An open letter to (some) advocates for those with intellectual disabilities

Dear intellectual disability inclusion advocates who are anti-“segregation” & want full integration, always, everywhere:

Would you never let the intellectually disabled gather with peers? Must they always be integrated into the larger society? As physical challenges often accompany intellectual disabilities, would you prevent them from taking part in adapted physical activities/education? No Special Olympics? Would you prevent them from joining an artists’ collective (I’ve witnessed such a denial myself)? Deny them the opportunity to publicly exhibit their art?

Would you also ban self-support groups for the physically disabled? For Veterans? For cancer survivors? Would you ban the Paralympics?

Would you also ban GSAs? Gay and lesbian nightclubs? Ladies’ Art Nights? Chinese students’ associations? Native Friendship Centres?

I hope not.

But seems that when it comes to people with intellectual disabilities, some people’s idea of “inclusion” has as a fundamental tenet “isolation from peers at all costs, whatever the actual needs or desires of the individual.”

That is a tragically dangerous and damaging mission statement that would not be tolerated by any group that has a voice, indeed, would not be tolerated in a truly inclusive society. And it is a betrayal of a disparate group of too-often-isolated individuals that desperately needs its myriad of long-silenced and ignored voices heard.

Like any other group in our society, those with intellectual disabilities have a need and a fundamental human right to freely associate with their peers. Not enabling  that right — or outright banning it as some “advocates” and groups desire — is not inclusion. It is segregation as damaging to the individual and to the individual’s human spirit and potential as any other form of segregation.

I simply have to end with a song:

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A Few Privileged and Hasty Notes on Two Edmonton Planning Concerns

I have a bit of time on my hands, unlike the majority of people in my neighbourhood. Most people around me are still students, parents, renters, workers, homeless, marginalized, seniors, mobility challenged, with an “and/or” between each item. With each passing year the proportion of well-off, privileged, work-from-home, non-parent, chronically healthy, house/condo-owning individuals increases in my neighbourhood. I confess I am one of the privileged, fortunate enough to have moved into the neighbourhood in the 80s and stayed on through the decades of change. I have time to sit and do online surveys where the City attempts to “engage” with citizens (but really just gives the time-privileged a place to vent about their pet projects) and write blog posts.

Right now I have two pet beefs: the “planned” Centre Line LRT and the ongoing “Renewal” of the infrastructure of Strathcona. I’ll begin with the renewal because it is the one that has actually had a concrete start on the avenue in front of my house.

Renewal in Strathcona

Over the last few summers, 83 Avenue, most thoroughly in the stretch between 99 Street and the Mill Creek Ravine, has been closed for long periods while the road has been rebuilt, sidewalks and streetlights have been replaced, and a dedicated bike lane has been added. Superficially and in principle I love it all. I will soon be able to cycle to my little bit of part-time retirement work in (confusion and) safety (sort of). I can walk safely to the wonderful amenities of Strathcona, in my case, particularly the theatres and restaurants, and pretty much only in daylight. Bus service is wonderful for all the places I need to get that are a little too far to walk or too cold to cycle. And I’m privileged to have a car for the further trips or when I’ve a little too much to carry. The neighbourhood is good to me.

But. There has to be a but.

When the planners came up with the bike lane design, they decided on a multitude of them, particularly if the 106 Street doubled, multi-level, skinny lanes are considered. Between the Ravine and 99 Street on 83 Ave the lane is painted, dedicated to bikes one way and shared with cars the other, with wacky little roundabouts at the intersections and no left turns for cars off 99th. The roundabouts are a dangerous and confusing menace to pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. They limit access for emergency vehicles, city maintenance vehicles, and moving and delivery trucks. The restriction on left turns off 99th forces resident motorists and visitor motorists to make convoluted loops through the neighbourhood, or to make dangerous left turns down back alleys, merely to get to their home/destination.

Between 99th and 103 and beyond 104 it seems to be largely a physically separated two way lane with one way car traffic and greatly reduced parking, largely in front of walk up, largely rental apartments, rather than single family-owned homes. Clearly those who depend on cars, particularly renters and the mobility challenged, were not considered in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Between 103 and 104 the bike lane is a slightly elevated abomination which I expect will lead to countless trips, falls, and injuries during summer festival season. Clearly pedestrian safety was not a consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

The north-south lane on 106 street is an ugly and confusing collections of winding curbs and grin pillars that make driving or cycling feel like flying an x-wing down the trench on the Death Star. With speed bumps. Bus stops are separated from sidewalks by bicycle traffic lanes, and busses are boarded from a thin curb on the edge of the bike lane, a virtual impossibility for those with walkers or in wheelchairs. Clearly transit users and the mobility challenged were not a consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

I won’t even imagine the headaches of snow removal.

The sidewalks that have been rebuilt so far are very nice and walkable. A+ on the final concrete work.

The new streetlights on 83 Ave east of 99th are very pretty in the daytime, I expect they save energy at night, and the adequately light the road and bike lane after dark. But after dark the sidewalks are a pitch black abyss. Often when walking home after dark — which, face it, is any time after 4 pm for a good part of the year — I have been infinitely grateful for the home owner who has left a porch light on to help guide my steps. Clearly pedestrians with or without mobility issues were not a huge consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Given the inconsistency of the designs used in these really quite small and straight stretches of bike lanes and the confusion and danger this inconsistency will cause, I feel it clear that cyclists weren’t actually a huge consideration in this particular planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Right now the City is “consulting” with citizens (who have the privilege of leisure and time to go online and do a survey or show up at open houses) about the future steps in this reconstruction of Strathcona’s infrastructure. Much of the open and less open thrust of what little discussion there has been has been a giddy push for more bike lanes, apparently whatever the design or consequences of that design.

