Thursday, April 26, 2018

My Log 621 April 26 2018: Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 59; I grew up in a far-flung outpost of Empire, whose young men rushed off to fight the imperial wars whenever called upon to do so

I was born in a small farming village called Wyndham, 26 miles from the south coast of the South Island of New Zealand. This is almost as far south as human settlement has penetrated. Only in Tierra del Fuego in Latin America have there been more southerly habitations than where I lived. When we stood on the south shore, confronting us was the  20-mile Foveaux strait, certainly one of the most tempestuous stretches of water anywhere in the world, between the South Island and Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third major island.
It was so rough because we stood directly in the path of what we called The Roaring Forties, the westerly winds that blew across thousands of miles of ocean south of Australia before hitting us directly and dropping their vast store of water on our Western coasts. Fortunately, we had a high mountain range along the west coast that absorbed most of this water so that by the time the winds reached us, barely a hundred miles inland, they were able to squeeze out only a modest 26 inches a year of rain.
Beyond Stewart Island, there lay only a 3,000 mile stretch of water and ice to the South Pole. We were on a latitude of roughly 46.4 degrees south; if you compare a similar latitude in the northern hemisphere, say, Geneva, one can imagine the extent of our comparative isolation. Someone born in Geneva would find himself or herself growing up at the centre of a vast agglomeration of humanity, for stretching north is the European industrial heartland --- Germany, the British Isles, the Low Countries, most of France, all of Scandinavia, in comparison with which we had only water and ice stretching endlessly south of us.
It came as a surprise, therefore when I looked up the provenance of my village, to find how heavily attached we were to the imperial dreams of empires and their wars fought far away and long ago. Wyndham was named after Major-general Sir Charles Ashe Windham, a hero of the Crimean war who led the British assault on the Great Redan in 1855, and was said by the correspondent of The Times to have “saved the honour of the British Army.” Windham’s career illustrates the global reach of the British Empire, in the mid-nineteenth century, for two years after Crimea he was active against the Indian Mutiny, later he became a member of the British Parliament, before being appointed  Commander of the British troops in Canada in 1867, the very year of Canadian confederation. He died in Florida, was briefly buried in Montreal, and finally found his resting place, as British heroes should, I suppose, in England.
My home village came to be named after him though the agency of a remarkable immigrant to New Zealand who gloried in the name of Major Sir John Larkins Cheese Richardson, born in 1810, the same year as Windham, but in Bengal, India.  His father --- by name of Robert, the same name as my father, but there the comparison ends --- was a civil servant who ran a silk factory for the East India Company. The son was sent back to Britain to be educated at the company’s Military Seminary, but he returned to India where he became a Major in the Bengal Horse Artillery, with which he took part in the Afghan Campaign of 1839-42, which led to the massacre and withdrawal of the British Army, the first episode in a series of defeats --- British, Russian and more recently American ---- that have since given rise to the oft-repeated claim that no foreign power has ever been able to conquer Afghanistan.
After taking part in the East India Company’s 1846 war against the Sikh kingdom, Sir John Richardson retired from the company and its army, and decided to emigrate to New Zealand, which had only within the last ten years come under the authority of the British Crown, through the Treaty of Waitangi, signed with the Maori chieftains in 1840.
He chose the southernmost part of the country in which to establish himself as a country gentleman, and then he set about making a career for himself in politics. New Zealand was soon divided into about 10 provinces, each with its own governing structure of a provincial council headed by a superintendent, which post he soon occupied for the province of Otago. He turned out to be a man with firm opinions on social reform, and especially became a proponent of female education. He played a large part in establishment of  Otago Girls High school in Dunedin, and was an early Chancellor of Otago University, the first University in the country. His firm views brought him losses in elections from time to time but he always bounced back, in another constituency, and finally in the Legislative Council that really ran the country. Thus it came about that I grew up on Redan street, with neighbouring streets called Nightingale, after the sainted nurse, Florence, and various names  --- such as Balaclava, Inkerman, Alma, for example ---  drawn directly from the Crimean war, to remind us of our place in the myths of Empire.
