Monday, August 29, 2011

My Log 275: Surprising outpouring of affection for Jack Layton means his shoes will be almost impossible to fill.

Jack Layton making NDP transit announcement.Image via Wikipedia

The outpouring of public affection for Jack Layton took me by surprise, as it must have taken many other people, and it also set me seriously to think about those Canadian values that are so often spoken about, and so seldom defined.

This remarkable event cannot be seen in isolation: after all, when the CBC gave Canadians a chance some years ago to vote on who they considered the greatest Canadian of all time, their choice was Tommy Douglas, who as premier of Saskatchewan marched Canada into the modern world by creating what eventually became the national health scheme for the entire country.

This program had to be fought for bitterly, as it has in every country it has been introduced, but it is now so thoroughly accepted by Canadians that it is often regarded as the single thing that Canadians believe makes them different from Americans.

Now comes this extraordinary outpouring of affection and respect for the man who has led the NDP to its greatest electoral success ever, making a massive breakthrouth in Quebec, a territory that had previously been immune to the siren call of social democracy, having always preferred to vote for their nationalism, or ethnicity.

Of course, much of the affection came from Layton’s long and fruitful service as a municipal councilor in Toronto, whose citizens remember him as a decent man and an honest man, but also as a man whose optimism and humanity marked him off from the common herd of politicians.

A great deal of the admiration for Jack must have come from the last election, when he was seen --- a sick man --- bravely stumping the country, cane in hand, keeping up a pitiless schedule in his successful effort to lead his party to its huge breakthrough.

Still, the scale and intensity of the outpouring of public regard was a surprising thing. After all, until his recent breakthrough, the NDP had always been very much the third party in Canada, important for its policy initiatives, essential for its success in keeping the social democratic idea as part of the Canadian political discourse, and therefore a major element in the differentiation of Canada from the United States.

But can anybody have seriously believed such support exists for the values espoused by the New Democrats throughout the country: values of community, sharing, the idea that we are our brother’s keeper, essentially the value of equality and egalitarianism, the idea that everybody in the nation has a right to a fair chance, to develop his or her talents to the maximum. This is a way of saying social democracy that seems to suit Canadians, and yet, time after time, year after year, Canadians have voted against these values that they now seemed --- at least for a week or so --- to be so vociferously espousing.

Personally I have only twice joined a political party: the first time was when I arrived in England in 1951 in time for Labour to blow the immense majority they won in 1945 to let the reactionary Churchill back into office; the second time was when Layton was going for NDP leadership, and I joined to give his effort some support.

I have to confess that in neither case was my membership long-lasting. Although I have always supported the NDP in Canada, I have extravagant hopes of left-leaning parties that are never satisfied, and when I saw that Layton was not really a radical leader, I allowed my membership to lapse.

I never met Layton, not really, although on the one occasion I was introduced to him as he worked a room, he delivered a kind acknowledgement that he knew my work. I never heard from him again.

Anyway, politics isn’t about the stroking of egos, and I have always said --- I said this in relation to the fact that it took me 26 years to apply for Canadian citizenship --- that I believed I voted every day through the medium of my work.

The memorial service, as I would prefer to call the state funeral service held in his honour, was a very moving occasion that allowed a wide range of expressions of admiration for the man and his unquenchable optimism and friendliness --- which, I have got to admit, is something that separates him from me, a perennial grouch and pessimist. I could have done with less of the religious gentleman, whoever he was, a friend of Jack’s, who did manage, in the last moments, to invoke God and his blessings on everyone, something that I wuld have thought was against Jack’s inclinations.

Perhaps as a total event, it was a little over-the-top. How could it help but be when graced by one of Stephen Lewis’s over-heated tributes. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the event was that it had been ordered by the Prime Minister. And the most remarkable thing at it was when the entire crowd rose with a burst of wild applause when Lewis described Jack’s last letter as “a manifesto for social democracy.” That caught Harper and his Conservative Cabinet ministers on the hop, not sure whether to rise with the applauding crowd, or to mark their disapproval by just sitting there. Eventually Harper, bowing to the inevitable, rose to his feet and began to applaud, surely some kind of apotheosis for him.

Well, Jack is gone, and the choice os his successor lies ahead. Personally I would like someone like Libby Davies, a sound radical politician, but I know they will never support her, and it is almost certain that she would not succeed in building on Jack’s achievement, if only because she doesn’t speak French.

Some may have begun to wonder whether Lewis’s ringing elegy might not herald an effort by him to take over the party: he certainly would be a good choice, but I doubt if he would succeed in earning the trust of Canadians any more than he did last time when he led the Ontario NDP in the provincial legislature.

Besides, having been involved so internationally, one doubts if his ego would permit him to retire to the national stage again.