The Centre Line

There seems to be a desire on the part of unnamed planners to have a surface, low-floor LRT line down Whyte Avenue between the University of Alberta and Bonnie Doon, replicating one of Edmonton’s wonderful old streetcar lines. Right now that stretch is well serviced by a fleet of convenient kneeling buses which are regularly filled with citizens of all social and mobility levels. But, okay. I like the LRT. I take it fairly regularly. Having a stop a block from home would be nice.

But.

Where are these planners? Have they ever been to Edmonton? Have they never even looked at a map of the current LRT lines? “. . . connections between Downtown, the Alberta Legislature, the University of Alberta, Strathcona, Bonnie Doon, east Edmonton and the wider LRT network” the blabbity says. But, Downtown, the Legislature and the U of A have had LRT connections for years. For decades! If you look at the map accompanying the “plan”, every bit of the proposed route, except the bit down Whyte Avenue, parallels/duplicates an existing and expensively constructed underground LRT line — through downtown it would be the third east west line! And a new bridge will have to be built almost on top of two existing ones. Why? What is the reason for duplicating that line on the surface and those bridges? Are they trying to justify the (inevitably monumentally disruptive) line down Whyte Avenue? Why not just build a surface line from Health Sciences station to Bonnie Doon and beyond? Even just between Health Sciences and Bonnie Doon the line would be significantly longer than the current continually troubled NAIT line, and it would be a good start on a long overdue commuter line to Sherwood Park. And no redundancy (if we forget about the buses which are doing so nicely on that route).

As someone who uses/has used all transportation modes in the city –car, bus, LRT, High Level Streetcar, walking, cycling, motorscooter — even unicycling in my younger days — but not those Segway river valley tours, I wish Edmonton’s planners would spend less time on narrowly focused dreams and misleading consultations with privileged single-issue citizen activists and a little more time actually walking, driving, cycling, LRTing, and bussing through the areas they’re treating like big sandboxes of expensive experiment.

Bourgeois Thoughts

 

In no civilization is city life evolved independently of commerce and industry. Neither antiquity nor modern times show any exception to this rule. Diversity of climates, peoples or religions is as immaterial as diversity of eras. It is a rule which held true, in the past, in the cities of Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, and the Roman and Arab Empires, just as in our day it has held true in the cities of Europe, America, India, Japan, and China.

Its universality is explained by exigence. A city group, in fact, can live only by importing its food-supply from outside. But with this importation must correspond, on the other hand, an exportation of manufactured products constituting a counterpart or countervalue. Thus is established, between the city and the surrounding country, a close interrelation of services. Commerce and industry are indispensable to the maintenance of this reciprocal dependence; without the first, to assure a steady traffic, without the second, to furnish goods for exchange, the city would perish.

— Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade, tr. Frank D. Halsey (Princeton, 1952) p.130-131.

 

Recently my residential property tax assessment arrived from the City of Edmonton. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was actually three dollars lower than last year’s. Meanwhile, a friend received his business property tax assessment and found it had increased about twenty-five percent over the previous year. As a note, my friend’s business is a very small business with (apart from himself) one full-time employee and two part-timers. His small shop provides local products to the local market employing local people and is owned by a local person who also pays residential property tax locally on his own home. This friend is the epitome of “buy local”, “shop local”, “support local”. He is also the quintessence of true “Capitalism” and an example of the fundamentally “bourgeois”. And, if you are one of the 30% or so of Edmonton’s workforce who work for the Government (in healthcare, education, the civil service, or in the government-grant-supported arts), my friend and people like him are paying your salary.

There is no such thing in civilized society as self-support. In a state of society so barbarous as not even to know family cooperation, each individual may possibly support himself, though even then for a part of his life only; but from the moment that men begin to live together, and constitute even the rudest of society, self-support becomes impossible. As men grow more civilized, and the subdivision of occupations and services is carried out, a complex mutual dependence becomes the universal rule. Every man, however solitary may seem his occupation, is a member of a vast industrial partnership, as large as the nation, as large as humanity. The necessity of mutual dependence should imply the duty and guarantee of mutual support . . .
— Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, chapter XII, 1888.

Consider:

Pretty much all of us pay various forms of taxes and in return, of course, we all gratefully receive public services and infrastructure. To describe things very simply, those public services and infrastructure are bought with the revenue raised through taxes. And some of us, the above-mentioned 30% or so, get our wages or salary out of that same tax revenue in return for providing those services to, or building and maintaining that infrastructure for our fellow citizens. That seems a fair description, doesn’t it? Sort of?

But . . .

Let’s pretend there are 1000 people in the world, 30% government workers and 70% Bourgeois Capitalists and their employed proletarians. Furthermore, we’ll pretend each Government worker is paid $10,000 and pays 10% of that, $100,as taxes. That’s $30,000 in tax revenue contributed from workers with a combined income of $300,000. But that income comes directly from Government revenue. Clearly, $270,000 of Government revenue has to come from somewhere else, and that somewhere else must necessarily be the 70% of the population, 700 people, who are Bourgeois Capitalists and their employed proletarians. On average then, the non-Government workers and their employers will have to pay over $370 in taxes, *just to pay the Government workers wages and salaries*. Why would anyone chose to start a business? Indeed, why would anyone chose to work in the private sector?

