Archive for the ‘Politics’ category

Wonder and Otherness

July 17, 2019

This is a meditation on science fiction, on what it means to me.

First of all, science fiction makes me think of my father. The association is among my fondest memories of him.  He would avidly bring home science fiction magazines:  Analog Science Fiction and Fact, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, and If.

analog_6312

I was reading science fiction novels like a twelve-year-old house on fire anyway.  As a reader who was susceptible to the beauty of all kinds of tales, especially tall ones, I developed a keen interest in sci-fi.  Science fiction opened the world up, and not just the world, the universe.  It showed me wonder and otherness,  in different ways than I could imagine as a reasonably bright boy growing up in rural/wild British Columbia.

So my father and I came together there.

When you’re a young reader obsessed with any kind of subject, reading non-stop at every opportunity to the irritation of all around is de rigueur.

From time to time I would get so enthused I would try to write a science-fiction story myself.  I couldn’t understand why the experience of trying to write a story felt so lacklustre and unfulfilling.  Yet there was that urge to write.  Where does that come from?  And what’s it for?

I went back to reading for enjoyment, admiring the prodigious talents of Ursula Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, John Brunner, Clifford Simak, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, Brian Aldiss and so many others.

By the time I got to university, the decline but not yet the fall of my science fiction interest rolled on.  I got more interested in non-fiction subjects. And once I got back to enjoyment reading, I preferred to read modern thrillers and detective stories.

And the culture changed too.  The really cool science fiction was on the big screen. A book needed to inspire a movie.

But novels like Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, and dipping a toe (maybe more like a whole leg) in fantasy, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings still stirred me as I entered my twenties.

If-low-resWe are all strangers in a strange land, are we not?  Heinlein’s book described a human named Valentine Michael Smith raised on Mars by Martians.  He must adapt to the culture he finds here on Earth.  In a way it reminds me of the book and movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, of an extraterrestrial corrupted by the earth-bound existence he drops into.

But in Heinlein’s work, the stranger begins to demonstrate psychic abilities and unusual intelligence, coupled with a childlike naïveté. He understands, believes that “all that groks is God.”

And what is “grok?”  In the 1991 uncut version (released by Heinlein’s widow), ‘grok’ wasn’t explained for much of the book.  It seems to mean an understanding so thorough that the observer becomes a part of the observed.  For the counterculture of the day, a word was welcomed that captured breakdown of the subject-object distinction.  Although “breakdown” implies something falling apart.

The word takes on more the meaning of a coming together of subject and object that can’t always be articulated.

In any case, along with the overwhelming quest story of the Lord of the Rings with its ethical and moral themes, the two books (I read the Rings in the first edition single volume) symbolized the true interest of my mental life more than my course of studies in university about psychology.  As understood by watching rats very closely.

What about otherness?  I just learned a new word for that: Alterity.   (We may not be any further ahead in our understanding, but we have a more intellectually acceptable term.)

An  interesting academic article by Isabella Herman, Boundaries and Otherness in Science Fiction: We Cannot Escape the Human Condition, concludes that “we always were and always will be concerned about the other beyond the known border.”  She looks at four modern dystopian science-fiction films, asserting that science fiction is inherently political. Science fiction is engaged in thought experiments about our current human situations.  Politics necessarily applies.

Although Herman does describe the movie District 9 in terms of alien otherness, which is what I’m most interested in, she restricts her discussion more to the depicted extreme image of the aliens and associated political dimensions in an alternative South Africa.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what this “otherness” is that I’m trying to get at.  It’s not only about “aliens” but encounters with a mysterious universe while confined in a tiny corner of it.

Writer Gregory Benford says: “Rendering the alien, making the reader experience it, is the crucial contribution of SF.”

alien

In an interesting article (despite its academic jargon) by Carl Malmgren, Self and Other in SF: Alien Encounters , the author mentions two directions for critics of portrayed ideas of alien encounter.  One is that whatever form the alien takes in sci-fi, it can never be really alien (or other).  However such writers as Benford distinguish between “anthropocentric” and “unknowable” aliens: the former consist of “exaggerations of human traits”; the latter, alien at the “most basic level,” partake of an “essential strangeness.”

