Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

Summer reading

with one comment

I like to read. Over my holidays, when I was not hiking or preparing dinner for when Eileen’s return from work, odds are high that I was reading. I rarely share my reflections on the books I read, so this entry is experimental. Please skip ahead if books, or more specifically my ramblings about them, do not interest you.

You have likely seen Barrack Obama’s Dreams from my Father on bookshelves. I do not normally choose to read mid-career autobiographies, especially by politicians. But my mom has a crush on President Obama and gave me all of his books. I read The Audacity of Hope some time ago and picked up Dreams… this summer.

Mr. Obama is a good writer for a politician, but writing is not his craft, so sections of this book are forgettable. I included it in this entry because, more than for any literary or political insight, Dreams… provides a human background to the mythical President Obama. For example, despite all the warmth he feels for the American and Kenyan sides of his family, his descriptions of them do not omit their inevitable flaws. In considering these flaws, his mixed ethnic heritage and how all of this contributed to the mixed experience of his upbringing, Mr. Obama arrives at a human description of himself. We see the naive nobility in his choice to forego more lucrative career options to be a community organiser, mixed with the suppression of his anger and confusion into some drinking and anti-social behaviour. Pretty normal and human for a young man in his twenties, from my experience, regardless of whether or not is black and becomes the President of the United States.

Although the story of his visit to Kenya dragged a bit, learning about Mr. Obama’s Kenyan heritage not only gave context to the man, but reinforced how remarkable was his election to the presidency. Before his arrival on the stage, I would not have guessed that Americans could elect a half-black president with the middle name Hussein, not to mention someone with the decidedly un-glamorous story of his deadbeat Kenyan father. But Americans looked past all that and elected a man who, despite the surreal marketing that surrounds him, appears in Dreams… as human, sincere and very capable. I suppose all of this demonstrates I should not be so cynical – that politics, every so often, can present the best person for the job.

The Obama book leads to a book that I enjoyed much more: Just Watch Me, the second volume of John English’s biography of Pierre Trudeau. I read and enjoyed the first volume, Citizen of the World, when it appeared several years ago, and had waited in anticipation for the second volume. Citizen covers Trudeau’s life until his selection as Liberal Party leader in 1968; Just Watch Me follows his years as prime minister and of retirement, until his death in 2000.

I am too young to remember Trudeau as prime minister: I was seven when he told Canadians about his decisive “walk in the snow.” My adult interest in him only began after he died in September, 2000, shortly after I had moved to Singapore. I watched TV clips on the internet of hundreds and thousands of Canadians lining the railway to pay their respects as the train bore his remains to Montreal, and then scenes from his state funeral there, the largest in Canada’s history.

As with the Obama book, English’s biography of Trudeau interested me more as background on an important person in history than as the legacy of a Canadian Prime Minister. Political and legacy debates about Trudeau are too entrenched to be interesting. Although debate about President Obama reached a tiresome level even before he was sworn into office, at least his legacy is a work in progress, allowing some flexibility of interpretation and the possibility of a changing debate. Trudeau’s 14 years as PM ended in 1984, leaving 26 years for Canadians to argue themselves into intractable corners. In a typical argument about Trudeau’s legacy, you will hear “he was one of the best PMs” alongside “he was the worst,” with little middle ground.

Leaving legacy aside, what attracts me to Trudeau as a leader, and what leaps off the page of Just Watch Me, is that, despite his many flaws – a man who lived with his mother and never had a real workaday job until his election as an MP in 1965 was bound to have some social problems – he was a man of charisma and vision. We associate some of the fundamental ideals of modern Canada with Trudeau: a just society, bilingualism, federalism, the repatriated constitution, the Charter of Rights. Whether or not you agree with his vision, this biography shows that it remained remarkably consistent throughout his political career. And he had the required charisma to win elections, pass legislation and implement his vision. I accept that I will never agree with all of a particular PM’s policies, so aren’t charisma and vision the basic requirements for a progressive leader?

My attraction to a leader with charisma and vision grew in the context of post-Trudeau Canada, which has become a wasteland for those two leadership qualities. Brian Mulroney was undeniably charismatic, but he lacked vision: his plan for Canada was whatever flavour of the week would validate his need to be a great man. Jean Chrétien had some, but decidedly less charisma, and he began the era of all-politics, no-vision PMs, during which the goal was not to govern the country, but to improve your party’s position. Paul Martin (“Mr. Dithers”)  had neither charisma nor vision: one need only review his droning speeches in the 2004 and 2006 elections about a plan for Canada that involved him racing around the country, scattering money at whoever might vote for his party. Stephen Harper? I don’t buy the opposition’s “evil man with an agenda” line. Instead, I think there is little of the ideological in him at all and that he is simply the purest political PM we have yet seen: a general manager for the Conservative Party charged with increasing its market share and castrating the opposition. Whether or not that is true, he is entirely without charisma or vision. From what he has done in office, his vision seems to be of Canada as an oil-producing country that strives for balanced budgets. Exciting, compelling stuff. Forgive me if I drown myself in my soup.

