Wednesday, February 21, 2018

My Log 605 Feb 212018: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 42; The rich men who pour thousands into elite athletes are just doing it because they want them to do well, they say; never mind, I am still amazed by the leaps and jumps, the smooth landings and hard falls that accompany every effort

As I explained in an earlier version of these Chronicles, I am a guy who has been interested in sports ever since I was about six. I loved to play almost any game, and I played most of them well. At first I didn’t like to lose. But an elder brother who kept beating the pants off me at table tennis across our improvised dining room table, night after night, eventually taught me that it was all only just a game, that to really enjoy the game in its total sense one needed to learn both how to win and to lose gracefully. That is what I have always believed is the greatest lesson sport has to teach anyone who plays it. You can’t win ‘em all, and losing is part of the game that has to be mastered every bit as much as winning.
I still tend to judge any sportsman, or any sports team, by how they lose.  If they can’t lose without bursting into tears, there’s something wrong with them. (This is my basic criticism of soccer: they treat every game like it is the Third World War). This was the essence of the amateur sports that were played everywhere as I was growing up. But we all know that nowadays amateur sports is confined to the guy who goes out on to the court to bang the ball around a bit, or who goes on a Saturday on to the links for the exercise. All the serious stuff is professional.
The Olympics, of which we have been fed a surfeit in recent days, exemplifies the professionalism that lies at the heart of every national sporting effort. Naturally, along with the burning desire to win at all costs comes the childlike waving of national flags, the repetition ad nauseum of national anthems, and the pitiless hyberbole of the highly paid commentators.
Never mind, I keep telling myself, underneath all the highly-paid mechanics, the essential burning effort manages to keep alive the excitement and glory of the contest. I have been addicted to it for so long that I can’t turn it off. As I have sat watching the Winter Olympics, I have watched totally rivetted to the young men and women, some of them no more than kids of 16 or 17, who have embarked on their bewildering series of jumps, twists, somersaults, and turns, my enthusiasm rising with their every success, and falling with their every fall.
I have followed Rugby Union as my primary interest in the last few decades, and I know that the old days where any local lad could make it into the big time are long gone.  The essential question nowadays is to secure the funding: a couple of weeks ago, Rugby Canada lost two qualifying matches for the 2019 World Rugby Cup to Uruguay, something that would never have happened a few years ago, and thereby lost a grant from the government of almost half a million dollars. You have to produce results to get the money, that’s the rule. Especially in the more popular sports, nowadays any local lad who shows any exceptional talent at the age of 10 or 11 is whisked away to be trained in a so-called academy,  his or her physique carefully nurtured, his or her size built up or trimmed down according to what the coaches judge to be the primary need.
Just how far this invasion of money into what used to be amateur sports has gone was graphically illustrated last weekend in an article in the Globe and Mail by Cathal Kelly, who is one of the more thoughtful of our sports writers in Canada, about a group of 10 to 13 rich men who have been persuaded by an outfit called B2ten (I don’t know what it means) to contribute big sums of money to be directly paid to elite athletes to ensure that they never falter along the way. When I say they are rich, I mean they are among the richest in our society, men like Stephen Bronfman, an heir to the Seagram fortune, and Andre Desmarais, president of the Power Corporation, both among the wealthiest companies in the land. These men deny they were making the gifts because they just want to hang out with athletes. “It isn’t that,” said Desmarais, “we just want them to do well.”
Kelly outlines the means by which this money was funneled towards Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, the exceptional ice dance champions, who have come through so spectacularly for their third gold medal in the discipline. As they settled into their training routines, their coaches approached B2ten, who were wary of making an offer. The point man was Dominick Gauthier, husband of former  champion Jennifer Heil, who told the coaches the skaters would have to apply directly to him. In the event the rich men contributed some $85,000 additional monies to the ice dancers, taking their total income along with government grants to between $150,000 to $175,000 a year. (Kelly notes that this sum is quite reasonable for high-level athletes: a few blocks away in Montreal, Shea Weber, the highly-paid defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens has been making nearly twice as much as that every week to lose games.)