I remember as a small boy attending a function in Wyndham  at which a number of young men who had enlisted for service in the Second World War were farewelled. (I remember being terribly embarrassed because it was the first time I had ever worn long trousers). This first group of young men were not conscripted, but had enlisted, so eager were they to get at the throats of the Germans. They had always been like that ever since the Boer war of 1899, a purely imperial enterprise that had nothing whatsoever to do with New Zealand. It makes one think that the brainwashing machinery of Empire must have been exceptionally efficient to have moved these young men so instantly and effortlessly to fight imperialist wars. In the First World War it is said that one out of every four New Zealand men between 20 and 45 were either killed or wounded in defence of the British interest. And similarly it is said that the 11,625 killed in the Second World War represented  the highest rate of casualties, proportionately speaking,  taken by any member nation of the Commonwealth, even including the Home Country (as my parents infuriatingly used to call Britain). New Zealand was so eager to join that war, that we almost beat Britain itself in our declaration. “Where Britain stands, we stand,” said Michael Joseph Savage, our Prime Minister, in his unquestioning acceptance of British leadership.
Rather surprisingly, now that I think back on it, I was brought up to dislike the Conservative mindset. My Dad, who later in life when he was a more successful businessman, began to embrace the political right,  repeatedly told me, as a child,  how irritated he had been, infuriated even, by the Conservative government of the early 1930s, whose solution to the economic crisis was to have the unemployed dig ditches one day, and fill them in the next, a sheer make-work process designed to give the illusion of something being done.
My teenage reading tended to reinforce my detestation of such right-wing tricks. A book by Archibald Baxter (father of New Zealand’s best-known poet, James K. Baxter) gave us an horrendous description of the brutality with which a conscientious objector to war was treated during the First World War.  Having refused to serve, he was dragged by a rope towards the front line in France, in the hope that he would stop some enemy rifle fire. This set me up to be receptive to every opinion that was rejected by our own opinion leaders. I remember, for example, when the Soviet Union’s diplomats first emerged in San Francisco after the war, for the founding of the United Nations, enlisting my immediate  sympathy as they laboured under the ferocious obloquy with which they were treated by Western press and governments,  the contempt expressed for their rough, unfashionable clothes, their bad manners, their tendency not to agree with anyone on anything. I began to mop up publications of the Foreign Languages Publishing House of Moscow, trying hard to believe their heavy-handed account of world affairs, but usually having to abandon them halfway through, so tiresomely written were they. Still, along with this propaganda, I became absorbed in novels by some of the greatest authors who ever lived, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorki, Pushkin, This became the foundation of my lifelong sympathy with the left, both at home, where all the armoury of government was turned against radical unionists of the Communist persuasion, and abroad, where the Soviet Union was quickly turned into our enemy, the fact that they had sacrificed  27 million people in helping to save us all from the brutal, racist, dictatorship of the Nazis, having been magically forgotten.
So it seems that the local enthusiasm for the myths of Empire among which I grew up in Wyndham, apparently worked on a negative, rather than positive, way on my attitudes as I grew into manhood.

Monday, April 16, 2018

My Log 620 April 16 2018: Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 58; Shades of the past: this time around, a Trudeau leads the nation in surrender to the needs of shareholders in a Texas oil company

One of the first solid impressions I had of Canada soon after I first arrived here in 1954, was that the people, on the whole, seemed to be totally unworried that their country was under the economic control and ownership of the big neighbour to the south.
A decade later, the somewhat incoherent Diefenbaker government attempted to keep Canada free of nuclear weapons by rejecting the Bomarc missile offered from the United States. Diefenbaker’s gesture of defiance was undermined by the Liberal party with the support of the  nation’s movers and shakers, who were the business class and the owners of wealth.
In 1965, a book appeared that is still regarded as one of the most important ever written by a Canadian. It was called Lament for a Nation, the Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, and was written by a conservative philosopher George Grant, whose central theme --- at least, this is the main message that I took from the book --- was that every action taken to wrest economic control back from the United States had always been met with resistance from the Canadian establishment.
The book led to an upsurge of nationalist feeling in Canada, and to the eventual establishment of a more cautious approach to Americans buying up our enterprises, as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau initiated a Foreign Investment Review Agency that assessed takeovers based on their contribution to job creation, Canadian participation in management, and compatibility with federal and provincial economic policies. This was showing excellent results in restoring, for example, national ownership of major industries, until the election of Brian Mulroney’s Progressive-Conservative government in 1985 revamped the legislation and severely reduced its mandate.
