Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My Log 497 Dec 28 2015: Journey through Dalmatia --- 4: Trieste, whose beauty and serenity I fall for like a ton of bricks: leaving another glorious European city, I hope to return some day

Tram in Trieste
Tram in Trieste (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Trieste, Italy
Trieste, Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Central square, Trieste, Italy
Central square, Trieste, Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Yesterday I promised to keep you informed about Europe’s border problems, so far as they have affected me. Today I can report that in travelling this morning from Slovenia into Italy, no border intervened, no one asked for our passports, and everything went smoothly.
Since apparently only two buses were running during the day from the small town of Piran in Slovenia, where I have spent the last five days --- in an effort to escape the accursed family Christmas celebrations, but that is another story --- and since Piran historically has been under a huge Italian influence, and was at one time predominantly Italian in population --- I expected the traffic to Trieste, just across the border, would be brisk.  Therefore, expecting a long queue for the bus, I struggled out of bed at just after 5 am in order to make sure I got a seat in the bus, which was to leave at 6.45 am. Of course, there was no one else there except my partner and myself, and for the better part of an hour I had to run up to every bus that turned in, to be told it was not the bus to Trieste.
Eventually the correct bus came, on time, and we took off, slightly groggy from the rather hectic takeoff, and in just over an hour we were in Trieste.
I had no particular expectations of this city. But I was disappointed when our bus entered the city through what looked like a working class district, of hillsides covered with medium-rise low-income-looking apartment houses of indiscriminate colour and shape. Not to worry. After being put off in the back end of the bus depot, we eventually managed to attract the interest of a taxi --- it was 8 am, building up to the rush-hour, I guess, and taxis were few and far between. However, this guy took us to our hotel, an ordinary, comfortable place, where they agreed to allow us to eat breakfast, even though we were not able to formally check in until 2 o’clock.
After a short rest we headed off, in the general direction of the main town square. Along the way, my mind was blown, as one might say. In one street after another pedestrians were king, cars forbidden, and the vistas that opened up astonished me. Vast spaces, broad boulevards, superbly decorated, coherently-composed buildings surrounding elegant, leisurely squares, lined with chairs for sitting and having coffee or whatever you felt like. I was back in Europe with a vengeance. It had been many years since I had first experienced the delights of the better European cities, their beauty, self-confidence, and immense cachet, and I immediately felt myself to be in one of these wonderful places again. At last.
I thought of Ilya Ehrenberg’s dictum (formulated in the very depths of the utilitarian Soviet Union) that every man has two homes, his own, and Paris. You could extend that to any of the better European cities, with their facility through their human scale for making people feel that they really matter.
It has never been my way to be a tourist wherever I have gone. Rather, I like to settle into a new place, then mooch around its streets, finding companionable places to investigate, comforting and warm places to sit over a glass of wine, getting a sort of feel for the place. So I have to confess that my knowledge of Trieste and its history is rather perfunctory, although I have gathered that it was once one of the four premier cities of Europe, is now a medium size place of just over 200,000 with a long maritime and industrial history, and has always been, distinctly from other Italian cities, a polyglot sort of place that has always attracted foreigners speaking their own languages. All this is enough to recommend any city to me.
But how, along with all this activity, all the trauma of being at the centre between the Eastern world and the Western world, all the continuous drama around its identity  (there is still an ornamented building blazoning the inscription right across of Free Territory of Trieste), how has it managed to have the serenity to create such beautiful streets as I have experienced this morning just strolling around. There is the city centre, with its massive, ornamental public buildings; melding so effortlessly into the square blocks of privately owned places, but not far away an even more remarkable area, the streets of the Old City, slightly rundown in appearance, at least on the outside, tucked in beside the remains of a Roman amphitheatre. Here one finds remarkable bookshops, crowded with tens of thousands of books (and only two, if that, in English); and restaurants of such individuality as almost to defy description. I have probably never been happier than a few hours ago sitting in one of these inimitable restaurants into which one almost has to fight one’s way past the ranks of bottles, the shouts of the proprietor from behind the bar in conversation with one of the locals, through past the place where it is right to have a glass of wine, into the tiny eating place itself, with only seven tables, where I enjoyed a light lunch of mozzarella and cheese, finished off with the most delicious tiramisu I have ever tasted.
Trieste, I am leaving you tomorrow, but I’m already in love with you, and I really hope to return some day.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