I have no idea who should be the leader: clearly, he has a tough act to follow, and whoever he or she is, it seems unlikely to be anyone with Jack’s common touch. We now have to just wait and see to what extent the outpoiuring for Jack has touched the hearts of Canadians, if at all.
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Monday, August 15, 2011

Tar-sands-collageImage via Wikipedia

Link of the day: “Another climate-related record will soon be broken, but it's not like those you've been hearing about: the heat waves, droughts and torrential floods setting calamitous precedents everywhere. For a change, mark down this next one as a sign of hope. It's that Washington will play host to the largest act of civil disobedience for the climate in US history,” writes Montrealer Martin Lukacs, in The Guardian, of London. Lukacs is a courageous campaigner for aboriginal rights and environmental sanity, and his excellent article draws attention to a decision that has been taken: that the only way to stop the world’s climate from spiraling into disaster is a massive confrontation between the aware people and the wealth-owners, who are supported by governments like those in Canada and the U.S. He describes our awful Canadian government as having developed into “the foreign branch of the tar sands industry… scrambling to beat back the ferocious attack by the US environmental movement" against the Alberta tar sands – the world’s dirtiest oil.

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Monday, August 8, 2011

President George W. Bush and President-elect B...Image via Wikipedia

Link of the day Aug 8 2011: We are all wondering “What Happened to Obama?” the question raised in an insightful article in the New York Times by Drew Westen, professor of psychology at Emory University.

(“Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue….Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted ‘present’ (instead of yea or nay) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.”)
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Saturday, August 6, 2011

My Log 274: Sarajevo, desperately trying to rebuild its reputation for culture, multinationalism and calm, unhurried beauty

Sarajevo, Bascarsija at nightImage via Wikipedia
The Moslem quarters, Bascarsija,of Sarajevo

I found a paradox at the heart of the beautiful city of Sarajevo, which I visited this week. It is a city that emanates an unusual sense of human warmth, creativity, amusement and even adventure. And yet it has become a symbol for one of the most dramatic and appalling acts of civic barbarity in modern times. It is a city whose recent experiences would reduce to tears anyone who cares about the quality of human life.

In other words I fell in love with Sarajevo, and felt like weeping for what it had to endure during the 1990s Yugoslav war, when it was besieged by the Yugoslav National Army, and Serbian Bosnian militias, who mounted their guns in the hills surrounding the city and made it almost impossible for anyone to leave their houses.

The four-year siege of Sarajevo has been extensively written about and celebrated in print, song, dance and every conceivable medium of expression, so there is no point in my recalling it in any detail. A sort of grim humour has arisen about the war, and a little book I bought, a sort of fake Michelin guide written in 1992 and 1993, exemplifies how unconquerable is the human spirit. It says its purpose is to instruct visitors on how to survive “without transportation, hotels, taxis, telephones, food, shops, heating, water, information, electricity”, and claims to show the city as a place where “wit can survive over terror.”

“This book was written at the site where one civilization was dismantled in the course of intentional violence…” writes the book’s author, Miroslav Prsojevic, “and where another had to be born.” It is a “picture of civilization that emerges out of cataclysm, which makes something out of nothing, gives some messages for the future. Not because the future is necessarily a future of wars and disasters, but because humans are growing older and being born into a world which is ever less secure.”

They begin their chronicle by saying that in April 1992, appeared around the city “two-hundred-sixty tanks, 120 mortars, and innumerable anti-aircraft cannons, sniper rifles and other small arms…..At any moment…any of these arms can hit any target in the city. And they did hit, indeed, --- civilian housing, museums, churches, mosques, hospitals, cemeteries, people on the streets. Everything became a target. All exits from the city, all points of entry, were blocked.”

Well, on to the present day, to the city that seems to have been largely rebuilt, although it is rather a strange landscape when these shiny new buildings share the cityscape still with innumerable monstrous ruins of huge buildings that once were functional, but were bombed into uselessness, ever-present reminders of what happened.

Under the guidance of a friend who had been there several times we headed for the older part of the city known as Bascarsija. A guidebook writes about a man called Gazi Husrev Bey who was born in 1480, became ruler of Bosnia for 20 years and laid the foundations for the city as it is today, building it up to a city of 50,000. An Islamic school he built has been open for 470 years, and when it was founded it was dedicated to gifted and good pupils who would be taught “rational and traditional sciences.” He built Mosques and Franciscan monastries, one of the most beautiful Orthodox churches, public drinking fountains, inns, Turkish baths and a soup kitchen offering free meals to the poor. A foundation that this man created is still functioning after five centuries, financing stipends for students, feeding the poor and engaging in other charitable work. He is buried next to a former prisoner of war, a Christian, whom he freed and gave the title of a Duke.