And, really, when you sit down and think about it, even ignoring (sort of) the public/private split, how is this whole economic system in any way sustainable?

Consider again:

(the following is really just a rehash of a bit of Classical Social Credit)

My Bourgeois Capitalist friend is in debt and some months just breaks even after dealing with expenses. He and his (government employed) wife are managing to make mortgage payments on their modest house in a working-class neighbourhood — they have no extravagance. He pays his three employees a little better than minimum wage. Each employee, including the Bourgeois Capitalist, produces in an hour an amount of product which retails for more than his hourly income. This is as it must be as it is a vanishingly rare product that has the cost of labour as its only production cost. Even if profit were ignored, there must always be other input costs. So, like pretty much everyone in the private sector, each worker produces more value than he can afford to buy. If the workers cannot afford to buy that which they produce, who can? An external seems necessary for all the widgets the private sector produces or there must someday come a collapse of either price or economy. If the price collapses to an affordable level, the widgets will be priced below cost, and there will come a more general collapse. But in today’s interconnected world, where can this outside market be?

Is this necessary “external” market provided by the public sector and public sector employees? Perhaps, in the short term. But remember, the buying power of the public sector is nothing other than tax revenue from the private sector. The public sector is, in a sense, a somewhat parasitic appendage of the private sector. But, to be kind, each public sector worker, we hope, produces more value in services and infrastructure, than that worker can afford to buy on her salary. Just as the private sector can’t afford to buy all the widgets he makes in an hour, the public sector worker can’t afford to buy the bridge she helps to build.

With the ever growing interconnectedness of the global economy, there are really no longer true external markets: the global workforce of consumers produces more widgets than it can collectively afford to consume. Why do so many Canadians carry more debt than they can reasonably hope to pay off? Maybe because so many Canadians can’t afford to buy what they produce and so must borrow.

How has this continued so long? Can it be our whole economic system is nothing other than an exceptionally long-lasting financial bubble. Or, less generously, a multi-generational Ponzi scheme?

Han-headed Cathay saw it first,
Bright as brightest solar burst;
Whipped it into boy and girl,
The blinding spiral-sliced swirl:
Yang
And Yin . . .
Hegel saw it, saw it clear;
Jackal Marx drew near, drew near:
O’er his shoulder saw it plain,
Turned it upside down again:
Yang
and Yin . . .

–Frederik Pohl, “The Midas Plague”, Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954, p. 32.

 

“Long live the Communist Revolution!” I hear some of you yelling at the back, and I read some similar cry on the malignancy of Twitter nearly every day.

But is that a serious solution? Surely things called Communism have been experimented with. Yes, Cuban health-care has been marketed well around the world, but some of us are old enough to remember Peter Fechter lying beside the Wall. I once had a dedicated Marxist-Leninist professor tell me that Soviet-style and even Maoist Communism weren’t “real” communism — that the only “real” experiment with communism was Hoxha’s Albania, and he held it up as a glorious example Canada should follow. I suspect that none of you, if you had any awareness of Albanian history, would choose to live in Hoxha’s Albania instead of 21st Century Canada.

Whatever -ism we use to describe the “system” by which our economy is organized, I don’t quite see how we can avoid real functional elements we might call, “labour”, “production”, “consumption”, “management”, and, yes, “Capital”. And, whatever its limits, there will be a good deal of dissatisfaction if there is not “Growth” of “Markets”. If there is not growth, however equitable the distribution, in very short order none of us will be able to afford to consume what our labour produces. And the bubble that began to expand with the growth of mercantile cities in Late Medieval Europe will finally burst and we will be forced into something like a barter economy. While I fully realize many vocal persons on social media and elsewhere think a simple barter economy an attractive and nostalgic solution, I doubt many of them would truly enjoy living in a Medieval world. And a barter economy didn’t produce smart phones or the xanthan gum that makes their gluten-free, egg-free, vegan bread possible.

What is the answer?

How would I know? I’m just another Bourgeois in my ivory tower. But since you ask, I don’t think there are any easy answers, and, I kind of have a feeling we — especially you Basic Income campaigners — would do well to revisit the thoughts of a British engineer by the name of Clifford Douglas. But there’s a fair amount of mathematics involved in that. And math, like Revolution, is hard.

But not hard like understanding the world’s money supply . . .

When we start talking about money supply, we have to talk about fractional reserve banking, and then the mind-bending headache really sets in. Fractional reserve banking may well be a contract with the Devil.

“Zu wissen sei es jedem, der’s begehrt:
Der Zettel hier ist tausend Kronen wert.
Ihm liegt gesichert, als gewisses Pfand,
Unzahl vergrabnen Guts im Kaiserland.
Nun ist gesorgt, damit der reiche Schatz,
Sogleich gehoben, diene zum Ersatz.”
— Goethe, Faust, Part II, Act I

But the magic (slight of hand?) of fractional reserve banking is stunning! And I, for one, have a strong feeling that fractional reserve banking is the single pillar — a pillar of blind faith and/or ignorance — supporting the inconceivably heavy roof of the bubble we live under.