My Log 493 Dec 15 2015: Something to be said for mid-Atlantic intellectuals: two who have recently come to my attention, Alan Furst and Amanda Foreman

In the last two or three weeks I have been mightily impressed by the work of two artists, the one a novelist, the other an historian, who could reasonably be called mid-Atlantic intellectuals. Both Alan Furst, the novelist, and Amanda Foreman, the historian, have solid links through either birth, education or residence with Europe and the United States and both seem to have benefitted personally and professionally from these links.
I have recently read two of Furst’s 14 novels about what he calls “near history”, the period from the access to power of Hitler in 1933, to the end of the Second World War in 1945. In both of them, his main character was a journalist, who became a spy, and the setting in both was the slightly murky world in which, in those days, political activists who opposed the powers animating the onrush of war were forced to live. Furst calls himself an “historical spy novelist”, but many reviewers, amazed by the seeming fidelity of his descriptions of the atmosphere of the time, have rather considered he should be listed as a pure novelist. In each of the books I read, Paris, a city Furst has described as “the heart of civilization,” plays a prominent role as the place to escape to from the oncoming terrors of Fascism and Communism.  Before he began to write novels, Furst moved to France, where he taught for some time at the University of Montpellier, and he later lived in Paris for many years, an experience that has clearly marked him and that has probably given rise to the engaging and sometimes terrifying way he has portrayed the world that was overcome by Nazism.
Dr. Amanda Foremen, who is the animator and author of a BBC series called The Ascent of Woman has an even more markedly mid-Atlantic background than Furst. She is the daughter of the famous Hollywood screenwriter Carl Foreman, who was halfway through working on the movie he wrote, High Noon, when he was called before the Un-American Activities Committee of the US Congress where he admitted to having been, in his youth a member of the Communist Party but to whom he refused to name any members of the party. Thus he was declared an uncooperative witness, subject to a boycott by the major studios, and he took off for England, where, eventually Amanda was born in 1968. She was educated in England, then at University in the United States, and finally at Oxford University. When she was 30 she turned her doctoral thesis on Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire into a book which became an international bestseller in hardback, paperback and on re-issue nine years later.  Her next book was A World On Fire, a history of the American civil war from the British point of view, of which one reviewer said “it resembles nothing so much as War and Peace”; and the Wall Street Journal reviewer offered the opinion that she was such an engaging writer that readers might find even her 958 page volume too short.
Just as Alan Furst’s experiences in Europe must have added to his sure touch in his drawing up the political and social atmosphere in his novel The Foreign Correspondent (2006) about an anti-Fascist who got a job in Paris with Reuters and was simultaneously editing a dissident journal distributed inside Italy, and in Dark Star (1991) whose hero is a Pravda correspondent stationed in Paris who gets mixed up in the baleful atmosphere of Nazi-run Berlin, and is trapped by the German invasion of Poland, so too Dr. Foreman’s extensive experience in Britain must be attributed to her sure touch, as exhibited in her series on the BBC. I confess I have seen only one of the four programmes, but it was done with such authority, with such a sense of commitment to the cause of women, and revealed such fascinating information about early women writers and historical figures who would be called feminists in today’s world, as to be completely captivating. Indeed, it was exciting o watch a programme carried off with such aplomb and surety. She did not bother us with any of the standard feminist arguments that might put off some members of her audience: she simply went straight to describing what her subjects had done, against what terrific odds they had succeeded, and to what extend even women today should honour them for having played their significant role in the liberation of women from the severe strictures they were under before, during and after the Renaissance (and as she made clear by including a devastating brief argument by a striking Turkish woman writer) they still are.
This was what I call ideal TV in that it was educational, compelling and left one reeling with a sense of all the things one should have known, but never had. Who, for instance, had ever heard of the Empress Theodora, who began life as a prostitute and street performer, gained the acquaintance of the heir to the throne, and when he succeeded to his title, married him, and succeeded in having legislation adopted gaining protections for women. This in the sixth century!
I had never heard of Hildegaard, a nun, an advocate so powerful that the Pope was forced to allow her to form her own monastery, from which, in her writings, she went so far as to describe the female orgasm. Dr. Foreman, with an engaging smile,  put this freedom about sexuality to a present-day nun, a very comfortable-looking middle-aged woman, who said that sexuality was part of human life, and therefore had to be taken into Benedictine life, and “has to be dealt with by natural means.” (I took this to be the closest we are ever likely to come to hearing a nun confess to masturbating.) All this in the twelfth century!
Similarly a woman called Roxelan, who began as a sexual slave kidnapped from the Ukraine, and became a member of the Sultan’s harem. In those days the Sultan was not permitted to marry: the practice was that each of his favourite women could give birth to one child, and then fade into the background, creating a sort of competition among them to produce the heir to the throne. Roxalan fell for Sulieman the Magnificent, and he for her, and she so shattered the prevailing rules that she married him, and bore him five sons and a daughter. Thereafter she ensured that one of her sons succeeded to the throne by killing one of his half-brothers, also the Sultan’s vizier, and a couple of others. On her death in 1558, the succeeding years have become known as the Sultanate of Women.
Carl Foreman did write some fine films (Guns of Navarone, Home of the Brave, Champion, Cyrano de Bergerac, Bridge on the River Kwai), but I would venture to say that his finest production of all was this superb historian, writer, communicator and artist, his daughter Amanda.
Readers should look out for her next book, to be published next year, The World Made by Women: A History of Women from the Dawn of Civilization. And Alan Furst’s new book is to be called A Hero In France, also to be published next year. I would say both would reward readers.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Link of the day: Dec 7 2015: Primer on American use of innuendo to damn political opponents, when trying to bring about regime change

