Friday, February 26, 2010

Wisdom Only Comes With the Falling of Dusk

I can now consider Lisa Moore to have officially made it, because she’s been reviewed in the New York Times. I first met her when I interviewed her for The Muse, either just before or just after she became writer-in-residence at Memorial University. I can’t quite remember the exact chronology. She filled the job incredibly well, becoming a popular fixture on campus and deeply integrated with the literature student community. I had given up on writing of my own when she was writer-in-residence, so I wasn’t really an active member of that scene. If I could go back now that I self-identify very differently, I don’t really know what would change. But this post isn’t about other possible worlds.

Her second book is called February, the story of a woman who has taken decades to deal with the traumatic death of her husband at sea. The Times article, by Sylvia Brownrigg, is a very positive review, and it looks like an intriguing book. But there’s an element of the story that the Times doesn’t notice, which is very important for understanding the particular resonance of the book. The book takes place in St John’s, and Brownrigg notes that the protagonist’s husband had died in the collapse of an ocean oil platform in a severe storm in the early 1980s, where none of the crew survived. To a typical New York Times reader, this is all you need to know, and you can appreciate the story for its craft and emotional power at the individual level just fine with this context. But if you’re from Newfoundland, once you know this, the story takes on a deeper, much more traumatic meaning. Because a Newfoundlander reading the description of the husband’s death knows immediately that it was The Ocean Ranger.

The impact of this incident can’t be underestimated. The closest analogue I can see for a more widely known event is difficult to find. The best example I could think of is that The Ocean Ranger is to Newfoundland what The World Trade Centre is to New York City. It’s the greatest single shock of national trauma which that society experienced, and national trauma is the best way to understand its social, cultural, and psychological impact. It was the climax of centuries of deadly terror inflicted on working people by the sea. I don’t want to explain it any more, because my words in a blog post won’t match the place this event has in Newfoundland’s national psyche.

Mindful of this, here is what I think Moore was trying to do. She’s trying to make a national catharsis, a work of art to process the inconceivable. It seems an indirect method, which is probably best, because of the magnitude of the event itself. I don’t know how well she pulls this off, because I haven’t yet read the book. But I admire the project, even while I remain ambivalent.

The particular role of national art in depicting and processing national trauma is important and fascinating, and remains incredibly difficult. An artist has to be very careful not to trivialize the event through the required particularity of a narrative. There also has to be enough distance in time that the event can be properly understood without the immediate pain intefering with thought. Her story takes it as a remove as well, since it’s more specifically about the mourning process for the Ocean Ranger, rather than the event itself. This can be effective, but also very dangerous. If her protagonist, Helen O’Mara, comes to stand too literally for the ‘People of Newfoundland,’ then Moore risks sliding into hokum. But it would only be hokum to someone already familiar with the trauma itself, only a Newfoundlander. This particular kind of hokum would be pretty much invisible to someone not from the island, such as a New York Times book reviewer. I think Moore has the talent to prevent this, but I’m going to have to read the book myself to see. When does it come out in softcover?

(Is this a sign that a national trauma has been overcome? When a citizen can ask when the first major attempt at artistic catharsis is coming out in softcover?)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Meditations on Values and Priorities

At the moment, I’m working on a paper that constitutes my last course requirement for my doctorate, an application of John Dewey’s thought to environmental ethics. Then again, perhaps I should better call it a demonstration that Dewey’s thought can be applied to environmental ethics. The concept of the intrinsic value of nature and an enmity to anthropocentrism seems pretty alien to a pragmatist viewpoint, and most environmental ethicists agree that pragmatism can’t help them.

Of course, my essay takes a completely left-field attack on this point of view. My reasoning isn’t so much that environmental ethics actually can work by understanding value as inevitably reflecting human priorities. That’s an obvious frontal attack on environmentalist hostility to pragmatism that just won’t work. Instead, I’m looking at Dewey’s metaphysical principles - ideas about the world as being contingent; understanding that a species only survives when it is able to adapt mindfully of its surroundings, making environmental mindfulness a key factor in any evolutionary success. Immediate practical values of staying alive are integrated with understanding how you’re interdependent with a huge multiplicity of things that are not you.

