortfall. To do this, companies cut back on technical staff, turning to out-of-house sources for sets, props and costumes.

As a result, in 2002 a Canadian theatre company is no longer the occupant of a building that houses a stage, dressing rooms, a green room and a scene shop. Instead, the theatre company is primarily an office, where people work on computer terminals and talk on telephones. If it weren't for the posters on the walls, you could be with an advertising firm, or a company that does phone solicitations.

Easy to see what this does to the theatre as an engaging public artifact -- as something inherently charismatic, apart from the specific product on offer. I mean, face it, they can't all be hits. And when the show is not a hit, as with the movies and TV, it all comes down to the default position: How interesting is the medium itself?

Canadian theatre does not strengthen its case by turning into an office, instead of a ship.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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The refrain of the industrial Jazz Age
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Tuesday, August 13, 2002 – Page R1

Thumbing through the National Post, I came across a reprint of a Boston Globe article on jazz. (Odd, borrowing from a newspaper the Aspers don't own -- don't they control enough writers? Oh, never mind.)

It turned out to be a handwringer over the decline of the genre, entitled Jazz Industry Singing the Blues. Its author cited low CD sales, distribution problems, the public preference for dead players over live ones and the consequent lack of living jazz stars other than Diana Krall and Wynton Marsalis. (Whose choices of repertoire tend to favour the dead over the living in any case.)

The article concluded that the jazz industry may or may not be dead, but it's ready for the ICU.

I've become inured to the term Music Biz, not to mention Ottawa's odious Cultural Industries, but this was the first time I'd encountered jazz industry, and I wondered what Dizzy Gillespie would have thought. But of course no "industry" would have hired Dizzy in the first place, whose cheeks puffed unattractively while playing to the extent that he resembled something out of the depths of the sea. Same with Parker, Coltrane and Monk, whose drug histories would have made them poor investments (no role models there), not to mention their disregard for listener profiles and focus groups.

A fundamental assumption of industrial culture, it seems to me, is that success is not a function of individual personalities on the front line, but of the way individuals are managed from upstairs: selected, trained, assigned to the area in which their talents are best suited, inspired by the company vision statement and provided with the proper feedback to maximize performance.

Inspired musicians are not amenable to this approach. On what basis would any industry executive in his right mind sign a nasty piece of work like Miles Davis, with more co-operative, consistent, manageable talents in the waiting room?

And an industry is not an industry without a physical plant. Thus we find ourselves saddled with the contemporary recording studio, in which it is possible to manipulate what is played in an almost infinite number of ways, thereby producing a triumph of seamless engineering in which the physical skill of the player and the acrobatic magic of improvisation become irrelevant.

"Mistakes are part of the music," said Davis. Another time he told a player, "I don't want to hear what you know, I want to hear what you don't know."

Can you imagine this directive coming from a contemporary bandleader, in charge of a session under contract with Sony?

Another aspect of the industrial paradigm (forgive me) is the assumption that a product is something that serves a specific purpose. Hence, contemporary movies are to entertain, while paintings exist for their potential as investments.

As a result, movies have become virtual amusement parks, while the art scene has become a form of stock promotion, in which the value is rarely a function of what the producer produces. (Perhaps Enron, which seems to have produced nothing, should be regarded as a work of performance art.)

In the "music industry," value derives from the fact that, unlike in the visual and written arts, it is possible to listen to music and do something else at the same time. The utility and value of music derives from its ability to enhance or distract from another activity -- driving, eating, exercising, various kinds of seduction and, of course, shopping. Most contemporary CDs were never intended to be heard on their own, but as soundtracks to ornament somebody's life.

In the industrial model, to listen to music for its own sake would be like sitting in a chair and examining the wallpaper. (I wonder what Davis would have thought of Dinner Jazz, a compilation in which he joins David Sanborne and Kenny G. in serenading your pasta.)

But perhaps the market's antipathy to jazz goes deeper. As an expression of modernism (meaning, to embrace the future without knowing where you're going), jazz is in fundamental conflict with a culture focused on fear: of the unknown, of the future, of being confused, of being taken in, of letting go, of missing out. An age of desperate channel-surfing for familiar imagery, in which we don't watch a show, we watch TV; in which the adjective "new" is no compliment.

Nor is the adjective "complicated."

As with any art (or idea or organism or society), jazz tends in the direction of complexity. The ear, whether it belongs to a player, composer or listener, wants to stay interested -- even at the price of confusion, of hearing something it doesn't quite follow. places the ear in conflict with the current dogma, in which simple is good and complex is elitist; in which anyone who bothers to attain a skill for any reason other than to compete is a self-indulgent pseud.

That's not how listeners saw things in 1965. Hence, the demand for Davis and Coltrane: In the baby-boomer market, these names function as brands representing the last time they took music seriously. The last time they listened to a piece twice before they "got" it, while their parents headed to the symphony for their yearly doses of Brahms.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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An image that raises a thousand thorny issues
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Tuesday, August 6, 2002 – Page R3

For a photo-grabber, you certainly couldn't beat the front page of The Globe and Mail July 27, in which a young man, wearing nothing but a crown of thorns and a pair of modified white jockey shorts, is depicted hanging from a cross, seemingly nailed there with what look to be railroad spikes, cleverly attached to Nylon wristbands so that they appear to pierce the wrists, blood seeping realistically from the wounds.

A lot of planning went into this image. Meetings were held. Sketches examined for maximum effect. The lighting is magnificent.

Evidently, the creators of the image found the feet more difficult to render in a convincing manner, finding it necessary to supply a small shelf for the actor, a computer programmer from New Brunswick, to stand upon. (In the original version a shelf would have been redundant.) As a result, only one foot -- albeit nice and bloody -- contains a third railroad spike, which seems to dangle from the foot rather than stick into it, while the other foot rests firmly and comfortably on the shelf.

For some reason, the creators chose not to display blood seeping from the crown of thorns, situated above a head of shoulder-length brown hair and neatly trimmed beard, inclined to the left. Perhaps blood was deemed a distraction from the eyes, which gaze heavenward, while the face wears an expression I have seen on the faces of people about to throw up.

Clearly, the Universal Church has not lost its taste for the macabre. Mind you, for homoerotic imagery, nothing competes with St. Sebastian, multiple arrows piercing his flesh. And we are grateful that the spectacle took place in Toronto and not the Philippines -- where, I'm told, young men can be found who are willing to have themselves nailed up for real, wristbands not required.

I'll bet you think I'm making fun of the Catholic Church. I emphatically deny this. I am simply reacting to a violent photographic image that has been thrust into my face, on the front page of the paper I subscribe to.

Call me a prude, but what was the point, other than as a form of pornography -- an obsessive, morbid fascination with the gory details of what should be a spiritual event?

Other things bothered me too. If the Toronto event was as uplifting as reported, why focus on the Crucifixion and not the Resurrection -- I mean, wasn't the Resurrection the entire point of it all?

More ominously: Given that, in keeping with our fascination with sex and violence, people choose to fixate on the Crucifixion of a semi-nude man, what message is implied in portraying the victim as a white man?

I hope this doesn't seem like some tedious, liberal chin-scratcher about the race of the Saviour. But doesn't it seem strangely inconsistent that the designers would take such pains to achieve literal realism in all aspects other than the man's racial DNA? Strange enough to suggest a larger question: What happens when martyrdom is depicted as though the martyred person is a member of the majority and not the minority, the empowered and not the powerless?

What does the Crucifixion signify, when not the fate of the ultimate Other? What happens when it's all about Me?

It hardly needs stating that Christ, by birth and belief, was not a Christian but a Jew. Still, I would not be surprised to learn that post-Constantine Romans, in visualizing the Saviour, depicted Him as a Roman; in the same way that, during the Middle Ages, Normans depicted Him as Norman; and in 2002, mostly young white Catholics in Toronto depicted Him as a young white computer programmer from New Brunswick.

With the Romans and Normans, depicting Christ as a Jew would have placed an unacceptable degree of irony on subsequent events, in which Roman Christians and 13th-century Christians, with a clear conscience, carried out the forced conversion, expulsion and execution of Jews -- the Other in their midst, who, one way or another, was to blame for their suffering. Meanwhile, monks wore hair shirts and sat on telephone poles for 40 years, because Christianity had become no longer about the Other -- it was all about Me.

Who is the Other in 2002? What would happen if, for example, the young man on the cross was a person with AIDS from Nigeria? By making the victim white instead, doesn't the message become a subtle version of the white man's burden -- in which the affluent white taxpayer is crucified by the demands of the Other?

An odd place to wind up, when, to judge by what we know of his theological discourse, the man himself preached a gospel that was not about how I treat Myself (Buddha covered that), but about how I treat the Other -- the person who is emphatically not me. My enemy, even.

An effective image, there on the front page of The Globe and Mail, yet I wonder if it conveyed the effect intended. That's the problem with images that dwell on violence: They may be worth a thousand words, but nobody can control what those words will be.

jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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You want to put on my play? Not so fast
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Tuesday, July 30, 2002 – Page R1

For a writer of plays and musicals, aside from one's quarterly ordeal as an amateur collector of the goods and services tax, few bureaucratic chores are as inherently depressing as the phenomenon known as a "request for perusal material."

Usually originating with a regional theatre in the United States, such a request takes the form of a letter indicating the mildest possible interest in a particular work, combined with the faint, yet tantalizing, prospect that said work might, just might, be deemed appropriate for production in the upcoming season.

To facilitate the decision-making process, the artistic director urgently requests a perusal copy of the script and score, together with an audio tape and/or CD and/or videotape, plus, if available, still photographs and reviews. The producer stops just short of demanding that the Canada goose fly south and honk it himself.

Given the absence of an executive assistant to the playwright, it is up to the writer (or more likely his spouse, given the improbability that the artist will get around to it this millennium), to locate, accumulate, collate and date these materials, to trundle down to Canada Post and to mail them off. I won't vex you with the costs involved -- only that, you may rest assured, not one penny of it is borne by the recipient. And it would take an addled optimist to expect a syllable in reply -- let alone that the materials will ever make the long journey home.

One might as well shove one's work into a bottle and throw it into the sea. Yet one goes ahead with it. As with Lotto, hope in the theatre springs eternal, however adjacent to zero.

Pathetic, I know. And it gets worse.

I'm not certain what caused my mate's antennae to prick up upon receiving a request by one T. R. Wall of Bristol, Va., (birthplace of country music) for perusal copies of my musicals Amelia and Billy Bishop Goes to War,"so that we may consider them for inclusion in our fall schedule" on behalf of the Generic Theatre Company, "a 182-seat, three-quarter thrust space with a five-to- six-play season." The letter quoted ticket prices for evening, matinée and school performances, and asked that we direct the materials to Wall's attention, "so that they bypass our literary department."

Perhaps it was the oddly minimalist letterhead, or the absence of a telephone number, or the Hotmail address (theatres usually have Web sites), or the literary department (what the hell is that?), but for whatever reason, my sharp and significant other began shuffling through the haystack we call a filing system, and behold: Up surfaced a similar request three years ago from one Cody Miller, on behalf of the New Arts Theatre of Bristol, Tenn., "a professional theatre dedicated to producing new and classical plays which enlighten, educate and entertain." In this case, materials were to be addressed to "our Literary Manager, William Ratcliffe."

New Arts Theatre's letterhead, unlike that of the Generic Theatre Company, had included a phone number, which, when dialled in 1999, reached a voice -- a soft, weary drawl who knew nothing about the New Arts Theatre, but a lot about Cody Miller. Who readily informed us that, no, there was no theatre, but that Cody "just likes to collect theatre memorabilia."

Cody's middle name, by the way, was William Ratcliffe. "Cody is a bit of a scam artist, I'm afraid," the voice added, unnecessarily.

This time, out of curiosity I looked up Bristol on the Internet and -- what do you know? Bristol, Tenn., and Bristol, Va., are one and the same place, a town of 45,000 whose main street corresponds with the state line. An e-mail request to the Bristol Chamber of Commerce revealed that the Generic Theatre Company's street address is, in fact, the location of the Carriage Hills Apartments.

Which prompted my loved one to place one more call to the number given in 1999 as the New Arts Theatre; whereupon we encountered that same soft drawl.

"Just a quick question," we asked, after identifying ourselves. "Is Cody at it again?"

"I'm afraid so, Mrs. Gray, yes. Cody moved out of the house last month. He has a job with a cellphone company. He left his collection behind and Ervin carted it out to the dump. Several truckloads. We didn't want to be responsible for them. Cody lies and doesn't pay his bills."

"You're saying that it looks as if Cody is replacing his old collection?"

"Looks like maybe he is."

Several truckloads: Scripts, scores, tapes, CDs, 8 X 10 glossies, thousands of dollars in photocopying, all diligently assembled by playwrights all over the world, from well-known to unknown, now awaiting a "final decision" on whether their life's work merits inclusion in the upcoming season of the Bristol dump.

To our latest e-mail request for Generic Theatre's phone number, our friend T. R. Wall replied that it might prove difficult for us to speak in person.

"We are currently in rehearsal for Harry Who? The Songs of Harry Warren,a revue of material by the writer of 42nd Street and other great tunes."

T.R., by the way, stands for Theodore Roosevelt. "My parents are huge history buffs."

Thank you, Cody. So am I.

jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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A Vancouver newspaper strike? Who knew?
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, July 23, 2002 – Page R3

Cruising the lobby of Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre on opening night of The Rocky Horror Show amid an eclectic crowd of bright young professionals, Casual Friday drag queens, pre-AIDS nostalgia buffs, neo-Bohemians and Social Credit voters with fond memories of My Fair Lady, we encountered artistic director-for-life Bill Millerd, who had this to say about the city's three-week newspaper strike: Weird, but it's as if nobody noticed.

The last Pacific Press strike I recall was in 1978, and for the local theatre scene it was a catastrophe. Ticket sales plummeted, seasons curtailed, staff reduced to handing out flyers on Granville Street, huddled in doorways like Jehovah's Witnesses; so famished was Vancouver for local news and comment that when striking reporters began an interim paper called the Express (ex-press, har har), they couldn't print enough to fill the demand.

Pacific Press has owned and operated both the Vancouver Sun and Province since the 1950s, putting Vancouver on the forefront of the convergence trend. Given the traditional centrality of the local press in picturing the city Vancouverites carry in our minds, what we had was an expository version of the Soviet command economy, in which editors were hired to tell Vancouverites what the publisher wanted us to hear.

Apparently, an era has come to an end.

This time around, with so many sources of local news and advertising (community papers, national papers, entertainment papers, cable TV, the Internet, free "lifestyle" magazines, advertorial inserts), consumers and advertisers raised no outcry for an interim paper like the Express because, frankly, other than the crossword puzzle not much was missing.

In the case of organizations like the Arts Club, it comes down to the fact that both Vancouver dailies have been cutting back on arts coverage for years (along with city hall and other time-consuming local beats), judging it more cost-efficient to publish press releases of Hollywood films, wire-service photos of female breasts, and hotel interviews in which Jamie Portman sucks up to the star du jour. Having of necessity turned to other media with their message, local artists no longer live or die at the whim of some underpaid "critic" who would rather be covering sports or restaurants or, well, anything really.

Came curtain time for The Rocky Horror Show (I hadn't seen it before, having spent past decades with the Taliban), and suddenly it dawned on me that Vancouver dailies may have abandoned the virtual city altogether.

This is not some hand-wringer about the death of newspaper-reading; it's not about the ability of local dailies to be vehicles for news, so much as their capacity to be the news. It has to do with the virtual cityscape, the image or ideogram we envisage when we name the place in which we live: like a cartoon of the city, with simplified shapes and colours and an unambiguous emotional climate. Every city has a virtual version of itself which, unlike the real city, has moods, attitudes, obsessions, worries; the virtual city stands for the real city the way Smoky the Bear stands for the forest.

Local dailies used to define the virtual Vancouver. Now I wonder.

The Rocky Horror Show presents a camp 1970s liberation theme cloaked in a B-movie Frankenstein plot, in which every character and every scene plays as a media parody -- cheesy science-fiction movies, twee pop songs, date movies, 1950s TV -- imagery so fraught with cliché, so familiar as cliché, even fans of The Mousetrap get the joke.

Much of the appeal of the show stems from its Greek chorus -- an unspecifically debauched trio who undermine the action with unison irony, providing repeat attendees (and plants from front office if necessary) with an opportunity to join in, so that the performance becomes a ritual in which the audience celebrates its shared superiority over the material; and when a faux-BBC host in front of a bookcase attempts a literary, Masterpiece Theatre-style narration, even the blue-rinse set happily joins in the chorus of Boooring!

Not that the audience necessarily finds literature boring; rather, we delight in being part of a virtual world in which everyone knows what actions and what attitudes are expected. It's like Disney World: for the price of admission, you can enjoy decadence and remain innocent; a virtual community where, if you want to dress up, you know just what to wear.

Isn't that what local dailies used to do?

Wasn't there a time when, by subscribing to The Sun or The Province, your Vancouverite got his daily dose of being in the know, his fix of irony and moral superiority, his sense of inclusion in the Mood of the City, the Issues of the Day?

During the performance, an upstage movie screen presents a continuous stream of imagery from bad television, bad movies and bad advertisements -- which become good, by virtue of the fact that everyone recognizes them as bad.

Throughout the evening, in a show whose entire reality is media-based, I saw not one reference to newspapers -- even to the extent of mocking them.

No wonder people barely noticed the Pacific Press strike. In the virtual city Vancouver dailies once created, local newspapers hardly exist.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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A reluctant poet shoots for par
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Tuesday, July 16, 2002 – Page R1

We entrepreneurs who manipulate the levers and switches of the mighty Cancult industry, when not self-dealing and insider-trading and cashing in our stock options with psychic acuity, jump like trout at the opportunity to salve our pangs of miscellaneous guilt by contributing to a good cause.

I don't think the visual artist exists with a following beyond the immediate family who has not given away work for auction on behalf of people only marginally worse off then herself. Meanwhile, those of us with nothing to offer but our services (writers, musicians, dancers) cheerfully commit our hard-won technical skills to novel use: private tango lessons with Karen Kain; a custom obituary by Margaret Atwood; a singing telegram by Ben Heppner; a birthday cake sculpted by Gathie Falk, inscribed by Alice Munro, sliced and served by Vicki Gabereau . . .

In some countries, artists and performers are regarded as decadent, curmudgeonly and aloof. Canadian artists are about as dangerous as the United Way.

