Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Letter to Alberta, plus a few others who might be stewing over last night's results

The election results were pretty much what I expected. The good news is everyone is disappointed. The bad news is Alberta is REALLY disappointed.
"Ontario? AGAIN?? I gotta mulch leaves, get my mind off things..."
So this, for my hurtin’ Albertans, is my gentle attempt to explain why things went the way they did.

Your guy — that would be Andrew Scheer, the Conservative who did the expeditious thing and spoke frankly about matters of religious conviction, just minutes before the clock struck midnight and white Canadian voters realized, “Hey, I’m actually a ‘None!’” — torpedoed his own ship in Quebec when he spoke frankly about matters of moral and legal conviction and announced he would launch a judicial inquiry into allegations of graft and corruption regarding SNC-Lavallin.

The rest of Canada thinks this is important; Quebec voters think so too, 180 degrees differently from the rest of Canada.

But just meditate on that before you get your tits in a twist over how blindingly obvious it is that Quebec voters are delusional idiots. For them it’s about jobs and the local economy. Similarly, there is a matter about which Albertans think 180 degrees differently from the rest of Canada, and it relates to Alberta’s jobs and local economy. So please bear in mind that even Elizabeth May’s Alberta stumping never included the words, “I will launch a judicial inquiry into the unseemly influence the oil industry has over politics in this province.”

Scheer should have known better. I have to believe that someone in his entourage DID know better and flagged it before he took the podium. If Scheer is smart — i.e., if he can learn — he will promote that person and send everyone else to the doghouse.

With Quebec effectively removed from Tory support, it was left to Ontario’s 905 to swing the vote Scheer’s way. The needle moved — a bit, but not in any way that Conservatives should construe as “promising.”

I’d call it a soft stonewalling. And Albertans can thank the Ontario Conservative Party for the results.

I have a friend from the 905 — a woman, about my age — who became a member of the provincial Conservatives during the last leadership run. This was a first. She did it because a) she was passionate about removing the Ontario Liberals from power, b) the front-runner in her team was a competent politician of long-standing whom she could get behind — who was also, it just so happened, a woman; and c) most importantly, there were rumours Doug Ford was crouching in the wings, waiting to jump in at the last minute and take leadership, and to her this was absolutely unthinkable.

We all know how that turned out.

Ever since then my friend gets daily emails plus loads of high-grade paper stuffed into her mailbox haranguing her with #TrudeauMustGo. And every single one of those missives is an airhorm blast to the face reminding her just how pathetically her party’s elite regard her actual participation and concerns. Yesterday the options for her were — once again — hold your nose and vote for the party lummox, or just stay home.

And so, my Albertan friends plus my dozen or so chums who habitually vote PC, until the Tories sit back and collect a clue or two, the bull-headed louts you put forward for voter consideration will have trouble defeating Trudeau fils. My ten cents? Book Rona Ambrose on the speaker circuit tout de suite and clean your ears before you attend.

As for the rest of my tree-hugging-anarcho-commie-mealy-mouthed-Liberal-sex-positive coterie who accuse me of giving ammo to the enemy — this is about raising the entire game. If you can’t understand why people find your opponents appealing while you only see them as appalling, then you are just a pawn being played.

Which, you know, is fine — I guess. People sure do seem to enjoy that sort of thing.

Post-script: the inaugural Whisky Prajer Pulitzer for coverage of Canadian politics goes to the New York Times, which has done a much better job of covering our politics than they are doing covering their own.

P.P.S.: I have Albertan friends who don't vote PC. I'd apologize to you but you don't need me to, so: thanks!

Friday, October 18, 2019

High Weirdness, take 1.5

Take 1.
When I was a teenager I had a recurring nightmare. I was in the parish hall of our episcopal church. We were all lined up around the wall, and at the far end of the church I could see these men all dressed in black. They were removing everyone’s right hand and putting on an electronic hand that would be everyone’s brain. I’d wake up from that dream petrified, in a cold sweat. I didn’t know what it was about, until a few years ago — I walked into a coffee shop and saw everybody staring into their hands. And I realised, oh, they didn’t have to cut off our hands, they just put it into our hands... 
T Bone Burnett, in conversation with Tom Power
Back in '97 I was a purchaser for a deceptively staid-looking independent bookstore (during that almost forgotten era when “independent bookstore” weren’t words that needed saying). I sat with publisher reps and went over their catalogues, tagging stuff I thought might be just off-beat enough to escape notice among the neighbourhood competition but still close enough to this side of the edge to catch the discerning eye of our regular customers. A super-fun gig, needless to say.

