Thursday, May 26, 2005

Canada: The Immigrant Experience

Recent reports from Canada suggest immigrants are having a harder time than they used to integrating into Canadian life in economic terms.

This is odd: first, Canada is admitting much better educated immigrants than she used to. Second, there is much more help for immigrants than there used to be. In my youth, immigrants from Europe had to serve a period of actual indenture, as farm workers or as servants, before getting citizenship. Before that, my own ancestors risked death on cholera ships to get here. Today, the immigrants are generally professional people, and they are bolstered with huge government expenditures on “multiculturalism.” There are now laws against discrimination, or even discriminatory speech.

So what’s the problem?

It might just be that our choice of immigrants is wrong. Should we be taking, in effect, the upper class, instead of, as we used to, the “huddled masses,” of other shores?

First, of course, the upper classes need it less.

But I remember a friend of my first wife who was a graduate student at U of T, an emigrant from Pakistan in adulthood. She went on and on about the discrimination against “people of colour” in Canada. I asked her, did she have any solid evidence of being discriminated against here?

Her response was, “Why aren’t I a member of the Granite Club?”

How many members of the Granite Club are still university students?

Unrealistic expectations, surely.

But, because she was upper upper class in Pakistan, a place where few manage a university education, and getting to study in Canada means you are made for life, she probably really did think she was being treated shabbily. The minute she returned to Pakistan she could expect to be in any social club she chose.

You know the story of the Princess and the Pea? There is a lot of wisdom in it. Those who complain most loudly of discrimination and being treated shabbily are most likely to be those accustomed to privilege, not those who are genuinely discriminated against. Those who are regularly discriminated against tend to get accustomed to it. You are a lot less likely to hear from them.

Moreover, it is improbable that such new immigrants are going to throw their heart and soul into making it in Canada when they can return home at any time to a life of privilege and leisure.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

From Science Week:

“There are two highly controversial vows in the original Hippocratic Oath that physicians continue to ponder and struggle with as a profession: the pledges never to participate in euthanasia and abortion…. [T]he relevant sections are simply omitted in most oaths administered by US medical schools. As of 1993, only 14 percent of such oaths prohibited euthanasia, and only 8 percent prohibited abortion.”

A Voice in the Wilderness

A friend reminiscese that a religious magazine he worked for once did a piece on "modern prophets." Who are the modern prophets? They listed mostly theologians, one psychologist.

I think that's well off the mark.

There were philosophers in the ancient world as well--Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle. And while their contribution was vital, it was not the same as that of the prophets, and the ancients would not have confused the two.

Prophets were a wilder and less predictable bunch, who spoke with the heart, not the mind.

It seems clear to me that the people we now call "artists"--at least the great ones--are largely the same people that, in ancient Israel, would have been known as prophets. They are also the same character type that is, in shamanic societies, the shamans. The ones directly in touch with the almighty, the spirit world, or the world-spirit. They are beholden to no organization, but wander the wildernesses eating locusts and wild honey and speaking truth, regardless of the consequences.

George Orwell would be on my own list of modern prophets. Allen Ginsberg; William Blake, surely. TS Eliot. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. WB Yeats. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Come down to it, and it is hard not to think of a really major artist who did not have that edge of prophecy.

This is unique to the modern Western world, perhaps, but then, the concept of the "artist," as opposed to the craftsman, is also unique to the modern Western world. It is how we have chosen to accommodate our prophets and shamans: by having them work as craftsmen.

Of course there are still false prophets as well, as there have always been. The Ezra Pounds, who become powerful voices for unworthy causes.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Boy Wonder Climbs Jacques Cartier Bridge

The great unreported story of our time at least gets very brief mention in today's CBC News on the web. Thanks to the courageous action of one father.

http://www.cbc.ca/story/canada/national/2005/05/23/protest-bridge050523.html

God go with him.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Evil that Women Do

I love the way Belinda Stronach’s defection is being blamed on Stephen Harper. It’s the classic way women are patronized. If a woman does something despicable, you blame the nearest man. Turns out it is Harper’s fault for yelling at her. Or it is Peter MacKay’s fault for not knowing her better and warning us all about her.

Happens over here too. A couple of weeks ago, the weekend supplement in the paper had a full-page picture of a woman with a disfigured face, and the caption “The Evil that Men Do.” The story was about men disfiguring their wives out of jealousy—and of course demanding stiffer penalties and more government action.

Then yesterday there was the equivalent story with the sexes reversed: “Woman in India ‘Bobbitizes’ husband.” And the focus of the story was entirely on how badly he had allegedly cheated on her.

If a man harms a woman, it is abusive. If a woman harms a man, it must be the man’s fault.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Glass Menagerie

We know the play, “The Glass Menagerie” is full of symbolism. Tom, as narrator, alerts us to this at the beginning: “being a poet, I also made him a symbol.”