(The second direction of criticism is about the relationship between the human and the alien.  The article cites the SF writer Stanislaw Lem criticizing the common simplistic portrayal of this relationship as Us vs. Them.)

The core of what attracts me to science fiction is the portrayal of essential strangeness.  It can really only occur through a sense of wonder, rooted in our world here today.  And projected through the kaleidoscope of whatever imagination the writer can bring to bear.

As I prepare the final draft of the science fiction novel I’ve worked on for a long time, I think on these things.

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Links to articles about sci-fi otherness, and other posts here bearing on science fiction.

There are online a number of articles (often academic criticism) about the notion of otherness in science fiction.  Here are a few:

Science Fiction and Alterity

A New Science Fiction to Understand What is Coming     This one is especially interesting.

The Transcultural Site: Interpersonal Encounters with Otherness in Lessing, Le Guin and Battlestar Galactica

Some of my posts related to science fiction (especially trying to write the darn stuff):

Why Science Fiction?

Hunting For A Science Fiction Story

Subversive Fiction

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We Did Good Work – The Decline of Flood Safety in British Columbia

January 27, 2019

Here are a couple of ponderous words. “Floodplain management.” That’s much too bureaucratic for the reality of swollen rivers and creeks and lakes and storm surge ocean, for alluvial fan avulsions and debris floods.

But that was the kind of work, looking after public safety around those bodies of water and unstable slopes, that I did for 26 years or so in a ministry for the British Columbia provincial government.

hwy-97-washout

I say “I did,” but I was usually a junior person in an experienced team of technicians and engineers.  I was one of the new technicians twenty-five years ago when active flood protection was a serious function of the province.

Over the years though, the job took on more responsibilities as the work force dwindled, and the Technician became Officer became Senior.

What ministry was that again?

I’ve left the name of the ministry indefinite because there were so many names, and accompanying re-organizations, over the years.  There was the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Environment and Lands, Ministry of Environment and Lands and Parks, back to Environment somewhere and then onward to Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection.  We called that one WLAP (wallop).  WLAP was so named because the government of the day hated the word “environment.”

The current and the most ungainly version, in every way, is the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.  Try saying that real fast three times.  Or even worse introduce yourself on the phone.  And what the hell is a natural resource operation?  Tree surgery?

There was an entire generation of foresters who were close to being out of a job due to markets, pine beetle infestation and silviculture neglect. The government needed to find a place for them.  They are good people, but with a different culture and priorities in the long-standing Forest Service as compared to say, the Ministry of Environment.  They were given this huge new ministry, MFLNRORD, to manage.  (Try to say that as an acronym.  MffflnrrrORD!)

13345493_web1_1990-sumas-flood-gps

Where I worked was known variously over the years as Flood Safety, Flood and Groundwater, Flood, Engineering Section, and so on. It was always an odd duck to the managers. They usually put it with something roughly accurate like Water Management, but for awhile we were in Environmental Protection with the pesticides people. Not long ago they lumped us in with the fish & wildlife people, who really hate dikes, the flood safety structures.  Not too keen on dams either, with dam safety being another thing I did.

The most meaningful thing

The most meaningful thing for me was that we responded to emergencies. This made it stand out within whatever organization included it.  When I started at the end of several years of seriously bad flooding in our region, we were provided a thick folder of forms and procedures to use while hiring equipment and working with Ministry of Highway crews to do flood fighting.

But even then, within a very few years, the section’s responsibilities were pared back.  No longer expected to run the show (usually), we now became the subject matter experts, assessors and observers, for anything to do with flooding.  From the debris flows of the Chilliwack River Valley to the extensive farmland deluges around Hatzic Lake to threatened high water and flooding from the massive Fraser River, we were supposed to know what was going on and the best way to get things done.

bc-flooding-201805123

Over the years, our ability to respond to flood emergencies dwindled as the section’s staff were cut back and cut back.  The Emergency Management BC organization took over more, usually without enough specific technical expertise or planning.

