Wednesday, February 7, 2024 #22

 Fortunately, we all walk on the shoulders of those who have gone before, have touched our lives directly, have written and spoken and been printed and recorded so that their contributions would continue to live on after their departure. Sometimes a neighbourhood friend does or says something that ‘sticks’ in our memory, and then lingers for decades.  A first dance, for example, or a first kiss, a first goal at the rink, or a first trophy for some achievement….these are all moments of demarcation in the scrapbook of our lives.

Some of us recall a mentor counselling a career, perhaps in law, as my friend Bill offered, over a period of three decades. Another mentor recommended a similar path from the perspective of a fraternity brother and fellow student councillor. And then there are those moments when we encounter a phrase, for example from a novel or a poem that, whether required as ‘memory work’ or not, has taken up residence in our little lexicon of thoughts that, like that burr in our shoe, continues to perturb. For this scribe, one such phrase comes from Thomas Hardy, in The Mayor of Casterbridge, “Happiness is an occasional episode in the general drama of pain!”

A more complete context of the quote comes from the character Elizabeth-Jane who decides to honor Henchard’s last wishes as best she can. She does not mourn him or plant flowers on his grave. She does, however, come close to honoring him inwardly, when she reflects here on the unfair distribution of happiness, which she considers the most valuable human currency. (

“Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquillity had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.” (The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy)

The words of others, especially those renowned for their lasting relevance and enlightenment, continue to comprise a kind of ‘flower-pot’ of thoughts, that linger, challenge, inform, inspire and often haunt those whose paths they have crossed. Not to be relegated to those ‘plastic flowers, or even those silk flowers, neither of which need tending, special insights captured in pithy, pungent and memorable images by men and women whose gift, whether through poetry or drama or rhetoric or scholarship, remain alive through the reflections of those who have collected and curated their words as part of the river of thought, ideas, images and memories in which we all swim.

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask rather what you can do for your country” is another such epithet.

In the last piece in this space, several words of others were repeated as an introduction to the notion of how certainty is not always a sound foundation for either further exploration or penetration of the more profound truth.

This morning, from the Paris Institute for Critical Thinking (PICT), a quote from Susan Sontag caught my eye:

We live in a culture in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying.

One can hardly read those words without recalling the business dogma of KISS, Keep It Simply Stupid, as a guiding mantra for both thought and all communication. As adolescents begin their exploration of language and thought, English teachers, too, would often counsel ‘simplicity’ as a path to clarity in order for the words of the incipient writer to reach the reader. A culture, however, which defers inordinately to denial of intelligence or deploying it abusively, is hoisted on its own petard. One of the implications of Sontag’s insight is that two poles of approach and attitude attend the notion of what she calls ‘intelligence’…denial or deployment in defence of authority/repression (and we might add certainty).

These spaces, recently, have attempted to highlight the work, life and character of Nelson Mandela, in the perception that his life inspires for more reasons that the abolishment of apartheid. It was the ‘way’ in which Mandela approached each challenge that spoke then, and continues to speak to us today.

After his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, in which he paid tribute to ‘my fellow laureate, Mr. F. W. de Klerk in these words:

He had the courage to admit that a terrible wrong had been done to our country and people through the imposition of the system of apartheid. He had the foresight to understand and accept that all people of South Africa must, through negotiations and as equal participants in the process, together determine what they want to make of their future. (Mandela A Long Walk to Freedom, p. 612)

As evidence of his follow-through on the notion of full participation of the people of South Africa, he writes these words, in detailing the first election campaign strategy and tactics for the national assembly, and the operative position and perspective he adopted:

The first stage of our election efforts was what was known as People’s Forums. ANC candidates would travel all over the country and hold meeting in towns and villages in order to listen to the hopes and fears, the ideas and complaints, of our people. The People’s Forums were similar to the town meetings that candidate Bill Clinton held in America on his way to the presidency. The forums were parliaments of the people, not unlike the meetings of chiefs at the Great Place that I witnessed as a boy.

I reveled in the People’s Forums. I began in Natal in November, and then went to the PWV area, the northern Transvaal, and the Orange Free State. I attended as many as three or four forums in a day. The people themselves enjoyed them immensely. No one had ever come to solicit their opinion on what should be done in their own country.

