Monday, February 25, 2019

My Log 703 Feb 25 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 137; Scattergun me, trying to read too much, as usual; but finding myself awash in superbly written English; American writers who can laugh at their crooks while exposing them mercilessly

I confessed in a recent posting about my scattergun reading habits, which arise from my scattergun mind, and result in  the scattergun nature of my tenuous hold on knowledge. Knows something about a lot of things, but nothing much about any one thing, might be a way of describing it.
This scattergunism, to coin a phrase, has been hard at work recently as I have been trying to read three books in tandem, all of them remarkable examples of written English, each if them outstanding in its particular genre, and together representing a diversity that I always find encouraging --- one by a Canadian, two by Americans, one a deeply serious political analysis, the others wildly successful bestselling mysteries or thrillers, and yet all if them dealing with serious subjects of social concern.
In the hope of making some progress through these books I have had to pull my horns in a bit and that has meant laying aside, I hope temporarily, the highly-praised, beautifully-written  work, Paris 1919, published in 2001 by the Toronto professor Margaret MacMillan, about the treaty-making at the end of the First World War, an exercise in collected political wisdom that, in the opinion of many qualified experts, lead us all on inexorably into the horrors and massive death-dealing of the Second World War.
That brings me on to the two popular works by best-selling authors, Carl Hiaasen, and Don Winslow. Both have written what might be called mysteries, overlain with a  comic bent: indeed, since I read my first of Hiaasen’s novels to cross my ken a few years ago, I have regarded him as a comic novelist of the calibre of the early Evelyn Waugh, who wrote his comic masterpieces in the late 1920s.  That particular book, Sick Puppy, opens with a citizen following along in his car another car through whose window is being tossed the wrappers, bottles and containers being discarded as the driver eats his lunch. As a result Citizen No 1 follows the other man to his home, then goes back into town to buy a loaded garbage truck from the city workers, with which he returns to the citizen’s home and dumps the garbage over the offending car.  That kicks the book off with a statement of intention that could hardly be misunderstood.
Similarly, this book that I have just read, Stormy Weather, was written three years after the 1992 Hurricane Andrew that devastated southern mainland Florida, destroying 28,000 homes and costing $15 billion in justified insurance claims. On page 119 of the book Hiaasen gives a succinct account of what drives him to make devastating fun of his home State while outlining the background of the character who undoubtedly lies at the centre of his work, a retired governor of Florida, Clint Tyree, who has transformed himself into a wild man of the wilderness, but one always avid for the improvement of affairs, and for destruction of the various phonies who are ruining things. Here is what he writes of this, quite evidently, his favourite character:
In his first post-election interview he told the New York Times that Florida was being destroyed by unbridled growth, over-development and pollution, and that the stinking root of all those evils was greed. By way of illustration he cited the Speaker of the Florida House for possessing “the ethics of an intestinal bacterium,” merely because the man had accepted a  free trip to Bangkok from a Miami Beach high-rise developer. Later Tyree went on radio urging visitors and would-be residents to stay out of the Sunshine State for a few years, “so we can gather our senses.” He announced a goal of Negative Population Growth and proposed generous tax incentives for counties that significantly reduced human density. Tyree couldn't have caused more of an uproar had he been preaching satanism to pre-schoolers. The view that the governor was mentally unstable was reinforced by his refusal to accept bribes…”
When this former governor eventually emerges in the book as a character, having tied himself by rope to a high bridge in the hope of experiencing the worst the hurricane can do to him, he is called Skink, and has become a dishevelled, wild one-eyed man, carrying toads in his pockets to provide the raw material for the stuff he is smoking, and whose only permanent contact with the outside world is through Jim Tile, the black State trooper who once was his official guard, and who has since, in an act of huge obeisance before the man’s wisdom,  accepted to continue his guardianship, never mind the effect it might have on his official job as a State trooper.  Skink is regarded by everyone who runs across him as a complete lunatic,  but he always somehow manages to disappear, and no one but Jim Tile knows where he is to be found. What the usual official  overlooks is  that the former governor is a highly intelligent man whose actions are all based on the deep intensity of his violated concern for the Earth.