I am reminded of all this by the remarkable spectacle offered by the quarrel over the Kinder Morgan pipeline designed to carry bitumenized oil from the severely polluting Tar Sands of Alberta to the West Coast for trans-shipment to China. For here we have the modern version of the 1960s nationalist dilemma. We have the Liberal Prime Minister, in fact, the son of the leader who stood for the nationalist control of our resources, unashamedly putting all his marbles behind an effort by a Houston-based company to blackmail our political establishment to ensure we do as bidden by this Texas company, which is self-confessedly motivated only by a concern for its shareholders.
Yes, sir, says young Mr. Trudeau, springing to attention with a salute; and yes, sir, says the NDP leader of Alberta, alongside him: we will do what you say, even if we have to pay billions of dollars to give you what you want! After all it’s not our money: it comes from the taxpaxyers!
So far have they taken this surrender that they have even stopped mentioning that this pipeline proposal will inevitably lead to an expansion of the production of this heavily-polluting Tar Sands oil, which, according to the best estimates, would blow out of the water any hope that Canada could meet the targets in carbon emissions to which we have pledged ourselves in the Paris accords for dealing with climate change. Trudeau and his minister for the environment Catherine McKenna frame the dilemma as one of only “getting our resources to market.”  When Trudeau says Canada is back on the world stage, he must mean we are back as the bad example that could lead the world to inaction on its major challenge.
Someone should tell them that of all the sources of buried energy that exist in the world, this is probably the leader on the list of “should be left in the ground.”
On the other hand, one might think that they should already know that: which, if true, exposes them to the accusation that they are supporting, not the preservation of the beautiful West Coast of Canada, not the preservation of the Canadian landscape from the indefinite expanding excrescence that is the Tar Sands site, and not the future of humanity and of the Earth and its life support systems, but merely the profits promised to the shareholders of a Texas oil company, above every other consideration, and be damned to the consequences!
British Columbians have shown themselves in the past to be ready to fling themselves in the path of the bulldozers, as it were: in defence of the Clayquot Sound forests in 1993 more than 800 people were arrested, and some of them were given harsh sentences. But a scientific panel established consequent to their protests made 127 recommendations for changed logging practices that were accepted by the government, and put into action.
Unless I am mistaken, once again the protesters, environmental and First Nations alike, are not likely to fold up their tents and steal away, leaving the field to the oligarchs and their representatives in government. Mr Trudeau and his acolytes Ms. McKenna and Ms. Notley can chunter on all they like about whose jurisdiction is being violated: they have already received their answer, it is the defence of the Earth and its inhabitants that is paramount.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

My Log 619 April 14 2018: Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 57; More and more we assume that “the bureaucratic, committee-produced news style, is the way it is done, and must be done” --- laments Michael Wolff, and that rings a bell with me

I worked in daily journalism for 25 years, but I never thought of myself as having a career in journalism, because with one exception, I quit every job I had after only three years. If I had wanted a career, as I have established in earlier Chronicles, I would have stayed put until I rose into one of the top jobs --- possibly into THE top job, as so many of my contemporaries did.
That was never of any interest to me, not in any of the eight newspapers that employed me in four different countries.  In fact, on one newspaper my boss upbraided me one day with having “always refused to take a position of responsibility in the paper,” because I had refused so many offers to become editor of this or that section. To which my immediate response was, “I’m a reporter. What job is more responsible in a newspaper than being a reporter?” At that point he jumped up from his desk, went over and closed the door, and apologized, because, he said, he had been under a lot of pressure from a recent illness of his wife. (I am not making this up!)
The fact is, I learned in my teens that one couldn’t trust  a newspaper, or the journalistic bosses they hired, for anything much. From the time I was seven, in 1935, for the next 14 years, we had a democratic socialist government. I used to go as a high school teenager to the local library to read the newspapers, and I never saw a single favorable comment on that government by any newspaper, although, in retrospect, as governments go, it was an excellent one. Thus I accustomed myself to thinking that every newspaper was representing only the interest of its owners, and they were never socialists. It was only one step further for me to realize that there were other things more important in life than the business interests of my bosses. Since I enjoyed the job, and could do it fairly easily, I tended to use the work, so far as it was possible for me to do so, to pursue other interests, such as, for example, helping the disadvantaged, or propagating a more equal society, or opposing class privilege.
