Philosophy in Calgary II: The Coming Terrors, Research Time, 31/05/2016

Continued from last post . . . That’s one hell of a title today, isn’t it? But that’s basically what we face when we take catastrophic climate change most seriously. That was how I spent my morning yesterday, in a three-hour panel about several different aspects of contemporary Canadian environmental philosophy.

I’ll continue this conversation in my panel tomorrow about Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, because the book includes an analysis of what humanity’s enormous industry means for how we think about human nature.

It was a morning of horrifying predictions of the inevitable, fantastically ambitious predictions of the most catastrophic disasters of climate change. Essentially, the problem is that the Antarctic ice sheets are so enormous that their collapse will cause a sea level rise of 15 metres. It would sink almost every coastal city in the world.

How it works is that as the ocean warms, warmer water tends to get saltier and so heavier. Sinking, it swirls underneath the long plains of ice coastline of Antarctica. That continent has so much ice on it that it’s actually dense enough to be heavier than the water.

So these massive mountains of ice sink to the ocean floor and have slowly worn down the earth underneath into trenches. The warmer water circulating along the bottom slowly melts the ice mountains at their foundations on the ocean floor. The bottom levels of these ice mountains will eventually collapse like a Jenga tower.

All that ice will slam into the sea, shatter, and melt.

The thing is, this is already happening, and at least one or two of those ice sheets will collapse, flooding huge swaths of coastal cities around the world – Tokyo, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, New York, most of Holland, Hong Kong, my hometown of St John’s, Montreal, and many others. 

So we’ll have to deal with a worldwide movement of sea level refugees.

One of the solutions that my friend Frank presented in that seminar was geoengineering. Massive, planet-wide projects to create carbon dioxide sinks or cool the atmosphere. They sound like something you’d read in an Iain Banks book, but they’re actually within our power. 

I could see Elon Musk and Bill Gates funding these kinds of massive projects, even if wealthy and powerful states wouldn’t. 

There are problems with this, of course, like the matter of consent and the possibility of further destruction. A wealthy businessman may fund a planetary engineering project, but its legitimacy would require the consent of everyone it would affect – literally everyone on Earth. We just don’t have the global governance institutions for that.

And it’s quite ironic that, after having developed the enormous industry that’s grievously harmed out planet’s ecosystems as an accidental by-product, we’d build even more enormous industrial projects to fix our mistakes. If our power is a problem, then you can easily be skeptical that the solution is more power. 

Other presentations in that morning’s panel discussed how different wild animals interact with humans as we encroach on their territories and habitats, and even come to share them. There are ethical implications that require changing a lot of the ways we typically relate to wild animals, overcoming our popular fear of animals and communicating with them instead.

We also discussed how hybridization – species mixture happening frequently throughout the wild as animal populations face shrinking habitats and blended territories – messes with our traditional concepts of what a species is. This new knowledge also makes many of our laws about endangered animal protection obsolete.

Animals – including humans, when we’ve gotten the chance – hybridize to survive when their populations are under pressure from ecological change. We have to accept that this is a fact. So defining species by traits and genomes don’t really work, even though a lot of our laws about species protection rely on those methods. 

It also reminds us of a truth that sounded like an empty Hollywood platitude when I first heard Jeff Goldblum say it as a kid. “Life finds a way.” It’s why – even in the face of almost certain disaster from the side-effects of enormous industry – I’m actually hopeful about the future of humanity.

Don’t get me wrong here. I absolutely think we’re headed for an era of massive planetary disaster and that billions of humans are probably going to die. Human civilization will face massive problems and a lot of our infrastructure will collapse. Maybe at the end of the day, there’ll be about a billion of us left, living in totally different places than we do now.

But I think humanity will keep its cultural continuity through all these disasters. Especially if we educate more people and involve them in our economies and our global communication networks. And we’ll rebuild. I hope, better.

Philosophy in Calgary I: What Exactly Am I Doing Here? Composing, 30/05/2016

It’s a legitimate question. I’m at the Canadian Philosophical Association conference in Calgary for the next few days. And a fair number of people at the conference – some people, but not a lot – will wonder, when they see me, what precisely I’m doing here.

Some might ask me where I’m working. And I’ll tell them that I’m a writer with a day job at IKEA. Which I am. And I’m doing quite a few other things. 

