Immigration

I am in awe of an immigrant. This is someone who has severed ties, forever, with everyone who has ever supported them, and with everything that has served to define them. Friends, family, home, country, culture, familiarity in general; all that and more the immigrant has chosen to leave behind, with no intention of ever returning to stay.

Maybe it’s simply a reflection of my own middle-class background in one of the most peaceful and privileged countries on earth, but I can’t imagine making that choice. It seems an incomprehensibly difficult transition to complete, lonely, deeply unsettling, arduous in every practical way. And more than anything, for me, I can’t imagine permanently breaking the family tie, the ancestral line which, however inconsequential or little known, has brought me to where I was born and raised. Every immigrant must know, in their hearts, that their children will grow up to be fundamentally different from all the family members who have preceded them, that they will never enjoy the blood bonds that they would have had they lived in their country of origin. To immigrate is to accept that you must begin a whole new family history.

I have a friend who, in emigrating, gave up a career as a librarian to become a janitor. I once worked in a restaurant with a man who had been a lawyer in his home country, and who was now host at that restaurant, seating the customers. I know of couples who have not been able to manage the change together, where one or other of the two couldn’t make the leap, and so returned home, ending the marriage. And of course we all know of the people who literally risk their lives for a chance to emigrate. (To me, these people are by definition not immigrants, nor ‘economic migrants,’ but refugees.)

Sue Waters photo
Sue Waters photo

Give me your tired, your poor, 

Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free, 

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

 These words are of course the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, and they could hardly be more ironic at a time when Donald Trump leads the polls among Republicans running for President, while proposing that a wall be built along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

The very idea that we can draw an imaginary line along some part of the earth, then say, ‘The land on this side is ours; you are not allowed to enter or stay,’ is basically bizarre. Sure, we collectively agree to a set of laws which lends force to this prohibition, but morally, can it be justified? If so, why? Because we got there first, then organized to keep others out? Seems pretty thin justification to me.

Years ago, I watched a short film by madcap artist Byron Black (sadly it doesn’t seem to exist online), in which Byron furtively approaches a small concrete pylon marking the Canada-U.S. border as it crosses Point Roberts, the western-most peninsula descending from Canada across the 49th parallel, making ‘The Point’ a tiny but separate part of the American empire. Byron steps carefully over the pylon, then waits apprehensively for the wrath of god and government to descend upon him. It doesn’t; no bolt of lightning, no megaphone voice telling him to lie face down on the ground, nothing. It goes on, but suffice it for me to say that the piece ends with Byron gleefully hopping back and forth across the border, maniacally celebrating his ability to flaunt the power of big government. For my money, the film surgically and hilariously impales the notion of ‘border.’

Recently, Gboko John Stewart, a young man from Liberia, applied for and was granted admission to Quest University in Squamish, BC. Initially the Canadian government denied him a visa for entry because of the Ebola outbreak in his home country. Reasonable enough, you might say. An international quarantine was in effect against this virulent disease. But once Liberia was declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization in May of 2015, Mr. Stewart applied again for a visa. And again he was refused; this time because some nameless bureaucrat was not satisfied that he would leave Canada at the conclusion of his time at Quest.

I have never met Mr. Stewart; know little about him. He works as a freelance journalist and radio host in Monrovia, and, from his writings, it’s clear he is skilled in the English language. He’s also an activist, deeply involved in an organization called HeForShe, which calls for men to support the equality of women. Mr. Stewart presumably never expressed an interest in staying in Canada permanently, but regardless, and despite my limited knowledge of him, I have to think he should be exactly the sort of person my country might be prepared to admit, temporarily or otherwise.

And, once again, I find myself struggling to understand the helplessness and frustration he must feel at the anonymous, arbitrary power that denies him a chance at his educational dreams.

When it comes to immigration, tragically, none of it seems to make any sense.

 

Discrepancies

Pete Muller photo
Pete Muller photo

This photograph was published in the July 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. It was taken in a village in southern Guinea, during the recent Ebola outbreak which had its epicentre in that part of Africa.

The young girl sitting on the blanket looks distinctly uneasy. Before her, the caption tells us, a traditional “healer” is preparing to exorcise the “malign spirits” which may have caused the girl to contract the Ebola virus. We see the healer’s face encrusted in white; a bit of green vegetation is wrapped around one wrist; he carries a kind of sceptre, a decorated stick.

What’s most remarkable about the photo is to be seen in the background, among the small group of villagers who have gathered to watch the exorcism—two young men hold up their phones, videoing the process.