A fascinating insight provided by Mark Weisbrot 
Co-director, Center for Economic and Policy Research, of Washington, D.C. in an article entitled Hillary Clinton and a Venezuelan Murder Mystery: Who Killed Luis Manuel Díaz? has been published recently by Huffington Post. The most remarkable revelation in this article is the reluctance of the English-language media to publish the now-accepted version that this Opposition leader was on trial for implication in a previous murder, and was  killed in a gangland killing connected to that murder. That Hillary Clinton made an instant judgment insinuating that the government was responsible for the killing immediately became the version accepted around the world. Read the article here.

Friday, November 27, 2015

My Log 492 Nov 27 2015: Evening of film on Snowden, plus four experts railing against the surveillance state, leaves me with the ambiguous feeling that Ronald Reagan is watching from the wings, chuckling

Dwight D. Eisenhower photo portrait.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Official Portrait of President Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan. Chuckling from the grave? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ronald Reagan's casket, on a horse-drawn caiss...
Ronald Reagan's casket, on a horse-drawn caisson: BUT NOT YET DEAD? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....
The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency. credit: Wikipedia)
English: Portrait of Milton Friedman
 Milton Friedman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I finally got to see the ground-breaking film Citizen Four, made by Laura Poitras about Edward Snowden, and those fateful days when he sought and found  friendly journalists he believed he could trust to release the documents he was determined the world should see. These documents revealed for the first time that the National Security Agency in the United .states is collecting virtually every phone call or communication  made by anyone to anyone else, anywhere,  and storing it for later use --- a level of surveillance that no one had any idea was being undertaken, and one for which no citizenry anywhere has ever given permission.

Following the excellent film, which showed Snowden to be a remarkably self-composed young man  of only 29, eloquent and firm in his conviction that this information had to be made public even if it meant that he himself would be pilloried and pursued possibly for the rest of his life --- four local experts on surveillance, encryption, anonymity, and human rights made presentations about the dangers facing our society unless we are able to rein in these officials and politicians who have stoked up fears of terrorism as a means of pushing through their nefarious schemes to control everybody.

I did not disagree with anything these people said, but I was still left with an ambiguous feeling about the whole evening.

I was brought up in a social democratic society in the 1930-40s, a society which, for fourteen years elected and re-elected every three years a government devoted to the welfare of its citizens. Those of us who supported that government, and the Labour movement that put it into power, did not have this currently fashionable idea that the government is a beast that is out of control. On the contrary, there was among us a recognition that, if what we want is a society equalized in its incomes and opportunities for everyone, then the only institution capable of achieving that equalization is the government. This was very much the same attitude that motivated the Rooseveltian New Deal in the United States, providing an ethic which basically held solid through the war years, and even, in the US, through the reign of the conservative-minded Dwight Eisenhower. Similarly, such an ethic held sway where I was brought up throughout the war and after, and when I left that country in 1950, the year after the election of the first Conservative government in twenty years, there were said to be only four registered unemployed in the entire country.