I’m planning a series of workshops in conjunction with the Toronto area district associations of the New Democratic Party. Those workshops are on the LEAP Manifesto and environmental policy and ethics more generally. They’ll apply a lot of the concepts I developed in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity to practical political organizing.

I’m developing two independent feature films, and working with the Syria Film Festival, which has become a vibrant and multifaceted arts / human rights advocacy organization. I may also employ some of the connections I make through working with the festival to build my crew for those films of my own.

And I’m in Calgary hosting a panel on Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. This is the most prestigious role I’ve ever held at a Canadian conference. As a graduate student, I was an invited speaker at an international multi-disciplinary conference in Switzerland. But that was another day.

This isn’t just attending as a journeyman commentator, as I did at my first CPA in 2009 in Ottawa and my last one in 2014 in St Catharine’s. I’m not just presenting a single paper of my own, as I did in the other four such conferences I attended. 

This will be a three-hour panel of free form discussion about a book that I wrote and published with Palgrave MacMillan, one of the most significant academic presses in the West. For even full-time tenured or tenure-stream professors, this is a big deal.

So why am I doing this? When a person leaves academia, they aren’t supposed to take part in its rituals and institutions anymore. Independent scholars are roundly mocked and symbolically spat upon whenever they appear.* But I’m not just an independent scholar, because independent scholars are themselves still striving for a place in the university system.

* I admit that my own blog post tonight is purposely provocative. I kind of hope other delegates will read it and become offended that I’m here.

I don’t really care about whether I earn a place in the university system. But I still care about philosophy as a tradition. If you want to know why, read my recent article “Beyond the Academy” at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. 

The shortest version is: I believe that the humanities, as they exist in the university system, are slipping from public relevance, and these knowledge traditions must transform themselves if they’re to have real social impact or even survive. 

But there’s a more egocentric motive wrapped up in this concern for the future of philosophy as a tradition. The simple matter is, I have more to say. I may not have a university position, but I’m not done with philosophy. 

And if I’m there, then there are other people like me who deserve to contribute to the tradition. Maybe it won’t be conventional writing and scholarship, but folks like me who don’t have to follow the disciplinary strictures of the academy can write more experimental, interesting works. Like my recent critical article that, in my own words in the pitch session, went the Full Borges.

As my friend and colleague in indie publishing Phil Sandifer said, we were reading books by people like Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida in graduate school, but God forbid if we ever tried to write with the same experimental fervour. I want to help build a tradition where that kind of experimentalism and openness is ordinary, accepted, and encouraged.

That’s part of what I’m trying to do this week. . . . To be continued

The Super Bling Cowboy: What’s Right and What Should Be, Sunnyvale, 28/05/2016

This is a transitional episode. Watching it, there’s an odd feeling hanging over the whole affair that something very strange is going to happen. But not yet. Until then, it’s mostly just an entertaining mess. Snoop is enjoying himself in a relaxing, weed-fuelled rural getaway. Doug is wonderfully high, but badly needs some kind of food that doesn’t have weed baked into it. Tom is enjoying his immersive Sunnyvale experience with his idols Ricky and Bubbles. Bubbles is getting ready for his show at the Legion Hall as the Super Bling Cowboy, which seems to be a better country-rap persona than Buck 65 could ever figure out.

Barb herself is absent. All we see of this plot is a brief meeting with Steinberg where we, as viewers of this episode of Trailer Park Boys can totally tell that he’s hosing Julian for all the money he can squeeze out of those pecs. All Steinberg does is preface every answer to Julian’s request that he actually do something with a demand for more and more money. He runs his law office out of his run-down house. His sign has letters missing. He uses a cell phone that looks to be vintage 1998. Why does Julian think he can trust this man to do what he says he will? Is an alleged law degree all it takes to pull the wool over his eyes?

This is a transitional episode, but it’s filled with little moments of ethical and moral insight. Not all of this is about what’s right. Doug’s quest for food leads him to put some moves on J-Roc’s wife Marcia, who’ll betray him by season’s end to join the life of rich and famous stoner comedians. The most egregious is Tom’s Indecent Proposal moment to have sex with Lucy for $10,000.

