Paul Wilson

 

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Monday, December 19, 2005

 
MORE BAD MANNERS

I’m so dreadfully sorry, but I have to take back some of my criticism of Lynne Truss’s new book, Talk to the Hand, on the "utter bloody rudeness of the world today." I thought Canadians were, by and large, mannerly to a fault, but I realize – and please, do forgive me for not pointing this out sooner – that in one regard, we’re as bad as the rest. I’m talking about the bad manners that seem to come, or go, with technological advance, the kind Truss discusses in the chapter on internet rudeness and other digital nightmares, entitled "Why Am I The One Doing This?" Technology always promises to save us time and labour, and it always takes more of it than we bargained for. Is that ill-mannered? You bet.
For instance, I’ve just spent the last three days trying to reconfigure my computer, rescue lost data, and reinstall things that used to work, all because – or so I’m told when I brave the automated phone hell called "the help line" – the operating system has been superseded, and the software it runs is "obsolete" (though it works just fine for me) and is no longer "serviced" by the company that developed it. I know an eight-year-old could sort out my problem in an hour, but to me, it feels like a costly betrayal. It’s as if Detroit suddenly said, "As of the end of this year, we are no longer putting internal combustion engines in cars, and we won’t be providing service or spare parts to the cars that still have them. Sorry – you’ll just have to buy our new models. They run on environmentally friendly single-malt Scotch and you have to grease the wheels with virgin olive oil, but hey, they look really cool, and you’ll be able to drive them up the side of a mountain." But I only need it to go to the store, I protest. "I hear what you’re saying, sir, but I can’t help you." (I hear what he’s saying too: it ain’t his problem.) But what about the old engine? "No problem, sir – just hit 'Delete,' or drag it to the Trash. Now, which credit card will you be using?"
The word that best describes how I feel about all this comes from an older, less evolved technology: "Railroaded."

 
LOW FIDELITY ON THE DOC CHANNEL
If I were the kind of person who cancelled my subscription every time I read or see something didn’t like, I’d have dumped the Documentary Channel from my Bell ExpressVu package like a hot potato last night, after seeing Estela Bravo’s documentary on Fidel Castro.
Far from being "the untold story" of the world’s most loveable and longest-standing dictator, Bravo’s film is a dreary, dated montage of photo-ops, jubliant crowd scenes, and soft-ball interviews with the avuncular El Jefe himself, interspersed with familiar historical footage from the revolution, and commentary, complete with plenty of gee-what-a-guy anecdotes, from a roster of talking heads ranging from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Alice Walker, to Angela Davis and former US attorney general Ramsay Clarke. And there are the oft-seen clips of American celebs eager to bask in the glow of Fidel’s presence: the two Jacks, Nicholson and Lemmon, Ted Turner, Muhammed Ali, not to mention the Pope, the only human being in the film whose charisma trumps Fidel’s and in whose presence Fidel actually seems deferential, and certainly uncomfortable. Perhaps it was because the crowds who came out to see John Paul were not whipped up by Castro’s Committees to Defend the Revolution, but were truly spontaneous.
But the movie was mostly shot about a decade ago and first released in 2001, that is, before tens of thousands of Cubans signed a petition demanding more democratic rights, before Castro started throwing his dissidents in prison wholesale, before he had three alleged hijackers summarily executed, before revealing that he was an ordinary mortal when he stumbled and fell in public. The kindest thing to be said about the movie is that its worshipful, uncritical tone seems hopelessly out of date, and unworthy of serious journalism.
Of course, we're surrounded by propaganda all the time. What I want to know is, whatever possessed the Documentary Channel not just to show this travesty, but to show it in prime time, and to bill it as a "premiere" presentation? Maybe they need to devise a warning: "This film may contain scenes of fawning sycophancy. Viewer discretion is advised."