Flooding in this part of BC, with everyone living on the delta of the mighty Fraser, or next to the Serpentine, or the Nicomekl, or the Pitt, or the Alouette, or the Chilliwack Rivers, to name only a few, risks the livelihoods and occasionally lives out of a few million people, and billions of dollars in property and infrastructure.

Flooding is not a rare occurrence. But it always fades out of topical awareness for the public in a surprisingly short period.  A couple of years maybe, or sometimes less.  Serious flooding happens somewhere in BC every year.

The foresters who have become Ministry managers inherited the responsibility for floodplain management with little understanding of dikes, other flood-related structures and policies. They lack acquaintance with the dire consequences of serious flooding.  Compared to forest tenure issues, timber sales and forest fires, it has little priority.

A certain camaraderie

But this blog post is really meant to be an appreciation of the people I worked with.  Responding to emergencies, assessing flood situations in driving rain or summer heat, built a certain camaraderie, passed down from the old hands to us more junior staff.  Sometimes we would have to step up and take on responsibilities we weren’t completely prepared for, with people going bugshit around us.

We cared about what we were doing.  We thought it was important.  It helped people.  That’s why it’s such a shame to see that function be ignored and slowly dropped with nothing to replace it.  The province has been lucky the last decade or so in the Lower Mainland Region — not so much serious flooding as there could be.

There are several of us in the Lower Mainland who, although retired, meet once in a while with who’s left.  These few struggle to do the mission, which is to keep people safe from flooding.  Safe from defective or poorly thought out diking designs, and poor planning placing more people at flood risk, safe from seismic failures and poorly engineered pipeline crossings.  Among many, many other things.

flood_mill1894

We get together and learn of the really insufficient effort the ministry makes about its flood prevention and response duties.

A case in point

A case in point, and then I’ll leave this….  Our section head was always an engineer who directed other engineers and technicians.  A dike is only as good as its weakest spot and it can be a highly technical issue.

Besides the engineering, the section head at one time had to know all the flood related bylaws of the municipalities in the region, all the personalities of engineering heads in the different municipalities, all the plans for studies on flood and river related matters up and down the main branch of the Fraser River, and elsewhere.  The section head would be expected to advise inter-provincially and internationally (down to the States).  Sea level rise and climate change had to be on his horizon. Seismic standards became important.

The management of this ministry of foresters had a hard time finding a competent engineer, for what they were willing to pay, to replace the retiring section head.  So that position is vacant and has been for months and months.  Other important engineering positions are vacant.

The solution?  Hire yet another manager to run things with little background or appropriate knowledge about flooding, dike standards or construction, and without the necessary engineering background.

We used to do good work.  I realized that the other day when I had a chance to chat with one of the other oldtimers.

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Notes on photo locations from a variety of news sources, top down:

1) Northern BC, along Highway 97
2) Flooding of Hwy 1 in BC, from Nooksack River in Washington State
3) In eastern BC.
4) Chilliwack flooding along Fraser River – always the potential.

 

A Few Quotes For These Times

January 24, 2017

That public men publish falsehoods
Is nothing new. That America must accept
Like the historical republics corruption and empire
Has been known for years.

Be angry at the sun for setting
If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope and turn,
They are all bound on the wheel, these people, those warriors.
This republic, Europe, Asia.

Observe them gesticulating,
Observe them going down. The gang serves lies, the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack.
— Robinson Jeffers

Such is the irresistable nature of the truth that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
— Thomas Paine

With words we still name our losses and our endurance.  We do this because we have no other recourse, but also because man is incurably open to words and slowly they form his judgement.  This judgement, which those in power habitually fear, is formed slowly like a riverbed, by currents of words.  But words make such currents only when they are credible.
— John Bergen

The surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even — if you will — eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned imposter couldn’t be happy with.
Joseph Brodsky

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
Voltaire

It is natural for the mind to believe and for the will to love; so that, for want of true objects, they must attach themselves to false.
Blaise Pascal

People do not seem to realise that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.
Kurt Vonnegut

We have no ideas, and they are pretty firm.
Joseph Heller

What if you could make humans do the wise thing, like the way you could make them laugh?
Joan Slonczewski

A Short Trip to Ireland

October 8, 2016

This summer my wife and I took a trip for the first time to the Republic of Ireland.