Last week I performed in Vancouver as poet laureate for the Peter Gzowski Invitational Golf Tournament -- a national series of events launched by the late broadcaster in hope of raising $1-million for literacy programs. (So far the figure is close to $7-million.)

How typical of Gzowski that he would include a poet laureate for each event, not only to give a literary spin to the activity, but also as a way of arm-twisting his literary acquaintances into contributing. (Saying no to Gzowski would be like refusing to play Santa at Ronald McDonald House at Christmas.)

Fine -- only, this was my third stint in the poet laureate's chair, which is an odd honour because I don't play golf and I'm not a poet; which suggests that fellow scribes, published poets in particular, have found a means of escape I don't know about.

I have nothing against golf, although one would have to be blind not to note the resemblance between contemporary courses and certain cemeteries; and I have seen gated retirement communities in Palm Springs built around golf links, seniors in polyester track suits which make them look like toddlers, their clubs wearing fluffy booties when not in use. Besides, five hours seems like a long time to spend trying to get a ball in a hole, even as a species of Zen.

Nonetheless, the discerning poet laureate eschews such skeptical references to the game, because the audience of players -- for the most part representatives of Corporate Canada -- take their golf seriously; indeed, for this sector of the community, a round of golf has become the equivalent of the Japanese tea ceremony when it comes to establishing a spiritual rapport with the potential client, associate, or sucker.

Nor does it behoove the poet laureate to indulge, as did CBC host Bill Richardson one year, in puns of questionable taste involving balls and holes and wedgies and such. For there will be ladies present; and because the genders are generally segregated on the links (to say nothing of the locker room), when they do intermingle the sexual charge can be unnerving.

These admonishments aside, the poet laureate is left with the daunting task of writing a poem in which golf and literacy have something to do with one another. Even as metaphor it's hard to picture -- hence the scarcity of golf novels in the library. To make the challenge even thornier, the particular occasion for which I was engaged occurred less than six months following the death of its founder. Not much opportunity for ribaldry there.

In the end, rhyme came to my rescue -- as it did when, as a beginning songwriter, I discovered that, far from constricting the imagination, the limits of rhyme and meter actually free it -- while the conscious mind is distracted by an almost mathematical problem, unplanned and unexpected ideas slip by.

For better or worse, here is the result. We'll call it, "Lines Read at the Peter Gzowski Golf Tournament for Literacy, July 10, 2002:"

A tiny object, circular,
A sudden burst of energy,
Toward a tiny flag afar --
To rise, to soar for all to see.
To tumble like a falling star,
To disappear beneath the ground,
Not goodbye but au revoir:
A game of golf is called a round.
There is a figure, call it par
To tell us who the winners are.

A smoke is smoked, a throat is cleared,
A candid heart, a spacious mind,
Spectacles, a shaggy beard,
While in a studio confined,
Across an entire land appeared.
A mind, a voice, a thought, a word,
Soared across the atmosphere
Into an ear it fell, was heard.
He golfed through half the continent
To find out where his broadcast went.

His game he played, his life he led,
Yet who remembers what occurred?
Of what was done and what was said,
What left except the written word?
A voice is stilled, a body shed,
A mind remembered as a thought,
He is never wholly dead,
As long as reading can be taught.
A round is played, the score is read,
A shaggy cloud flies overhead.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Why Wallin gets to eat fiddleheads in the Big Apple
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, July 9, 2002 – Page R3

Nothing brings out our Prime Minister's puckish sense of humour like the opportunity to fill a diplomatic or ceremonial post -- or, in the case of Conrad Black, not to.

Only a few months ago we enjoyed the installation of stereotypical Alphonso Gagliano as ambassador to Denmark. "Now there truly will be something rotten in the state of Denmark," announced Canadian Alliance deputy leader Rahim Jaffer, providing Canucks with a double dose of amusement -- in the nomination itself, and in the spectacle of an Alliance spokesperson quoting Shakespeare.

More fondly perhaps, we recall our leader's appointment of Adrienne Clarkson as Governor-General following the reign of Ray Hnatyshyn and Roméo LeBlanc -- worthy gentlemen who conducted the office with the ease of a Rotarian in a new suit proposing a toast at his daughter's wedding.

And now for something completely different, thinks the Prime Minister, huddled behind the scenes, chortling in that way of his.

Enter a media diva, a liberal philosopher and two cultural nationalists in a single package -- if we include, as indeed we must, husband John Ralston Saul, a patrician intellectual in the Trudeau tradition and a comparable irritant to the Alliance and the Bloc Québécois, in that nobody in either party has read enough to argue with him. (Sadly, Mr. Black has left the building.)

As noted, our Prime Minister is a man of Machiavellian subtlety, concealed beneath a calculated pea-soup act just thick enough to cause upper-class Quebec intellectuals to grind their teeth (perhaps because, for the Prime Minister, the only real Quebec intellectual died in 2000). This is a man for whom power is not an extension of language (persuasion) but a kind of physics -- the geometry of cause and effect.

Now Pamela Wallin has been appointed consul-general in New York.

Has the Prime Minister decided that Canada is better served abroad by broadcasters than by disgraced cabinet ministers? Or, more likely, has our leader found another opportunity to set in motion a chain of events that will further his interests, attenuate his legacy and annoy his enemies?

For a hint as to the Prime Minister's thinking, we consulted the government of Canada Web site as to what a consul-general does.

"The Consul-General is the senior person in the Consulate General," explained External Affairs, demonstrating a prime requirement for foreign service -- the ability to say nothing in both official languages.

With persistence, however, a picture emerged of the consul-general as a midget ambassador assigned to cities (hundreds of them), which, while not capital cities, require a symbolic Canadian presence.

Accordingly, in a downtown building sufficiently grand to symbolize Canadian prosperity and taste, dignitaries, celebrities, tycoons and other important people are stuffed with Canadian produce (moose, fiddleheads, Arctic char) that Canadians rarely eat, serenaded by Canadian musicians whom Canadians rarely hear, exposed to the work of Canadian artists of whom Canadians know nothing, in a piece of ritual theatre whose purpose is to celebrate the enduring ties of friendship between Canada and, say, an Asian dictatorship in the market for a Candu reactor.

Suddenly, the intellect behind the Wallin appointment becomes evident: the Prime Minister's ability to boil an idea down to a simple concept -- in this case, a play on the word "host."

When you think about it, the duties of the consul-general do not differ substantially from those of a television host/interviewer. To show up. To dress well. To seem natural in a synthetic environment. To look and sound attractive on-camera. To make intelligent conversation with complete strangers based on notes provided by minions. To keep one's opinion to oneself -- unless in the form of a seemingly innocent question.

More significantly, and like our Governor-General, Wallin recently scrambled onto a level to which all host/interviewers aspire, in that she has become a symbolic person.

To many Canadians, she is a symbol of courage in the face of cancer, and an unglamorous cancer at that. As well, in New York she provided a (lovely) face to the successful Canada Loves New York event -- endowing Wallin with a symbolic potential comparable to Ken Taylor, the diplomat who smuggled Americans out of Iran.

Now recall how Clarkson, prior to her appointment in Rideau Hall, came to represent the best of Canadian arts, the CBC and the benign triumph of the multicultural mosaic.

No need for her to officially support Liberal cultural policy; this would be not only inappropriate but redundant. In all sincerity and without a whiff of party affiliation, we have a Governor-General who is Liberal cultural policy -- a living embodiment of the Trudeau vision.

In Clarkson, our Prime Minister filled the post with a Cancult variant of the Terminator.

In the case of Wallin, at a delicate time in his career, the PM has neutralized the one interviewer in Canada capable of making him look like a dolt.

We inhabit a political culture in which the ability to communicate is more important than that which is communicated, in which what we represent is more useful than what we do.

Barbara Frum and Peter Gzowski died a few years too early. Or maybe not.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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The last of the gentleman lawyers
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Tuesday, July 2, 2002 – Page R1

If I tell you my lawyer died and I'm in mourning, you'll think it's an opener for a lawyer joke.

Say the word "lawyer" (one vowel shy of "liar") and the imagination conjures up a licensed psychopath whose purpose is not justice but its avoidance, meanwhile fleecing the hapless client down to his shorts.

George Campbell Miller, who died last week, wasn't like that. In fact, he was the last of the gentleman lawyers. A big, horsy man with huge hands, long teeth and a low hack of a laugh, he talked in a George Raft rasp and smoked Export A's in quantity.

He wore the bulletproof chalk-stripes and tweeds we male baby-boomers imagine ourselves in if we ever grow up, suits whose owner knows exactly who he is, knows what to wear without thinking about it, has the same haberdasher for decades. He wore a steel Rolex from the 1950s; his brogues and Oxfords probably cost $300 -- back when he worked on the Trudeau campaign. (I still think if I could only dress like George, I might at last become a mature, confident person.)

My partner and I hired George while performing Billy Bishop Goes to War. We had just been "discovered" and needed someone to negotiate the contractual gauntlet that led to a run on Broadway. (For, as it turned out, about a week.)

Crouched behind his desk that first day, he wore spectacles with one lens smashed. He looked as if he was peering through a broken window. He never mentioned it, so neither did we.

"Boys," he said, lighting up, "I'll draw you a picture." On a yellow legal pad he drew a pyramid, then held it up so that it stood upside down. "This is you," he said, indicating the point of the pyramid. "You don't know how big this thing's gonna grow, but whatever happens, everything rests on your first batch of decisions -- when you don't know anything. So you gotta go by your gut . . ."

At the time, we didn't quite follow him but later that image came up a lot.

Thanks to the upside-down pyramid, we never released amateur rights for the show, nor did we licence it in dinner theatres: The idea just seemed off.

Only later did it turn out that confining the show to professional theatres was what gave it such a long life, since it never suffered the devaluation that goes with cheap productions -- "cheap" in all senses of the word.

The best advice he never billed for. Like a worldly uncle, he gently ushered us into grimy but not unmanageable territory, and when we occasionally found ourselves in legal difficulty (as the saying goes, "Where there's a hit there's a writ"), his advice was startlingly pragmatic and succinct.

"I recommend we stall. Then we throw them some go-to-hell money."

"Pay them? George, there is no merit to their case!"

"I know that."

"We can't just let them get away with it!"

George sighed, lit up and spelled it out: "So we go to court, the judge has a hangover, grants them a temporary injunction and they got a toe in our ribs. Do you wanna be right or do you wanna put on a show? What business do you fellas wanna be in, anyway?"

Apart from the wisdom of the position, here was a lawyer recommending a course of action that wouldn't make him any money.

On philosophical topics, about which he spent a startling amount of office time, he had a similar knack for reducing the issue to fundamentals.

"John, why do you think men are faithful to their wives?"

"I dunno George, why?"

"Because they're afraid of what they'll do."

George acted for some high-powered corporate types on copyright issues, but when I was in town he never seemed too busy to speculate on why men are faithful to their wives or any other subject. When a screenwriter was down to his last thousand and his mother was dying a continent away, George got out the wallet and paid for the flight, unasked. Among film and TV types, he had a soft spot for mavericks who don't get along with the networks, the arts cowboys with maxed-out credit cards, a hundred thousand short on a million-dollar movie.

What I admired about George was that he was always interested -- which is not the same as acting in one's own interest. Because, even when bad things happened to him, he was still interested.

When his first wife was dying of cancer, he was so interested in what was happening between them that it seemed almost a cheerful subject, until the night we had dinner in an Italian restaurant a year later and he broke down sobbing into his linen napkin. And there I was with my arms around my lawyer, telling him it would be okay.

A friend who saw him last October noticed George didn't look good and his voice was down to a whisper.

"Yeah," he agreed. "It's fantastic in court, how people pipe down. I even get deference from the judge because he thinks I'm dying."

And he laughed that low hack of a laugh.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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A cure for the arts: Canadian Tire money
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, June 25, 2002 – Page R1

When I contemplate the Canada Council, our cultural medicare, pumping oxygen into the collapsed lung of Canadian Content, the patient who has hovered at death's door for so long, administering to it has become a profession in itself . . .

I'm becoming cynical. I'll start again.

When I contemplate the Canada Council, whose blessing is regarded by many as an inoculation against the disease of popular success; for whom forms are filled and symptoms described; whose panels of "peers" inspect the X-rays of their fellows, scanning for fatal flaws which might render treatment unjustified . . .

Yikes, another medicare metaphor. One more time:

When I contemplate the Canada Council, which isn't often, I wonder: What if it didn't exist? What would life in Canada be like? Would people not write poems and novels? Would painters not paint, would dancers not dance? For their part, would Canadians not take an interest in other Canadians? Would CanCult itself not exist?

I'm not arguing against public support of the arts, okay? Leave that to Stephen Harper. No, this is about lateral thinking: stretching the Cancon condom, that thin membrane of government protection from the Americans without which . . .

Damn. Getting medical again. Funny, but it seems like wherever the subject of Canada goes, medicare is sure to follow.

If we agree that Canadian arts perform a valuable public function, and that, as in almost every other country, domestic production cannot function without public support, might there be a more democratic, connected way for the public to support the arts, other than for a self-selected elite to decide who deserves money and who doesn't? (Sorry about "elite" -- a neo-con buzz word, I know.)

Is this the best we can do?

Just for fun, contemplate for a moment what might happen if we switched from an arts grant system to an arts credit system: a situation in which public support went, not to the producer, but to the consumer of Canadian arts.

Just an idea, okay? Bear with me.

Hypothetically, an arts credit system might work like this: Every citizen of Canada (upon request perhaps) receives a package of arts credits -- in the same mail as, say, their tax form. Open the envelope and there they are, like Canadian Tire money, and in various denominations: visual arts, fiction, movies, music and so on. (Portraits of Carr, Findley, Jutra, Gould -- it's so easy to picture.)

The recipient would then be free to spend their arts credits (or trade them, or sell them, or burn them if they have a libertarian bent), on the sole criterion that the money may not leave the country. (Where would we be without claw backs?)

Meanwhile, the provider of Canadian cultural products (bookstores, theatres, art galleries, concert halls) would accept these arts credits in lieu of money -- and cash them in at the bank.

And, er, that's it, really.

No arts bureaucrats. No jury. No outcry over the meat dress. No proposals. No whiff of cronyism, elitism and all the rest of it.

What would be the effects of such a system, I wonder? What would change?

I suppose it would most immediately affect long-standing arts centres and arts organizations, for whom there would ensue an unaccustomed volatility and social turnover. A theatre company might find itself occupying prime real estate one season, then sweating it out in a hovel where season's ticket-holders rip their pants on exposed nails the next.

(Ignore for a moment whether this would be a good or bad thing. Think of this as an Edward de Bono moment.)

Some might foresee a massive dumbing-down of the culture -- a Cancon confined to Harlequin Romances, greeting-card drivel, black-velvet paintings and the Ice Capades. This would be the traditional view about arts and "the masses."

Another effect might be a massive increase in rural buying power, thanks to a different supply/demand ratio than in the cities. (No Queen Street bars, cable-TV interview shows, alternative tabloids and other artist magnets.) Small towns might pool their arts credits to create arts festivals, featuring disproportionately big names. This might, in turn, produce a revitalized circuit for performers and touring companies, art exhibits and book tours. Artists might get to see the country for a change.

Meanwhile back in the city, venal urbanites might offer their arts credits in the Buy & Sell for 10 cents on the dollar -- then read in the paper that the buyer has acquired a Colville for a 10th its value. Market speculation having become a popular pastime, it might become part of Cancon too.

Of course, none of this will happen. With the resilience of self-interest, refined by generations of bureaucrats and applicants, the Canada Council (like the Prime Minister) seems destined to outlive us.

And yet, does that render us utterly incapable of thinking and seeing beyond the stereotypical perimeters of left and right? (Perhaps the only interesting thing about an arts credit system is that it is both, and neither, at the same time.)

The psychologist R. D. Laing described Sir Francis Drake's passage near Patagonia as having passed within metres of a series of villages onshore. They saw people walking back and forth -- and yet, or so claimed Drake, nobody saw them. European sailing ships were simply too far outside the experience of the villagers to be envisaged.

Is another system possible -- something we're not seeing? Darned if I know. But it would be a nice change to see Canadian arts types thinking outside the box.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Forget Ottawa, try the conflicted world of writers
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, June 18, 2002 – Page R1

For all the hours I've spent reading about the current flap over conflict of interest in Ottawa, I'm still not sure I get it.

To begin with, who in the world, faced with a decision involving another person (or animal), does not experience an element of conflict of interest? Who among us does not choose, every day, between what is our personal preference and what is the right thing to do?

Isn't that what a moral choice is?

Given its ubiquity, surely the question for anyone, whether you are a Prime Minister or, say, a Hollywood casting director, is not the existence or non-existence of a conflict, but the degree to which you are candid about what your conflict is, whom it involves, and what are the stakes. Then the public or client is free, should the decision prove to the decider's advantage, to judge whether it was also the right thing to do.

This is what makes my hackles rise over the dictum that a politician should avoid the appearance of a conflict -- for it amounts to a tacit admission of systemic pretense. Dishonesty, masked as virtue. Fooling the public for its own good.

Of course, the most common conflict of interest in business and government occurs in the form of the returned favour. It is also the easiest to bear, for in providing an unearned advantage to someone who has done you a good turn, you can maintain an aspect of justice and loyalty -- and with it a kind of moral superiority, whether you are a Prime Minister or a Mafia Don.

Again, dishonesty masked as virtue. Fooling oneself for a sound night's sleep.

Fine. So much for conflict of interest. But we haven't explored the subject until we address the issue of negative conflict of interest -- otherwise known as revenge.

To reward our allies and to harm our enemies: are these not opposite versions of the same impulse, whether you are a Prime Minister or a producer with the CBC?

We who toil at the looms and pistons of the Canadian cultural industries are not paid enough to make it worth our while stealing from one another. However, although we may lack favours to give and receive, we know all about negative conflict of interest and have a highly developed taste for revenge; and thanks to our various arts councils, plus a multitude of prizes, awards and honours, opportunities abound for its expression.

Central to these institutions, you see, is a "peer assessment" of applicants, nominees and their work; in most cases the peers in question remain anonymous. And believe me, no elephant can compete with, say, a writer of fiction, when it comes to nursing the memory of a slight or injury.

Take Leon Rooke for example, the novelist and winner of the W.O. Mitchell Prize. This would be the same Rooke who viciously attacked my novel Dazzled in a hideous review during the 1980s. Do you think our man would be $15,000 richer today if I were on that panel?

Well, maybe -- but not if it were close. And certainly not if Rooke were up against, say, novelist Leo Simpson -- who couldn't have been kinder in his praise of Dazzled, in a trenchant, stylish review which appeared in The Globe and Mail on Oct. 13, 1984.