The idea that the government is not the solution, but the problem was first enunciated by the half-barmy failed actor, Ronald  Reagan, whose idea of the economy was described once by George Bush, snr, as “voodoo economics.”  I can still remember the dismay I felt as I listened to a recital of the cuts that Reagan made to the United States government, slashing this and that, putting into the dustbin many of the programmes that had been built to support the poorest in American society.

This was the beginning of the triumph of unrestricted capitalism. Reagan’s view of government was gleefully seized on by the large phalanx of capitalists and the “experts” that they hired from academia. Naomi Klein, in her superb book The Shock Doctrine has  documented the influence obtained in the following decades by the so-called “Chicago boys”, a flood of economists educated by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, to believe the  reactionary, backward  and until then largely discarded idea that the capitalist economy --- which everyone has to admit is the system best capable of producing goods --- is best left to itself, obeying only the dictates of the market. This was a shorthand way of saying that the economy should be handed over to speculators, because these are the people who dominate the fluctuations of the market.

We have since had graphic demonstration of the excesses to which this doctrine has led, by 2008 throwing the entire global economy into a state of crisis from which only massive help from the public purse rescued it --- and by massive I mean trillions of dollars, poured into supporting the biggest banking systems ever created, the famous institutions that have since been described as “too big to fail.” If there had been a countervailing system of thought in defence of the public, these trillions could have been expected to have signalled a return to control of these institutions in the public interest. But according to the latest information, these banks have taken only one lesson from the experience --- that they got away with it, and have returned to their normal business methods.

With this in my background, you can perhaps begin to understand how ambivalent I felt as I listened to government being lambasted throughout the night, and I began to wonder how they have managed to get away with these monstrous activities of surveillance, which any informed public would have quashed at birth. The solution that sprang to mind is relatively simple.

It is that, since all governments in the modern world are now dominated by the wealth-owners, to an extent previously unheard of, this must be part of their agenda for everyone,  that every person on earth should willingly acquiesce in falling under the total control of the people who own the wealth. That we have all just sat here and watched it happen is a tribute to the unremitting propaganda emitted by the media of information which, of course, like almost everything else, are under the total control of the wealth-owners. Indeed, this idea that governments are ipso facto, the enemy, no doubt explains the recent spectacular fall in the number of people who even care to vote for or against their  governments when the time arrives for an election.

Because the prevailing feeling is that the structures confronting us are so immense that “there is nothing we can do about it, whoever wins the election.”

In a sense, then, perhaps I could suggest that the four presenters last night --- respected academics all of them --- were actually spouting a disguised form of Reaganism. After the show was over, I had the wish I had had the courage to put that to them, along with my whole argument, just to see what they would have said.

I have to admit that Canada recently turned back one of these obscurantist governments, and elected a young leader vowing to put us back on the right path (whatever that is). But the government he leads is a Liberal government, and this party, although considerably better than the hated Conservatives, seems to have built into its DNA a sort of waffling indecision, usually believing in neither one thing nor the other, willing from time to time to do some decent things when under pressure --- the creation of the National Health Service being a highly-prized  example --- but just as willing to go along with what more powerful governments (I am thinking of the United States) tells them is in the best interests of everyone.

Right now, our young leader is balanced in a fascinating position. The proof will be in how he reacts to the bald, terrible facts about how very far we have progressed along the road to a surveillance society; and how he reacts to the secretly-negotiated Trans Pacific Partnership, which can be seen, now that it is exposed to the public, to be nothing more than a deal organized by the United States, and designed to strengthen the position of United States corporations.

I am not optimistic for meaningful change in these two examples: I expect, although I certainly do not hope for it, that the new government will simply go along with what has been proposed by its predecessor.

Sorry not to have a more hopeful message…..