The elements of the discrepancy seem almost too much to set side by side, and yet, there they are. A rankly superstitious practice which tracks right back to a mention in the Dead Sea Scrolls (i.e. before Christianity), smack up against the latest in 21st century communications technology. How is this possible?

The fact is today’s world is rife with such discrepancies; it’s only that they’re usually further removed from one another. In whole villages in rural Afghanistan not one person may be able to read and write. In the city of Helsinki, with a population of almost one and a half million, you will be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of 15 who cannot read and write. (The literacy rate In Afghanistan is 28%, among females less than 13%; in Finland the rate is 100%.)

Carlos Slim, the Mexican business mogul, has a net worth of more than $77 billion U.S. The average hotel receptionist in Mexico brings home $4260 U.S. in pay over the course of one year.

In California, it is illegal for mental health providers to engage in “reparative therapy” for LGBT minors. In Uganda, you may be sent to jail for up to 14 years for failing to report a suspected homosexual.

More than half of new lawyers in Canada are women. In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive a car, vote, or leave home except in the company of a male chaperone.

In all these cases, the divergence is just too great. And no one, anywhere, should attempt to justify these differences via the notion of ‘culture.’ They remain in place because it is to the advantage of the privileged group that they do so.

Does digital technology close these gaps, or drive them ever wider? The answer is complex. Certainly those phones held up by the two young men in Guinea offer them opportunities for information-gathering and commerce that are unprecedented historically, potentially meaning that their lives are ‘lifted’ economically, educationally, socially. But at the same time, the very persistence of superstition, illiteracy, and poverty means that, if those two young men rise up, the gap between them and those next to them who believe in the power of exorcism will grow.

The rising tide of digital technology most assuredly does not lift all boats, any more than the growing wealth of the economic elite trickles down, in any effective way, to those living at the bottom of the financial hill. Any time the separation between two sets of people grows too great, whether it be the Mayan priests ruling over Palenque in the 7th century, or Marie Antoinette and her husband ruling over France during the final years of the 18th century, it does not bode well for us.

In today’s global village, the discrepancies which exist internationally present problems on a scale not seen before, and I mean that quite literally, because we are more aware of these problems than we have ever been before. We no longer have to wait for an emissary to return to court, after a year-long mission, to know about the conditions of a far-off land and its people. But, at same time, today’s problems are of a distressingly familiar order.

Those at the peak of today’s societal pyramid are doing just fine, thanks. What’s called for are measures to assure that the pyramid does not get any higher, that it in fact flattens, delivering greater equality of rights, education, health care, and economic opportunity to all people everywhere.

I’m sounding frighteningly socialistic to some I know, but the lessons of history are there for all of us to observe, and we ignore them at our peril. It is in our own interests to help those being left out or behind, wherever they live, because the discrepancies of today’s world are a threat to us all.

Television’s Last Stand

I nearly cut the cord last week. I wanted to do it earlier, when the hockey and basketball playoffs ended, but some members of my household wanted to watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup, then it was the Pan Am Games…

Which is to say that, in our home at least, live sports is the last remaining reason to pay for cable TV.

It’s a good one, mind you. A hard-fought elite-level sports contest is simply the best entertainment around, involving strong characters, intense pressure, great achievements, profound loss, and far less predictability than 98% of the dramatic storytelling currently out there.

It’s also an incredibly lucrative business, especially for the pro players (not that I don’t think the money should go to those who play the game, as opposed to those who own the teams). Our appetite for professional sports continues to grow—the industry in the aggregate is now said to be worth more than $500 billion globally—and so the scope of the salaries earned by [mostly] men to play games has become patently absurd. The average salary of a Major League Baseball player, for instance, will exceed $4 million this year (That’s the average salary mind you; ‘A Rod,’ the New York Yankees star third baseman, may earn as much as $50 million this year, including marketing bonuses). If Joe Average Baseball Player were to play every minute of every game this summer (and he won’t), he will earn $8230 per hour of playing time. Patently absurd, given the utter lack of intrinsic social value attached to the work he does. Incidentally, Joe is also allotted $100 a day in meal money when he is on the road. Wouldn’t want him to feel the pinch in those expensive hotel restaurants.

But we fans have only ourselves to blame. We’re the ones who fill the stadiums, tune into the games, and yes, pay those cable TV fees, regardless of the cost. We’re the ones who seem to think that our team winning or losing somehow reflects well or poorly on us as individuals. In fact we use terms like “WE won” when a team of players whom we will never meet, and who are only rarely from our home town, never mind our home country, outscores another team that we don’t label ours. It’s more than a little odd.

