Archive for 2006

06w47:1 Cool Economics

by timothy. 0 Comments

As I mentioned in the Goodreads sent out on October 16th, I’ve prepared a transcript of the Ideas episode Economics and Social Justice, which was released today as a podcast.

Despite Mr Sacco’s acceptably flawed English, I found this to be a remarkably good listen, and I especially liked his take on what the Toronto School would call the Economics of Positional Goods. By this I mean that Mark Kingwell has been known in the past year to talk of positional goods which is borrowing from the work of his fellow University of Toronto philosophy colleague Joseph Heath, who presented on his book, The Rebel Sell two years ago with his co-author Andrew Potter, a transcript of which I made available on Goodreads some time ago and herein again for obvious thematic reasons.

In addition, because Sacco mentions in his presentation that there is a strong incentive in our culture toward stupidity, since it makes you a more pliable consumer, I was reminded of Alvin Toffler’s talk which was broadcast on TVO’s Big Ideas on September 30th. His talk was for his new book, Revolutionary Wealth where he argued that we have formed a new civilization, one I would argue which is unhealthily obsessed with the pursuit of a string of digits; Sacco would argue that we have tied our identity to these digits, administered by banks and governments, and see them as measures of our potency. Toffler argues that our society’s structures have fallen out of sync, where business is moving at an extreme rate, adapting readily to and creating change in our world but education is the dinosaur, not having kept up the pace and still teaching a curriculum designed to produce efficient factory and corporate workers.

Sacco thinks we need to invest in ourselves – that is educate ourselves – in order to remove ourselves from the rat race of competitive consumption which is tied to what he calls the economics of identity. What’s a little shocking is how this new and cool theory of economics – the economics of identity – is really rather old school. In an essay found in his Collected Works (which I tried to get on Goodreads last year but they wouldn’t let me), Northrop Frye wrote:

Still, the problem of leisure and boredom is an educational problem. Education may not solve it, but nothing else will. Schools, churches, clubs, and whatever else has any right at all to be called educational, need to think of educating for leisure as one of our central and major social needs. And education is a much broader business than studying certain subjects, though it includes that. Television, newspapers, films, are all educational agencies, though what they do mostly is more like dope peddling than like serious education. Education reflects the kind of society we have. If society is competitive and aggressive and ego-centered, education will be too; and if education is that way, it’ll produce a cynical and selfish society, round and round in a vicious circle. Intelligent and dedicated people can break this circle in a lot of places if they try hard.

What makes boredom boring? It’s not just a matter of not being busy enough. Take a girl who’s dropped out of college because the slick magazines told her she wasn’t being feminine unless she threw her brains away. What with running a house and three children and outside activities, she hasn’t a minute of free time, but she’s bored all the same. Being bored is really the feeling that there’s something missing inside oneself. When someone gets that feeling, his instinct is to feel that something outside him can supply what’s missing. This is what inspires the chase for what are called status symbols. A man struggles to get an expensive car or a mink coat for his wife in the hope that people will judge him by these things instead of by himself. One trouble with these things is that they wear out so fast. In fact, our economy partly depends on their wearing out fast. As soon as anything is recognized to be a status symbol, it begins to look silly, and we have to start chasing something else. Suppose a man wants to collect pictures, not because he likes pictures, but because it’s an approved thing to do. He’s soon fold that certain kinds of pictures are fashionable and others aren’t. But as soon as he’s got his house filled with canvases a hundred feet square covered with red paint, the fashion changes to pop art, and there he is with last year’s model of status symbols. It’s the same with all the distracting activities. A man is bored because he bores himself.

That was circa 1963. When Sacco speaks of ‘compensatory consumption’ he’s really talking about people trying to buy their way out of boredom.

But, you know, we do buy our way out of boredom all the time: we buy computers to do websites and Goodreads with, and we buy books to read which stimulate and educate. An Educated Imagination is what Pier Luigi Sacco is really calling for, and to that end here is some content by which to further that pursuit. – Timothy


Economics and Social Justice | CBC Ideas
“Pier Luigi Sacco teaches the economics of culture in Venice. He’s interested in concepts of post-industrial economics, co-operative enterprise and game theory. In a discussion recorded in Vancouver, he and social commentator Avi Lewis, talk about changing theories of economics as key to narrowing the gap between rich and poor.”Podcast link:

The Rebel Sell | Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath
“So the desire to conform, this idea that we’re all trying to conform, fails to explain the compulsive nature of consumer behavior, why we keep spending more and more, even though we’re all over extended, even though it doesn’t bring anybody any happiness in the long run. So the question is why do we lay the blame for consumerism on those who are struggling to keep up with the Jones’? Because the fault would actually appear to lie with the Jones’. They’re the ones who started it all, by trying to one-up their neighbors. It’s their desire to stand out from the crowd, to be better than everyone else, that is responsible for ratcheting up consumption standards in their community. In other words, it’s the non-conformists, not the conformists, who are driving consumer spending.”

Revolutionary Wealth | Alvin Toffler
“The co-author, Alvin Toffler, came through Toronto recently promoting the latest book in which the Tofflers again divine the shape of things to come. The book’s title is Revolutionary Wealth and is an attempt to show how our traditional economic categories are subject to changes wrought by digital technologies. If you suffer from future shock already, this talk is not likely to assuage it.”

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emailed by Timothy on Monday 20 November 2006 @ 10:15 PM

06w44:1 The Language of Quotation

by timothy. 3 Comments

‘When the individual has reached a hundred years of age, he is able to do without love and friendship. Illness and inadvertent death are not things to be feared. He practices one of the arts, or philosophy or mathematics, or plays a game of one-handed chess. When he wishes, he kills himself. When a man is the master of his own life, he is also the master of his death.’
‘Is that a quotation?’ I asked.
‘Of course. There is nothing but quotations left for us. Our language is a system of quotations’.

