Thursday, June 22, 2006

On the Road in Montana

Keywords: Montana; iPods; epidemic of obesity; Russian novels; Prairie Home Companion; Mall of America; recycle oil.

Lynette Schlichting and I are well into our drive-across-America tour. She’s driving now and listening to her iPod while I blog, rolling along toward Billings, Montana. We expect to go on to (see photo) by dinnertime. She’s the navigator. I surrendered to her navigational expertise the first day, and now I’m relinquishing the steering wheel more and more often as well.

As book tours go, this hardly qualifies. Months of planning are required to line up , and even then you can’t be sure anyone will show up, so I am just content to appear at bookstores, with or without prior announcement, and contact the manager. If she has ordered books ahead of time for me, she’ll give me a table and chair, where a stack of my books is displayed. I sit there two hours, smiling at potential customers and discussing my topic with anyone who betrays a capacity for curiosity. If someone buys a copy (which is rare) I sign it and stick in a business card. I have more conversations than sales, of course. I never expected to attract many readers. Some of my interlocutors say they will come back later to buy, and perhaps a few of them do.

The most recent such event was yesterday in a mall in , North Dakota. Most shoppers, especially during the five-to-seven dinner hour when I arrived to handsell, do not tarry for any conversation. However, one pair of professional-looking women stopped to talk. One of them teaches in middle school. She agrees that TV probably makes kids smarter, but she doesn’t think are good at all. She says kids are constantly downloading music and listening to it in solitude with , so they don’t want to interact with anyone, including their friends. I hadn’t thought about that.

I’m finding lots of excellent places to shop for clothes, should I happen to need any. The stores all carry plenty of garments, unlike the situation in Canada. As the shoppers passed me, I counted the people who are , who constituted about fifty percent of both sexes. I had not paid much attention to all the journalistic stories about the “fast food nation” and the “,” but there really is something going on that needs to be explained and reversed. Despite being a member of the relevant category myself, I cannot explain the body shapes of the shoppers in the Fargo mall.

I had downloaded a bunch of podcasts and audiobooks onto my own iPod before leaving home, imagining that we’d listen to , , , and all across the prairies and mountains. There’s a gadget that allows you to play the sound through the car radio so we can both listen together. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work properly with my iPod, and Lynette’s iPod doesn’t contain the spoken word files. However, I’ve been able to use it with my laptop, so we listen to the stories that way.

We have been hearing Crime and Punishment, though we both have trouble following it. The Russian names throw me off, and then there’s the problem of understanding the emotional orientation of the characters. I remember encountering that challenge in the past, whenever I have read a . The characters are highly expressive, given to sudden rash acts, but their is always obscure. I have trouble empathizing with them because I can’t imagine undergoing such extreme mood changes and and vacillating intentions. That's the in action, I suppose, but it seems so irrational that I am constantly puzzled. Lynette says she ceased paying attention a hundred miles back.

Perhaps there is some real change in the environmentalism of the American mentality. There are signs for example, urging people to . Apparently, oil is contaminating the thousands of lakes in Minnesota. Another sign of the times appeared on our beds last night, for the Days Inn Motel had put notes there informing us that the changing of the sheets every day . They invited us to leave the note on our pillow if we want our sheets not to be washed after we leave. I did so, perfectly willingly, though I’m not the appropriate person to ask. Logically, it should be for the next guest to decide whether to sleep between the sheets that I have previously occupied.

One of my stops in Minneapolis was at the – a place comparable in size to the Edmonton Mall, I guess. The guy had been very welcoming on the phone but when I arrived they had no books and did not expect me. It seemed necessary to counteract my unpleasant impression of the city, so Lynette and I had a nice dinner, saw “A Prairie Home Companion,” and then took a ride on the . The center of the mall is an entertainment park with rides, and I had never been drenched in a water roller coaster before. That will be my only such experience in this lifetime. I loved it. I don’t think Lynette did, though she was bold enough to go through with it.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Progressive Game Plan

Keywords: liberals; pragmatism; Democratic Party; Al Gore; Lloyd Axworthy; Michael Ignatieff; Responsibility to Protect; troops out.
Both in the United States and Canada, are holding conferences, seeking to hammer out a program that will bring them in the next elections.

