Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lukey's Boat is Painted Red

Thanks to the Federal Court and some bad debts it looks like newfoundland folksong lovers and Great Big Sea are going to have to change the words to an an old classic.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009


Two interesting takes on remorse and recognition of guilt this week.

Frost/Nixon hit the movie theatres here in Victoria (yes I realize that we are behind the times). There the central plot question (aside from whether or not David Frost would go bankrupt) was "would Nixon show remorse and contrition for what he did?" The pivotal moment of the show for the Nixon character is when he realizes that he has to choose between obfuscating his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up or conceding that he had been involved and showing some remorse. He chooses, grudgingly, the latter route and while not being enough to save him from the trash bin of history his choice undoubtedly allowed him the modest rehabilitation he did achieve prior to his death.

The New York Times magazine this week (for Saturday, January 24, 2009) looks at the massive financial scandals we have uncovered over the last few months and asks, "where is the remorse on the part of the perpetrators?" In surveying the various villains such as Bernie Madoff and Richard Fulds the article finds little remorse and no signs of contrition. What is even more remarkable in the eyes of the NYT is that there are no signs of angry mobs with pitchforks seeking to lynch the evildoers if they do not beg forgiveness (and maybe even if they do).

There may be a number of explanations for the differences in the times. An elaborate explanation could be built around the idea that we live in a remorseless age where we are not taught contrition. Even for Catholics the Pope has to make a cry for a revival of the withering sacrament of confession and in popular culture remorse is seen as weakness, at best. However, I think there is a simpler explanation.

Richard Nixon's sins were personal and were a betrayal. When Nixon was elected, the citizenry who voted for him genuinely believed in him. They believed he had the mind and the will to take the United States out of Viet Nam and redeem the country from what many conservatives viewed as the lawlessness of the 1960's. That lawlessness was, in the general culture, viewed as being a feature of the left or the counter-culture, rather than the right and the mainstream. What Watergate began was the process of demonstrating to Americans that lawlessness has become deeply entrenched in their very government. In time the details of the J. Edgar Hoover's actions would become public, but Nixon was the leading edge of these revelations for mainstream America. Once it became clear that Nixon could act criminally in small things (like break-ins and cover-ups, the idea that he could act criminally in big things (like carpet bombing Cambodia) became more comprehensible. It suddenly revealed to Americans that their leaders could be corrupt and that the United States was not an exceptional place or nation. Nixon's personal follies thus had a profound effect on the confidence of people in their country and democracy -- but they were personal follies.

The recent financial scandals are very different -- the personal follies of the various villains that have been brought forward implicate all of us on an individual basis. Bernie Madoff is a perfect example of this. He is the perpetrator of a Ponzi scheme -- that is a scheme where new investors essentially pay the old investors the money that gives them their return. The scheme carries on until it is not possible to find enough investors to put a new layer on the bottom of the pyramid and suddenly the last layer of investors starts asking questions, starts looking for their money back and the whole pyramid collapses. What is interesting about a pyramid scheme is that the man at the top (Madoff) is not necessarily the prime beneficiary of the fraud. Every layer above the bottom layer benefits from the folly of the lower layer. Most of the lost money has not vanished into caviar for Bernie Madoff; it has vanished into returns for other investors who were happy not to ask too many questions. If Bernie has to pay it back then why don't all the other layers who got a return on the same basis? Madoff ultimately will not show real remorse because many of his victims were, in fact, his willfully blind (though perhaps unwitting) accomplies.

Richard Fulds (the erstwhile leader of Lehman Brothers) is really no different. Much of the stock market and the reasons it exists is a glorified Ponzi scheme. Everyone who has an RRSP, a 401(k) or a pension supported by a pension fund is living in a world that is built on the assumption that there is always going to be another layer to add to the pyramid to support dreams of Freedom 55 (or Freedom 60) by generating unending returns of 8%-12% year after year. We need this to make the idea that we can run a society where people live to be 80 to 90 years old but leave the workforce at 55 or 60 after entering it at 25 or 30. This model depends really on a large group of investors (aka "marks" for people like Fulds and Madoff) being around to support the huge numbers of non-workers who depend upon their daily bread coming from investment return. Until recently the new layers came from young domestic workers entering the workforce but in recent years, as the baby boom ended, we have come to depend more and more on our marks being supplied by Asia and, I think, we are really seeing the end of this dream now.

