OSCAR ISN’T WHAT HE USED TO BE

Red carpet rite no longer a venue for prime time dissent

The 84th Academy Awards are upon on this Sunday, granting viewers the opportunity to enjoy truly fine acting, from the losing Oscar nominees. Who doesn’t love the annual award show-the glitter, the get-ups, the whole self-congratulatory, statuette-coveting shebang? It’s my star-gazing guilty pleasure, along with The Golden Globes-even though I preferred the red carpet rituals of past years, when there was a clear and present danger of televised spontaneity.

In 1961, U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton N. Minow described television as “vast wasteland”-and he was describing just a handful of channels beamed into homes through small, black-and-white cathode tubes. The annual Academy Awards were a small oasis in this miniaturized landscape: every February there was always a risk of somebody going off-script, something otherwise unthinkable in TV land. By the early ’70s, you could count on scandal creeping past the network censors-or sprinting, as in the case of a streaker’s interruption of presenter David Niven during the 1972 Academy Awards show. (Niven’s quick-witted response: “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”)

On the 1973 Academy Award show, Marlon Brando was a no-show when he won best actor for his role in The Godfather. In his place, he had sent aboriginal activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who arrived onstage dressed in an Apache dress and presented a speech on Brando’s behalf protesting the treatment of North American natives. Some viewers interpreted this move as an example of the man’s integrity rather than his eccentricity, although the marble-mouthed thespian was no slouch when it came to crazy. (According to Johnny Depp, his costar in the film Don Juan DeMarco, Brando once investigated the possibility of powering his Malibu home with electric eels.)

In 2002, Michael Moore accepted the best documentary film award for Bowling for Columbine. “We are against this war, Mr. Bush, shame on you,” he began. “We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons,” Moore yelled over a chorus of boos.

The impassioned speech didn’t go over well with the Powers that Bleep. The following year ABC imposed a five-second video and audio delay on the Oscar telecast, allowing the network censor to cut any “objectionable content.” With this simple tweak of the Academy’s space-time continuum, corporate America had caulked one of the last remaining cracks for dissent on prime-time network television.

Since then, no Oscar presenter or winner has aimed for a politically controversial stance on the air-at least that we know of. The acceptance speeches are harmless as organic carrots, and the expertly choreographed event has about as much surprise element as a stadium event choreographed by the late Kim Jong-Il.

The big Oscar winner in 2010 was the Iraq war film, The Hurt Locker. Pundits applauded the historic first of a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, netting the best director award. This is counted as gender progress in Hollywood: a woman could now whip up a jingoistic, Oscar-friendly flag-waver just as expertly as a man. The Academy committee members-bless their greying, status quo-conscious noggins-chose The Hurt Locker in the best picture and best director categories over Avatar, a game-changing, anti-imperialist space opera directed by Bigelow’s ex-husband, James Cameron.

For 2012, the Academy has selected the worst reviewed movie of the past 10 years, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for seven Oscar nominations. The film stars that go-to-guy for sledgehammer sentimentality, Tom Hanks, and the plot hinges on a boy who loses his father during the Sept. 11 attacks. After perusing the spoiler on Wikipedia, I knew enough to stay well away from this insulin-spiking production.

So even though I haven’t seen all the films the Academy chooses to honour, I’ll watch this Sunday’s show with my usual mix of fascination and repulsion. Even though the odds aren’t great, I’ll be hoping some A-list celebrity manages to squeak out a remark of protest while the prole working the delay button is distracted by Salma Hayek’s neckline.

Vancouver Courier, Feb. 24

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HURTIG BEATING THE DRUM FOR CANADA

You could call Mel Hurtig, grey eminence behind The Canadian Encyclopedia, a longstanding Canadian institution. That might make him sound like a heritage building with a structural upgrade, but the respected 79-year-old author and former publisher is still going strong. Last Saturday, he gave an animated speech at an event organized by local group “Occupy Ideas.”

After a few anecdotes about bear encounters on Banff golf courses, the former Alberta resident launched into a tirade against the tar sands (“Thanks to industry propaganda it’s now called the oil sands”). He followed with troubling factoids about the Enbridge Northern Gateway project: supertankers longer than the Empire State building carrying five to six times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez, the proposed doubling of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline volume into Vancouver, etc.

“I suggest what you should do is go occupy Christy Clark’s office and tell her unless she comes out strongly against oil tankers coming down the west coast of British Columbia you’re going to continue to occupy no matter how many people are arrested… The same thing with Mr. Dix, he has been very equivocal, has not been clear about where the NDP stands on this issue.”

