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"Pessimism, when you get used to it, is just as agreeable as optimism."

-Arnold Bennett, 
Things That Have Interested Me

Things that have interested me: funeral parlours, gramophones, masks, box cameras, war, Greek rebetika music, vintage guitars, stereo viewers, airplanes, mushrooms, ivy, custom tailoring, architecture, the porn industry, economic theory, the perfect chili, Japanese ghost stories, espionage, old snapshots, cocktails, guns, neon signs, brickmaking, etymology, death.

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(started 05.26.02 | 09:58pm EST) THEY CANNED THE MINISTER OF DEFENCE today, a long-overdue move, and only the latest sad installment in the grim saga of our armed forces. I've written about Art Eggleton before, the onetime mayor of Toronto, and now outgoing Minister of Defence. Despite being the consummate Liberal party hack, he's turned out to be as expendable as anyone else in Jean Chretien's regime - except, of course, Chretien.

Eggleton has, very simply, turned out to be more trouble than he was worth. A few months ago, he lied to parliament about when he knew that Canadian special forces had captured prisoners in Afghanistan, and the Liberal parliamentary majority used their vote to clear his name. The death of four Canadian soldiers in a "friendly fire" incident wasn't his fault, but it happened on his watch, as did the decision to pull out of Afghanistan altogether; once again, not his fault, and probably a wise decision, based on the fact that our underfunded armed forces were probably never ready for a combat role in the first place.

But now it seems that Eggleton gave a $36,500 government contract to an ex-girlfriend, in the midst of a blizzard of patronage scandals overtaking the Liberals, and he has to go, getting shuffled back into the House of Commons along with now-former Public Works Minister Don Boudria, who inherited a patronage scandal involving ad contracts, worth considerably more money, and who lasted barely six months. A standard Liberal tactic, moving disgraced cabinet members around so that any investigations don't end up tainting their ministry or Chretien's government. It must have worked once, but I doubt that it does anymore, and I can't imagine that the Liberals will end up with another term in office after the next election unless, alas, the understrength voting class in this country are as really as addled and dispirited as I suspect.

And so we have a new Minister of Defence, a first-term MP and former economist and McGill economics prof, impressive on the surface but, on a deeper level, indicative of the lack of experience that most of our Defence Ministers bring to the job. Ideally, it would be nice to see someone with military experience in the job, but that's a qualification even rarer than honesty on Parliament Hill these days. And so, with a war as indefinable as it is unprecedented looming, we give the running of our military to a green MP trained in the dismal science, which is sadly appropriate for the Canadian army, I'm afraid.

I have no intention of running down our army - quite the opposite. I wish we'd had the nerve to fund it appropriately, but the embrace of "peacekeeping" decades ago by one Liberal prime minister has allowed subsequent PMs, Liberal and Tory, to chip away at the military budget, relying on either fashionable popular distaste for the military (in the Sixties and Seventies), resignation to the fact that America would do the job of defending North America (in the waning but nonetheless dark final years of the Cold War), or a Pollyanna-ish embrace of the "peace dividend" (in the Nineties) that now seems like a foolish, even tragic, illusion.

Of all our PMs, Chretien has been the most cynical, proudly targeting military spending for cutbacks, certain that he'd only antagonize hardcore conservative columnists who hate him anyway, or the military itself, now so understrength that it's a voting block more negligible than even the smallest of the immigrant lobby groups that the Liberals assiduously court. If there's any argument that might make a return to absolute monarchy seem reasonable, it's the fact that snarling, obvious cynics like Chretien rarely rose above the level of courtier. If modern democracies have a single, salient flaw, it's that cynics like Chretien can become virtually unassailable incumbents.