If you think that's bad, you should see the poets. Any poet who agrees to review another Canadian poet's work is courting ruin -- and it is a pathetic indication, either of the Visa bill or the need to publish, that many do.

Nor may the poet-reviewer take comfort if the writer to be reviewed is a giant of the Canadian canon, dripping with laurels and therefore able to take criticism in his or her stride. Far from it. Indeed, it is fair to say that the thicker the wallet the thinner the skin; and a 19-year-old who pans a CanCult icon in a college review would be well advised in future to write poetry under a pseudonym.

As it is said about academia, with poetry the politics are furious because the stakes are so low -- meaning that, if the Canadian poet under review is also an academic, the risks double, and for a poet to bestow faint praise upon a poet-academic is tantamount to standing up in the trenches with a light on her forehead.

Never forget that your poet-academics do not spend their lives alone in a writing-room, but rub elbows regularly over cocktails at conferences and writers' festivals, which intercourse provides ample opportunity to separate allies from enemies. Moreover, as it is with conflict of interest, to take revenge on behalf of an ally wraps a corrupt decision in a fluffy comforter of loyalty and chivalry with which to retire at night.

Moral: Next time you read the Books section, should it seem to you that the Canadian reviews amount to a contest for superlatives in a log-rolling festival, remember what is at stake.

A politician on the wrong side of a conflict of interest may end up in the back benches; these people are taking their lives in their hands.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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A parent's fancy turns to thoughts of sex ed
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, June 11, 2002 – Page R1

'In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love," wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson, but I doubt that the young man he had in mind was six years old.

My friend Harlan has a son named Thomas -- blond, choirboyish, verbally precocious. The other day, Thomas strolled into the kitchen after school and announced, and I quote, "There are two kinds of sex, you know."

"Oh really?" replied Harlan, preparing for the worst. "And what might they be?"

"The two kinds of sex are scientific sex and happy sex. Didn't you know?"

"Fascinating," replied Harlan, playing for time. "Please continue."

"Scientific sex is when babies are made. A man and a woman get married, and they kiss, and they go to the hospital and have a baby. With happy sex, there is no baby. A man and a woman rub up against each other just for fun."

Thought Harlan: One of those defining moments in parenting. Brace yourself.

Because when you think about it, Thomas had devised an admirable construct, given that it reconciled two utterly distinct world-views: On the one hand, the familiar world of Mom and Dad and doctors and childbirth and children; on the other hand, all those Bebe and Victoria's Secret billboards, those movies and ads, in which fun sex is publicly in evidence -- everywhere except in the family. You never see Mom and Dad acting like that (unless your parents happen to be underwear models).

Indeed, perhaps it's fair to say that many a marriage has foundered on precisely the distinction articulated by this six-year-old boy.

"Wait here a moment, Son. I need to go to the bathroom," Harlan lied.

Unsure how to field this one, he promptly telephoned Thomas's elementary-school teacher, who acknowledged that, yes, there seems to be lot of speculation along those lines among boys of 6 -- some of it quite gamy; and when they start taunting the girls, the monitors have to step in. Fortunately, they seem to lose interest in the subject around 8.

This intermediate stage can be problematic for the teacher, who may find this behaviour in need of correction, yet has no mandate to explain sex to six-year-olds, whose parents may, for all she knows, wish their child to believe that babies are brought down the chimney by a stork -- like the Intelligent Design alternative to evolution. Teacher really hasn't time to ask each and every parent what they want their child to know.

In other words, "When it comes to Thomas's sex education, I'm afraid you're on your own."

Fine.

Having given the matter some thought, our man reached the conclusion that his son's scientific/happy sexual dichotomy might lead to an unhealthy view of women, as baby factories and sex objects, which might not serve him well later in life.

And so with a heavy heart, our man led his young son into the study, sat him down on the footstool, and explained everything. Who did what; what they did it with; where things went; what happened then. Throughout the narrative he took pains to emphasize that all of this was adult fun, filled with mutual affection and caring, whether or not a baby arrived as a result.

At the same time, Harlan remained uncertain how much of this sank in. Thomas's principal reaction was to stare downward, muttering in a appalled whisper: "My penis? My penis??"

"That's right," replied Harlan. "What do you think of that?"

After a moment of silent reflection, the boy nodded. "Makes sense," he said, and went outside to play with the dog.

Congratulating himself on a job well done, Harlan poured himself a stiff one.

Next afternoon, a return call from Teacher: "Did you have a talk with Thomas?"

"Yes, indeed."

"That's what I thought."

Apparently there had been a bit of a disturbance in class that morning.

Teacher had been reading a story involving geese and goslings and eggs, when suddenly Thomas jumped to his feet, rigid with urgency, waving his arms and crying out: "Stop! Stop at once! That is not how it happens!"

He could not be stopped. Before the class, in a breathless, rapid-fire monologue that allowed for no interruption, our nascent whistle-blower detailed the entire messy business from beginning to end, as it had been revealed to him by his father, word for word.

The other children gaped at him in a stunned silence, which endured for several moments after the speaker had retaken his seat. Then 48 eyes, circular and unblinking, swivelled in unison to fix Teacher with an accusatorial glare, as one little girl put up her hand:

"Is it true?"

In every occupation there occur existential moments when the question arises: Why am I here? What am I here to do? What do I stand for in this life? With teachers, this happens several times a day.

She put aside her book about geese and goslings, cleared her throat and replied, "What Thomas says is true. That is more or less how it happens."

Soon after that, the bell rang and the class filed out for recess. What, if anything, was discussed during recess, God only knows.

However, in days to follow, Teacher did not hear from one parent. Seemingly, nobody said a word.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Saving the world, one rock star at a time
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, June 4, 2002 – Page R3

Listen all you fools out there
Go on and love me -- I don't care
Oh, it's lonely at the top.

Randy Newman

I see U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill just completed a tour of Africa, in the company of one Paul David Hewson. O'Neill and Hewson met with officials in Ghana, Uganda, Ethiopia and South Africa, where they discussed famine, water, AIDS and debt relief. (Weighty matters for certain: As two of the richest societies in the history of the universe, the United States and Canada carry a disproportionate moral responsibility to do what we can.)

The Treasury Secretary's companion has been speaking on African matters since the eighties; in the process, Mr. Hewson has been photographed with Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, Jean Chrétien, Bill Gates and the Pope; in accompanying news copy, his quotes have received comparable weight.

Who is Hewson, and what is his area of expertise? Global trade and the World Bank? Third World medical systems? The politics of postcolonial Africa?

None of the above. Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, is the lead singer for U2, arguably the most successful pop band of the past 20 years. Like Gordon Sumner (commercially known as Sting), Mr. Hewson has chosen to devote his celebrity to a good cause, and not without encouragement. As Mr. O'Neill put it, Bono "gives the issue of poverty in Africa a higher public profile."

It's a big job, helping a continent that cannot help itself. A big job, even for Bono.

As you read this, slavery has been revived in the Sudan. One-hundred-thousand non-African troops are fighting battles, here and there. Robert Mugabe has triumphed as one of the greatest robber barons in African history.

In Botswana, according to some estimates, 40 per cent of the population is HIV-positive. The president of South Africa isn't convinced HIV is a problem.

To sum up: On the one hand, we have a continental crisis whose outcome will determine what kind of a world your and my children will inhabit; on the other hand, we have the brand name for a number of entertainment commodities, whose owner seeks to contribute not expertise, nor insight, nor a course of action, but the familiarity of his brand.

What next? Will duMaurier speak out against family violence? Will Nike announce itself in favour of saving the whales?

Will Bono's photograph (wearing those peculiar spectacles) inspire U2 fans to support African relief? Does it not seem more likely that they will simply purchase more U2 records -- only with a sense of moral superiority, having supported Bono's awareness-raising effort? (It seems a fundamental characteristic of awareness-raising that the unaware person is always somebody else.)

Not to emulate the president of South Africa, but I'm not convinced that a lack of awareness is the problem, having spent my childhood, a half-century ago, cleaning my plate of unappetizing vegetables for the sake of "the starving children in Africa."

I remember wondering aloud whether it would not be more effective simply to mail those clammy peas and potatoes to some hungry person in Chad.

"It's not as simple as that," replied my father, who attempted to explain the difficulties in providing aid to areas ravaged by warfare, corruption and social breakdown -- the legacy of a century of colonialism. No use mailing your potatoes and peas to a country where the mailman is likely to be shot.

Moral: Clean your plate and be thankful you're not in Africa. Be grateful that we live in a country where, with a straight face, we refer to a minor patronage scandal as Shawinigate.

How can Canadians even conceive of corruption on the level of a Zaire or Uganda? If Shawinigate is a corruption issue, by what sobriquet do we refer to kleptocracies such as Zimbabwe? Torturegate? Genocidegate? My God, I live in a province whose ex-premier is on trial for inappropriate repairs to his deck!

Other than trivializing the issue to the symbolic level of a pop chorus, what is Bono's contribution? After all, he must contribute something -- otherwise, why would a Republican Treasury Secretary (not to mention an African dictator) put up with this simplistic liberal dolt in funny glasses gnawing at his elbow?

Because, as with U2 fans, Bono's presence provides a politician (or a murderer) with the opportunity to express warm and fuzzy feelings; to "send a message" through the media without having to do anything. Plus, he gets autographed posters to take home to the kids.

(In)effectiveness aside, Bono's presence in the debate on African relief (to which he has given much time and effort) tells us less about the crises in Africa than about the nature of fame, and Mr. Hewson's Jekyll-like awareness of having created a bit of a monster.

It must come as a shock to discover that fame is not subject to the famous person's control. That fame is not the famous person's property, and cannot be bought back. That a famous face belongs to any stranger who wants to buy it -- as an icon or as toilet paper.

What a bummer. Easy to understand Mr. Hewson's impulse to put Bono to good use, if only to reclaim a lost part of himself.

If only he would write a song instead.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Breaking up with your book is hard to do
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, May 28, 2002 – Page R1

Having, after six drafts (plus innumerable trimmings and additions), obtained acceptance by various editors and editrices, the novel and its author have parted company: Farewell to the 30 or so characters who have occupied his mind -- the spare room, the basement, the living-room couch -- for something over three years.

Last week, he dressed them snugly in their plastic packets and drove them to the Fed Ex office, to board a plane for New York, London and Toronto, to seek their fortune in the wider world.

There comes a point in the writing process when a novel turns a corner, after which it is no longer a work of fiction. The events are as real as anything the author has seen on TV or read about in a newspaper, and the characters have as solid an existence as anyone outside his immediate circle of family and friends.

Once this shift occurs, outline or no outline, the characters begin to wander about on their own, to make demands of their own. The question is no longer, "Would it be more interesting if so-and-so did such-and-such?" but rather, "Would so-and-so do such-and-such?" Or even, "You want to do such-and-such? You're kidding!"

At this point, the author is no longer parent but host -- serving drinks, stocking the fridge, tending to the needs of his exacting, inconsiderate guests, who feel free to burden him with their problems at any time of day and to awaken him with their chatter at 4 in the morning.

Now they're gone. The premises of his mind are a vacant building. (Will Renovate to Suit Tenant.)

At least it's not as bad as last time. It's not as if they left in an unsolicited manuscript, thrown into the cruel world, willy-nilly. These characters are expected arrivals, awaited by people who have an interest in their welfare, who have offered to finance their journey. Their author need not fret that they will turn up back on his doorstep, clothes and self-esteem in tatters, to take up permanent residence in the attic.

And yet, no author is immune to the empty-nest syndrome, the aching, psychic void as he fidgets from room to room like a reformed smoker, staring at his trembling hands, full of fresh air, fingers bitten to the quick.

What are they doing? Who are they spending time with? Are they taking their vitamins?

The healing process will soon begin.
He will clean the office, remove the bottles, the furry coffee cups, the mottled brown skeletons of apples; he will dust the computer screen and scrub the stickiness from the desk with Fantastik.

Over subsequent weeks, the anxiety will subside.

He will cease to dream about his characters and, from time to time, will notice that they haven't entered his mind for several hours at a stretch.

The day will come when he will venture outside the house for some reason other than to visit the library or the post office; perhaps he will put on a suit, or at least a clean shirt, so that when he looks into the hall mirror he will see, not an abandoned scarecrow in tattered disarray, but a person in command of his exterior, a confident person, a person on the recovery trail.

Gradually, the experience he and his novel underwent together will fade in memory.

Characters' faces will turn vague, as though seen through a film of water; slight flaws and inconsistencies will come to mind that were not apparent before.

The day will come when he will think about a character and, brief- ly, will be unable to recall her name.

Meanwhile, other characters will enter his life -- his own family for example, who regard him as a reclusive, eccentric relative, occasionally spotted in the kitchen. Outside the house, he will respond to unfamiliar faces and personalities and events, and with them the possibility of a new novel, new relationships, new ventures in space and time.

Months later, his characters will return home briefly for a line-edit, followed by galley proofs, in a kind of legislated parental access (chaperoned by an editrix), an occasion too formal for spontaneous expression in its emphasis on convention and technique.

And at last, publication date will arrive.

Nearly a year after "final" acceptance, well after the novel has taken its place in his memory chest of flings and exes, at a time when (it is to be hoped) new characters have occupied the house and are making demands in the middle of the night, the author will fly to a predetermined city, there to re-unite with his novel, in its brand new jacket, to accompany it to interviews and readings.

Like a divorced couple at a graduation ceremony, author and novel will hide behind masks of excitement and delight while shaking hands with strangers:

I'm so happy for you!

How does it feel?

Tell us when you first met!

Author and novel will do their best to appear as though they are still an item, as though they exist on the same intimate terms they did before they parted company.

A necessary fiction: They will do it for the sake of the characters, in their new life.

jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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A book-burning, middle-aged creep responds
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, May 21, 2002 – Page R3

Here comes Gray again -- censor, book-burner, patronizing middle-aged creep who would deprive young Nova Scotian minds of the universal truths in To Kill a Mockingbird;who would impose a superficial, trendy standard of "relevance" on a classic that has something meaningful to say to every man, woman and child on Earth; who would shortchange the conscientious teacher's capacity to establish context and to foster meaningful discussion on a general topic; who would impose a narrow cultural provincialism on inquiring minds and rob them of the Great Works.

Not since I had the temerity to suggest that Yesterday may not be one of Sir Paul McCartney's better efforts have I run so far afoul of the cultural canon -- that cavalcade of greatness about which there is nothing to be said, other than to cultivate an ever-deeper appreciation of how great thou art.

A potent weapon in the counteroffensive was the old "slippery slope" argument: that soon we will exclude The Merchant of Venice from the classroom for its treatment of Jews. On a similar theme, The Diary of Anne Frank featured prominently as a work that may have little to do with the experience of African-Canadians in Nova Scotia, yet remains a story that must be told. Other works seen as vulnerable to future expulsion by intellectual fascists such as myself were Hamlet, War and Peace, David Copperfield and, oddly, Winnie the Pooh.

When I suggested to one teacher that when it comes to racism, the devil may reside in the details, that a text set in Alabama conveniently avoids the specifics of the experience in Nova Scotia, I was informed by return e-mail, and with emphasis: "I am a South African and there is N-O-T-H-I-N-G you can tell me about this subject."

Other teachers took umbrage at my use of the term "white liberal" to describe certain misapprehensions we and our kind are prone to when it comes to other races. For these offended professionals, such "sterotypes" constitute a form of prejudice in themselves; that it is an affront to individual, left-of-centre persons of pallor to suggest an all-too-common assumption that, "All people are one -- and that person is me."

Another noted, with cutting sarcasm: "We just can't have good white people -- can we?" And, of course, the term "politically correct" came up a lot, as it always will.

Reading these letters (and there were many) took me straight back to high school 40 years ago -- the feeling you get when you put up your hand and voice an opinion and from the ominous silence you know that what you said was not what the teacher wanted to hear; that you are about to become an example of wrong-headedness for the rest of the class to ponder and avoid.

"Perhaps you should rethink your article and do a bit more homework on the various issues raised," scolded one writer -- which is exactly what was said to me in Grade 10, when I suggested that Othello's tragic flaw may be that he is stupid.

One Mississauga teacher enclosed two essays by her students, both of which argued passionately against the "banning" of Harper Lee, for precisely the reasons the teacher expressed in her subsequent, and voluminous, mail.

"Out of the mouths of babes," she concluded darkly, and I am certain her babes will receive top marks for their insight.

Mea culpa: I received a bare pass in high school, and would never have been admitted to university by today's standards. Perhaps that's why I have never been good with the classics. I still think Hamlet sags in the middle by about half an hour, that Tolstoy's sermonizing at the end of War and Peace puts a pall on what is otherwise one hell of a read and in Moby Dick, are we not taught a bit more about whales than we really need to know?

I can never quite get Dickens's female characters: Copperfield marries a doll-person who talks like Tweety Bird, then dies; then he finds true love with a woman he calls "Sister" for most of the book -- steadfast, lovely Agnes Wickfield, who remains remarkably close to her widower father despite the incest issue. ("My love for my child was a diseased love, but my mind was unhealthy then . . .")

Thanks to my tendency to narrow provincialism, I keep getting hung up on these peculiarities, the details, the distinctions. My mind is always plummeting from the higher plane reserved for the Great Works, into the scuzzy world I inhabit.

As for the slippery slope to tyranny and the future "banning" of The Merchant of Venice for its treatment of Jews: Patronizing as this might seem, I still think that Shakespeare play, "great" as it is, might misfire in a classroom located in a Jean-Marie Le Pen stronghold in France. And every time somebody mentions The Diary of Anne Frank, I'm reminded of the performance in Dublin in which the lead actress was so bad that by Act II the desperate audience was shouting, "She's in the attic!"

Winnie the Pooh, on the other hand, is universal and should never be banned anywhere -- and I don't care what the piglets say.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Why Nova Scotians should kill Mockingbird
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, May 14, 2002 – Page R1

If you suppose that the controversy in Nova Scotia over To Kill a Mockingbird is all about censorship and book-banning and political correctness, you're probably located well away from Nova Scotia and the reality of the pedagogical situation there, and you're probably white. Remarkable, isn't it, how many people can pontificate on the value of literature and "free speech," without a thought about the specific situation in which it occurs.

Ever heard of irony? Because let me tell you, Nova Scotia is a fountain of irony. Irony is, after all, the code of a colonized people -- the ability to say one thing and mean the opposite, so that you can't be called on it later.