Of course, this brief summary doesn’t do the idea any justice in its details, and is only meant to be an overview of what I’m currently working on. And any commentary should reflect the provisional and summary nature of what I’ve said in the last two paragraphs, not flippantly attempt a total refutation based on a few ambiguities in the account (I’m talking about you, Benny Wald). This is a method that’s been fairly common for me, and quite successful: ignoring the obvious set of philosophical debates (in this case, all Dewey’s ethical projects) and seeing how the central concepts can be informed by other elements of philosophy.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Another Democrat Supports an Unrepentant Terrorist

I discovered something today that I think will nag at me for quite a while in the future, because I don’t have an inkling of an idea of what to do about it. Scanning through my news of the day, I discovered a piece by Christopher Hitchens about a recent scandal regarding Amnesty International.

I have an ambivalent relationship with Hitchens. He was an advocate of the Iraq war in 2003, and a strong advocate of torture. He has since dropped his support of the war and more extreme torture techniques in the USA repetoire such as waterboarding, the latter after recording a very graphic video of Hitchens himself being waterboarded. And as I read his regular columns for Slate magazine, I find that his harsh evaluations of global politics to be remarkably sensible. I don’t always feel good about it, but I can’t help but agree with most everything he has written over the last twelve or so months, at least on some level.

Now he’s publicizing an affair that is incredibly disturbing to me. Amnesty International is one of the few charities I support financially, just above the minimum monthly donation, but it’s taken an important place in my thinking. They became involved over the Guantanamo era with a group called Cageprisoners, run by former Guantanamo prisoner and UK citizen Moazzem Begg. Amnesty advocated for Begg’s release, because they considered prisoners of the USA in Guantanamo to be political prisoners, and it was certainly clear that the prisoners were being treated inhumanely and violently.

But Begg himself and Cageprisoners are advocates for the return of the Taliban to the leadership of Afghanistan. In their support for Guantanamo prisoners, Amnesty has allied itself with figures who would deny millions of people the rights for which that Amnesty itself is an advocate. Amnesty opposed the USA’s treatment of its prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, an act in accordance with their ethical stance. But many of the prisoners themselves were stringent opponents of democracy, free thought and expression, and women’s rights. These men were unjustly treated in prison, because a democracy for one should be a democracy for all, even giving its enemies humane treatment. This is the core principle of democracy that Cheney’s policies ignored. To deny democracy in even one case is to deny your own democratic values.

Amnesty seems to have fallen into the trap of dualistic thinking. They opposed the USA’s human rights abuses, but in the fire of their opposition forgot that the targets of American violence were themselves enemies of human rights. Opposition to USA policy on prisoners meant alliance with Amnesty. But the most shameful aspect of this is that when an Amnesty executive, Gita Sahgal, spoke out against thier association with radical Islamists, she was suspended. Sahgal and her allies have established a website to advocate for her. These advocates of freedom of thought are trying to cover up their mistake by acting like authoritarians, like thought police.

But I find myself in a tight spot. Do I withdraw my funding and support of Amnesty because of this incident? Or do I hope that a resolution can be found, and its leaders come to their senses. I’ve seen many admirable figures and friends on the left become embarrassing hypocrites and apologists for violence because of the dualistic thinking that brought Amnesty and Moazzem Begg together. An opponent of the Iraq invasion becomes an opponent of NATO; support for ending the occupation of Palestine becomes support for Hamas; opposing George W and Western imperialism becomes apologising for al Qaeda. And I continue to feel like a lone voice in the wilderness.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Proliferating Television and Visions of Airships Over the Jungle

A by-product of my trip to Ecuador was another idea for a novel, which I think is the most promising I’ve had, with at least equal or higher potential than Write My Name In Hangul, my story about English teachers in South Korea. Travelling around Ecuador from city to city seems rather difficult, because it’s such a mountainous country with wide swaths of protected jungle area. So land transportation consists of tricky mountainous roads, which often take an entire day to travel the distance which would be only a few hours’ journey on Canadian highways. The most efficient way of getting from one city to another is by plane. Ecuadorians are very ecologically minded people, so this high carbon footprint of travelling around their country is a little paradoxical.

I realized the best kind of inter-city transit industry for this country would be airships, blimps, zeppelins. Helium gasbags with large passenger and crew cabins, spacious enough for a small ferry with the capacity of a standard inter-city plane, but much more comfortable. It would move at maybe half the pace, but could still get you from Quito to Cuenca to Loja in three hours. And it would be much more comfortable than a cramped airplane.

I don’t really have the entrepreneurial acumen to start this business myself, but I definitely have the creative mind to write a book about it. I already have most of my main characters, a couple of which I’ve used already in other projects, and the bare outlines of a story. Really, in terms of story, I just have the framework of everyone’s lives bumbling along while they fly from city to city on the flagship, L’Altavida. And there’s one incident that I want to include.