The information that blew my mind, however, was what the money  enabled the skaters to buy. They bought a dozen experts as support staff: an osteopath, a physiologist, a nutritionist, a Pilates instructor, a masseur, a mental preparation consultant, two strength advisers, for power and micro-movement,  the two coaches they already had, and Gauthier as director of the B2ten project. These rich men were interested in results: of the eight athletes supported by their grants, five had already won medals  in Korea, Virtue and Moir taking their tally of Olympic medals to five, more than have been won by any ice skaters in history.  The whole group of advisers met every six weeks or so to discuss Virtue and Moir’s progress “as if it was an infrastructure project,” comments Kelly, and the skaters were expected to be in the room to account for their progress.
Whatever else this might be, it is certainly the end of amateurism, not that there is anything new about that. But the rich men express themselves well pleased with the gold medals, and the commentators, the Scott Russells and Kurt Brownings, and Tracy Wilsons, were able to wax eloquent about  the intrinsic beauty of the performance, just as if it had appeared full-grown as if by magic. It is true, of course, that all the strength consultants, mental fitness experts and so on can’t win gold medals: only the athletes can do that. They have to perform.
But this level of support seems to have taken the sport well beyond what I have always thought of as sports, a pastime, played for enjoyment --- into a brand new realm that I have no words to describe.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

My Log 604 Feb 20 2018: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 41; Two English eccentrics whose passions reverberated around the world, and made life for all of us immeasurably better

I can’t let the subject of English eccentrics pass without referring to two of the most extraordinary men I ever met, both of them slightly eccentric, but also men of such passionate conviction that they influenced millions of people around the world and transformed their disciplines with revolutionary change.
These two men were the Scottish educator A.S. Neill, who set up his own school Summerhill and wrote books about what he was doing there that met an enthusiastic audience across languages and other barriers. The second was a man I have found to be rather less known although equally amazing, Richard St. Barbe Baker, the founder of an organization called Men of the Trees, who throughout his life rode an obsession with planting trees, and saving those trees that were in danger of the woodsman’s axe or saw to such effect that he personally stimulated the planting of millions upon millions of trees in more than 100 countries, with concomitant effects on society that have been nothing but beneficial.
Both men were born in the 1880s, and became active in the early years of the twentieth century, right after the First World War,  as if to say, “Surely, we can do better.”  Summerhill school was founded in the 1920s as a school in which, as one recent newspaper article described it “every lesson is voluntary and where youngsters can vote to suspend all the rules.” I visited it in the Suffolk countryside in the 1960s, and found as I entered a pleasing atmosphere of chaos, with multiple cats sitting around on every piece of furniture, and the founder himself engaged in asking a small girl if she was a liar. He quickly told me the pupils don’t have to go to class if they don't want to, and they were allowed to smoke, swear and break things. If one of them stole something, they would be rewarded with a gift of something worth more than the thing they had stolen. "No one," Neill once wrote, "is wise enough or good enough to mould the character of any child."  And even in the school as it exists today, led by Neill’s only daughter, they still will not admit that they encourage their pupils to “aspire” to something.  “Aspire to what?” was the headmistress’s answer, when she was recently asked that  question.
Tall, untidy, slightly stooped, a man to whom the superficial external values so much prized by ordinary people seemed completely irrelevant, Neill told me that in 30 years only one of his ex-pupils had committed a crime (selling black market petrol coupons). He admitted he had never produced a genius, nor to the best of his knowledge had be ever produced an anti-semite or a racist. None had gone in for politics and few for business. It isn’t that there were no rules: there were many rules, but they were decided each week at what was called the Meeting, where students and staff met to make such decisions, the vote of the smallest child counting for as much as the vote of the headmaster.
If a boy and girl approached him and asked for a bedroom together, he told them that if he allowed that the Ministry would close the school down. “I do not pose it as a moral question at all, and as far as I know we have never produced any illegitimate children at Summerhill,” he told me.
I ended my piece by commenting that Neill seemed to be one of the few people I had ever met who believed that love is everything.