When a Nova Scotian tells you it's a nice day, he may mean that it's a nice day -- or not, depending on how he exhales his cigarette smoke. When a Nova Scotian says something like, "Oh, he's a good fellow," her meaning rests on the position of the eyebrows.

Nova Scotia is the only place I know where they say "Yeah" on the intake of breath -- a way of literally keeping one's opinion to oneself; where they use the word "she" to mean "he," in situations that have nothing to do with gender and everything to do with pretension: "Oh isn't she something!"

In this cultural context, into the schoolroom walks a dedicated teacher with a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird containing the word "nigger" -- which, as he or she makes clear, is a bad, bad word.

What do you think happens at recess? Do you think white schoolchildren, equipped with a weapon with which to pound their fellows, will fail to incorporate "nigger" in their discourse at every opportunity -- in a way that may read as innocuous in transcript, but which, in practice, conveys every last drop of poison?

Set in Depression-era Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird was written for an earnest, single-entendre era in which Eisenhower was good and Stalin was bad. This underlying moral simplicity is what makes Harper Lee a perennial favourite with white liberals. "To read these works is to experience the pain and injustice of bigotry," intones a Globe editorial (referring also to In the Heat of the Night, another pop treatise on the wrongness of southern racial prejudice).

These artifacts of another time and place make it abundantly clear that tolerance is good and racism is bad, and if that's as far as you want to go, fine. But if you want to know about the mechanics of racism, the legacy and the vernacular of racism, these works are no more relevant to Nova Scotia than it would be to present Blackboard Jungle as an analysis of high schools in Scarborough, Ont.

When you use an anachronistic text to teach a moral lesson, it can become a double agent working for the opposite side; its overearnestness and its lack of contemporary code become ripe for irony. In practice, a well-meaning text of yesteryear can become a form of hate lit -- inarguable, because it is shrouded in irony.

Imagine yourself a black kid attending a Nova Scotia school. Your history is completely different from Afro-Americans in the southern states. Perhaps you are a descendant of the Black Pioneers, who fought for the British in the American War of Independence and were rewarded with land in the Maritimes. Maybe your ancestors were English slaves, freed by their owners because it was cheaper to hire subsistence labour than to support a family. Or you could be a descendant of the Maroons, a particularly proud Jamaican tribe, transplanted to Nova Scotia by the British in a disastrous social experiment.

Imagine yourself a black, sixth-generation Nova Scotian, and your teacher introduces a 40-year-old American novel, and proceeds to tell everyone in the class why racism is a Bad Thing. You can hardly stand it because it's so twee and it so trivializes your history -- to suppose that, just because your skin is brown, you have something in common with To Kill a Mockingbird.

Meanwhile, your white classmates too know a bogus exercise when they see one -- only, for them it's not an embarrassment but a useful weapon. Simply by repeating the sentiments of Harper Lee, verbatim, with the right inflection -- what teenager can resist irony as a means of getting at somebody, making them feel small?

Book banning? Oh, come on -- as though the book is unavailable to anyone who wants to read it. Free speech? Communicating in code isn't free speech -- it's telegraphy.

The predominantly black complainants are pointing out that, in the context of Nova Scotia history and humour, To Kill a Mockingbird simply doesn't work.

To which our predominantly white lovers of literature respond with a Canadianism we can all do without -- that specificity and practice don't count. That, by parroting a general bromide about free speech, we take the side of the good guys.

Students don't react well to manipulative morals. There are lots of books about race. Find one that connects to Nova Scotia.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Summoning the same old spirits to the CBC séance
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Tuesday, May 7, 2002 – Page R1

Accessible. Nimble. Agile. Contemporary: That's how CBC management describes the upcoming, revamped Radio One; and as I read those four adjectives, a deep weariness descends.

God help them, someone has been to a visioning séance.

Never heard of a visioning séance? Neither had I until a few years back, when I was a member of the Information Highway Advisory Council -- a confab of industry stakeholders charged with advising Ottawa on new information technology and connected issues.

Dominated by executives from cable, telecoms, broadcasting and computer technology, our meetings featured some of the nicest watches I'd ever seen in one room. In keeping with the state of their watches, these men made it clear from the outset that the advice they had for Parliament was to bug off and let them make money -- unless they lost money, in which case the government should intervene.

For months they argued process, vying for points on convergence, until it looked as though the council would end up deadlocked: fine with industry, embarrassing for the government.

Then organizers called in consultants for a visioning séance.

Into the conference room skipped a bright, energetic pair, not unlike leaders at an Amway sales conference, equipped with giant blackboards, huge writing pads, and an effervescent confidence that, yes, you too can be creative as a group, and express a vision of the future!

First came the adjectives: Everyone was encouraged to suggest an adjective to describe the information highway they envisaged. And there was something touching about seeing elite managers warm to the task: Soon, adjectives were flying thick and fast as these hard-edged strategists took a childlike delight in the unfamiliar sensation of right-brain free association. Then, with the assistance of our "facilitators," we used these adjectives to build statements, which were winnowed down to become Our Vision.

In the end, I remember our adjectives sounding very like accessible, nimble, agile, contemporary -- although my working group would have objected to nimble and agile as redundant. . . .

There is a trick screenwriters do when pitching an idea to management. Whenever you come to a story point where you haven't a clue, you supply an adjective: "a touching moment," or "a tense standoff," or "an exciting chase" or whatever. Hearing that, nine managers out of 10 will respond: "Great! We want it touching!" -- or tense, or whatever.

Of course, those adjectives don't describe the solution, they describe the problem: How do you make it touching, or tense, or whatever? Only, managers seldom get that. It's part of the psychology of management to think that the way to create something successful is by inspiring one's employees to shoot for a target adjective.

In charting the future of Radio One, my fear is that CBC management came out of a visioning séance with four adjectives, and are now in the process of recruiting people to come up with programs that fulfill those adjectives: like a theatre producer writing a review of a non-existent play, then commissioning a playwright to write it.

Next thing you know, some poor bastard will face a CBC executive producer over a project she's been working on for a year, only to be told: "We like it very much -- but is it sufficiently nimble?"

Producing successful programs isn't about adjectives, it's about verbs. Somebody does something, which is recognized and encouraged by somebody else. Thanks to this confusion over the issue of creativity itself, the producers and artists whom Radio One hires to fulfill its vision are likely to be professionals who are good at adjectives, and amusing at lunch. And six months later, we'll be reading a press release along the lines of: "We had high hopes for the program, but the result wasn't sufficiently accessible, or contemporary, or nimble."

A bit of history, perhaps: CBC Television was born because Canadians were snapping up TV sets and tuning in to border stations. (In 1953, the Toronto Television Owners' Association operated under the slogan: "Buffalo's Got Something the CBC will never have.") CBC-TV was imposed from on high, in order to protect the Dominion's British heritage from a deluge of Americana. (Canadian culture? What dat?)

CBC Radio, on the other hand, consisted of pre-existing shows and stars -- local broadcasts of regional performers such as Don Messer, relayed from station to station by the CNR. Unlike television, Canadian radio was already an accepted part of Canadian life. Managers at CBC Radio didn't create Max Ferguson or Foster Hewitt -- they recognized them. Peter Gzowski wasn't hired because managers were looking for a "Gzowski type."

Which leads to another, more recent difference between CBC Radio and CBC Television: The purpose of the former is to deliver programs to an audience; the purpose of the latter is to deliver an audience to advertisers. CBC-TV is structured to gather consumer groups around a program; CBC Radio is structured to produce programs that taxpayers are willing to support, whether they personally consume them or not.

I fear CBC Radio is about to gather consumer groups instead of public support, and that the day will come when management will say: "Why not increase the budget by selling commercials? After all, that's the nimble thing to do!"
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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The spin cycle: Polls, politics and the Pope's message
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Tuesday, April 30, 2002 – Page R1

I see the Pope is chagrined over pedophilia among the priesthood and has declared that there is "no room in the church" for it. This will come as welcome news to victims of Mount Cashel in Newfoundland, as well as to First Nations alumni; not to mention consumers of Canadian media, after years of news photos featuring elderly clerics tottering to the clink after a lifetime of debauchery, at the one stage in their adult lives when they no longer pose a threat to the public.

Seemingly, the Canadian catastrophe escaped the notice of His Holiness, who had more important things on his mind -- the evils of contraception, for example -- and besides, where's Canada?

What finally inspired him to action? The New York Times ran with a scandal in Boston, where Cardinal Bernard Law has been caught doing the synodic shuffle with pedophiles in his charge for at least two decades.

This was followed by revelations in other American constituencies, as regional media courageously dusted off stories they'd been sitting on for years.

Suddenly the church was in crisis. Prelates were summoned to the Vatican for an urgent assembly. Over Rome the sky grew red with the wings of cardinals, flying home to brood.

As it turned out, the curia scrambled for the proper spin.

At first it looked like a slam-dunk: a straightforward declaration of a War on Sex, in the spirit of the War on Drugs of the 1990s, as well as the 1950s-era War on Rock 'n' Roll.

However, a War on Sex in this context seemed peculiar, waged by the world's largest institution run by (presumably) celibate males (a tradition since the 12th century, nearly half the church's history); in the wrong hands, the slogan might even suggest a priesthood at war with itself.

Besides, the last thing ecclesiastics wanted was to distract attention from the War on Terrorism, which is Islam's problem.

The War on Sex having been cast out, a schism followed:

In the beginning was the Zero Tolerance camp, asserting the doctrine of William Bennett ("drug czar" under Bush the First), which proved so successful in eliminating the illegal drug trade in that country.

A second group favoured the Clinton-era Three Strikes You're Out policy, presented as a One Strike You're Out posture in keeping with the One True Church . . .

If the Vatican assembly on pedophilia resembled an ad agency brainstorming session, they were only following what has become sacred doctrine in American politics -- public opinion, as gathered, interpreted and twisted in the media. This is, after all, how secular affairs are determined. An example: A survey indicates that the American people feel Washington is giving out too much foreign aid. Asked what percentage of the GNP they think goes to foreign aid, Americans, on average, figure 10 per cent. Asked what percentage they deem too little, the average is 5 per cent. In reality, the figure is something like 1 per cent. (Not the real numbers, but close.)

How does this influence public policy? The government cuts back on foreign aid, naturally. Why? Because every headline in North America will read, Poll: Government Gives Too Much Foreign Aid. (Expect the same approach to terrorists in Canada, after an item appears on 60 Minutes.)

In other words, that which is true in America today is not what is true, nor what Americans think is true, but what they think they think is true. (Postmodern populism takes some getting used to.)

This wrinkle must have deeply puzzled the descendant of the Apostle, who hails from Poland, in an era when truth was what the leader said it was. With his instinct for simplistic directive, the Holy Father pointed out that the sexual abuse of minors is not only a crime, but a sin as well. (This was where the confusion lay in Boston, you see: Cardinal Law was debating the moral issue over the course of 20 years, and forgot to call the cops.)

Only, then the American flock flew home and sifted through the latest polls: Turns out that American Catholics may be disappointed in their leaders, but have not lost faith in the Church -- or at least they think they have not lost faith in the Church. (What is known in crisis psychology as the denial phase.)

So there may be wiggle-room here: Sacrifice some goats, commission some positive priest stories for "balance," and hope for an upswing in the War on Terrorism.

Meanwhile, as anyone who has seen a Codco sketch knows, Newfoundlanders have been aware of the problem for a very long time; which may leave Canadians a bit confused.

Canada bases much of its public policy on what we think we think Americans think (we're very postmodern), the assumption being that Canadians differ from Americans only in that we lag behind by several years, and that we'll eventually come around.

Not, however, in this case.

First multiculturalism, now corruption in the church: How startling, to find that it is the Americans who lag behind, having just uncovered an issue which has been boiling in Canada for years.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Where's the valour in our foreign policy?
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Wednesday, April 24, 2002 – Page R3

It's not easy to adjust to the fact that four excellent young men died in the name of Canadian foreign policy. Somehow, we didn't think it would come to that.

We members of the chattering class love to natter on about what Canada should or shouldn't do about this or that international situation. Then we amble off to the kitchen for the Caesar salad. The biggest risk we take is that we might get sued, or fired, or mocked.

Meanwhile, in the real world, people whose lives are as important to them as mine is to me have been dispatched to carry out the will of the Government of Canada, and to obey the chain of command, to the death.

For the soldier, there is more than an element of faith here: that the orders to be obeyed at the risk of life and limb are well thought out and well-intended.

Looking at it from this end, you wonder. Roméo Dallaire comes to mind. So does Art Eggleton.

For insight into the thinking of an ordinary soldier, read Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, set in the First World War. You come away with a sense of the existential cost in risking so much for a society that seems so cynical and so tactical and so superficial that a man feels like a sucker every time he puts on the uniform.

Which is how the Princess Patricia's regiment must have felt in 1914, carrying Ross rifles that blew up in their faces. And how they must feel now, having been blown up in training.

Question: Is Canada's foreign policy an authentic expression of what is vitally important to Canadians? Does it truly represent us? Does it merit the sacrifice of a life?

Odd, to find an existential dimension to Canada, whether we want one or not. Sure, we have a flag and laws and social infrastructure; but most of us, in our minds, feel separate from Canada. That's multiculturalism, right? Canada as optional psychic equipment.

Yet Canada is out there. This outlandish piece of geography and the society that controls it -- well, sort of -- shows a face to the world whether we like it or not, and the world looks back and it asks, Who are you? And for our own self-respect, we had better come up with an answer.

No wonder Canadians reacted to the tragedy with so much more anguish than we would if, say, four kids died in a car accident. Because the men with the Princess Pats went to Afghanistan in our name, and there was a ghastly slapstick quality to the way they died -- in training, while the pilot who bombed them wasn't even a member of the U.S. Air Force but a reservist, a member of the U.S. Air National Guard, a part-timer in charge of an F-16 fighter-bomber -- imagine!

So what was it? Simple incompetence? Or are we talking root cause here -- Ottawa's eagerness to send our troops as junior Americans in the first place?

Certainly, the latter position entailed less personal exposure for Defence Minister Art Eggleton, if not for the soldiers in his charge.

Read my lips: We care more about Americans than they do about us. We think about Americans more than they do about us. And any asymmetrical two-way partnership, whether a corner store or a trade deal or a military campaign, is going to go off-kilter for the junior partner. It's all a question of leverage.

Pretty understandable, that Canadian soldiers aren't as significant to the American command structure as American soldiers; the awful question is, Are Canadian soldiers as important as they should be to the Canadian command?

I love the word valour. It's a military word for physical courage in a just cause, damn the consequences. ("For Valour," says the Victoria Cross.) Sure, in peacetime, valour has a quaint, outmoded quality; but as soon as war breaks out, suddenly the word makes total sense -- as a presence in, say, Roméo Dallaire, and as an absence in, say, Art Eggleton.

Valour is not achieved by following the peacetime logic of political advantage. Valour is not tactical. Valour is about standing up purely on the merits of the case.

When it comes to valour, Ottawa is, shall we say, a bit thin on the ground these days.

Again, we have a precedent in the First World War. Britain had not fought a major military campaign since the Boer War in 1900. By 1914, those in the command structure, especially the political leadership, had reached their positions by peacetime criteria: the ability to network, manipulate, wriggle into situations advantageous to one's career, take credit and deflect blame.

This approach, applied to the Great War, literally wiped out a generation.

Ottawa is like the British Parliament in 1914: Its leaders know nothing about waging war, but a whole lot about surviving in peacetime. For Ottawa to come up with a truly independent foreign policy after Sept. 11 would have entailed a steep learning curve, plus a willingness to put one's neck on the line, and that's not how Ottawa works.

So rather than behave as a sovereign power, the Government of Canada ducked its responsibility for the so-called "war against terrorism," and left it all up to the Americans.

Not much valour in that.

John MacLachlan Gray's column will move to Tuesdays from Wednesdays, starting next week.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Billy's battle
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Pop historians taking pot shots at flying ace Billy Bishop are missing the point, writes JOHN MacLACHLAN GRAY: War is hell, however you do the math
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Saturday, April 20, 2002 – Page R3

VANCOUVER -- The Huns got Lloyd today, such a fine fellow too, and one of our best pilots. Sometimes all this awful fighting in the air makes you wonder if you have a right to call yourself human.

Billy Bishop, letter to Margaret, 1917

Man the barricades -- another historian has taken a run at Billy Bishop. This time, we have Brereton Greenhous picking over the bones of the dead guy, producing the same old evidence (or non-evidence -- given that he seeks to prove a non-event) to the effect that the Canadian flying ace padded his score of victories and that he faked the aerodrome raid that netted him the Victoria Cross.

Why does the author toss out this grenade when the book's release date is months away? Think of it as a movie trailer: A hook to turn another Bishop doorstopper into a cause célèbre. Give them a peek at the naughty bits, and draw a crowd.

To understand what a ghoulish business this is, ask yourself: Does the infantry keep score as to who managed to bayonet the most men in hand-to-hand combat? Do historians obsess as to whether so-and-so really stuck the knife into as many stomachs as he claimed to?

The business of score-keeping in the Royal Air Force was never anything other than propaganda from the beginning, a device to divert people's attention from the horror of the trenches.

Ten years after the Wright brothers, this nifty technology appeared, operated by a single man, suggesting a vision of sci-fi knights jousting in the air. An irresistible image: Never mind that every plane built was an experiment; that more men died in training than in actual combat; that simply going up in one of those things took enormous nerve. (In the case of the RE7, the difference between its top speed and its stalling speed was 10 miles an hour.) Then as now, the image reigned supreme.

Inflated their scores, you say? Well stop the presses. Listen, if every air victory claimed in the First World War had actually occurred, there would have been no planes in the air. Manfred von Richthofen flew in a group, or Jasta, in which doubtful kills were routinely awarded to the leader for his propaganda value. In one of top-scoring ace Mick Mannock's victories, our hero attacked a flying school, shot down the unarmed instructor, then shot down the students one by one.

As to whether or not the dawn aerodrome raid was a fake, Greenhous produces the same evidence Paul Cowan did 20 years ago, in his excellent film, The Kid Who Couldn't Miss: that the Germans didn't have a record of the raid, that the pattern of damage to Bishop's plane looked suspicious. (Talk about nothing new -- Grid Caldwell, one of his fellow pilots on 26 Squadron, made the same accusation in 1917.)

On the other hand, Phil Townsend, a British reconnaissance pilot, talked to French civilians near the Estourmel Aerodrome who claimed to have witnessed the whole thing. And as far back as 1962, First World War pilot and historian Arch Whitehouse quoted German authorities as having admitted that Bishop conducted the raid, while denying that he destroyed three planes.