Thursday, December 15, 2005

 
MANNERS

Two years after her surprise best seller on the parlous state of punctuation, "Eats, Shoots and Leaves," Lynne Truss is back with another engaging rant, called "Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door." By now, her fame has ensured her book’s simultaneous publication all over the English-speaking world, and she’s been getting boffo reviews in Canada, I hope not just out of politeness. But this being Canada, you never know. As a culture, we’re courteous to a fault; we don’t do deliberate rudeness as well as the Brits. So let me break ranks here and say that, as entertaining and smart as her new jeremiad is, it doesn’t apply to the Canada I know, certainly not in the way her lament on punctuation did. As a result, I ended up reading it for pure fun, as social anthropology, as a portrait – and an alarming one at that – of a Britain coming apart at the seams, not as something I feel I need to take to heart. If things were that effing bad here, I hope I’d be as effing pipped as she is. Or does it mean that I live in a bubble, like George Bush?

 
NOMEN OMEN?

"Are we imprisoned by our names?" asks Stephen Holden, in his New York Times review of a new documentary called "The Grace Lee Project." Director Grace Lee goes on a quest to discover whether her many namesakes live up to the good-girl, high-achiever image conjured up by her name. The answer, depressingly, seems to be mostly yes. The typical Grace Lee, she finds, would be a 25-year old Korean-American woman living in California, with a master’s degree and a few years of piano lessons under her belt. There are exceptions, of course, the most outstanding being an 88-year-old Grace Lee who is a community activist from Detroit and still going strong.
I haven’t see "The Grace Lee Project," but it still sounds like a good idea for a film because it taps into a primal curiosity. Most of us harbour the suspicion, or the conviction, that our names are intricately wound up in our character, the bearer of some psychic DNA, and may even determine our fate. For evidence that this is not the case, click on "Other Paul Wilsons" on the sidebar of this site.

 
PROPORTIONAL MISREPRESENTATION?

For electoral reform junkies, and for those who are alarmed at the possibility – or more likely, the probability – of nasty, unintended consequences stemming from proportional representation, should it ever be introduced here, there are two instructive stories in today’s New York Times. One is about Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s re-introduction yesterday of a system of proportional representation, widely believed to be an attempt to bolster his prospects in the Italian general election next April. Since 1993, the country had a mixed system in which three-quarters of the members in both chambers were elected in single-member constituencies, with the remaining seats distributed proportionally. Those rules helped bring into being what was essentially a two-party, or two-coalition system, replacing decades of unstable minority government in Italy. Now all that’s about to change again. There’s a good background document here.
The other story in the Times provides a detailed breakdown of how the new Iraqi electoral system, a form of compensatory proportional representation, is meant to work. Two hundred and thirty of the two hundred and seventy-five seats in the new Iraqi parliament will be elected by party lists directly from the eighteen provinces. The forty-five reserve seats will be distributed both to parties that did well nation-wide but won no provincial seats, or to parties that won some provincial seats, but need topping up to reach proportionality. It was a system designed to accomodate Iraq's ethnic and religious divisions, but it could make matters worse, because it offers no cigar for burying the hatchet, if I may mix metaphors. After today’s elections, despite a year-end deadline, there could be months of bickering and deal-making before a prime minister is chosen and a government is formed. I don’t expect our mainstream media will cover much of this, which is a pity, because that process will be one of the best indicators of what will emerge from the post-war chaos.
More views here and here. And for a broader look at some of the problems likely to follow from today’s elections, see this piece by a leading Iraqi intellectual, Kanan Makiya.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

 
ON READING George Packer's "Assassin's Gate"