None of that is to say that I would not be grumbling about Trudeau’s decisions if he were PM today. But I would like to see our young nation continue to develop its national identity, not let it languish as it has for the last 26 years. To do that we need a leader committed to an articulate vision of Canada and with the charisma to convince Canadians to follow him or her. After 26 years of managers sitting in the leader’s chair, our “best person for the job” is overdue. I am ready for anyone with the two traits of charisma and vision, even if he or she is as flawed and controversial as Trudeau.

John Ralston Saul is a philosopher, a profession of which I understand little, but somewhat more after reading A Fair Country. Everyday debate about Canada takes the shape of my rant above: largely value judgements about policies, ideologies and leaders. At least in this case of this book, Saul targets something much higher, much less tangible: Canada as a state.

In one of my masters classes last fall, we discussed the state and it is a slippery seed. Think about what constitutes “the state” and you are left with few tangible elements. Is it the physical space of the country or the collective identity of its inhabitants? Too narrow. Is it the institutions that govern everyday life – law, education, health? But how do those appear? Inevitably you begin to touch on a collection of ideas that underpin all of those elements and, whoops, you have slipped into philosophy.

I will not try to summarise Saul’s theses about the Canadian state, but the argument I found compelling was our continued denial of the aboriginal component of our identity. Granted, recent years have seen slow but steady progress on First Nations affairs in Canada (with much left to do), but the core of our self-image remains limited to a combination of our British and French heritage. Saul argues that, regardless of the conquest of Canada and its aboriginal inhabitants by the British and French and the subsequent importation of the European idea of a nation state, the formation of the Canadian state was deeply affected by interaction with the third, albeit conquered, culture in Canada: the First Nations.

For example, Saul draws two links from the co-evolution of aboriginals and Europeans in Canada to the modern foundations of our state. When early European colonists arrived in Canada, they were not all-conquering, smallpox-bearing imperialists, but small bands of underfed colonists trying to scratch a living from a strange land. Those who survived inevitably made contact with the locals and learned how live with the land. This interaction evolved to include marriage, breeding and trade between cultures that nonetheless remained distinct. From these beginnings we can recognise two pillars of the modern Canadian state: immigration and multiculturalism.

I now live in Switzerland, where several political parties win a significant number of votes with platforms that amount to “expel the foreigners.” Compare this to Canada, where political parties would not dream of such statements and, in fact, all recognise that Canada is dependent not only attracting keen, skilled migrants, but convincing them to plant roots. Canada converts some 80% of its migrants into citizens, more than double the rate of the USA and multiple times the rates of European countries. This unique immigration policy represents the building of our state around the original shared efforts of colonists and aboriginals in a vast land.

Canada’s multiculturalism policy is well-know and controversial. When you settle in Canada, you have the right to retain your cultural heritage. The state does not attempt to arbitrarily define a Canadian nationality or impose that model on newcomers. It relies on Canada’s multiple component cultures sharing some basic principles of living together that are given form in our federal institutions. Here again, Saul sees a link between the aboriginal mindset upon the arrival of the early European colonists: recognising that the land has the capacity to provide for everyone, making room for the newcomers and helping them to survive, even where all of that was done grudgingly.

Canada’s multicultural state is distinct from the European concept of a nation state, a model ironically adopted by the revolutionary USA, in which Italians, Americans and French each speak their own language and define themselves by their distinct cultural traits, a definition that helps them draw borders to isolate themselves from neighbouring “others” and to guide the assimilation their accepted migrants.

By continuing to focus our history books, national mythology and other components of our national identity only on two of its three cultural parts, Saul argues that a mismatch has grown between the Canadian state and our national reality, a mismatch that stalls and jeopardises the progress of our unique national project. Wrapped up in this stasis are the difficult feelings, guilt and otherwise, that arise in discussions about how to reconcile with the First Nations, as well as the lingering sociological effects of being British imperial subjects (basing our economy on extraction and commerce, deferring international leadership to more powerful nations, etc.).

This diagnosis struck a chord with me. As I wrote above, I feel as if, after a promising start as a country, Canada has become stalled and increasingly cynical in the last 20+ years. To what degree could a big push to reconcile the aboriginal component of our national identity permit us to resume our evolution as a country? Given the shameful way our provincial and federal governments have dragged their heels over resolving First Nations land claims, and given the sad state of political leadership in our country, I do not see that project on the near horizon. But if it arose, what a compelling project! As I read Saul’s book, I was thinking that if I were studying for a PhD rather than a master, I would love to study some part of this question.

