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Glen Pearson

Photo credit: From the movie In the Heart of the Sea

The Flop That Became the Classic

Posted on August 2, 2019

I hadn’t realized that yesterday was the 200thanniversary of Herman Melville’s birth until it appeared at the tail end of the news.?He was most famous for the literary classic?Moby Dick,which was first published in 1851.??Many of us who have been around for a time will recall reading at least parts of the story of the great white whale as part of a school exercise.??That was perhaps part of the problem.??It was a lot to slog through as a delivered assignment for young minds.

To be truthful, I just couldn’t get into it.  Talking to some folks yesterday, taught me that most of them were the same.  It was long and, to me at least, painfully boring.  But that’s because being young isn’t about being patient and there’s little of life experience to add personal understanding about a book in which its subject doesn’t show up until the final pages and wreaks havoc.  The end was fascinating and terrifying but it was getting to that point that was so difficult.  

One character, Captain Ahab, was indeed larger than life.  He had lost a leg to the great white creature years earlier and had been on a vendetta ever since.  The trouble was that he dragged his crew along on the ultimately fatal trek of revenge.  Getting to that point was a laborious read and once arrived at, it was so hellish and brief that it plagued the mind for some time afterwards.

Melville knew what he was talking or writing about though. He had worked on a whaleship during long and protracted days on the Pacific Ocean.  He understood the boredom and relentless physical travails of “whaling” and put it all down accurately on paper.  During one of his voyages he came across the story of the Essex – a whaleship rammed by a giant sperm whale and sunk.  It’s what gave him the idea of a fictional account of a great white sperm whale with a memory to match that of the obsessed captain seeking it.

Melville wrote the story years later while living a somewhat idyllic life in New England.  He sent the copy off to the well-known Nathaniel Hawthorne, who encouraged him to find a publisher.  Eventually he did.  When it emerged it turned out to be a flop.  Some reviewers savaged it.  Selling only 2,300 copies in its first 18 months, it ultimately sold 5,500 volumes in the next 50 years, going out of print even before Melville’s death.

And yet somehow it survived its own lack of success.  Years later it came into its own, with many well-known reviewers and literary historians lifting it to the level of “classic,” along with epics like the Odysseyand Don Quixote.  People began viewing it as a treasure trove of subjects – gender, courage, failure, sexuality, friendship, hatred, environmentalism, politics, religion and death. It became clear that Melville had adopted the sweeping tones of the Bible and Shakespeare.  

On the centenary of his death (August 1, 1819), Moby Dick was named as the “Great American Novel.”  Famed William Faulkner wished he had written it and D. H. Lawrence wrote: “Moby Dick is one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world – the greatest book of the sea ever written.”

I picked it up to read it again after the release of In the Heart of the Sea– the Ron Howard film with Chris Hemsworth, structured on Melville’s classic – almost 50 years since I had read it last in high school.  It was still a slog, but the depths of humanity running through its pages were rich and deep.  It was easier to comprehend because I was older and life more complex.

And maybe that’s just the thing.  Years lived and experiences gained more frequently speak to the success of a book than just the author’s words.  It takes comprehending readers to sometimes make a book understandable.  Though at times a difficult read, Moby Dickwas nevertheless much more satisfying the second time around because, well, I had grown into it.  And as a classic, Melville’s novel will create that same experience for many others for years to come.  One wishes that he could have known that in his final years, so that he might have enjoyed its success, scope and reach.

Photo credit: Vox.com

Can the Divided Democrats Take a United Stand?

Posted on August 1, 2019

Watching the Democratic Party in America in these last few months has repeatedly brought Abraham Lincoln’s observation to mind:  “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  It was uttered just as the country was about to embark on its most fearsome event– the Civil War – and was easy enough to comprehend.

Many observe that the United States is perhaps facing its most divisive moments since that war and it’s tough to argue.  The country, as a burgeoning, competitive, restless, promising, prejudicial and idealistic energy has been forever at odds with itself.  It’s part of its greatness but ultimately forms it Achilles heel.  At present, the executive, judiciary and legislative branches seem not only forever at odds but mutually destructive.

This all started long before Donald Trump’s presidency, but he has turned it into carpet bombed terrain that seems to destroy the past and the future while seeking to totally dominate the present.  The long-term damage no one can fully say.  Even long-serving American  conservatives fear the ramifications, though they play along by remaining mute.

Coming back to the Democrats: are their divisions so vast and fervent that they can never come together to best the authoritarians of the Right?  Following these last two nights of debates on CNN, it seems likely.   It’s a great thing to field a team of candidates so remarkably diverse, but that only works if they can transcend those divisions, win office, and govern effectively with diversity in mind.

