Thursday, October 20, 2016

My Log 532 Oct 20 2016:A word of praise for RT, the Russian government’s lively contribution to our political discourse

When I wake up in the morning I turn on my television and my computer, and scan both to discover what’s been happening in the world. Of course, it is inadequate as a view of the real happenings, but with the new availability of online sources, I seldom fail to find something of interest.
On television I watch, interchangeably, BBC, AlJazeera and RT, and occasionally CBC, and recently I realized I watch RT more than the others. Of course, I know it is a network sponsored by the Russian government, but then so are the BBC and CBC government-owned, and AlJazeera is owned by the Emir of Qatar. It is only in recent years since I have become less mobile that I have taken to watching television, which I used to watch only for sports. I remember even before that when I prided myself on never having seen the CBC evening news, because I refused to watch it. In those days there was a little bit of me that responded to actions such as that taken by the veteran Montreal Star correspondent, James Oastler, who, when television cameras first appeared in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, would go and stand in front of the camera with his back to it, to make sure it couldn't operate.  
With the American election, RT has suddenly become newsworthy, as Hillary Clinton, whose Russophobia seems to be as powerful as the old Cold War anti-Communism used to be, has rather ludicrously linked RT with Wikileaks, and has accused her opponent of being a puppet for Vladimir Putin, with RT as their vehicle. This seems so silly to me that it has taken me some time to realise that she seems seriously to believe it.
So why do I watch so much of RT? Well, I think the reason is that the many opinion programmes broadcast by the channel provide a view of the world different from the prevailing Western ethos. It is only since I started to watch RT that I have become so very conscious of the unanimity of the Western view  delivered by the media with seeming unanimity in our so-called free part of the world. Of course, ever since I became a journalist in 1945 I have had a critical view of the politics of the press, which always reflect the interests of its wealthy owners. And it is undeniable that in the Western world the news agenda is dictated by the strength of the American interest.  For example, for years I have waited for some journalist interviewing the American president, or any other Western politician,  to ask him about Israel’s nuclear weapons, a subject that seems to be  beyond discussion, or even mention, anywhere in the Western world.
And the other thing is this: in the modern world the United States has arrogated to itself the right to attack other countries at will, without any declaration of war, and this has come to be accepted by the Western media as another unmentionable fact. Today the United States is at war in (or with, as we used to say about wars)  Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, and is going out of its way to provoke Russia and China. The recent first bombardment of Yemen by the United States has gone almost unremarked, although in the old days it would have been regarded as a declaration of war against Yemen. None of these countries can be said to pose any threat to the United States, and just what business it is of the United States to be charging around the world, killing and maiming local populations that do not sufficiently bend to its will, is something quite beyond me.
RT does irrite me from time to time because its very good programmes tend to attack every weakness that the U.S. shows to the world, while never attacking similar problems in Russia. But that is in the nature of the government-controlled beast. And it is far outweighed by its vigorous opinion programmes, and its staunch and for the most part convincing defence of the Russian attitude towards each of these conflicts.
In addition to all that, the network has attracted in the United States an extremely lively team of attractive, eloquent and apparently fearless young people to make its programmes among the liveliest available anywhere.  It has two young women who conduct interviews with a wide variety of world figures, and are personalities in their own right: Oxana Boyko is like a pit bull as she inveigles her guests into arguments, admitting her biases and those of the channel, but showing a really impressive background knowledge of the subjects under discussion. She is not content with simply interviewing someone: she wants to provoke them, and does so --- always with extremely polite deference to their opposing views --- two or three times a week. Sophie Shevardnadze, the grand-daughter of the former Soviet foreign minister who later became president of Georgia, is another phenomenon --- extremely beautiful, she doesn’t hesitate to use her looks as a weapon, but she is far from just a pretty face: she speaks five languages, and I have heard her fluently interviewing people in at least three of them. I never miss the programmes of either of these two.