On a spring day more than 5,000 years ago in the Mesopotamian city of Ur, a foreign merchant sold his wares in exchange for a large bundle of silver. He didn’t want to carry the bundle home because he knew he’d be back in Ur again to buy grain at the end of harvest season. Instead the merchant walked to the local temple, where valuables were often stored, and asked the priest to hold onto the silver for him. . . .
“Breaking the Bank”, Alexander Lipton and Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Scientific American, January 2018, p. 28.

In brief, fractional reserve banking creates concrete value-added through a more efficient use of money. I have cash I’m not using at the moment. Need capital to open a pie booth at the farmer’s market and to make a lottery deposit for your new play at the Fringe Festival? Use my cash and pay me back before I need the cash to start my new coffee roasting place. When the fractional reserve banking is finished there’s a new coffee roasting joint, a new pie booth at the farmer’s market, and we’re enjoying a new play at the Fringe. Concrete value added to our community. If I’d had to sit on my cash we’d just be roasting coffee. No play. No pies. Less value. A poorer community.

Could it be that fractional reserve banking is what lets us consume all the stuff we produce even though we aren’t paid enough to afford what we make?

Well, yes, perhaps mainly because governments and businesses and most private individuals avail themselves of the value-creating opportunities of fractional reserve banking. Those private sector tax payers don’t have to pay much of the salaries of government workers because governments borrow money to pay workers, borrowing from the worker’s own assets as often as not. And businesses do the same. And when my bourgeois friend makes his mortgage payment each month, he’s paying back money he’s borrowed from himself, and from his employees, and from every person with a bank account. We’re all shopping with money borrowed from our bank accounts and from the future and that’s all just fine — in fact, it seems to be the wonderful source of the amazing science fiction world we live in — but look out, brother, if we all decide to cash in our savings on the same day!

 

 

Pirenne, writing in the early 20th Century, concluded that “The antagonism between capital and labour is . . . as old as the middle class” (p. 154). But who is it in more recent, social-media fevered days, that cries out against capital and embraces the cause of labour? Who, too often for comfort, throws twitter stones through the windows of business, both small and large, local and global, willy-nilly? It is a rare person in Canada who is not living on capital leveraged from their own future capital, or intends (perhaps without full understanding) to one day soon be such a bourgeois, home-owning petty capitalist.

But few of us are interested in quitting working for others in order to invest our (usually meager) savings in a personal business making widgets we hope will interest the public. Instead, without realizing that we are ourselves Capital, we rail against Capital while continuing to play at being the proletariat. And we in the West do this while consoled to varying degrees with the comforts and protections of the Welfare State that has developed for most of us over the course of the last century. This isn’t the world of Marx and Engels, of Lenin and Hoxha. We live in a world of fiat currency, not of the gold standard. We live in the world envisioned through a fog by Goethe and Clifford Douglas and Robert Heinlein in his early days. We live in a world of imaginary money that buys more and greater real things than ever could have been produced at any other time in history. And we live in a world the workings of which few if any understand, of dangers we can little imagine, and of unprecedented feelings of entitlement, unprecedented levels of misinformation and ignorance masked as knowledge and wisdom, and of unprecedented ability to communicate masses of sophistry to vast numbers of minds aching to be filled with something.

Reality is hard. The world is difficult.

Nothing will change that.

But we really should make the effort to understand how things actually work .

Go ahead and dream of utopias — but not all the time!

 

Good luck.

 

I’ve Been Thinking About the End of the World

 It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged . . . .
— H. G. Wells, The Time Machine

An image has haunted me since at least some time after my eleventh birthday when a school chum gave me a lovely one volume copy of The Time Machine and The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells:

A steady twilight brooded over the earth. And the band of light that had indicated the sun had, I now noticed, become fainter, had faded indeed to invisibility in the east, and in the west was increasingly broader and redder. The circling of the stars growing slower and slower had given place to creeping points of light. At last, some time before I stopped, the sun, red and very large, halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome glowing with a dull heat. The work of the tidal drag was accomplished. The earth had come to rest with one face to the sun even as in our own time the moon faces the earth.

The Time Machine (1895 version)

This image of the ancient sun, “a vast dome glowing with dull heat” rests forever on my mind and returns for me in readings as an instant image of the last days of a world, if not devoid of life, emptied of living humanity and, most likely, cleansed by time even of human artifact.

Wells, of course, as a man of science, grounded his description in rational predictive extrapolation from known geological and astrophysical principals. But even such a hopelessly unscientific fellow as C. S. Lewis (his Cosmic Trilogy notwithstanding) conjured this same bloated sun when he needed a bit of shorthand for a world on its death-bed. Consider Chapter V of the penultimate Chronicle of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew:

Much more light than they had yet seen in that country was pouring in through the now empty doorway, and when the Queen led them out through it they were not surprised to find themselves in the open air. The wind that blew in their faces was cold, yet somehow stale. They were looking from a high terrace and there was a great landscape spread out below them.

Low down and near the horizon hung a great red sun, far bigger than our sun. Digory felt at once that it was also older than ours: a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down upon that world. To the left of the sun, and higher up, there was a single star, big and bright. Those were the only two things to be seen in the dark sky; they made a dismal group. And on the earth, in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, there spread a vast city in which there was no living thing to be seen. And all the temples, towers, palaces, pyramids, and bridges cast long, disastrous-looking shadows in the light of the withered sun. Once a great river had flowed through the city, but the water had long since vanished, and it was now only a wide ditch of grey dust.

