Category Archives: politics

The Burning of the Leaves

Leaf BurningNow is the time for the burning of the leaves,
They go to the fire; the nostrils prick with smoke
Wandering slowly into the weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin, and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.
The last hollyhock’s fallen tower is dust:
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! the reddest rose is a ghost.
Spark whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.
Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before,
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there:
Let them go to the fire with never a look behind.
That world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.
They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

~~ Laurence Binyon


Praise Song for the Day

Elizabeth AlexanderPraise Song for the Day
written and recited
by Elizabeth Alexander
at Obama’s inauguration

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Washington DC Mall

Elizabeth Alexander’s poem to celebrate the inauguration of President Barack Obama will be published as a commemorative book by Graywolf Press on Feb. 6. Alexander, who teaches at Yale University, read the poem immediately after Obama’s inaugural address Tuesday. The book will be titled “Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration.” Alexander is the fourth poet to compose a special poem for an inauguration, following Robert Frost, for John F. Kennedy, and Maya Angelou and Miller Williams, for Bill Clinton.

Obama Inaugural Address Word Cloud

word cloud

More inaugural word clouds at Toronto Star

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

Yann Martel’s brilliantly entertaining blog, What is Stephen Harper Reading, is a treasure trove for booklovers.

If you are a writer in a country run by a man who does not care about the arts – and certainly does not give them enough money – how do you change his mind? Lobbying would be ineffective. Whiny columns will be predictable. And megaphones and placards are dull to a novelist who can dream up an ocean-going Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Yann Martel, whose Life of Pi won the Man Booker prize, has come up with his own form of direct action: every second Monday, he sends a book to the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper. If the PM will not follow the arts, the arts must come to him – by post.

These are not just any books, mind; Mr Harper is a busy man, so what he gets is short and accessible. As light reading, they can still be pretty heavy: Tolstoy, Hindu scriptures, Strindberg. Such texts, the writer says, “expand stillness” – just what a head of state needs after an infernal day’s politics.

When is he meant to read them? “Everyone can do a page at bedtime,” says Mr Martel. “Or his aide could get a book to him when he visits the toilet.” Each second-hand paperback has an introductory note from the sender (“Om Shanti” ends the letter accompanying the Bhagavad Gita).

An ice-hockey fan, the PM has not commented on his gifts. But to give is better than to receive, and the unrequited novelist will continue his campaign until Mr Harper leaves office. “If I knew he liked thrillers,” says Mr Martel, “I would send more of those – perhaps a Chinese thriller.”

Martel explains:

On March 28th, 2007, at 3 pm, I was sitting in the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons, I and forty-nine other artists from across Canada, fifty in all, and I got to thinking about stillness. To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Just gazing upon a still lake, upon a quiet winter scene—doesn’t that lull us into contemplation? Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, yet we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important, and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by.

I was thinking about that, about stillness, and I was also thinking, more prosaically, about arts funding, not surprising since we fifty artists were there in the House to help celebrate the fifty years of the Canada Council for the Arts, that towering institution that has done so much to foster the identity of Canadians. I was thinking that to have a bare-bones approach to arts funding, as the present Conservative government has, to think of the arts as mere entertainment, to be indulged in after the serious business of life, that—in conjunction with retooling education so that it centres on the teaching of employable skills rather than the creating of thinking citizens—is to engineer souls that are post-historical, post-literate and pre-robotic; that is, blank souls wired to be unfulfilled and susceptible to conformism at its worst—intolerance and totalitarianism—because incapable of thinking for themselves, and vowed to a life of frustrated serfdom at the service of the feudal lords of profit.

The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute, certainly not. I don’t think he even looked up. The snarling business of Question Period having just ended, he was shuffling papers. I tried to bring him close to me with my eyes.

Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts.

But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness.

For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness.

~~ From the Globe and Mail, April 14, 2007

The Tigris Runs Black with the Ink of Scholars

Iraq National LibraryThe brutalities of the Iraq war accumulate so fast it is difficult to keep track. But in this season of fifth- year anniversaries, one largely forgotten crime demands to be recalled, in part because it relates directly to the politics of memory itself. Five years ago this week, US troops stood by as looters sacked the Iraq National Library and Archives – one of the oldest and most used in the world. In Arab countries the old expression was “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads.”

American troops were under orders not to intervene. Library staff who requested protection from the GI’s were told, “We are soldiers, not policemen”. American military orders did, however, extend to guarding the Ministry of Oil, and the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s secret police.