And the most obvious symbol is the glass unicorn and the glass menagerie. As the original meaning of “ménagerie” is “household,” the “glass menagerie” surely represents the family. A family of glass, an artificial and mythological creation.

But who is the unicorn, the star of the show? It seems most obviously to reflect its owner, Laura, who is singled out within the family as the “problem” member.

But the most obvious may not be true, in a family based on illusion and magic, in a play. Note what Jim, the gentleman caller, says of the unicorn when it first appears. “But aren’t unicorns extinct in the modern world?” This is an inane comment in the circumstances, and not literally true of unicorns. This should alert us to the presence of a symbol.

It also does not accurately describe Laura, making it seem less likely the unicorn symbolizes her. She is spoken of as an “old-fashioned girl,” but this is surely a polite fiction. Her personality is rather more extreme than that.

Another character in the play is more obviously something that is “extinct in the modern world”: Amanda, the mother. She represents herself as a southern aristocrat, a classic Southern Belle. But this is obviously at variance with her circumstances: she lives not in the rural south, but the urban Midwest. She is not wealthy, but desperately poor. She is not courted by seventeen wealthy suitors at a time; she is abandoned by a husband who worked for the phone company. Nor could her supposed memories of her own supposed past be true. She speaks of being courted by wealthy planters: a world that died with the Civil War in the 1860s. The time of the play, though, as pointed out in the prologue, is the 1930s. For her to really have had such experiences, she would have to be at least ninety years old.

Her image of herself, her past, and her family are actually entirely mythological. She is, as she presents herself, a glass unicorn, lit by the reflected light of an audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.

She is by her nature an actress on a stage, and so the true centre of the play as play.

And like the unicorn in the glass menagerie, she is the star of the family.

Her image of herself is actually crafted of romance novels she has read: it is no accident that she speaks of “Gone With the Wind” with great admiration, as the compulsory reading of what must have been her youth, the years just after the first world war. She has invented herself as Scarlett O’Hara, reduced in her circumstances to St. Louis by the burning of Atlanta. Her enthusiasm for serial romances is obvious in her sales pitches on the telephone, which we are permitted to hear.

Her view of her children is similarly fictional. She speaks of Laura’s gentlemen callers, knowing full well she has none. She demands of Laura things she must know are unrealistic. She insists that Tom is not going to the movies every night—yet ironically, it seems he really is. To satisfy her, he invents a more lurid fantasy, in which he wears green whiskers and is known as “El Diablo.” Just as, to satisfy her, Laura must invent the fiction of going to business school.

Tom, as narrator, makes it clear that the family is mythological: he describes Jim the caller, the one from outside, as the only “real” character in the play. The others are all manufactures of glass.

The image of glass carries the secondary suggestion that the illusion on which the family is founded is fragile. Glass creatures, as Laura points out and as the action demonstrate, are very fragile and require great care. Unicorns in particular.

So, for all that Amanda’s rule is tyrannical, it is also fragile. All it takes is a single intruder from outside, and the illusion begins to shatter. We find, once Jim is left alone with Laura, that she is not all that shy after all. She will sit close to him; she is able to speak freely of her feelings for him; she is game to dance with him, and to accept a kiss. She turns out too to have her attractions for the opposite sex; it seems likely she could get, if not this gentleman caller, some other genuinely interested in a permanent relationship.

The unicorn falls, and loses its mythical qualities. It loses its horn, and becomes like any other horse.

So why, at the end of the play, is the illusion apparently still intact—Tom has perhaps escaped it, but apparently not Amanda and Laura?

It is Laura who is primarily responsible for this. She is the keeper of the menagerie. She is the keeper of the ancient phonograph. She is not the powerless creature she appears.

Tom seems well aware of this: it is Laura’s face that haunts him, and it is Laura to whom he appeals in the end to act: “blow out your candles, Laura.”

It stands to reason. As is pointed out, the beauty of the unicorn is borrowed: it is from the light of a candle playing through it; it does not shine by its own light.

Laura does seem to intervene regularly to keep the family together: urging, for example, her brother to apologize to her mother; warning her mother than Tom is not happy. Certainly it seems to be concern for her that keeps her brother from running off long before.

The fact that the children secretly control the illusion is brought out symbolically by the power failure in the play. This is secretly Tom’s doing: it is up to him to pay the light bill. When he departs, a major part of the light playing on the unicorn is gone.

But that leaves Laura’s candles, the three lit by Jim, which Tom urges her to blow out. Amanda remains sustained by the light of her belief.

Amanda goes on about what a burden her children are, and how she wishes they would succeed, and how incompetent they are without her. But it is they who are supporting her; she is making little money, it looks like, on sales commissions for her romance serials. She seems to be dong it largely because it gives her someone to talk to. She is telling her children, at the same time, that she wants them to leave and wants them to stay. She urges Tom to go ahead and live his dream of joining the Merchant Marine—“but not until you’ve found us a replacement.” She objects to his not staying home evenings. She wants Laura to begin a career, yet she wants her to get married.