What’s interesting though, is where the video marketing of big league sports is going. Surely with broadband expanding steadily, and video streaming gaining popularity by the day, it is only a matter of time before these sports franchises begin to control and market their games online, in high quality imagery. Forget ESPN or Rogers Sportsnet. These teams will find ways to make even more money by charging you directly to watch their games via their own internet channels, say in packages featuring certain opposing teams, maybe all home games, or of course with ‘tickets’ for individual games. How can it possibly not go this way?

Well, one possible way is for government agencies to prevent this sort of ‘vertical integration’ of the marketplace, akin to the 1948 antitrust case which prevented Hollywood studios from owning and operating their own theatres, to which they would grant exclusive rights to their movies. Like that case, will we see governments move to forestall undivided control of the production and distribution of sports entertainment?

It remains to be seen; the conventional TV networks have proven to be more resilient than many believed they would be in finding new revenue models (like money from Netflix), but the trends are there. TV viewing declined roughly 10% in the last year, and it’s not like the major sports franchises have to go out and build their brand. It’s there now for them, bigger and better than ever, primed for exploitation via a new medium.

5805107962_48e85060aa_zI’ll likely simply try, at some point, to renegotiate my deal with my cable TV provider. I’ll do my damndest to cherry pick just those channels which carry the games of the teams I like to follow, and my cable provider will do their damndest to ensure that I’m obliged to pick up as many channels as possible in order to do that. Shaw Cable, my provider, for instance and in most obnoxious fashion, spreads the Vancouver Canucks games over four or five of their various channels, then places those various channels in different packages, each of which costs more.

My desire for big league sports entertainment may be a passion which adds meaning to my life, or it may be a pathetic identification with a bunch of rich strangers. Either way, and even if the medium changes, one thing is certain: meeting that desire is not likely to get any cheaper.

Climate Change

The problem with climate change is that it sounds so innocuous. So the planet is going to warm by a few degrees. To plenty of people in Canada that sounds like a good thing. The oceans are going to rise. Surely we can deal with that. Look at Holland; isn’t about half the country below sea level? Is it really such a big deal?

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but yes, climate change is a very big deal, easily the greatest threat we collectively face today. And not only is it grave, it’s a complex problem, highly difficult to contend with. Here’s what Jeffrey Sachs, in the just-published The Age of Sustainable Development, has to say about the complexity of the climate change problem:

“There has never been a global economic problem as complicated as climate change. It is simply the toughest public policy problem that humanity has ever faced.”

Drought in Kenya 2004 Brendan Cox/Oxfam photo
Drought in Kenya 2004
Brendan Cox/Oxfam photo

What far too many of us don’t realize is that the biggest threat from climate change comes from the falling food production which will result. And that falling food production, as the result of higher temperatures, will come in some already unstable areas, like sub-Saharan Africa. (Also in the Mediterranean basin, southwestern United States, and parts of China.)

It’s not hard to imagine that the current Mediterranean refugee crisis, with record numbers of people fleeing North Africa for southern Europe, is but the smallest harbinger of what would ensue with crop yields dropping off by as much as 50% in sub-Saharan Africa, a scenario which is entirely possible, if current temperature trends continue.

A few salient facts, courtesy of Mr. Sach’s fact-packed book: Since the Industrial Revolution, the average temperature on the planet has risen by 0.9° C. If we were to stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere today, because of the inertia built into the natural system absorbing and releasing carbon pollution, temperatures will continue to rise by another .6° C. That’s a total of 1.5 °C. If we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the air at current rates, the temperature rise will reach 4 – 7° C by the end of the century. An increase of 4° C is where the 50% drop off in food occurs.

It’s all a little unsettling, to say the least. The real resultant danger with climate change is mass hunger, mass migration, and ultimately of course, revolution and war. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman makes that linkage quite explicitly in his recent writings, pointing to the four-year drought which immediately preceded the appalling breakdown of Syrian society that we are now witnessing.

