Monday, July 27, 2009

In Praise of GBS

This past weekend we -- my wife and I and two of our sons -- travelled to Niagara-on-the-Lake, to attend a performance at the Shaw Festival. We also attended a presentation our son gave to the International Shaw Society, which convenes there during the festival.

The play we saw was The Devil's Disciple. It was the play which liberated Shaw from his usual employment as a journalist; and it allowed him to pursue his bliss in the theatre. In truth, that statement is inaccurate. Shaw was a brilliant man of many parts; and his blisses were many. Suffice it to say that the theatre made his reputation; everything else was further testament to the man's genius.

The play is about the true nature of religion and morality; about how a man of the cloth can become a man of action; and about how a man of action can become a man of the cloth. And, as always, Shaw delights in turning everything on its head. The truly religious man is the man of the title. And, through him, Shaw punctures the hot air balloons of hypocrisy and pomposity.

Like his countryman, Jonathan Swift, Shaw had no patience for hypocrisy and pomposity. But, unlike Swift, he never let those things get the best of him. His wit was a scalpel. He used it with swiftness and precision. And, despite the human frailty which Shaw found everywhere, he still saw that heroism was within man's grasp. It was not about whether Eliza Doolittle was a "squashed cabbage leaf" or a member of the aristocracy. It was about human dignity and the ability to see things as they are. When you watch a Shaw play, you come away with the distinct impression that -- for perhaps the first time -- you have seen things as they truly are.

I can only assume that the members of the International Shaw Society share some of that sentiment. There are distinguished academics in the group -- men and women who have spent their time at various universities, researching and teaching Shaw. But there are others whose professional pursuits have been outside the academy. What brings them together is their love of the man and his work. Our son loved being among them; and he marvelled that they were not competitive. They appear to be untouched by the spirit of the age just passed. For them, self interest is not what makes the world go round -- a notion which Shaw, a socialist, found appalling. They truly seem to enjoy each other's company. And their enthusiasm is infectious.

When I taught high school, we had several Shaw plays in our book room. For the most part, they collected dust and remained untouched. Once in awhile, one of us would pull Pygmalion off the shelf. Last Friday night, The Devil's Disciple played to a nearly packed house; and the audience did not need to be cued by a laugh track. Perhaps that was because, through the laughter, we saw -- in a dark time -- that, occasionally, human beings can still do the right thing. It was Shaw, after all, who proclaimed -- in Back to Methuselah -- "You see things; and you say,'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, 'Why not?'

Monday, July 20, 2009

When Things Get Pathological

When Stephen Harper declared in an interview after the G8 summit that, "I don't believe that any taxes are good taxes," Jeffrey Simpson wrote in The Globe and Mail: "There is no 'school' . . . anywhere in economics that says 'no taxes are good taxes.'" Some economists, Simpson wrote, "like right wing politicians, might think taxes are too high, maybe way too high. They might think the private sector can do lots of things better than the public sector. They might believe taxes should be lower. But anyone who says 'no taxes are good taxes' and 'I don't believe any taxes are good taxes' is wrong economically and very, very scary socially and politically."

The response from Terrence Corcoran, in The National Post, was withering. "Rev. Simpson," Corcoran wrote, "propelled himself and his Liberal congregation into a hysterical anti- Conservative, anti-Harper orbit." While Simpson would be the first to admit that he is no fan of Mr. Harper, one can ask, "Who is truly hysterical?" Simpson long ago stopped referring to the government as "the Conservatives" and instead chose the term "Harperites," suggesting that what Harper is selling is not conservatism.

He made that distinction clear later in his column. "Only libertarian anarchists believe that all taxes are bad and that society can get along without them." Besides, Simpson asked, "Who will provide, if not the taxpayers, the revenues to pay for the two services that even the most right wing ideologues agree only public authorities can provide: the defence of the realm and law and order?"

Corcoran saw a conspiracy in the making. "What is really going on here," he claimed, "is a mounting Liberal campaign to set the state for tax increases to cover future deficits. Liberals cannot officially plant this idea, and they would much rather have Mr. Harper bear the burden by forcing him to raise taxes." No, says Mr. Corcoran, the way to solve the problem is to cut spending.