-Jorge Luis Borges, A Weary Man’s Utopia (1975)

Somehow the world has become a mediocre comic book, as predictable as a Star Trek episode. I grew up watching Star Trek and still love it for its graphic design, but it was never embarrassed about cannibalizing from its past storylines, and eventually it got so bad that ten minutes into an episode you could anticipate the entire plot-line. But this is an effect not confined to a show like Star Trek, it is true of almost anything on television. I was surprised when I read Chapter 18 of John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards earlier this year in the way he blended his view of art history and it’s failure to adequately resolve itself to television, which he saw as the logical conclusion of centuries of attempts at realistic image making. Image making, he thought, is tied to our desires for rituals. And TV combines animated images with ritual plot-lines, as predictable to contemporary viewers as those reciting along with a priest as he holds up the host. As he wrote:

People are drawn to television as they are to religions by the knowledge that they will find there what they already know. Reassurance is consistency and consistency is repetition. Television – both drama and public affairs – consists largely of stylized popular mythology in which there are certain obligatory characters who must say and do certain things in a particular order. After watching the first minute of any television drama, most viewers could lay out the scenario that will follow, including the conclusion. Given the first line of banter in most scenes, a regular viewer could probably rhyme off the next three or four lines. Nothing can be more formal, stylized and dogmatic than a third-rate situation comedy or a television news report on famine in Africa. There is more flexibility in a Catholic mass or in classic Chinese opera.

He went on to say, and I think this is a kicker given how it was probably written in the 1980s:

The rise of CNN (Cable News Network) canonizes the television view of reality as concrete, action-packed visuals. Wars make good television, providing the action is accessible and prolonged. The Middle East, for example, is an ideal setting for television war. Cameras can be permanently on the spot, and a fixed scenario of weekly car bombs, riots and shelling ensures that the television structure will have ongoing material.

(It makes Steven Colbert’s joke about this past summer’s Israel-Lebanese war more than just a joke but a perfectly conscious reflection of the reality of the situation). In addition, the violence on television reflects a long Western tradition in depicting violence, seen in graphic mediaeval crucifixions and the tortured damned we are familiar with from those seemingly unenlightened times.

But from the enlightened times we got Goya’s image, the sleep of reason producing monsters. As Mark Kingwell points out in his essay ‘Critical Theory and Its Discontents’ the image’s caption can be read two ways, as either ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’ or ‘the dream of reason produces monsters’.1 John Ralston Saul, with Voltaire’s Bastards took the later interpretation for his thesis. But the experience of this decade is one of the first reading: the thoughtlessness of the times producing predictable nightmares.


Everything has gotten so insane that peace and quiet and non-interaction certainly has a lot more appeal. No need to answer the same old questions about how I am, which are rhetorical and meaningless, no need to tell the same boring stories about myself or the state of my life, no need to feel the peer pressure of conforming to someone else’s idea of who I am, who I should be, or how I should be. It is better in this decade to withdraw and watch operas on DVD (Wagner’s The Ring), or famous TV shows (Battlestar Gallactica is like such a masterpiece); and to avoid browsing websites too much because it just seems to add to the sense that everything has gone to bullshit, as MacLeans seems to think as well. So I missed the whole beauty video thing until the day before I saw it on the front page of the Toronto Star, and as I’ve been adjusting over the past month to a 6.30am wake up time to become a ‘corporate minion of patriarchy’ (my Halloween costume) I’m not so eager to go a’gathering for goodreads. I’ve been warning you all for months now that this project isn’t what it used to be, and that will continue to be true in the future. This list began small enough that I knew my audience – drank and laughed with some of you in the past – but now has become anonymous and my motivations for doing it continue to be some sick sense of responsibility to do my part to inform whoever might come a’googlin. I should be much more selfish and egotistical to fit in properly I know. But my work on the web in the past has come from a desire to document, and at this time I would like to use this list to promote and to document for whatever that’s worth.