There are other severe consequences to climate change—the acidification and rising of the oceans chief among them—but again, the most dire threat comes with the prospect of wide-scale famine as food supplies drop with increased heat and aridity in already warm and dry areas, areas already historically subject to drought. Our global agriculture and fishing industries are maxed out now (and agriculture especially is contributing hugely to environmental degradation everywhere), so any prospect of growing food insecurity should be taken very seriously by world leaders. Unfortunately our world leaders have twice now agreed to do something about carbon pollution—in Rio in 1992 and in Kyoto in 1998—and both agreements have been miserable failures. Total greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing significantly in recent years, largely for two reasons: 1) the burgeoning Chinese economy, with its heavy industrial base driven by coal power, and 2) the political power of the oil and gas industries worldwide. One last interesting fact from Sachs’s book: seven of the ten largest companies in the world are in the traditional energy sector.

At the G7 summit in Germany this year, member countries finally agreed upon the need for a no-carbon economy, but not until the year 2100. It’s a significant step, but no one should feel too encouraged. It’s estimated that to remain within the 2° C ‘safe’ zone of rising global temperatures, current greenhouse gas emissions will have to be cut by more than 50% by 2050. Sound easy? I didn’t think so.

So the next time you hear the words climate change, don’t think, ‘Coupla degrees warmer. Not so bad.’ Think instead of these two words: food riots.

The Cowboy Rides Away

To say that the cowboy is iconic in North American culture is hardly sufficient. Mythic hero is more accurate, but it’s important to remember that the cowboy was real, not supernatural like Hercules or Spiderman. The reality was that, for a brief period, essentially from 1860 to 1900, there were a great number of horses and cattle running free in the American frontier, most of them having been abandoned by retreating Mexicans. With the arrival of the railroad following the Civil War, the ’roundup’ and sale of these cattle became possible, leading to the beef industry that employed a great many ‘cowboys.’ The cattle were herded to railheads of course, but not too quickly, because if you did that the cattle lost weight, and they were sold for slaughter by the pound.

Thus the cowboy’s life was one of outdoors ambling on horseback, as part of a collaborative team of men who camped early for the night, gathered around fires to share a meal, tell stories, and maybe even sing songs. It’s a lifestyle with easily apparent appeal, although here’s what the reclusive American writer Trevanian had to say about the broader charm of the cowboy:

“It is revealing of the American culture that its prototypic hero is the cowboy: an uneducated, boorish, Victorian migrant agricultural worker.” 

The Great Train Robbery The original black hat.
The Great Train Robbery
The original black hat.

When the American film industry moved to California in the early part of the 20th century, there were by then plenty of unemployed cowboys knocking about, men who could ride, rope and sometimes shoot with the best of them—just one more coincidental reason why the western movie became incredibly popular. And it is truly difficult to overestimate the popularity and therefore the influence of the western movie. Arguably the first dramatic movie was a western—The Great Train Robbery in 1903—and the genre was dominant right through until the 70s, when it died with nevertheless accomplished films like The Wild Bunch and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the western movie was so successful, over such a long period of time (still longer than any other genre), that it created a ‘conventional form’ along with a set of audience expectations that, long after expiration of the genre itself, offers moviemakers who can reinvent the form within a new context (i.e. The Matrix or Drive) an unparalleled opportunity to go boffo at the box office.

The influence of cowboy culture in popular music is scarcely less significant. Cole Porter knocked it right out of the park in 1934 with a sublime rhyme scheme in the cowpoke paean Don’t Fence Me In

I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences

And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses.

I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences.

The song has been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to The Killers. And almost 40 years later, James Taylor waxed nearly as lyrical (rhyming “Boston” with “frostin”) in maybe his best song, Sweet Bay James:

There is a young cowboy; he lives on the range.

His horse and his cattle are his only companions.

He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons…

More than anything else, the cowboy represents freedom, a largely solitary life free of long-term obligations, tight schedules or immediate bosses. Too often in the westerns the cowboy’s love interest represented civilization, settling down and responsibility, and so too often, at the end of the story, the cowboy rode away from the girl, off into the sunset to resume a life of independent rambling (although it’s worth noting that in a couple of the defining westerns, High Noon and Stagecoach, the hero did choose the girl, and they rode off together in a buckboard).

It’s no surprise that the cowboy’s allure arose alongside the maturing of the industrial revolution, when incomes were rising but often as the result of work fettered to a factory system of mechanical drudgery. Are we any more free in the age of the digital revolution, with its increased pace and unrelenting connectivity? Well, not so’s you’d notice.

In the digital age, the cowboy hero seems a complete anachronism, more irrelevant than ever, but I think it’s worth remembering that, although the cowboy almost always resorted to a gun to resolve his conflicts with the bad guys—and the impact of that implicit message upon American society can hardly be overestimated either (see Guns)—he did so reluctantly, in defence of the little guy being oppressed by powerful villains, who were often corporate-types.