After incorporating the suggestions from the forums, we traveled the country delivering our message to the people. Some in the ANC wanted to make the campaign simply a liberation election, and tell the people: Vote for us because we set you free. We decided instead to offer them a vision of the South Africa we hoped to create. We wanted people to vote for the ANC not just because we had fought apartheid for eighty years, but because we were best qualified to bring about the kind of South Africa they hoped to live in. I felt that our campaign should be about the future, not the past. (Mandela, p. 613)

The nuanced, insightful, creative and confident, and yet not facile or simple, the Mandela position about the future, without resting in the eighty years of ‘laurels’ points to a number of implications: he loved the free-flow of ideas and the premise of listening to people who had never been asked about their feelings; he also ‘revelled’ in the encounters, and then, after the listening tours, he espoused a position that challenged both the voter and the ANC itself, to envision a future together, based on his incontrovertible and persistent optimism that the people were more than ready and eager to join.

Certainty, anti-intelligence, dogmatism, authority and repression are the instruments not only of the weak and fearful; they are also the signature of papier-mache heroes who begin from the premise of ‘knowing’ and then dispensing their ‘wisdom’ to those ‘innocence’ and even worse, as Sontag reminds us, a radical innocence, that some might attribute to the permanent image of the puer aeternus or the puella aeterna.

In 1945,  a Canadian Poet wrote a pithy piece entitled, Canada: Case History.

This is the case of a high-school land,

deadest in adolescence,

loud treble laughs and sudden fists,

bright cheeks, the gangling presence.

This boy is wonderful at sports

and physically quite healthy;

he’s taken to church on Sunday still

and keeps his prurience stealthy.

He doesn’t like books except about bears,

collects new coins and model planes,

and never refuses a dare.

His uncle spoils him with candy, of course,

Yet shouts him down when he talks at table.

You will note he’s got some of his French mother’s looks

though he’s not so witty and no more stable.

He’s really much more like his father and yet

if you say so he’ll pull a great face

He wants to be different from everyone else

and daydreams of winning the global race.

Parents unmarried and living abroad,

Relatives keen to bag the estate,

Schizophrenia not excluded,

will he learn to grow up before it’s too late?

Somewhat dated especially given the large contribution of immigrant and refugee new Canadians over the last century, yet still guarding its ‘estate’ and still struggling to ‘talk at table’ without being ‘shouted down’ the piece depicts a youthful nation emerging from the Second World War.

In the succeeding 80 years, the Sontag insight, likely applied specifically to the United States, in pursuit of a radical innocence and/or denial/repression of intelligence, highlights an even more obsessive pursuit of simplification, anti-intellectualism, and radical ‘bigoted’ and prejudicial parochialism.

Business tycoons, billionaires, star-athletes, star-entertainers, and military prestige and power, have become the jewels in the American (and Canadian and other nations) national crown. We are fed bromide headlines that target a grade six intellectual comprehension, as only one of the many conventional insults proferred by the media. We are fed simplified formulas of new pharmaceuticals (without full quality control hoops) to fix all personal discomforts. We are told democracy is under threat, and we all know that those threats are at least as real and dangerous from ‘within’ than from ‘without’ in terms of geopolitics.

The simplified and racist, ‘they are taking over’ epithet often repeated in reference to new black and brown faces among a formerly predominantly white population, in Canada and the United States (as well as countries in Europe), begs the retort, “Have you taken a look at the faces of those white supremacists who want to tear down all of our institutions lately?” The radical ‘innocence’ of a Michigan mother, yesterday, in a court room, following  the shooting of his peers by her adolescent son resulted in four counts of second degree manslaughter for her part in failing to recognize her son’s mental health struggles.

And the radical, repressive, simplified presentation of the compromise bill designed to fund Ukraine, fund Israel, protect the border, that is

‘Dead on Arrival’ in the House of Representatives, because it fails to protect the border, exposes the fault lines, not only of division but also of integrity within the Republican Party itself, given that conservative Republicans who know what the bill offers (in the $118 billion package) is more effective than anything previously tried. Only the ‘t-dirge’ himself, and his inordinate control and manipulation of his sycophant acolytes now has his hands in the levers of government in the United States.

They’re drowning in Vodka in the Kremlin and in Bejing!


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