The hurricane of course is immediately followed  by an invasion from outsiders of every known crooked tendency: crooked building contractors, momentarily concerned that their misdeeds may become known through the scores of their buildings that have simply been blown to smithereens; crooked building inspectors, roaming on the lookout for places they know they approved without so much as looking at them, and just hoping for a chance to  add to their miscreancy; crooked, or just fly-by-night roofing contractors on the lookout for a huge increase in their business, if only they can find owners distressed enough to accept their phony offers of reconstruction at grossly inflated prices; and just a floating assemblage of petty crooks looking for homes that appear to have been almost totally destroyed but temporarily abandoned by their owners, leaving the possibility that with a bit of luck they themselves  might be able to persuade rambling insurance adjusters to make a quick settlement with  them, believing them to be the owners.
The cast he has assembled for this 384-page story is alive with actions so evil as to dismay everybody except Skink who has seen it all before, and knows what to expect.  At one point about 80 pages before the end I thought Hiaasen had taken the story about as far as it could go, but he kept on at it, and I realized he had more lessons to deliver, lessons hinting at finding very occasionally the better side of human nature, and the possibility of some redemption.
One of the characters on whom Hiassen lavishes most contempt is a New York advertising man, Max, who had just arrived on his honeymoon with his wife Bonnie when the hurricane struck. Instead of empathizing with the victims, as Bonnie expected him to do, he raced off fiendishly with his camcorder to record all the misery he could find. One of the places that had been destroyed was a wild-life establishment of some kind, from which all manner of exotic animals were able to escape to roam the destroyed landscape. One of the monkeys snatched Max’s camcorder, and he chased off after it so voraciously as to lose contact with his wife, who was already having second thoughts about him. Skink captures the evil little sod and attaches to him an electrified dog collar sufficient to deliver severe enough jabs to keep the man under control. He decides he would like to meet the wife of this pest, eventually does so, and is immediately captivated by the open-minded Bonnie, who, providentially, is in the process of falling  for the nephew of the man who had owned all the wild animals.
The drama ends when Bonnie is read a passage from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, that came to her from Skink.
Once I thought that to be human was the highest aim a man could have, but I see now that it was meant to destroy me. Today I am proud to say that I am inhuman, that I belong not to men and governments, that I have nothing to do with creeds and principles,  have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity --- I belong to the Earth! I say that, lying on my pillow, and I can feel the horns sprouting from my temples.

So this is the testament of Skink, and the book ends with the enchanted Bonnie requesting her new lover to “take this rope. Tie me to the bridge,” in emulation of her new hero.
I saw Hiaasen recently interviewed on the BBC. He seems to be a man free of the normal ego that inflates the value that such as writers, actors, scientific geniuses  automatically accept as their inborn right. This in spite of  his 17 novels having been sold in 13 million copies and been translated into 34 languages. He is still working as a columnist for the Miami Herald, which provided his original bread and butter, and he said he could never leave Florida, for that is the world he knows, and nothing could tear him away from it.
This leaves me hardly any space to mention Don Winslow’s novel, The Dawn Patrol. It gives a detailed description of the surfer life around San Diego, California, centred on a remarkably charismatic character called Boone Daniels, a man who could have done almost anything he set his mind to, except for his intense attachment to the world of surfing. The little gang revolving around him is called The Dawn Patrol. They each have their own surfing name --- Hang Twelve, Dave the Love God, Johnny Banzai, High Tide, and, the lone woman, Sunny Day, a better surfer even than Boone, “her blond hair glows like sunshine, a force of nature, tall, long-legged,  exactly what Brian Wilson  meant when he wrote that he wished they could all be California girls.”
They have heard that a huge roller is on its way, out of Alaska, arriving in two days, that will give them the biggest, most dangerous ride of their careers. They are all preparing to greet it, the peak moment of their lives to date.   
I am not someone who really takes to the self-glorification of surfers, whose primary pretence is usually that they are superior to non-surfers, and can exist without them. But Winslow’s description, from the inside, of this world is completely persuasive, and sounds authentic.
Another form of life is centred around San Diego: that is the importation of Mexican farm workers to harvest the crops, and the secretive, almost hidden activity that accompanies them. Of course, they are grossly underpaid. The moneyed people who bring them in also bring in a raft of children, just small kids, beautiful little Mexican kids, captured in Mexico and brought north, held under complete control and, when the time is ripe, offered as objects for the sexual gratification of the farm workers. This, also is called the Dawn Patrol, and is a hugely profitable business. Somehow one little kid breaks loose and Boone’s suspicions are aroused. He begins to follow it up: the denouement occurs simultaneously with the arrival of the big wave: the Dawn Patrol is ready, but without Boone, they remain immobile. He is occupied: there is something bigger than just surfing. In spite of every indication of danger to his own life and that of his surfing colleagues, he  fearlessly pursues the criminals into the seaside scrub and forest in which the operation is hidden.