So many echoes of Wells. But here is added the dead, empty city. A world at its end, humanity and, indeed, life wiped away, but still humanity’s works stand mighty.

Almost a century before Well’s Time Machine and far in time from Lewis’ dead city under a swollen sun, the poet Shelley and his friend Horace Smith challenged each other to compose a sonnet on the subject of some newly discovered bits of Egyptian statuary. The result of the challenge was, on Smith’s side, a sadly overshadowed and forgotten poem, and on Shelley’s, Ozymandias, one of the world’s greatest elegies to humanity’s doomed striving against entropy. “Look upon my works ye mighty and despair!” Despair indeed, for these great works, intended and expected to last an eternity, have been reduced to dust in a few dozen lifetimes. One can almost see the red giant sun looming over Shelley’s antique land, as it looms over each of us, doomed to age and die on an aging Earth.

And Smith’s sonnet more explicitly tells us to consider our entropic future:

. . . some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London Stood, holding the wolf in Chace,
He meets some fragment huge and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

I think of an inversion of Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness sitting on the deck of the Nellie and intoning into the London night “This too [again will be] one of the dark places of the earth.” Smith’s hunter stands like John in New York, in Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon”, like Charlton Heston’s Taylor in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty in The Planet of the Apes. So many apocalypses.

Most often at the ends of these worlds there is a survivor to observe “the lone and level sands.” The Time Traveler sees the final snows of Earth’s condensing atmosphere; Polly and Digory look on the bloated sun and empty city of the Witch’s world; Matthew Arnold and his unnamed love stand at the window hearing the “long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith in “Dover Beach”. But there is one notable but little-noted work in which not a single human observer survives in the landscape of apocalypse. In 1920, the dark shadow of the trenches still brooding on Europe’s collective mind, Sara Teasdale gave us a beautiful and hopeless little poem usually titled “There will come Soft Rains”:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

The first septet (save the fence wire) is all wild nature. The wire in line 6 and the war in line 7 are the pivot of the piece. Most of the last three couplets is about absent humanity: “war”, “mankind”, “we”. But “we” are not in the landscape. We have left the landscape to nature, and nature is indifferent. Unlike so many other imaginings of human autumn and winter, Teasdale allows of no survivors in her vision. Where Horace Smith imagined a future hunter, Shelley a traveler from an antique land, Wells a traveler in time, Lewis children with world-jumping magic,, and Arnold a meaningless meaning of faithfulness to a companion in a faithless world, Teasdale does not shy away from a world with neither humanity nor human meaning.

Teasdale’s audacity is a rare thing. Think of Ray Bradbury’s post-nuclear-holocaust story titled after Teasdale’s poem. Bradbury’s 1950 “There will come soft rains”, part of his The Martian Chronicles, tells the story of the final days of an automated house, emptied of humanity by nuclear war. As in Teasdale’s poem, the landscape contains only nature and humanity’s artifacts, no humanity. But Bradbury does not allow himself to fully face humanity’s extinction. In the universe of The Martian Chronicles, humanity survives as a small colony on Mars, and , Bradbury expresses an extreme optimism in the title of the next and final story of the Chronicles: humanity’s stay on Mars will be “The Million Year Picnic”.

Evidently it is a difficult thing to imagine, as Teasdale somehow has, the absolute extinction of ourselves. As I’ve been considering this essay, I’ve looked back at a number of works and I found that complete pessimism is a rare thing. I made a little list of works, each with a flippant précis appended:

“Ozymandias” (Shelley/Smith, 1818) Fortune’s Wheel turns.

The Last Man (Mary Shelley, 1826) We are excruciatingly done!

The Time Machine (Wells, 1895) – It’ll be done a long, long, long time in the future and we’ll have an unimaginably long run.

“The Machine Stops” (E. M. Forster, 1909) There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“There will come soft rains” (Teasdale, 1920) – We’re done and the birds don’t care.

“Twilight” (John W. Campbell, 1934) We’ll be done eventually, but we’ll build android replacements for ourselves.

Against the Fall of Night/The City and the Stars (Arthur C. Clark, 1948/1956) Same tunnel as Forster’s, but a whole lot longer.

“There will come soft rains (Bradbury, 1950) – We’re done for on Earth, but we’re picnicking on Mars!

The Magician’s Nephew (Lewis, 1955) It’s done in that other place but we’re okay.

Wall-E (Disney/Pixar, 2008) – Everything’s going to be okay in the end!

 

I won’t draw any conclusions from the fact that the two totally pessimistic works on my list, the two utterly without the offer of hope, are the two written by women. I expect I could look through my library a moment and find something hopeless by a man and something hopeful by a woman. What I find more interesting is the apparent need to provide light at the end of the existential tunnel.

As I was pondering the end of the world, I came across philosopher John Leslie’s The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction (1996) which discusses at length the likelihood that a particular individual – you or I, for example – would be kicking around closer to the beginning or the end of humanity’s run on the planet. I won’t get into the argument in any detail at all, but basically Leslie demonstrates that we’re most likely living close to the end of our run on earth. But, interestingly, Leslie still seems to find hope for our future, that we will outwit probability. Even after a few hundred pages of careful argument of mathematical probabilities, the philosopher desperately clutches at the straws of optimism.

