We have an election coming up here in British Columbia, and as with previous elections, I find myself thinking of War and Peace.
Like the guy in the Alka-Seltzer commercial, I can hardly believe I read the whole thing. It’s a real bug-crusher and I have ADD; and I admit I almost gave up over the last 20 pages, when he started preaching.
Even so, many other “great” books have languished by my bedside. With Anna Karenina I never got past the scene where the race-horse breaks a leg. Bleak House has defeated me several times, though I live in hope. And let’s not talk about Proust; it doesn’t seem to make any difference where you open Swann’s Way, it’s like getting into a bath and getting out when it turns cold.
But with War and Peace I just kept going and going - because it kept serving up insights.
It’s basically a romance built around the Napoleonic wars, in which events aren’t determined by Great Leaders but by mysterious cultural/spiritual movements of masses of people, obeying underlying currents none of us understand. (It’s almost Jungian, come to think about it; the Collective Unconscious and all that.)
For example, there’s an astonishing battle scene in which the “losing” general does everything right, and the “winning” general does everything wrong. And then there’s this priceless image about politics:
Tolstoy envisages the leader of a country (or province or whatever) as a man in a small boat, situated just ahead of a huge ship (a bitumen oil tanker maybe), joined to the larger vessel by a slender pole. As long as the seas are calm, the “leader” can convince him/herself that the progress of the ship depends entirely on him/her; that if he/she wasn’t sitting in that little boat pointing the way, the ship would founder and sink.
But sooner or later, the seas get rough, a storm comes up, and the slender pole joining rowboat and ship breaks; the two vessels go their separate ways, and the “leader” is revealed for what he/she always was – mostly irrelevant.
When I first read that it put me back to the late 1970s, when the “developed world” faced an oil crises and something called “stagflation,” and world interest rates hit 20%. In every election during that period, the incumbents - Right, Left or Centre - were defeated. It wasn’t about Reagan or Thatcher or Trudeau or any other leader we like to blame or credit. Like the hosts of game shows and the port-a-vents on a 1950s Buick, they didn’t cause anything, really.
None of which is an argument for not voting.
Rather, it’s an argument for ignoring candidates’ claims over what they’ll do for The Economy (whatever that is), for Families (whatever they mean by that), or global warming, or any of the myriad “communities” they want to manipulate. We all know that, whoever wins, the week after the election, the place will run more or less the same.
The civil service, teachers, doctors, nurses and garbage collectors will continue to do their jobs as best they can, with what they have. Business “leaders” will continue to use their power to get more money for their shareholders and themselves, supported by corporate media. Global warming will continue, driven by global forces.
So why not vote existentially? Meaning, as an exercise in self-expression. Why not vote for the candidate/party that seems to represent the better version of how ordinary people should behave to each other?
Then, when they disappoint you – and they will - at least you didn’t disappoint yourself.
Every so often, Hughes and I get into a Big Issue – what’s it all about, where’s it headed, that sort of thing. I don’t know why. Nothing ever comes of it.
The upshot of this discussion was that the Big Issue of our day is extinctions - in the plural.
Right now we are witnessing two parallel extinctions - of bio-diversity and of cultural diversity. Oddly, the extinction of species and the extinction of languages and cultures seem to be occurring at the same time. The tiger is vanishing, the T-shirt has replaced tribal dress, there’s a Starbucks in Katmandu, you know the tale.
Pessimistically, if the trend continues it looks as if we look forward to a world populated solely by people, their domestic animals, some disgusting ocean species, plus a lot of cockroaches, rats, and germs.
Meanwhile on the cultural side, we face a world in which every market is a mall selling the same stuff, and everyone is listening to the same song.
A depressing prospect, really.
But remember, equally depressing prospects have existed for at least a century. In 1916, it seemed as though World War One would never end; in 1932, people looked forward to centuries of depression and class warfare; in 1940, it looked like Hitler would win the war; in 1962, the Bomb meant the end of life on earth.
Each of those crisis took on a moral dimension, but really they were caused by system failure. People put a moral spin on things and pointed fingers, but arms manufacturers and Cold War politicians were simply being logical, albeit based on a false assumption.
I just read The Quants, a book about the math whizzes who created the Wall Street boom and bust 5 years ago. To my non-mathematical brain, the logic they worked on went something like this:
If you flip a coin the chances of it coming up heads are 50/50. If you flip a coin 5 times and 4 of them come up tails, your chances on the next throw are still 50/50; however, if you flip the coin 100,000 times, the odds favour that the ratio will approach 50/50.
Multiply the trend a gazillion times with a supercomputer and you can bet, not on whether the coin/stock will go one way or the other, but on whether the stock is currently under- or over-valued. Over the long term, it isn’t a gamble at all. It worked wonderfully - until, all of a sudden, it didn’t. Suddenly, non-mathematical factors came into play - human nature, for example. Suddenly, everything they bet on lost, and everything they bet against, gained.