Okay, fine. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't, maybe he half-did.

By the time The Kid Who Couldn't Miss was released, I and my partner Eric Peterson had been performing Billy Bishop Goes to War for about as long as the war itself. I don't really know what to say about that experience other than that, in creating a character in whom the story became plausible, and in telling his story over and over again, the number of people Bishop killed became less and less important.

At first, it was very important. Back in 1978, if you wrote about war, you were expected to be either pro-war or antiwar. People were judging their forebears by the moral yardstick of the day, just like Mr. Greenhous. Billy Bishop Goes to War took criticism because it doesn't address itself to war in that binary sense -- I mean, you might as well debate whether cancer is good or bad. Rather than judge Bishop, it seemed more interesting to ask: What was it like?

Greenhous, to go by his media clips, is having none of that. "He was encouraged by his superiors to lie, but he was a natural liar anyway," he says.

What the hell's a natural liar? Good grief, people at war lie?

The First World War is one of those topics on which anyone can become an expert, because the causes are inexplicable and the technology is simple. With a couple of days' reading, anyone can yak on and on without fear of contradiction.

While performing Billy Bishop Goes to War, Peterson and I became experts too, jabbering in the dressing room about the Spad versus the Neuport. But eventually we tired of the scores and the machines and the stories of derring-do; more and more we found ourselves talking about how human it all was. That war is exactly like normal life: If you survive, you get to witness the death of your friends.

Only, in wartime it happens a lot faster. People barely out of high school experience in six months what the rest of us take a lifetime to get used to. And what then? Once you've experienced a lifetime in six months, what then?

If you're like most veterans, you pretend you haven't seen what you've seen. If you're conspicuously successful, you get your bones picked over by Brereton Greenhous.

Fine, but surely the burden of proof rests with the aggressor. So let's piece together the fake raid scenario, and see how it jibes with human nature.

A 23-year-old veteran pilot (anyone who survived six months was a veteran), already about to be awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order, decided to risk utter disgrace by faking a raid on a German aerodrome. Perhaps he was encouraged from above; however, there is no evidence of this.

For some reason, before he undertook his fake raid, Bishop tried to get someone to accompany him. (Pilot Willy Fry said Bishop asked him twice -- the previous night and just before takeoff.) With no takers, he went off alone, faked the raid, shot up his own plane (as risky as the attack itself), and collected the VC for it. Then, for the rest of his life, our man maintained utter silence, throughout a life of garrulous hard-drinking -- and I'm talking falling-down drunk.

Or, as an alternative, try this scenario: A lot of people didn't like Bishop. Nakedly ambitious, a braggart, a carouser and a colonial, he was no gentleman. On the contrary, he was a living mockery of the vestigial belief that wars are fought by gentlemen -- a belief that took a bad turn in the rat-infested trenches of the Somme.

On the battlefield, it was not a jousting match but a slaughterhouse. The 1st Newfoundland Regiment was annihilated in 15 minutes -- 1,500 men. At Verdun, Allied soldiers marched to the front (300,000 dead), baa-ing like sheep in protest. Only in the RAF remained a trace of the hero, the gallant, the gladiator jousting for England.

The fighter pilot became a star. A symbol of the best -- or what was left -- of an era when Britain ruled the waves.

Then along came Bishop, who used his plane as a gun platform; who crept up on the enemy, shot the pilot with the cold-blooded skill of a duck hunter, then snuck away before he was noticed. And bragged about it later.

Not the sort of champion they had in mind.

Canadians are free to make up their own minds on whether war is a good thing or a bad thing, and whether Bishop was a good man or a bad man. Bishop doesn't care.

However, at minimum, it would be nice if we got over this gruesome business of looking at war heroes as athletic champions, movie stars, idols to be set on pedestals and then shot down by pop historians.

It's time to move on to a more adult notion of a hero: as the protagonist of a story which tells us a lot about our country and its history. A man who, more than most people, stood for his time.
Globe Review columnist John MacLachlan Gray is the author of the award-winning 1978 play Billy Bishop Goes to War.


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Why B.C. needs its own Clarity Act
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Wednesday, April 17, 2002 – Page R1

One good thing about the B.C. referendum on treaty negotiations is that it should put to rest, for the time being, the populist folly known as "direct democracy," in which the issues of the day are not delegated at the polls, but decided by a poll; in which laws are made, not by a responsible government, but by people with time on their hands and a bee in their bonnet.

We received our referendum package last week. Unlike normal voting procedure, this one takes place by mail, so that, rather than place an anonymous ballot in a box, we must include our name, address, birth date and social insurance number. Anonymity is ensured by placing our marked ballet in an envelope within the envelope, called a "security envelope" (no peeking), and sending it off.

Wouldn't Robert Mugabe love this? The term "security envelope" itself has a Zimbabwean ring to it -- party-speak for identifying the opposition and putting them in the clink.

That's the thrill of living in B.C. -- all the charm of the Third World, but without the inconvenience.

Then there's the wording of the questions, which present certain "principles" for agreement or disagreement; only the phrasing is peculiar, and the repetition telling.

Question 1, for example: "Private property should not be expropriated for treaty settlements -- Yes or No?" One wonders: What does yes or no mean, applied to a negative? To disagree with the statement seems to involve something like, "No, private property should not not [sic] be expropriated."

Doesn't clarity demand that a yes-or-no question be expressed as a positive declaration: "Private property should be expropriated for treaty settlements -- Yes or No?"

Not in this case -- because that would require the voter to vote no in order to tell the government what it wants to hear.

Ah, the sweet, positive aroma of government propaganda, in which anyone who disagrees with the party is a "naysayer;" in which government gets its "positive message" across, while doing nothing positive to earn it. Yes, you see, is good and no is bad. So vote yes, and say yes to B.C.'s bright future -- dum de dum de dum.

Feeling patronized? Manipulated? Have a gander at Question 3: "Hunting and fishing and recreational opportunities on Crown land should be ensured for all British Columbians." And, while we're at it, Question 4: "Parks and protected areas should be maintained for the use and benefit of all British Columbians."

And children should be protected from harm, and animals should be saved from extinction -- dum de dum de dum.

Within this childlike narrative, however, a concept has been introduced and considered important enough to repeat: that there is such a thing as a "British Columbian," whose rights and interests are apposed (if not opposed) to the rights and interests of Indians.

What the hell is a British Columbian? Someone born in B.C.? Someone who moved to B.C. last week? Or is it a visitor to B.C. -- last time I looked, tourists had the same rights as the rest of us? Or is it someone who invests in B.C. -- given that a company is legally a person? Might a "British Columbian" therefore be defined as any person or corporation on Earth with money to spend in B.C.?

Certainly the term is not intended to reflect the Quebec concept of the pur laine Quebecker -- a resident whose family has been pounding the sod for centuries. If this were so, then the only British Columbians would be the Indians, and we certainly don't want to go there.

Given that this enormous piece of geography is open to anyone on Earth with the price of admission, why use the term at all? Why not say "Canadians" instead? Or, if we really want accuracy, why not "anyone?"

Unless, of course, the term "British Columbian" represents a feeble but somewhat sinister attempt to introduce a quasi-nationalist sentiment in a dispute that has racial overtones, and to create a sense of entitlement -- not to say embattlement -- among the majority; an impression that, however false, serves the interests of the provincial government in its struggle with Ottawa and the courts over aboriginal issues.

This suspicion is upheld by the remaining referendum questions, which dwell on issues that fall into federal jurisdiction. By creating a theoretical British Columbian, the provincial government is fighting the good fight on behalf of its colonized citizens, against the imperial power in Ottawa.

It's the Quebec tactic all over again, with its "national" this and "national" that.

One thing is certain: A British Columbian is not a member of an "interest group." Interest groups are commandos from the Land of Political Correctness, otherwise known as Canada.

British Columbians are the common-sense, fair-minded warp and woof of a distinct society known as B.C.

It's the interest groups that are causing the trouble -- churches, unions, environmentalists and the rest; but of course these naysayers don't speak for British Columbians.

I wonder: How many British Columbians does it take to make an interest group?

Or maybe it's the other way around: How many interest groups does it take to make a British Columbian?
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Another dose of Math Guilt: Bring it on
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Wednesday, April 10, 2002 – Page R1

When the genome project has us mapped out like electrical-circuit diagrams; when we know which glow-winkies on the chart indicate complexion and libido and snack preference and so on; when we stop chewing on ethical non sequiturs and swallow the fact that the issue is out of control . . . I wonder, what then?

I'm rooting for a program in which the parents of a newborn may exchange him or her for a child with more complementary genetic characteristics. The way I see it, with the guidance of a genetic baby broker, short-tempered control freaks could exchange their offspring for nascent Buddhists; people with the concentration of gnats could raise the progeny of obsessive chess players, and so on.

I'm not certain how this would benefit the child, but for parents I see a twofold advantage: (1) Extreme tendencies in parents would be ameliorated, not intensified, by the personalities of their children. (2) Parents would be spared having to relive their childhood traumas and failures, all over again.

We're into the final term, and it is apparent that a member of my family, as it was with an older sibling four years ago, will require a massive incursion of outside tutors, a pedagogical Operation Protective Wall, in order to survive high-school math.

This is the third time I've been through this ordeal -- if I include myself, around 1962. In other words, for the third time in my life, I am to experience Math Guilt.

I should have learned math myself, were I not such a lazy bum. And were I any kind of parent, my boy would love math. There we'd be at the kitchen table of an evening, my fatherly hand on his shoulder as together we calculate . . . er, whatever it is those marks in his Power Math text are supposed to calculate; to my eye they might as well be the Dead Sea Scrolls.

My partner in life can't do math either. (Only to be expected: I can't see either of us falling in love with someone who is good at math.) For us, to help someone do math would be like blind people demonstrating how to mix pigments.

Hence, my point: Short of exchanging sons with a mathematician, what's a parent to do?

Math, like the violin, is one of those endeavours in which some people graduate from university before they acquire permanent teeth, while others grind away at it for years in a state of misery, just to get by.

Yes, I know, there are math advocates who claim it's all a matter of good teaching and a measure of application on the part of the student; that math, like music, can and should be a part of everyone's life. And to them I say: Shut up. Just shut up.

What do I hear you say? That my two children have become infected by my negative attitude to math? Ah, another dose of Math Guilt: Bring it on.

Math, you see, unlike, say, music, has a moral dimension, having become linked to the work ethic. Music requires a work ethic too, but being unable to carry a tune doesn't carry the same load of guilt. With math, if you don't get it, you and/or your teacher have failed. Someone is not trying hard enough. Math teachers likewise feel this moral burden, so that a student who "falls behind" becomes a blemish on one's record; fortunately, the teacher can draw strength from an informal inner circle of black-belt math commandos (remember, the text is called Math Power), punching out those decimals.

I hear no call for national standards in music or public speaking. I see no lists indicating how our children rate internationally when it comes to figure drawing. Apparently, these skills are no longer on the front burner. Math is the music of power. Math is what separates Management from Labour. Successful people Do The Math.

If you are not good at math, you are like a person running to catch a train -- only, the train has already departed, is accelerating in fact, and your fellow travellers have somehow made it onboard already. Way up ahead, the engineer, encouraged by his eager passengers, opens up the throttle. Toot, toot!

Meanwhile, there you stand on the platform, gasping for breath, watching the math train disappear over the horizon, the merry voices of your colleagues ringing in the distance, comparing incomprehensible solutions.

What then? Do you raise your voice and cry out, "Come back! Come back! Put the train in reverse and come back for me!" I think not.

Bill Gates doesn't play the violin. Face it, people who are good with numbers, get better numbers.

But it's the moral imperative that gets me -- as though there is no moral dimension to learning how to play an instrument or write a poem.

These skills, once an essential component of the "well-rounded" character, are at best minor accomplishments that distinguish one from one's colleagues, like being double-jointed, not to be overemphasized for fear of appearing quirky or gay.

Which is why I'm looking forward to a parent-child exchange program, in which nurture makes up for deficiencies in nature.

So that one day, everybody will be good at math.

jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Don't stop at child porn: Censor car ads too
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Wednesday, April 3, 2002 – Page R1

As far as I can tell, the current uproar over the John Robin Sharpe acquittal on pornographic writing hinges on three interconnected complaints:

The first and most primitive of these centres on what we might call the yuck factor -- the commonly held belief that punishment for a crime should be measured by the degree to which it causes the Average Canadian to go "Yuck."

In an ideal Canada, such a sentencing procedure would presumably be carried out, not by a judge, but by a panel of scientifically averaged consumers, like the focus groups who determine which ending to a Hollywood movie provides closure.

A second, marginally more subtle source of indignation takes issue, not with the decision itself, but with its rationale -- specifically, the judge's conclusion that stories that describe the degradation of children may possess Artistic Merit. (It's not sufficient that the judge at no time suggests that Mr. Sharpe's work contains a significant amount of that vague yet precious commodity.)

As a result, commentators such as our very own Margaret Wente choose to excoriate, not the deluded judge, but the "expert witnesses" who confused him: pointy-headed academics with the temerity to employ terms such as "seismic irony," when if they had any decency they would be going "Yuck" like the Average Canadian. (Clearly the possession of a strong stomach, while a positive trait in the forensic lab, has no place in the humanities division.)

A third, more pragmatic blast of ire rests on the possibility that some twisto might read Kiddiekink Classics and be moved to imitate the odious deeds it portrays.

If, by curtailing freedom of expression in this one, singularly yucky area, a single hypothetical child might be saved from harm -- is it not worth the price?

The first two positions I find kind of dumb, but this one really gets me going -- because I live in Vancouver, which is currently suffering an epidemic of grisly deaths involving young people, with two depressing commonalties: cars and speed.

Got a taste for violence? Pain? The destruction of innocence? Put aside your copy of Kiddiekink Classics and subscribe to the Vancouver Province:

A car full of heartbreakingly pretty teenage girls careens out of control, hops a median on a city street and smashes into a light pole, at such a speed that the Honda is virtually cut in two.

A driver with a weeks-old licence slams into a semi, killing his four passengers -- good students, athletes, nicest young fellows you would ever want to meet.

Racing on a suburban street late at night in the little BMW his parents gave him for his birthday, a handsome young man now lies dead on the pavement, 10 metres away from his unrecognizable vehicle.

Who needs snuff films, with such spectacles available on the evening news?

Plenty of "seismic irony" to please the more academically minded of us -- especially when the carnage is interrupted by a car ad that evokes the heartstopping, breathtaking pleasure to be experienced at the wheel of a little kamikaze bomb -- able to double the speed limit in seconds, having effortlessly beaten all comers in a thrilling test of speed and manoeuvrability.

"A demonstration," notes the subtitle -- television's fine print, an inoculation against lawsuits -- "not to be attempted unless by an expert."

Right. As though there exists an 18-year-old who is not an expert with something to prove.

Pornography vs. Artistic Merit? Here we see the graphic demonstration of an activity, the imitation of which has been shown to cause the death and lifelong disability of children (ignoring the misery of their families), in numbers that make kiddie-porn victims seem rare.

To make it worse, unlike its sexual counterpart, this material actively markets the attitude, and the equipment, with which the dreadful deed is done.

Why not call for the censorship of car ads? Do real children merit less protection than theoretical children? Why does the yuck factor not apply in this case?

Because, unlike the events of Kiddiekink Classics, a commercial for an Infiniti ("Drive on the Wild Side") or an Acura ("Shift your Life into Sixth Gear") evokes a fantasy the Average Canadian really enjoys.

In North America, some infantile impulses are more acceptable than others.

I have heard it said of pedophiles that many remain children in their own minds, having failed to rise to the emotional give-and-take of adult sexuality.

Which of course doubles the yuck factor -- not just the repugnant fantasy, but when you look at a Mr. Sharpe, you envisage a hairy infant, an adult in Huggies sucking on his soother.

Creepy? You bet. But the same could be said of some motorists.

As a parent who frets about anything handy, I don't worry about my kid getting jumped by a John Robin Sharpe fan, I worry about my kid getting killed by a car. A Subaru Impreza or Porsche Boxter, driven by some infantile twisto imitating the chase scene he saw in Tinseltown -- only, the street is real, he's no stunt driver, and my kid or your kid is in the way.

Now there's a fantasy that makes me go yuck.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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What's so creative about originality?
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Wednesday, March 27, 2002 – Page R3

I always get suspicious when newspaper columnists huff and puff over plagiarism.

Talk about glass houses: Here we have a popular medium comprised mostly of received phrases, strung together like ransom notes into strips of information -- and we take a stand on originality? "Wake up and smell the coffee." (Note: borrowed expression, author unknown.)

To produce the latest flap, here is what happened: Two American pop historians lifted passages from the works of their colleagues; although they identified their sources in footnotes, they failed to put the borrowed phrases in quotation marks.

And, well, that's it. Not what you'd call a felony, less egregious by far than drunk driving. Yet, thanks to the incorruptible rigour of our highly original North America media, the careers of these two academics are (Note: borrowed expression, author unknown) "toast."

By contrast, insider traders with Enron and Nortel will receive, at most, a "slap on the wrist."

"Plagiarism is stealing. End of story." So says Elizabeth Nickson of the National Post, who sees the phenomenon as part of a moral "dumbing down" at work in North America.

But what, exactly, do plagiarists steal? What do the victims lack that they once possessed -- compared, say, to victims of a stock-market scam? As a sin, how does plagiarism measure up against shoplifting or padded expense accounts?

Other than with embarrassment and failing grades, how should plagiarists be punished? Should they be tattooed with a P on the forehead? Banned from libraries for life?

Sure, plagiarism is wrong; but is it evil?

"The original voice is irreplaceable," sniffs Nickson, as though it were the Tablets. As part of the moral cancer, she notes instances of plagiarism in universities, essays for sale on the Internet for $50. (An antidote might be to set more original essay topics, but never mind.)

But what are we talking about here -- plagiarism, copyright violation or fraud? Because they're different misdeeds, and the first is not a crime. Should I quote from Shakespeare without attribution, I may be a plagiarist, I may be an idiot, but I have stolen nothing, because the Bard is in the public domain. Yet Ms. Nickson would put the plagiarist in the same category as thieves, swindlers, and (tangentially, oddly) adulterers.

"Er, sorry," she writes. "I digress." (The phrase simply crackles with originality.)

What bothers me about the plagiarism flap is that it conceals a deeper hypocrisy -- an attitude that pretends to champion originality while doing its best to inhibit it.