I mean, the tensions and contrasts are clearly there: white vs. black, male vs. female, progressive vs. moderate, pro-immigration vs. not so much, moderate vs. socialist,  global vs. domestic economic initiatives and so much more.  It’s kind of impressive.  But it could be very difficult to put together to form an effective opposition to authoritarians.  

Seriously, consider what they’re up against.  It’s actually a darkly imposing and resourced cast of characters.  There are racists, supremacists, alt-Righters, pro-fascists, religious radicals, and a retinue of ne’er do wells.  But that list isn’t complete.  On the economic side there are corporate elitists, kleptocrats and unaccountable billionaires.  Or as the Economistonce noted:

Billionaires typically stay quiet about their politics. But don’t mistake their silence for moderation — the uber-rich tend to be extremely politically active and extremely conservative.

These rather illiberal forces are constantly cooperating in order to get corporate and wealth taxes lowered, despite the effect on the federal treasury and the average American.  There is an extremely serious combined effort underway to limit the future power of any government to impact wealth and its owners in any way.  One of the ways of doing so is to bring serious disruption to American society, to take on audacious practices and doctrines that turn people off the public good and think only of themselves and their own welfare.  And, for now at least, it’s working.  No one has seen anything like it before in America and its sustainability is far from certain.  But it is being attempted by some of the most powerful forces of wealth on the planet.

While this rather dystopian phenomenon is easily recognized, the fight against it should be obvious and compelling.  This is where the Democratic debates of the last two nights can be troubling. Perhaps the most entrenched aspect of modern politics is that it’s been far more effective at dividing people than uniting them under a shared banner.  There are differences among the candidates to be sure, but their commonalities should be more than enough to overcome their dystopian age.  That’s not happening yet; perhaps it won’t.  The socialist/moderate divisions within the Democrats don’t bode well for any united effort.  It’s an uneasy alliance that foments generational, ideological and political values.  The Democrats have historically cast a wide night, embracing all manner of citizens – new and old, traditional and progressive, rich and poor, diverse and ethnic – and it was usually enough to hold the centre in a two-party political system. But somewhere along the way it capitulated to the forces of materialism and elitism.  Politicians in America are restricted from accepting direct bribes from influencers, but they are permitted to accept outlandish campaign contributions and the promise of employment once their political careers are over.  It has blemished the system and corrupted it and the Democrats, from all the sectors mentioned above, played that game and lost their relevance.

Whether under Republican or Democratic governments, jobs were lost, climate change was merely something to tinker with, racism grew, healthcare grew out of reach, the courts became defiled, and, above all, the influence of wealth and those wielding it infested both parties.  Only a robust platform can reverse these trends and it’s clear that most of the factions within the Democratic party agree with the need for serious reform. But the energies around those things they disagree on are more than enough to overpower what needs to be accomplished: a coming together and sharing power for the sake of the future.  

The debates of the last two days were about positioning and besting the others.  Fair enough.  But what was missing was a common agenda to defeat a common foe.  Unless they can get to that, the present nightmare that is American politics will become the way of the future. 

A World of Empty Spaces

Posted on July 30, 2019

It wasn’t all that long ago that we fretted about a burgeoning world, constantly filling with billions of more people and the draining of resources that would ensue.  I was just graduating from high school in Calgary when Paul Ehrlich published his The Population Bomb.  It became a bestselling sensation, with specific courses being offered on it in various universities.  Like the scare of the atom bomb, the population version drove fear and dread into the hearts of people, as they read about imminent worldwide famine in the 1970s and 1980s, along with political and social turmoil.  Though it didn’t pan out quite so much like the Armageddon people had predicted, the book nevertheless set the tone for decades to come.

And now a new book by Canadians John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker is telling us that we’ve likely had it all wrong.   True, the 7 billion in the world at present is set to climb to 9 or10 billion in a few decades, but that’s when everything changes according to these two authors.  It’s not even for sure that we’ll get to 9 billion.  And there’s one key reason for this new prognosis: the education of women.

The authors travelled the world and came away with a dramatic conclusion.  Quoting one Wolfgang Lutz, a demographer: “The most important reproductive organ for human being is your mind.  That if you change how someone thinks about reproduction, you change everything.  Based on this analysis, the single biggest effect on fertility is the education of women. And that is something that has been happening everywhere, in part thanks to the UN’s Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that brought new coordinated investment into the developing world over the last two decades.

An increasing number of women in the normally poorer regions of the world now have cellphones, with data packages, and the ability to search and understand what they read about the broader world – including reproduction.

And there’s another phenomenon that plays a major role along with the emancipation of women: the rate of global urbanization.  “Large parts of Africans are urbanizing at two times the rate of the global average. If you go to Kenya today, women have the same elementary education levels as men. As many girls as boys are sitting for graduation exams,” the authors note.