You can’t accuse the man of being a shrinking violet, but you could certainly call him a Canadian nationalist. “Since Brian Mulroney abolished the investment review agency, how many Canadian companies have been taken over by foreigners?” he asked his audience. “How many have been blocked?” A few loud voices supplied the correct answers: 14,000 and two, respectively.

“How can we take back Canada when every single day we continue to sell off the ownership and control of our country?” It’s a good question. Now that Harper’s agenda is no longer hidden, “but in the wide open,” the author says he’s never been more pessimistic about the future of our country. The only hope he sees is for Canadians to become politically active in a big way, and soon.

“We are bloody lucky to live in this country, with our abundance of fresh water, incredible scenery, incredible amount of natural resources… and people from many parts of the world,” Hurtig insists. Yet we surrender this natural capital to others, by electing a series of sock puppets for transnational interests.”

The former publisher is incensed by the recent acquisition of McClelland and Stewart by the U.S.-German giant, Bertelsmann AG. He says he phoned the literary editor at the Vancouver Sun, who told him “she had never heard of the biggest publishing company in Canada,” even though M&S had launched the careers of Leonard Cohen, Pierre Berton, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler and Michael Ondaatje, and had published Hurtig’s last two books.

The author has been hammering on the issue of national sovereignty for years, starting with his 1991 book The Betrayal of Canada, and his last from 2008, The Truth about Canada: Some Important, Some Astonishing, and Some Truly Appalling Things All Canadians Should Know About Our Country. The latter book drew on Statistics Canada figures to highlight Canada’s slide into Third World level indices for health care, education, research and development, and other areas of social spending.

When I interviewed Hurtig in a downtown Vancouver coffee shop back in 2008, he told me he was astounded that Canadian editorialists and business writers constantly parrot information from industry sources and right-wing think tanks that contradict Stats Can’s own figures—numbers that seem as alien to our pundits as String Theory.

He told me about documents that were leaked to him concerning a secret meeting of high-powered Canadians and U.S. officials in Banff on September 2006. He faxed every major newspaper about the particulars of this gathering, involving the “North American Security and Prosperity Partnership,” yet did not receive a single response.

“In those meetings were people like former American secretaries of state, people like Peter Lougheed, the former premier of Alberta, former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz, former U.S. secretary of defense [James] Schlesinger, etc. etc. and big business from Canada and the United States. And the media treated this as a nonexistent story. And that is bizarre. It’s unconscionable that the media wouldn’t report this information when it was handed to them.”

That mysterious meeting was six years ago. We’re a long way down the undemocratic road our leaders have paved for us.

Vancouver Courier, Feb. 16

FLYING WITH FROZEN DESIRE

A memorable book about money sparks memories of an in-flight conversation

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Back in 1998, I was sitting on a plane at Heathrow airport, thumbing through a volume on finance I had picked up in a London bookshop. It wasn’t my usual area of interest, but the title caught my eye: Frozen Desire: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Money.This nonfiction work by former Financial Times writer James Buchan turned out to be an appropriate choice for in-flight reading.

As the jet began to taxi onto the runway, a white-haired man in the seat next to me struck up a conversation. Let’s call him Ted. “I always fly coach even though I can afford first class,” Ted said. A resident of the Lower Mainland, he described his boat, his travels and his post-retirement consulting work, which involved buying up companies around the globe and “making them more profitable” by taking them apart.

Ted’s job was to identify functioning companies that were worth more to investors in pieces. This meant outsourcing, downsizing and smashing pension funds like kids’ piggy banks. Although the tern “vulture capitalism” was not in currency at the time, Ted sounded like one of the carrion feeders. Essentially, he was in the same kind of business, at the same time, as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who’s been taking heat for his “disaster capitalism” tenure at Bain Capital.

With a wry smile, Ted told me he hadn’t paid taxes in Canada in 18 years. He said he directed most of his money into offshore investments, but Revenue Canada eventually took note of the gap between his living standards and his tax statements and audited him. The case went to court where Ted protested his innocence. “But you pay no taxes!” replied the judge, who released him after finding no technical violations of any laws.