As a writer of musicals for the stage, I cannot tell you how often I've been approached by potential librettists seeking a collaborator, and I assert the following as a mathematical theorem: The creative potential of an idea is inversely proportionate to the creator's concern over plagiarism.

I have met people with story ideas so rare and precious, they could hardly bring themselves to utter them for fear that I might steal their idea. When at last they reluctantly and litigiously revealed it -- well, let me tell you, I would rather drown in a pond of cold vomit than spend the months, the meetings, not to mention the serotonin it would cost me, to bring their wig bubble to life.

With uncreative people, original ideas are precious, precisely because they have so few. With creative people, it's the process that counts; ideas are "a dime a dozen."

Jean-Paul Riopelle burned finished canvases in the fireplace because he was too drunk to split some wood. The best jazz musicians sit in at clubs for nothing, just for the fun of it. Originality does not consist in setting a high value to that which is created; indeed, it can work the other way.

The tricky thing about the words "creativity" and "originality" is that they imply an inside-to-outside continuum, when the process goes the other way: not generating ideas from within, but allowing ideas to penetrate from beyond our protective shell of desire and fear. Originality is not generation, but observation. Creativity requires an openness to what's going on out there, even if it's not what you want to see; a ruthlessness; a what-the-hell attitude. Obsess over originality, and your project is "dead meat."

Were I paranoid (I don't deny this), I might conclude that the plagiarism flap is really an advertorial for the issue of "intellectual piracy" -- electronic brigands such as Napster who deprive copyright owners of millions.

It must be frustrating for Sony Music to see its property treated with less sanctity than, say, the work of Franz Schubert, who found no market for his work and died broke at the age of 31.

How ironic that this tub-thumping over plagiarism should occur at a time when, despite a dizzying rate of technological innovation, we occupy a derivative culture in which what we call "original" is usually a product of recollection and repackaging. In our entertainment products, our fashions, our aesthetic decisions as consumers, North Americans have emphatically chosen the path of postmodernism as an alternative to finding something new.

Let's not pretend to be concerned with originality, when it's the last thing on our minds.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Confessions of a charitable home invader
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Wednesday, March 20, 2002 – Page R1

This column offers free advertising space for the burgeoning Canadian begging sector -- a wonder of productivity thanks to government offloading and the vigour of the free marketplace. (If Canadian business could innovate the way it can beg for public money, those Nortel shares wouldn't be where they are today.)

Innovation is key to growth in the pleading industry, and competition is keen:

The other evening we were interrupted at supper by a friendly individual representing something like "The Foundation For The Disabled," with a glossy package of supporting material and tax receipts at the ready.

My partner in life, hard as nails, declined the offer.

"But it's for the disabled!" gasped the supplicator, horrified that anyone with two legs and two arms could be so heartless. (Hovering out of range, I shrugged my shoulders and shuffled my feet, a traditional ethnic dance depicting male powerlessness.)

Closing the door firmly, the Ice Woman called the Better Business Bureau. Apparently the organization in question has no accreditation, and something like 90 per cent of its collections go to "administration."

More power to them, I say. Success means pushing the envelope.

What you don't do is recruit a large, bearded, white male (me) to do your begging -- which is what the Heart and Stroke Foundation tried as part of something called "Heart Month."

False modesty, you say? Hah! Years ago when I worked with CBC's The Journal, executive producer Mark Starowicz described my telegenic aura as follows: "He's like Yasser Arafat. You look at him and you think, 'Gee, he can't be that bad!' "

"But knowing your unsuitability," you ask, "why accept the assignment at all?"

First, because I am a social coward whose partner was not there to intervene. Second, because in the past year, two friends had the Skil Saw taken to the chest, leaving me with a soft spot on cardio issues.

Strike One: they recruited me.

Strike Two: They failed to assign me to my own specific block, where I make a somewhat familiar sight, thanks to morning garbage, loud kids, lost cats and parking. Instead, my route lay two blocks away, which might as well be in Fernie, B.C.

What I didn't fully appreciate was that Strike Three was a given: the times we is in.

Plenty of violence to read about and watch, and, whether it occurs in New York, India or rural British Columbia, the emotional assault is about the same. The cavalcade of untimely and unpleasant death has become so constant and endless, it demands a strange form of courage: the courage, not to face death, but to endure the daily grind of having it thrown in your face, with no moral, no explanation, no (pardon the expression) closure.

We don't need new antidepressants, we need new undertakers -- to bury the dead strangers we carry in our minds.

Actually, the experience itself reminded me of Halloween. There's something spooky about standing on a darkened verandah, ringing the doorbell of a seemingly vacant house, whose owners you suspect to be hiding within. This happened with the first three houses. Not until my fourth trick-or-treat did a door actually open: The occupant (who gave at the office) explained that his neighbours were nervous because of a home invasion "just a few blocks away."

News to me, I thought, and I read the papers. Maybe it was on cable. Maybe it was just a few thousand blocks away.

Feeling impish, I retraced my steps and tiptoed up the front stairs: Off went the TV the second I rang the doorbell -- I could imagine the occupants diving under the coffee table. Chuckling maniacally, I slipped a pamphlet into the mailbox about what to do should someone keel over, and carried on with my good work.

At a stucco Tudor with a casement window, I rang the bell and no fewer than seven faces in succession peered out at me, then snapped the curtains shut, one by one, while I pointed to the Volunteer button on my chest, grinning idiotically. Then, nothing. So I rang again, twice, whereupon the porch light went out.

The man next door (whose wife gave at the office) explained that a series of home invasions in the city targeted Asians -- which seems like a pretty general target, but maybe so. In any case, they might do well to install a speaker by the door like the guy on the corner, who contributed the following exchange, transcribed verbatim:

"Yes?"

"Good evening. I'm canvassing for the Heart and Stroke Foundation."

"No."

"Thank you for your time."

"Click."

In all, I collected $120, of which $100 issued from three residents I had encountered at Halloween years ago, while in the company of a short vampire. (Every night is Halloween, when the goblins are generated within.)

The rest came from renters in their 20s, a young mother and three university students, who appeared on the first ring, opened their wallets and produced a five each.

"Sorry it isn't more," they said.

No problem, kid. Just stay that way. You give a person hope.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Do we have a misplaced faith in religious belief?
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Wednesday, March 13, 2002 – Page R3

Suffering through the unusually hideous world events of the past couple of weeks, appalled by the role of religious belief in events as overwhelming as the atrocities in the Middle East and India, and as underwhelming as the Alliance Party leadership contest, I find myself becoming less sanguine about the place of religion itself in public life.

For some reason, we don't read about mobs of atheists stoning and burning alive human beings who do not share their non-beliefs. So far, no agnostics have blown themselves up in discos, taking someone's children with them. No scientific determinists have been kidnapped and murdered by supporters of chaos theory. Moral relativists are not organizing militias for the purpose of putting people in jail for possession of the Ten Commandments; nor are agnostics firing rockets at pantheists from helicopter gunships.

It makes you think: Given the events of the past half year, why do non-believers continue on the defensive -- in the Canadian Alliance for example? Why do relativism and secular humanism continue to have such negative associations, especially in the conservative mind? Why does the word "liberal" inevitably trail the words "elitist" and "hypocrite" in its wake? Who is an elitist, if not the Taliban? Who is a hypocrite if not a Christian who shoots a gynecologist over the "right to life"?

For some reason, despite all evidence to the contrary, we uphold a persistent conviction that people who haven't found religion are more prone to do evil; that a secular family is lacking in family values; that a pragmatic administration is a soulless machine.

True, up until a decade ago, one could point to godless communism as the dystopia to be feared. And yet, looking back, it seems obvious that Stalin and Mao did not want to eliminate religion so much as to become gods themselves; that Pol Pot had more in common with the believer Adolf Hitler than with the atheist Karl Marx.

More to the point, confronted on an almost daily basis with the dangerous capacity of religious belief to drive people off the deep end (to induce a woman to murder her children, for example), why does belief continue to be encouraged, protected and accorded a special place in North American society? Why is a given belief system worthy of public support, simply because a given number of people believe it? Why, unlike the arts -- which are similarly nonprofit, state-supported, non-materialistic activities -- are religious institutions exempt from having to explain themselves to non-supporters, to demonstrate that they are a benefit to the community with graphs and multiplier effects and all the rest of it?

I'm not saying that believers could not make such a case for themselves to a public forum or a jury of their peers (think of the music, not to mention Good Works). What puzzles me is that they aren't called on to make it at all, before they achieve tax-exempt status, before they start a school.

At minimum, when a believer runs for public office, is it unreasonable to expect him to explain his convictions to people who don't share them? Should a candidate happen to believe in a coming Apocalypse and final judgment, should she not explain to the rest of us how this might tie in with her views on, say, crime and the environment? If you believe in predestination, what are the implications for health care? If you believe in karma and reincarnation, what is the point of a social safety net?

After Sept. 11, can any political leader proclaim his beliefs to be "private"?

As North Americans muddle our way through the crises of terrorism and its aftermath, in which religion and a belief in the afterlife are demonstrably part of the problem and not part of the solution, isn't it a bit creepy to see the President of the United States spreading a religiously freighted abstraction ("evil" -- as in "axis of") whose purpose is to marshal support for an expansion of the war against terrorism to a level not unlike the Crusades? Why does the Commander-in-Chief have himself photographed in prayer, and not in discussion or thought?

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against belief. Even the atheist is a believer, being unable to conclusively prove his position; even the scientific method becomes a form of belief when it gets into quantum mechanics and string theory. Face it, we live in a universe that is either finite or infinite or both (depending upon which astrophysicist you talk to) -- only, all three alternatives are inconceivable to the human mind. As we dangle between impossibilities, belief becomes unavoidable.

But it seems to me that there is a crucial difference between believing something and believing it utterly. And regardless of his or her beliefs, it seems to me that in a democracy, every citizen has an obligation to recognize that just because you believe something doesn't make it so. We wouldn't want to go around beating on each other over a misapplied allegory, a misinterpreted metaphor, a bad translation or a mystical mistake -- would we, Mr. Day?
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Things are out of control in the Garden of Eden
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Wednesday, March 6, 2002 – Page R3

Things are pretty much back to normal here in British Columbia: Someone firebombed the Premier's constituency office in Vancouver, while other outposts of the governing party have had to lock their doors because of death threats.

On the educational front, a teachers' union representative compared school trustees to members of the Gestapo. The province's Law Society has filed a motion of non-confidence in the Attorney-General.

Always the conciliator, our Premier characterized a mass protest in Victoria as the whining of sore losers, mad because "they aren't getting their way any more." Such an eloquent use of the pronoun "they."

An interesting facet of colonial societies is the degree to which their cultural politics remain cryogenically frozen at the first wave of immigration. As an example, articles have been written about the resemblance between 1950s Quebec and 16th-century France.

Similarly, an acquaintance of Danish ancestry remarked how the wave of Danish immigrants in the 1950s produced generations of Canadian Danes whose attitudes and expectations are stuck in Denmark in the 1950s. And we note a mid-Victorian quality to farming communities in Southern Ontario, where the response to any personal comment or request is an immediate sucked intake of breath.

Here in B.C., we're living out the issues of the Industrial Revolution around the turn of the 20th century. Indeed, the province's very name is a product of the 1890s, when Britain had more shipping tonnage than all the rest of the world put together, when it was assumed that some day Great Britain would be everywhere, and that would be the end of history.

That's when the Dunsmuirs lured coal miners from Newcastle with generous loans and big promises -- omitting to mention that these were the most dangerous mines in the world. By the time the miners arrived, they were too far in debt to escape.

With similar employee relations in the logging industry, you can understand how this might engender a certain anti-authoritarian streak, passed from one generation to the next in the family mythology, rekindled each time the government calls in the troops to break the heads of strikers and demonstrators on a pretext of fighting world communism.

Same with the head tax, applied exclusively to Asian immigrants -- the fact that a miner or logger could work 20 years here without ever seeing the family he was supporting. The yellow peril, you know. Nothing like loss to stick in the memory -- and the smug faces of the people who inflicted it on you.

Meanwhile, developers had mapped Vancouver into street grids before the first settler arrived, moving the Indians out of sight and mind, while encouraging missionaries to start totem bonfires. This legacy, like our industrial policy, added a certain je ne sais quoi to the political life of the province -- especially once it occurred to the Indians, who appreciate irony, that all of this was illegal under British law.

Now you know why so many writers and artists are willing to live in the province with the lowest per capita funding for the arts: British Columbia isn't just a place to live -- it's material.

Fine. But how, you ask, have we managed to preserve this precious heritage of resentment and recrimination for more than a century, undiluted, despite the influx of subsequent Europeans, Asians, Africans, draft-dodgers from America and tycoons from Hong Kong? What enduring strength shields us from the pragmatism, the flexibility, the administrative competence that has infected other jurisdictions?

Here we must credit another Victorian immigrant group, distinct from the others yet overlapping everything: utopians. Waves of them: Swedish and hippie communes a century apart; end-of-the-world survivalists such as the "horticultural colony" of Walhachin and the followers of Brother 12; mystics such as the Emissaries of the Divine Light in Hundred Mile House. And so on. All these libertarians, millenarians and communitarians had one thing in common: a belief that B.C. represented an unspoiled fresh start. Each group, in its own way, sought to recreate the Garden of Eden.

All very sweet and hobbit-like, yet it is precisely this utopian strain that has rendered the province ungovernable. How do we find consensus among a population of perfectionist ideologues, nursing ancient grudges, who believe each compromise to be a pact with the devil?

Actually, we don't.

Hence, our bare-knuckle populism, with a set of knuckle-dusters within reach; I mean, just because we live together, it doesn't follow that we should have to live together.

Thus we arrive at the politics of premiers Campbell, Clark, Vander Zalm and Bennett, each of whom would look fine in the golden braids and brushes of a South American dictator.

No need to worry about periodic eruptions of so-called West Coast separatism, for they are no more than tactical tantrums. In real life, British Columbians need the government of Canada -- if only because it prevents these guys from having troops.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Comfortable with gold medals? Fat chance
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Wednesday, February 27, 2002 – Page R3

I have always been leery of C. G. Jung, who strikes me as a psychological version of Reveen the Impossiblist. However, sometimes it's striking how synchronicity -- a kind of purposeful coincidence -- can play a role in the quest for meaning.

Take last Wednesday, when I read in The Globe a report from Los Angeles to the effect that 26 per cent of adult Americans are obese -- meaning, more than 30 per cent of their body mass is fat. (Canadians are holding at 12 per cent, according to Statistics Canada, handicapped by a dearth of Krispy Cremes and chicken-fried steak.)

Researchers put the phenomenon down to an increase in portion sizes: that there are no "small" sizes at food outlets any more; everything has to be king size or emperor size; evidently the word "small" depresses American consumers, makes them feel small.

So I put down the paper and catch the end of the women's hockey final in Salt Lake City. (Didn't watch the game, I have a blood-presure issue.) The Finns are receiving bronze medals, and they look pleased -- I mean, a medal's a medal. Then the camera pans across the U.S. team with their silver medals and, boy, are they depressed. Last come the Canadians, who don't know quite what to do with their gold medals -- no nationalist crowing, no thanking God for being on our side. One player brought her toddler on, to see what he'd make of it.

Because gold is not our position in life. Canadians exist to show the world how, with the best of intentions, things might not work out. Just as the Inuit have -- what? -- 20 words for snow, we have 100 words for worry and disappointment.

Unable to digest the sight of Canadians with gold medals, I switch channels -- and what do I encounter but Glutton Bowl, an event in which participants compete to see who can eat the most food in a given period of time.

The two hosts are neither female nor fat, so they don't have to get into what a degrading business fat can be; and their performance is larded with irony -- irony being the great enabler, permitting a person to wallow in decadence and remain above it at the same time.

Throughout the contest, everything possible is done to humiliate the contestants, even while they obligingly laugh at themselves. (Fat people are good at that.) They eat boiled eggs, bricks of butter, beef tongue (beef tongue!), mayonnaise and, of course, hot dogs. The winner of the egg event ate 38 eggs; the winner of the butter event downed three pounds. Let's just skip the tongue event. As for the losers, it wasn't for want of trying. The instant the bell went off, these people stuffed their faces with the deadly seriousness and will-to-win of Olympic athletes in a medal round. And the winners were happy -- not embarrassed, happy.

If Americans are obese, maybe it's because their culture offers them no basis for doing anything other than as a competition -- in which, as in women's hockey, second place is the first loser. So even when eating, you're a loser if you don't get the biggest slice of the pie.

Fine. Getting back to the synchronicity thing, Thursday I pick up the paper and there's our Health Minister, disappointment written all over her face, holding a press conference: "We are a nation, or becoming a nation, of obese people," she intones. Because of this, ". . . it will become very hard for us to sustain our health-care system because the demands upon it will grow." Very hard for us? Stop the presses!

How reassuring to know that Anne McLellan read Wednesday's Globe, and that she is getting media advice. And nice to know she has the forensic savvy to waffle on the word "obese" -- which has a specific medical definition and, as noted, covers only 12 per cent of the population.

Instead, she cites 46 per cent of us as "overweight or obese." What's that supposed to mean? Has Ms. McLellan seen the weight tables that say a six-foot male should weigh 165 pounds? Is she saying we're not trying hard enough? Is that it? Has she not seen the statistics on weight-loss programs -- a billion-dollar industry based on the fact that people who lose weight gain it right back?

What does the minister propose to do -- mail out tapeworms along with the baby bonus?

Fine. Saturday morning I open the paper and there's the inevitable follow-up, in which a diet doctor gauges the lard level of cabinet ministers. Among the obese is our Deputy Prime Minister, who runs marathons -- only, John Manley isn't a threat to medicare because he is "fat but fit."

Excuse me? Then fat isn't necessarily a health problem at all?

Besides piggybacking on the media, what was the Health Minister doing -- other than wagging her finger at the camera, blaming someone else for the health-care system and making people worry about their weight more than they already do? Do Canadians need this? Was there a shortage of worry in the land?

And here's the kicker: What do people do when they worry? They eat, dammit!

Shame, Honourable Minister. For shame.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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To act or to pretend to act, that is the question
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Wednesday, February 20, 2002 – Page R1

The verb "to act" is one of those paradoxical English terms, meaning both "to perform an action" and "to pretend to perform an action" -- to do something and not do it at the same time. Which, when you think about it, perfectly describes an activity in which the performer walks a line somewhere between utter reality and utter sham. Too much sham and you get phoney baloney; too much reality and you get an uncontrolled, self-indulgent embarrassment.

Either way you lose your audience.