Today the cowboy is gone for good from our cultural landscape, and I’m not suggesting he should be brought back. But in our world of ever more powerful corporate interests, we could all use some of his individual pluck. The economic wheels of our day are rolling along just fine; the ecological and moral ones, not so much. Sadly, too much of the cowboy’s good is gone with him.

Rewilding Galiano

When the British writer George Monbiot moved in 2007 to a small town in Wales located on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains, he was excited about the chance to explore this largely uninhabited ‘wilderness area.’ The Cambrian Mountains Society describes it as an “unspoiled landscape with a rich cultural history and vibrant natural beauty.”

'The Cambrian Desert?" Brother Magneto photo
‘The Cambrian Desert?”
Brother Magneto photo

When he ventured out onto this landscape, however, Monbiot instead found what he quickly came to see as “the Cambrian Desert,” an ecological disaster area with a severe paucity of wild animals and a much degraded diversity of plantlife. Where a variety of trees and flowering plants once grew, there was now mostly just heather. Few birds were to be seen; even insects were hardly present. The suburban cityscape Monbiot had left behind, he discovered, was in fact richer in wildlife than his new locale.

Why? Well, animal husbandry, by and large. The area had originally been cleared for crops and pasture lands. Sheep and cattle had replaced the previous fauna, and over time these domesticated ungulates grazed the land into a condition of enduring ecological impoverishment.

Monbiot is one of the chief proponents of ‘rewilding’ parts of our world, an intriguing concept which calls for the reforestation of large tracts of land and the reintroduction of now extinct megafauna—bison, elephants, wolves, etc. A number of rewilding projects have been successfully carried out in Europe, as well as in North America (the reintroduction of grey wolves to Yellowstone National Park is a prominent example; here’s video on that success), but, as you can imagine, it remains controversial. Such efforts in the U.K., for instance, have been effectively curtailed by agricultural interests.

Living on Galiano, I know of what Monbiot speaks. The condition he describes in Wales begins as a result of our hunting the ‘apex predators’ in a region to extinction. Evidence suggests that, as we humans moved out of Africa and into all other areas of the world, millennia ago, we went about eliminating these predators at a prodigious rate, and not always for reasons of safety or the provision of food. We did it because we could.

As I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog, on Galiano there are no wolves or cougars, and so the deer proliferate in great numbers. They seem to build up in number until some sort of plague breaks out, they die off in significant numbers, and then the cycle begins again. This because, on Galiano, there is no ‘trophic cascade,’ no predation from the apex on down.

The westcoast rainforest is too vigorous for the deer to degrade in the way sheep have the topography in Wales, but nevertheless, as a gardener on Galiano, I’m fully aware of how limited a vegetative palate can survive their constant grazing, at least not when those plants are small. Nothing like an introduced shrub or flowering plant (with the blessed exemption of daffodils) can survive their appetites, except within a tall fence.

And the native vegetation which survives them is indeed restricted. The leathery leaves and smothering underground creep of salal thrives. Ferns get a severe haircut but manage to persist. But there’s not a lot of variation in the undergrowth beyond that.

Rewilding Galiano with the reintroduction of wolves or cougars, thus to encourage the development of a more diverse ecology? ‘Not likely’ hardly begins to describe that prospect. Cougars have been known to hunt smaller children, of which there are a fair number running about on the Island.

One of the related phenomena Monbiot describes in his book Feral: Rewilding The Land, The Sea and Human Life is termed “The Shifting Baseline Syndrome.” It’s a process whereby we judge whatever condition we grew up with to be the norm, the original condition. But, as Monbiot points out, what we grew up with may well already have been seriously reduced. We just weren’t around to see that happen.

Certainly this would seem to be the case with the ocean waters which surround Galiano, where sea life is reportedly not nearly as rich or plentiful as it once was. Regardless, it’s a concept we should all be aware of and appreciate. The sad fact is that, because of our seemingly irresistible urge to meddle in the ecosystem which encompasses us, we are all now living with loss.

Why I Read Non-Fiction

As a young man I read only fiction. My tastes ranged widely, from Dostoyevsky to Atwood, from Thomas Hardy to John Updike, but it was almost always a novel. Even a short story was somehow ‘beyond the pale.’

These days I read exclusively non-fiction; biography, history, memoir, the odd quasi-scientific text such as The Sixth Extinction.

funkandjazz photo
funkandjazz photo

 

It’s interesting to consider why this change.