My wife is Chinese in origin; I am probably of old English stock  with a last name corresponding to a large British city.  Neither of us have any forebears as far as we know from Ireland.

We ended up on an extended week-long tour of the Emerald Isle after giving up on going to St. Petersburg in Russia, my wife’s first choice.  The Russian visa process was alarmingly expensive, and required you to feel like you were being vetted for possible spy duties, given the extensive background information the forms required, back to who your friends were in high school and whether you’d ever viewed any satirical cartoons of Putin.  I exaggerate, but that was the feeling that the bureaucratic invasion of privacy engendered.

After deciding we weren’t going to St. Petersburg, in order not to lose our tour deposit, we looked at our remaining choices and plunked a finger down on the world map and said, “There!”  Ireland.  Just the southern part of the Republic.  We didn’t get to Northern Ireland.

protestant-cathedral-dublin

We landed in Dublin in July and toured our way by bus in a rough circle route, as far east as the Cliffs of Moher, north to Galway, then south to the Ring of Kerry, back through the south towards the east and Waterford and finally back up north to Dublin.

Looking back on it now after several months, my most general impressions are of a startlingly green place, even more so than the “Wet Coast” of Vancouver, a place of extremely variable and often inhospitable weather, and overall basically a very tidy and friendly land.

And everyone spoke English!  This was disconcerting to my wife, who felt afterwards that Ireland just wasn’t very exotic; it didn’t seem foreign enough, and the weather was as bad as rainy Vancouver in the winter.

dublin-pub

Myself, I appreciated the subtle Tolkienesque effect of Gaelic on every sign, the medieval castles we came across, and the impression of a history much more turbulent and freighted with violence than anything anyone, thankfully, has suffered on the west side of Canada.

But we were unlucky with the weather.  Sun and blue skies did appear on our first day in Dublin, but as we made our way across Ireland towards the Cliffs of Moher, one of the scenic highlights of the trip if only we could have seen it, the clouds descended thickly and the rains hurtled down.

Our guide on the bus tour charmingly referred to the torrents as, “Oh, but we’ve got a bit of a mist this morning,” but we got soaked all the same when we did venture out.

Despite that disappointment and the continued gloomy weather as we continued along the Ring Of Kerry, a purportedly scenic and panoramic 100 km drive, afterwards the weather did finally break and become relatively pleasant for the rest of our travels.

We did enjoy the castles and other medieval sites, from Bunratty Castle between Limerick and Ennis, to Blarney Castle near Cork, to Glendalough, the early Christian monastic site in County Wicklow founded in the 6th Century.

The medieval feast at Bunratty Castle was a highlight with costumed entertainment, food consumed completely with our hands, and humorous sing-a-longs.

Of course, Castle Blarney has the Blarney Stone, which is supposed to induce eloquence in all who kiss it.  I am of the view that I could go out into a random field and kiss any old boulder with likely the same effect.

The long line-up to go to the top of the castle, lean out and have yourself anchored by others so you didn’t fall and then smooch above you the rough stone where thousands of predecessors have also so spitted did not appeal to either of us.  (We were assured that as often as four times a day, alcohol is applied to the stone for sanitary reasons.)

But the castle itself is impressive, and as both my wife and I are enthusiastic amateur photographers, we had lots of subject matter.

home-for-the-little-people

Overall, I enjoyed the trip, with my wife somewhat less enthusiastic.  Similarly to the experience we had of Greece and its people in the previous year, I was left with the impression of a hardy people, capable of retaining their culture even after enduring periods of oppression and internal wars.

As an example of specific Irish culture, I found fascinating the widespread enthusiasm for the Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football.

Hurling, a game with stick and ball which resembles lacrosse to me, is said to date back to prehistoric times, and may be as much as 3000 years old.

Every county has its own team and the regional competitions are fierce and more interesting for the Irish, it seems, than that of more well-known sports such as soccer (football) or cricket.

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Notes on my photos (from top down):

1. This photo of a Protestant cathedral in Dublin indicates the Irish past of considerable religious strife.  The majority of cathedrals are Protestant rather than Catholic, despite the latter being the predominant flavour of Christianity in Ireland, as a result of the historical suppression of Catholicism by the British.

