Monday, January 28, 2008

What i'm reading

I've been reading John Berger's work since i was a teenager and i'm surprised, as i read his newest book, how easily i seem to forget his profound influence me. I started this blog three years ago and one of my contributions that year was about guilt, inspired by my memory of Berger's 1972 essay Photographs of Agony. That essay forever altered the way i look at images both in the mass media and in general. I picked up Hold Everything Dear this weekend and am only a handful of pages along and already Berger's ideas are challenging my understandings of things.
I am perpetually disturbed by the use of the word terrorist and every time i hear it i imagine Orwell chuckling grimly. "Terrorist" is as pure an example of Newspeak (the fictional language Orwell created for his novel 1984) as exists today. It is blithely used by virtually every mass media publication or broadcast. And, like the vocabulary of Newspeak, it is designed to compel people to think in simple, totalitarian terms. Once we have labelled someone a "terrorist" we no longer have to think of them as human. And, sadly, i catch myself falling prey to this pervasive and evil piece of common sense. When i pause to reflect, i do wonder about the circumstances that drive people to the awful choices for which "terrorist" is a code. For surely these people once laughed as children, loved as brothers and sisters, dreamed of a better world. There is yet much to understand about the people we so quickly dismiss as "terrorists" and "fundamentalists" and Berger has some compelling thoughts on this which i leave you with:

A crucial question today is: what makes a world terrorist and, in extremity, what makes a suicide martyr? (I speak here of the anonymous volunteers: Terrorist Leaders are another story.) What makes a terrorist is, first, a form of despair. Or, to put it more accurately, it is a way of transcending and, by the gift of one’s own life, making sense of a form of despair.

This is why the term suicide is somewhat inappropriate, for the transcendence gives to the martyr a sense of triumph. Triumph over those he is supposed to hate? I doubt it. The triumph is over passivity, the bitterness, the sense of absurdity which emanate from a certain depth of despair.

From Seven Levels of Despair in Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance by John Berger (NY: Pantheon, 2007), pp. 9-10.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Remembering Richard Flint 1959-2007

As this new year begins, i continue to reflect on the old year. One thing that has been in my heart most of the year is the death of an old friend, Richard Flint, with whom i worked on the McGill Daily newspaper in Montreal in the early 80s. Not that i'm feeling old and mortal. I suppose i may feel old someday, but now i feel as young as i have ever felt. And though Richard was the exact same age as i, i can't help but feel how young he was to die. Maybe because we were so young together. Richard passed away this past April after living for many years with a debilitating degenerative genetic disease. By all accounts he lived well, despite his illness and i am pleased to see that he was well-liked and respected by co-workers and friends alike. We lost touch by the 90s but i did hear word of Richard every now and again. There are remembrances posted here and here and eulogies here.
Now, while i admit the possibility of nostalgic romanticizing here, i don't think that's what i'm doing. I'll admit we were brash and cock-sure (sexist implication intended) and we thought we knew more than most. But we were also impassioned and we cared deeply about what we were learning, how we were acting in the world to change it and how we would act in the years to come. And i have always held close in my heart the lessons i learned in those years. Not least the importance of passion and commitment. I collaged together a few pictures from this otherwise forgotten McGill Daily meeting (circa 1982). On the left is Richard Flint in what seems an uncharacteristically calm and thoughtful pose (he was usually more animated than this), to his left our business manager Angie, then writer Martin Siberok followed by, i believe, Jeff (i'll correct this if someone helps), then Greer Nicholson (thanks to Suzy Goldenberg for the reminder) and, finally Brian Topp. I'm struck by how this photo symbolizes something i learned very powerfully in those years and which i have never credited Brian and Richard with (except subconsciously). I would say that the thing i learned most profoundly during the years i worked with the McGill Daily and Canadian University Press is, in a word, democracy. I'll not wax on at this time about the complexities of what i mean by this loaded word. But i do want to acknowledge two debts: from Richard, more than anyone else, i learned the need to fight, to push for change, to demand it - the image that comes to mind is that of a sculptor taking great whacks at the stone with hammer and chisel. And if Richard showed me some of the necessary force to shape this stone, then Brian showed me how to craft the desired image. Brian was, and i am sure still is, an articulate and brilliant (both for his age and just in general) thinker about democratic process.

Oh, but we had fun as well. And here's one anecdote of a road trip that remains vivid in both my mind and heart - i call it Almost, But Not Quite - this is for Richard:

It was Friday, September 18, 1981 and a few of us (some, like myself, from the McGill Daily newspaper, and a few from the Student Council) were wrapping up an anti-apartheid fundraising event when we heard news that Simon and Garfunkle were doing a reunion concert in Central Park in New York City the next day. Saturday morning there was some kind of meeting at the Student Union that got a few of us up early. I don’t recall who suggested it (though my conceit is that it was me – this being my story after all), but, in short order, we had blown off our meeting in favour of renting a car and hitting the road for Manhattan and Central Park. If we were lucky we would just make it. Calls were made, I rented the car, hasty packing was done and Richard Flint, Keith Hennessy, Liz Norman, one other woman (whom I’m forgetting for the moment and owe apologies to – was it you, Paula?) and myself were heading down the New York interstate before mid-day.