As I read Leslie’s book I came to realize that his probabilistic argument rests on a continued expansion of human population to 10 billion and it remaining there until 2250. I couldn’t help thinking of the closing pages of Colin Tudge’s The Time Before History (1996) in which he argues that if humanity could drastically reduce its numbers by a voluntary two-children-or-less policy, then humanity’s run on earth could last indefinitely and with a high standard of living for all. Such a future would offer far more individuals a happy life than would continued population increase to the point of crash and/or extinction. Again there is hope, if we can control our disastrous drive to spawn large numbers of children.

I also, sadly, found myself reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007), ostensibly a scientifically grounded speculation into what the world would be like if humanity disappeared as in Teasdale’s poem. What a hopeless piece of writing! As well as being rife with factual error and bad writing, this is a book with a social agenda that is not susceptible to argument. It pretends to be “What if?” but is actually, “This, Gentle Reader, is NOW, you selfish pig! You’re the problem! And when it really comes down to it, I don’t care about science!” A toxic Trojan horse of a book. And, to top it off, on page 272, in a typically ill-constructed (and cruelly compulsory) sentence, Weisman paraphrases Tudge, whom he never once cites:

 

“. . . henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.”

Compare Tudge’s hopeful argument, an optimistic argument based not simply upon a dread of Wells’ “huge red-hot dome of the sun” glowing over an empty future earth, but rather on humanity’s better angels:

In practice, common sense plus the experience of the past few decades shows that several preconditions must be met if the two-child family is to become the norm worldwide, all of which are difficult in practice, but are conceptually undramatic. First, all efforts must be made to minimize infant mortality. People must know that two children out of two are liable to survive. Second, everyone worldwide needs a pension, so that they do not need to rely upon their children when they stop working. Third, the trend in rich countries toward earlier and earlier retirement must be reversed, for if people retire earlier and the birth rate goes down, then within a couple of decades or less, we will find there are too few young recruits for the job market and indeed that only a small minority of the population is actually working. . . . As modern family planners say, the point is not to coerce but to empower. Coercion is obviously undesirable, but modern experience shows that it is also unnecessary.

The Time Before History, p. 320.

Tudge’s hopeful vision is awfully attractive: A world in which couples are happy with one or two or no children, where being single carries no stigma, where society smiles equally on all the small, happy, healthy, prosperous families, where humanity and nature both have a long life ahead of them on a green and pleasant Earth.

I hope there will come soft rains to that Earth, falling gently on both birds and humans. And I hope, in that fine future, and in this difficult present, every human will very much mind if any bird or tree perishes utterly, whatever the birds and trees might think about us.

 

In the Parking Lot of Walmart I Sat Down and Wept

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down,
Yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion.
– Psalm 137

A few days ago I went to get my hair cut at my usual place, which is in one of those suburban “outlet malls” which plague North America. After I parked, I realized I needed a bathroom break. The only obvious place for a discrete trip was the Walmart in the distance. The fact that it seemed necessary to get back into my car and drive to the Walmart at the other end of the parking lot should have been a hint of the epiphany to come.

Anyway, after seeking and finding relief, I walked back out into the sun. I faced west. The mid-morning sun was behind me and to the left. A vast treeless plain of asphalt dotted with a few cars stretched away before me. Around the edge of this desolation stood the low retail blocks done up in stucco and architects’ memories of childhood Lego projects. The haze of distance softened the contrast of faraway objects.

And suddenly I realized that the faraway objects weren’t a distant city on a hill or mountains or forests away at horizon’s edge. No. The haze of distance hung over the other end of this lifeless, horrid, inhuman parking lot.

Images of suburbia came into my mind. Of entire residential neighbourhoods turning their garage doored backs on the streetscape. Of rows upon rows of puce coloured boxes, no windows to the street, postage stamp yards. Or, next development over, monster houses with one acre foot prints on one acre lots with ubiquitous garage doors, as welcoming as closed Hell Gates, here four or five to the house, the public face of whatever family might try to find joy within.

I immediately said to myself, with a small and joyless internal laugh:

“In the parking lot of Walmart I sat down and wept.”

Then I tweeted it, because that’s what is done.

There is a tragic inhumanity about the architecture of North American cities. This inhumanity stretches from the design of the home all the way up to e the neighbourhood plan. The car is the reason for the layout of the home. The car’s room is the part of the house that greets the visitor. The car is the intermediary, the gate keeper, between the family and the outside world.

The streets are wide, the sidewalks narrow. I have seen couples our for walks in the suburbs unable to walk side-by-side on the single-file afterthought sidewalks. The parking lots are obscenely large and desolate, the parks, particularly in newer developments are pitiful token bits of green. There is no school or even space set aside for a school in many of these new developments.

I am writing this sitting at a table on the small patio at the front of my inner city house. This outdoor office/dining room is what welcomes visitors. There are trees filled with singing birds and chattering squirrels around me. Cyclists pass by in the bike lane. A car goes by now and then. People are walking side-by-side, chatting and smiling at each other on the wide sidewalks. Every house has a front facade punctuated by many windows and the front door. This is the open streetscape that is both welcoming to and engaged with the community of people who inhabit it.

Later this afternoon some neighbours will be getting together in the back alley, thankful that the warm weather has finally returned. Tables and chairs will be brought out, the doors of small detached garages thrown open. More neighbours will gather to chat.