To say that this set me apart somewhat from my colleagues, especially those true believers in the sacred responsibility, the objectivity, the competitive urge, of their profession, would be no exaggeration. Years after I had left journalism, at a cocktail party I came upon one of these true believers whom I had known quite well, but had not seen in years.  “Hello, Boyce,” he said, “still trying to save the world?”  If I’d been a bit quicker on the draw I would have replied, “And you? Still the same supercilious patronizing asshole as ever?”
I have been brought to this subject by reading an article  in the Hollywood Reporter, by Michael Wolff, author of Fire and Fury, the celebrated expose of the Trump White House. (I am indebted to my son Thom for bringing this to my attention.)
The article is subtitled What the Media still gets Wrong about Trump, but Mr. Wolff uses it to reflect on the role, purpose and behaviour of the press in a way that rang a bell with me, and that certainly accords with my experience as a reporter employed by what Wolff calls the “institutional media.” He contrasts this with what he calls the freelance media made up of  “independent writers portraying events in a different style, tone and sensibility from that of the official news media.” He says magazines willing to publish this kind of independent thinking have been dying off, “so that the only careers left in news are institutional ones, with a need to confirm to house rules and assumptions.”
I should note here that when I grew up in one of the world’s smaller nations, there was no such thing as this freelance media, it just didn’t exist, and this probably accounts for the firmness of the opinion I formed against the honesty and reliability of newspapers as the purveyors of information to the public  (an opinion I have since seen no need to change.) In my Chronicle 34, published on Feb 7, I described the sclerotic workings of the news management of The Montreal Star in the late 1950s, a perfect example of what Wolff describes as “institutional media”. His description is of United States practice. But I had found the same thing in all the small papers I had worked for in the southern hemisphere, as well as in Canada.
Wolff says that if you are to make a journalism career in the United States, the centre of gravity inevitably draws you to a handful of prominent outfits “with a clubbable admonishment not to wander too far afield of their sensitivities even before you get there (right-wing media has its own standards and practices).”  And the assumption is that  “more and more, we assume that the bureaucratic news style — a committee product of managers, producers, digital teams and lawyers as well as reporters — is the way it is done, and must be done.”
One aspect of how I tried to handle this problem in my own experience was my disinclination to sink into accepting these rules: I always felt myself a member of the opposition, which is why I so often quit after three years, because institutional managers demand total control of their workers.  When I went on a foreign assignment, for example, I would try to avoid for as long as possible telling my home office my address, so that I could get on with my work  without being bothered by irrelevant instructions.  I have often told the story of how a Toronto Star correspondent in London once told me she got nervous if she didn’t get at least four telegrams a day from her immediate bosses: in contrast I had two telegrams in my eight years in London, and one of them was simply to apologize for an underpayment that month in my expense account.  To my way of thinking, the four-telegrams-a-day would have little if anything to do with journalism, but rather more to do with the egos and insecurities of the guys who had been appointed into these middle management jobs. (It was a  lucky accident that I worked for a newspaper that didn’t worry as much about what I wrote, as that I got it there in plenty of time for them to handle it into the day’s layout. It was a different story when I was writing in the home office, about local subjects, when all the customary “institutional rules and assumptions” were enforced.)
Wolff’s article rang a bell with me on one other level. He remarks that most people in this  “journalism bureaucracy” are not good writers. Good writing was once considered to be valuable, but that was a different era. Nowadays, they might rather be “researchers, investigators…policy wonks…ambitious news executives, would-be politicians themselves and media superstars, but they are not writers  ---language dies in their hands.”