After interviewing women from 26 countries, the authors discovered that the universal number the women selected for the number of children they desired was 2 – far less than anything they had learned in their traditional culture.  Women are making their own decisions about their lives and the effect of that on humanity, and not just on their own bodies, will be massive.

But that effect won’t be what the world has believed for a long time now.  If the projections are off, and the world population begins shrinking rapidly, then the prognostications could all be wrong.  To quote the authors:

“A lot of people who are thinking about the future of the world, the future economy, the future of city planning, they’re basing their projections on that future size of the human population. And people are actually making decisions based on this. If you dig in and see that there isn’t going to be a lot of growth of young people coming into the population, a lot of growth is actually going to come from older people hanging around longer because we’re getting better every day at keeping them alive. How does that affect transit decisions in New York City? Or how governments support rural communities that are collapsing at an enormous rate right now. All those decisions are based on having a correct understanding of what our societies will look like in the future.”

The implications of this are enormous and could alter everything we once believed about the global future. With cities growing at such fantastic rates, for instance, will this understanding alter decisions about healthcare, public transport,  education, politics ?  It surely will, but hardly anyone is thinking about it yet.  It will be a world in which our metropolitan centres get larger while the global population itself begins to shrink at a rapid rate.  Most of us weren’t expecting that.  Will we revert back to a time of great city states, for example, whose influence and might could transcend that of nations?

And what will be the effects on climate change, as the population declines around the world? Will it get worse?  Better?  We just don’t know because the research has been premised on the old model of an ever-growing planet.

And one more thing. As the world begins running out of people, it won’t stop.  Or as the book puts it: “It will never end.”  Families will be smaller.  Women will be smarter.  Cities will become more adaptive and challenged.  Rural areas will be increasingly abandoned.  Ultimately, there will be more empty spaces everywhere, except in cities.  What will that mean for the planet?  For us? We can’t yet be sure, but if Ibbitson and Bricker are right, it will all happen much quicker than we realize and nothing will remain the same.

Are We Giving Up on the Public Good?

Posted on July 24, 2019

I spoke with a friend in England yesterday who was beside himself with worry.  Boris Johnson had just won the Conservative leadership and would undoubtedly assume the role of Prime Minister.  I watched Johnson’s speech live and actually thought it pretty good, but as the voice on the other end of the phone reminded me, things will likely start getting pretty wild … and soon.

It won’t be easy. Since Johnson was never very good at details, he will need to rely heavily on others for advice.  Unlike Donald Trump, the new PM will inevitably appoint seasoned and experienced people to help guide him through the coming months.  Presently he has a majority in Parliament of only three votes and he must proceed judiciously.

But what was revealing was my friend’s belief that the time had perhaps come to give up on politics, since nothing ever seemed to change, wash his hands of it all and just concentrate on private, not public, life.

It’s impossible to overestimate just how many people suffer the same malady.  In Canada, while a recent poll showed that only 1 in 5 Canadians feel the economy is suffering, 3 in 5 confess to being ambivalent about the upcoming federal election in October.  This is the new normal and it’s prevalent in most democracies around the world. In fact, it’s so prominent that it could be the key ingredient in the dehumanizing and deconstruction of democracy itself.

Democracy’s difficulties now seem so vast, so intense, so troubling, that we’re slowly giving up on the belief that such things can be fixed.  Even a short list of what we’re up against fills many with despair – climate change, the rise of the haters, the loss of work, economic stagnation, the decline of public space.  It’s difficult to think about how to solve just one of these problems, let alone all of them.

But guess what happens when we feel this way?  While we grow lethargic, dispirited and  dispossessed, the haters, detached elites, dystopian politicians, and the perpetually angry grow empowered, making our own despondency even worse.  Yet this has always been the way of democracy: the push and pull of antithetical forces always result in the rise of one and the sinking of the other.  We frequently deal with it by applying ourselves to smaller projects that require only a few like-minded individuals to get them off the ground and running. Or we volunteer someplace where we feel our personal efforts are making something of a difference.

Yet those issues that require large amounts of public investments in concentration, collaboration and resources nevertheless seem to attract the worst in opposition and humanity. 

There are many of us still willing to sort through it all and who still believe in the public space, the common good, and all that is required to keep them functioning.  But not as many, and those who are holding on are experiencing more trouble in doing so.  My friend in England feels himself withdrawing into a more limited world that he can at least control.  He’s also feeling drawn into despondency and spends more time watching the Marvel universe and more dystopian movies and series on places like Netflix and HBO. They are massively entertaining, of course, but they aren’t the real world and require nothing of him except the ability to manipulate the remote.