Before that get together, I may walk over to the book shop seeking a second-hand Golding novel. I could walk to anything I would normally want or need: the grocer, the baker, the butcher, live music venues, live theatre, restaurants, bars, all manner of shops and parks and schools. . . .

When I stood outside Walmart and thought of Psalm 137, I certainly didn’t feel the shattering desolation of the Israelites taken in bondage to Babylon. But I did feel very strongly that with our unthinking automobile-driven suburban sprawl, with our simple lack of foresight and human sensitivity, we have exiled far too many urban North American’s from a truly humane urban existence.

Living in a large garage with attached house a short drive – but a long walk – from a giant parking lot with a scattering of indistinguishable chain stores built of polystyrene and ticky-tacky – appropriately termed “big boxes” – and working an hour’s commute away is decidedly not a humane urban existence.

I began with a Psalm. Let’s end with a song:

Why learn Latin?

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?

Cicero, Orator Ad M. Brutum

For the last week or two I’ve been fairly obsessively ruminating about my personal biographical relationship to some little spots around the Bay of Naples and the sweep of history upon which that relationship is contingent.  And for a number of years I’ve been ruminating about the absolutely vital necessity of a Liberal Arts education for all citizens of a free society. If citizens are not trained in the arts of life in a free society (the Liberal Arts), any other training or education is the manufacturing of Orwellian cogs for a grey, meaningless social machine.

This morning a tweet by Kelly MacFarlane, a “Contract Academic” at the University of Alberta, got me a little more obsessive about getting some of these thoughts down on (virtual) paper. Ms. MacFarlane asked “What can we do to make Latin More Appealing to more students?”

I replied “I find this a troubling question. Latin IS interesting. Students must be shown why/how it is. Trying to doll it up is misrepresentation.” What I meant, in more than 140 characters, is that marketing a Latin course as something other than “learning to read the language of the Romans and to appreciate their literature and thought and all that appreciation implies” is misrepresentation. Learning Latin probably isn’t going to get you a good job. But learning Latin, like any of the Humanities, will very likely make you better at whatever job you get. It might give you intense entertainment on your commute. Other than that, pretty much all I have to offer is meaning.

Ruminations and a couple of text messages

A week or two ago as I was obsessively ruminating, I wrote to a friend one evening:

I find it exciting that just now I’m linking up Virgil and Pliny the Younger who described the eruption of Vesuvius and the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder who described the painting of the Greek painter Apelles which description led me to paint my series of little paintings of the area around the Bay where Vesuvius erupted and Pliny (elder) died and Pliny (younger) studied, and Virgil lived and wrote, and Aeneas descended to meet his past and his future, and where I wrote and studied and marveled and . . .

I just had a vision of me as a University lecturer in an alternate universe, bawling my eyes out as I describe to a gaggle of baffled undergrads what poetry and history and life can do when it’s all working right.

It’s probably a good thing I left Academia; weeping would probably be frowned on by the arbiters of tenure.

I also wrote to my friend about some homemade wine:

I might save the apple wine for later in the summer with a crowd. Vinalia might be time to open a half bottle of last Fall’s bucket of juice from Italy and read some Ovid or something.

In those two sentences I have linked a laughing summer afternoon outside in the sun with friends and neighbours putting about a hundred pounds of apples from another friend’s backyard trees through a meat grinder. The glorious fragrant pulp went into plastic vats to be fermented into country wine. The reference to “Vinalia” is to the twice a year celebration of the grape in Ancient Rome, Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, and Vinalia Rustica, the festival of the grape harvest. On further consideration, it seems obvious to me that the poetry of Tibullus would be more appropriate than Ovid for either festival, and certainly for an Alberta high-summer backyard neighbourhood festival celebrating those apples we had processed together.

If you knew Latin, you’d fully understand the above paragraph and the following bit of verse.  And you’d probably be pretty good at whatever job you have.

nec Spes destituat sed frugum semper acervos
praebeat et pleno pinguia musta lacu.
Tibullus, I.i.

What does all this have to do with getting undergrads interested in Latin?

When I was in grad school studying Anglo-Saxon poetry I often was asked “what are you going to do with that?”

My long answer was “I’d rather drive a cab with a Master’s Degree in Anglo-Saxon poetry than drive a cab without one.”

My short answer should have been “Live.”

My best answer, an answer that I only found with time is “Live with meaning.”

Cicero wrote in a letter to his friend Varro: “Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit.” Ad Familiares IX, 4

I’ve always imagined that Cicero’s garden and library were often visited by friends and neighbours, that Cicero “networked” with living, present people as well as with his books.

“pulcherrimarum clade terrarum”

We are a network of experiences, of memories applied to each other, to the present, and to the future. We are not the product of our personal history, we, at this very moment, are our personal history made manifest, a history which includes what we read, what we see on Netflix, the games we play, the people we have met, the places we have been, our family . . . . The richer our personal history, the deeper our references and experiences, the more we have personal connections to the deep history of our families, of our nations, of our cultures, and of humanity itself, the richer, deeper, and more alive we are, the more meaning our time on this whirling ball of rock has, whatever we may be doing in the present moment.

