Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Grecian Reflection

A good friend of mine, who was also an editor of a widely-circulated magazine, called me and asked if I would write a short piece on the Kennedy Era, an Era drawn to a close with the death of Ted Kennedy.

I was reluctant to do this, for several reasons, not the least of which was that I never met any of the Kennedys, and would be writing from sources, not personal experience. (This would not be true of Lord Strunsky's father, who had an almost visceral hatred of Joseph Kennedy, a hatred he shared with Churchill.) In any event, I declined, but this did not stop me from reflecting.

My first thought, when I considered the most recent Kennedy to pass away, was a line from Marlowe's Dr. Faustus: "Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight." There is little doubt in my mind that Ted Kennedy was set for the American presidency, until that horrific night at Chappaquiddick, a night that killed that possibility forever. (And really killed the unfortunate Mary Jo.) It is not my job to re-hash the details, other than to state that almost anyone else other than Ted would have been crushed. Period. Full stop.

But Ted continued on, and over the years, in the U.S. Senate, attempted to 'straighten' that branch. In doing so, the man achieved, if not redemption, at least a record of real accomplishment. And if his Senate work on universal health care can be brought to fruition....well.

Yet if you widen the scope on the Kennedy family, the whole tale plays out as if drawn from a Greek tragedy. Something along the lines of the House of Atreus, where most of the major players are doomed from the start. Yes, there is success: Jack becomes a beloved President, and entrances the world when he stated in a beleaguered Berlin, "Ich bin ein Berliner!" (Although, given his Massachusetts accent, the phrase came out as "I am a donut!" The Berliners attending were quick to forgive.) Less happy was his statement, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." This is perilously close to Horace's "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" [It is a sweet and noble thing to die for your country] something Siegfried Sassoon rightly termed "the old lie."

Then Bobby, who wanted to go after corruption, and as Attorney General, did. And would have pursued this even more fiercely as President. Well, said the Cosa Nostra, we can't have that. And they didn't.

So it may well turn out that the most lasting Kennedy legacy will be left to Ted, with the provision of affordable health cars for all Americans. In this he has switched from a Greek setting to one of the Old Testament, as Moses pointing to the Promised Land, but not allowed to go to it. And just who will the Joshua be to achieve this?

To that, I think we know the answer.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Academic and Non-Academic Pursuits

My youngest, Victoria, dropped in for a few days. She had finished her thesis for an MA in History at Stanford, and wanted me to review it. No problem, and I was glad to see her still in one piece. You may recall that Victoria has a somewhat bizarre sideline, where she has perfected acting as a dead body for various American television shows. I thought this ridiculous, but could not deny that she received a good buck for being sliced, diced and mangled in all manner of ways.

I reviewed her work, and was impressed. She had argued well that while religion was at the basis of the Thirty Years War, the economics of the situation were far more important. Put differently, the religious issues (Catholic v. Protestant) were for public consumption; the real issues were decided by bankers, traders and merchants. Not unlike things today.

I did have one big quibble, and put to her the fact that she didn't give enough stress on the importance of the early Battle of the White Mountain (1620) and the brilliance of the Catholic commander, Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly. He was, I argued, streets ahead of his opposite number, Christian of Anhalt.

"Tilly was an outright bastard," Victoria said.

"Inglorious, you mean. Well so were they all. And Anhalt had the high ground on the mountain. No way he should have been defeated. He just didn't see the importance of the bridge. Tilly did. And why that battle was so important is that it led to three centuries of rule over Bohemia by the Hapsburg's. That should surface somewhere in your writing. And one other thing."

Victoria groaned.

"You miss one of the key outcomes of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia."

"And just what was that?"

"Now Vicky, no need to be snappish. What I am getting at is that at Westphalia, the principle of non-interference in a state's internal affairs surfaced for the first time. In fact, if you wanted to be really bold, you could draw a direct line from Westphalia to that ghastly mess in Rwanda. But better not. This would lead to a feeling of guilt on the part of your examiners, and this would not be to your benefit. But the principle could be highlighted."

Victoria was silent for a time, but then, in a complete non-sequitor, said, "I'm thinking of moving back up here."

"Wonderful! What brings this on? I thought your proximity to your little parts in film and television were of importance, and a lot of the work is in LA. "

"Oh, I'd fly down for that. In fact, I've got some more work in 'True Blood', and -- funny you mentioned inglorious bastards, or rather 'ingloreous basterds' -- I've been approached by some of Quentin Tarantino's people. They were impressed with the scene where the vampires --"

"I don't want to know. And as for Tarantino, he'll probably have you thrown into a threshing machine."

"How did you know?"

I looked at her, shocked.