The trick is in finding a reality base for the pretence, so that, even when they know you're pretending, the audience can find something to believe in. Which is why American actors spend years studying The Method, a grab bag of memory techniques for producing real emotions in make-believe situations. The Method is responsible for three generations of American film actors -- Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Sean Penn -- whose considerable cash value rests in their ability to lend authenticity and authority to the contrived, stylized events of a commercial movie.

Although almost universally employed these days, The Method is neither the only nor the best way to hone a performance; over time, one gets a bit tired, watching basically the same character navel-gaze his way through one production after the other.

In fact, an effective Canadian alternative to The Method was developed 30 years ago by Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, under the direction of the hobbit-like nationalist, Paul Thompson.

To create The Farm Show, a troupe of actors spent months in a farming community in Southern Ontario, collecting stories from the locals while learning, literally, to impersonate the individuals involved.

The show opened in Ray Bird's barn near Listowel, in front of the people they were mimicking. Thus, The Farm Show, while outwardly an uneven collage, on another level became a metaphor for Thompson's view of what Canadian theatre could be -- a useful activity in which the people of a community, or a country for that matter, find a kind of empowerment (sorry, can't think of a better word) by watching a reflection of themselves.

These thoughts occurred to me as I watched Michael Healey's wonderful play, The Drawer Boy,in which a callow young actor from Toronto enters the lives of two Southern Ontario farmers in order to put on something like The Farm Show;in the process, he inadvertently uncovers a devastating back-story, which the two brothers have kept secret from each other and from themselves.

One of the brothers, who suffers from a wartime brain injury, after seeing himself on-stage begins to remember things which were previously inaccessible. This is a lot like what goes on when somebody steps up and starts speaking like your grandfather who died when you were 10 -- which happened to me the first time I watched The Farm Show many years ago; indeed, this subtext of released memory was for me as much a part of the play as what happened on-stage.

The cast of The Drawer Boy, luckily for the Vancouver audience, included two veterans of the Passe Muraille method. As a result, spectators who hadn't ventured within a thousand miles of Huron County could sense the reality base that David Fox and Jerry Franken were replicating, not memories of their troubled childhood, but portraits of real people, packed with observed details, each detail capable of sparking a recollection in the observer. Seated in the audience, one could almost hear the memories clicking away, as each spectator provided his or her subtext to this outwardly simple little play.

The Passe Muraille method had a remarkable 20-year legacy in small theatres all across the country and in TV shows such as SCTV, CODCO and This Hour has 22 Minutes; but like so many uniquely Canadian approaches to life, it is on the way out.

For one thing, unless one has a particular affection for Shakespeare, Shaw and the American musical, no actor can expect to make a living in Canadian theatre these days. Instead, a Canadian actor's bread and butter is in playing supporting roles for American film and TV (the Concerned Friend, the Irate Citizen), in which "too Canadian" is the kiss of death; and in voice-over work, for which the "Martin Sheen sound" or the "Julia Roberts sound" are to be assiduously cultivated. Walk into an audition with the Huron County sound, and you might as well be speaking Swahili.

In the commercial film industry, should reality be required, producers rely upon specialists such as Bruce Willis or Michelle Pfeiffer to search their hearts once again, while the supporting cast is expected to produce convincing tributes to American character actors they admire.

Following the performance of The Drawer Boy, I went backstage to say great show; Franken, who has been performing the part of the elder brother for over three years, replied: "The funny thing is, we're not tired of it yet. The show feels really good to do, so we've decided to keep doing it as long as people want us to."

Well they should. These days, it's not often a Canadian actor finds useful work.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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A modest expansion-league proposal for our army
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Wednesday, February 13, 2002 – Page R4

As I watch our men and women of the armed forces waiting to hitch a ride to Afghanistan, there to take orders from a superior power that makes up the rules as it goes along, outfitted in arboreal camouflage for duty in what appears to be an arid, mountainous terrain, and with what appear to be Rastafarian hairpieces attached to their helmets, I wonder why it is that some enterprising conservative think tank, the Fraser Institute perhaps, has not come up with a plan for privatizing and outsourcing our national defence capability, in partnership with the private sector.

At the end of the Second World War, Canada stood as the fourth-strongest military power in the world, behind the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union. This anomaly not only became a tremendous source of national pride in the 1950s, it lent disproportionate muscle to our status as a diplomatic "honest broker" in, say, the Suez crisis, which in turn brought home, for example, the Nobel Peace Prize.

Heady days, to be sure. But times change. Do they ever. The last time I remember the Canadian armed forces playing a role in national defence was as an emergency crew during the Quebec ice crisis and as snow shovellers for Toronto mayor Mel Lastman. Otherwise, our troops seem to function as good-will mercenaries, dispatched to some flash point in Africa, the Balkans or Asia to play some poorly defined role with varying success, so that Canada can justify, sort of, our membership in the G8. For this we maintain tanks, fighter planes, destroyers and a byzantine bureaucracy, 365 days a year?

As it is with trade, culture and medicine, in rethinking the subject of defence, it is important not to become distracted by outdated nationalist sentiments. Instead, think of a standing army as though it were a professional sports team. There was a time when players for the Toronto Maple Leafs came from Toronto, and players for the Montreal Canadiens came from Montreal; hence, when the team enjoyed a successful season, it produced a kind of semi-ethnic pride, as if something about the city's streets, schools, arenas and other institutions had produced a winner.

Fifty years ago, it would have been inconceivable to, say, a Vancouver hockey fan that one day Vancouverites would cheer for a team, none of whose players so much as set a skate in the city until they were drafted.

Surely it is not a huge conceptual leap to imagine, say, the Princess Patricia Regiment, not as an extension of the Canadian government, but as a brand name like the Vancouver Canucks, whose members are recruited from the international marketplace of talent, then assembled, equipped and trained by a private firm -- which would then contract with the Government of Canada to compete on our behalf in whichever international arenas our government, or more likely, the Pentagon, deems necessary.

If no such emergency exists for the moment, the Princess Pats would then be free to fight for somebody else, producing not only a significant cost saving for Canada, but the assurance of battle-readiness, should the need arise.

Already there are a number of models and precedents for the private-sector approach. For example, the Pentagon has hired military experts from a Virginia-based company called Military Professional Resources Inc. to help make the army of Colombia more professional and effective in fighting the drug wars.

As well, a number of security firms have sprung up to serve the post-Cold War era; for example, a brief Internet search unearthed Pretoria-based Executive Outcomes, which markets its expertise in achieving regional security and stability through the deployment of trained and experienced military personnel, providing services in armoured warfare, battle strategies, clandestine warfare, combat air patrol, medical aid, sniper training and special forces. The company is in many respects already better-equipped than Canada.

Thus far in its corporate history, Executive Outcomes has seen action primarily in Africa -- for example in Angola, whose foreign-owned oil-production facilities the company secured in the 1990s for a fee of about $30-million (U.S.). This suggests the attractive possibility that, should it become necessary to hire forces for such an operation in our name, the Canadian government might in turn bill the corporation whose interests are being protected. Once again, the public and private sectors, joining hands for a better world.

Of course, nobody likes the word "mercenary." Historically, it implies the existence of soldiers who fight for reasons other than love of country. But why should such an expectation apply to the military and not, say, to our natural-resource industries or financial services? Are they not just as vital to our national interests? It seems inconsistent, to say the least, to apply protectionist assumptions to one area of Canadian life and not to another.

Of course, should Canadians balk at the notion of, say, a War Measures Act in which the troops dispatched to Montreal are from South Africa, we might consider the concept of a two-tier system, in which Canada maintains a small, gentle, home-grown fighting force for domestic use.

Equipped, sans doute, with state-of-the-art snow shovels.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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We're stubborn about life and death
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Wednesday, February 6, 2002 – Page R3

A man's a man for a' that.
Robert Burns
Looking back at Canada in the early 21st century, a lively topic for future historians will be the population's stubborn adherence to the concept of a publicly funded, equally accessible medical system, despite the hectoring of politicians and the media, despite Canada's semi-colonial status vis-à-vis the United States, despite the prevailing ideological current sweeping the globe.

It's not as though Canadians are unwilling participants in the global economy. We shop enthusiastically at Starbucks and the Gap, and consume global entertainment products with relish. Most of us vote for parties whose platforms rest on a foundation of weaker, smaller government, whose rhetoric extols the virtues of free markets and global capital. The party of Tommy Douglas is almost universally regarded as a declining, if not a spent, force. We readily accept unequal access to essential commodities such as housing, food and education; we eagerly buy cars, houses, watches and health-club memberships for their promise of implied superiority over our fellow human beings.

So what is it about medicare? People, what's the issue here?

If you want to find the root of a prevailing attitude, often it can be found in early immigration patterns. In this case, I refer to the waves of settlement, beginning in the early 19th century, of three generations of uprooted Celts, whose overlords, or lairds, for various reasons, saw fit to drive their tenants from their ancestral lands; who, in their turn, puked their way across the Atlantic and hiked inland until they found a landscape that looked as much like home as possible, then founded villages -- little self-contained societies whose members planned to continue as they had left off, minus the accursed lairds, for generation after generation.

People who plan to stay in a place behave differently from people who plan to move on. For one thing, the social stakes are higher -- if only because conflicts can continue for generations. Moreover, the clan system of family alliances meant that if you made one enemy, you made a hundred. Under these circumstances, businessmen had to rub elbows with farmers and talk their language; lawyers and schoolteachers had to be able to make reasonable conversation with carpenters, or their house wouldn't get built.

The Scots who populated rural Canada, together with their volumes of Sir Walter Scott and Burns, their recipes for blood pudding and their precious heritage of resentment going back to William Wallace, knew the consequences of long-term rancour and unspecified malice, how they can erupt without warning to devastating effect. They were similarly conscious of the long-term consequences of economic disparity, which in one generation becomes unearned poverty and unearned wealth and, a few decades later, becomes a caste system, virtually unbridgeable, short of cutting off someone's head.

In the interests of long-term self-preservation, they developed a set of unspoken rules, an ethic of modesty and egalitarianism best expressed by that all-Canadian rhetorical question: Who do you think you are?

Eventually, of course, succeeding generations moved to towns and cities; but that didn't mean they lost the village attitude. This is why, for example, you'll see a pedestrian standing at a deserted intersection in Toronto at 4 a.m., waiting for the walk sign. It's not that he's afraid of being arrested; it's that crossing the street against the light would amount to a declaration that he thinks himself entitled to a privilege denied other pedestrians at other times -- leaving him open to that devastating question: Who do you think you are?

If such an attitude can prevail on the issue of street etiquette, is it any wonder that it has kept its hold over an institution dealing with injury and sickness? Not to mention death -- that great leveller whose scythe cuts even the tallest of us down to ground level.

Which gives rise to the general Canadian response to arguments for "choice" in health care: Just because you have more money than I do, by what measure is your broken leg more painful or your cancer more urgent? Given the variety of ways people come by the money they possess, by what measure is your life more valuable? Who do you think you are?

In other words, the position isn't political or economic or ideological. It's existential. Hence, the futility of the argument that the rich can simply go to a U.S. hospital, thereby creating a two-tier system in any case. This is like saying that because it's a fact that Canadians become stars in the U.S., it follows that we should have a star system in Canada.

Only, we don't -- because the star or the patient who has gone to the States has left the village. The assumption of inequality isn't in our face. It's not part of us.

In conducting the current debate over medicare (with some social engineering into the bargain), the challenge for well-heeled political, corporate and media types is not to convince Canadians that it is practical or necessary to put aside the concept of a publicly funded, equally accessible health-care system -- but to provide an acceptable answer to the all-Canadian question: Who the hell do you think you are?
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Farewell to radio's last honest man
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Wednesday, January 30, 2002 – Page R3

Never have I thought that I was
the happy
possessor of a "talent"; my sole
concern has
been to save myself by work
and faith.
Jean-Paul Sartre
Someone once said that "a conservative is someone who thinks nothing should happen for the first time." A cruel generalization and an outmoded one, equally applicable to today's Liberals and NDP -- and especially to radio broadcasting. This once-lively communications medium has become so debased that, other than the pitchman and the phone-in gripemeister, there is really no place on radio for broadcasters at all.

Except, that is, on the CBC.

For Peter Gzowski, broadcasting on CBC radio was not a job so much as an existential position, as if he were a member of an endangered species working for the Sierra Club. Like a great, tattered bird, he existed most fully on-air; the CBC was the only game preserve available; creature and habitat became effectively one and the same.

His forays into TV were at best a pale reflection of his radio work, at worst a fiasco, and he knew it. In the dozen or so sentences of off-air conversation we exchanged, the subject of 90 Minutes Live came up several times, introduced by him, apropos of not much. It seemed to prey on his mind, not with the rueful embarrassment that usually accompanies a show-business failure, but with a kind of shame -- as though, by allowing himself to be cosmetically "made over" for another medium, he had committed some sort of betrayal.

Perhaps as a result of the experience, Gzowski consciously became the polar opposite of an actor: In performance, he was more himself than he was in life. On-air, he was all curious energy, utterly in the present tense, literally all there; off-air, he struck me as a shy, complicated, prickly sort of a fellow (takes one to know one) who flinched whenever someone pronounced his name wrong.

Perhaps this is why I become annoyed when well-meaning commentators turn his death into an antismoking commercial. Yes, smoking is a terrible habit, but the man smoked for a reason. Even back in the 1960s, nobody sucked back three-and-a-half packs of coffin nails a day without underlying issues. Our man wasn't a smoker, he was a human incense burner. If he hadn't smoked, he would have been a different person.

Besides, when an honourable man dies it is the height of arrogance to suggest he should have lived his life differently.

Physically, the word "rumpled" does not adequately describe the Gzowski style. "Derelict" is more like it. No wonder he retained such fondness for that rat-infested wreck of a studio on Toronto's Jarvis Street: It suited his outfit, down to the aviator glasses he sported long past their best-before date.

Of our dozens of on-air conversations, the best took place over a broadcast-quality phone line thousands of kilometres apart, when the exchange wasn't complicated by being physically in the same room. In fact, I think that was his fundamental insight about radio: that there is only one listener on the other end of the line; that the broadcast is, for all intents and purposes, a phone conversation. Hence the light baritone, a slight rasp giving it depth and edge. He made no attempt to reproduce the DJ honk or the FM murmur or the newsman's stentorian bellow; he used the tone and inflection a normal person uses over the phone.

No wonder people wept when Morningside went off the air. Someone who had been phoning on a daily basis wouldn't call again. As our man put it when describing his post-TV slump: "Boy, can the phone ever not ring."

Speaking of which, in 30 years of dabbling in the cultural industries I have seen many of my most talented colleagues fail, and usually for the same reason: because they weren't content to do what they did well. The arts scene is littered with the whimpering remains of singers who want to be songwriters, models who want to act, painters who want to write novels and comedians who want to be taken seriously. Most of us are so whipped by the work ethic, we distrust things we accomplish without effort. (No pain, no gain.) When performers fail, usually it's not because they're lazy but because they try too hard, foreheads glistening with flop sweat, smiling bravely, bewildered by the lack of an appreciative response.

Gzowski made that mistake -- once. As the wunderkind of broadcast journalism, he tried to be a TV star, experienced failure for the first time, returned to CBC Radio, and became synonymous with the medium. (When he ventured back into television with Gzowski and Co., the show was so heavily laced with voice-over narration, it was like radio with pictures.)

As a broadcaster, he maintained an attitude most listeners interpreted as humility but which was nothing of the sort. It was the ego of a natural, authentic craftsman whose standards are higher than those of his employer, and whose primary motive is to satisfy himself.

When Mordechai Richler died last year, Gzowski described the author as "the last honest man." The same could be said about him.

jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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My dramatic revelation in old East Berlin
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Wednesday, January 23, 2002 – Page R1

Now my friends the moral of this
show is
Excrescence calls for proper
diagnosis
Spoken not in academic words
But common speech that calls
a turd a turd.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Reading Kate Taylor's interesting piece on the Manitoba Theatre Centre's Brechtfest and its struggles with the so-called "alienation effect" took me back to a time long ago when, as a theatre tourist in East Berlin, I took in a production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Berliner Ensemble, and in the process received a lesson in audience relations.

About a block from the "antifascist wall," our miserable little Wartburg Skoda belched its way past the Brandenburg Gate, down Unter Den Linden Strasse to Bertolt Brecht Platz, containing a classic West End-style theatre -- prison grey outside but a real jewel box inside, all marble and gilt and turned hardwood and red velvet. It cost about two dollars to get in.

On stage stood four glass cases containing life-size, Madame Tussaud-like wax dummies of Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Hindenburg, for the audience to contemplate while waiting for the curtain -- or were the figures contemplating us? The lights changed, the show began, and out from behind the wax dummies stepped the actors who would represent them -- their uniforms in rags, faces made up like something out of Night of the Living Dead, as though their corpses had been dug up for the occasion to perform roles under assumed names -- Ui, Givola, Civi, Dogsborough -- but with no doubt as to whom they represented.

Written in about three weeks at the height of Hitler's power, Arturo Ui chronicles the title character's brutal rise to dominate the Chicago greengrocer industry. The title role was played by the great Ekhard Schall, an actor-acrobat-clown in the European style who knew 50 ways to fall out of a chair and, in the course of the play, did. Der Fuhrer's mustache was rendered, not as the familiar smear below the nose, but as a two-inch projection from the upper lip. Seen in profile, it wagged like the bill of a duck.

And so for the next couple of hours we watched the story of this clown-cum-Richard III, whose power derives not from guile or charisma but from the inability of the citizens of "Chicago" to see and act beyond their own self-interest. Not exactly flattering to the Berlin audience, many of whom were old enough to have seen the man himself -- yet they roared with laughter. From this I learned that laughter can signify many things, with varying degrees of lightheartedness: In this case it joined sneezing and barfing as an involuntary recognition of an inescapable truth.

Came the finale, Nazi-style upraised fists commemorating Arturo Ui's triumph over greengrocerdom in America. The actors froze. Ui stepped forward, whipped off his mustache -- and suddenly it wasn't Ui any more but Schall the human being, performing a deadpan epilogue about the role of inaction and apathy in the triumph of Hitler. Rather, he didn't perform the speech so much as he dropped it like a stone in a pool of water:
Thus we learn to see, not just
to gape,
To act instead of talking all
day long.
The world was almost won by such
an ape!. . .

Nobody will ever accuse Brecht of oversubtlety -- and yet obviousness can be a virtue when executed at a level of proficiency and panache which is practically unknown in North America. (No mystery here -- I met a director from another city researching an upcoming production of The Threepenny Opera, which he planned to rehearse for six months.)