Death of a President was released in North America on Friday, and it probably won’t be in theatres for long. Not that it matters, because it will attain a deserved cult-status on DVD or streamed from wherever. First of all, having never seen George W. Bush in person he has always been nothing but an animated image to me. Real through portrayal and the delusion of the animated image, and so fitting, I think, to see that image manipulated into another version of a potential reality borrowed from many months from now. The skill of the digital effects became apparent very quickly; ten minutes into it I recognized it as a masterpiece, a shockingly effective use of Photoshop-like tech, and a devastating commentary on current global-american-centric-politics. I mean, what other President of the United States has inspired a fictional yet realistic depiction of his assassination while still in office to the extant that the film is presented as an historical documentary on the subject?This blending of time – watching images from a future, depicting an event from a year from now, presented as some bleeding-heart leftist documentary typically shown on CBC Newsworld on Sunday nights, twists itself into the cold water blast of just how stupid everything has gotten (given how the movie is built out of the current media clichés, from the dialogue right up the structure) but also how we’re caught up in a television dream dictating reality to us. The film hits all the right points, with an eerie accuracy, from the deluded missus posing as Bush’s speechwriter saying how he was somehow connected to God, to the political backdrop of North Korea and Iran. The speeches have been written and the players have taken to the stage and Shakespeare’s famous line has never seemed more true.And for that reason, for the sheer fictionalization of our reality, this moment in later history which seems real because it is on TV, real through portrayal, this film will also be must-see viewing for Presidential historians, both present and future. I am compelled to write about it now, to time-stamp this text with the current date, so that there is evidence to future researchers that this movie came out a year before the October 2007 events that it depicts. I would like to think that this movie will still be watched in future years, long after the Bush administration; as a sociological study of this decade, a study in documentary narrative, as an art film, and as an historical marker of the transformative power of Photoshop-like effects. I got a glismpe watching this movie of the media-scape of the upcoming century and felt future-shock. Nuanced political discourse through fictional history, which only highlights our current confusion between memory and thought. This film is cultural evidence that we can only seem to think through the ‘hindsight is always 20/20’ trope, and that retrospective documentaries have become so prevalent in the age of the self-absorbed baby-boomer-at-the-controls-of-everything (and hence a narcissistic mediascape on their politics, youth, and classic album collections) that it’s only fitting to examine a presidency’s attack on civil liberties through the genre.The CBS Sunday Morning program had a piece on Oct 29 on the beauty video and Photoshop – explaining what young creative people take for granted to the old foggies who watch that sentimental sunday morning sunshine stuff. And the key is what young people are taking for granted versus what the old foggies running the show have in their minds about our future. An older person close to me the other day posited that I might live long enough to see one of Toronto’s main traffic arteries – the Don Valley Parkway – turned into a double-decker highway. As if allowing for more greenhouse gas emitting machines would be an adequate solution to our traffic problems, a vision completely oblivious to environmental concerns. I countered I’d much rather see a better public transit infrastructure built. But of course, I understand where this idea comes from. It’s classic ‘cars are a great and my identity as a man is tied to the sense of freedom they bring me and the teenage sense of fuck you I never got over’. It’s the same mid-twentieth century mentality that you get from politicians when they promote the need for more people to study math and science, because not only is there a space race and we have to prove that consumerist democracy rocks, but because we need all those future engineers to retro-fit these highways into double-decker monstrosities. Ah these old people: it’s enough to wish them all dead, or at least look forward to the future when they’ve left the scene and we can build the world into something more fair and beautiful. They all gave up after Bobby was assassinated, and you can watch all about it on November 23rd. What a contrast. We’re in a situation when eloquent and visionary politicians are now part of a dreamy past, while our present is made up of inarticulate war-mongering folks notable for their lack of vision. That doesn’t seem to me a sign of a healthy state of affairs.

Wishing a certain old-foggie dead is precisely what director Gabriel Range has tapped into. I saw it at a 3:50 matinee with four other people. That is to say, I went alone and there were only three other people in the audience. I’m not sure if that’s worthy of mention – seeing late afternoon matinees on Sunday afternoons isn’t popular enough to be stereotypical. But it also contributed to the feeling that I was watching a secret masterpiece living up to art’s typical response from consumerist culture. They were told to not watch it by the media who readily quoted the likes of Hillary Clinton who thought it was ‘despicable‘. It fits into the thoughts I’ve had lately about Hitler’s famous degenerate art show: Hitler, as John Carey pointed out in his 2005 book What Good are the Arts? was being populist with that exhibit, selling the public their own prejudices toward modern art. But there is a theory about how art is a psychological reflection of the zeitgeist, capturing the spirit of the age, and it seems to be ironic that Hitler, in promoting this to mock it, provided an historical marker for modernist art and highlighted the degeneracy of the society which legitimately elected him in 1933. It was degenerate art made within a degenerate society and Hitler unwittingly held up a mirror thinking it a spotlight. Whenever politicians start making pronouncements on cultural products, one has to think something significant is going on which will need explaining to future generations: that it is an art historical moment.

We’re supposed to all know the game. It’s what makes a film like Death of President possible: string together all the tv documentary clichés for an audience made sophisticated enough by an ambient televised environment to not be confused by the fiction. But of course I say that as someone who saw it with four other people, a film which as far as box-office measures go, did not exist, and as someone with the capacity to reflect on what I saw. As I walked out of the theatre I heard the terrified screams coming from the next theatre-room, looking back I saw the poster for Saw III. Of course Geogre Bush is President in a time when watching violence is what enough people want to do to make it the top film this weekend. You might point out a horror movie is appropriate for Halloween, but Halloween is only appropriate for children. The popularity of violence in whatever manner just highlights our collective immaturity and our inability to grow beyond a mediaeval past, as Bush’s recent moves toward the elimination of habeas corpus show.

JRS wrote: ‘This perpetual motion machine works effortlessly if the flood of images illustrates situations the viewer already understands. That is one of the explanations for the system’s concentration on two or three wars when there are forty or so going on around the world. The others are eliminated because they are less accessible on a long-term basis. Or because the action is less predictable and regular. Or because the issue involved does not fit easily into the West’s over-explained, childlike scenarios of Left versus Right or black versus white. Or because the need for endless images makes television structures unwilling to undertake the endless verbal explanations and nonvisual updates which would be required for the other thirty-seven wars to be regularly presented.’ This was first published in 1992. In the time between now and then, nothing has changed. While the audience have grown more sophisticated, so has television’s methods at keeping the conversation simple. But for me, there is another question, and that is, why? Why is any of this important? Ritual? That alone seems too simple an explanation. I watch TV for the illusion of company and for the occasional good, or big idea.

What is television for? Some will say it’s merely to get us to buy things, but others will say it is to inform. But are we being informed or frustrated? Isn’t anything political on television simply a way of frustrating a democratic citizenship into feelings of impotence when faced with such inane political figures? And isn’t it this sense of frustration precisely what leads to the events depicted in Death of a President? That’s not something you’d get with an uninformed populace, nor perhaps one you’d get if the political machinery actually could register the democratic will of the population. We remain dictated to, told what to think about movies by Hillary Clinton or whatever expert they got hold of at the local university.