The network has attracted veteran newsmen of a progressive bent, such as Thom Hartmann, with years of experience as a progressive commentator of American politics, who has a one-hour show four nights a week, Ed Schultz, a grizzled veteran of political battles over the years, whose nightly newscast is unlike any other I know because he not only presents the news, but hauls up opposing sides to argue with him over the meaning of the news. This reminds me of the mantra delivered by the late, great Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, who said that to hear some people talk, facts are lying around like pieces of gold, waiting to be picked up by an eager prospector.  “Such a view is evidently and dangerously naïve,” Cockburn wrote, “there are no such facts. Or if there are…they might just as well not be lying about at all until …the journalist…puts them into relation with other facts…Then they become as much a part of a pattern created by him as if he were writing a novel.” I wish Hillary Clinton could remember that calm wisdom when she is making her ridiculous Russophobic claims. An impressive presence every Saturday on RT is Chris Hedges, a man who has run the gamut of the press from his years as an international correspondent for the New York Times, to his position now as one of he leading voices in the U.S. dissenting from the current drift of politics in what he now calls the Empire.
RT even has a kind of echo of Jon Stewart’s mocking but pertinent attitude towards the news in Lee Camp, who runs an amusing  programme called Redacted Tonight, and they have in Gayane Chichakyan, an apparently fearless examiner of senior U.S. spokespersons in Washington. Overseeing a programme called Watching the Hawks --- “the chickenhawks and the warhawks” --- is a young man called Tyrel Ventura, the son of Jesse Ventura, the wrestler who became governor of Minnesota, and this young man, like his father, is compulsively watchable. There is even a half-hour interview programme by Larry King, that workaholic veteran who it seems can never stop talking.
In Britain, too, RT has established a lively critique of national politics, and that must surely have something to do with the decision of RT’s bank to close down all the network’s bank accounts in the country. If that should drive them off the air, then the loss is entirely that of television watchers especially those who appreciate a wide range of views, even those  that are regarded as unacceptable by the entrenched establishment who seem nowadays to have things more and more their own way.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

My Log 531 October 5 2015: A book that lays bare the soul of poverty as it existed in Pointe St. Charles, Montreal, almost half a century ago

I have recently read a remarkable book by a young woman who grew up in one of Canada’s slums, managed to claw her way out of it, become a social activist, and is now studying for a Ph.D.
The writer in question is Kathy Dobson, and her book, With a Closed Fist:.Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood (Vehicule Press, Montreal, 2011, pps 219) is one of those works that drives a coach and horses through the comfortable assumption of middle-class Canadians that they live in a nation that is tolerant of diversity, open-minded as to social problems, and one that is always striving to do the best for its citizens.
The neighbourhood in question is Pointe St. Charles, a community that lies below the autoroute as it enters Montreal, and is the English-speaking neighbour of the French-language community of St. Henri, which is probably best-known to outsiders as the site of one of the earliest, well-established,  black communities in a major Canadian city, and the home of the great Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson. Dobson’s story begins in 1968 at a time when social workers from above the tracks, and young trainee doctors from McGill University, had, with the best will in the world, offered to help the residents overcome the disadvantages into which they had been born, and to improve the all-round quality of their lives. I remember something of those efforts and I described them in 1972 in my first published book, about Canadian urban problems. I very much admired the work being done by these outside social workers (I particularly remember my admiration for Joe Baker, a McGill University architecture professor, who devoted himself selflessly to this kind of uplifting work and who recently, very sadly, died after a struggle with cancer), but I find that in Kathy Dobson’s world these well-meaning outsiders  were habitually described as a bunch of “perverts, lesbians and commies,” almost the only dissenter from that opinion being her own remarkable mother.
Ms. Dobson makes no effort to spare her readers’ sensibilities, and in the first pages we are immediately plunged into a description of the rats that were ubiquitous in all their homes, apparently in plague-like numbers. After one particular encounter in which a rat jumped at her mother and then jumped off her shoulder, squealing all the time while her three small daughters cowered under the blankets, she remembered her mother ranting
“about all the filth and disease a rat brings and how the asswipes at city hall needed to get their goddamn act together. ‘ Nobody gives a shit about us in the Point,’ she’d say, explaining that it was on account of our neighbourhoods being filled with welfare bums and slum landlords.”
