Thursday, January 31, 2013

Of Arms And The U.S. Senate

To Washington, accompanied by Sir Peter Crapp, to take in the Senate hearing on gun control.

The previous evening Sir Peter and I had attended  the Canadian Opera Company's presentation of Wagner's Tristan Und Isolde. It was, in a word, stupendous. I had the opportunity to compliment the Director, Peter Sellers on a brilliant imagining of the piece and it was in my mind to devote this entry to a review that would brim with intelligence and remarkable insight. Time, however, does not permit.*

So to the Senate Hearing, and the pleas of many who were appalled at the availability of handguns and assault rifles that could be purchased by just about anyone swanning about in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Now I am very familiar with guns, being in The Trade, and am well aware of just how dangerous they can be, and how scarce their availability should be.

The session included many pleas to the Senators to take action on curtailing gun availability and ensuring deep background checks on prospective purchasers. The hearing also included a halting speech by Gabrielle Giffords,  the Arizona State 8th District Representative who had been shot in the face by an unhinged male. It was painful to watch, and if one did not know better, you would think that this was a discourse given by a ten-year-old.

Surely the impact would be telling, but no such luck -- gun control remains firmly embraced by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and under the aegis of the (wrongly interpreted) Second Amendment, something I have occasionally written about in past entries.** The "august" Senators won't, or cannot, get free of the lobby funds shunted their way by the NRA, and live in fear of being excoriated if they break ranks. All very sad.

Yet it is not easy to break free of violence. All nations are afflicted, and the reason has been well described by anthropologist Walter Burkert in his seminal text, Homo Necans.*** Thus Burkert writes:

"Man can virtually be defined as the 'hunting ape'....This statement leads to a second indisputable fact, that the age of the hunter, the Paleolithic,  comprises by far the the largest part of human history. No matter that estimates range between 95 and 99 percent: it is clear that man's biological evolution was accomplished during this time. By comparison, the period since the invention of agriculture -- 10,000 years, at most -- is a drop in the bucket. From this perspective, then, we can understand man's terrifying violence as deriving from the behaviour of the predatory animal, whose characteristics he came to acquire in the course of becoming man."

Knowing this, you would think that we could at least limit the availability of death-dealing weapons, as most civilized countries do.

Not in the opinion of the NRA, and as the New York Times reports, on the same day Gabrielle Giffords was testifying, the NRA was promoting a magazine for children entitled  "Junior Shooters". The stated aim is to get children involved in the recreational use of firearms, and one of the illustrations shows a smiling 15 year old girl clutching a semi-automatic rifle. The caption? "Who knows? Maybe you'll find a Bushmaster AR-15 under your tree some frosty Christmas morning!"

At this point I took a leaf from the "Beyond The Fringe Revue", headed for the toilet, and suddenly, and very violently, vomited..

* For which readers should be grateful -- Ed.

** Actually, ad nauseum. -- Ed..

*** For those not fluent in The Imperial Tongue, "Man The Killer."

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Thousand Shades Of Grey

From time to time I like to explore a word or concept in some depth, and then throw the concept out for further discussion. This is one of those times.

There is a word that modern media tosses around with something approaching gay abandon. You read or hear that a person, movement or an action is truly 'evil', the implication being that the situation borders on the hopeless, and one must immediately take up arms and oppose.


I can think of nothing in reality that is 100% evil. Rather, things seem to be a thousand shades of grey. And I hasten to add that this is not a reference to that very badly-written and banal book, Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James. After three pages, I stopped reading. After all, when you have given a dissertation at Oxford on De Sade's Justine, or lectured on Pauline Reage's Story Of O at the Sorbonne, getting involved with the James' text would be akin to saying "After you've seen Paree, why would you want to visit Don Mills?"

In truth, I can think of only one person that exhibits total evil, and that reference comes from literature, to wit: Shakespeare's portrait of Iago in Othello. Even Iago himself has trouble determining just why he acts the way he does, and his attempt to find a rationale has been brilliantly described by Coleridge as "The motive hunting of a motiveless malignity."