There’ll be a drunken documentary filmmaker, Norberto Krieger from either Argentina or Chile, who basically makes a home out of the airship, specifically the airship bar. About two-thirds of the way through the book, he’ll be comically thrown out of the airship over the jungle, but about a week later, he’ll walk back onto the airship when it stops in Cuenca. When asked how he survived the fall, he’d say “You have to tuck and roll.” When asked why he came back, he’d say, “I left my laptop in my crew cabin.”

And I have a title: The High Life.
One of the things that I find pretty cool about television today is the degree and obviousness with which a franchise migrates from country to country. Now, this has happened pretty much ever since television existed in multiple countries, with executives licencing remakes of shows that have been successful in other countries, and the success rate of the new shows being reasonable at best. The Office is probably the most obvious example, with eight versions now existing (the original UK, the United States, Quebec, France, Germany, Chile, Russia, Brazil). I find it interesting how differences between the shows can reflect the differences in culture between the different countries, but that’s not the piece of news I’ve discovered now.

No, what I found out is that a much more mediocre American sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, has been ripped off almost exactly by Belarus. The characters even have the same name, the scripts are practically translations, and the actors are disturbingly old compared to their US counterparts. It’s completely unlicenced and absolutely impossible for anyone to get them to cease production. All television in Belarus is owned by the authoritarian state, which exists outside all international legal systems.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Infamous Case of John Yoo, the Perfect Lawyer

Over the years, I’ve become intrigued by the lawyer. Among all my friends who have gone to law school, I’d say seventy per cent of them either didn’t finish, or did and chose not to become lawyers. For some, it was a matter of the workload, and the very long hours poring over legalese for hire. For others, they would be restricted from doing what they wanted to do with their lives, forced into taking positions that they might not want to take. This is what fascinates me most about lawyers.

Last month, I watched Jon Stewart interview John Yoo on The Daily Show, expecting to see him catch Yoo in some moment of hypocrisy, to display him in the infamy he deserved. This would have been a Jim Cramer moment for a genuinely influential figure in the Bush Administration. Yet Yoo never became ideological - he didn’t seem to have an ideology for Stewart’s questions to describe. Thinking on this and reading some of the analyses periodically over the following weeks, I realized that it was because John Yoo actually had no ideology. He had no beliefs.

What was he doing working in the Bush Administration? He was hired for the job. Why would he author a memo of legal advice that gave the Bush Administration the space to make a mockery of the Geneva Conventions, commit acts that American people generally consider morally reprehensible? Because it was part of his job to do so. Yoo’s bosses asked him if he could write a legal document giving them grounds to carry out particular acts. He acted according to the wishes of his client, finding the grey areas in the relevant legal documents to make their explanations.

This is what fascinates me about lawyers. The ideal lawyer is one who always acts in the best interest of their client, who becomes a tool of the client. The ideal lawyer empties their own personality and belief system, moral and political, and takes on that of their client. The wishes of the client become their wishes. This is why I think a lot of my more politically active friends left the legal profession, because they would have found themselves in this bind. In an economic climate where a young lawyer needs to take the jobs they can get, there is no guarantee that someone at the start of their career will work at a firm or represent clients who share at least some significant part of their belief system. If you’re not comfortable with that, then you won’t be comfortable being a working lawyer.

These kinds of empty personalities are what I find fascinating, the people who completely subsume themselves, who make themselves a figure for the action of others, an implement. I had an idea for a novel a while ago about a lawyer. I might have written about it here, but I don’t feel like going through my archives to check. The central character would be a lawyer who was completely indifferent to the actual guilt or innocence of his client, who cared only that his case was successful. I first thought of him as being a totally amoral egomaniac, someone for whom victory in a case is the paramount good, a validation of himself as a person.

But that’s not actually how these personalities work. The lawyer who cares only for the concerns of the client is more a mechanism than an ego. If he had an ego, it would only get in the way of his client’s own ideologies. This lawyer would have to be completely neutral, in every sense of the term. It’s a character I find scarier than the egomaniac centred on victory at all costs. The egomaniac’s victories would always be for him, achievements against sometimes impossible odds. He would be a supervillain with an amazing zest and vitality. The neutral would be a pure mechanism, the absolute servant. I wonder what kind of story could be centred around a person with no desires of his own, who exists only as a cipher.

Maybe I need to read some Phillip K Dick before I write this one.