Next morning Mum was on the phone:
“I know you bastards are dumping shit into the sewers. My kids are all going to get asthma for Christ’s sake. Even the rats don’t like it and are coughing their fucking heads off. They’re pouring out of the toilet and coming into our apartment again, and I swear to God, if one of my kids get bitten…What? Mange de la merde!....Fuck you!”
You get the idea: that is how the book starts, and that intensity is kept up through most of the two hundred pages. The family is constantly having to move from one small apartment to another, because of their failure to pay the rent, and Dad is usually off somewhere, not even living with the family most of the time, but when he is there, quarrelling with his wife, and every now and again beating her mercilessly with his belt, in front of the kids, especially when he had been drinking.
School, like every other institution, was there to be despised, except by an elder sister, who always got straight As.  The Dobsons went to the English-language school, of course, and there was a regular exchange of raids between them and the Peppers, from the French-language school. When the Peppers arrived in the school yard, all the children, ignoring the teachers, rushed out to take part in the fight. Eventually the enemy would withdraw, leaving the understanding that the next invasion would be performed by the English.
Dad hates the young McGill doctors, who try to dress rough so that they might be acceptable to the people, and when they take a larger apartment to share, Dad calls it “their terrorist cell.”  Nanny, Kathy’s grandmother, who deeply disapproved of her daughter’s choice of husband, thinks the doctors have to be “simple in the head or something,” to go on the way they do, trying to suck up to all the residents. “Perverts. Ignorant perverts, That’s what they are, the whole lot of them,” she says. Dad usually goes off because he says he can’t live in the filth any more (Mum’s admitted failure is she is a poor housekeeper). He keeps urging his wife to move out of the Point to Ville La Salle, but she says things wouldn't get better that way, and the only way life will improve is to stick it out and keep protesting. Eventually hanging around with the pervs, lezzies and commies pays off, when her mother gets a job in their clinic. and eventually Kathy and her sisters are offered places in a Westmount school. As she drives to school in the bus on the first day, she thinks,
“Westmount people get to live in a fucking park fulltime. I swear to God I must have seen fifteen squirrels in two minutes, running around the trees. People are walking dogs on leashes, and there aren't any chip bags or cigarette butts anywhere….A bunch of other kids get off the bus at the same stop.  I want to say hello and maybe smile at them, but no one is looking so I just move with them towards the school…I know it’s just around the corner….A few seconds later I see it. It looks like a fucking castle from one of the stories Mum read to us from Aesop’s Fables. A small park in front of the school has green grass everywhere and even park benches. I can’t see any chains attached to the picnic tables. Maybe they nailed the legs straight into the ground. Mum is right, none of the kids are wearing uniforms.”
Although Kathy is amazed at the relative concern of the teachers, she is tailor-made to be a target for the contempt of the children she has fallen among: because she can’t afford jeans, her trousers become a subject of ridicule, and because she can’t afford to bring a lunch, within a month she is spending lunchtimes sitting alone outside. When her class is given an assignment to invent their own country and describe it, she writes,
“Fuck me. All I can think about is getting home so I can tell Mom I need to transfer back to my old school as soon as possible. That, or find a bridge to jump off. Me make a presentation in front of this class? A class filled with kids so smart they each know more than anybody else I’ve ever met, combined? Shit, they’ll be inventing countries better than the ones that already exist….How the fuck am I supposed to even try when I already know my project will be pure shit. Even the word ‘project’ sounds too hard and fancy already.”
And so the tale rolls on, through descriptions of the cockroaches, 2,000 of which were reputed to have fallen on the head of an inspector who entered one building to check out the rumours about them; on through a schoolgirl crush with the sympathetic teacher; through adventures around two delinquent boys from the city detention centre, sent to the Westmount school to improve their prospects; through summer camp and her pre-written letters of description; with quotes from her diary, not the one left lying around for Mom to see, but the real one, kept under a zipper in a secret place, recording her innermost secrets. As an unrelieved tale of the terrors of life in poverty, naked and unadorned, except for the unquenchable spirit that shines through both in her mother’s resolute courage, and in her own muscular, eloquent prose, this book takes a lot of beating.