Somehow, that rough cohesion that held our world together has begun to dissolve, to implode.  And how do we fix it?  We wish to play a part, but how?  Where?  Which group that manages the public estate can we trust?  Deep down we know that politics is a mug’s game but we’ve always been aware that it is also full of good people who care about the public estate, just like us, and who require our support to overcome these darker forces that have infested our public life of late.  We also encounter good citizens who are staying in the game despite their confusion and disillusionment and who still intend to visit the ballot box in hopes of honesty and decent exchanges.  We see them every day and admire them.  Yet there are  others who vote for the very authoritarians who are methodically cutting away the supports we all require to have a good and collective society.

I suppose the word for it is powerlessness.  We feel incapable of changing this descent into a more dystopian age and it’s getting to us.    But we mustn’t give up.  My neighbours and friends depend on my continuing to show up, to stay in the action and throwing my weight against the descending darkness, just as I depend on them. Humanity has been through other difficult ages and it was the goodness of the average person and not just enlightened leadership that pulled them out.

Author Matt Taibbi called it correctly when he wrote:  “In a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.” The secret is to take that disorganization and turn it into collective citizen activism that works at higher levels of public action and policy.  We must endure. We must prove that we are still up for that kind of engagement, not only to save our communities but ourselves.

Credit: Real Concerts “Catch Legendary Johnny Clegg and Juluka’s Sipho Mchunu ahead of the Johnny Clegg and Friends Final Tour on Saturday 11 November at the Ticketpro Dome. The tour will feature the likes of Prime Circle, Soweto Gospel Choir and Parlotones as they pay tribute to a living legend.”

Cool Before It Was Cool

Posted on July 18, 2019

Most of us recall the time Africa suddenly became cool.  It was July 13, 1985 – almost 34 years to the day – that Bob Geldof and Midge Ure produced two vast venues, one in England and the other in America, broadcast simultaneously and designed to raise funds for the famine in Ethiopia.  Almost all the famous rock celebrities gathered and performed their best-known  songs, broadcast to two billion people in 150 nations.  Those events pushed the “reset” button when it came to Western foreign policy and suddenly Africa, its problems and marvellous people, hit the global spotlight.

Lost in all that attention was an entertainer, born in England but living in South Africa, who had been telling Apartheid’s story and the human right injustices in music performed since the early-1970s.  By the time Live Aid occurred, he was already a staple in Johannesburg and beyond.

Johnny Clegg died of cancer yesterday, only 66-years old, but his legacy spans decades.  Born to an English father and Rhodesian mother in Lancashire, England, Clegg was educated as an anthropologist yet pursued his great love of music.  He eventually moved to South Africa and struck up a lasting friendship with Sipho Mchunu, a local favourite and talented singer.  They formed the group Juluka – a multiracial band unique for its time and dedicated to speaking out against apartheid.

Johnny Clegg also flourished in a solo career, touring Europe, America and other countries in his crusade against the punishing racial regime in South Africa.  He raised awareness like few others and was given the popular name “Le Zoulou Blanc” (the white Zulu).  He formed a lasting friendship with Nelson Mandela that benefitted both.  While performing in Paris in 1999, Nelson Mandela surprised Clegg by suddenly appearing on stage and dancing with him and the band.

Clegg was known for his energizing concerts and his own love for African dancing, frequently bringing Zulu dancers on stage and then vigorously moving about with them.  A mixed-race group was extremely rare in those earlier years, blending, as it did, Western and African music and lyrics. There was no real music genre for Clegg to fit into and so no record label saw fit to record his early work. Still, his live concerts were smash events bringing whites and blacks together in public demonstrations of solidarity that flew directly in the face of the government security forces.

I was introduced to Johnny Clegg by my wife Jane, who was schooled in South Africa in the days of apartheid and returned to Canada with a social justice bent that found its musical voice with people like Clegg and her motivation through the words of Mandela and Desmond Tutu.  Clegg’s songs, like “Scatterings of Africa” and my favourite, “Asimbonanga” have become part of my own collection of staples.  Hs voice and music frequently fill our home with their sense of hope, diversity and dedication.

Clegg dancing with Zulus

Johnny Clegg received a long list of honours during his career, including the Order of the British Empire and Knight of Arts and Letters by the government of France, yet he remains an unknown to millions who care about Africa’s future and yet haven’t heard of this remarkable pioneer who preceded more well-known luminaries like Paul Simon, Bob Geldof, Bono and Toto.  He was cool before it as cool, especially for those in South Africa who suffered under the burden of unjust racial policies.  To listen to his songs now provides a moving backdrop to the great African movement towards equality.  It is music geared to last generations, just as it will with our own children and grandchildren.

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