My wife and I joke that it is because, in picking up a non-fiction book to continue reading it, even if just 24 hours later, we don’t have to struggle to recall where we left off. (I like to say that, for me, ‘Short term memory is just a fond memory.”) No paging back, trying to pick up the most recent story events. It’s just inherently easier to resume reading a non-fiction text.

It’s also interesting to note that my first choice in visual media back then, in my callow youth, was invariably a dramatic movie. Something with some edge, growing up as I did in the last great decade of American filmmaking (I’m thinking of movies like Midnight Cowboy or Scarecrow), but nevertheless it was a fictional work that I wanted to see on any given, dissolute Saturday night.

And again, these days my viewing preference is usually documentary, though not as consistently as it is when it comes to the written word.

Real as is the phenomenon of short term memory loss with advancing age, I do think the explanation for this transition in taste is slightly more complicated. As a young person, you live in a world of possibility. Your own story is yet to be written, and so an imagined future is simply more compelling to you. We tell one another stories in order to offer one another life lessons, and thus reading about a sympathetic character struggling with a relatable problem becomes not so much a projection of our current life, as it is a counselling, an offered perspective on the prospects for our coming life.

In middle age and beyond, we seek not so much projection as we do comparison. And we’d just as soon the events of the story be real, as opposed to imaginary. What choices did an individual or group make, what were the consequences, good and bad? These are the questions, I think, which tend to preoccupy the older reader. It’s not that the lessons offered by a fictional story aren’t valid—the greater emotional truth of a manipulated story is certainly authentic and useful—it’s only that, in the slowly fading second half of our lives, we’d rather know that the outcome did happen, as opposed to could happen.

It’s indefensible, really. More definitive perhaps, more actual of course, but at the same time, this choice of fact before fiction is depreciated, like the brand new car that you drive off the sales lot, only to watch its resale value drop by at least a quarter by the time you park it. I suspect that no history book will ever be more worthy than Macbeth, and that no documentary film will ever exceed The Rules of the Game in its intrinsic value.

No, admittedly, I read non-fiction in order to check in on my fellow human beings in a more literal, less justifiable way. To see who’s fallen, and why. To see who’s triumphed, and what price they paid in order to do so. It’s comforting in an odd, somewhat disconcerting way. To know that no life is perfect, no outcome guaranteed. To see how large a role chance, luck and circumstance play in failure or success. Not that will, hard work and persistence don’t factor in too; they do, especially persistence, but life has never been fair, and you are lucky if you grew up in a circumstance free of abuse or poverty, where you were loved, supported and well cared for. Many people don’t, and many who succeed are driven by neurosis and insecurity and pain that never leaves them.

Reading non-fiction is validating, or it isn’t. It will always inform; if well-written it may entertain. Like fiction it must be honest, and if so, in reading it you will be enriched, given insight. It may not excite the way fiction did in your youth, or inspire, or possess the indisputable, ineffable magic that a single passage from James Joyce or Kazuo Ishiguro may proffer, but then it isn’t meant to. It is meant to carry you on, down the road of life to a destination where every reader of every book, and every watcher of every movie is heading too. When you get there, greet your former self with a smile, and maybe give him a shake. Tell him he’s still loved, and then tell him to get on with it.

Full Circle

There’s some interesting reading to be found in a paper released by the Canadian Media Production Association last week. It’s titled, Content Everywhere: Securing Canada’s Place in the Digital Future, and it offers up an effective survey of the current media landscape. At first glance, suffice it to say that recent trends continue:

* Video progressively rules on the internet—YouTube now has more than one billion unique viewers every month, with 100 hours of video uploaded every minute.

* ‘Cord cutting’, that is escaping the tyranny of cable ‘bundling,’ continues for consumers—an American who owns an iPad now has a 65% likelihood of being a member of the cord cutter tribe.

* As the market penetration of the so-called OTTs (‘Over The Top’ online streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu) continues to grow—one of the OTTs now reaches almost half of all American households; over 60% of the 18 – 24 demographic—they are moving increasingly into the financing of original content.

The ‘old boys’, the established television networks, know all about these trends of course, and so they have, in recent years, moved actively, if still hesitantly into the digital realm. In Canada, Bell Media launched Crave TV in 2014, Rogers and Shaw finally birthed Shomi, and CBC now has an online comedy channel called Punchline. (Conventional TV’s great strength increasingly remains of course in the provision of live events, mostly sports, but also news, and of course the odd award show, although it’s interesting to note that ratings for the Oscars this year were down about 15%.)