Writing about Canadian politics is as depressing as it is unrewarding - as much as you might complain about our callow politicians and their corrupt ways, nobody anywhere else in the world can muster much sympathy. This isn't Zimbabwe, after all; Canada looks like a truly blessed place, a country that can rely on a benign, offhanded prosperity by virtue of location alone; too cold to be Mexico, too close the United States to be anything less than a fat but resentful pilot fish living off our neighbour's scraps. Thanks to an accident of geography, our politicians can porkbarrel to their heart's content, secure in the knowledge that the country's considerable patrimony and indifference to political melodrama will let them have a good run, and that the worst they can expect is a return to their seat in the commons, a seat on a few corporate boards, and maybe even a place in the Senate, that happy purgatory of the political living dead.

Welcome to Canada, the greatest, most perfect banana republic the world has ever seen, mostly because they never think to look this far north. (finished 10:34pm | 05.26.02)

(started 05.27.02 | 09:41pm EST) THERE'S THIS MONSTER BOOK CHAIN up here that has a slogan: "What the world needs is more Canada." I suppose if I needed proof of our bottomless national vanity I'd start right there. Right now, I'm sure the Israelis would like a lot less of Canada, or at least a lot less of Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham, who told Ariel Sharon that he should lift travel restrictions against Palestinians hours before another suicide bomber killed two people in a shopping centre.

In a show of great tact and restraint, Sharon's spokesman re-framed the discussion between Graham and his boss by saying that Graham had only, well, suggested that Israel might want to think about it. "My sense is that Mr. Graham is as frustrated as the rest of us," offered David Goldberg of the Canada-Israel Committee, in another attempt to spin Graham's comments so they didn't appear so ... ill-timed. Considering that, just yesterday, Graham had his photo taken pressing the flesh with Arafat, I'd say that he's being cut a lot of slack.

I'm amazed at how the Israelis persevere against what I'd call a blizzard of ill-will and official discouragement. Even more amazing is the apparent ease with which suicide bombers find targets like crowded cafes and bars and parks full of old men playing chess. I imagine that the first time a suicide bomber strikes in some shopping mall or milling crowd over here - and I can't imagine why it couldn't happen - the result will be streets that look like Sunday afternoon in some dour Methodist town a hundred years ago. (It's not hard to conjure up such an image of deserted streets on pleasant, sunny weekend days; Toronto was just such a dour Methodist town until not too long ago.) That you can still find a crowd in Tel Aviv or Haifa says a lot about the essential toughness of Israeli society.

There have, of course, been attacks on Palestinians by zealots from Israel's fringe element, but so far nothing like a suicide bomber has made his or her way from some embattled settlement into the West Bank or Gaza. The simple reason, I suppose, is that they don't have to as long as the IDF can still strike with impunity. More profoundly, they haven't embraced hopeless concepts like martyrdom; Israelis are still, apparently, sure that they can win.

I'd like to know, though, just what that vision of victory might look like. There are probably dozens of different version, from an altogether unimaginable dream - at least just at this moment - of a unified Israeli/Palestinian state, tolerant and (unavoidably) secular, to a much bleaker version of Israel as a fortified country, hunkered down behind a wall, always seething at the (altogether likely) threat of attack from any or all of its neighbours.

I saw a picture of that wall today, on Reuters. As walls go, it's a doozy - taller and more overpowering than the one that ran through Berlin, made of the same kind of pre-cast concrete segments, but bright and new in the desert sun. It's being built outside the West Bank town of Qalqilya, and while it's probably only a few hundred meters long as I write this, there's no reason why it couldn't end up stretching all the way from En Gedi through Jerusalem to a few miles south of the Sea of Galilee. It would, if it came to exist, be nothing short of an obscenity, a physical admission of failure, but the chance that it might save lives in the short term could be the most persuasive reason for it to become reality.