2. A fairly typical Irish pub in Dublin, with the ubiquitous Guinness signs.

3. A home for the Little People…. At the Irish National Stud Farm, there were a grove of trees with these abodes for the Little People.  The Irish National Stud Farm was on the tour apparently because the Irish are just mad about horses.

Summer 2016: Ugly Haircuts, Adult Coloring Books, Pokémon & Trump

August 13, 2016

Once in a while I put my head up just to see what’s going on in the world, and it never fails to bemuse and alarm me.  I did something similar back in 2008, and traumatized as I became at that time, I have only now attempted to take another peek.

First off, I have to say as a developing curmudgeon that men’s haircuts, the trendy ones, have become incredibly ugly.  I am of the generation that enjoyed flowing locks, although in certain cases I admit that style might have had a few scraggly, greasy, over-the-face messes.  (If you would like to relive those fabled days of yesteryear, you can listen to the song Hair….)

However this new crop often looks like a small dead furry animal draped front to back over an otherwise shaved head.

Blonde shaved sidetopknot

 

 

 

 

 

Mens-Shaved-Hairstyles

It’s just the young trying to be different, I know.  But I would like to see long hair and bell bottom jeans come back some day… although I’m glad the one fellow above has maintained the tradition of the tie-dyed shirt.

Adult Coloring Books

They were probably out there before now, but as I hang out in bookstores, those that remain, I’ve come across adult coloring books a lot this year.

As an adult, by appearances anyway, I wouldn’t be caught dead breaking out my crayons and trying, tip of my tongue peeking out in concentration, to put colors in the little spaces.  But I guess people are buying them and doing just that, probably in the privacy of their own homes.

There are an amazing variety of them: The Great Canadian Cottage Colouring Book, a Vogue Fashion Coloring Book, Paris Street Style: A Coloring Book, Chill The F*ck Out: A Swear Word Coloring Book, The Aviary: Bird Portraits to Color, and the Meditation Coloring Book.

All seem to be predicated on the idea of relieving stress, which is a good thing.  And it is good to get some color in our lives in the midst of the drabness of city streets and monochrome workplaces.

An article in Medical Daily, The Therapeutic Science of Adult Coloring Books declares that adult coloring verges on “art therapy” and the activity helps people to focus and relax.

Pokémon Go

As a semi-luddite, as indicated by my lack of a smart phone, I know only a little about Pokémon Go, all of it hearsay.  (I’m proud to state that I own a wise phone – a flip cell phone – that gives me as much interactivity as I can stand.)

But this game has taken over much of the social media world it seems, and it is a fascinating combination of the virtual and the real.

It basically is a GPS game that takes off on the similar pursuit of geocaching and that activity’s variations on orienteering.

But Pokémon Go has figured out how to monetize geocaching in a way that captures, among others, an entire generation of adults who once played Pokémon on the old Game Boy video game system.

The intriguing thing about the game is its real world activity, and how players will engage in adventures, even dangerous ones, in pursuit of the wild Pokémon.

There are the players who broke into a zoo in Toledo, Ohio to catch a (virtual) Pokémon near a (live) tiger.

Australian players invaded a police station to catch a Sandshrew (whatever that is…).

Some entrepreneurial folks are taking to Craigslist to advertise their services as professional Pokémon hunters.

And then there are the criminally inclined who use Pokémon lures to gather players to isolated areas to mug them, as happened recently in Missouri.

On a more upbeat note, as a welcome diversion for hospital patients, some are even catching Pokémons in their beds.

Trump

This is certainly the summer of Trump in the US presidential election campaign.

What can really be said about Trump that hasn’t been said?  Senator Elizabeth Warren has him nailed: “Donald Trump is a loud, nasty, thin-skinned fraud who has never risked anything for anyone and who serves no one but himself.”

I am leaning towards the view, though, after all I’ve read and seen that the man is actually mentally ill.  He may be sick in his brain.  His father died of dementia, and we may be seeing the playing out of the very early stages of such a syndrome.