Ben Templesmith photo
Ben Templesmith photo

Overall, the evolving picture is of the online media industry maturing, in all the good and bad that that entails. Perhaps most disconcerting is a subtitle within the paper which reads: “Many things about OTT look like TV.” AOL greenlit 16 original series in 2014, all of them featuring major celebrities or movie stars. Pitch meetings with the big-league OTTs are usually booked through agents or entertainment lawyers these days. And we can all be sure that when David Fincher, after House of Cards, pitches his new series, he’ll be strolling into the Netflix offices past a long line of waiting, lesser-known producers who once hoped that the web would provide them with new and different opportunities. Sigh.

And of course, as the paper, points out, creators for the web face a unique set of additional challenges, even as the process morphs into something distressingly familiar. Chief among them are ‘discoverability,’ and an overcrowded marketplace. The gatekeepers for the online game may no longer be the same, but the smaller players still face a huge disadvantage when it comes to putting bums in the seats. They simply don’t have the resources to compete with the big guys at marketing, or at perhaps hiring the talent which comes with a built-in audience.

And finally, if you’re a Canadian hoping to succeed with online content, you face an added problem with financing, because as slow as the big broadcasters have been to move into the online space, the established ‘legacy’ funders, like Telefilm Canada and the tax credit programs, have been even more lead-footed. Because online revenues have been so difficult to realize, these agencies have been extra adept at shuffling their feet and avoiding eye contact whenever, for instance, documentary filmmakers with an online-only audience in mind have come calling.

I’m reminded of the final scenes in George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, when the pigs move into the farmhouse, begin to walk upright and wear clothes. Or of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s incisive explanation of Why Nations Fail, describing how it is that, following revolutions, tyrants like Robert Mugabe replace tyrants like Ian Smith, how Joseph Stalin replaces Csar Nicolas II. The digital revolution may not have yet completed itself, not yet come right round in what Acemoglu and Robinson term “the vicious circle,” but the streets have gone quiet again. It may be that no one has been sent off to a “knacker” or to the gulag, but if you were among those who dreamed of a better world, or maybe even who manned an online barricade, well, purchase a ticket and get in line. It seems that all along, the digital revolution was for sale, to the highest bidder.

The Role of Government

It’s the statistic that got everyone’s attention. A recently released study by Oxfam, the international agency dedicated to combatting poverty and injustice, warns that the richest 1% of the planet’s citizens will soon possess more than the remaining 99%.

The nation's representatives? Michael Riffle photo
The nation’s representatives?
Michael Riffle photo

In an interesting related factoid, The Upshot (a ‘data-driven’ undertaking from The New York Times) reports that the richest 1% of Americans, on average and after excluding capital gains, have seen their incomes increase by $97,000 since 2009; the 99% have seen their average income fall by $100 in that time.

In Canada the situation is less dire, but the trend is in the same direction. In the 1980s, as reported by the Broadbent Institute, the top 1% of Canadians received 8% of all national income; that figure has now risen to 14%.

In that same article in The Upshot, writer Justin Wolfers, professor of economics at the University of Michigan, wonders why it is that “robust employment growth over recent years” has not generated more broadly based income growth in America.

Well, surely part of the answer has to be the structural changes wrought in the economy by the digital revolution. The London taxi drivers currently protesting the arrival of the Uber app are just the latest in a now long line of workers who have found themselves displaced by hi-tech changes in their industry. And those workers, once displaced, rarely find themselves able to land alternate employment at higher wages. As has been pointed out by authors like Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, the people not being displaced by computers—once we get past the coders themselves—tend to be folks like waiters, gardeners and daycare workers; not exactly the sorts pulling down the big bucks.

And the other major factor of course has to be the whole trickle-down, anti-regulatory economic wave that began to swell back in the days of Reagan/Thatcher, and which continues to roll over us today. The financial crash of 2008 is the most obvious example of what economic deregulation can mean to all of us, but, more generally, as times have toughened in the Western economies (that is as we have seen the onset of globalization), people have tended to increasingly resent the hand of government in their pockets. Neo-cons have encouraged this attitude at every turn, and so the back doors have been increasingly left open, allowing the rich to sneak into the kitchen, then scoop up ever larger portions of the economic pie.

The single greatest triumph of the Republican Party in America has been their ability to convince a great many white, working-class Americans that the Party has their backs, when very few propositions could be further from the truth.