The selective passivity of US forces was not only ethically questionable, but also a violation of international law. The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) makes clear that libraries should not only be spared attack in wartime but also actively protected.

Despite the sack of a major cultural institution and the collapse of the society around it, the library struggles on, continuing a long tradition of resurrection from the ashes of war. The world’s first library was located in Mosul, in Northern Iraq. It was built in the 7th century BCE and produced the first known catalog in history. In 1927 a British archeological team unearthed it and, for “purposes of preservation”, carried off many of its artifacts – including the oldest known copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the first great work of world literature.

Iraq’s intellectual golden era came later and coincided with the Abbasid Dynasty ( 750-1258 ) whose capital was established at Baghdad. In 832, the construction of the Byat al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) established the new capital as an unrivaled center of scholarship and intellectual exchange.

The tradition of research there brought advances in astronomy, optics, physics and mathematics. The father of algebra, Al-Khawarizmii, labored among its scrolls. It was here that many of the Greek and Latin texts we accept as the foundation of Western thought were translated, catalogued and preserved. And it was from Baghdad that these works would eventually make their way to medieval Europe and help lift that continent from its benighted, post-Roman intellectual torpor.

In 1258, the Mongols descended on Baghdad and emptied the libraries into the Tigris, ending the city’s scholarly preeminence enjoyed for nearly 500 years. “Hence the legend developed,” as one scholar wrote, “that the river ran black from the ink of the countless texts lost in this manner, while the streets ran red with the blood of the city’s slaughtered inhabitants.”

Baghdad BooksThe current Director of Iraq’s National Library and Archive, Dr. Saad Eskander, estimates that over three days, beginning on April 11, 2003, as many as “60 percent of the Ottoman and Royal Hashemite era documents were lost as well as the bulk of the Ba’ath era documents…. [and] approximately 25 percent of the book collections were looted or burned.” Other Iraqi manuscript collections and university libraries suffered similar fates.

Since then, Iraqis have once again tried to rebuild their library. The occupying powers have played along, but like so much about the Iraq War, their effort has been marked by ineptitude, hypocrisy and a cruel disregard for Iraqi people and culture.

Early in the occupation, L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), demonstrated an unwillingness to provide the basic funds necessary for the reconstruction of Iraq’s educational and informational infrastructure. Dr. Rene Teijgeler, senior consultant for Culture for the Iraqi Reconstruction Management office at the American Embassy in Baghdad, left his position in February of 2005, not having “the supplies of ready cash that could be used to acquire something as simple as bookshelves.” His position was left empty.

So the library staff have looked elsewhere, occasionally finding pieces of the old collection for sale there on Al Mutanabi street, home to Baghdad’s booksellers.

Many dedicated people have offered important solidarity. In Florence, the city government underwrote construction of a conservation lab. The Czech government funded the training of Iraqi archivists. With the exception of invaluable training sessions organized by private educational institutions such as Harvard University, American support has been limited to a relatively small number of individual scholars, a few dedicated nonprofit agencies, nominal USAID support and the cooperation of a handful of private
corporations. The British National Library has provided recently published English-language social science texts and donated microfilm copies of its colonial administrative records from its last occupation of Iraq. But the replacement of physical documents largely ends here.

It would be unfair and frankly absurd to blame American librarians and their shrinking budgets, rising legal costs and increasingly costly dependence on proprietary databases for the state of Iraq’s infrastructure. But the increasingly unstable position of American libraries is actually part of the same logic that produced that war. The disdain for cultural institutions does not stop at the border–bombs there, budget cuts here.

Excerpted from The Nation

Image: “Al-Mutanabi Street, 5 March 2007”, by textile artist, Eileen Doughty. See more of her work at Doughty Designs

An Imperfect Offering

An Imperfect OfferingDr. James Orbinski served as head of mission for Doctors Without Borders during the Rwandan Genocide. What he saw there transformed him.

Orbinski’s new book, An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century, to be published April 22 by Doubleday Canada, traces the journey of a humanitarian doctor who has served in some of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones. Orbinski, 47, was international president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders/MSF) from 1998 to 2001, and he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on the organization’s behalf in 1999.

Over the past quarter-century, he has worked in places such as Somalia during the famine and civil war; in the refugee camps in Jalalabad, Afghanistan; and at the Kosovo Macedonia border during the NATO bombings in 1999. His book explores every facet of his work, from the deeply personal to the broadly political: How does a man persevere – and, furthermore, create meaning and invoke change – after witnessing the most violent, sadistic acts human beings can inflict on one another? What is the role of the humanitarian in the post–Cold War era, in which traditional rules of war have been swapped for anything-goes ethical nihilism? How could MSF confront politics and public apathy during crises so it had the space and resources to heal patients?