St Barbe Baker was 74 when I met him in a vegetarian restaurant in London. He was living with his second wife on a farm in the South Island of New Zealand, and he was advocating that New Zealand should be transferred back from its pastoral economy into a silvicultural one. Although to most people that would seem to be a step back to the past, to him it seemed the most natural thing, the obvious measure to take if we are to save the world from destruction. In this kind of thinking he was years, perhaps generations, ahead of his time.
As a young man he had been persuaded by a minister of religion that he should emigrate to Canada to undertake work as a missionary, but on arrival in backwoods Saskatchewan he changed his mind and enrolled in the University. To pay his tuition fees he took a job in the lumbering camps in the north of the province, where he found they were clear-cutting thousands of trees in such a manner that nothing could regenerate.  He decided this was wrong, and should be changed, so he went back to England, studied forestry at Cambridge university, and on graduation joined the colonial service. He was assigned to Kenya, where he found great chunks of the country had been laid bare by the slash and burn farming of the indigenous Kikuyu. He persuaded the tribesmen they might have a dance to celebrate the lost trees. He offered them a prize of a splendid necklace, and 3,000 of them showed up. He enrolled 50 of them as Men of the Trees, who were pledged each to plant 10 trees a year, and to care for trees everywhere.  He boasted to me in the London café that the areas of Kikuyuland in which he had stimulated the growing back of the forests was an area that generations later was not troubled by the Mau Mau troubles of the 1950s, which were caused by, among other things, reduction of the land base.
Next he was transferred to Nigeria, where, he told me, as a forest conservation officer he fell afoul of his superiors by objecting when he saw an officer bullying an African. His superior consigned him into the interior with the remark, “Filthy spot, Baker. I hope the red flies bite you and your ankles swell.” They did more than that: he had to shipped out of the country, almost dead from the tropical diseases to which he fell prey. But nothing could deter him from his life’s mission, to save trees and to reclothe the earth with forest  protection.
He founded the Men of the Trees in 1924, and it still exists, although renamed in view of greater gender sensitivities as the International Tree Foundation. Baker conducted campaigns for tree-planting all around the world, in Israel, across Africa, in Australia,  in California, where he led the campaign to save the redwoods, and worked with Franklin Roosevelt on similar campaigns across the country. After taking a drive across the Sahara in 1954, he embarked on a campaign to stop the encroachment of the sand by beginning a tree-planting campaign along the Saharan periphery in Algeria.
In the restaurant where I met him --- he talked non-stop for three hours, much of it about his enthusiasm for the Ba’hai religion  --- a young waitress who overheard our conversation asked him what he was doing in the Sahara. “We are trying to provide homes for up to one million people,” he said. And as we left the young woman’s eyes were shining. The Man of the Trees had made another convert.
 There is a delightful video showing him instructing children on how to plant a tree. The job completed, he asked them all to rise, to crowd around the newly-planted tree, holding their hands out towards it, to allow their love for it to flow into the tree, to help it to grow.
He told them, of the 30 million hectares of forest on the earth, some 9 billion had already been removed.  “If a human being loses one third of its skin, it dies. If a tree loses one-third of its bark, it dies, Likewise, if the earth loses one-third of its cover, it will die.”
That is the challenge he has kept before people wherever they may be, ever since he discovered his obsession for the trees almost a century ago.
“The object of the Men of the Trees is to develop a tree sense in every citizen of the world and to encourage all to plant, protect and love their native trees,” he wrote in one of his 34 books on the subject.  “For forestry is among the oldest and most honourable of all peaceful arts of men and in its practice is unselfish and constructive work.
“We have tried to keep a balance between the purely sentimental on the one hand and the material and economic on the other, and have shown there need be no conflict between the useful and the beautiful.”
He died in 1982, at the age of 92, leaving all of us in his immeasurable debt.





Monday, February 19, 2018

My Log 603 Feb 19 2018: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 40; NDP still controlled by “milquetoast managerialism”, to coin a phrase; still scared of saying what it really believes in

From the moment I first arrived in Canada in 1954, I have had a rather equivocal attitude towards, and relationship with, the New Democratic Party (at that time called the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.)