The leaders of the met in Washington, D.C. on June 12-14, and heard speeches by , , and . The conference, called “Take Back America,” aimed to show the idealists that the party still has room for their high principles, though on most issues, the overall mood was mainly one of .

Their Canadian counterparts, who met in , Quebec this week, were “big L Liberals” — mostly a gathering of former Liberal cabinet staff, now out of office. Their meeting, which was private, was called “” and included at least one high-profile American speaker, .

I gather from the very different commentators who have been describing these meetings that the American and Canadian quests have a fair bit in common. First, their best opportunity consists in the new chance to become more forward-looking on and environment matters, where the conservative politicians have conspicuously failed. Public opinion is changing toward a greater recognition of the necessity to address the looming crisis. That must have been why Gore was invited to the Canadian meeting, ticking off, by the way, the passionate strain of nationalistic liberals. (Today’s Globe and Mail features an op ed piece by one Mark Milke that fulminates over Gore’s presence – not by arguing against anything that Al has to say, but only by expressing outrage that, as a prominent person from the enemy state next door, he could have been invited to a Canadian policy conference.)

Personally, I also rather wish that Gore had been present instead in the Washington meeting. (Actually, he may have been in both conference, but I have seen no reference to his having attended the Democratic meeting.) I just wish he were the front-runner today instead of Hillary.

For the same reason, I wish the front-runner in Canada were instead of . I regret having to say hard things about any Ignatieff, for I loved (see photo) and Alison Ignatieff, whom I came to knew socially through George’s presidency of Science for Peace, and I like and respect Michael’s brother , with whom I worked on organizing a conference on Yugoslavia a few years ago. But I won’t vote for Michael, with whom I have argued publicly about nonviolence in Iraq. He supported the American invasion of Iraq and still calls for a highly militaristic, war-fighting Canadian approach in such dangerous spots as . Most other Canadian candidates for the Liberal leadership either want Canada to withdraw entirely from Afghanistan or (in the case of and Stephane Dion) want to see Canadian armed forces engage there only in peace-building policing activities such as the protection of civilians.

It seems that the most irreconcilable division in the now is similar to that in the : it concerns the proper use of . The US meeting was divided most sharply between those who demand that the Bush administration withdraw troops from right away, and those such as Hillary Clinton, who initially supported the administration’s Iraq War and still fail to oppose it.

Besides the Mont Tremblant conference, the Liberal Party held an official policy debate in Winnipeg last weekend, where the issue of Afghanistan was the foremost controversy. Today’s Globe and Mail’s op ed page was given over mainly to the troubled policies of the Liberal Party. Besides the petulant Milke article (which I am ashamed even to dignify with one mention, let alone two), there was an informative article by Jeffrey Simpson on the 20/20 conference in Quebec, and an excellent piece by on the Winnipeg conference. I wish Axworthy were going to be the next prime minister instead of, as now, the president of the , He was the best foreign minister Canada has had during the 35 years I have lived here.

Paradoxically, he bases his implied criticism of Michael Ignatieff on his support for the principle of “,” a policy that he took the initiative in developing. The ironical thing is that Michael Ignatieff was on the international panel that created the “R2P” document. I guess the dispute between the two men now consists of a difference of opinion about how to interpret and apply that doctrine, which is widely accepted in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Canadian policy, and is on the way to being accepted at the United Nations.