If you believe it's in your interest, in the long term, to see democracy, or democratization, take root everywhere in the world, and if neither direct military intervention nor laissez-faire liberalism are options,then you ought to be devising long-term strategies to encourage the peaceful evolution of those nasty regimes toward something resembling democracy. It can be done. The Eastern European example, as complex and unique as it is, stands as one possible approach. Yes, the Soviet empire was surrounded and contained by western military might, but the iron hand was wrapped in a velvet glove. It was poised over the nuclear button but it also signed non-proliferation agreements and trade deals and human rights pacts, and supported peaceful dissent from within and exile communities from without. It issued invitations to dissidents to attend parties in its embassies; it showed the flag at the trials of dissidents; it served notice to those regimes that they were being watched, judged, and found wanting. At the same time, those regimes, inevitably, were themselves evolving, partly because you can only suppress change for so long, and partly because relentless but principled objections to a repressive status quo give courage and hope to those inside the regime working for change. What destroys totalitarian and dictatorial regimes – as Vaclav Havel pointed out more than thirty years ago – is their quixotic effort to arrest change. So the best strategy is to look for ways to encourage real change.
Speaking of Havel, Packer mentions something I did not know, but which does not surprised me: In 1991, Kanan Makiya, the exiled Iraqi author of "Republic of Fear," a harrowing book on the awful inner workings of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s, had issued, with other Iraqi intellectuals living abroad, something called Charter 91. It was deliberately modelled after the Czechoslovak human rights manifesto, Charter 77. Packer writes: "Makiya was something I’d never encountered – an Arab dissident in the manner of Havel or Solzhenitsyn. Charter 91 was a manifesto calling for a democratic and secular Iraq – a ‘Republic of Tolerance.’ Once, when Makiya and I were talking about the relativism that had taken over liberal political philosophy, he suddenly said, in his disarmingly direct way, with his apologetic smile: "I’m a universalist." He identified with Europe’s eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Human rights, he said, were an absolute that would have to be the foundation of a new Arab world – a new Iraq."
Later, Packer ran into Makiya in Baghdad in the gathering chaos after the defeat of Saddam. Makiya was still dreaming and working for his enlightened vision of a federal, democratic Iraq, but by now, sadly, Packer found that he had become something of a laughingstock among Iraqis who had never left the country. It's the fate of many a returning exile, and it will pass, but it also illustrates the vast gulf that lies between a good idea and its implementation.

Monday, December 12, 2005

 
FIRST POST
They say Cancerians are procrastinators, and that certainly fits me. I’ve been intending to start posting short pieces for the last couple of years, gently nudged from time to time by master Webmistress Bowness, who designed my Website. But the argument for not posting is the same as the argument for avoiding writing in general – there’s too much verbiage out there already. Who needs more? And, perhaps more to the point, who needs more distractions? There are a million ways to kill time, and eventually you can find them all, without even trying very hard.
Two weeks ago, for instance, they began selling The New York Times at the local grocery store. Heathcote is not even a small town; it’s two hours to the nearest big city, and we can’t get high-speed. So of course I signed up immediately. Then, being of Scottish descent, I wondered how I could justify spending a buck fifty a day for the thing, not to mention the time reading it and trying to work through the crossword each day. But justifying the expense turned out to be easy: for a buck fifty, you get access to millions of bucks worth of not too shabby reporting and writing. Sure, they occasionally screw up: one Times reporter turned out to be a conduit for disinformation from Washington, another made his stories up, but neither of them is working there any more. And sure,there is a ton of stuff I’d never read.
But we’re living in a world where everything is connected to everything else, eventually, and it’s worth a buck fifty a day for the illusion, at least, of being connected. I’ve been happy to pass a couple of hours a day reading about the seamier side of life along India’s interstate highways, or learning how proceeds from the illegal sale of Iraq’s looted antiquities go to finance terrorism, or reading about Bill Clinton in Montreal, skating down the middle of the global warming controversy. I’ve enjoyed the acid rants of Maureen Dowd, back from her book tour, and the musings of Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose first book immortalized a pub in Buffalo. I’ve learned that "Hollywood’s first black superstar," Stepin Fetchit, was more than just a 20th-century Uncle Tom. And what a thrill to read that our gal in New York, Louise Arbour, in her capacity as the UN high commissioner for human rights, had the guts to point out the obvious, that some governments are "watering down the definition of torture, claiming that terrorism means established rules do not apply any more." She went on to say that "an illegal interrogation technique [read ‘torture’] remains illegal whatever new description a government might wish to give it." The US ambassador to the UN, John R. Bolton, blasted her and said she ought to concentrate on "human rights problems that exist in the world today," but Kofi Annan stood behind her. As far as I know, the little dust-up went unremarked in the Canadian newspapers.
So far, then, I’m getting my money’s worth.

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