 Typical is her ambivalent attitude towards school.  She loved some teachers, while pretending to despise them, and really hated others.  One day her Mom said to her, “I’m so sick of the goddammed school calling me every single fucking day.” Then let me quit, Kathy replied. “Maybe that isn't such a bad idea,” said her mother.”What’s the point of having you registered as a student when you never go to class, never do any homework, and scare half the teachers to death?” Kathy was astonished to hear that. She thought the teachers had never even noticed her. The next day her mother called the school who agreed she could leave before her sixteenth birthday.  “You win,” said her mother. ”You don't have to go back.”
Immediately, Kathy began to have second thoughts.
“I’m not a student any more. I have a job. I’m going to make money. I’m finally going to have a pair of jeans. Real jeans. Brand new even. So why do I feel so sick? ‘But Mom….Do you really think that’s such a good idea?’ ...I know that once I leave that room, once I let Mom leave the kitchen, there will be no turning back. I don’t want to go to school. But I don’t want not to go either.
“ ‘What do you mean, do I think it’s a good idea?’  asks Mom. ‘Since when do you give a flying fuck what I think?’ Mom and I have been banging heads for a long time now. I’m always telling her that she’s a fake and a hypocrite. She’s always telling me that I am way too confrontational and  just a lying troublemaker. I can’t wrap my head around the idea that I’m not a student anymore.  Can a person still become a writer if they drop out of high school?”
The answer, definitively, is in this book she has written, one of the most intense, truthful and terrifying pictures of poverty and its impact on the human personality that you are ever likely to read.

Monday, September 19, 2016

My Log 530 September 19 2016: Every now and again, evidence of the One Percenters and their ostentations is laid before our eyes: a glossy ad over the weekend gets me going

I remember in the early 1950s, when I was newly arrived in London, England and unemployed, reading in the newspaper that the dramatist Terence Rattigan, very much the man-about-town,  had leased a flat in Mayfair for 18 pounds a week. I was astonished that anyone could pay so much: how much money would a person need to be able to afford so much? Just to put this assumption in perspective, my unemployment ended when I took a job, for the magnificent wage of four pounds a week,  as a factory worker in Hammersmith.
I wasn’t in it for life, a mere three months, to tide us over a lean patch, but on the conveyer belt on which I worked in the factory I was surrounded by honest working people for whom that wage of four or five pounds a week was the best they could look forward to in the rest of their lives, a paltry sum which the powers-that-be --- who themselves lived in the lap of luxury  ---- decreed had to cover all of their costs for everything they needed.  Some democracy that was!     And is!
Of course, all this has to be judged against the belief I had come to as an enthusiastic socialist  teenager than no one  should earn, for any job, more than 5,000 pounds a year, a sum that seemed to me to be adequate for the living needs of anyone on earth.
In other words, I have been a proponent of social equality ever since I started thinking about the world and its problems. And yet now I find myself in a world where inequality has reached such a level of  criminality that our societies are governed by an oligarchy of the wealthy elite that not only runs the economy but has its palsied hand on every parliament ever elected, buying politicians as if they were boxes of chocolates.
 I have  welcomed the recent agitation of people protesting against the one per cent of wealth owners having collared virtually all of the increase in wealth generated by workers in the last 40 years. Somehow or other I have managed so far to come through more or less intact after a lifetime of journalism and film-making and book-writing  --- none of which paid me more than a sort of lower-middle-class income ---- and now I am existing on the money I have made by owning, and selling at a modest profit, three houses, known to the tax people as my principal residences,  in the last 40 years as I have moved from place to place.
I’m not complaining. I have had a good life in which I have spent every penny I ever earned, have travelled to many parts of the world, have written about every subject that seized my interest, and am still keenly interested in what is happening in the world.