Slowly we are all waking up to see that thoughts of early retirement and long comfortable years of sailing in the Caribbean were fantasies. For the millions who are all ready retired or about to retire and were depending upon the money that Madoff and Fulds and their like were supposed to bring in from new generations of marks, this is a fearful prospect given their savings earmarked to support them through those years has largely vanished and they do not have twenty years to wait for their investments to come back again. For the younger ones the prospect of working into our late sixties and early seventies and setting our retirement goals at a somewhat more modest level is a prospect we are starting to become adjusted to. All in all I suspect this is not a bad thing -- the prospect of 20 years or more of shuffleboard gives me dread -- but it is a real adjustment in our vision of our lives.

As for Bernie and Richard they are not remorseful because they look at us as accomplices -- we wanted the return and the dream and wanted them to do what had to be done to deliver it.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Popular Mandates and Getting the Worst of Both Worlds

Tom Flanagan, Stephen Harper's mentor and number one fan, continues to be outraged by the prospect of the House of Commons thwarting Harper's agenda and possibly replacing it his government with a coalition (an increasingly unlikely prospect given Mr. Ignatieff's silence on the matter). He recently wrote a column in the Glove (on January 9, 2009) suggesting that the mere prospect of a coalition is an affront to democracy and our constitution. In doing so he acknowledges and skates past the actual constitution that we have and ignores the actual history of Parliamentary democracy. In doing so though he advances a theory of Canadian democracy that will give us the worse of the American system combined with the worse of the British system.

In the United States the executive (the president) is elected or appointed by the elected president. It has its own political powers which it can exercise irrespective of the support of the Congress. It can thus claim a mandate directly from the people and (as was demonstrated by the outgoing administration) can act highly independently to form policy and shape the law. However, the converse is equally true, Congress is free of the executive and can make its own decisions and exercise its power in ways that limit the exercise of executive power without bringing down the government. There is no concept of a 'vote of no confidence' in the United States and issues have to be worked out by give and take between the two major political players (the President and Congress).

Under the British system, the executive theoretically has independent powers but cannot use those powers to achieve major policy goals without the support of Parliament, particularly the House of Commons. Thus at every stage the executive has to show that on any significant matters it has the support of the Commons and when it does not it either has to back down, resign or have an election called to have the public settle the matter. These options are all options which have played out in British history. Indeed, Winston Churchill came to power at the beginning of the Second World War by displacing a majority government that had been elected with a popular mandate through a revolt in the House of Commons. The story of Churchill coming to power is told in Lynne Olson's book "Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England" which illustrates beautifully how the Parliamentary system can force the executive to change in the face of crisis.

The opening of Olson's book is instructive though as it shows us a scene very reminiscent of what we saw last fall. Prime Minister Chamberlin, arrogant and stubborn because of his principles and electoral victory governed with a "my way or the highway" philosophy. When faced with opposition from some of his own members to a proposal to adjourn the House of Commons for the summer months, he declared the vote to be a matter of confidence and instructed the whips to make sure ever Conservative toed the line or suffer consequences. So too in Canada the give and take between Parliament and the executive has been stifled because Mr. Harper (as have other Prime Minister's before him)has treated every vote as a confidence vote. Thus on every matter the members have been faced with the prospect of forcing an election or a change of government if they decided to face down Mr. Harper.

This is how we end up with the worst of both worlds. We end up with a strong executive that is not elected and a Parliament that cannot act out of fear of bringing down that executive and forcing an unwanted election or an election they do not have the money to fight. The only way to cure this is either to move to a system of actually electing the executive (thus freeing Parliament to oppose the Executive from time to time) or to restore power to Parliament by recognizing that sometimes Parliament can cause governments to change without the necessity of a new election.

Professor Flanagan was born American and has lived in the one party state of Alberta throughout his career. He has a tin ear for the ins and outs of Parliamentary democracy which is best understood in this context. He is used to strong executives (from the United States and Alberta) and castrated legislatures (from Alberta) and cannot understand the sight of anything different. It is a pity though that this is who is teaching the next generation of young minds in Alberta. At least we can ignore him in the rest of Canada.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Alligator -- Lisa More (Cdn Book Report #1)

This year I have resolved to read twenty-six Canadian books that I have not read before. My intention is for most of these to be novels, but I want to leave some wiggle room for politics or biography (as I expect there will be a few good pieces of each coming out in this year, given all of the excitement of last). As a part of keeping myself on track, my plan is to write a brief comment on each on this blog to serve as a gentle reminder of failure or success.

To start the year off, I picked up Lisa Moore’s ‘Alligator’. No particularly great reasoning behind the choice of the book save that Ms. Moore is close to an exact contemporary, grew up in St. John’s and was educated across the playground from me in St. Pius X Girls School (the Boys School was happily, on windy days, just downhill). I thought to start in the east and in my hometown seemed appropriate for the occasion.

While my choice was not made on the basis of any real literary criteria I chose well.