In these early acts, surely, can be seen something of the spirit of the city that remains today. For myself, I can say I have seldom if ever been in a city whose inhabitants seem to be touched with such a particular grace.

For example, on our first day there our friend led us to a delightful spot, a courtyard hidden in behind one of the pedestrian streets constructed for the most part of wooden buildings, low-lying, expressive and friendly (every shop has a folding bench in front for the weary traveler or citizen to sit on, for example). This courtyard was quiet, although the streets around were vibrant and full of the bustle of a normal city. It sheltered under an immense tree, and was surrounded by small but elegant shops selling beautiful carpets mostly made in Iran. Some art works, of astonishing vivacity, were made of carpet, and although our friend enjoyed the peaceful ambience, he regretted that a tea shop that had existed there before the war had disappeared. I could not help but think that any people who could create such a perfect environment, so full of quiet human values, must be an exceptional people. And this was confirmed by the next place we visited.

This section of town is the Moslem section, of course, and --- perhaps this was exceptional because Ramadam had just started --- it was impossible to find a place in any of these beautiful little streets that served any alcohol. We asked a taxi driver, a garrulous, helpful middle-aged man, who undertook enthusiastically the assignment to find us a place where we could have a meal with some wine,by driving us up some very steep hills until reaching a point that he couldn’t go any further.
We had to walk the last precipitous slope up to a restaurant which, like the coffee shop in the courtyard, was another example of creative design. The restaurant existed on several levels, each room being complete in itself, each sharing the exceptional views over the city. (I counted 19 mosques in sight as I ate my meal.) Over an ember fire at the back of the room turned a lamb on a spit for which, unfortunately, we were too early. But we left it to the helpful and friendly waiter to choose what he served us. So we started with a totally delicious Bosnian soup, went on to a mélange of dishes comprised of chopped meat, marinated and cooked in sauces, mushrooms, vegetables, and ended with a superb dessert of the eastern variety. The cost of this triumphant invention was about half of what a similar meal would have cost in Toronto or Montreal. I know both of those cities have superb eating places, but I doubt that either could rival this Sarajevan restaurant for atmosphere, its air of quiet civility, and its magnificent view.

On the way back we had to order another taxi. But again we found an enthusiastic middle-aged man anxious to fulfil what we wanted: our objective was to go somewhere we could have a final drink before retiring, He took us to a place across the river from our hotel, to a pub the like of which I have never seen in all my wanderings. It was a tall building, open to the roof several stories above, its central space surrounded by balconies where meals were served while the ordinary people got on with their drinking downstairs. The design of this place was amazing: exquisite designs on the ceilings, even those above the bar, just another evidence of the civilized air of this whole city.

It was raining lightly the next morning, but not enough to prevent us from wandering through the city streets, themselves a feast for the eyes, past the dozens of coffee houses, and shops selling everything under the sun. If this part of town was damaged, rather little evidence of it remains: that stands to reason, because the rebuilding of these low-rise streets of mostly wooden buildings would not have required the vast financial operation needed for your modern high-rise blocks of offices, which have been built further along, although not verfy far away, in town.

We visited a modest little museum devoted to the occasion in 1914 on which the 20-year-old Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, an event that is said in history to have precipitated the First World War. There were seven assassins among the crowds through which the Royal coach moved. One of them threw a bomb that hit the coach and rolled under the following vehicle, exploding. Incredibly, the procession continued. Some of the assassins lost their nerve. Princip went to have a coffee, and when he emerged he discovered the procession had taken a wrong turning. Finding the Royal couple right in front of him, he fired twice, and killed both the Archduke and his glamorous wife Sophie.

That evening another equally helpful taxi-driver took us out of town to a roadside restaurant where we enjoyed the Bosnian specialty dish, lamb, again an excellent meal. On the way back the same taxi-driver --- who had told us he was bringing up his children to believe we were all brothers, everyone, no matter of what religion or ethnicity, belongs, and is one of us --- offered to show us around at his own cost. He took us to a small park built around a spring, a beautiful place.

Well, we didn’t spent a lot of time in Sarajevo, but long enough to contract a deadly disease Sarajevo-itis, which will no doubt demand that I make another visit, if I live long enough to do so. On the way back to Dubrovnik we passed through immense mountains of bare rock, stratified and exposed in an unusual way, which seemed to suggest that the whole area had at some time in the distant past been thrown up by some convulsive movement of the earth’s surface.

Dramatic though these mountains are, they can’t hold a candle to the city, the work of men and women, people of evey race and religion, the city pre-eminent in Europe for its successful building of a multicultural, multilingual, multireligious civilization that was relentlessly attacked just 18 years ago by men bent on imposing their barbaric ethnicity and nationalism over all others.

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