My favourite part was always the close, when the rep would say, “So was there anything you’d like a closer look at?”

One title that caught my eye had been in the seasonal catalogues for quite a while, its publication date perpetually TBA. “Any chance you could get me the pre-pub of this?”

The rep looked where I was pointing and raised an eyebrow. “Oh — you like the weird stuff.”
If you say so.
When Davis’ book finally arrived I tucked in. I thought he did a terrific job of deep-diving into some of the more disturbing possibilities Neal Stephenson had raised in Snow Crash. Techgnosis was, I thought, the most tuned-in guide to our immediate present and near future. Time has only reaffirmed this belief.

Last night I finished High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies, Erik Davis’ most recent book.

I was in an office waiting room. It was the end of the day. The building custodian came in, made the rounds and locked various cabinets and doors. Then he left and I was alone.

At the office’s sole window I stared into the night sky, then down at the city street below. I felt grateful — for the book, for Davis. In fact I was having some trouble keeping the tears at bay.

It seemed to me that at some point during the making of this book — essentially Davis’ doctoral dissertation given a haircut and a touch of lipstick — the realisation that he was performing an elegy must have sunk in and gutted him.

During the late 70s and early 80s the figureheads Davis explores — the McKenna brothers, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K. Dick — wrote the sort of stuff you had to send away for (money orders only!). The whole ritual of entrusting the postal service with your paper-route money added to the pulp exoticism on offer.

When Blade Runner came out in '82 it was evident Dick was in the ascendant, while the other two waited in the wings. In the 90s Terence McKenna surfed into GenX awareness via the rave scene. And although RAW died in relative obscurity, his fame/infamy is growing exponentially in the current memetic yeast infection.

We are no longer talking about the fringes.
Wilson’s largely optimistic visions are still going concerns for transhumanists, as well as some of our Silicon Valley overlords. For most of us, however, such talk has become about as inspiring as a styrofoam cup of Soylent. These days it is Wilson’s earlier portraits of warring conspiracies, memetic mind control, and chaotic reality breakdown that are proving, if anything, more prophetic. The sort of hard pranking represented by Operation Mindfuck has now become an ordinary tool of politics, publicity, and self-promotion. With their deployment of Pepe the Frog in the run-up to the 2016 election, the alt.right promulgated “meme magick” with a familiar Discordian mix of tactical nonsense, anonymous authorship, politicized media, and arcane esotericism. 
Today, as memetic noise eats consensus reality, and conspiracy thinking is weaponized by parties across the political spectrum, a sort of existential vertigo has opened up beneath our feet. What once felt like “the world” has shattered into an incompatible chaos of contradictory, engineered, and disturbing reality tunnels. Ontological anarchism increasingly seems like a pragmatic response, weird realism that keeps you on your toes  Erik Davis
You wanna visit Chapel Perilous? Check your right hand — you're already soaking in it.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog by James Sire

Another book I binned, probably about ten years ago. But I kept it close when I left Toronto in '84.

It was required reading in a required course — Western Thought and Culture, or “Western Cult and Torture,” yok-yok — that was slotted first thing Monday morning. A triple strike.

I fared as poorly in this class as I did in the others, but I tried a little harder. The subject matter was of interest, and professor John Franklin was a gently engaging sort whose egalitarian approach to all questions asked was somewhat at odds with the Evangelical culture that surrounded and employed him.

My recollection of those classes is very hazy, but one morning stood out. A student managed to sidetrack discussion of what we were supposed to have read by asking how best to divine the will of God for one’s life. Franklin responded that he believed the will of God was the same for all people — to do justice, seek mercy and and walk humbly. Matters like “Whom should I marry?” or “Is God calling me across the seas?” were best decided by applying as much common sense as people could muster in the given circumstances.

Applying common sense — what a thought.

For some reason I kept Sire’s book at hand, even after tossing all the others. I’d struggled with it originally, then just gave up. It was my first encounter with dialectic philosophy, and frankly I wasn’t up to it.
Other titles from that era: honestly, how could either dialectics or piety
possibly compete with the capers of Tarzan and Queen Nemone?
After my year among the girls (sic) I figured I was done with post-secondary. A friend got me a job at a camera store. It was menial work with fun people, and it gave me some hope that this business of being an adult might actually not suck.