This could almost serve as my criticism of journalism schools, which seem to have presided over this decline in the standards of journalism. I have often been asked why, if I disliked newspapers so much, I kept working for them for so many years. The answer is that I enjoyed writing, and respected the English language. I don’t wish to give myself airs and graces but I always tried to write as clearly as possible, and if the institutional pressures began to bear on me, I could always quit. Which is what I always did.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

My Log 618 April 8 2018 Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 55; Both sides, Russia and the West, have their agendas, which appear to be unshakeable; but just because I watch RT I am not suddenly a half-wit

I have written about this before but it is worth   giving it another airing. One of my sons, who has travelled the world as a rock musician and tour manager, always amused us when he returned home and we asked him how did he like Paris, or Vienna, or Rome or some other great city. 
He would always say, “It was okay. But they have their own agenda there.”
That the various power blocs in the world each have their own agenda, and each considers their agenda is the best, is evident to anyone who watches news programmes. It has been especially evident recently in this case of the Russian spy and his daughter who were poisoned in Salisbury, a smallish, and rather sedate  English city.
I watch a lot of television, no longer having a job to occupy my time. For news I watch mostly the CBC, Canada’s government-owned network,  the BBC, Britain’s government-owned network, RT, Russia’s government-owned network, and Al Jazeera, Qatar’s government-owned station.
With the current extremely strained relationships between Russia and the West, it is being constantly repeated in our Western media that RT is part of a dastardly plot designed to undermine our democracy, and experts are not wanting who come on screen regularly  to warn of their subtle but evil methods, of which any viewer should be aware and against which these experts, usually employed in that odd industry called Security, find it necessary to warn the populace.
It seems to me this is based in an assumption that anyone watching
RT must be some kind of half-wit, unable to really understand what he or she is being told. To me, the idea thatsimply by watching RT I am complicit in a nefarious plot designed to take over the world, as seems to be the nightmare of these security and academic experts, is like a fairy tale and a rather insulting one at that. I know that in most of their news programmes RT has a tendency to concentrate on items that are critical of the United States, but I am critical of the United States myself, so am not bothered by this nightmarish idea that I am helping to plot the destruction of the civilized world.
One impact of watching RT on me has been to solidify my long-held belief that every nation has its fundamental core values that they automatically apply to world affairs. The Russians are not alone in that, and to tell the truth, I prefer watching RT to the usually meretricious stuff pedalled by the American networks. Even the BBC, which as everyone knows has a long history of what we think of as responsible journalism, has its unshakeable system of values that appear to be beyond argument. That has been illustrated by the eagerness --- one might call it an almost hysterical haste --- with which the British commentariat have jumped on board Theresa May’s  express train claim that Mr Putin was responsible for the poisoning of these two people. In the House of Commons Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party leader, urged caution, urged the need to have all the facts, to have checked with the well-respected and well-informed Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and so on, an approach that was shouted out of court by the serried ranks of the Conservative Party, and, truth to tell, by many members of his own party.
On the Russian side, equally knee-jerk was the acceptance of the denial issued by the Russian government. Mrs May said that “it is likely” that Russia was responsible. But to someone who has heard both sides of the argument, it seemed to me that the Western reaction had so many holes that Mrs May’s express train could be driven right through it.
No facts were presented to support her assertions, and the Russians for their part  wondered why she had not followed the approved international protocol  of referring the matter to OPCW with evidence  and a request that it be examined and reported upon.  No need for that, chorused the quidnuncs of the Western world. Everybody knows that Putin uses these methods against his opponents, and we have to bring him to heel before he has totally undermined our whole system of government.
At a very early stage, a former diplomat called Craig Murray, who had been British Ambassador in Kazakhstan, wrote an article in which he drew attention to the fact that according to sources he trusted, the scientists at Britain’s Porton Downs station for the manufacture of chemical weapons were extremely resentful of the government pressure being brought upon them to put out a statement affirming that the poison was manufactured in Russia. At this early stage, Murray’s article appeared to have been ignored, or virtually so, by the British press and public, but of course --- fulfilling their mandate to undermine the Western world--- the evil people who run RT broadcast Murray’s article as part of almost every newscast.
Not to worry, cried the spokespeople for the Western governments,  including that of Canada,  never mind the lack of facts,  we all know what the Russians are up to, and if Mrs May wants support, she will get it from us, and in an extraordinary burst of enthusiasm for their anti-Russian beliefs, they expelled 150 diplomats on the spot, four of them from Canada.