What's strange is that we've been here before, fifteen years ago, and the solution -- under the Chretien government -- was to do both: to raise taxes and cut spending. We know what we will have to do. The Harperites -- and Mr.Corcoran -- suffer from a peculiar pathology, a pathology which occasionally shows up -- as it did last November, and immediately after the G8 summit -- when Mr. Harper lashes out at the opposition in a fury of indignation, determined to crush them. He seems unable to help himself. Mr. Simpson is right to worry that the Prime Minister is pathological.

Monday, July 13, 2009

And So It Goes

The death of Robert McNamara last week generated a great deal of comment. McNamara was reviled as the architect of the Vietnam War. He was reviled when he wrote thirty years later that "we were wrong, terribly wrong;" and he was reviled by many, even in death. It was a strange fate for a man who became one of Henry Ford's "whiz kids."

"It's impossible to mention his name without starting an argument," Errol Morris wrote in The New York Times. But Morris -- whose Oscar winning film, The Fog of War, gave McNamara a platform to defend his actions -- was not without sympathy. "During his tenure as secretary of defense, there were conflicts that could have escalated into nuclear war -- the confrontation over Berlin, the Cuban missile crisis. All of this must be seen against the backdrop of the prevailing ideas of the time, the domino theory and the cold war."

McNamara consistently maintained that his prime objective was to avoid nuclear Armageddon -- and he knew that dodging it in Cuba was more luck than strategy. If fighting a conventional proxy war was a substitute for nuclear Holocaust, it was -- in McNamara's words -- a case of "doing evil to do good."

But it was precisely that twisted formulation which was his undoing. A brilliant technocrat, he could marshall a phalanx of figures to justify his policies. The problem was that men and women could not be reduced to a series of complicated equations. In the end, McNamara concluded, the most grievous error he and the other New Frontiersmen made was to not know one's enemy -- to not "empathize with him." It was the same piece of wisdom Atticus Finch gave his seven year old daughter Scout in Harper Lee's superb novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

It was this failure, rather than any of his accomplishments -- even the avoidance of nuclear holocaust -- which followed McNamara around until the end of his life. "By then," wrote Tim Weiner in The Times, "he wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington -- stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind -- walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand yard stare."

McNamara was not the cold, heartless automaton of my youth. He was a man -- like George Bush Sr. -- given to weeping in public. His colleagues, especially Lyndon Johnson, took it as a sign that he had gone soft. Most of the public took the position that -- even if they were tears of remorse -- they were too late. And so it goes. Too often we recognize our follies too late.

Monday, July 06, 2009

True Patriot Love

On July 1st, the Prime Minister proclaimed, "Today we celebrate the most peaceful, prosperous and enduring democracy the world has ever known." A bit over the top, I'd say; but it's the kind of rhetoric that other politicians have used before. And, if the polls are to be believed, Mr. Harper was only voicing what the vast majority of Canadians accept as true. As Jeffrey Simpson wrote last week, "almost 90 percent of [Canadians] believe they live in 'the best country in the world.'"

The problem with this kind of boilerplate, Simpson wrote, is that Canadians begin to repeat the Chapters-Indigo slogan: the world needs more Canada. "The assumption supporting this assertion," he claimed, "is that we Canadians are so worthy, morally upright and generally well intentioned, that the world would be a better place, if it were more like, well, us. Which, in turn leads Canadians to their deadliest sin: an unsinkable moral superiority."

Then, to remind us that there are many less than superior accomplishments in this country, Simpson enumerates some of our shortcomings: we have the world's worst record for per capita green house gas emissions; Canada is "almost alone in flogging asbestos around the world;" and "the decline of manufacturing and the struggles of high technology reveal Canada for essentially being what it has always been -- a hewer of wood and drawer of water, a country excessively dependent not on brain power but on natural resources."

Some might view Simpson's comments as sour grapes -- what they claim is a national tendency Canadians have for raining on their own parade. But that claim misses Simpson's point: "There are admirable aspects of being Canadian," he writes, "and these have all been justly celebrated on Canada Day. But self satisfaction can lead to a refusal to acknowledge weaknesses, to allow patriotism to curb critical thought, to refuse to face hard choices, and to cover a slow, albeit comfortable, slide toward international marginality and domestic mediocrity."

It has always seemed to me that one of the reasons for prairie winters is to remind human beings -- who all too easily fall victim to their own delusions of grandeur -- that, in the grand scheme of things, they are less important than they perceive themselves to be. A prairie blizzard carries a simple message: humility is the handmaid of reality. We are, indeed, a country of vast and varied blessings. But smug self satisfaction isn't one of them. True patriot love recognizes that fact.