"Oh, Mum, just kidding. But he is brilliant. Anyway, things are just getting too hairy in the States. You can just feel the hate, Republicans against Democrats. And every one's armed to the teeth. I just don't want to be there when things explode. "

"Vicky, you've forgotten your Churchill. As he put it, 'America usually gets it right, after she's exhausted all the alternatives.'"

"Maybe. But I'm still coming. And you've forgotten your friend Bill Maher, and his statement, 'Democrats have moved to the right, and Republicans have moved into a mental institution.'"



"Good to have you back."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Giving Perspective To Matilda

I had to cope with a rather distraught Matilda Hatt yesterday. All I knew was that she was furious with her immediate superior, whom she had dubbed Optimus Prime. (Tilly quite liked the Transformer movies.) I sent Ahmed in the Bentley to fetch her from the airport, something he was eager to do.

This was not always the case. Ahmed, being of a Middle East persuasion, was often singled out as he parked and waited for whatever personage was arriving. He would patiently explain to the officers that he was no relation to Bin Laden, had been a Canadian citizen for years, and indeed was married to a nice Catholic girl, an act that in certain areas of his homeland would result in him being beheaded. Eventually the officers, who all appeared to be retired drill sergeants trying desperately to fulfil a huge gap in their lives, would tell Ahmed to move on. This quite often resulted in his circling the airport and arriving again at his spot. Whereupon the whole process would start again.

Things were different now, thanks to the advent of the cell phone. Ahmed could wait, along with others doing the same thing, on a ramp just out of sight of the airport officers. When he received a call, he would know precisely the spot where the arrival was, zoom in and collect the person, and would then sail off, noting with pleasure the look of fury on the officers as they rushed to the pick-up spot, too late to harass.

So off he went to collect Tilly, and soon she had flounced into my study, demanded a healthy shot of Grey Goose, and began pacing around the room, venting. Big time.

"Simone, you're not going to believe this. I was all set to join a team to help out in the upcoming election in Afghanistan, and I was ready to kick ass. Get those Afghan women off their butts and into a polling station, and have them plump for any candidate that is pushing for their equality. And you know what Optimus did? She removed me from the team, with orders to take two weeks leave! The bitch!"

"I would have done the same thing."

"What! You've got to be kidding. After what we've been through? Simone, really."

"Tilly, stop pacing and sit down. By the way, I like the outfit." Tilly was dressed in a stylish black linen flared skirt and white blouse. It was a far cry from her usual army fatigues. Hell, I hadn't thought she even owned a skirt.

"Well, I'm meeting this guy later -- oh, stop it. You're trying to change the subject."

"Perhaps. But for now, just sit and listen for a bit."

Reluctantly Tilly folded herself into one of the big study armchairs, and I began. I explained that her "kicking ass" as she put it was precisely the wrong approach. You don't jump from the 9th century to the 21st that quickly. Just imagine, I asked her, if she was, oh, I don't know, say a serving wench in the 15th century who suddenly found herself thrust into the 21st. "You would be gobsmacked," I said. "What on earth would you do?"

"I would," Tilly replied, "get a job in a pub as a waitress. Some things never change. And then I would listen. And learn."

Good on Tilly, and she was right about the waitress job. A bum pinched in the 15th century is no different than one pinched in the 21st.

"So you would listen and learn," I continued. "Well, that's what you have to allow Afghan women to do. And it takes time. Look at Mary Wollenscraft. Look at Emmeline Pankhurst. And in Canada women were only considered legal persons in the 20th century."

"Really?" she said.

"Really. Look up Rosalie Abella on the topic. And this above all -- give them time. We needed it. So do they."

"I guess you're right," she said glumly. "God, some things are so hard."

"Progress is never easy. But where women are concerned, I have hope." I reached for a book. "This, Tilly, might give you hope as well. Emmeline Pankhurst said it. 'We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help free the other half.'"

And for the first time that day, Tilly smiled.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

I Attend A Town Hall Health Care Meeting

From Nairobi to Chicago, leaving Hillary to go on to the Democratic (Hah!) Republic of Congo. Good luck with that. In Chicago, I undertook a small task for Sir Harry, who was helping out his American friends -- all five of them. This involved retrieving and dumping about $60 million dollars worth of heroin into Lake Michigan, all neatly wrapped in bags emblazoned with their point of origin, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. No doubt the number of blow fish will increase....

Having some time to kill before returning to the Manor, I decided to drop in on one of Barack Obama's town hall meetings, set up to explain universal health care to Americans. That evening found me in the wonderful town of Gary, Indiana. The meeting had just started when I slipped in the back. Two harassed congressmen were trying to make a case for revamping the horror story that is American health care, but were continually being shouted down by several people in the audience. Cries such as "Socialism on the march!", "We don't want our health care to be decided by government death panels!" and "It's a Canadian plot to take over our country!" filled the air.