There are really only two plots in literature – a man goes on a voyage and a stranger comes to town (which arguably are the same the story from different viewpoints) – and Alligator explores voyages and strangers in the setting of modern St. John’s. The story weaves between six loosely associated characters who each (with one exception) seem bewildered by the arrival of a stranger into their lives.

The strangers though are not new arrivals from afar, instead they are strangers from close at hand. Beverly is overwhelmed by the stranger that has come into her life in the form of Colleen, her teenage daughter. Colleen is startled by the end of childhood and the first signs of the arrival of adulthood. Frank, an ordinary man – barely more than a boy – is frightened by the arrival of Valentin, a foreign gangster demanding his hot dog stand and plotting an escape from St. John’s. Madeleine, a filmmaker is surprised by the arrival of age. The only character who is not startled by a stranger is Valentin, who is determined that the world will not act on him but that he will act on the world. In the end though, events overtake even him.

These stories are interesting not because they show physical journeys but because they show the most difficult voyage we all take is through time and through the day to day of our lives. Indeed, each of the physical journeys described in the book are a bust – an expedition to sabotage forestry equipment is futile; a past vacation in Mexico, an embarrassment; a quest to Louisiana to find an alligator preserve and a man who survived an alligator attack inconsequential and uncomfortable. The most interesting parts of the story all happen within a few miles of each other in St. John’s. The true stranger in each of the character’s lives (even the gangster’s) is the present. Each character is faced with a life that is unrecognizable to the one in they dreamed.

The main character in this story, however, is St. John’s. It is not however, the quaint or historic St. John’s of Wayne Johnston. It is the St. John’s constructed out off the usual junk that has filled all of our cities since the 1960’s. It is a city of utilitarian buildings and miserable weather. Though Moore is too good a writer to spend any (well much) time describing the weather, I felt the rain, drizzle and fog in every page and felt myself pulling my covers closer to keep out the cold (although the -30 in Kenora may have contributed to that). The St. John’s that Moore portrays rings true – it is not a quaint city but it still is not absorbed into the grey sameness of every other city. It made me think that cities are perhaps like Tolstoy’s families – happy ones are all happy in the same way; unhappy ones are each unhappy in their own way.

Moore is clearly though a writer more focused on character than plot. There is ultimately a story that weaves most – although not all -- of these characters together, although it does not result in a single story in the end. Instead there are three central stories (Colleen and Beverly, Frank and Valentin and Madeleine (and herself)) with characters from the other stories playing supporting roles. Frank, for example, is an incident in Colleen’s story and Colleen (though a major obsession for Frank) is in fact a transitory actor in Frank’s downfall. The plot though seems incidental when compared to Moore’s real goal of exploring these character’s reactions to the events around them and painting the contrasts between people at different stages of their life (Madeleine and Colleen could be the same person removed from one an other by fifty years).

Moore's writing is excellent. The characters remain sympathetic even when being cruel or ridiculous. She captures how we all feel when looking at the contradictions between how we want to be, how we are and how we see ourselves. She describes with a light touch and effectively evokes without leading us through paint by numbers depictions of scene or setting. An excellent read.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Epiphany and the Dead

Today is, in the Roman Catholic cycle of holy days of obligation, the feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany notionally commemorates the revelation of Jesus to the Magi (which under the proper approach did not happen on Christmas Day) and so, symbolically, to the gentile world. As children we always knew this as 'Old Christmas Day' and it marked the formal end of all matters Christmas. The tree was down by this day and school commenced and the trudge the year begun.

This is one of these things I know from being brought up Catholic which my daughter will never know being brought up in deeply secular household. In most things I firmly believe unmooring ourselves from the burdens of religion (organized or not) is a good thing and is largely the way of the world in Canada. Yet I do feel a sense of regret at the loss of culture that will go with this over time.

One of the greatest short stories in the English canon is Joyce's "The Dead" which is set (mostly) at a party held in Dublin on the Feast of the Epiphany and in the protagonist's hotel room thereafter. It works on many levels capturing the feeling of an adult party; the feeling that we all have of discomfort about our place in the world and finally the sequence of moments, thoughts and emotions that finally lead to the main character having an understanding first about how little we know about the interior lives of the people in our lives and second to the indifference of the world to human affairs. Thus "The Dead" happens on Epiphany and ends with an epiphany. Will this mean as much to my daughter and her friends or will this be all no more personal than Greek mythology is to most?

The Dead ends with what I think is one of the most beautiful passages of writing in the English language (Joyce is hard on middles but brilliant on ends, read Molly Bloom's soliloquy at the end of Ulysses for example):
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

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