 Eventually, Boone  triumphs: and so does Mr Winslow, another man with 17 successful novels behind him, of which I feel confident in  saying any of them would be worthwhile reading for any person with an interest in modern-day American life.
Those three or four of them I have read certainly fulfil that prescription.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

My Log 702 Feb 18 2019-02-17: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 136 The resignation of some obscure federal government functionary exposes my ignorance of political life; and it isn’t even yet clear as to the whys, wherefores and was it even necessary?

 Here’s a pretty thing. Some fellow who I have scarcely heard of before, resigns from some position he has in the government of Canada, and his resignation is trumpeted by the Globe and Mail newspaper over multiple pages, as the biggest resignation since sliced bread. (Has sliced bread ever resigned?)
The man’s name is Gerald Butts, and his position within the government appears to have been as best friend to the Prime Minister since university days. The commentariat is agog with expressions indicating that the government is in a serious decline, that it will possibly never recover, portraying the Prime Minister as a bereft, lonely guy floating around in bewilderment with the loss of his best friend.
Readers, if I have any left, will by now know my antipathy for anything to do with either the Liberal or Conservative parties, and will, I hope, be prepared to forgive my belief that, far from being alone in my lack of knowledge of this Mr, Senor or Monsieur Butts, I believe I am  probably allied in my ignorance with the vast majority of the estimated 37,162,063 people of Canada.
The odd thing is that the very newspaper that started this whole kerfuffle that has led to the resignation of a Cabinet minister and an advisor, has, in an editorial published on this very day, admitted that in spite of everything so far written --- hundreds of thousands of words, uncounted bottles of printers’ ink, untold pages of newspaper print, and oceans of  barely suppressed fury and explosive frustration ---  not enough is known about the controversy to allow anyone in Canada to understand if the government has done anything unpraiseworthy, immoral, incorrect, or even just damned stupid. (Whew! I’ve gotta admit I like that as a sentence.)
I just lifted my head from my computer and right in front of me, flowing across the screen of my TV is the headline  LIBERALS ATTEMPT TO MANAGE CRISIS, behind which a woman later identified as “a crisis communications expert”, whatever that is, is pontificating as to the seriousness of the situation we all find ourselves confronted with. Could his be one of those events foretold by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine in which a crisis is deliberately manufactured with the intention of creating chaos from which emerges a change of government? It seems so far to bear all the hallmarks, if I may be permitted a cliché. The only thing that holds me back from making such a judgment is that the only person likely to profit from such a crisis would be the impossibly feeble Andrew Scheer, the leader of the hateful Conservatives, and he certainly doesn't give the impression that he has sufficient wit, cunning, courage, or capacity to have embarked on such a machiavellian course of action.
Maybe it’s just that it is a poor news day: the BBC has handed over its channel to the death of someone called Karl Lagerfeld, who apparently rescued the fashion house of Chanel from obscurity.
With such poor news pickings, maybe our manufactured crisis, culminating in the resignation of Mr., Senor or  Monsieur Butts has presented itself to the nation’s editors as a temporary god-send.
Another aspect of this crisis has been the unexpected elevation of the  demoted Justice Minister-later-resigned-Veterans-Affairs-Minister, Jody Wilson Raybould, to sainthood, leading one aboriginal leader this morning to say her status among his people is the highest that can be imagined, or words to that effect. Her resignation may be described as both strong-willed, and cunning, for it followed a statement by the Prime Minister that her continued presence in Cabinet spoke to his faith in her and her judgment. To which one can imagine her saying to herself, “Oh, yeah, I’ll give him faith in my judgment,” and thereupon forthwith cutting the ground from under his exalted feet by resigning.  If I describe this as a mischievous act, I hope no one will take that as a criticism: we need more mischievous acts from our politicians, who, by and large, tend to be a stolid, unimaginative lot.   Talking of mischievous acts, the resigned minister’s father Chief Bill Wilson, a gruff old character, who described his daughter as a woman of steel will, let off a well-merited blast  at what he called “this cosmetic baloney” of the Trudeau government’s policy of seeking conciliation with the indigenous people of Canada. I have known Bill for many years, and feel free to describe him as mildly mischievous from having shared with him an event  in a hotel room in Ottawa many years ago in which either he threw one of my shoes out the window of a seventh floor room, or I threw one of his  out, I can't remember which. I do remember we had as very good time, cheerfully --- one might almost say mischievously --- dissing everyone within our ken.