So the math wizards scuttled back to their mansions and their billions, mailing the whole bag of shit to Obama.
Meanwhile, their logic had spread to other areas – politics, medicine, business, until math, expressed as quantitative analysis, is what civilization runs on these days. “Let’s do the math” is our version of the search for truth. People talk about a child’s deficiency in math as though he or she had brain damage.
Music or art? Not so much.
R.D. Laing, the mad Scottish psychologist, said an interesting thing in his convoluted way: The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.
As illustration, he referred to Francis Drake, whose circumnavigation of the earth involved sailing past Patagonia, so close to villages, he could see people walking back and forth.
Questioned later, none of the villagers saw those ships. European sailing ships were so far outside their assumptions that they became invisible.
Something similar happened here in B.C. When the first ship was sighted off Vancouver Island, a villager described it as follows: An island appeared with three trees. It was covered with crows. When one of the crows spoke, the other crows went to the top of the trees.
What makes us smarter than the Patagonians and the Haida? What makes us think there’s not something we’ve failed to notice, something that eludes the math, something that would be perfectly obvious to a Haida or Patagonian?
Like them, we don’t notice what we fail to notice – in our case, because we think numbers explain it all.
To sum up, 1) we may be experiencing a period of extinctions because people can’t see past the math, and 2) to even a well-trained hammer, everything looks like a nail.
I was sorry Ralph Klein died. He was an amusing man, and I always wished him well. Even so, have you ever seen anything like the coverage of his demise, the conservative media tripping over themselves to avoid mentioning the obvious?
Mr. Klein died at the age of seventy, which is young nowadays. No cause of death was given, but he suffered from dementia – early-onset Alzheimer’s, probably. Wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
But the question persists, like an ear-worm: When did the disease take hold? Was it before or after Mr. Klein’s departure as Premier of Alberta? Were Albertans, for a significant period of time, led by a Premier who was not in his right mind? And if so, In the present situation of corporate dominance, does it really matter who the Premier is?
I had the same suspicion over Ronald Reagan. Back then, the media talked about his descent into dementia as though it began the day he announced it to the public – but when did it really start? Was the most powerful person in the world, in effect, brain damaged?
Even at the time - during the Iran-Contra scandal for example - people wondered about that.
But again, given that things seemed to run more or less as usual, did it matter?
It all points to the suggestion that the premier of Alberta is basically a hood ornament for a power structure that endures, no matter who “leads” the government. I mean face it , Alberta Conservatives have been solidly in control since 1971 - 42 years, double the reign of Benito Mussolini.
I know Alberta is a democracy; but if it weren’t, would it be any different - say, if it were run by the house of Saud?
Throughout his tenure, Mr. Klein impressed people, not as a politician with a world-view and an agenda, but as a commentator on political discourse - as a non-politician politician.
Across the spectrum, tributes to Mr. Klein evoked not a political leader but a Bill O’Reilly or a Rex Murphy or a Margaret Wente – one of those crusty, populist, tell-it-like-it-is media characters who say what people are “really thinking” - self-created fictional characters, geared to an older demographic who believe they have an exclusive on “common sense.”
And how about the way interviewers tip-toed around Ralph’s alcoholism? It’s been years since I heard so many “hoisted a few” chortles and elbow nudges - the traditional alcoholic whitewash - other than on St. Patrick’s Day. Nobody seemed to have the heart or the courage to speculate whether Mr. Klein breathed an entirely sober breath on any given day, or whether it affected his performance, other than that he didn’t like to go to work before noon.
I’ve known people like that. One couple kept a 40 of vodka in the bathroom beside the toothpaste; another acquaintance got into the ouzo heavily enough that the bath water turned milky next morning. They weren’t much good before noon either.
It’s not as though Alberta was or is particularly well-led. Like the Saudis and the royal family in Dubai, the Alberta upper class has allowed foreign interests to take over the running of their oil resources.
The reward has been to make some Albertans very rich, while discouraging the province from diversifying its investments. I mean, the Saudi government owns a good piece of Audi; what does the Government of Alberta have to show for itself, other than a piddling “heritage fund” of maybe 12 billion? With the deficits they’re running, we’ll see how far the “heritage fund” stretches when the price of oil drops below sixty a barrel.
By the way, what products do you see coming out of Alberta, other than oil and beef and some rather good beer? Anybody see a Lulumon or a Lions Gate Films, or a Jimmy Pattison for that matter?
I distinctly heard an Alberta politician refer to the province as the “driver of the Canadian economy,” without being challenged. If Alberta is the driver of the Canadian economy, then God help Canada.
Sometimes an event occurs where the Canadian media let you know exactly what side they’re on. This was one of them.