All others, whether in the arts or life, appear (at least to me) to fall into a 'more or less' category. A few examples come to mind.

One nominee for pure evil would be Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost. But hold on a minute. Satan was, in Milton's view, one of God's favourites, but was overcome by an overweening ambition and made the decision that it was better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Unlike Iago, there is a cause for the action.

So also with many other fictional examples deemed 'pure evil'. The idea of the serial killer is all too prominent in books, TV and movies, yet in all cases there are references to a ghastly upbringing or some early traumatic event. Again, a cause.

Of course, in real life serial killers also exist, but I believe my argument holds -- there always exists an underlying cause. But what of the likes of Pol Pot, Hitler? Osama bin Laden? Or even that model for Dracula, Vlad the Impaler? Well, let's have a look.

In the cases of Hitler and Pol Pot, I would posit that both were consumed by ideology, the former by Fascism compounded by Anti-Semitism,  the latter by Communism. As for Osama bin Laden, his belief in a lunatic version of Islam is all too evident. Evil men, to be sure, but not exemplars of 'pure' evil -- the causes are too prominent.

As for old Vlad (whose deeds appalled Europe in the 15th century, which took some doing, given the age) we should remember that as a young boy he was sent as hostage to the court of the Ottoman Sultan, Murad II, who delighted in elaborate cruelty and vicious child abuse.

Mind you, the examples given above are definitely into the dark side of the 'evil' spectrum, but not of the 100%  Iago type. As for the rest of us, we fall somewhere on that spectrum -- a thousand shades of grey.

Against this spectrum, we can but throw ethics, and must guard against attacks that stem from a variety of causes, including laws themselves. As John Frederick Gibson has noted in his fine little book, A Small And Charming Place, "In the course of time, legislation and regulation become more important than ethics, and at that point we are lost."

Definitely stuff for discussion here.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Coming Of Age

To the Carisma restaurant, for the best ravioli in Toronto. There I was to meet my CIA colleague in The Trade, Matilda Hatt. I had ordered two martinis, and had just taken my first sip when Tilly stormed in,  her face contorted in fury. She plunked herself down, grabbed the martini in front of her, and swallowed the whole thing in a gulp.

Whatever was bothering her, it was serious.

"I," she announced dramatically, "have been re-assigned. To a desk job! Me! The best field operative they've got. This is unbelievable.!"

After ordering her another martini, I heard her tale of woe, and the words Giuseppe di Lamedusa wrote in his fine novel The Leopard flashed into my mind: "If we want things to stay the way they are, things will have to change."

It turns out that Tilly had been promoted to head up field operations emanating from the UK, and was to liaise with Sir Harry to boot. This irritated her no end.

"The man's an outright curmudgeon," she stated. "Once called me a shrieking banshee! I mean, really."

"A shrieking Banshee?" I responded. "Well, I can certainly agree that Sir Harry is guilty of redundancy."

"I don't know what you mean. And look. They want me to wear this kind of an outfit from now on. It is all too much."

What Tilly was wearing was a dark blue woolen A-line dress, and I know an Armani when I see one. Truth be told, she looked smashing. Admittedly, this was a far cry from Tilly's usual apparel, which tended to be jeans that had seen better days, and a tattered sweater that resembled something that might have been worn on Mao's Long March. (This was not totally improbable -- Tilly had spent a great deal of time in China, meeting any number of Politburo members.)

At this point,  I decided that a greater perspective was needed, and over the course of a (very fine) lunch proceeded to unload a few truths, truths which applied to me as well as to her. Physically, we were still in good working order, but -- and here's the thing I explained -- not what we once were. Secondly, I got her to admit that on the shooting range her groupings were not as tight as they should be, nor was she as fast in reloading. Thirdly, what her superiors had recognized via the new appointment was an ability not determined by age -- her knack of imaginative planning and tactics.