Beyond the cagey  goading of the media with outrageous statements which are retracted, sort of, as jokes, there are times when he is incoherent and quite muddled.  I’m thinking especially of his response in an interview to questions about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s Crimea.  But there are many other examples.

This idea and concern about Trump’s mental and brain health is not new.  From psychologist Dan McAdams’ piece in the Atlantic, to neuroscientist Howard Gardner’s analysis quoted in RawStory, to Kathleen Parker’s column, “Could Trump Be Suffering from Dementia?” , to an article by Steve King, “Does Donald Trump Have Dementia?” the suspicion is certainly out that the man may not be all there.  Perhaps he will end up a figure of pity rather than scorn.

The current Time magazine article on Trump, “Inside Donald Trump’s Meltdown” gives rise to the same impression.  Reportedly a Clinton campaign aide said of the billionaire’s recent antics, “On other campaigns, we would have to scrounge for crumbs. Here, it’s a fire hose. He can set himself on fire at breakfast, kill a nun at lunch and waterboard a puppy in the afternoon. And that doesn’t even get us to prime time.”

At least the Olympics are on now (with their own set of problems in the midst of athletic excellence) to display a better side of humanity.

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Sources for images:

http://mulpix.com/instagram/shaved_bald_hair.html
http://www.menshairstylestoday.com/shaved-sides-hairstyles-for-men/
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/426786502166444248

The Dust of Greece on My Shoes

October 25, 2015

Embedded in the seams of my black oxford walking shoes there can still be seen the light-coloured dust of Greece from a recent trip there.

I was almost going to write “the ancient dust,” since we traversed the Acropolis in Athens, prehistoric Corinth, Olympia and the original Olympic games site, Delphi, the monasteries of the high Meteora outcrops, and Thermopylae before we headed off to the tourist islands of Mykonos and Santorini.

But the dust in Vancouver, of course, is just as ancient, although it lacks the molecules, and the echoes, of far-distant human history and prehistory if not the gods themselves, that must float around in Greece still.

I swear that you could march off a couple of hundred yards or metres in any direction there, start excavating and before too long discover some sign of ancient civilization — that was how dense the presence of Greece’s history felt.

Up to the Acropolis

Up to the Acropolis

Our tour guide for the mainland part of the tour, which was really an archaeological one, was a young archaeologist between digging gigs who made ends meet by taking around, in this case, a bunch of Americans, Australians, and two Canadians — my wife and me.  Our guide was very serious about her job — so proud of her country and its heritage and eager to impart a detailed knowledge of the sites we visited.

Greece’s universities produce many archaeologists, given its many ruins and artifacts and the interest of many parts of the world in its rich history.  But probably too many, especially given its current economic troubles, of which we observed some signs.

That evidence included expensive half-built homes left undone in the dust and heat, and the shells of uncompleted businesses abandoned until times get better.  In the larger cities could be seen much graffiti on building walls which our guide said had cropped up most extensively in the last couple of years with all the troubles.  Mainly they were messages about politics and sports teams, she said.

But there were no riots in the streets, no bonfire-fueled protests or chanting demonstrations.  Both our guides during the trip expressed frustration with the way the media gets stuck on the most dramatic snapshot of events and then repeats that image well past where the reality has changed and moved on.  There is no question that there is hardship in the country: high unemployment, reduction in wages and access to money, political corruption, but most people cope as they struggle and make do amidst the uncertainty of their lives.

Meteora Monastery

Meteora Monastery

Tourism is a huge economic engine for the country, and although there had been some cancellations due to the economic unrest and the migrant crisis in other parts of the country, there were still many coming to the ancient land.  Tourism and olive trees — everywhere.

Highlights of the trip:

♦ The hilltop plateau in Athens with the Acropolis and the hordes who accompanied us to the top. Making our way through the sweating crowds up the steep pathways to the top seemed like a secular pilgrimage of sorts.  The old temples and reminders of the old gods – Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Zeus – although now just backdrops for thousands of digital snapshots and selfies, still have an essential dignity and grandeur.  This feeling of pilgrimage was strong in me and perhaps also, if unconscious, in many of the multitudes standing on the doorstep of the beginnings of Western Civilization.  These gods and the Athenians who worshipped them somehow engendered the idea of democracy.