But one thing that seems clear to me now is that the global admiration for the capitalist society of the United States is totally misplaced: rather than deserving our admiration, that country seems to be trapped in completely misplaced, dysfunctional notions of patriotism, individualism, militarism, and aggressive intentions towards the rest of the world.
Anyway, what I set out to write about today was the shock I encountered at the weekend when I picked up a coloured supplement accompanying La Presse, a glossy advertisement taken by the “international realty” company Sotheby’s.
I had always thought of Sotheby’s as a fuddy-duddy English firm, probably struggling to keep abreast of the modern, fast-changing economy (it was, after all established in 1744, and is one of the four oldest auction houses in the world.)  So I was totally surprised to open up this advertisement, printed on a glossy sheet slightly bigger than three feet by two feet in size and containing the coloured pictures of no fewer than 150 houses that are offered thereby to anyone who wants to cap his or her success in life with a magnificent, highly-priced, home.
Top price on offer was $9,500,000 for a Westmount home, a vast structure surrounded by a glorious garden (or as the capton said “nichée derriere une vegetation luxuriante”) on “la recherchée”  Lexington avenue. There were at least eight offered for more than $4,000,000, and to judge by the pictures the offered homes were of every kind, some in apartment buildings, some in huge homes of modern construction (the architect’s fees alone must have cost a fortune), and others in long-established dignified houses set in beautifully maintained grounds. The architectural style exhibited on the page tended towards pomposity, and a few showed what might reasonably be called execrable taste.
What surprised me most was that they were located all over the province of Quebec, from Montreal downtown, to the Eastern Townships, to the North shore, South shore, and in towns that one would not normally associate with splendour --- Boucherville, for example, Kirkland, Candiac, Ile Bizard, Ile Perrot --- islands that I remember driving around in the late 1950s when they were virtually empty except for the occasional eccentric living in a modest shack of some kind, lovely calm and forgotten places that seemed to have been forgotten in the postwar rush for development, tbut that now appear to have become  playgrounds for the rich.
I should not have been surprised by any of this: but it did strike me that here, right under our noses, was evidence of the One Percenters who, nowadays, are dominating our societies, and of how they have collared most of the wealth available, and are spending it on ostentatious self-indulgence.
 I had a similar awakening a couple of years ago when, waiting to board an overcrowded plane from Frankfurt to Montreal, I was, without any request, upgraded from economy to business class. I had, of course, passed through the business class seats on the way to the economy on many occasions, but to suddenly be the recipient of the many privileges to which  my higher-class seat entitled me was a profound revelation: right under my nose all these years, the One Percenters had been living it up, lounging full-out on their luxurious seats, drinking the best of wines for free, eating the superior foods provided to them, while down there we were struggling through the night in our overcrowded seats, crammed like sardines into a can, barely able to sleep for the caterwauling of kids and the sheer sense of oppressiveness.
So this, I ruminated, on that occasion, is how the One Percenters go through life.
Of course, my original belief that 5,000 pounds a year should be enough for anybody has been discovered to be wildly impracticable. (I am reminded of my high school principal, who, during the Second World War told our chemistry class that “there will be no millionaires in the future, you know, that’s over.”) But I have noticed, in some of the programmes of the developing leftist parties that are springing up throughout the capitalist world, various hints that suggest some form of salary cap might still be a good idea. One does rub across occasional examples of people who have stuck with lower-paying jobs to pursue worthwhile work, and one sees on TV every day the devotion of many volunteer, or near-volunteer workers who administer to the victims of the various brutal wars conducted these days, usually under the aegis of the United States.
But even more evident are the examples of egregious waste occurring every day. Like the story of the $500,000,000 programme to train local soldiers, which succeeded in training five people. Like the several trillion dollars spent on wars in the Middle East that have succeeded only in destroying one country after another, killing hundreds of thousands, destroying the lives of the innocent, and achieving nothing of any discernible value.
Thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of people are like me, appalled by these things, but at this  level one feels a sense of helplessness, of there being nothing we can do to change it. Yet we are constantly told by those people who never stop insisting that it is all wrong, that change will come only from the development of a great movement in which people demand change.
I hope they are right…..