The R2P policy has many problems. The most significant one in this context is that it authorizes military action to defend a population whose own state fails to protect. This principle could be invoked (and was, by Ignatieff, along with his acceptance of Bush’s lie about weapons of mass destruction) to justify the invasion of Iraq. It can be invoked, by the same reasoning, to justify the continuing presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

But in Axworthy’s mind, it does not justify the current Canadian activities in Afghanistan. Instead of fighting a war on behalf on the Afghan government, he would support the use of troops for . He writes,

“After all, while NATO troops are off chasing the Taliban in the hills, hundreds of schools and mosques are being attacked and their teachers and moderate imams being kidnapped or killed.

“Peace-building, as initially conceived, requires a balanced mix of security and developmental tools and an allocation of equal resources, not the 40:1 ratio favoring military action that presently applies to our mission.”

Hooray for Axworthy and Al Gore. And, presumably, for Dryden and Dion, though I have not read their proposals personally. And boo to Michael Ignatieff and Hillary Clinton.

Onward and upward, liberals!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Divine Taboo

Should you talk about ? I think so, but one of my good friends expressed a different opinion yesterday. Fortunately, our conversation was not exactly a dispute, for we found pleasure in it — at least I did. But then, I think about religion quite often and like to talk about it. I often feel puzzled because it is rarely a part of my discussions with friends.

When I was a child, came up as a topic many times a day, though I did not enjoy the discussions because the motivations were unpleasant. We were a family, and my mother owned God. It was understood that she would dispense access to the divine on the basis of her moral appraisals, but only after repeatedly gloating over her possession of the Almighty and her contempt for anyone who failed to recognize her proprietary claim. Eventually I threw it all over, more or less with the same reckless defiance as when he resolved to go to hell rather than turn over his black friend Jim to his rightful owner. I think that unconsciously I had prepared myself for in preference to supercilious . Still, I remember that my gut clinched up at the sound of a familiar hymn. My resolve must have been ambivalent.

And then one day, after I had become a divorced mother, while I was hanging diapers on the clothesline, I got angry at . How unfair he was, allowing himself to be owned by my mother! God damn God, anyhow! However hard I tried to be a decent person, that would be insufficient, for I would have to follow her rules to get just a little bit of God’s love! What kind of God would that be? Not one that I could worship. God had to be good, or he wouldn’t be God. And any God belonging to my mother was ipso facto not good – neither merciful nor fair.

But maybe the true God was different. Maybe whatever it was, was as accessible to me as to her.

With that thought, my own deepest aspirations revived. I had been suppressing the natural longing that lies in the center of every soul. I remember that surprising discovery, the recognition that I – indeed, everyone – crave some continuous awareness of the divinity, and that the quest for that is the what the whole journey is about.

Maybe “quest” is the wrong word, for I don’t think one has to go anywhere or do anything in particular to attain God's love. There’s nothing lacking. I don’t have to do anything to win it, for I already have it. Everyone does, however misguided or wretched. This is not a "belief" of mine. It's just my sense of how things must be. Anything else would be wrong, hence not worthy of the supreme intelligence that supports the universe.

So in a way it is true that there’s nothing to do or say. Nothing is missing, so nothing further is required. Discussing the nature of ultimate reality changes nothing.

Still, it is good to recognize that impulse in each other. Conversations can open up or close off the space for any expression of the innate . I prefer openness. When there is a against mentioning ultimate reality, I feel constricted. This constriction is not unique; the same feeling occurs whenever I know that some important issue is being avoided – whether it’s about politics, money, sex, alcoholism, marital problems, social disgrace, or an impending death.

But my friend Joanna said yesterday that it is unnecessary to talk about spiritual questions. She mentioned a meeting with some Baptist friends who are liberal, generous, and committed peace activists. Yet they spent a lot of time trying to find that justified their own good deeds. This seemed unnecessary to Jo. She said that they already knew what was worthwhile, so why did they need to square it with doctrine. Why not just go ahead and do the work that they know needs to be done? That theorizing (or is it casuistry?) seemed pointless to her. She pointed out that the Buddha refused to comment on the nature of ultimate reality. Some things should not be discussed. You will only get tangled up in confusion!