His daughter --- a master stroke this ----  couples her resignation with the news that she has hired a former justice of the Supreme Court,  the only institution in the land equivalent to her own growing sainthood, to advise her on what she can and cannot say. 
This alone has made it seem  almost inevitable that she is going to spill some sort of beans sometime in the future, and everybody is now insinuating that that hanging possibility alone might be the cause of the self-immolation of Mr., Senor or Monsieur Gerald Butts, on what otherwise might develop into the funeral pyre of his best university friend Justin Trudeau, now engaged in his “happy days” Prime Ministership.
Well, here’s a pickle, or as I began with, a pretty thing. On its outcome could well depend the future of the 8,700 workers of Canada’s major multinational engineering firm, and their families, let’s say, of some 20,000 people --- not a small matter, by any count, especially when it is thrown into the stew with all this political posturing.
Who knows how it will come out? Well, wot the hell, wot the hell. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

My Log 701 Feb 14 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 135; Canada is getting some doubtful friends internationally as our leaders line up behind restoring U.S hegemony over Latin America; and Canada is skilled in “the Culture of Plunder” in Africa; while Alberta practises eco-pornography

Hold on a moment, fellas. You are purporting to lead us, but it seems that maybe you are leading us in the wrong direction.
As our elected government, you have taken a lead, gathered allies, and taken a stand in the decision to overthrow the government of Venezuela. There have even been claims that Canada has been the main protagonist of the so-called Lima group that has robustly declared in favour of the self-appointed Juan Guaido as the real president of the country, thus supplanting by a mere dictat, never mind about an election, Nicholas Maduro.
That sounds very laudable, especially to those the right-wing neo-liberals, who are quite comfortable with unelected or self-appointed officials, or military dictators. But which countries are our friends in the Lima group? Where are we finding our allies these days?
How about Brazil, the giant of Latin America, only recently released from left-wing government by a process so flawed as to be almost laughable, a process in which one president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached for corruption and replaced by another, Michel Temer, who --- although he had been her main accuser ---  was thereupon himself accused of accepting massive bribes, with the result that he quite wisely decided not to stand for re-election. The man Brazilians wanted to replace Temer was the former president before Rousseff,  Luiz Ignácio “Lula” da Silva, but that wouldn't do, because he had governed as if the huge number of poor Brazilians had a right to some reward for their work, had introduced a family support programme conditional on their children going to school and being vaccinated, a programme that, along with  his provision of low-rent apartments to some 13 million Brazilians,  reduced the impoverished from 40 per cent of the 210 million population to 20 per cent, in the process  lifting 37 million people from the poor into an emerging middle-class. He also took measures to improve schooling, and to send black students --- some 50 per cent of Brazilians classify themselves as black or of mixed race --- and those from the poorly-funded public sector schools to private universities on scholarships.
Lula was caught up in the anti-corruption campaign: it isn’t altogether clear to me that he did anything worthy of his sentence of 11 years imprisonment, which bears all the signs of a measure by the oligarchy that before his accession to power had had an untrammelled run in Brazil, and which simply decided to see the back of him once and for all. That left the field open to a most peculiar representative of the extreme right,  Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer who had languished undistinguished among the lower ranks of politicians until suddenly being put forward as the likely challenge to a weak field of prospective presidents. Swept into power by a huge Trudeau-maniac-type vote, this man was already known for his expressed fondness for the previous military government that ruled Brazil for 21 years to 1985, and who said he would like to see every family have a gun, and expressed freely and repeatedly misogynistic, homophobic, and racist opinions of an essentially vile nature.
A rather strange bedfellow for “happy days” Justin Trudeau.
But then --- well, how about Peru? A country now ruled over by a guy who had been vice-president until the real president was removed for corruption.
And then, how about Honduras? We remember that Canada played a considerable role in the overthrow of the elected president of Honduras,  José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, in June, 2009, especially through  our government’s efforts to protect the interests of Canadian capital in the country. The Canadian government apparently was particularly active in preventing the return of Zelaya, first, to the country ---when he took refuge in the Brazilian embassy for a few weeks ---  and secondly, to power,  which he attempted, with Brazilian help,  but failed to achieve at least to some extent because of Canadian and American lack of co-operation with him.
Well, we all know that Honduras is an actual banana republic, a description sometimes being applied in these days to Canada, as related to the United  States. But even the United States is investigating Paraguay for money laundering, as is the United Nations in Guatemala for corruption, and in another member of the Lima Group, Colombia, a country where para-military militias have for years been in the business of murdering trades unionists, the UN refugee agency reports that there are eight million internally displaced people.