No surprise that this double bind slowly drives Laura mad, just as the psychologist R.D. Lang would predict. “We know all about the tyranny of women,” Amanda ironically remarks.

We can imagine that Amanda, ultimately, feels lonely and needy: we suspect her fictions, her manipulations, and her dependence have driven her husband away, as son as we see her interacting with Tom. We can see how hungry for conversation and how manipulative she seems in her telemarketing job. No doubt it is a craving for companionship that makes the job appealing to her.

Why does Laura sustain the illusion, since she suffers more than anyone for it—losing her chance at her own family, at career, ultimately losing her mind?

Perhaps she does it out of love; although perhaps misguided love. She seems to have a deep capacity for love: doting from a distance on Gentleman Jim since high school. She refusal to see him as anything less now.

Or maybe we should ask, why do we, as audience, come repeatedly to see this play? For our relation to it is Laura’s relation to her family: a willing suspension of disbelief. Although unpleasant in its portrayal of life, it lives illuminated by the light of our faith in it.

Ultimately, it is the attraction of beauty, of art, of myth. It is what attracts Tom to his films and his magic shows, what attracts Laura to her music and her art galleries. It is the beauty we all feel in a glass unicorn.

Given the chance at escape, given the unicorn operated on, no longer “freakish,” able to consort with common horses, Laura gives it away. It is no longer the wonderful thing it was.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Belinda Lives in a Little Glass House... Stronach Bolts the Canadian Conservatives in Return for a Cabinet Post

This is such an amazing story. I can't remember ever seeing anything this raw and cynical. This is not what you are sued to seeing in a mature democracy; more like what happens in Korea, with elected representatives switching sides in return for favours. The closest thing I can think of was Jack Horner's defection to the Trudeau Liberals for a cabinet post, and that wasn't even close: there was no question of keeping the government in power by doing it. There is no way to exaggerate the betrayal: Stronach even turned coat on her significant other, Peter Mackay, Conservative deputy leader. As a member of the shadow cabinet, she is in a position to reveal the Conservatives' election strategy to the other side.

It also puts paid to the Liberals' denial that they had been wooing Conservative MPs to switch sides.

In the short term, it is very damaging to the Conservatives. Stronach was their star candidate last election, and would have been a star this time. There is nothing so important to them as prominent candidates in Ontario. She was also a moderate, who reassured the Red Tories about the recent merger. And this one vote really may be enough to save the Liberals from falling on a no-confidence motion until January, when Martin has promised to call an election on his own.

On the other hand, I think Stronach has ended her political career. I suspect she was thinking, Harper is doing too well; the door was closed to the Conservative leadership for her in the forseeable future. Had Harper stumbled, she would have been the favourite to succeed him. On the other hand, Martin is clearly stumbling, without an heir apparent...

But I think she has revealed herself as grossly ambitious, unprincipled, superficial, selfish and spoiled. She looks as though she craves the spotlight above all else.

Meantime, the gambit soils the Liberals' already terrible image for corruption, political wheeling and dealing, and cynicism. I think it actually goes further toward sealing their doom, if not in June, then more certainly in January or February.

In the meantime it gives us all a wonderful soap opera to watch.

Friday, May 13, 2005

A Simple Experiment You Can Try at Home

Yesterday, my three-year-old decided to do a drawing for me. After much effort, he presented it to me proudly at the computer. I, being a right-thinking modern parent, praised it lavishly and taped it up beside the terminal. He looked on, delighted.

It’s quite an interesting piece, really: a green spiral with many smaller green lines going back and forth along its length. I’m pretty sure it represents a snake, and it is actually visually interesting. Were I an art critic, I’d say it had texture, or some such thing. Certainly it took him a lot of time and concentration to do. It seems to me the product of some inspiration.

Of course, given such praise, he immediately took another piece of paper, and did another drawing. This one was a lot simpler and drawn much more quickly. But, being a modern, right-thinking parent, I gave him the same reward, and it went up just above the previous one. The contrast is striking: I would have thought, if I had not known, that it had been done by a much younger child than he first.

Then he did another. And another, And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. They are taped all around me as I type, showing a perfectly consistent progression, from the great detail of the first to something quite simple and basic: just a few squiggly lines. The last few were done in almost the time it took me to tape them up.

Any parent can try this obvious experiment at home, and, I wager, see the same result. Moral: rewards earned too easily just teach laziness. The “self-esteem” movement is likely to reduce our children’s level of accomplishment.

Or, to put it in terms of good old eternally unfashionable common sense, spare the rod and spoil the child.