I understand her point. There’s some validity there. But I am very attracted to ongoing campaign to create a spirituality for the Left. He claims that people really are spiritual, and many of us need to have that orientation recognized as legitimate. Because the Left is determined to hold only a discourse, anyone who wishes to integrate spiritual discussions into conversations about politics must turn to the , for we are excluded from mainstream liberal discourse.

It’s not just for political reasons that I accept Lerner’s argument. It’s because I want to be able to talk about what is most important to me. And that includes my sense that I am being led – as everyone else is too. That’s a dangerous thing to say these days. In fact, it’s the best way to gain a reputation for near-madness. Nobody is supposed to be guided today, for according to our official, secular point of view, there is no meaning in the universe, and there is nothing that each person is supposed to be doing. There is no vocation, no calling.

So I thank those people who will leave room for that conversation. There are a few. You know who you are, and how much I appreciate you for it. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Gore Tells an Inconvenient Truth

Keywords: Al Gore; An Inconvenient Truth; glaciers melting; Thank You for Smoking; global warming; emotions; oil interests.

Today I saw ’s – a movie about his marvelous traveling slide show on . He’s given this show more than 1,000 times over the years, and I think everyone in the world needs to see it.

The problem is, knowing is one thing, while acting on that knowledge is quite another. About half his presentation deals with the factual information – with photos of melting ice fields that ought to shock anyone who watches it – but the other half deals with the to having people absorb the information and get involved in solving the problem.

The intermediate link in this logic consists of his observation that the problem is solvable. I’m not actually sure that it truly is solvable, but Gore is pretty persuasive in suggesting that it is, and for that I can only rejoice. Of course, even if catastrophe is now unavoidable, we need to do everything possible to minimize or reverse the impending doom. What has been happening so far is hardly anything – at least in comparison to what is required.

But Gore is personally so appealing here that he’s covering the motivational angle too. and are psychologically different processes, though of course both are required. The motivation is linked to our system of , preferences, emotions, and personal attachments. Unless someone presents information in a way that touches my , it will simply be a declarative statement that doesn’t mobilize us to get up and do anything about it. But the man is truly admirable and likeable, at least in this film. I wish those qualities had shone through more apparently during his political campaigning. I could imagine developing deep affection for him – which would be enough to get me motivated to help him. There will be others, of course, who approach this film with great resistance, and nobody can win over all those people. He even expresses a tolerant patience for such people, saying that it’s only human to need some time to make a drastic reversal of opinion and action.

Yet it’s more than simple psychological sluggishness involved here. The of this message is orchestrated politically, apparently under the direction, to some extent, of economic interest groups. Gore makes the comparison between the awareness of the deleterious effects of and of global warming. His family had raised tobacco, but then his sister died of lung cancer and his father stopped farming tobacco. That emotional event punctured the denial that had allowed them to continue in their customary way. His motivation was affected emotionally by her death and by the nearly fatal injury of his own son. are required to galvanize everyone.

Now he is tactful in addressing his political enemies, but it is clear that those enemies are economic blocs – especially big oil – and that they are linked politically to George W. Bush himself. If ever there was a disastrous political mistake made by a democracy, it has to have been Bush’s defeat of Gore under the direction of the US . If the court had not stopped the recount of the votes, the course of history would have been extraordinarily different. Gore does not go into the questions about electoral fraud, but simply notes that this outcome was a hard blow but he had made the best of it.

What do we do about people who are in denial? I suppose his good-natured patience is the best approach, but it would be wrong just to let others continue unchallenged. The denial is managed; it’s not just a matter of individual heads-in-the sand. Gore’s opponents call global warming a “theory,” as a matter of policy. The cynical manipulation of public opinion for financial gain can be matched only by the recent fictional movie, “Thank You for Smoking.”