Now, this is also probably the funniest sequence of the whole episode. I know the “All we wanna do is smoke and fuck some hoes” song is the climactic centrepiece of probably the whole season, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But if I can speak as an individual watching this show and not as a philosophical commentator – the sequence of seeing Lucy’s fee shrink by commission again and again made me laugh out loud more than anything else in the episode.

“And now I gotta take a cut!”

Well, that’s not quite true. I actually laughed louder in the fight scene when everyone finds out about everybody else’s cuts. 

Ricky: “$4000 to fuck my wife!”

Tom: “Actually, it was $10,000!”

Sarah: “What the fuck, Julian! You told me $5000!”

Snoop’s right, Julian. You a motherfucking pimp.

The whole sequence is this greasy blur of friendship and moneymaking. I mean, Julian’s cut is unreasonable by pretty much any measure. It’s a sign that, despite his ethical redemption at the end of “Up In Smoke,” he’s still too focussed on making money to foresee all the effects of what he’s done. He can’t see that Steinberg is milking him. He takes such a huge cut of what should be Lucy’s fee that it’s ridiculous. And when it all comes out, he and Sarah both end up getting nothing. Julian is still unmoored. 

Actually, let’s look for a moment at Sarah in this episode. Because we haven’t really had much to see of her all through this season. “Super Bling Cowboy” is the first episode where Sarah’s played any really substantial role. And her role is as pimp. A much better pimp than Julian knows how to be. All Julian can do with Tom’s request to bang Lucy is deal with him, then farm out the job of actually convincing Lucy to do it. Sarah’s the one who’s actually effective, making Lucy actually consider the idea. Mind you, she also knows that it’ll make Ricky explode.

And in that crazy huge fight over Tom’s Indecent Proposal, Sarah plays a very devious role. She’s the catalyst. She adds enough extra spark to set Ricky boiling over from upset to pissed to royally raging. Just a few extra words to emphasize that, yes, Julian was pimping out his life partner. Never said anything about how she was the one to do all the work of pimping out Lucy. No, it’s all Julian’s fault. 

It’s an elegant moment for Sarah, which I’m sad we never really see again this season. And it comes pretty late in the season anyway. There really could have been so much more.

What we get more of in this episode is the catastrophic collapse of Jim Lahey, played for the zaniest over-the-top laughs you can imagine. Jim gets comatose drunk with Leslie as the ex-Private adds a few extra mystery pharmaceuticals to their whiskey cocktail. Leslie’s dedication is single-minded – about what, it isn’t really all that clear. But we know from the ending of the last episode that there are guns involved. And Barb’s ultimatum hangs over them.

Jim came to Leslie for help because he was desperate, because there seemed no other way to escape Barb’s menace. Barb herself isn’t in this episode, but her presence hangs like a shadow flickering around the edges of the story. It’s why Julian sees Steinberg, to hold off Barb’s lawsuit, why he remains desperate for more money, to the detriment of his own intelligence. It’s why Jim and Leslie are trying to figure out a way back into Sunnyvale.

Well, Jim isn’t really trying to figure it out. “The liquor will figure it out!” That’s a bizarre, but inspiring faith in providence. Jim will drink and his drinking will lead him to a solution to his problem of how to get back to the trailer park. Providence answers – Snoop and Tom want to see Jim dance with the liquor, so Julian goes to get him. It’s not in Jim’s control, but the liquor brings him back to the park. Granted, they end up in a freaky replay of The Deer Hunter’s Russian roulette scene with disabling quantities of liquor. But they’re still back in the park, simply from trusting the liquor. 

Maybe Julian could learn something from Jim about trusting faith, since every time he’s tried to take purposeful control of a situation this season, it’s blown up in his face. Julian’s need to control has ruined his ability to actually control his life and his plans. But Jim’s faith in providence has taken him exactly where he wants to be. 

Ricky has a similar faith in providence. You can see it when he won’t promise Bubbles that he’ll make the show. He can say he’ll try, but that real life is complicated and he can’t guarantee that he’ll actually, with 100% certainty, make it to the Legion Hall show. But even though Ricky steps back from control over his messy, increasingly weird life, he actually does make the show, along with Snoop Dogg, Tom, Doug, Julian, J-Roc, MC Flurry, and the whole rest of the Sunnyvale crew. Going to see Bubbles play is what breaks up their fight. 