Right now, the only thing that stifles its growth seems to be the querulous "recommendations" of men like Bill Graham, who file through the reception line that Arafat and Sharon have been hosting for months, talking about hope and peace in a tone that sounds like they've only heard of such things in the movies. (finished 10:57pm | 05.27.02)

It hasn't been a bad week, but for some reason this entry turned out to be a dark one. I've been thinking about Canadian politics - that's probably why. Nothing makes me feel as grim. A bit about the end of the beginning at Ground Zero, and a bit of musing about the Muslim world having its 1960s. I wonder: When will they get their Summer of Love?

john scalzi
james lileks
alan zweig
mike reed
lucy huntzinger
warlog: ww3
little green footballs
ken layne
uss clueless
andrew sullivan
relapsed catholic
arts & letters
steve bell
talking points memo
jim treacher

Neil Bissoondath, Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada buy it

Bissoondath is a novelist, and an Indian-Trinidadian-Canadian in the taxonomy of our country's official multicultural policies, and it's precisely that kind of thing that he thinks will ruin any hope of Canada becoming a mature, hopeful country. I've been uncomfortable with the "cult of multiculturalism" for years now, but I've never had my misgivings so well voiced by anything I've read. It's not a perfect book - Bissoondath has the unenviable job of trying to address every viewpoint, pro and con, articulate and incoherent, reasonable and bigoted, and every now and then you sense that he's grasping for something "reputable" to bolster his arguments, usually from the op-ed pages of one of our venerable newspapers.

He's dead on with his analysis of the Canadian Alliance and their predecessor, the Reform Party; behind the careful words and denials there's a hard core of fear and seething xenophobia, the groans and howled threats of the "old Canada" dying. There are things I love about the old Canada - I am, to some degree, a product of it - but I know that fear - of the new, of strangers, of the future - is a terrible inspiration for politics, or anything else.

I'm reading this to help collect my thoughts on multiculturalism for the next entry. I'm afraid that if this whole issue isn't addressed soon, the damage done could be greater than we imagine.


(started 05.28.02 | 09:41pm EST) THE CLEAN-UP AT GROUND ZERO will be over by the end of this week, just over eight months after the World Trade Center was destroyed. Pictures on Reuters today of the last standing support column being lowered to the ground. It looked like a private ceremony, a cluster of workers in hard hats standing on the hard-packed, now-level ground at the bottom of the pit while the grafitti-covered beam is cut free and winched down. They've removed almost one and a half million tons of debris from the site since they began work on the night of September 11th.

If it seems anticlimactic, I suppose it's because we always knew it would be. There are still over a thousand missing bodies that will never be found, and whatever gets built over the now-scoured hole where the towers stood will be built, both literally and metaphorically, over their graves. I have less interest in how this plays as a metaphor, for the general consumption of all of us who weren't personally bereft, than as it does literally, for the families who've had to settle for a memorial service and an empty casket. I can't imagine how long this will tug at their lives, a dark locus of gravity somewhere in the past, a moment somehow larger and sadder than any other in their lives.

Some of them will be drawn to whatever memorial gets built over the site with an almost religious avidity, and maybe they have a chance of finding some peace there, but others will find themselves visiting it reluctantly, tormented by something that feels almost like self-loathing. They'll be torn by the desire to "get on with it" and a powerful wish to make some kind of miraculous, ephemeral contact with the past, with the person who just left for work one day and never came back. They'll never find it because they know it can never happen, and they are, to me, the most pitiful and poignant victims of 9/11. (finished 10:22pm | 05.28.02)

(started 05.29.02 | 07:33pm EST) JOE KLEIN'S DIARY of his tour of Europe has been running in Slate this week, and it's a good political travelogue. He starts out unpromisingly - reminiscing about his first trip to the continent in the Sixties, pulling out the usual menu of cliches: continental hedonism, the promise of wine-lubricated sex, Europe as an "adult theme park". It's all meant as a set-up, though, for his thesis, that Europe today feels like America in the Seventies, with scruffy, defensive leftists facing newly-ascendant reactionaries on a battleground of threadbare cities and declining suburbs held together by decaying public services.