Over 900 scientific papers on global warming were examined. Of them, not one questioned the factual nature of the warming trend. Yet of more than 600 articles in the popular press, 53 percent discounted it as a mere hypothesis or “theory.” This discrediting of scientific research is morally wrong, and Gore is doing exactly what needs to be done in naming it as .

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Coming Soon to a Computer Near You: The World’s Only Book

Keywords; Scan this Book; library; digitizing; spam; copies; index; public domain; fair use; publishers; copyright.

This at Exeter University will soon be obsolete. They’ll keep the books because paper is so durable, but the most important functions of the collection will soon be achievable only when the texts have been and linked together as part of the one great library of humankind. What’s happening is that the words are leaking out of the bindings and forming a great sloshing liquid body interacting with living minds. Wow, what an accomplishment!

The most exciting thing I’ve read all year is ’s article, “Scan this Book!” in the New York Times Magazine of May 14, 2006. I’ve just re-read it. Kelly’s facts and argument are too complex to recap here, so the best favor I can do you is to urge you to go have a look at it.

Still, there are some highlights I can pass on to you in my own language. The biggest insight is that cultural producers are now paid for their work in terms of the access that consumers have to copies of their work. As the term suggests, if you want to read or refer to another person’s book, you have to pay for the right to do so, except for small passages that are limited by rules of “.”

This system has worked well in an age of mass production where of an original work can be printed cheaply – as also are copies of musical productions and movies on tape or vinyl records. Cheap is good. Cheap copies have enabled ordinary people to listen to Mozart, whereas the workers of Mozart’s own day could not have heard concerts or operas more than a few times in a lifetime, if that.

But now things have become better than cheap; they’ve become free. a book makes it possible to do things to it that could never happen to a particular copy. For one thing, you can disseminate it to countless other readers, like . You can clip out portions and weave them into other texts that you’re creating or assembling from other snipped passages.

But an even more remarkable thing is the capacity for searching the digitized text. Sometimes I need to locate a passage or a reference from my own new book, which I spent eight years writing only recently. You’d think I’d know everything about it, but I don’t. Instead of thumbing through the (which is pretty good because it made it myself, but still not good enough) I go to the computer and find the final version of the manuscript. With the search function I can locate the passages I need far more quickly than with a real book. Then I can copy that passage and paste it into the new article I’m writing, maybe tweaking it a bit to avoid reptitiveness.

What Kelly points out is that we’re going to have one giant digitized library pretty soon, to which everyone on earth will have immediate access, possibly in our pockets, or clipped onto our shirts, as this iPod that I’m listening to now. It’s coming, folks! Corporations and libraries are scanning about one million books a year, from the 32 million books that have been “published” since the Sumerians started the whole thing with their clay tablets and are now cataloged. To be sure, there are some missing volumes; the library at Alexandria burned and can never be replaced. But what of the extant books?

Ten percent are still in print. Another fifteen percent in the . Nobody owns the rights to them, so it’s okay to scan them and pour them into the “one big book.” But 75 percent of the world’s books are “orphaned.” Copies of them do exist in libraries, but they are not in the public domain so it’s legally tricky to scan them and make them available for searching. has been scanning libraries with the intention of including every volume, without clearing the copyright permissions first. The general plan was to let authors come to them and complain after the books were scanned, if they had and claims to make, because it’s so hard to trace down ownership of books. (It certainly is! I hired an assistant for many hours to find out who owned certain books that I wanted to quote, and obtain the for my own publication.)

Kelly says that publishers are objecting to Google’s plan and mounting a legal case against the project. But never mind. It will happen anyhow. If Google can’t do it, ordinary people will scan books themselves and make them available on-line. Nobody can stop technology.