I have, of course, supported it, since you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize  that the Party’s very existence is has been a bulwark against the Americanization of Canada, if only because  the NDP has kept alive in the Canadian political discourse ideas of social democracy that are held to be anathema in the United States.
I have joined it, from time to time, quit it just as often, and have generally found that it suffers from the dilemma of social democratic parties in other countries in that by the time it gets to power, if it ever does, it proves to have been hardly worth the effort, so many compromises have they desperately made in the struggle to get elected.
 I have joined and quit, at various times, the Labour parties in New Zealand and Britain, and my doubts were precisely described recently by Gary Younge, of The Guardian.  He was critical of those who keep talking about Jeremy Corbyn personally, as if, could they only get rid of the king all would be well, and then “Labour would resuscitate its programme of milquetoast managerialism, whereby it was indifferent to its members,  ambivalent about austerity at home, and hawkish about wars abroad.”
In Canada, the situation has been even worse: the NDP has had this tendency to trust leaders whose hearts are obviously elsewhere. The only Canadian election that my side ever won was in Ontario, and the leader Bob Rae messed up so totally that he eventually joined the Liberal party, where he should have been from the first, and where he has since become  a sort of grandee-manqué, undertaking heavily significant foreign missions of one kind or another. More recently, because of Tom Mulcair’s rhetorical brilliance in the House of Commons, the party ignored his Liberal Party past, only to find that he led them into the last election with a Liberal party program even further to the right than the Liberal’s own platform, having meantime stage-managed the disappearance of the dreaded word “socialism” from the party’s constitution. Needless to say, although they had been the Official Opposition, they came in third, shattering all hopes of an electoral breakthrough.
Even more alarming has been the NDP tendency towards dynastic politics. Before the recent leadership campaign I was dismayed to learn from one young  enthusiast of the extreme left that their candidate for leader was Avi Lewis, the son of one-time Ontario provincial leader Stephen Lewis, and grandson of the second federal NDP leader David Lewis.  Both of these forebears were men of brilliant talents, but the prospect of the party being seized by a family dynasty is one that caused the heart of a progressive --- certainly of this one, at any rate --- to seize up. In the event, wiser heads prevailed, for that would have been something new even in the checkered history of social democracy in the English-speaking world.
Avi Lewis, a documentary film-maker, and his wife Naomi Klein were the brains behind the so-called Leap Manifesto, a bold outline of the way they believe Canada should develop. They presented their Manifesto at an NDP conference two years ago, and were shrugged off: as I implied above, the NDP is a tightly-controlled party with a tendency towards “milquetoast managerialism,” to quote Gary Younge again. But Ms. Klein has won a global audience with her superb books, especially The Shock Doctrine in which she relentlessly exposes the capitalist method by which corporations and the governments they control seize on any sort of seismic shock --- a hurricane, an earthquake, a failed revolution for example --- to move in, seize control of the tottering infra-structure of a vulnerable country, and impose American-approved measures that leave the local economy helpless before the depredations of big money. Not only did Ms. Klein explain this with persuasive examples, but she established that it was a method that has been dreamed up by the leading economists emanating for the most part from the University of Chicago, whose  guru was economist Milton Friedman. (The outstanding example of this method was in Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union, the resultant chaos and catastrophic decline of the economy being almost entirely caused by the ministrations of American economists called in to set the country on the path to capitalism.)
So now, with last weekend’s NDP policy convention all set, along come three people purporting to have been key figures in the rise of Bernie Sanders in the U.S and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, to announce that they believe, the Leap Manifesto in hand, that the time is ripe for a renewal of the NDP. My own feeling is that they must be underestimating the grip held on the party by milquetoast managerialism, so, either to prove me right or wrong, I lined up before my TV over the weekend to see which way the Party would jump.