I was done with post-sec, but remained keen on self-improvement. It behooved me, I thought, to read difficult books. Sire’s book had been difficult — I’d fallen off the bike once; it was time to get back on.

I read him while taking the bus to and from work. And for whatever reason, this time the book clicked. “A basic worldview catalog” — yes, that was it exactly. All these inexplicable, yet common, points of view made explicable — and set in clarifying contrast to my own. It really did feel like the windows of perception were opening on “the universe next door.”

Reading Sire gave me such a jolt of confidence in my newly discovered capacity as a critical reader, I abruptly changed my mind about post-sec and at the last minute re-enrolled in university. This time I eschewed both the religious and the practical and opted instead for critical — literature, philosophy, some theory. And for the first time in my life I earned grades I was proud of.

Eight years later, back in Toronto, a friend visiting my suite noticed the book. “James Sire,” she said. “I’m interviewing him next month!” She worked the religious-journalism beat on a cable TV show. Sire’s title was then in its third or fourth edition, with bonus material on the then-prevalent New Age movement, and he was coming to town to bang the gong.

“Could you get him to sign my copy of The Rebel?” I asked.

That got a laugh. In fact I was giving my proposition serious consideration. At the conclusion of her visit, though, both Sire’s and Camus’s books remained on the shelf.

It was meant to be a soft interview. Sire was not someone who needed rocking on his heels, and asking him to sign for Albert Camus could only have been seen as a pissily ironic gesture on my part.

But Sire had indeed pointed me toward Camus — the Absurdist philosopher was one of many whom Sire attempted to call into account in his brief “catalog.” In the summer of '85 I thought, hooray, Sire wins the argument! But Sire concluded his book by saying not only that he was under no delusions he’d settled any arguments, but that he hoped his readers would follow his example, roll up their sleeves and engage in deeper study of the matters he’d raised.

James Sire’s catalog lit the fire within at a time when the spark was beginning to fade, and for that I am in his, and John Franklin’s, debt.

Friday, October 04, 2019

TRADITION! (It's kind of a big deal)

An Anglican aquaintance of remarkably good humour once related his frustration with serving on the board of a local “Non-Denominational Bible College” (NDBC). “We were spending all this time talking about bringing in more students by broadening our appeal. And I finally spoke up and said, ‘You can’t. It’s already too broad — you’ve got no specificity of direction. You’re not offering any particular theological or intellectual tradition for potential students to integrate and build from. At best all you’ve got is an emphasis on piety, and that’s less a tradition than it is a posture. You need something with a deeper historical embeddedness to offer students, otherwise all you’ve got is a vague offer for a parentally sanctioned finishing school. And it reads.’”

I thought back to my single, academically disastrous, year at a NDBC in Toronto. Piety as posture, in the absence of an integrated intellectual tradition — I could not have come up with a more spot-on summary.

Not that I could have identified any sort of intellectual tradition had it bit me on the ass.
Now this is more like it!
The deal with our parents was, upon graduating high school, one year in a Christian post-secondary school — geographical and denominational concerns were moot.

My siblings and I focused on geography. Our choices as 18-year-old kids offer a surprisingly enduring thumbnail of our temperaments. My sister flew to the UK, my brother to a remote island off the west coast. In 1983 Toronto still had the remnants of a punk scene, so I went there.

I didn’t see a single punk concert. But my intellectual tradition took root in Bakka Books and Silver Snail Comics, and an independent record store whose name I no longer recall. As well as my aunt’s basement — she and her husband, a United Church minister, had a VCR and encouraged me to charge movies to their account at the local video store.

I don’t know what else to say about the school, except that I felt like an alien there — a feeling that went away, temporarily, on Saturday mornings when I had a dormitory lounge to myself where I could turn on the b&w TV and watch Star Trek reruns.

Toward the end of the year I came to know a guy down the hall from me. We shared an appreciation for Talking Heads. He returned from a weekend at home and presented me with a tape recording of The Name Of This Band Is. He became That Guy In College Who Introduced Me To Music. David Lindley, Ry Cooder, Laurie Anderson, Weather Report, T Bone Burnett, and a reconsideration of Steely Dan that flipped the switch for me.

A lifelong friend who introduced me to other lifelong friends.

Anyway, courses were failed, and home summoned. I boxed up my belongings, said goodbye to the roommate, and returned to the prairies, leaving my textbooks behind — except for one.