Oh, Athenian democracy was limited.  You had to be a citizen of the city-state, to have completed your military training and to be male to qualify.  Athens became an imperial power, often cruel in the way of empires.  And as somebody once said, like Christianity, democracy has yet to be thoroughly practiced — even or especially by the Athenians.  Yet, in that era of authoritarian and tyrannical gods and rulers, somehow the Athenians were the very first to find their way for a time to the idea that direct participation in politics, in their own governing, was both possible and necessary.  Theirs was not a “representative” democracy, where one periodically is allowed to vote for those made available by the elites, but direct, where one had to be in attendance, both figuratively and literally.

♦ Seeing the Antikythera Mechanism in the flesh, so to speak (or in the metal) at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.  In my enthusiasm I’ve written about that unique and mysterious machine or computer in a couple of posts here over the years (The Antikythera Mechanism: Ancient Computer and The Antikythera Mechanism Revisited).  I’m still amazed at its existence: it gives you new respect for the minds at the dim edges of the history we are able to know.

♦ The Eastern or Greek Orthodox Church monasteries perched atop the rocky crags of Meteora.  In a landscape of surreal rocky crags, the six perched monasteries look over the valley below.  Two of them are for nuns. One we were told was inhabited by only three monks, two in their nineties.  The Eastern Church, as its brother Catholic Church, is not the attractive vocation of young people as it was once.  But we did find there tourists and buses from all over Europe, especially places such as Romania and Serbia.  Many who came were of the faith, there to pay their respects.  After climbing up the steep stone stairs, one can only marvel at the efforts it took to build these places, mostly in the 1500s.

♦ Once we left the mainland, it was on to the more leisurely islands of Mykonos and Santorini.  The Aegean is as blue as the tourist brochures show, and the white and pastel buildings glow in the sun.

Santorini Church Bell

Santorini Church Bell

There were many other places of course: the sonically impressive theatre at Epidaurus, the ruins at Delphi, and the original Olympic grounds near Olympia.  I even ran back and forth over the race track in what remains of the stadium.  I hope that allows me to say I’m an Olympic athlete….

I came away from Greece with a new appreciation for the Greek people, subjugated and over-run by various empires for centuries, now going through the current crises — they are enormously resilient to have kept their culture and sense of identity.  They have a justifiable pride in their country and their history.  In the wet fall of the Pacific Northwest, I like to look at the faint line of white dust in the seams of my shoes.

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Note:  More photos from Greece in addition to the above will eventually be on my photo website, The Suspended Moment….

The Migrant Crisis and An Old Apocalyptic Novel

September 19, 2015

“Raspail may have written the most politically incorrect book in France in the second half of the twentieth century.”
Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, The Atlantic, Dec. 1994 in a review of The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail, 1973.
—————-

My wife and I recently visited Greece on vacation for a couple of weeks, part archaeological tour and part chasing photographs on a couple of the tourist islands.

At night, with BBC World Service usually about the only English channel available on TV, we heard and saw all the drama and tragedy of the ongoing migrant crisis, which continues to deepen.  Although we didn’t come into contact with it, Greece on top of its economic troubles is also dealing with an influx of the refugees piling into Europe and headed north.

Camp of the SaintsIt reminded me a lot of an old science-fiction novel, I guess you could call it, I read back in the 1970s.  Returning from our trip, I tried to track down the name and more details of the book.  It turns out to have been the 1973 apocalyptic novel The Camp of the Saints by Frenchman Jean Raspail, which was translated into English in 1975 and I must have read shortly thereafter.

It’s about the starving, the wretched and the disenfranchised pouring out of India in a flotilla a million strong and arriving on the beaches of France.  Although France is the focus, the rest of Europe and the Western world in the novel eventually suffer the same fate as hordes of migrants continue to come ashore.  As Raspail himself put it:

“I literally saw them, saw the major problem they presented, a problem absolutely insoluble by our present moral standards. To let them in would destroy us. To reject them would destroy them.”