From one angle, this amiable guy was simply a rational actor in the booming, Clinton-era market. Adam Smith’s invisible hand was guiding his money to a safer berth while he played Where’s Waldo with Revenue Canada. From another angle (mine), Ted was a corporate welfare cheat. By the late nineties, the de-industrialization and financialization of the western economy was in progress and this character was playing his bit part by wrecking functioning companies for profit. I was alternately fascinated and repelled by my airline companion’s remarks and eventually the conversation petered out, replaced with the muffled howl of wind rushing against the fuselage. I returned to my salted peanuts and Buchan’s book.

The Stephen Hawkings and Niall Fergusons of the publishing world are rare and Buchan is not among them. Nonfiction studies of deep topics don’t usually fly off the shelves and in spite of some stellar reviews in 1997 for Frozen Desire, it had about as much impact as a Post-It note dropped into the Grand Canyon. Yet the lucid and luminous volume deserves a wider audience, especially now that money has come to dominate every sphere of human experience from the boardroom to the bedroom.

Most writers and thinkers on the left limit their criticism of money to its allocation, rather than its nature. Buchan isn’t concerned about who gets how big a slice of pie; he questions the pie itself and the oven it was baked in. In his mix of memoir and historical survey, he identifies money as “frozen desire,” an abstract representation of human wishes that sheds old forms to take on new ones, from cowrie shells to precious metals to various kinds of surrogate money such as bill of exchange, local cheques, marketable securities and certificates of deposit, municipal bonds, annuities and derivatives.

Buchan is the Eton-educated son of William Buchan, 3rd Baron Tweedsmuir. According to a Wikipedia entry for the author, in 1986 he married Lady Evelyn Rose Phipps, daughter of Oswald Phipps, 4th Marquess of Normanby. A novelist and former contributor to the Financial Times, Buchan is that rare bird, a blueblood conservative that has lost faith in money even though he doesn’t lack for it. He sees the market as a false idol and this golden calf – or bronze bull if you prefer – is cut with fool’s gold. (Buchan’s musings are supported by the investigations of anthropologist David Graeber. In his 2011 book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber determines that money did not have its beginnings as a replacement for barter, but mostly as a means of transacting the business of slavery and war.)

In the 1970s, at the height of the Arab oil embargo, Buchan’s career as a business reporter took him to a sweltering outpost in Jordan. His status as a writer grew along with his savings and in an illuminating moment he recognized how interest-bearing investments can overtake an hourly wage. “The money… began to breed, first slowly, then convulsively. While I slept, or was drunk, or made love, or smoked a Dunhill on the porch, my money worked; and far as I could tell, with smaller effort and for greater reward than I did.”

Like most of us, the author’s feelings about money are mixed, although you can probably guess what side of the delight/disgust side of the spectrum he’s on. From the photograph on the dust jacket of Frozen Desire, it seems as if the photographer had just held something foul under Buchan’s nose. The stench has a long pedigree. Most of the world religions nurse a deep ambivalence about money and credit. For centuries, the Catholic Church made usury a crime and, to this day, Islamic banks strictly limit interest. In the New Testament, Jesus recognizes money as a competitive authority, with the understanding that “in embodying happiness and reward in tangible, earthly form, money is more impressively heaven than heaven.”

In the New Testament, Christ’s birth in Bethlehem was presided over by the gift economy, with the Three Wise Men bearing gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. His death was sealed by the money economy, in the form of 30 pieces of silver the Romans paid to the turncoat apostle Judas.

Jesus is also remembered in the Gospels for kicking over the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. While the author is not explicitly endorsing religion over secularism, he insists the Biblical tale of market-mediated crucifixion anticipates the effect of capital on cultures of the west. Money can stand in for human relations as a substitute for trust in people. “It will displace trust in all human relations except those of the inner family,” Buchan writes, summing up the problem in one memorable sentence: “Money enters into the system of values, and then displaces all other values like the cuckoo’s egg in a nest.

“For some time, in many places, money was thought to be bad, but it is now thought, on the whole, to be good. That inversion is the greatest to have occurred in the moral sentiments of the West. Desires that resisted incorporation into money turned pale and lost their power to convince: disinterested friendship, love and philanthropy became as suspect as the goals of once passionate wishes, honour and salvation. Miserliness, which places potential above actual gratification, had once seemed the disease of money… gradually, it lost its pathology and became the condition of moral health.”

From the Enlightenment on, as the lure of filthy lucre mated with technical advances in communication and printing, money became the yardstick for all that is good and true. “Only money would measure success or failure, happiness or misery. Only money could reward or punish. States and governments must just stand back and money – which reconciles all clashes of human will – would see us right,” Buchan notes.