I first read Borges’ story, A Weary Man’s Utopia in the winter of 2001 following you know what, when the shit had hit the fan and all the flags were flying. It is the story of a man’s afternoon visit with a fellow in a far distant future. He tells the the fellow

‘In that strange yesterday from which I have come,’ I replied, ‘there prevailed the superstition that between one evening and the next morning, events occur that it would be shameful to have no knowledge of. The planet was peopled by spectral collectives – Canada, Brazil, the Swiss Congo, the Common Market. Almost no one knew the prior history of those Platonic entities, yet everyone was informed of the most trivial details of the latest conference of pedagogues or the imminent breaking off relations between one of these entities and another and the messages that their presidents sent back and forth – composed by a secretary to the secretary, and in the prudent vagueness that the form requires. All this was no sooner read than forgotten, for within a few hours it would be blotted out by new trivialities. Of all functions, that of the politician was without doubt the most public. An ambassador or a minister was a sort of cripple who had to be transported in long, noisy vehicles surrounded by motorcyclists and grenadiers and stalked by eager photographers. One would have thought their feet had been cut off, my mother used to say. Images and the printed word were more real than things. People believed only want they could read on the printed page. The principle, means and end of our singular conception of the world was esse est percipi – “to be is to be portrayed”. In the past I lived in, people were credulous.

I would like to think that in the years since it was published in 1975, people have become less credulous. But the forms of these popular delusions have only aggregated more nuance, so that things are not only read, but heard and seen, and people believe what they read on screens. Or at least the old foggies who are freaked out by Wikipedia seem to think so, severely underestimating the capacities of people to understand the collective nature of the site.

As for politicians being cripples: I recently saw a motorcade come up University Avenue in Toronto and turn onto Queen St – first the chorus of motorbike cops, lead by someone who parked in the center of the intersection, leaping off to perform his ritual in the same manner a parodist would: exaggerated self importance as he held the traffic back, like a romantic hero confronting a tide, and along came the parade of black cars with their two-wheeler escorts. Who was this asshole? I thought. Some celebrity? I still don’t know, although I later heard the Prime Minister was in town. Perhaps it was him. But it seems to me that to parade around in black cars with tinted windows reveals a foolish paranoia: they all think they’re important enough to be assassinated and so hide from us as if we’re all crazy, showing a contempt for the citizenry which is unfair. Leaders shouldn’t hide from us and treat us as if we’re dangerous. But ironically that’s precisely the type of behaviour that leads to the protests they need to be protected from. – Timothy


1. The essay is found in the book Practical Judgments pages 171-181 and the quote is itself a quote from one of the books he’s reviewing; the orginal thought is attributed to the introduction by David Couzens Hoy and Thomas McCarthy in their 1994 book, Critical Theory.

Death of a President | Official Film Site

Death of a President | Wikipedia

CNN, NPR turn down ads for Death of a President | CBC

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emailed by Timothy on Monday 30 October 2006 @ 10:39 PM

06w42:1 Lister Sinclair 1921-2006

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My fellow Canadian CBC listeners, who plug your headphones into the computer at work and stream it as I do, who listen to it in the morning as you type your theses because you’re a television snob; who have come to appreciate the music for the news they introduced earlier this year as something iconic, and who may have fond memories of Peter Gzowski and the opening music to Morningside, you listeners know that Lister Sinclair died today, at age 85, in a Toronto hospital. The news made me think that’s how I’d like to go – in my 80s, with the radio playing Glenn Gould and Mozart in my honour. A good life, well spent, with everyone talking about how learned and kind you were. (Except for dying in a Toronto hospital – since I saw Dying at Grace I’ve felt it would be better to die in a ditch under the stars).

My first encounter with the voice of Lister Sinclair came in the summer of 1991. I was listening to EMF’s one-hit-wonder album that season, the single ‘Unbelievable’ on the endless repeat possible with dub cassette tapes and rewind. I’d work away at my Commodore 64 and listen to Side A and then Side B, and through this learned how to spell the word ‘believe’ since it was a song title. And on one of these songs there was a sample of a BBC Shakespeare radio play with a gravitas accented announcer. I was naive enough at the time to wonder, when I was rolling my radio tuner sometime after 9pm that night, if this voice speaking about nightingales was the voice from the album. Later I’d untangled the confusion but I was hooked to the strangeness of that broadcast, one of the series of things that begin with a certain letter, or something themed around a colour. Anyway, I tuned in at 9 the following night to catch more.

This, my friends, was an example of the CBC being hip, a far cry from George Stroumboulopoulos’ latest hints that he pierced his cock, which is how the CBC is trying to sell it today. Lister Sinclair’s sober weirdness made a much stronger impression on my sense of teenage cool than the middle class punk aesthetic which now passes for hipster ways.

Ideas is running a three part tribute over the next three nights, where it is 9pm local throughout Canada.

In the last Goodreads, sent on Friday, I promoted that evening’s Ideas, and now the voice who once presented its ideas has gone. This Goodreads serves the double purpose of sharing my thoughts on the matter (I hope you don’t mind) and to inform you that the episode on ‘Economics and Social Justice’ which I promoted will be an Ideas podcast on November 20th. In the meantime, I’m working on a transcription from the recording I made, which I’ll post on the site on that date. – Timothy


Thank You, Mr. Sinclair | CBC

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emailed by Timothy on Monday 16 October 2006 @ 8:44 PM

06w41:1 Muhammad Yunus

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I was happy to hear on the radio this morning that Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize, which has acquired a notoriety for sometimes missing it’s mark. The link to the MIT lecture below was included in Goodreads 05w51:1 (which I sent out on Christmas Eve), and at the time I noted he was one of the most inspiring individuals I’d ever learned about. The Peace Prize is a well deserved honour.