All of this occupied a week or two with merry denunciations of Russia headlining the news for days. The British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, a notable ass, swore that the Porton Downs scientists had told him with no ifs and buts that the Russians were responsible. But a couple of days later the director of this institute made a carefully-worded statement in which he declared they could not say where the poison was manufactured. This appeared to blow Mr. Johnson out of the water, and might have been expected to bring a modicum of reflexion about  Mrs May’s version of events. Not a bit of it: this was all part of that insidious Russian propaganda that they are so skilful at, chorused the Western governments, all of them in lock-step as they increased the vehemence of their denunciations of Russia.
Our own Prime Minister complained that the Russians had engaged in a smear campaign against our Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. Personally I  would not call it a smear campaign, and the Russians were not inventing anything: they were simply reporting facts, that do appear to be incontrovertible, uncovered  in the last year or so by Canadian researchers,  about how the grandfather of our Foreign Minister, who has a Ukrainian background, had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazi war machine during the Second World War, and had edited a newspaper supporting the Germans.  Admittedly, we do not want to hold the woman responsible for the sins of her grandfather, except that this family background appears to have equipped our Foreign Minister with a built-in knee-jerk bias against Russia, which, if the Prime Minister had known about it when he appointed her might well have disqualified her as unsuitable for this particular post in his Cabinet. One cannot help but wonder if our decision to expel four diplomats had its origin in this bias.
So much for this particular incident, about which we must surely learn more in the coming weeks, especially since the two victims have apparently recovered, and the daughter has made a statement saying she is quite well. To return to the broader statements denouncing RT, I can only say that I watch many programmes by reputable people  who must be incredulous at the charge that they are the tools of Russian propaganda.
From Moscow they have two women interviewers Sophie Sheverdnadze, granddaughter of the former Soviet Foreign minister, and Oxana Boyko. Sophie was brought up for years in France, has attended several American universities, and is fluent in at least four languages. She is a beautiful woman, and apparently a bit of a social butterfly, who is reported to take part in social events across Europe (I mention this only to establish that her knowledge of the outside world is based on much multi-level experience.) Oxana, though her experience has largely been within Russia, also attended an American university, and has been a reporter at many crisis events. She has a sharp mind, makes of her interviews a  non-stop, often rather querulous conversation, in which she quite evidently has the intellect and training to argue on equal terms with even the most sophisticated experts. I have heard dozens of the interviews of these two women, and I can remember only one, by Oxana, that was what I might call offensively following a party line. In general they both have the presence to command the attention of heads of state, men and women working in international development and politics, academics from world universities, and so on. One might compare them with Stephen Sackur, also an extremely well-informed person, the BBC reporter who runs the interview programme Hardtalk, and Zeinab Badawi, an interviewer who specializes in Africa: I have heard dozens of their interviews, too, and cannot avoid feeling that at base, Sackur is a bundle of Western political attitudes that he will never agree to question; and Badawi as an interviewer, is frankly incompetent.  In short, I don’t see much difference between the two sides, and from the point of view of freedom of expression, there is little to choose between them. As my son might say of them, they each have their own agendas. Nothing wrong with that.
For the rest, RT has regular programmes by such luminaries as Chris Hedges (whose penetrating interviews with various dissenters from the American way of life are usually of outstanding interest); Larry King, the workaholic TV and radio personality, still at the age of 84 interviewing every day; Jesse Ventura, former maverick governor of Minnesota; Alex Salmond, former leader of the Scottish National Party, who turns out to be a gentle interviewer who gives a gift to whoever he is interviewing at the end of every show; and as a news presenter  four evenings a week Ed Schultz, a veteran of American TV and radio who began as a conservative, but became a leftist when confronted with the evidence of the life he could see when he went on the road. I have heard Schultz say that he has never been told what to say or present, and to complain that the people who denounce RT in the West have never bothered to visit them to talk to their journalists. I am sure all of these must be astonished to hear the vitriol directed against their station daily, especially in the United States.
 In addition to all this RT has regular documentaries, some of which I have seen, and which appear to be of generally good  quality.
All of this is true of the BBC and the CBC as well, but for some reason these networks do not have to suffer the sort of absurd charges levelled at RT by politically interested persons, many of whom seem to be interested primarily in advancing their careers.