Oh, yes, not such nice people, some of these Latin American bosses. The new President of Mexico AMLO, as he is called, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to give him his full name, is also as member of the Lima group, but he has wisely tried to find a way to encourage negotiations between the contending parties, the sort of thing that one would have thought Canada might in times past have taken as lead in. (I’ll say it again: we need a new Foreign Minister). Although as anyone knows who has read anything about their past, the Latin Americans are not entirely responsible for their parlous condition but have been the victims of a centuries old onslaught from first British and then American capitalists.
Vijay Prashad, a well-informed journalist and book author, reports that we are not so innocent in Africa, either: according to him, in a riveting report on the 12-step American recipe for regime change, of which the onslaught by sanctions and other measures against Venezuela is a classic example, step No 4, the Culture of Plunder is one in which Canada takes a back seat to nobody:  he gives as an example that the Democratic Republic of Congo, with an annual  budget of $6 billion “is routinely robbed of at least $500 million by monopoly mining firms, mostly from Canada — the country now leading the charge against Venezuela. Mispricing and tax avoidance schemes allow these large firms (Canada’s Agrium, Barrick and Suncor) to routinely steal billions of dollars from impoverished states, while the children remain illiterate.” (More information can be found about this at <>
Of course, talking about our leaders marching us in the wrong direction, I have been astounded by the ease with which the Premier of Alberta, aided and abetted by the federal Prime Minister, has persuaded virtually the whole politico-social leadership of the country to shout enthusiastically in support for the continuing destruction of the globe’s life support systems. They would never admit to it, but that is exactly what they are recommending when they insist that a pipeline must be built to enable the toxic Tar Sands of Alberta to be expanded, not only thereby destroying huge areas of wilderness, but also driving a coach and horses through our slim chance of meeting our targets for carbon emissions into the atmosphere. That, if it comes off, will exacerbate climate warming with many drastic effects that are already becoming evident.
The most extraordinary evidence of how wrong is the path our leaders are embarked on comes not just from their misnaming of this crisis ---- it has been argued between feds and province as simply a “jurisdictional issue”, a staggering example of a displaced euphemism ---- but rather in the eco-pornography launched by the Alberta government, by way of a TV advertisement showing an aggressively healthy-looking Alberta family marching off towards the horizon in a sunny world untroubled by any problems, the commentary remarking  how Alberta oil is essential to the national interest, or words to that effect.
 The very opposite of what is the actual truth. If we dig out all of our Alberta oil, we are going to be well along in the destruction of a settled, productive and successful Canadian lifestyle.
So not only do we have doubtful allies in our decision to join the current naked effort of the United States to re-establish U.S. hegemony over all of Latin America, something that until recent years they had traditionally enjoyed (at least since the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1923). Global priorities have changed so dramatically in recent years, that most of the world would probably welcome American adherence to the Monroe Doctrine, if only they would not try to apply it to the entire world, as now happens.
(Recall: the Doctrine had four main points: (1) the United States would not interfere in the internal affairs of or the wars between European powers; (2) the United States recognized and would not interfere with existing colonies and dependencies in the Western Hemisphere; (3) the Western Hemisphere was closed to future colonization; and (4) any attempt by a European power to oppress or control any nation in the Western Hemisphere would be viewed as a hostile act against the United States.)
In addition, we have recently had this kerfuffle about the demotion, and finally the quitting, of a cabinet minister. It seems that a new penalty was created called a “remediation agreement” under which an entity like SNC Lavalin, a huge multinational engineering firm, when accused of some misdemeanor, would, instead of being charged, found guilty and all the rest, be heavily fined without an actual conviction being recorded. It appears that in the event of a conviction –-- in this particular case, of alleged bribery in order to obtain contracts --- a convicted company would be banned from tendering for government contracts for ten years.  Since some 8,7000 workers, and their families,  in Canada depend to a considerable extent on this company’s obtaining government work, the “remediation” procedure would appear to be a reasonable measure to ensure that the workers of a company would not necessarily be the main sufferers from the misdemeanours of their bosses. I can support any such outcome. The kerfuffle seems to be around the knowledge that the rich and powerful can  move governments even to change laws at their request. So what else is new? We didn’t already know that? I always find it hard to really bloviate in sync with all these conservative members of the  media commentariat who are currently foaming at the mouth in indignation.