On a coincidental but related note, tonight’s Ideas on CBC features Avi Lewis in conversation with Pier Luigi Sacco, and the write-up on the Ideas site reads: ‘Pier Luigi Sacco teaches the economics of culture in Venice. He’s interested in concepts of post-industrial economics, co-operative enterprise and game theory. In a discussion recorded in Vancouver, he and social commentator Avi Lewis, talk about changing theories of economics as key to narrowing the gap between rich and poor.’ Ideas is on CBC Radio 1 at 9pm local, or can be streamed online from a location during times where it is 9pm local.


Ending Global Poverty | Muhammad Yunus at MIT

Muhammad Yunus Google Video Compilation |
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emailed by Timothy on Friday 13 October 2006 @ 7:20 PM

06w39:2 The Response to the Clinton Interview

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I learned about this Keith Olberman commentary on last weekend’s Clinton Fox News interview from Metafilter, and in the comments to the posting there one asks, ‘Why isn’t this man on NBC Nightly News instead of this cable network?’ (MSNBC). Of course, that question is a little irrelevant in the age of YouTube.

The interview, Olberman’s commentary, and The Daily Show’s take on the whole matter at the link below. (Prompted to be compiled as a Goodreads immediatement because of Olberman’s awesomness).


The Fox News Interview | Chris Wallace, Bill Clinton, Keith Olberman and Jon Stewart
(YouTube compilation)

Olberman Commentary also at Crooks & Liars and at MSNBC | The Daily Show’s commentary also at Crooks & Liars

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emailed by Timothy on Tuesday 26 September 2006 @ 12:42 PM

06w39:1 Theodore Dalrymple Podcast

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CBC’s Ideas launched a podcast over the summer, and it’s updated each Monday. Today’s podcast episode is ‘The Ideas of Theodore Dalrymple’, which was first broadcast on September 11th and which I highly recommend. Dalrymple’s articles have been made good reads in the past, and he’s been called a ‘mega-snob’ by some, merely a ‘compassionate conservative’ by others, but I think these are just ad-hominem attacks, made by people who probably don’t know what an ad-hominem attack is. That is of course, if you consider being called conservative an insult. I really enjoyed listening to Dalrymple, since he combines firmness of opinion with a taste for the absurdist humour of what he’s experienced. A direct link to the mp3 is below.

The other link is to the CBC Ideas podcast page, where you can see their upcoming schedule to the end of December, and download their previous episodes, the three part series on organic foods (which was also really good). – Timothy


The Ideas of Theodore Dalrymple | CBC The Best of Ideas Podcast
“Is British society Western civilization’s ‘canary in the mine’? A British psychiatrist and writer traces the descent of a culture towards wanton self-destructiveness and alerts us to the new face of barbarism.”
Mp3 File: 24.1 MB, 52.34min

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emailed by Timothy on Monday 25 September 2006 @ 10:10 AM

06w38:1 The Address to the Electors of Terrebonne

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The last Goodreads was of John Ralston Saul’s keynote address to the annual Couchiching Conference, and as you may have heard by now, at the 1:22:48 mark (chapter 47 of the m4a file), he brings up Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine’s ‘Address to the Electors of Terrebonne’ of which he says, it is ‘the single most important document in the creation of Canada, and the most beautiful and the most intellectually moving’. Those of you who’ve read his work extensively will have noticed his fondness for this text, and in the Couchiching audio, he goes on to ask the audience, ‘how many of you’ve read it?’ He expresses dismay at its obscurity, noting that ‘I keep hoping that if quote it people will quote it back to me.’ Had I been in the audience, I would have asked, ‘where do you find it?’

Indeed. You’d think it’d be on the internet if it was such a big deal and all. Of course, this lack of net-accesilbility as of last week just prompted me to find it and post it, since that’s part of what Goodreads is about. So, for your Canadian political self-education, here is the newly posted and freshly translated (by yours truly) ‘Address to the Electors of Terrebonne’. – Timothy


The Address to the Electors of Terrebonne | Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine
“Education is the first benefit that a government can give to a people. In the past there were schools that the Legislative Council closed. Public money would be better spent on their reopening than on bribing a police force which everyone repels and abhors. The establishment of our colleges everyday makes lies of these false and injurious assertions, preferred by the prejudiced and the impassioned, that the ignorance of Canadians comes from their pretentious indifference to education.”

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emailed by Timothy on Thursday 21 September 2006 @ 9:28 PM

06w37:1 John Ralston Saul at Couchiching

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Last month John Ralston Saul gave the keynote address at the Couchiching Conference held in Orillia Ontario. The theme of the conference was progress, the talks and presentations organized under its title of ‘Wedded to Progress: For Better, For Worse’. It ran from August 10-13, and Saul delivered this talk on Sunday August 13th the title of which is ”Rediscovering the Sense of Action and Leadership’.