Monday, November 9, 2015

My Log 491 Nov 9 2015: Figures for anglophone and francophone education recall for one family the trauma of trying to adjust almost 50 years ago

A fascinating article in La Presse this morning by Richard Y. Bourhis of the department of psychology at UQAM, outlines the current, that is to say the actual, state of balance between the francophone, anglophone and allophone communities in the province of Quebec, using figures provided by the provincial Ministry of Education, Leisure and Sport. The figures compare numbers of students between 1972 and 2012, and the author recalls that the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) was brought in in 1977, the aim being to consolidate once and for all the state of the French language in this, its North American redoubt.
I recall Premier Rene Levesque at the time saying he felt somewhat humiliated to have to bring in such measures as to deny to anglophone children whose parents had not been educated in Quebec, entry into anglophone schools, and to have to pressure children whose native tongue was neither English nor French to study in French.
There were those at the time who argued that these measures were no longer necessary, because the French language had already been rescued from its decline by the immense changes brought about in Quebec life by the Lesage government, elected in 1960, and the minority communities, including the anglophones, so it was argued, were already accepting the need to learn French in increasing numbers. Be that as it may, the political need for the Bill was still there, as powerful groups were propagating the need to diminish the still-powerful role of English in the province. And there seems now to be almost total acceptance of Bill 101 and its consequences.
I was living in Montreal from 1968 to 1975, having just returned from an eight-year assignment as the London correspondent of The Montreal Star, equipped with a family of three small boys all born in England, to whom was later added a girl born in Montreal.
On arrival we put the children into the nearest Protestant public school (the formal description of schools for the anglophones) whose students were made up of 53 per cent Greek, 17 per cent Moroccan Jews, 14 per cent Chinese and 10 per cent anglophone. They were doing things in that school, such as teaching children who didn’t know a word of English their new language, that would have freaked out most schools in Britain had they been confronted with the same needs. In those days I was very critical of schools and the schooling they provided, and after a year, dissatisfied, we took our two younger children out and decided to drop the children into the French, Catholic system, even though we were neither French nor Catholic.
We thought we were responding to an urgent political need in the community, but when we approached the nearest elementary school, they refused to take our children. This was an aspect of a rather deplorable xenophobia common among a certain strata of the francophone Quebeckers of the time (they also would not take the Moroccan Jewish kids, even though they were already French-speaking).  For a year my wife, a teacher, taught the two younger children at home, and a year later as pressures to open up their intensely religious system, staffed by nuns and brothers, mounted, the Catholic school authorities agreed to admit all three boys, who were, basically put at the back of the room, ignored by the nuns, and forced to fend for themselves. There were only six anglophone children in the school.
They did learn French, but from the other children in the playground. That their system was opening up was indicated by their establishing a year later a special class for immigrant children, where their special needs were looked to --- although to tell the truth, my children were, for the most part, treated by the teachers as if they were stupid, which has not prevented them from becoming, successively, after many difficult years, a musician, a criminal lawyer, and a screenwriter.
Prof. Bourhis writes that the number of anglophone students in Quebec declined by 41 per cent from 256,000 in 1972 to 105,000 in 2012, a reflection of the departure from Quebec of 300,000 anglophone citizens following the passing of Bill 101. An additional factor, of course, was that the anglophone system was no longer permitted to shore up its numbers with francophone, allophone and immigrant students, as they had been accustomed to do. Of course, over these same years, the number of francophone students also declined by 36 per cent, even in spite of the addition of allophone and immigrant children who before went to the English-language schools. In 1972 85 per cent of the allophone students went to the English schools, whereas by 2012 that number had fallen to just under 14 per cent.
Prof Bourhis’s conclusions may surprise many: he says that because of the enthusiasm of anglophone parents for immersion French classes, and even for (like us) enrolling their children in the French schools, today anglophones are the most bilingual section of Quebec students, noting that in 2015 the scores obtained in French in provincial examinations by students from anglophone schools were 9.4 per cent higher than those obtained by students from the francophone schools, a fact that, he remarks “demonstrates that the anglophone schools and educational commissions also contribute to the development of the French fact in Quebec.”
Notably, he adds, community interest seems to be higher among anglophones than francophones, since  in 2015 17.26 of eligible anglophone voters voted in elections to the anglophone school boards, compared with only 4.85 per cent of francophones who voted in their similar contests.
Even in that tiny section to which my family attached ourselves in 1969, Prof. Bourhis noted that in 2012 some 21,835 anglophones were enrolled in francophone schools. So maybe we could argue that we were slightly ahead of the game. But unfortunately our move had rather negative consequences for our children, since they were thrown into an environment in which they knew not a word of French, and were not given much help from the religion-oriented teachers in learning it.