"I mean," I said, "just look at how we got out of Libya with that physicist. I still don't know how you arranged that boat."

""Yeah," she stated, "but that got you shot in the ass. The whole thing could have gone better."

I shot back, "Nonsense. Just took one for the team. Doesn't take away from my point, that as we age, our abilities alter, and we have to adjust. So Matilda Hatt should also adjust. Think of it as a coming of age."

"I'll think about it. Don't have to like it, though."

"To my knowledge, no one does. But so it goes."

So there we left it.

Now a final word on a situation I have been harping on recently, the First Nations 'Idle No More'* movement. It amazes me that no commentator has drawn a parallel with Sophocles Oedipus Rex. In the play, Oedipus, King of a plague-ridden Thebes, tries to ascertain the cause of the plague, without realizing that the cause is he himself.

Admittedly, the parallel is not perfect; Oedipus truly doesn't know what his precise sin encompasses -- the murder of his father and marriage to his mother -- until it is revealed. In the case of the Idle No More thingy, a number of chiefs, and certainly Chief Theresa Spence,** know exactly the sins they have committed, condemning the band members under their charge to poverty, alcoholism, drugs, and ghastly living conditions. Their followers, however, may be truly wearing the shoes of Oedipus in not being aware that the solution lies within themselves. Let us hope that at some point awareness will dawn.

* The 'Idle No More' title seems oddly ill-suited to the initiative. It implies that prior to this, all First Nations were idlers, something history attests was certainly not the case. Now if all the protesters were to take a year off and do some reading....

** Theresa Spence. Idol no more.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Two Women

No, not a critique of the well-crafted Vittorio De Sica film, nor an account of the face-off between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I*, rather a behavioural review of two women currently in the news. What intrigued me was the staggering difference between the two. I turn now to the first lady, who really was a First Lady.

Hillary Rodham Clinton

After a very hard fought campaign for the American presidency, Hillary lost to Barack Obama. If she had at that point turned her back on America, and gone into a Great Sulk, people would not have applauded such an action, but they would have understood it. Hillary did nothing of the kind, graciously acceding defeat, and offering to help the new President in any capacity that he sought fit. Obama  (to the surprise of many) offered her the position of Secretary of State, a post which she accepted.

In this position, Hillary was enormously successful, and became respected by all of the world's leaders, or at least those who count. She logged a gazillion miles, kept a ferocious working schedule, yet still found time to support her colleagues at Foggy Bottom -- something not always done. She followed Obama's direction to the letter, and supported his policy positions with cogent arguments and convincing details. At the end of her time at State, she was regarded in polls as the most popular American politician in either party.

Well done, Hillary. Well done indeed.  And now I turn to the reverse of the medal

Theresa Spence

I have a great degree of admiration for certain Native North Americans. Here I think of the perseverance of Sitting Bull, the tactical brilliance of Tecumseh, or the leadership of Chief Dan George.

I do not think of Theresa Spence in these terms.

Spence is the Band Chief at the northern Attawapiskat Reserve, and to my mind is a poster child for all that can go wrong on a reserve. Millions of dollars have come her way, in order to provide adequate housing, education, and sound infrastructure for her band members. The monies arrived, but then disappeared, as determined by a recent Federal audit. No receipts, no paper trail, and certainly no evidence that these monies went to meet the priorities cited above.

Chief Spence lives well, making a six figure salary, and managing to achieve a stock market holding of some $200,000. Her house, unlike many on the reserve, is well equipped, up to and including a flat screen TV. Her cronies also do well, and her partner and "consultant", Clayton Kennedy, is on the payroll and garners $850 a day.

All of which apparently is not enough, so the Chief embarked on a "hunger strike"** which would only stop when a meeting with the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, could be arranged. This occurred, at which point Chief Spence withdrew the request, stating that the Governor General had to be at the meeting as well, representing the Queen. I believe at this point the whole thing degenerated into farce, with one of her assistants firing off a letter to Buckingham Palace.