When young, the network is loose. It’s hard to see how things fit together, we search for meaning, too often we give up.  Trust me, it gets tighter. A point will come as you pursue you living and learning, whether that learning involves Latin or another language or languages, when everything starts to fit together, where everything is linked to everything else in a glittering, beautiful, tragic and joyful web of association and causality and meaning. The depth is plumbed gradually, but my own life has shown me that within a couple of years of first taking Latin, experience was enriched, landscapes came to deep life, and things began to fall into place.  And I began to understand other languages. And even others. It all meant something.

Making a loaf of bread in the Bakery of Modestus

Because of Latin, and travel in youth, when I knead bread  I am connected, to my mother, of course, but, more deeply, I am connected to a man named Modestus who owned a bakery in Pompeii. Modestus most likely died on August 24, 79 A.D., shortly after enjoying Vinalia. But I have a photo I took of his bakery, and I have a photo of my mother standing in that bakery many years later, after I painted a little picture of Modestus’ grain mills. And I painted that picture because of the words of a man who died that same day, in that same Hellish disaster.

When I knead bread, I am connected to my mother, who taught me to bake bread, and who stood in the Bakery of Modestus where I had stood years before, and to people who died half a world away and two thousand years ago.

The Bakery of Modestus, Acrylic, 4″ x 6″

We are connected in this way because I learned Latin.

Below is a reverse timeline that may show some of the depth of connection that Latin has brought to my life.

A Reverse Timeline

Sometime before the end of 2006 A.D., a middle aged Canadian man started painting some tiny paintings using only red, yellow, black, and white paint.

Sometime after the end of 2005 A.D., a middle aged man from Canada chanced upon a passage about a Greek painter in a natural history written by an uncle who had launched the ships under his command to investigate a volcanic eruption, an eruption which soon claimed his life.

In late summer of 1983 A.D. a young man from Canada was having a wonderful time admiring the landscape and studying in the library of the Villa Vergiliana, in Cumae, Italy, just over the ridge from Misenum, on the Bay of Naples.  He wrote in his journal:

I’m in heaven, or perhaps Hades. I’ve got a vast (comparatively) library at my disposal, including The Idylls of the King and Dryden’s Aeneid; and Avernus is on one side while the Sybil’s cave is on the other. Up on the roof I can see for miles.  We’re staying in the Villa Vergiliana, a possession of the American Virgilian Society. I’ll never have enough time here. . . .

In the spring of 1981 A.D., a young Canadian was happily studying in an introductory Latin course at the University of Alberta.  The professor had big ambitions for his students and they rose to the challenge.  As the leaves budded out in the North Saskatchewan River Valley, these students, Latin neophytes a few months before, were reading their way through an epic description of a descent into Hell at Cumae and Lake Avernus. This glorious poetry had been written two thousand years earlier by a man from Gaul who was quoted by a man from Como in his description of his own descent to Hell.

Around 110 A.D., a middle aged man from Como in Northern Italy, who had studied as a volcano erupted, was asked by an historian friend to describe the events around the Bay of Naples during a late August week in his youth, when Vesuvius buried Herculaneum, Pompeii, and dozens of other cities, towns, and villages.

In late summer of 79 A.D., a young man from Como was contentedly studying literature at his uncle’s villa in Misenum. The Vinalia Rustica, the great festival of the grape harvest, had concluded a few days before. Every expectation was that in the spring the Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, would be celebrated in the towns and villages on the slopes of Vesuvius and in the villas along the bay.

As the young man studied, his uncle, commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum and author of an important work of Natural History, climbed to a high point of land to observe an unusual cloud on the far distant opposite shore of the Bay.  He stood studying the cloud with a scientist’s eye and soon decided his ships should be launched for a closer look. That closer look soon turned into a rescue mission.

In 77 A.D., the uncle who would die on a scientific expedition turned rescue began to write his monumental Natural History. That Natural History contained a brief passage about an Ancient Greek painter who had miraculous abilities with a remarkably limited set of four colours.

Sometime before 19 B.C., a man nearing the end of his life who had once lived at Cumae wrote a line of verse that would be quoted by a man from Como as he undertook to describe his own journey in flight through Hell on Earth across the Phlegraean Fields near Lake Avernus.

In the late summer of 49 B.C., a yet-young man from Cisalpine Gaul was living at Cumae, carefully observing the volcanic countryside, and studying, creating the mind, the sensibility, the developed consciousness, that would produce some of the greatest poetry in World Literature.

In the depths of mythic time, a hero arrived from Troy to the shores of Italy at Cumae. After retrieving the Golden Bough, he consulted with the mystical Sybil and then, on the banks of Lake Avernus, in the heart of the Phlegraean Fields, that hero descended to the Underworld, met with the dead, learned of his past and of his future, and returned to the land of the living through the Gate of False Dreams.

And, because I learned Latin, I was there. For all of it.

Why study anything?

Because I studied Latin with Dr. Bob Buck in 1981-82, I grew to love the poetry of Virgil, was able to read the letters of Pliny the Younger and the Natural History of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Because I could read Latin, I learned of the Greek Painter Apelles. Because I could read Latin I painted a series of paintings which launched a funny little late-life career.

But, most important to me, those months in Dr. Buck’s class helped give to my life a rich depth of meaning. I am a network of experiences. I am linked to Apelles, to Virgil, to Pliny the letter writer and Pliny the Naturalist.  I have stood on the same ground. We have wondered together at the power of Vesuvius. We have looked deeply into other lives and other times with the tools forged by study and tempered with a life in society, and we have found meaning.

If that doesn’t make Latin interesting . . .