It is available through the following two files: the first, m4a, is encoded in Apple’s AAC format and has the advantage of being indexed into chapters. The second mp3 is chapterless, yet available incase your system won’t play the AAC file. -Timothy


Rediscovering the Sense of Action and Leadership | John Ralston Saul
m4a file is 55.2 MB; mp3 file is 53.5 MB; talk runs 1hr56min. Introduced by Pamela Wallin; JRS begin at 7:38min ; question period moderated by Wallin and begins at 1:15:54

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emailed by Timothy on Saturday 16 September 2006 @ 2:56 PM

06w36:2 The Luxury of Terrorism and Adam Curtis

by timothy. 0 Comments

The Facts & Arguments section of last Thursday’s (Sept 7th) Globe & Mail brought this article by Geoffrey Lean to my attention, where it is noted that ‘food supplies are shrinking alarmingly around the globe, plunging the world into its greatest crisis for more than 30 years. New figures show that this year’s harvest will fail to produce enough to feed everyone on Earth, for the sixth time in the past seven years. Humanity has so far managed by eating its way through stockpiles built up in better times – but these have now fallen below the danger level’.

Earlier in the week I picked up Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Ingenuity Gap at a used bookstore. This particular copy seems to have been someone else’s review-copy, since I found tucked inside the cover the photocopied blurb for his upcoming title The Upside of Down; Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (to be published October 31st). The blurb offers as a teaser the Prologue, which sets the stage with a reminder of Ancient Rome, which grew too complex and fell because its citizens couldn’t maintain its late stages. Homer-Dixon writes, ‘In this book we’ll discover that our circumstances today are like Rome’s in key ways. Our societies are becoming steadily more complex and often more rigid…Eventually, as occurred in Rome, the stresses will become too extreme, and our societies too inflexible to respond, and some kind of economic or political breakdown is likely to occur. I’m not alone in this view. These days, lots of people have the intuition that the world is going haywire and an extraordinary crisis is coming’.

We are indeed lucky to be thus living in such a time, before the extraordinary crisis. Because it seems to me that when we find ourselves there – maybe in another ten years or so? – won’t we look back with nostalgia to the simpler time of this decade, and pine for the days when old Papa Bush was on TV everynight, making us laugh with his goofy phrasings, and miss the simple-minded certainty offered by the idea that Muslim fanatics want to kill us?

Which is to say that only in a society which has enough food, whose cities aren’t being destroyed by storms, whose children are well-sheltered and well-fed, can we afford the time and resources to let our politicians play boys-with-toys war games. We truly must be living in a utopia, to have the luxury to use our time and money so productively in being afraid of one another.

Because we don’t have an extraordinary crisis to unite us and to force us to work together. Our cities are not being destroyed by storms. There isn’t a plague ravaging continents. We aren’t living with a lead-pipe infrastructure based on an finite resource that we are squandering. There is no asteroid headed our way to force Bruce Willis and Steve Buscemi to become astronauts, nor are there aliens coming to blow up the White House and force President Bush to brush up on his fighter-pilot skills, last used protecting Texan airspace during the Vietnam War (if we don’t count the air-craft carrier thing from a few years back). At the end of the day we can sit back and watch the war-show and the comedic commentaries and look forward to going back to our soul-nurturing jobs in the morning and think, today was a good day. Because the extraordinary crisis is coming, but not already here. We have the luxury of war and terrorism in this decade, and we’d better enjoy it while it lasts.

Meanwhile, commentators like Homer-Dixon, Ronald Wright, and Jared Diamond warn us that things are shaky. This civilization may not survive the 21st Century. Homer-Dixon, in his prologue, writes, ‘Rome’s story reveals that civilizations, including our own, can change catastrophically. It also suggest the dark possibility that the human project is so evanescent that it’s essentially meaningless. Most sensible adults avoid such thoughts. Instead, we invest enormous energy in our families, friends, jobs, and day-to-day activities. And we yearn to leave some enduring evidence of our brief moment on Earth, some lasting sign of our individual or collective being. So we construct a building, perhaps, or found a company, write a book, or raise a family. We seldom acknowledge this deep desire for meaning and longevity, but it’s surely one source of our endless fascination with Rome’s fall: if we could just understand Rome’s fatal weakness, maybe our societies could avoid a similar fate and preserve their accomplishments for eternity.”

Let us then consider this American-centric civilization’s accomplishments: paranoid parents who think their fat video-game playing moronic children will be raped by pudgy balding men. Paris Hilton and Tom Cruise. The American news-media. Cellophane packaged food. Chemicals with unpronounceable names. Industrialized slaughter houses for our domesticated animals, one of which (the cow) now has to be treated as potential toxic waste. Oprah Winfrey’s book club, to industrialize fiction consumption. A tourism industry. An art industry. Designers working away designing the knobs for the ends of curtain rods. Marketing agencies. Billboards. Short films conceptually contrived to promote things.

I’m just playing the USA=Western Civilization game, since, that’s the PR, the marketing, the televised ads, and the billboards have told me my whole life. England would seem to be the Mini-me side-kick, while Canada is USA’s nerdy brother, perhaps austistic, perhaps a good reader. Canada has an inferiority complex and isn’t as glamourous as the more famous brother. Canada is Napoleon Dynamite’s brother chatting up hot babes on the internet. Canada is Western Civilization’s art movie compared to the USA’s Schawrzenegger action flick.

It seems like France, Russia, Poland, Italy – they’re civilizations unto themselves and are thus somewhat divorced from the Anglo-American Empire’s sphere of influence. I’m not sure where Australia fits in since they’re more Anglo than American. Nevertheless, the United States has over 700 military bases in 130 countries in the world. Whatever we think we’re doing when we call ourselves democracies, and whatever we think of our political situation, that reality alone makes the USA Rome. And while Rome left a legacy which can still inspire sixteen hundred years after the fact, a legacy of art, architecture and law, the American Empire’s legacy so far seems to be highways and chemically processed stuff, its art made largely without archival concerns, its documents increasingly becoming subject to digital fragility.