Well, we didn’t make it. We got to Central Park just as things were wrapping up. Alas, no sign of S & G. But Keith and i weren’t so easily cheated of our fun. We slipped backstage and did our best to impersonate roadies busy with the load-out. We climbed the stage and basked for a moment in our cleverness at standing where, mere hours before, Simon and Garfunkle had stood before tens of thousands. I suppose you could say we were easily pleased. We managed to blend in with the load-out crew well enough to line up for grilled hotdogs which we ferried over to the others on the other side of the fence. We rejoined our friends and, making our way back to our car, saw and large well-equipped bus pulling out of the concert00 area. We fancied it was the guests of honour and waved as if this were so. The buss stopped … could it be? But, no, they were merely allowing two groupie-type women to get off after which the bus drove off into the night. Beside, it was probably just the back-up band anyway. A tad crestfallen we made our way out to Queens where we bunked in with a slightly startled friend (Liz Lilker, an ex of Richard’s) and her family. It was a festive, if slightly awkward evening.

The next morning we decided, having missed the concert, that we owed it to ourselves to take in some Broadway plays before heading home. Let’s hear it for half price tickets: Liz Norman and i went to see Children of a Lesser God while the others went to a Marx Brother’s show, if i recall. It was a great and full day. After finding dinner somewhere we hit the road for home Sunday evening.

We were driving up 11th Avenue and everyone was settling down to sleep, save for myself, the trusty driver. It was then that i noticed the llama. On Sunday evening, on 11th Avenue in downtown New York City there was a man, wearing a pauncho and hat characteristic of the Peruvian Andes, leading a llama along the sidewalk. I laughed, not quite sure that i was, in fact, seeing a llama on a Manhattan street. I told my weary companions about the strange sight and was quickly ridiculed, mocked and otherwise told to “cut it out; we’re not falling for the old, ‘look, everyone, a llama’ trick”. I faced a dilemma. The llama was a block behind us now and i had to decide whether or not i was willing to live with a lifetime of hearing, “Yeah, go ahead and ask Chris about the time he said he saw a llama! Bwaa hah hah!” I pulled a U-turn, drove back a couple of blocks, pulled another U-turn and pulled up alongside the llama and the fellow leading it. I said, “There! See!” Everyone had to admit that it was, indeed, a llama. And, as we watched bleary-eyed and content with our impulsive New York adventure, the fellow and the llama walked into the Irish Cultural Center. It seemed a fitting note on which to start the journey home.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

January 1, 2008 - And May 2008 Bring Wonder & Love to Us All

The Pickpocket

Once there was a pickpocket who lived in a small town in the north of England. He picked pockets day and night and became quite good at his chosen trade. Before long he had picked every pocket there was to pick in that small town and decided that it was time he tried his talent in the big city of London to the south. Off he went and London was everything he’d hoped it would be: hundreds of thousands of pockets, everywhere, all the time. He made good use of his talent, if you could call it good. Pretty soon he knew that he was the best pickpocket in London. There was no one to match his skill. Or so he thought. One day, making his way through the market he was perfectly shocked to discover that someone had picked his pocket. He never imagined that such a thing was possible. He looked around and, sure enough, he saw a suspicious-looking head bobbing away through the crowd. He made chase and quickly caught and tackled the thief. The thief, as it turned out, was a beautiful woman and, for a moment, the pickpocket forgot that he had been robbed. Well, they fell in love and, together picked pockets all over London. They married and soon spoke of having a child. They realized that since they were probably the best thieves in London (if not the world) that the child of their union might very well be the best thief in the world. They conceived a child and were very excited as the happy day approached. But, as fate would have it, they were tragically disappointed. Their child, a boy, was born with a terrible deformity: his right arm was paralyzed, his little fist clenched horribly under his chin. Nothing they could do would move the arm and, of course, they were afraid to hurt the fragile creature. They were, however, rich by now and were able to use their fortune to consult the best doctors in all of London and Europe. They traveled and hoped and prayed. They searched for the wisest physicians in the world. But nothing that anyone could do made a difference. Until one day an old man showed up at their door. They hoped, and said that they would pay him whatever he asked. The old man sat before the child. He took out a gold pocket watch and began to dangle it back and forth before the boy. The boy watched the watch intently. Closer and closer the watch came, back and forth, back and forth. The boy’s eyes followed it back and forth, back and forth. Suddenly the boy’s paralyzed arm shot out and grabbed the watch. And dropped the gold ring that he had stolen from the finger of the midwife.