As a transition to the next book in this entry, Saul at one point describes how the Canadian Supreme Court  is ironically a step ahead of our politicians, as it has recognised the oral histories of the First Nations as being as valid as the written European ones. For many of us, it is ingrained that knowledge committed to paper is more reliable than the spoken word, but that shows only that the European tradition dominates our culture, and ignores that other cultures have their own viable and distinct traditions for generating and conserving knowledge.

What the Supreme Court grasped was that to accept only written history is to invalidate the First Nations and their distinct intellectual traditions. To ignore other ways of seeing, interpreting and recording the world, for example through oral tradition in First Nations languages, is to deny a wealth of information available to us. That is part of the subject Wade Davis treats in The Wayfinders, a reassembling of some of his writing into the 2009 instalment of the prestigious Massey Lectures.

Davis is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist and explorer who has travelled and researched throughout the world. In studying how humans interact with plants (my simple interpretation of ethnobotany), he has in fact discovered a much larger body of knowledge: the link between culture and land. He can describe in detail how a tribe in the Amazon uses a particular vine to prepare a hallucinogenic substance used in an elaborate ceremony to travel to the spirit world, which is ruled by spirits of mountains, trees, etc. But less explicit in this knowledge is something more practical: human beings facing the particular challenges of their habitat and adapting. For example, in the above example, the vine, along with a wicked trip, may provide protein in a protein-poor environment, and the mythology of mountain and tree spirits helps instill in the successive generations a reverence for the land that sustains them and promotes and auto-polices a policy of “tread lightly.”

Along with a wealth of fascinating views of other cultures, Davis’s book boils down to a warning against letting languages and cultures die. Language is the lens through which we see the world, and in each language resides the sum of that culture’s learning about our world. Some small bits may have been translated, but are always poorer for it, and the remaining majority risks disappearing with its language.

This last bit struck me, as living and studying in French has reinforced for me that learning, knowledge and expression are all language-specific. As I learn the French language, I am not simply learning English words I know in a new language: the meanings are different and there are often gaps in one or the other language. Moreover, the body of academic knowledge in French is different from that in English. For example, the discipline of economics exists almost exclusively in English – I do not think I have found a single economics paper in French for the subjects I have studied. By contrast, material in French is abundant in the field of sociology. Even further, the style of expression is different: anglophones appreciate crisp, to-the-point writing, whereas reading one sentence of Michel Foucault in French can be a gruelling afternoon. To lose English or French would obliterate a vast store of mutually exclusive knowledge.

For Davis, in particular in relation to knowledge about making a living on the land, the challenge of climate change will demand different perspectives as we are forced to change our way of life. If farmers in Papua know how to approach industrial agricultural yields without burning fuel in tractors and spraying chemicals on the ground, we will benefit from them preserving their language. He does not recommend affirmative action-type solutions, in which government props up or forces the instruction of little-used languages. Rather, he proposes a more liberal approach to cultural policy, in which isolated cultures are not stamped with an international monoculture, but rather allowed to choose what elements they adopt to advance their culture, all the while preserving their cultural knowledge.

As an aside, if you see Wade Davis advertised at a local speaking engagement, drop what you are doing and GO. Even if the subject matter does not interest you, he is a great speaker, has reams of beautiful photos and fascinating stories. Truth be told, I would like to sign up for whatever program trains me for a career as Wade Davis.

Lastly, 2010 has been a watershed year for my photography. I wrote in an earlier post about the photography course I have been following, which is part of it, but in general I am taking more photos, better photos and am really enjoying it. This prompts me to look at the work of other photographers to understand how they created their images. Briefly, here are a couple of the photography books I bought this summer and continue to leaf through:

Robert Frank is a Swiss photographer and his most famous collection of photos is The Americans. He shot these photos over a two-year period in the 1950s, driving around the USA on a Guggenheim fellowship. Some of the photos do not speak to me, but others are jaw-dropping in their insight into American culture at the time. The most famous is a shot of a trolley car from the outside, with white faces in the windows to a certain row, then black faces. That is the structure of the shot, with the faces sending it over the top as a representation of segregation. Another is an overexposed photo of a black nurse holding a white baby, the overexposure seeming to show a white world in which blacks can only do the menial labour. There are 80-ish photos, many of them as striking as the two I (poorly) described.

When I see Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos, I often grumble to myself that a modern photographer could never achieve comparable images, as he shot from 1930-70 or so, a period of big events and few cameras. His photos show people experiencing the Depression in the USA, WWII in Europe, communism in the USSR and Cuba, but all without the modern desensitisation or exasperation of subject and audience that comes from having cameras everywhere. I say all of that, but then I come to a photo that is just magic, era and events aside.

If you read this far, I am impressed. That was much longer than I intended. Thanks for persevering!


One Response

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  1. No trouble persevering through your book reviews. What I really appreciate is how you connect the writings to Canada. I admire your perspectives..keep it up. Cheers


    Stafford Reid

    September 18, 2010 at 05:29

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