Sunday, September 26, 2010

Art or Business

They say life is lived in a spiral. How queer that I am once again faced with the choice of art or business…

A life devoted to making art? Or, instead, a straight job? Every year this choice is faced by a surprising number of young people. As a youth I read a lot of pre-war W. Somerset Maugham stories dealing with exactly that issue. Stories, for example, of a hero never minding what parents and sane people would say while striving to become a poet, painter or concert pianist. And then sometimes admitting defeat.

Maugham himself originally trained to be a doctor. Dan Kennedy, a successful Canadian entrepreneur, has said in one of his little Self Counsel Press books (which I recommend) that he had considered becoming a novelist, but then he took a moment for a visualization: He didn’t want to be starving in an attic! Based on his writings, I’m sure he’s pleased with his high-powered life. As for me, back in my youth I decided that if perchance I ever felt a compelling urge to make art then I could do so just on weekends. That was my choice.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


When my world was young, and so was I, we longhaired students would do cartoons to express our displeasure with the Establishment. In our hippie newspapers we would portray capitalists, politicians and, if we thought of them, lobbyists too, as having porcine features and satisfied expressions while their buttons nearly popped off their vests. The trick was to acknowledge the existence of the Establishment but not despair, not be intimidated. One day I graduated. Then I lowered my nose to the grindstone: learned to work really hard. And one day, when I lifted my nose again—Hey! We’re all middle-aged! Meanwhile the cartoon-caricatures have vanished along with the underground newspapers.

Today my leftist friend Jan, in theory, would be quick to tell me not to speak disparagingly of politicians and capitalists. Jan would tell me that since I am not one myself it wouldn’t be Politically Correct for me to speak for them... in theory. (What? Does this mean I can't do cartoons?) As for lobbyists, I think Jan still despises them: Hence I think he’s still youthfully uninformed.

"To be informed or not to be informed, that is the question..." rather, that is the key to deciding whether to be "a citizen or a civilian." Is it right  for Jan to be uninformed? Who knows? While most of us back in my longhaired youth were energetic and idealistic about the future, maybe those other students were correct, long ago, they who despaired of ever being informed citizens. In their despair they would say, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!” and say, “The media is all lies, you can’t believe anything, and so what’s the use in even trying?”

Maybe I should be amused at how certain students, the ones who would be sharp-eyed while reading books over two years old, keen to document and footnote, keen to critically compare and contrast… would be drained, despairing at the thought of ever trying to critically read this week’s media. I can’t blame them, in theory: Why should they take a grown up interest in the news when they could escape into, say, listening to that British invasion band the Who and watching the rock opera Tommy. If the media is totally useless to them then why not figuratively, like in that opera, sit around wearing earplugs, blindfolds and plugs in their mouths? Why not give in to despair?

No... This I believe: “Our greatest enemy is despair.” So said a boy while receiving A European Education, as reported by future diplomat Romain Gary while on operations (fighting) with the Free French Air Force. The boy went off into The Forest of Anger (1944 title) to be among the partisans. He was always looking around wide-eyed and taking mental snapshots of scenes of his youthful comrades around the campfire. I can relate. As it turned out, most of them never made it home from the forest. Nothing Important Ever Dies went the title of the British edition. Unfortunately the beautiful young men and woman, whom the boy admired in the forest, died by hanging and shrapnel and bullets and even by a simple lack of medicine.

Do I digress? Not really. I think a little perspective on the price of democracy is always helpful. Incidentally, on a lighter note, as a student I always enjoyed getting a laugh by declaiming dramatically to my peers: “I’m proud to be a member of society!” Lately I’ve been pleased to get a little more perspective on lobbyists, therefore being a little less despairing.

Sure, lobbying can be a force for ill. This summer there was concern expressed in the Ontario legislature as to whether the transparency laws, regarding the self-registration of all lobbyists, were being evenly enforced.

Contra-wise, lobbying can be a force for good. This summer the cover of time magazine, for a story on lobbyists, showed lots of cash cascading from the capitol dome. The illustration was just like something out of my old student newspaper. Nevertheless the accompanying story was quite favorable to lobbyists. A little graphic showed stacks of paper, of various heights, from various decades, dramatizing how the sheer number of pages for any modern legislative bill has grown to mind-boggling mammoth size. How could a politician ever read all of it, let alone understand it? She needs help… help from her staff and from lobbyists. I learned that just as any print journalist is ethically bound to present both sides, so too will a well-meaning politician consult lobbyists from all sides of an issue. Of course the lobbyists will have poured over the fine print and considered how to explain and interpret things.

I am sure that even when I was a university student, at the top of my game, I would have groaned trying to read complex legislation. Surely if I was doing the hiring for a lobby firm—and there are such companies—then I would hire some one who was not only a young graduate but who had also spent a few years carefully reading while employed as a young congressional staffer. According to Time, this is what actually happens. My old longhaired peers will be glad to know that these new hires are indeed under the age of thirty.

Not having wimped out, I still retain the energy of youth. Rather than lower my shoulders in despair, I will raise my arms to cheer. I'm still an involved citizen: Hurray for democracy!

Sean Crawford
Still reading newspapers,
Now using reading glasses,
September 2010

~ Fox “news,” on TV, avoids the industry standard for journalistic ethics by saying they represent not the news section of the paper, but the editorial section… Too bad I feel I have to point this out.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Backfire, a Book Review

Backfire, Ballantine Books, 347 pages

Regarding liberal arts:
Besides helping nation-building efforts, liberal arts degrees are good for helping individuals to manage to stay out of terrorism. 

According to “… Tarek Fatah. The outspoken and controversial critic of Islamist extremism…” as reported by Bryn Weese, for the Parliamentary Bureau, for the Calgary Sun, p. 10, August 28, 2010. “You would never see a history major, a sociology PhD, or someone studying philosophy or anthropology as a jihadist," Fatah said.

“I’ve been dealing with these (people) for 40 years, and I have never met folks in the study in the humanities who ever indulge in this fascism."

As you know, home-grown terrorists are trained in things like hospital technology, medicine and engineering.

“They have no time for the grey area of issues," Fatah said, and are “inclined to regimented ideas, fixed solutions … and follow prescribed rules.” 

Perhaps the finest moments in academia are when one relates an actual event to an unexamined premise of society, thus producing a higher social awareness level.

Earlier in our age the pain of Vietnam prompted Terry Orlick to isolate competition, something normally taken for granted, as a negative factor in American involvement. Today camp counselors all across the continent use co-operative games, certain little leagues no longer keep score, and probably every physical education professor’s library contains Orlick’s New Games textbook.

Now University of Massachusetts Provost Loren Baritz’s latest book shows promise of similar far-reaching effects on our society.

Backfire, subtitled A history of How American Culture Led Us in to Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did, is a searing look at the pattern for tragedy built onto the very warp and woof of our society. The book is exciting, informative, and extremely moving.

Since the Truman years most of the U.S.’s decisions regarding Vietnam have been wrong. In part this is due to beliefs peculiar to the American culture. (To illustrate: The January British edition of Cosmopolitan contains the line “foreign (movie) audiences had become tired of American idealism,” something they would not say of Canadian or Mexican films.)

Baritz sees three facets to the question of understanding Vietnam: myths, political processes (Baritz includes an analysis of the President versus his bureaucrats) and bureaucratic systems. “Bureaucratic man…