In the France Klein visits, Le Pen is George Wallace, a political bogeyman whose menace would turn out to be overrated, and the left has begun to squander its energies and its goodwill through factionalism, and by taking for granted the minorities that it na´vely assumes make up its natural constituency. It's a good argument, if not entirely persuasive yet, just two entries into the series. But it reminds me of something that occurred to me awhile ago, while I tried to imagine just what was happening to the youth of Muslim countries.

I hate to fall for the old "demography explains everything" trope, but when you read that the most unpredictable of age groups make up substantial percentage of Arab countries - teenagers aged 15-19, for instance, are a tenth of the population of Saudi Arabia, a scary statistic in any country - you can't help but feel a shudder of recognition.

The last avalanche of youth this vast steamrolling through a population was our own sainted Baby Boom, and it brought with it a ferocious social dislocation that we're still recovering from today. While it might seem absurd to compare the hedonistic politics of "liberation and revolution" of the Sixties and Seventies with the fundamentalist fervor that seems to have gripped Muslim youth, there's one or two very basic traits they have in common - a zeal to re-make society over in an idealized image of themselves, and a fanatic intolerance that dubs everything that fails their test of purity essentially and eternally an enemy.

It's instructive to remember that older leftists and "revolutionaries" tried and failed to harness and channel their spirit of rebellion into specific political ends, and only ended up like Norman Mailer, looking foolish as they attempted to cozy up to all that youthful sexual zeitgeist. It's likely that the mullahs and government leaders will find themselves overwhelmed by an anarchic and unpredictable youthful zeal that tends to mistake ideals for goals, and often ruins the careful plans of strategists and cynics.

I can't help but think of Arafat's face after 9/11 - a perfect vision of terror, realizing probably for the first time that he might not have both hands on the wheel. The last nine months have seen him trying to ride the whirlwind and failing spectacularly, unable to the control the young fanatics that he'd once hoped to use . I'm sure the same fear has found its way to the leaders of Iran, and might even have settled into the hearts of a few Saudi princelings.

Ultimately, we can only hope that the "wild youth" of the Muslim world will meet the same fate as our own, now graybearded, revolutionaries, waking up one morning unable to keep howling with a rage they no longer feel acutely, suddenly more concerned about the small circle of friends and family within the scope of mundane life. Some might swing wildly away from their once white-hot convictions and embrace everything they once professed to hate; others will cling bitterly to the old articles of faith, aware that their stubborn convictions have become irrelevant, that there are younger people all around them who consider them ridiculous. Where, I wonder, are the Jerry Rubins and Abby Hoffmans of Jenin, of Karachi and Cairo and Dubai?

I remember once watching a documentary about American hippie political firebrands, now middle-aged and confronted with their younger selves. Rubin, who re-made himself as a yuppie, was fairly unapologetic, while Hoffman seemed unmistakably embarassed in spite of his role as "keeper of the flame", but it was former White Panther John Sinclair who managed to be amused, watching his younger self proclaim the revolution and chuckling to the camera: "Would somebody please kill that guy?" (finished 09:56pm | 05.29.02)

Robert Ward, Virgin Trails buy it

IT'S FINALLY OUT! A couple of summers ago, I travelled with Robert "los Bob" Ward through north and central Spain, and I can say that, among the man's other virtues, he's an impeccable travel companion. His book will let you share the experience of travelling with "los Bob", along the pilgrimage routes of Europe. A really amazing read.

Dennis Bock, The Ash Garden buy it

Another book by a friend. A novel about the bomb, among other things. It's still there, hanging over everything, despite every attempt to pretend that, along with the wall, if just went away ten years ago.

Martin Parr, Boring Postcards USA buy it

Exactly what the title describes, and my favorite "art book" in a couple of years. A perfect coffee table book, for very small coffee tables.

Daniel Yergin & Joseph Stanislaw, The Commanding Heights buy it

A "big picture" book, about the last century of economic history. Told as a conflict of economic faiths - Keynes vs. Hayek, Galbraith vs. Friedman, "planning" vs. "market". The basis of a really excellent PBS series, and one of the most entertaining books of its type in years.

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