That Sunnyvale fam jam – “All we wanna do is smoke and fuck some hoes!” – is the moment of joy where all the heated arguments over Julian’s barely competent (and Sarah-sabotaged) pimping job melt away. Instead, Snoop helps Bubbles win the open mike contest, humiliates the boys who bullied him back at the start of the season, and provides once again the ethical voice of Sunnyvale. These are Sunnyvale’s values – you support your friends and family, and love them. That’s the path of joy, the foundation and cement of real community.
• • •
Sunnyvale Psychochronography will work episode by episode (movies included) through the entire Trailer Park Boys in search of the utopian vision that lies underneath it all. Check out the full index of episodes so far and an introduction to the project here. You can also support Sunnyvale through my Patreon, which will let you join the search itself through commissioning special essays and other content.

Destroyer III: A Dream of the United Nations, Research Time, 27/05/2016

Continued from last post . . . They sure had their problems. They were never perfect. They let horrible things happen sometimes, both under their watch and even within their own ranks. But the United Nations was built as humanity’s last, best hope for peace.

And I don’t just mean the peace of leaving dictators and militaries to oppress people within their national borders, even though many have treated international law as if that was the point. The idealism that has driven the United Nations since its inception was that its forum would be a foundation for genuine world peace.

It seems that with all these flags, everyone is included.
But there are only states and governments here.
The UN was designed to be a forum for international multilateralism. A place where virtuous state leaders could build alliances to help the disadvantaged, poverty stricken, and war victims. Most importantly, a venue where negotiations between sovereign states could happen up to the last minute, to pre-empt and prevent war.

The vision of a venue for multilateral negotiating to achieve common ends was the foundational structure for the progressive ideal of global peace after the Second World War. Part of what I want to do in the most explicitly political section of Utopias is explore this concept. Because it animated Western people’s vision of global progress for decades.

Its catastrophic collapse was only recent. And I don’t really think the mainstream of progressive politics has figured out what will replace it.

There were a lot of forces conspiring against the relevance of the United Nations. And it goes a lot deeper than the fact that none of its members ever really wanted to give the organization what it needed to achieve its ideals. Like a standing peacekeeping force or a sanely structured Security Council. Or enough money.

The most important contributor to the decline of the United Nations was the transformation in the global economy and communication over the last few decades. Toni Negri describes it pretty clearly in Commonwealth: the knowledge economy escapes the control of nations, whether or not they’re united. 

The UN’s process and power depends on states being the most powerful actors in the world. I even noticed this in small details. There’s a throwaway comment in that biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, which I found really enlightening. It’s in the chapter that describes de Mello’s tenure as a leader of the United Nations peacekeeping mission during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

The story of de Mello will be one of the roots that Utopias
will have in the messiness of the real world. I think a lot
of examples of idealism in action will come from his life.
The UN’s priorities were about engaging state (or aspirational state) leaders to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict. In this case, de Mello’s priorities meant that he’d mix with professional diplomats and government officials from the state of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. 

But his actual guides on the ground in Beirut and southern Lebanon introduced him to the people who had real power to make changes in this situation. These were the militia heads, whether they were with Hezbollah or were just local gangsters. That’s the growing obsolescence of the United Nations in microcosm.

So the United States invasion of Iraq destroyed the power, relevance, reputation, and general self-respect of the United Nations in one magnificently malignant gesture. But it was facing the pressure of its own time passing already. 

Its effectiveness and its entire model of operating depended on the world order being a function of states, their power, and what they did. Project for a New American Century and their Presidential administration under Bush Jr failed to build a new unilateral order. But even the multilateralism of the United Nations approach was crumbling.

Bush, Cheney, and the PNAC neocons wanted the world to have a single pole of power in Washington. A pro-UN progressive would work toward building a multi-polar world, where alliances of states worked together for a common goal of peace. Even the multi-polar world that seemed at first to emerge from the Cold War of several different alliances competing with each other* would still be a fairly clear, simple, global politics.

* The usual structures are a US & EU pole, a Chinese pole, a Russian pole, a Japanese pole, and a Brazilian pole, with an African pole like maybe Nigeria to emerge by the end of the 21st century. Sounds positively simple compared to how we’ve ended up.