Second moral: all art comes from suffering. Suffering is transformative, redemptive. Show me a creative person, and I’ll show you an unhappy childhood.

One Step Forward, One Step Back

Newfoundland has done something I thought would never happen: ended sex discrimination against men in car insurance.

http://www.cbc.ca/story/canada/national/2005/05/12/insurance-050512.html

Don’t get me wrong: I think this law is a mistake. But it is refreshing to see a government act against sex discrimination when the historic discrimination has been against men, not women.

But then, from Italy, the same day, a story that seems to take discrimination against men to new heights: “Impotent man must pay compensation to his ex-wife.”

http://www.cbc.ca/story/world/national/2005/05/12/ItalyImpotence_050512.html

This might make sense But let’s change the sexes involved: can we imagine any court requiring a women to pay compensation because she did not tell her husband she was frigid or unable to have children?

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The Evil that Men Do

A front page story in the local press: a free tabloid called Seven Days shows a full page photo of a woman with a scarred face. The caption: “The Evil that Men Do.”

Certainly a terrible thing happened. But can you imagine a similar cover showing “The Evil that Women Do,” under a mutilated male face or body? Say, Wayne Bobbit? If anyone dared do it, wouldn't there be an outcry?

Unless we are sexists, the fact that the perpetrator in this instance was a man and the victim a woman should not be significant, and should say nothing about "men" in general. That is prejudice straight up. The implication is that all men are guilty for the crime of any one: a phony blood guilt similar to that once ascribed to the Jews.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Lonely Planet Guide to Amsterdam's Red Light District

The Lonely Planet guide to Amsterdam features this useful bit of information on prostitution, long legal in Holland:

“What happens if a patron gets violent? Prostitutes’ quarters are equipped with a button that, when pressed, activates a light outside. The offender had better hope that the police get there before the Hell’s Angels do.”

I suppose anyone who wants to consort with prostitutes should not be surprised at being treated roughly. But how sanguine would we be about this situation if the sexes were reversed: if men of dubious moral character could get women roughed up on a whim?

The Lonely Planet also notes that three men once installed themselves in Amsterdam’s red light district as prostitutes available to women.

They got no business, but they did elicit the comment from one of the regular female prostitutes that what they proposed was “filthy.”

There is a double standard, for sure, but it is not at all clear to me that women get the worst of it.

Bob Dylan and Bubba Gump

Add Bob Dylan to the list of counterculture heroes who want nothing to do with the counterculture.

“My favourite politician,” he reveals in his autobiography, Chronicles, “was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.” (p. 283). He had originally wanted to join the military and go to West Point (p. 41). His vote for the best US President ever goes to Teddy Roosevelt (p. 40). His original musical model was Hank Williams (p. 49). “Polka dances always got my blood pumping,” he notes (p. 93).

He recalls his views in the early seventies: “Whatever the counterculture was, I’d seen enough of it. I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics and that I had bee anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion.” p. 120.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Dear Heather

Listening to the new Leonard Cohen album, “Dear Heather.” Achingly beautiful, some of it. Especially, on second listen, “The Faith,” based on a Quebec folk song. “The Nightingale,” which sounds very much like a folk song as well. And the wonderfully funny “Dear Heather.”

Cohen is going back to his roots. He is thinking of legacy. Hoping to be remembered, he remembers those who came before. There are tributes to Irving Layton, F.R. Scott, and A.M. Klein, Montreal poets. It makes me proud to think that Cohen’s international audience is going to learn something of them. There are spoken-word pieces—Cohen was renowned as a poet before he was a songwriter. The songs are folkier than they have been for a while, and Cohen plays a Jew’s harp, a folk instrument.

Cohen actually recites an F.R. Scott poem. A wonderful boon to Canadian literature and to the reputation of F.R. Scott, to think that it will be heard now all around the world. Quite a strong poem too.

And Cohen returns to his roots in another sense as well. His roots as a ladies’ man. The album seems to be a tribute to Venus, the Goddess, to whom he seemed to say farewell last album. Now she’s back again, with some force, as mother, lover, muse. The album is very much about women and about love in the carnal sense.

She is Heather, after whom the album is named. Heather seems to me, as the name implies, to be the goddess fertility; the earth virginally new again every spring. The cycle from birth to death to birth again is celebrated in the song “Because of.” “The Nightingale” too is about nature, renewing every spring as the birds migrate away, then back again. “The Faith” carries the same message, with the refrain “Love, Aren’t You Tired Yet?”

At first glance, if “The Future” was Judeo-Christian, and the last album, “Ten New Songs,” was Buddhist, this one is resolutely pagan. But in fact, it fits with a Buddhist tradition too. Nirvana is Samsara: having achieved the breakthrough to no-self, one returns to the world of illusion and can celebrate it just as it is.

Well done again, Leonard.