We exited the theatre and walked to Alexanderplatz through this dark, utterly colonized city, past mounds of unreconstructed rubble, past the Russian soldiers and the Vopos and the secret police and the toad-like women in glass booths, with the Wall only a block away -- the legacy of the man we were just laughing at.

That's when the "alienation effect" suddenly made sense to me -- that its intention in the theatre was to achieve its opposite in real life. By short-circuiting the escapist instinct, Brecht wanted his audience to walk the streets of Berlin with a certain clarity as to how things got this way -- or at least with the basis for a good argument -- and, by implication, how things might change.

In pursuing my subsequent so-called career in Canadian theatre, two things stuck with me ever since:

(1) Just because a society is dysfunctional, it does not follow that it is wrong in every way, and that we have nothing to learn from it.

(2) A theatre's strength derives from its capacity to address a specific audience, otherwise it's live cinema.

If there exists a certain lack of excitement in Canadian regional theatre today, a lack of buzz over the current season, it might have to do with the managerial tactic known as the "co-production," in which two or more theatres share costs by presenting the same show. By failing to connect a specific performance with a specific time and place, co-productions leave out of account the most compelling reason people might have for attending. By solving their financial problems in this way, Canadian regional theatres may have accomplished an "alienation effect" all their own.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Third World lessons in better living
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Wednesday, January 16, 2002 – Page R3

I recently returned from Thailand only to read of Stockwell Day blaming his political misfortunes on "elites." (Who in Canada merits that description if not the leader of the official opposition?) Having suffered a mild depression as a result, if you don't mind I think I'll talk about Thailand a while longer.

Canadians hear little about that excellent country, which is unfortunate, because if we did, we might discern elements both familiar and instructive. Chiang Mai is a startling city (founded in 1296). About the size of Vancouver, it's located near the Burmese border, and is surrounded by mountains and rainforest. Unlike Vancouver (founded somewhat later), Chiang Mai has no youth gangs, no graffiti, and its 300 temples, full of priceless objects, are left open and nobody trashes them; unlike Vancouver, Chiang Mai has a decent jazz radio station.

As well, unlike its Canadian counterpart, Chiang Mai has no public-transit system to go on strike and paralyze the city. Instead, people get to and from work by car, scooter (carrying remarkable numbers of passengers and, in one case I witnessed, a refrigerator), bicycle rickshaw and red truck -- a kind of open van with bench seats that takes you where you want to go cheap, picking up other passengers along the way.

Exotic, true, yet your homesick Canadian has only to open The Bangkok Post to feel right at home: State railway governor dismissed on charges of inefficiency and corruption; head of government business-development organization removed on suspicion of "mismanagement"; "alleged irregularities" in the government's rubber-price intervention scheme; national telecommunications commission makes "inappropriate" concessions to company owned by the Prime Minister -- all familiar, cozy stuff.

In his New Year's speech, I am told, the King excoriated the government over rampant conflict of interest. Unlike in Canada, the royal figurehead was not denounced in editorials for stepping out of line; on the contrary, the King is universally admired for doing precisely that.

While in Chiang Mai, we spent a fair amount of time in the temples, which are open to all and require the visitor neither to pay money nor to join up. In a 14th-century temple 1,600 metres up a mountain, an elderly monk tied a piece of string around our wrists, sprinkled us with water, said a blessing in Thai that left us feeling strangely uplifted, and asked for nothing in return. Such an experience is, as far as I know, unavailable in Canada without payment of a substantial stipend and/or a declaration of faith.

Other temples contain, in addition to ancient Buddhas, murals containing vivid, if alarming, metaphors for the human condition, in the Asian equivalent of Dante's Inferno. In one of these, a person is depicted bashing his brains out with a mallet, while another literally eats his guts out; the image will no doubt strike a chord with newspaper columnists and other members of the writing fraternity.

My favourite of these symbolic representations features a man suspended in a tree, holding onto a branch for dear life. Unfortunately for him, the trunk of the tree is studded with sharp spikes: The spikes below him are angled up, those above him angled down. To make matters worse, two vultures are perched on the branch, going at his hands and wrists.

Now there's a cautionary metaphor for Mr. Day, or Ms. McDonough, or Mr. Chrétien -- or, for that matter, anyone who would scale the heights of corporate or political success. Sooner or later, you reach a point where you can't go up, you can't go down, and vultures are pecking at your wrists. Congratulations.

The perimeter of another temple, which I call the Temple of Opaque Aphorisms, contains a series of uplifting messages in two languages, the English only enhanced by an idiosyncratic translation:

Don't keep a dog and bark yourself.

Take care of used to good salt.

A honey tongue, a heart of call.

If we make pilgrimmage the pagoda our born annual during we have a life sustain it is believe that we have got a merit and to be lived.

Now there's a thought -- that a person might have merit and significance simply by being alive, which deserves to be noted. In Thailand it seems to inspire an attitude. Despite the fact that the country has the same problems as Canada times 10; that 531 people died in car accidents over the holiday weekend; that up to 200,000 children work as prostitutes; despite the stray dogs (stray elephants for that matter) and the pollution and institutionalized corruption, ordinary Thais go about their business, however marginal, with humour and curiosity and a refreshing absence of envy, which I can only attribute to a richness of spiritual resources that puts Alberta's fossil fuels to shame.

Frankly, in terms of what we make of what we have, I am no longer convinced, if I ever was, that Canada is da best country in da world (nor is the USA, I hasten to add). In attempting (out of pure self-interest) to create a more balanced and harmonious relationship with less wealthy countries, perhaps North Americans need to ask ourselves not what we can do for them, but what they can do for us.

As a start, particularly in our relationships with our big brother to the south, Canadians might wish to fasten upon the fridge the following quote gleaned from the Temple of Opaque Aphorisms in Chiang Mai. To wit: Envy is the sorrow of fools.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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Only the dogs snarl in tolerant Thailand
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Wednesday, January 9, 2002 – Page R1

BANGKOK -- So far, the trip to Thailand has influenced the New Year's resolutions of this Canadian in interesting ways -- mostly having to do with our obscene carping over taxes, health care, competitiveness and the rest of it.

We Canadians know nothing about air and water pollution, traffic congestion, income disparity, sexual exploitation, crime or any other urban problem, really. Our complaints over our lot in life vis-à-vis the USA are akin to a tycoon feeling underprivileged because he lacks a title.

Designer labels and other global symbols take on a whole new meaning when sold on a sidewalk market by an elderly woman whose neighbour is an armless man with a styrofoam cup in his teeth.

Talk about competitiveness: The absence of anything like a social safety net has inspired local entrepreneurs to new heights of salesmanship, and the most penny-ante street vendor goes about his task with the exaggerated exuberance of an afternoon game-show host. The handshake is the most common sales hook, Thais having absorbed the fact that, for farangs (foreigners), refusing to shake hands is a big decision. Once you do, of course, they just kind of hold on.

Nor do you want to spend too much time gazing into a men's shop window or, before you know it, someone has bounced out the door to shake your hand, has gently pulled you inside, and you are being fitted for a suit and a half-dozen shirts.

Yet it is all so civilized. Refusals are accepted with philosophical equanimity, leaving one with the uneasy feeling that, whether or not the pitch is bought, the buyer has exploited the salesman and not the other way around.

Speaking of exploitation, I can never quite get used to the omnipresent sight of overfed, white, middle-aged gentlemen wandering the streets and bars while holding hands with tiny, stoical women or transvestite "lady boys" a third their age.

Southern Thais are handsome people with little body fat. These revolting May-December pairings represent, if not the worst kind of imperialism, certainly the ugliest -- the Ugly American, the Ugly Euro, the Ugly Japanese and, yes, the Ugly Canadian too.

Oddly, you never see older women pairing with young boys or girls, suggesting that North American women have a more finely tuned sense of the grotesque.

Certainly, the Thais have no reason to complain about the level of taxation, if we are to judge by the price of those two essential urban fluids, alcohol and gasoline. Cigarettes are likewise inexpensive, and there is no finger-wagging about passive smoking -- smog levels being what they are, who would notice the difference?

At the same time, a Mike Harris user-pay approach to highway construction has produced a virtual two-tier city, with huge eight-lane toll freeways high overhead, funnelling commuters into narrow streets below, joining the tuk-tuks and bicycle rickshaws and creating an urban ambiance, which, I am told, inspired the art direction of the movie Blade Runner.

Beneath the freeways, amid the concrete pillars and the perpetual gridlock, men and women sidle back and forth with bamboo sticks over their shoulders with a staggering load on either end. I am told that their shoulder bones are grooved to accommodate this ancient device. After a day walking in Bangkok, I can feel nothing but admiration for these people who can carry on so diligently with so little upside to life.

Adding an Orwellian touch are the ubiquitous portraits of the King -- a handsome man, remarkably well preserved, wearing Western clothes, outdated spectacles and a benevolent expression of pained forbearance. Not to be shallow, for the man is universally adored here, yet one wonders about the dating of these photos, one of which features the King in the company of Elvis Presley and Juliet Prowse.

In the end, it doesn't take long for even this callow farang to suspect that the Thais are doing the old global two-step -- living a hyphenated existence not dissimilar to the one Canadians are trying to get our heads around, with better success and more dignity and under vastly more difficult conditions -- and that, despite Calvin Klein and Colonel Sanders and Starbucks, Thailand remains a deeply Buddhist society.

Road rage? In five days of roaming the most congested streets in the world, I have yet to hear a voice raised in anger.

Nor have I encountered a single instance of the all-Canadian scolding we give each other about 20 times a day for minor mistakes and infractions -- in streets whose land divisions and speed limits are theoretical at best.

And it's about the dogs and cats. They're everywhere and they seem to belong to nobody; nor is there an SPCA to "put them to sleep." Unlike in Canada, where animals are either feral and feared or domesticated and tame, in Thailand neither seems to be the case. Instead, they seem to lead a parallel existence under conditions of complete tolerance and to respond accordingly, neither shrinking nor snarling but going about their business in a state of benign neutrality that has no parallel in North America.

I am told there is one exception to this rule: People returning from Vietnam who have partaken of some of that nation's favourite dishes are invariably met with a hostile canine response. As my informant put it: "The dogs can tell when you've been eating dog."

The latter statement has the ring of a profound truth with global implications, but I haven't yet figured out what they are.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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In the present tense, let's look to the future
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By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
  
  

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Wednesday, January 2, 2002 – Page R1

It being the season for massive generalizations about the state of world, let me try your patience with my current theory of character and incident, otherwise known as Art and Life.

It all came back to me when I made a switch in my so-called career, from writing plays to writing novels. In preparation I thought it might be a good idea to read a few, and the first thing that struck me was that nearly all novels are written in the past tense. I had to assume this was deliberate, for some novelists go to great lengths to justify the past tense, placing the action in the context of found letters, diaries, deathbed confessions and all the rest of it.

The device has an odd effect on the reader's perception of time, in that, within the framework of the narrative, past and present are both in the past, and the future does not exist.

Why do that? Because this is how people tend to see normal life -- an approach we might call the "push theory," in which the present is caused by the past, the way dominoes topple one another, on and on, into the future. Therefore if you want to understand what's happening and where we're going, it has to be in terms of the past. Newspapers are monuments to the push theory, describing what just happened, then projecting past events into a future trend, with the journalist as historian and the columnist as oracle.

The upside of the push theory is that it enables us to explain what is happening in terms of something we know (nouns are more comforting than question marks); the downside is (1) it suggests a psychological and historical inevitability; (2) it tends to deaden life experience, and (3) it undermines individual responsibility.

This is what angered readers and editors whenever writers tried to explain the events of 9/11 in historical terms. Such writers were accused of "blaming the victim" -- an inane charge, when what really offended people was that such historical explanations failed to hold the terrorist responsible and even seemed to justify what he did.

In other words, the push theory, sometimes known as cause and effect, has become neither satisfying nor productive. Which may be because it isn't true.

What if cause and effect is all an illusion -- not unlike the illusion that the wind "blows," when in fact it is air being sucked into a vacuum? What if the present is caused by the future?

This not a new idea -- in fact it is the essence of modernism.

Einstein claimed his ideas came from the future, an intuitive leap he termed a gift from God. When Marcel Duchamp painted a nude descending a staircase, the result was not a record of something in the past, but a portrayal of the present, moving toward the future. When Miles Davis played Round Midnight,he didn't play the piece over and over as written; he used it as a basis for being drawn forward, out of the established melodic structure and into the unknown.

In the modernist world-view, people do not make decisions because something happened in the past, but because they are drawn to a vision in the future. That is, I suppose, why Molly Bloom's soliloquy in Ulysses is uniquely in the present tense.

Taking a modernist approach, the events of 9/11, like all acts of war, took place not because of historical grievances, but because two cultures have conflicting visions of the future. Victory over terrorism therefore will be achieved, not by changing the past, but by changing the future.

Like a Mies building, modernism is practical and results-oriented: The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians will not be resolved by justifying the past, but by looking at what is possible. Aboriginal issues will not be resolved by apologizing or compensating, but by forming a shared idea of what the future might be like. Personal problems are not solved by reviewing past traumas, but by imagining something better.
Skillful decision-making does not entail rational calculation on the basis of known facts, so much as a sensitivity to the manner and direction in which one is being pulled.

In a way, modernism was nothing more than a purposeful form of wishful thinking, and in North America it all came to a head during the sixties when, rather than die in defence of the domino theory, American kids started hallucinating a better future as a basis for political change.

Then sometime around 1980, we gave up on the future. Political and cultural nostalgia, economic and religious fundamentalism took over -- trends having to do with the idea that at some point we took a wrong turn, and that things will continue to get worse until we retrace our steps and change direction.

If the sixties and seventies hallucinated the future, the eighties and nineties hallucinated the past. Ronald Reagan epitomized this trend; listening to him was like sitting in Dad's easy chair. Jean Chrétien, with his insistence on "preserving Canadian values," is another example -- no matter how we feel about Trudeau Liberalism, it's better than the unknown.

Fine, except that somewhere in the nineties, we began to run out of past to hallucinate. Because the past is by definition finite, retro can only take so many forms. There are only so many possible variations on the three-button suit. There can only be so many reruns and sequels and tribute albums. When it comes to political leadership, there can only be so many versions of the Kennedys and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. When it comes to enemies, there can be only so many Hitlers.

Sooner or later it was bound to happen. Sooner or later you get tired of the past as a basis for everything. Sooner or later you run out of Paxil. Sooner or later nostalgia loses its charm.

So here's my prediction for 2002: North Americans are going to look to the future again, and engage in some wishful thinking. We are going to relearn how to dream.
jmgray@globeandmail.ca


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A Canadian actor: Nice work if you can stand it
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Wednesday, September 5, 2001 – Page R3

For a taste of what it must have felt like to be a labourer in the Dirty Thirties -- nose pressed against the factory gate waiting for the day's hiring call, ready to tug your forelock for anyone in a suit -- try to make a living as a Canadian actor.

Amid the upheavals of the past decade, one might have expected the art least affected to be that of the thespian, whose contribution is a response to a script and not the creation of it, and is therefore less affected by changes in the repertoire.

Whether one plays Shakespeare or Beckett, the job is substantially the same.

And yet, speak to a Canadian actor without a Los Angeles address and the tone of dismay is on the level of, "What have I done with my life?"

The problem is, and has always been, that an actor works with words and meaning. If she is to grow and improve, content matters. This where an actor differs from, say, a producer of TV commercials.

During the 1970s and 1980s, when acting first became sort of viable, your Canadian actor did his serious work in some converted garage or funeral parlour, supplementing this meagre income with commercials, voice-overs, the CBC and the occasional role in a regional theatre. Hardly a licence to print money, yet it afforded the possibility of both meaning and a living, albeit in separate compartments. The industrial work thus functioned as a hidden subsidy, enabling the actor to grow through work that provided $250 a week and a dressing room from the SPCA.

Not any more. Thanks to free trade, commercials from the USA need no longer be voiced for the Canadian market, meaning that commercial work has greatly receded and the competition is fierce. And I don't have to tell you about the CBC.

Even regional theatre work has dried up significantly. In response to grant cutbacks in the deficit years, hardly a theatre in Canada has failed to double its management with the addition of departments of corporate begging, while halving its schedule by means of "co-productions," in which as many as five theatre companies share the costs of a single show.

Sure, your actor can still find meaning and a three-figure salary on the fringe; but supplementary revenue streams have become a pathetic rivulet. All but one: the much heralded "boom" in which American film and TV companies take advantage of the devalued beaverbuck.

As in theatre, the film and TV industry has undergone a structural shift in response to current trends; in the case of the latter this has spawned a production philosophy in which what is crucial to success is not the performance of the people who produce the product, but the planning of the people who manage them.

In film and TV, management has adopted a behaviourist, determinist philosophy in which what is sought from the supporting actor is not brilliance but solidity -- the ability to fill a part the way concrete fills a hole. Brilliance and self-expression have been compartmentalized in the role of the star -- one of maybe 20 actor-model-personalities, mythologized into two-dimensional gods and goddesses, who bless the production with their sacred aura and the following it attracts in exchange for an eight-figure stipend.

Supporting actors and cameos (the place of your Canadian in the firmament), meanwhile, operate as generic functional units: the Concerned Friend ("He's still breathing!"), the No-nonsense Official ("Just the facts, Ma'am."), the Public Coward ("We'll all be killed!"), the General Slut ("Hey, fella, wanna dance?") and so on.

Actors auditioning for these roles are expected to arrive with a final performance, ready to be photographed. Rehearsals are out of the question. A friend once auditioned for a supporting role whose sex had been changed at the last moment; other than the name of the character, not a syllable had been altered.

In response to this fact of life, Canadian actors develop a repertoire of general characters to bring to the audition, regardless of situation or period or anything else. The principal acting challenge lies in simulating that spark of keenness -- a quality management interprets as excitement over the project and the desire to give it one's all, and not what it really is, a desire to pay the rent.

Nice work if you can get it. Nice work if you can stand it.

One of the ways in which artists can be useful to a society, besides the value of the content they produce, is that their place in the social hierarchy attests to the value we put on creativity and innovation in other areas as well. In this case, the lot of the actor may provide an analogy with various industrial pursuits, and help explain why Canada ranks so poorly in innovation and R&D.

If this is so, then the "brain drain" to worry about may not be an outflow of Canadian talent to the U.S., but rather a kind of internal hemorrhage -- the loss of vitality which occurs when one is being managed to death.

johngray@telus.net


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