On their way to France, the enormous flotilla wants to approach Egypt (to gain access to the Suez Canal) and South Africa, but the military of both countries threaten to sink the boats and drown the occupants if they should approach.  So, in Raspail’s world, the horde of migrants make their way to France.  Raspail is more interested really in the reaction of the French establishment and the rest of Europe in the face of such an onslaught, and depicts it as decadent and weak in the face of this threat to the Western way of life.  He casts the coming migrants in a poor light as mangy and prone to violence and sexual assaults in their long journey to anywhere that will be better than what they left.

A review of the book by T. Williamson describes it in a way that is thought-provoking about current events:

“The actions of the main characters in the book mirror what we see every day in the media and especially on the Internet: There are the government spokesmen telling us not to panic, the media talking heads telling us what our duty is or should be, the leaders of church and society instructing us in what is the “proper” way to feel about everything that’s happening to us. And front and center is the ordinary citizen, caught like a child under a steamroller as events roll over them at their terrible slow speed.”

The Fate of Western Civilization

The point of Raspail’s book seems to be that Western civilization is psychologically incapable of defending itself.  The French in the end order their miltary to shoot or sink the approaching menacing armada, but the soldiers and navy refuse and flee.  Eventually, at the end of the novel, as examples of the overrunning by the third world, the mayor of New York is made to share Gracie Mansion with three families from Harlem, the Queen of England must marry her son to a Pakistani and other huge armadas are ready to head for Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.

Raspail has been accused of writing a racist tract, but that is too simple.  As an example, one main spokesman for European civilization in the novel is non-white but has embraced what he sees as the best of Western civilization.

As another reviewer, Dominique M. Sanchez, puts it:

“I did not see it as a racist book but as a book written by an elitist who is strongly attached to his way of life and fearful of seeing it vanish. All cultures are protective and proud of their own ways and that includes Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Latin populations. The issue here is poverty and exploitation, not necessarily race.”

Over the years, as migrant and refugee crises have cropped up here and there, those from both sides of the political spectrum have referred to this book from the mid-1970s.

The National Review, a prestigious conservative publication, in 2014 had a short essay by Mackubin Thomas Owens about The Camp of the Saints after the sudden influx of migrant children into the United States.  He asserted the deficiencies of multiculturalism and the loss of self-confidence of Western liberal society:

“Instead, multiculturalism has spawned a balkanized society of resentful members of various groups that seek favors for themselves, often at the expense of other groups — identity politics at its worst.”

The Atlantic, a literary and cultural magazine that would likely be considered too liberal by the National Review, examined The Camp of the Saints 20 years prior to that, trying to place the fictional events of Raspail’s novel in the context of exploitation of the third world.

The authors, Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, wrote in 1994 that:

“Perhaps the global problem of the early twenty-first century is basically this: that across our planet a number of what might be termed demographic-technological fault lines are emerging, between fast-growing, adolescent, resource-poor, undercapitalized, and undereducated populations on one side and technologically inventive, demographically moribund, and increasingly nervous rich societies on the other.”

The Fault Line of War

It seems to me that the main fault line is simpler than that, and it’s called war.  The current migrant and refugee numbers are a direct result of civil, guerilla and national wars.  Right now, on the continent of Africa alone, there are something like 20 nations with major conflicts with a half-million or more of their citizens on the move, struggling to survive.  That’s not even on the horizon of most Western minds.  Never mind all the displacement from the Middle East conflicts that is front and centre in the media now.

My modest proposal is that those nations who profit most from the billions of dollars they are making in the arms trade, who export the weapons of war, should import the most refugees.

By that measure, the United States, Russia, Germany, China and France should be taking in the most.  Great Britain (no. 6) and Canada (no. 15) should also be stepping up.  (And remember the hypocrisy when representatives of those nations prattle about the evils of war.)

Connelly and Kennedy put it well at the end of their Atlantic article:

“However the debate unfolds, it is, alas, likely that a large part of it–on issues of population, migration, rich versus poor, race against race–will have advanced little beyond the considerations and themes that are at the heart of one of the most disturbing novels of the late twentieth century, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints. It will take more than talk to prove the prophet wrong.”

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