James OrbinskiThe notion of imperfection permeates many of Orbinski’s answers. “The book’s title is inspired by the poem and song Anthem, by Leonard Cohen, and there’s a beautiful line where he says, ‘Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything,'”says Orbinski. “When I read that poem, it struck me that that’s the essence of my experience over the last 20 years as a physician, as a putative humanitarian, as a person who has tried in various ways to influence the political processes that determine who gets what, when. It’s very much an imperfect process with equally imperfect outcomes, but it doesn’t obviate the absolute necessity of trying. You achieve something, and sometimes just enough to go on.”

It was the Rwandan Genocide that he has called both “my undoing” and “the most transformative moment in my life.” During the 100-day period from April to July 1994, one million men, women and children – including 85 per cent of all Tutsis in Rwanda – were murdered by Hutu extremists. By early April, only MSF, the Red Cross, the UN peacekeeping force headed by Roméo Dallaire, and two UN humanitarian members remained in Kigali. Orbinski split his time among the King Faycal Hospital, the UN compound, the Red Cross Hospital and a stadium filled with 12,000 people seeking refuge. When he arrived at the Faycal Hospital, 6,000 people occupied every recess of the building, from the stairwells to the closets. Orbinski and other MSF members worked 16- to 18-hour days while outside, killing squads continued to slaughter men, women and children. The MSF team treated waves of victims with machete wounds, gunshot wounds and shrapnel injuries. They cared for people who had chest injuries from being buried alive; women and girls who had been raped; and those maimed by grenades and land mines. They established an orphanage in Faycal Hospital for children whose parents had been killed. And still, more and more victims arrived.

In his book, Orbinski writes that he “felt beaten by the waves of suffering, of killing, of screams, of silent stares, of terror, and waves of not just political indifference but malfeasance.” He had acted and spoken, while an entire world stood by without helping. He remained while the violence eddied more constrictively around the hospitals – until he was one of the last doctors left in Kigali. He made a choice. His choice was to stay and save what lives he could, to relieve what suffering he could – it was that simple, and that hard. He did not leave until the genocide ended.

In a companion documentary, Triage, Orbinski returns to Africa to clear his mind and complete his book. Taking a journey to Rwanda, Congo and Somalia, he revisits the past, and engages with the present. Orbinski’s steady heartbeat propels the film forward, taking the viewer to a place beyond rage and despair, where bonds of solidarity are forged, and human spirits somehow remain unbroken.

“There are moments in a particular story [in An Imperfect Offering] where I knew that my fear overwhelmed everything else, and there are other moments where the implications of not acting or speaking overwhelmed my fear.” Later, he adds, “What I’ve experienced is that I can’t know the future. I can’t know if anything that I do will change what happens tomorrow. I can’t know with certainty, but what I do know is if I do nothing, nothing will change.”

Excerpted from University of Toronto Magazine

Excerpt from the book

Triage/White Pine Pictures

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières


Matthew Scully: A Compassionate Conservative


A horrible, wonderful, important book

Pigs prematurely taken from their mothers root incessantly for something to chew or suck on; and if they are pigs spending their abbreviated lives in a factory farm, where maybe 500 animals are crowded into a space no bigger than a living room, the thing they try to chew on is the tail of the hog in front of them. This is not a happy habit for the industrial farmer: chewed tails can result in infections, and pigs that die, in Matthew Scully’s pitch-perfect phrase, ”an unauthorized death.”

The factory farmer’s solution? When the piglets are weaned, a good 12 to 16 weeks before nature had planned, their tails are docked, the lower part amputated with a pliers-like instrument. That small operation leaves the pigs with hypersensitive tails, which means the animals will not get complaisant and will struggle ever after to keep their clipped, throbbing appendages out of the mouths of their penmates.

Should you be inclined to pity the beasts for that or any other detail of their treatment in today’s giant meat-making plants, however, the executives in charge of booming factory farms like Smithfield Foods in Virginia, which kills 82,300 pigs a day — a quarter of the nation’s total — are eager to set your conscience at ease. When Scully asked Sonny Faison, head of Smithfield’s Carroll’s Foods division, in North Carolina, whether there isn’t something ”just a little sad” about confining millions of animals to cramped concrete enclosures, where there is no sun, wind, rain or even so much as a scattering of straw to sleep on, Faison declared au contraire. ”They love it,” he insisted. ”They’re in state-of-the art confinement facilities. The conditions that we keep these animals in are much more humane than when they were out in the field.” Another Smithfield supervisor seconded the notion, painting a bleak picture of the life of free-ranging swine: ”I mean, you put ’em out, they kind of scrounge around in the mud, and in the summer, around here, animals that are outside risk getting mosquito bites and things.”