One thing that became immediately clear was that whoever the party grandees are, they have a firm grip on what they are doing. As the resolutions ground on, Saturday morning, time was obviously of the essence. I waited for signs of the Leap Manifesto, but none came. All I could discover were the usual signs that the party was avoiding any confrontation with major issues. Evidently, the biggest issue on the table for the NDP right now is the question of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, over which NDP provincial governments in BC and Alberta are in disagreement. It might be recalled that Justin Trudeau’s support for building the pipeline through Vancouver and allowing Tar Sands bitumen to be exported to the Far East, with all its attendant risks to the glorious B.C. coastline,  was the decision that prompted famed environmentalist Bill McKibben to denounce the Canadian Prime Minister and his Environment Minister Catherine McKenna for “stunning hypocrisy”, for talking out of both sides of their mouths, as it were, pretending to be concerned about climate change while approving expansion of the most polluting single source of emissions anywhere in the world. (Their weasel language was even more disgusting, the tar sands emission being referred to by McKenna only as “getting our resources to market.”) Here, surely, is an issue for the NDP, if they are such staunch environmentalists as they have always claimed to be, a perfect opportunity to slam the Prime Minister. But no, here when they have a chance to make a decision, the backroom boys made good and sure that no such motion would ever come to the floor.
Time is always of the essence at these annual meetings, and so it was at this moment.  The disposal of resolutions ground on its merry way, until one middle-aged delegate who had obviously learned his politics in the union, stood up and shouted “right to strike, right to strike, how much time do we have and are we going to get to that resolution?”  He was told it was fifth on the list, they had half an hour and maybe they would reach it. He retired, and “right to strike” was never heard of again, unless it came up while the convention was off-air, which I don’t believe.
Later in the day there was dissatisfaction expressed at the work of the committee that surveyed the huge list of proposed resolutions and “prioritised” them, that is to say, shuffling off any resolutions that might be embarrassing to the party hierarchy for later (which is to say, no) consideration. This is a well-worn annual-conference technique, of course, but what was interesting were the subjects that were shuffled off-stage. Prominent among them were the huge number of resolutions expressing support for the Palestinian struggle: here, for God’s sake, was an item that deserved the support of the NDP, supporting the struggle of an oppressed people: and yet…. .the grip of the foreign affairs spokeswoman, Helene Laverdiere, a supporter of Jagmeet Singh in the leadership race, appears to be invulnerable: a stout supporter of the entire American foreign affairs package --- on Israel, Venezuela, Ukraine, Syria --- striking positions that are obviously at odds with NDP traditions, if not policies, she apparently was able to ensure that no support for the Palestinians would be expressed at this policy convention.
The following day, as anguished delegates tried to force through a new method of prioritizing resolutions, came a short but impassioned intervention from Niki Ashton, who ran so good a race for the leadership but fell before the better organizing talents of Jagmeet Singh: If we do not change this system we will be confronted, she said, with repeating “the debacle we saw yesterday when 37 party resolutions wanting justice for the Palestinians were ignored, and the only one opposing that managed to get the issue sidelined.”
Talk about milquetoast managerialism: it’s not just a good phrase from an English journalist, it is something that was demonstrated on Saturday to be alive and well in the NDP in Canada.
I’m not sure if I am a member at the moment. If not, I won’t be hurrying to rejoin, rather awaiting some sign that the party has broken with the neoliberal economic and social agenda that is the dominant narrative of Western world politics, and opposition to which was the motive for its original formation by the union movement.
As for the Leap Manifesto: I can understand why it might have appealed to Becky Bond, the Sanders supporter, who is anxious to pretend that Sanders has started a revolution, rather than just hearkened back to the New Deal. As I read it, it is nothing more than a radical wish-list of things we would like Canadian governments to do to meet the immense challenges that lie ahead  in face of the development of oligarchy, the onrush of technology, and the degeneration of our life-support systems here on earth.
Of more relevance to the Leapers in Canada might be the support of Adam King and Emma Rees, the two activists from Britain’s Momentum movement, an extra-Parliamentary movement of support that stands behind Corbyn and the Labour left.  The NDP has its Socialist Caucus (ndpsocialists.ca), which, to judge by the weekend convention, could use some advice from Momentum as to how to pressure the Party to restore its basic purpose in life.