I often lament the fact that technology has a dynamic of its own that cannot be limited. At least, it’s hard to keep weapons from being built if they are technologically feasible (and even if they aren’t, as in the case of Star Wars defences). But in this case I rejoice. Thank God nobody can stop it. That will be one fabulous achievement – the creation of this one great book in the sky, the whole corpus of human thought. And my own books will be part of it. It’s sort of reassuring, like the recognition that when I’m dead, my molecules will be recycled as part of somebody else. You toss your book into the pot and stir, and you get a marvelous stew, hallelujah.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Preparing for War With a Chinese Navy

are not paid to be optimistic or idealistic, but to think dark thoughts, and is a hotshot strategist. Or perhaps he is just reporting on the dark thoughts of other people, but his essays will sober you up in short order. One of them came to me today from ,” which stands, I believe, for “Strategic Forecasting,” and it described the war-planning interactions of the Chinese and American military strategists, all of which make a certain amount of sense if you avoid asking certain types of questions that only an idealist would pose anyhow.

It seems that the Chinese are building a navy that goes beyond any probable military purpose involving . In fact, they couldn’t take over Taiwan because they lack, and aren’t building, an amphibious force. Instead, they are building a strong enough navy to challenge the United States , which is based in the Pacific. The Chinese have no immediate reason to anticipate a fight with the American government, but the US hegemony in the world has depended on its ability to project power anywhere on earth – indeed, in several places at once, if need be. It can invade other countries, but none of them can invade it. It can impose without having to fight sea battles. It rules the waves and hence the world.

China (if I may refer to that government as if it were a single personality – a rhetorical device that I deplore but nevertheless cannot entirely avoid) must think about unpleasant dangers before they arise. One paramount danger is that the US Seventh Fleet, in a testy mood one fine day, might blockade China’s coast and interrupt its flourishing trade with other countries. At present, the US could do so – but China wants to make that impossible. Hence their new naval buildup.

Yet Friedman believes that their intention is not to outdo or even match the US navy (which would be prohibitively expensive) but only to develop weapons that could impair its functioning enough so such a blockade would be impossible. They are, Friedman supposes, following a strategy developed by the Soviets, who had planned a war in which they would isolate Europe by making it difficult for the US to cross the Atlantic. For this, needed only a some and missile-armed to counter the United States’ ships. In response, the US developed anti-submarine systems and an . That war, thank God, did not take place. But military strategists are still in business, planning the next one.

Friedman says that when took over under George W. , he supposed that the greatest threat to the United States was China. If Osama bin Laden convinced him otherwise for a while, that alternative threat has receded. (I can’t quite accept any such conclusion myself.) Now, since bin Laden has not triumphed, Rumsfeld can go back to his initial opinion and worry chiefly about China again. But the danger is not that the Chinese would force a naval battle; all they would hope to accomplish would be to

“force the US fleet out of the Western Pacific by threatening it with ground- and air-launched missiles that are sufficiently fast and agile to defeat U.S. fleet defences.

“Such a strategy presents a huge problem for the United States. The cost of threatening a fleet is lower than the cost of protecting one.”

True to his role as a strategist, Friedman discounts any possibility of solving this potential conflict before it becomes a real one. As he explains,

“This is not a matter of the need for closer understanding. Both sides understand the situation perfectly: Regardless of current intent, intentions change. It is the capability, not the intention, that must be focused on in the long run.”

What a depressing assumption! And what a dangerous one, too! Clearly, intentions and capabilities interact. There is a famous Roman maxim, “Si vis pocem, para bellum.” (.) But it doesn’t work that way. I remember some research that did about twenty years ago in which he identified the countries that were preparing for war and then determined which countries then actually went to war. It was the well-prepared countries that went to war. The reasons are obvious. Each side, seeing the other preparing for war, thinks it must do likewise, and by creating mutual threats, they make war increasingly probable.

The world’s problems result from mistakes that are basically just theoretical errors. Somebody invented this theory about the value of preparing for war, and it has been propagated over the centuries as an important truth which should always be observed. But it’s wrong.

Perhaps I should tell the Chinese. Or the Americans. Really, if I could convince only one decision-maker, that interruption might give us a chance for a breakthrough. Who wants to convince Donald Rumsfeld? I’ll give you a prize if you succeed.