The identification of the almighty dollar with the imperial ego came to fruition in the eighties, during the reign of Reagan, Mulroney and Thatcher and the latter’s TINA doctrine (“There is No Alternative”). The Iron Lady’s parallel dictum, “There is no such thing as society,” served as both as a ‘Dear John’ letter to the public sector and a greeting card to Moloch. By the time I was 30,000 feet above the Atlantic reading Frozen Desire for the first time, the game was well underway in the AngloAmerican world: socialism for the rich and capitalism for everyone else. One year after my return from London, President Bill Clinton would sign away the firewall between commercial and investment banks, the Glass-Steagall Act, freeing Wall Street robber barons for even greater plunder.

In a world governed by money, private vices are reinterpreted as public virtues “and the old private virtues – prudence, thrift, kindness – become public vices in the market economy.” For Buchan, this is the great sadness at the heart of our civilization: that “by using money, we convert our world into it.”

That conversion is ongoing. In the 2003 film The Corporation, former Fraser Institute chairman Michael Walker enthused about a future where there is a sticker price on everything, down to every stream and rock on the planet. A mere nine years later, the fever dream of privatizers and profiteers is turning into a waking nightmare for the planet. With the growing global market in carbon credits, financial institutions have partnered with governments and captured environmental groups to put a price on the very air we breathe.

When Buchan’s book was first released, the financial elite still concealed their deepest desires and darkest doings in coded language. No longer. “Plutocracy” is a word that means rule by the rich and in 2005 Citigroup coined a variation of it with the term “plutonomy.” This shiny, new term, minted in the bowels of a megabank, refers to a system in which the rich side with government to ensure the continued domination of their class. The following year Citigroup decided to bang the drum for the elite by releasing an “equity strategy” for investors entitled “Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer.” Among the quotes from this document is this giveaway: “…the top 10%, particularly the top 1% of the US – the plutonomists in our parlance – have benefited disproportionately from the recent productivity surge in the US… from globalization and the productivity boom, at the relative expense of labour.” Karl Marx couldn’t have put it any better.

This brings me back to Ted. It seemed he regarded Canada as little more than a country club with acceptable green fees and moorage, but lacking a place to properly stash his cash. “The IMF almost shut down Canada last year,” he told me with a look of shared confidence, suggesting the country was close to being taken apart like a bankrupt sawmill. The irony was thicker than the mystery-meat of my in-flight meal. Whatever the merit of his IMF anecdote, he had no interest in making the connection between his own sociopathic behaviour and the nation’s solvency.

Since my first and last acquaintance with this high-flying plutonomist, the world of finance has become more invasive into our daily lives even as its practices have become more nakedly criminal and the philanthropy of business titans more desperately public. My airline companion’s sentiments are, arguably, now even closer in line with the values of Wall Street and Bay Street.

Of course, the reader might object that Ted’s tax evasion could have been reigned in by tighter regulation. Straighten out the loopholes and plug any gaps that sociopaths can wriggle through and we will have the revenue necessary to fund our dwindling social programs. Even if North American leaders were willing and able to back-engineer accountability, I imagine Buchan would applaud the idea in one sentence and condemn it as a halfway measure in the next. He sees the problem in capital itself, or at least its current form, that favours the plutocrats over the rest of the populace. At the very least, money talks and those with the most of it have the biggest megaphone. Strangely, Frozen Desire does not address the most problematic form of money – fiat currency, which can be printed on demand and leveraged to insane levels.

Five years after Citigroup’s scented letter to its investors, the one percent/ninety-nine percent has gone from a political slogan to a placard-scrawled cliché. By November of last year, the streets of New York, Athens, Santiago, Vancouver and hundreds of other cities across the world filled with millions of protestors against the criminality of unregulated finance. Plutonomy is on the move across the globe and rising awareness of its social costs is on the move with it.

Today, money utterly dominates politics, social policy and the media. We may rail against the commodification of our lives, yet money remains the measure of all things, whether it’s in the mirrored canyons of the world’s financial districts or in the poorest shantytowns of the developing world. “And that is precisely why the untrammelled pursuit of money is imprudent: one does not issue handguns to the inmates of overly crowded prisons. We need to break the compulsory nature of money and make possible a future in which we are not at permanent war with nature and one another,” Buchan observes.

