Saturday, October 30, 2004

Saving Solzhenitsyn

Recently, a friend of mine recommended Solzhenitsyn to me. Said he was not just a great novelist, but a man who stood up to the Communist machine when it was in full force. In a subtle way, I'm told.

I like subtlety in matters political. Voltaire, for instance, was far from obvious in his criticisms. He probably didn't expect everyone to get his comments, but, getting it, it is twice as forceful. Especially if those who are the butt of the joke don't. It's likely that Candide did more to squelch the idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds--a popular opinion back in those days having much to do with God, and how He wouldn't have deigned to create a second-best world--than did a mountain of other philosophers and historians. Ridiculed to death. Shamed into speechlessness.

And so it is, he said, with Solzhenitsyn. I brought along 'Cancer Ward' with me from Canada, and have been reading it intermittently along with David Copperfield by Dickens (London, after all, is the best place in the world to be reading Dickens). But there is some controversy about Solzhenitsyn. It isn't altogether clear what he believes, exactly. Some say he's a great individualist, others say he's a big collectivist and, worse, an anti-Semite.

Daniel Mahoney has had enough of it. He thinks Solzhenitsyn's character has been impugned too much. He says all this right here. Says that, far from being anti-Semitic, he stood up for jews publicly. Far from being some sort of proto-communist, he was, in fact, a kind of individualist. Without being a libertarian.

Reason magazine writer Cathy Young (who also wrote "Ceasefire: Why Men and Women need to join forces to achieve True Equality"--or something with a title like that--which I read on the advice of my Marxist-feminist Philosophy professor. She really kicks ass. That professor, that is, although Cathy does too. Anyways:) rips into Solzhenitsyn here. Mahoney's piece is largely a response to Cathy. Which is why he is quick to point out that Solzhenitsyn is no libertarian. Here's that bit: "As any charitable reader of the Gulag will discern, Solzhenitsyn is no collectivist. But neither is he a “libertarian” who ignores the indispensable moral foundations of human liberty."

"...ignores the indispensable moral foundation of human liberty"? Now what is that, pray tell? He doesn't say, exactly. It's one of those throw-away lines you get away with in polite company, since few have gone to all the bother of reading up on the moral foundations of libertarianism. Which wouldn't have been difficult. They could have consulted a simple encyclopedia entry and read, say, the first paragraph. I guess it must be more complex than "keep your hands off of me and off my shit (unless I say it's okay)," which, I think, is both the essence of libertarianism as well as its moral foundation. That sounds like human liberty to me. Surely, things must be more complex than just that.

But it's still nice to see a guy take a stand for Solzhenitsyn. And I'm impressed with his response, so much so, that I'm convinced he was no anti-Semite, and no collectivist. Which is a good thing.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Phony critics

One of my more memorable reads when I was in highschool was Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye.' I bet it's probably a memorable book for you, too, since we all had to read it. I admit I haven't picked it up since, and so my recollection and evaluation of it is based on what I thought of it then. I'm sure, if I read it again, it wouldn't impact me as much as it did then. I guess I've moved on, and I'm sure I would have plenty of negative things to say about it.

But then you get a phony like this guy who shits all over Caulfield for being a paradigm case of the kid-in-transition, and on Salinger for having written the book. As if Salinger brought it about that the book sells as well as it does, or appeals to as many people (like me) as it does.

The part of the novel that really stuck with me was when Caulfield went to visit his sister in her school and spotted a "fuck you" scrawled on one of the walls. He starts to rub it off, but realizes that people might think that he had gone ahead and scribbled it there himself. So he stops. But he thinks about how people write things like that, and becomes certain that, after he dies, someone is bound to run up to his gravestone and write "fuck you" on it.

This critique reminds me of that a bit. There's a certain pleasure in writing fuck you all over the things other people find sacred, profound, or inspirational, that you think is lousy. Like Dr. Phil--he's the butt of all sorts of wrath. Same with Oprah. And never mind religions of all sorts (part of what I like about Nietzsche was his insistence on the stupidity and immorality of Christianity. His depiction of it as a 'slave morality' kept me up at nights. It helps, of course, that I was reading Nietzsche on the heels of Ayn Rand, who thinks of altruism in just those sorts of ways--the altruist as sacrificial animal. Anyways...). Few things should be taboo, and I don't mind people tearing at old men to see if they stand up after the clawing. But there's something profane about taking Salinger to task because everyone else seems to think his novel is the greatest this or that.

For my part, I loved the novel. I thought Caulfield was frustrated in a way that I was frustrated. I thought his shallow and unreflective accusations of universal phoniness (the football jocks, the parents, adults in general), were less an accurate portrayal than they were a generalised worry about the way things are. It's like sitting in a church pew and, for the first time, hearing the priest's sermon as Mother Goose and Grim stories, rather than as profound tales grounded in truth. What do you do with a moment like that? Don't you look around at all the nodding heads and think, "what the fuck is going on here?"