Eventually the congressmen simply gave up, and those citizens who actually wanted to learn something were left none the wiser. As the meeting broke up, I heard several of the group that had caused the disruption say they were meeting across the street at Macy's.

Macy's turned out to be a rather seedy bar around the corner from the community centre where the meeting had been held. Sensing that there was more to all this than met the eye, I headed for Macy's as well. But not before taking precautions.

I wore a red flannel shirt tucked into a pair of Levis, and had on some rather scuffed boots (I had done the scuffing earlier in the day, sensing that Gucci would not be well received in this part of Gary). Before entering the bar, I fastened two buttons to my shirt. Over my left breast, I placed a button for the National Rifle Association; on the left, one in bold letters saying 'Truckers For Christ'. Sir Harry always was keen on an operative melding into a particular environment.

As I made my way forward, I was aware of several appreciative glances, and I had not been at the bar for ten seconds before one of the men had offered to buy. Seeing that all were Budweiser fans, I made a sacrifice and had the same. (We are a long way away from Laphroaig or Grey Goose). And then I listened.

They apparently could only stay in the bar for about an hour, because the bus that had brought them was set to leave at that time. All were delighted to be in Gary, and they were off to another town hall the next day, Des Moines, I think. What delighted them was the fact that not only were they receiving a small cash stipend to disrupt these meetings, they were also going to get deep discounts on any pharmaceutical drugs they might purchase, for the next three years. The bus and driver, you see, were paid for by a cartel of drug companies.

At this point I left the bar, headed for the rest room, and suddenly, and very violently, vomited. I had realized that the battle to give Americans a decent health care plan was not an uphill one, but more one that involved climbing a mountain akin to the Eiger.

But Obama knows this. Or so one must hope.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Of Bill And Hillary And Al and Walt

Sorry to be a bit late with this one. I have been out of the country, courtesy of Sir Harry (Lord, how that comes trippingly off the tongue) and the trip took longer than expected. My task was to deliver to Hillary Clinton certain obscure codes related to nuclear submarines, which raised the question of what Sir Harry got in return -- a kind of Rumsfeldian 'known unknown'. Well, time will tell -- too late as usual.

I thought it would be a quick trip to Foggy Bottom in Washington, but the woman had hared off to Nairobi, and hence things took a bit longer than expected. The codes were encrypted into a microchip, and although I was thoroughly, and I mean thoroughly, searched in Nairobi, the microchip was safely in....well, never mind where. So, a successful mission.

Hillary was also flushed with success. Apparently two reporters for Al Gore's TV station, Current, had strayed across the border between China and North Korea. Whether or not this was so is irrelevant -- the upshot was that they were seized and immediately fired off to Pyongyang for trial and a sentence of 12 years of hard labour. Why young women are continually and foolishly putting themselves into this sort of situation escapes me. Have they never read T.S. Eliot's play The Cocktail Party?

So there were the two women, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, languishing in a Pyongyang jail, totally at the mercy of the Dear Leader, Kin Jong Il. As Hillary tells it, steps were immediately taken. She, Al, Bill and Barack got together, and through various back channels -- step forward, Sir Harry -- they determined what the Dear Leader really craved, the receipt of which would be a pardon for the two women. Kim, you see, had always gotten along fairly well with Bill Clinton, and wanted to see him again. (Kim had thought George Bush to be insane, to which I say, 'takes one to know one'.) And besides seeing Bill, he wanted a special gift. Apparently the Dear Leader is fixated on Disney films, and particularly wanted Snow White, The Little Mermaid and Cinderella. Bill agreed to bring the whole canon on DVD, but Kim said to not bring Fantasia -- the 'Night On Bald Mountain' segment scared the crap out of him.

All this was put in motion, and shortly after, success. Triples all round, a rare win-win situation for Washington. Even the Republicans stayed out of this one, busy as they were trying to prove that Obama's birth certificate was bogus. Oh, well, you can't have everything.

Hillary and I celebrated with some Grey Goose at the Embassy. However, one awkward moment arose when she asked me to tell her what she might be doing wrong.

"You're doing just fine."

"No, Simone, really."

"Well, you might consider, from time to time, wearing something else than a pant suit. A dress, a jumper, I don't know. I mean, you are an attractive woman. Such attractiveness can be a weapon, and weapons are there to be used."

"Point taken."

"But not just yet," I continued.

"What do you mean?"

"I have just learned that a woman has been arrested in Khartoum for wearing pants, and she's set for a flogging. So might I suggest something?"


"Send old Al-Bashir your picture in your pant suit, along with a note saying something along the lines of 'We're watching you, you old bugger.'"

"Simone, you're priceless."

"Yes, I am."