Rome’s reputation for wickedness – brilliantly captured in I Claudius – is usually taught to us via Christian exegesis with gladiatorial reference but I think USA is well on her way to matching Rome’s record given that in July, the Internet Watch Foundation (a UK ‘child porn hotline’ site, which prefers to refer to such images as simply ‘child abuse’) reported that servers in the United States host 50% of the world’s ‘child abuse content’ while the wild-west of Russia (where your last phishing attempt may have come from) is only responsible for 15%. If we take as a measure how we treat our children as a sign of civilization, one has a rather perverse way of judging the winner of the Cold War. This rather abysmal accomplishment of American/Western Civilization – the sexualization of children (I can’t even watch anything on Jon Benet Ramsay, nevermind August’s weirdo) is something I can’t even be sarcastic about here and want to triumph as another grand accomplishment of our globalized society worth preserving.

Homer-Dixon’s thoughts can be answered: yes our society is haywire, and yes, this can only lead to a greater crisis down the road. But if we agree that current living conditions are inhumane and not worth preserving, what then is the better way? It is a moral question – that is, it calls us to envision and articulate a vision of a good life which is currently being articulated for us by Hollywood and advertising. We are not choosing to live lives with meaning or with purpose. We are choosing to fit ourselves into someone else’s image of the world, striving to buy stuff we don’t need and tempted to envy by by Robin Leach’s fucking voiceovers. This decade’s terrorist nonsense is nothing more than another example of the resources squandered by the rich and famous. Because, once again, it’s not like we don’t have enough food. So, if kids screaming at their computers while others lip-sync ‘Numa Numa’; racism and intolerance; cold-heartedness; celebrity waste and stupidity isn’t this civilization’s vision of utopia, then what is?

Is our real crime, not that we have achieved these things, but that we jumped ahead and achieved them without a sustainable framework? Would we all want SUV’s if they contributed to the health of the planet? Would we all want to be obese if there were a pill that could make us Hollywood lean overnight? (Thereby making us procrastinate about taking it, saying, ‘oh, I just don’t feel like being thin today’ while we order the super-size fries). Isn’t the real horror about some of this (excluding the child-sex abomination) based on the fact that we’re indebting our children to a life more poor than our own? Because, evidently, our economy of supplying need-and-greed has made us happy to have cluttered homes and it’s obvious that this hoarding is in part due to a fuck-the-future selfishness.

Here, I’m reminded of the German historian Götz Aly, who wrote of Hitler: ‘Hitler gained overwhelming support with his policy of running up debts and explaining that it would be others that paid the price. He promised the Germans everything and asked little of them in return. The constant talk of “a people without living space”, “international standing”, “complementary economic areas” and “Jew purging” served a single purpose: to increase German prosperity without making Germans work for it themselves. This was the driving force behind his criminal politics: not the interests of industrialists and bankers such as Flick, Krupp and Abs. Economically, the Nazi state was a snowballing system of fraud. Politically, it was a monstrous bubble of speculation, inflated by the common party members”.

This is to say that our superficial wealth today, founded on the infrastructure of non-renewable oil, means poverty for our children’s children. Governments have given up passing laws – making intentional decisions – in favor of passing tax-cuts or tax-breaks, reserving attempts at law-making for such retrogressive ends as rebutting gay marriage or trying to legitimize torture. (Which implies that they can’t imagine how to control people in those ways through tax-breaks).

People have come to equate wealth with volumes of money and not with the cultural riches which make a place worth visiting and living in and treating as an heirloom. So we’ve built ugly office towers all over the world because they’re utilitarian function is to warehouse human capital for 8 or more hours a day and left to execute their inane tasks so that the minority in control of the organization can benefit from their expertise, skill and time, to play golf all day. This means that the cultural riches of our civilization, that which we hope to leave for our children to enjoy are not the maginficant cathedrals of yesteryear, but the landscaped greens of the 18-hole golf course to be found wherever there’s room to put one (even in the deserts of Saudi Arabia). But it’s not like we don’t have enough fresh water or anything.

If the sustainability issue were to be fixed in the next 25 years so that in 2031 we could indulge in guilt free celebrity watching at the Toronto Film Fest, would we still be miserable when superficially nothing had changed? Would we then be happy with a civilization of kiddie-porn perverts, fat and stupid kids, congested highways, fear-mongering news-media, thoughtless politicians?

If this consumerist utopia would not be acceptable then, why is it acceptable now? Again, what kind of world would we like to live in? What kind of life would we like to live? Because, with reference to Homer Dixon’s ‘extraordinary crisis’ those will be the questions that will need answering. And if we can’t answer it now, when we have all time time in the world, how much more difficult will it be to answer when our cities have begun to be destroyed by storms?

Adam Curtis
It may help if we were familiar with how we got here. An excellent summary can be found in the films of Adam Curtis.

I first came across the documentaries of Adam Curtis when The Power of Nightmares was broadcast on CBC Newsworld in the spring of 2005. I soon found copies online and linked to them on Goodreads (issue 05w17:1). In the 18 months since, we’ve had Google Video show up where you can now find the Nightmares series in better quality than what was then available and where you can also find his 2002 documentary The Century of the Self.

The Century of the Self is as remarkable as Nightmares in that it traces the influence of Sigmund Freud over the course of 20th Century Western soceity through, not only his theories, but his family. I was very surprised to learn that Freud’s nephew Edmund Bernays was the fellow who invented ‘public relations’ as an alternative form of propaganda, and who is thus responsible for the past century’s advertising industry. Basically, the story told in Century of the Self is how the marketing and advertising industry grew up around the idea that we were motivated by unconscious desires which could only be placated through products. We were turned into consumers by an application of Freud’s psychoanalysis; to such and extant that by the end of the century governments were treating us as customers and politcians saw themselves as managers in the retail sector of public services. Not only that, but the whole ‘selfish-baby-boomer’ / lifestyle politics / yuppie-thing’ of the 1980s has its roots in this combination of psychology and marketing.