Matthew ScullyDominion is a horrible, wonderful, important book. It is horrible in its subject, a half-reportorial, half-philosophical examination of some of the most repugnant things that human beings do to animals, notably keeping them in the factory farms that have taken over the business of supplying America’s insatiable meat tooth; and hunting them down on a new style of ”safaris,” which are nothing more than canned, risk-free opportunities to bag exotic species as easily as one might drown a suckling kitten. The book is wonderful in its eloquent, mordant clarity, and its hilarious fillets of sanctimonious cant and hypocrisy. For example, Scully quotes from a book called In Defense of Hunting, by James A. Swan — an authority favored by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and other proud, manly-men hunters — citing a passage that addresses the critics who weep over the animals and asks, aren’t they special, even sacred, too?

”A thing can become truly sacred only if a person knows in his or her heart that the object or creature can somehow serve as a conduit to a realm of existence that transcends the temporal,” Swan argues. ”If hunting can be a path to spirit, unhindered by guilt, then nature has a way of making sure that hunters feel compassion.”

Dominion is important in large measure because the author, an avowed conservative Republican and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, is an unexpected defender of animals against the depredations of profit-driven corporations, swaggering, gun-loving hunters, proponents of renewed ”harvesting” of whales and elephants and others who insist that all of nature is humanity’s romper room, to play with, rearrange and plunder at will.

As his friend and fellow political commentator, Joseph Sobran, said on hearing of Scully’s dietary preferences: ”A conservative, with a Catholic upbringing, and a vegetarian? Boy, talk about aggrieved minorities!” At the very least, Dominion will encourage patronage of the small, independent organic farms, where the cattle are grass-fed and treated humanely, an option that Scully calls ”a decent compromise.”

Scully’s argument is, fundamentally, wholly a moral one. It is wrong to be cruel to animals, he says, and when our cruelty expands and mutates to the point where we no longer recognize the animals in a factory farm as living creatures capable of feeling pain and fear, or when we insist on an inalienable right to stalk and slaughter intelligent, magnificent creatures like elephants or polar bears for the sheer, bracing thrill of it, then we debase ourselves. As the earth’s most powerful species and the only one capable of meditating on our actions, we have a moral responsibility to treat the animals in our care with kindness, empathy and thoughtfulness, Scully says. When we forfeit that responsibility, we forfeit the right to any of the little self-congratulatory designations we have claimed: as God’s ”chosen” ones.

As Scully sees it, we may be ”of” nature but we are not in it. For better or worse, we have dominion over the earth, and how we manage that position, whether as bloodthirsty tyrants or as benign patrons, is a core measure of our worth. ”Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship,” he writes.

The author takes a particular dislike toward those who argue that animals, being incapable of dwelling on their mortality, therefore don’t really suffer the way neuronally well-endowed humans can suffer. He also finds fault with those he considers moral relativists, like the philosopher Peter Singer, who has argued that reason, rather than knee-jerk compassion or squeamishness, should dictate what we deem the comparative worth of the lives of animals or severely handicapped infants. Scully can wax self-righteous and absolutist, and he considers the ”squeamishness factor” to be a handy indicator of something, like a factory farm, that is morally wrong. ”It is usually a sign of crimes against nature that we cannot bear to see them at all, that we recoil and hide our eyes,” he writes, ”and no one has ever cringed at the sight of a soybean factory.”

Overall, a beautiful and thoughtful book that forces some of us to look more closely into the mirror.

~~ Excerpted from The New York Times Book Review, by Natalie Angier

Matthew Scully, interviewed by National Review Online:

National Review Online: In a nutshell, how are we abusing dominion, our stewardship over animals?

Matthew Scully: In the same way that human beings are prone to abusing any other kind of power — by forgetting that we are not the final authority. The people who run our industrial livestock farms, for example, have lost all regard for animals as such, as beings with needs, natures, and a humble dignity of their own. They treat these creatures like machines and “production units” of man’s own making, instead of as living creatures made by God. And you will find a similar arrogance in every other kind of cruelty as well.

Washington Post Viewpoint: Animal Cruelty and the Need for Reform

Matthew Scully