Alina tells me that she wonders why people prefer, or are more consumed by, positional goods than they are material goods. Caulfield's 'phoniness' is an expression of just that sort of wonder. And when you come close to seeing that that's what matters (and, incidentally, this is a good explanation for the lack of correlation between increases in material goods and 'happiness,' however defined), then, prior to accepting it, you think of it as the biggest, and phoniest sort of bullshit. But then you think, 'es muss sein,' and you carry on.

Or, instead, you see it as the expression of our fundamentally social nature and, viewed in that light, it can become something bordering on wonderful. We care what others think of us, and it reflects in our behaviour. We can either take it in, be consumed by it, and obsess about what others think of us (a negative thing), or we can allow others to form and inform our sense of self and move forward influenced by the things that others know that we don't (a positive thing). We can't know everything, so a presumption in favour of others having some kind of better insight into at least a tiny few things is enough to make us pay attention to their preferences. It's a way of expanding our base of knowledge without having to experience it ourselves. Having more information is better than having less.

He writes: "Viewed from the vantage point of half a century, the novel raises more questions than it answers [Just a standard cliche way of beginning a critique. What the hell sort of questions is a novel like this supposed to answer anyways? It's not a textbook]. Why is a book about a spoiled rich kid kicked out of a fancy prep school so widely read by ordinary Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom have limited means and attend, or attended, public schools? [You just answered the question about its success--its wide appeal. Here's a novel about a rich kid, and here I am, in a public Catholic highschool thinking, 'Jesus, this Caulfield kid is sort of like me,' for Chrissake.] Why is Holden Caulfield nearly universally seen as "a symbol of purity and sensitivity" (as "The Oxford Companion to American Literature" puts it) when he's merely self-regarding and callow? Why do English teachers, whose responsibility is to teach good writing, repeatedly and reflexively require students to read a book as badly written as this one?"

The guy obviously doesn't walk on water, but what's the point of expecting something like that anyways? He's no Fitzgerald as a writer. He sits somewhere between a Steinbeck and a Vonnegut, I'd say. And this fellow's deconstruction of the novel, interspersed with lines like: "This just about made me puke", is as callow as he thinks Caulfield is.

He complains about all the buttons the book pushes. All the cliched ways in which a book or movie elicits feelings of sympathy, empathy, hatred, contempt, and so on. "From first page to last," he writes, "'The Catcher in the Rye' is an exercise in button-pushing, and the biggest button it pushes is the adolescent's uncertainty and insecurity as he or she perches precariously between childhood, which is remembered fondly and wistfully, and adulthood, which is the great phony unknown."

This is the novel's greatest strength--that it pulls on just those levers. And this guy wants you to think it's the biggest sort of nonsense. Then he carries on to say that we didn't have this sort of perilous adolescence until Salinger invented it. Then we had 'Rebel without a cause,' Valley girls, and lots of other crap for kids who 'wistfully recall their childhood' and are faced with becoming responsible. First goes the horse, and then the cart, reverse it and you don't get anywhere. It isn't as though Salinger invented this moment of crisis, and then we all started to behave in just those ways. The novel finds this thread and pulls hard on it. And its success in recognizing, not inventing, this moment in our lives accounts for the success of subsequent attempts at getting at this moment as well. Notice, too, that were this true, you wouldn't have a similar appeal for things of that sort in other countries that don't read Salinger like Americans or Canadians do. And in this, there's a hint of "the world ends where the borders of North America (minus Mexico) fall into the oceans." A more honest critique would find this claim easily contradicted by looking at Eastern European adolescents, say, or kids in still other places.

And I hate to point this out, but if the buttons weren't there to push in the first place (i.e. if Salinger invented this sort of adolescence, rather than touched on something pre-existent), then he couldn't have pushed them.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Greatest Joke

I just logged myself in and voted for Don Cherry to become the "Greatest Canadian." The CBC has been running this farce for a little while, with the goal of declaring our 'greatest Canadian.' The process, of course, is purely democratic--any jackass can go ahead and vote.

And, boy, did this vote ever attract jackasses, making it an overwhelming joke. Why is it a joke? Well, for one, people like Avril Lavigne made the top 50, while the Group of Seven didn't manage to get in the top 100. Only one businessman managed to get on the list, while we've had a long and storied tradition of entrepreneurship (think Hudson's Bay Company and the Eaton family, amongst others). Meanwhile, some Winnipeg deejay convinced his fans to vote for him, and they turned up en masse, qualifying him for a top 50 spot. Yup, just a random radio deejay. Good on him, I say--expose the farce.

Bloggers have lost their heads over this. My old stomping ground's blog, The Shotgun, has gone ahead and asked bloggers to vote for Cherry. So that's what I did. Who's going to win? It's a toss up between Pierre Trudeau, former Prime Minister and the hearthrob of Canada's left elite, or the outright socialist Tommy Douglas, who is credited with making socialized medicine the law of my land.