We have seen, in recent decades, a steadily growing anti-government sentiment provide steadily growing opportunity for the rich to get ever richer. And let’s be very clear about one thing. The growing bank accounts of the mega-rich are not the best means for growing the economy, for easily apparent reasons. Those guys simply don’t have to spend their money the way us poorer people do, just to stay ahead of the monthly bills. Here’s a TD Bank study that makes this point.

Now no one should rightly go about saying more government is the answer to all our socio-economic woes. Anybody who has ever dealt with a government office in a time of acute need knows that these bureaucracies can be inefficient, self-serving and sometimes obnoxious, even vindictive. But greater government management of the current economy? Well, how much more evident could that need be?

Robert Reich's formula for government intervention.
Robert Reich’s formula for government intervention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It comes down to some fairly old-fashioned ideas like a guaranteed annual income, higher minimum wages, and a more progressive income tax regime. Scary stuff for a whole lot of people. But if you’re one of them, if you’re one of those people who finds the idea of more government anathema, an outrageous infringement upon your economic freedom, you should recognize that if your opinion prevails, then what you see now is what you will see later.

Only worse, if that can be imagined.

 

The Wisdom of the Ordinary

“Sometimes I dream of being a good father and good husband. Sometimes that feels really close, but other times it just seems silly, and that it would ruin my life… If I’m totally honest with myself, I’d rather die knowing that I was really good at something, that I was special or had excelled in some way, than to have been in a really nice, caring relationship.”

Jesse, in Before Sunrise, screenplay by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan

 

16092263739_4d743c338dAs I write this, Richard Linklater’s feature film Boyhood is enjoying a good deal of ‘Oscar buzz.’ The movie, shot over a 12-year period with the same set of actors, has received five separate nominations for an Oscar, and has just won ‘Best Picture’ at the Golden Globe Awards.

I’ve long been a fan of Linklater’s work, ever since first viewing Slacker in 1991. I haven’t yet seen Boyhood. I’m sure it’s a fine movie, but I also wonder if Linklater’s ‘Before…’ trilogy of movies, employing the same set of actors over a nearly 20-year period, isn’t just as worthy an accomplishment.

Linklater is an unusual filmic storyteller in a number of ways, not the least of which is his propensity to focus in upon intellectual concerns in his movies, as opposed to the emotional terrain traversed in more conventional films. The quote above is taken from the first of the movies comprising the Before trilogy. It tells the story of two young people who meet on a train approaching Vienna one evening, and then, in unplanned fashion, get off the train together in Vienna, and spend the entire night ‘walking and talking’ through the streets. Hardly the stuff of your typical American movie.

They debate questions like that quoted above: whether it is better to excel at some particular practice, be it creative or commercial or academic, than it is to be a good father, husband, wife or mother. I don’t want to be unfair to the script—a counter argument to the position quoted above is immediately offered by another character—but I think that the question is often misconstrued. For most of us, it’s not quite an either-or proposition.

Those who truly excel at a practice do so through some rare combination of talent, drive and luck. The talent quotient is ‘god given,’ if you will; the drive portion often does indeed come at the expense of personal relationships, and the luck component; well, there isn’t much any of us can do about ensuring that happens for us. Good luck typically amounts to being in the right place at the right time with the right ‘product.’

It’s a mug’s game for the 95% of us who are not the overachievers to compare ourselves to the 5% who are, even though this is precisely what celebrity culture would have us do on a daily basis. We’re better off looking to the wisdom of older, ordinary people, those who’ve lived, loved and worked in a more quotidian realm. These folks will have come through the bulk of their lives to a point where they’re feeling more or less content, having learned some important lessons along the way, and they will now likely be willing to share some of what they’ve learned. This is exactly what I attempted to do in a personal documentary I made few years back called What Happyns (available for free streaming here).

To measure yourself against the rich, famous or powerful is a surefire way to make yourself feel inadequate, if not miserable. No, better to understand that it’s a regular game you’re playing, alongside regular people. The rewards that come with great riches, fame and power are of course material, but they’re also largely ego-based. To achieve great success in a career is to feel privileged, exceptional. But beyond a certain point in your life you’ll come to realize that those sorts of rewards don’t mean so much.

We should all applaud the achievements of Richard Linklater, if only because his movies make us (me) think, rather than just feel. Tip your hat to the guy, say thanks, and then press on in your ordinary life. It’s all you’ll ever need.