In all my wanderings across the great cities of the world and all my myopic scans across acres of newsprint and vellum, I’ve come to appreciate the need for forms of social organization that aren’t governed by the whims of fiat currency. The Occupy movement was and is, I believe, a rough draft of more humane social arrangements. We are not talking about just a protest movement, but also an eruption of a communal desire to honour human values that extend beyond the “frozen desire” of precious metals and their surrogates. This is hardly a pipe dream. Canada alone is home to thousands of cooperatives, including credit unions, which serve purposes other than the sole pursuit of profit.

Buchan himself believes money will eventually fail us, as it failed others so many times in the past, from the tulip bulbs of 17th century Holland to the German Marks of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and beyond. The dreams of high finance will eventually dissolve, he insists, and “The Age of Money, which came after the Age of Faith, will itself draw, as all things under the sun, to an end.” What the author imagines will replace it, he does not say.

Common Ground magazine, February

CORRECTIONAL FACILITIES AND CONVERSING CABBAGES

This time around, a miscellany of news items that caught my attention recently.

Premier Christy Clark was in the Interior this week to announce the building of a new correctional facility on land owned by the Osoyoos Indian band. Those in attendance were all smiles, including aboriginals, over the hundreds of jobs the first prison ever built on native land in BC will create for the community.

“Our people want to be involved in the rehabilitation of our people and we hope this project sets the standard for what can be done in Corrections,” said Osoyoos Chief Clarence Louie. I hope it works out to the betterment of his people. Yet with the numbers of First Nations people in jail far exceeding their representation in the Canadian population, it’s an open question whether more prison-building represent an advance in either race relations or job creation. Money talks, and the prison industry’s ballooning infrastructure programs count as a big plus in economists’ GDP projections, just as they do in politicians’ get-tough-on-crime pandering to voters.

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A January article in The Boston Review notes that Brazil has mandated the teaching of philosophy in all high schools since 2008. Brazilian law codifies this teaching as “necessary for the exercise of citizenship.” What a concept – getting kids to exercise the faculty of reason so they can think outside the ballot box. But I’m not so sure such a mandatory program would succeed in Canadian schools – at least not without throwing a few softballs to our digitally-addled students. I’m thinking of exam questions like, “If Kim Kardashian sends out a tweet and no one reads it, has she still communicated nothing of substance?”

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A 1973 bestseller, The Secret Life of Plants, profiled a lie-detector expert named Cleve Backster, who allegedly proved that plants sense danger and can respond to human intentions. For gardeners who mutter sweet nothings to their begonias, the book was confirmation of their fondest hopes. To the scientific community it was four-star pseudoscience, and the book ended up a tattered footnote in remaindered book bins and Tarot shops.

Yet this week we moved one step closer to Backsterville, with research indicating that plants really can communicate danger to one another. A team led by Professor Nicholas Smirnoff, Professor of Plant Biochemistry at the University of Exeter, found that when a cabbage plant had a leaf cut off with scissors it started emitting a gas – methyl jasmonate – that ‘told’ its neighbours there might be trouble afoot. Two nearby cabbage plants picked up the gaseous message that they should protect themselves. They did this by secreting toxic chemicals on their leaves to fend off predators such as caterpillars.

Impressive yes, but it still underscores why scientists believe cabbages face a steep evolutionary learning curve. Any creature brighter than a Venus flytrap knows that toxic chemicals offer no protection against scissors, which caterpillars can’t wield anyway.

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My partner and I have been thinking seriously of putting a bullet into our cable package, since we don’t watch a lot of television. (Depending on the channel, when the TV left on in our place it’s like leaving the lid up on an unflushed toilet.) Besides, most of what I want to see is available online anyway. So after all the print attention to last Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show, I decided to check out the video online.

I understand that this choreagraphed event doesn’t bear much scrutiny, especially when it involves Madonna. In any case, I expected the age-denying singer to trot out her usual pastiche of meaningless visual themes. She didn’t disappoint, but this time around the Roman centurions, swordsmen, and imagery of predatory birds gave the halftime show an air of celebratory militarism. When Madonna performed “Like a Prayer” Gospel-style with Cee Lo Green and a formation of black-robed singers, it looked like a cross between a black mass and a very confused episode of Glee.  In a chthonic closer at the ground zero of American gladiatorism, Madge disappeared with a puff of smoke into a hole in the ground, as the words “World Peace” glittered across the stage in a thousand points of light.

I can’t imagine what websurfers in the Mideast made of this dispatch from Absurdistan. Actually, I think I can.

The Vancouver Courier, Feb. 13