(It should be noted that this documentary dates from 2002, the same year when John Ralston Saul mocked this point of view in a presentation for his then recently released book On Equilibrium recorded in Toronto and later broadcast on CBC’s Ideas. I raise this to suggest that in the years since things have changed so that this type of talk can now seem a little old-fashioned (as is Saul’s thesis in his most recent book, The Collaspe of Globalism). Instead of being treated as customers with regard to public services, we now have to deal with two-bit explanations of the world’s pseudo-problems caused by conservative men trying to fit everything into their god-box).

Curtis’s narratives, while profound, are also weak in the sense that they are too simplistic: the reality of our Western society since 1950 is a complex weave and while we can analyze a thread here and there, a larger pattern is meanwhile being expressed. The plot of the 20th century as presented in Century of the Self was that people were understood to be irrational and so it was thought democracy could never work; they were thus lulled into docility by bought dreams of happiness; dreams woven by Public Relations people.

Of course, business was complicit in this conspiracy, because they’d always feared a time when industrial supply would overwhelm demand and thus lead to a failure to sell. Lifestyle marketing eliminated that worry and in the process created Individualism. (John Ralston Saul’s brilliant analysis of Individualism is to be found as Chapter 19 of Voltaire’s Bastards). Politicians, in turn, used focus-group techniques to get themselves elected and then cater to the self-interested civilians/subjects-of-lifestyle-marketing (Individuals) with the added benefit that a docile population is democratically ineffective allowing those in charge to do whatever they want.

The population of the United States in 1790 was a little less than 4 million. That of the UK at the time was a little over 16 million. And so a Continental Congress from a population of less than the Greater Toronto Area declared independence from the Parliament representing half of the current Canadian population. These numbers, in today’s context, make history seem like the story of people who had nothing else better to do. And it shows just how docile our world is given our enormous numbers. We live within a remarkable feet of social-structuring brought about by educational conditioning.

This describes what John Ralston Saul constantly refers to as a corporatist society, which is fragmented into interest-groups; where the population is obedient and docile and feels incompetent beyond their area of expertise. Democracy has become a sham because we’ve given up control over our lives so that it can be scheduled by our bosses. But if we believe life is about ‘expressing our selves’ then we can buy a fast-food version: our identities come through products which saves time thinking about anything and we can thus focus on getting our jobs done in our machine-world. We live in a time were we routinely refer to people as ‘human capital’ and expect them to behave as smoothly in a role as any other machined, interchangeable part. This basic everyday dehumanization has stripped us of a sense of dignity which leads to weak backs and slumped shoulders and thus a new market for Dr. Ho’s pillows.

Curtis’s Wikipedia page states that he is working on a new series to air later this year, called Cold Cold Heart about the ‘the death of altruism and the collapse of trust – trust in politicians, trust in institutions and trust in ourselves, both in our minds and our bodies.’ I am looking forward to seeing this, since it is this quality of distrust, mean-spirtedness, and lack of trust in our selves by which I’ll forever remember this decade with the same amount of disgust I’ve so far had only for the 1980s. This series would seem to be an extension of Part 4 of Self because it was in this episode that Curtis traced the development of consumerist politics, and showed an excerpt for Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic convention speech, followed by an interview conducted for the series where Cuomo says, (at about the 20 minute mark) ‘The worst thing Ronald Reagan did was to make the denial of compassion respectable’.

It is this quality of distrust and hard-heartedness that I’d like to better understand because our current society is nothing more than the expression of our own dehumanized inhumanity. But I’m not so caught up in Western-centrism to think there’s no alternative. The history of many civilizations teaches us that things have gotten really bad many times; each time the horrors pass and something simpler comes in its place. This is the thesis of Homer Dixon’s upcoming book. His point will be that we can control our future. We shouldn’t get caught up in dooming-and-glooming the present which doesn’t deserve to survive. I think we should instead begin brainstorming about what kind of society we’d like to live in, and then try to make it happen somehow.

The current Canadian population is about 32 million. In January, Apple Computers announced it had sold 42 million iPods around the world. This means that Apple’s infrastructure – to handle the registration requirements – is greater than that needed by the 1st world nation of Canada. It would seem to follow that if 32 million people can give themselves health-care, so could the 43 million uninsured Americans. Of course, this isn’t likely to happen, precisely due to the fractured nature of the common good brought about by the rise of Individualism.

While Individualism can be seen as having broken society, I’d like to think this is only temporary. The Individual rose up in a century dominated by dictatorships – not only political, but also cultural. The greatest art form of the 20th Century is undoubtedly the movie, which consists of a passive audience watching someone’s else’s artistic vision. At a basic level it is a dictatorial relationship. The Individual is now driving a cultural paradigm shift that makes the iPod the primary symbol of current cultural relationships – people want control over their cultural products, which is vastly different than the passive acceptance of media which existed throughout the 20th Century. The internet has empowered people away from the illusion of community and participation brought about through consumerism, and begun instead to interconnect them with other like minded people which can only in turn build bridges to new communities. Individualism now operates in such a way that someone like myself can watch these Curtis videos and feel educated and enlightened and informed, not only because MSM had originally served it to me through a scheduled broadcast, but because I downloaded it from a website, as can you. – Timothy

The Century of the Self & The Power of Nightmares | Adam Curtis

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emailed by Timothy on Saturday 09 September 2006 @ 2:49 PM