While Don Cherry is far from our greatest, it's hard to see why the Toronto Star excoriated him as badly as they did. The Sun's Warmington stood up for Cherry, but didn't make very many good arguments for why Cherry should even be in the top 50, let alone top ten.

But I say we all go vote for Don Cherry anyways. The top ten list is embarrassing (except, Terry Fox really does belong on any top ten list like that, with all the others it isn't as clear as all that). The CBC would be eating crow for a long time if Cherry were to come out on top. That seems to be the best reason to vote for him.

Environmentalists litter streets of London

Originally uploaded by piotrek.
The European Social(ist) Forum was held this past weekend. I hear it received the approval, and funding, from the City of London. The Mayor, I'm told, is a big fan of socialist nonsense (what? Your mayor is a socialist too? Who knew?)

The shake-your-head moment for this event came at the tail end of the march. There, right after all the environmentalists had strutted along demanding less waste and respect for "mother earth," was a veritable army of street cleaners and garbage trucks. To clean up, of course, after the environmentalists. What with their leaflets, signs, and other *garbage*, the sensible thing to do is to prepare adequately with street cleaning crews out in full force. I actually asked one of these fellows to estimate how much garbage the protest would end up generating. His guess? About one tonne. One tonne!


Monday, October 18, 2004

Capitalist Pig at the ESF

Originally uploaded by piotrek.
The European Social(ist) Forum came to London this past weekend. Part of the events was this big march that winded its way past Aldwych, and by the LSE. I went with this t-shirt. Seen in the crowd were Communist flags (no shit. People still fly Communist flags. To an Eastern European, that's like flying the swastika.), Che Guevarra t-shirts galore (you know, the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine. Yeah, that guy. What? Nutbag from Cuba? Nonsense.), Free Palestine flags, peace flags, the GLBT rainbow flag, and an assortment of other random groups and special interests. All united by their hatred of Bush.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Republican West Wing?

Republican West Wing?
Originally uploaded by piotrek.
The television show, "The West Wing," may go Republican. So says CNN anyways.

This entrance might be a useful one to make use of if that were to happen (it reads, "Bush House - West Wing").

Friday, October 15, 2004


Originally uploaded by piotrek.
I like the fact that this just says "Liberty" and nothing else. It's the equivalent of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in Canada, or the American Civil Liberties Union in the U.S.

They just use an elegant 'Liberty' as their slogan.

Monday, October 11, 2004

This is at the base of a big tower erected after the massive London fire that took something like 340 acres of London with it... Notice the pigeon atop the genteel fellow. Just goes to show you, no matter how important you might be, pigeons will still shit on your head.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004


Hayek and a medal from the Queen he received for something to do with Econmonics. Hayek taught at the London School of Economics for a while, so I'll try and suss out all of the mementos of him at the school. I'm sure they have a bust of him somewhere. (I'll find it).

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Standard

I got a package with the new Western Standard in it here in London. I wrote the cover story in this one, so do go check it out. You won't be able to read the story online for a little while yet, so go to your local Chapters or Indigo (in Canada) and get yourself a copy. I would love to hear comments. Dr. Chaoulli has an amazing story to tell, and I was lucky enough to have the chance to try my hand at telling it.




Riding to school

Curiosity Shop

Monday, October 04, 2004

Big Bobby is watching you Posted by Hello

Big Ben Posted by Hello

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Not for Girls

Yorkie. A chocolate bar. "It's not for girls" says the bar, and on the back it says "Don't feed the birds." I thought it was hilarious. So I bought one. And you can too, right here.

The new advertising has generated increased sales. It's also resulted in some soul-searching, deep interpretations and analysis of the impact of gender on chocolate consumption. For instance, did you know that, for women, eating chocolate is a fanciful orgasmic experience, but that, for men, "it's a reaffirmation of their manhood"? This is what the advertisers are supposed to be thinking, anyways, according to this article about the Yorkie bar. Posted by Hello

Counting Beans

These beans are illegal in Canada. It's true.

Don't believe me? Read this story (pdf) that I wrote for the Western Standard. It turns out that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency demands that baked beans have 60 per cent bean content. The Brits like their beans to comprise exactly 49 per cent of the can... So they're out. (I hate baked beans. But, damnit, I'm eating these for liberty. So I've gone ahead and bought six cans thus far, and try to make myself those beans on toast at every opportunity. I will get used to these, yes I will!)

Larry Reynolds, from Alberta, wrote an interesting letter to the Standard about it here. Posted by Hello

Saturday, October 02, 2004

The awful truth?

A new book is selling out everywhere. Entitled "he's just not that into you," it appears to be about how a woman can tell if the guy in her life isn't into her. I'm surprised it's gender-specific, everything I've read about the book suggests that this knife cuts both ways.


I'm starting something new today, in an effort to make blogging a little bit simpler for me. I'll be using In the past, I've htmled my posts, and that's a little bit tedious. So, for those of you who want to see how I'm doing in London, I'll try to post more frequently.

With plenty of pictures. Because, really, bloggers who toil over posts get skipped anyways.