A number of chiefs support her, probably because they exhibit similar fiscal chicanery, but not all do. In fact, there are an equal number who doubt the efficacy Spence's approach. Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is one, and while he is conscious of the serious problems on many reserves, is willing to work with the Prime Minister to resolve them, up to and including a hard look at the Indian Act itself. One can only hope.

As for Theresa Spence, and thinking of the band members she has kept in penury, these words from the last act in Macbeth well sum up what could await her:: "And that which should accompany old age, as honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have. In their stead, curses, not loud but deep, mouth honour, breath which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not."

Says it all, really.

* Not so much a 'face-off' as a 'head-off''

** This may be the only recorded hunger strike where the perpetrator gains, rather than loses, weight. I suspect more than a few Big Macs were smuggled in.

Friday, January 4, 2013

I, Like MacArthur, Have Returned

Back from cavorting with the family in the South Pacific, tired, but still in one piece. A good time was had by all, well, sort of.

There were, I must report, one broken toe on the part of my son Mark, the result of an over-energetic beach volleyball game, and two screaming matches involving my daughters. Indeed, Victoria and Isolde are currently not speaking to one another. This wont last -- they are polar opposites and need each other as sounding boards. Isolde has always thought Vicky's film roles to, as she put it, "supporting female victim hood in a way that bordered on the pornographic." Vicky returned with the observation that Isolde was just jealous that she didn't have a part in the TV series, "The Game of Thrones". On the other hand, I suspect Vicky herself was envious of Isolde's remarkable ability with the violin, and underlined this with her Christmas gift, bequeathing her a kazoo.

But it is not my purpose to go into details of the internecine warfare families often exhibit. For this, readers are directed to stuff written by Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, Anton Chekhov, or that patron saint of Wingham, Alice Munro.

The Compte de Rienville was also present (hurrah!) and added immeasurably to my enjoyment. Sadly he had to leave abruptly, however, muttering something about more Hollandaise sauce, but before he did, we had a most interesting encounter at the hotel bar with one Henry Threadneedle.

I would have thought, with that surname, that Henry was a banker, and indeed the man was a fount of information on finance. In actual fact, however, he was a first rate mathematician who had been in charge of the balance sheet at a Vegas casino. Apparently some monies had gone astray -- not Henry's fault -- and despairing of ever being given the chance to explain what he thought had occurred, decided to take flight before getting his head blown off by whatever Mafia outfit was running things.

He was also the thinnest man I'd ever encountered, and at times, when turning sideways, you'd think he disappeared. This prompted the Compte to venture the opinion that he thought there was a good chance that Henry Threadneedle had been raised by eels. In my opinion, this toying with invisibility would be a real asset in The Trade, and made a mental note to mention this to Sir Harry.

Henry's most interesting comments, however, focused on the current fiscal mess confronting much of the world, a condition he described as a very simple, very complex, problem. Simple, because the answer was patently obvious: a country, as well as an individual, should always ensure that if  obligations are undertaken, you should have the wherewithal to pay for them. Complex, because when the fiscal situation is severely out of whack, there are really only two means of addressing the imbalance -- raising taxes and curtailing spending. The former, politicians find to be easy; the latter, extraordinarily difficult, in that what the citizenry have come to expect in terms of entitlements will be reduced, or, in some cases, taken away entirely. This can result in a sure loss in the next election, lots of pots and pans on the street, and given an America armed to the teeth courtesy of the National Rifle Association, maybe something more ominous in the streets than kitchenware. Obama has his work cut out.

But let us not end on a sour note. I am happy to inform you that, in London, Ontario, Canada has won gold on the ice! Not our junior team (we wont go there) but our under 19 girls, who have captured the gold medal by defeating, and thereby dethroning, Finland by a score of 6 --2.

In Ringette.

So there.