Instead, we have a world where power is distributed wildly over many different kinds of groups – states, corporations, charities, associations, personal fortunes, warlords, drug traffickers, terror and militia groups, activists. 

Not evenly or equally, of course. Most states are still pretty powerful, for example, but many countries are at the mercy of corporate masters or even a few super-rich oligarchs. But power in our era is no longer a simple question. 

What could make America great again in this kind of Earth? . . . To be continued.

Destroyer II: America the Dream, Research Time, 26/05/2016

Continued from previous post . . . I mean, if they had thought ahead even half-decently, they wouldn’t have fired everyone from the Iraqi Army in some half-hearted attempt at de-Ba’athization. Or even worse (and barely remarked upon in a lot of the media post-mortems of the disaster), fired everyone from the state-owned industries of Iraq.

I mean, when the first thing you do as the supposedly benevolent occupying power is fire literally tens of thousands of people and tell them that they’re now free to build their own businesses or work for the multinationals who’ll soon set up shop here? I can understand why people would be a little upset.

That dream of democracy and freedom did not end well.
The ideologies of neoliberalism and neoconservatism each found their perfect homes in the Bush Administration. Iraq was to be an experiment for both ideologies. Neocons: American military power would expand the frontiers of democracy by force. Neolibs: Replacing an entirely state-owned economy with a multinational-driven free trade network in mere months would create a utopia of freedom.

The two ideologies ended up sabotaging each other. Maybe the better word is corrupting each other. An American state military inadequate to occupying a Texas-sized country relied on mercenary groups like Blackwater to do its hard work, and they ended up normalizing torture and massacre. The resistance movements of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Mehdi Army were the inevitable result.

Mass layoffs from state enterprises created an enormous pool of pissed-off men with no income security. Meanwhile, the military and mercenaries destabilized the country enough that no foreign companies could employ Iraqis on the same scale as Saddam’s totalitarian state once did.

This was a total disaster. The fact that the horrifying violence of the Daesh was born in American prison camps just adds to the country’s misery. Could anyone believe that America was a force for good in the world after all this?

Because that’s what people used to think about America. Even the most intelligent, insightful, and ethical people of a generation held the United States up as a beacon of freedom and liberation. 

Paul Bremer was the head of the Americans' provisional
occupation government in Iraq. Every picture of him that
I found online includes some version of his tired, sad eyes.
It's as if he always knew in his heart that this was a
disaster, whether or not he ever spoke it.
Today, I'm accustomed to thought leaders among the Western left being incredibly critical of the United States government and military. Noam Chomsky is the elder statesman regarding international affairs, joined by black intellectuals like Cornel West. 

Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden are leading critics of American foreign and domestic policy in journalism, and left-leaning publications like The New Republic, Salon, and VICE Media are frequent critics of the US government. Activists from anti-war and anti-racism groups devote themselves to critique and radical reform of American institutions and police practices.

So it’s jarring to an almost schizophrenic degree when I read texts from progressive intellectuals from the 1950s and even the 1960s praising the United States as a beacon for freedom. Hannah Arendt writes this way about America in the 50s, and her mentor Karl Jaspers continued to throughout his life.

While Arendt later criticized American culture for the McCarthy witch hunts and the US government for the Vietnam War, you just don’t see the raw denunciation of America as the spearhead of the new imperialism that’s at the forefront of Chomsky’s political writings or Greenwald’s critical journalism.

She was from a generation who lived through the Second World War and the Holocaust.  She saw the United States stand up to the genuine totalitarian terror state that was Stalin’s Soviet Union. Arendt literally wrote the book on totalitarianism, so she understood the dark and horrible forces that states could unleash. 

The major defence against those dark and horrible forces on the world stage during and after the Second World War was the United States of America. That counts for a lot.

A refugee loves the country that saves her from terror
and certain death. When that country turns its back on
the ideals that saved her, the betrayal hurts the refugees
worst of all.
But America reneged on that promise to be the beacon of freedom. The strain of fighting that battle caused such a paranoia that the state turned on its own citizens. Not with the horrifying intensity or scale of a Stalinist purge, of course. 

But McCarthyism and the government crackdown on the anti-war and black civil rights movements was of a piece with that kind of oppression. And the horror of the Vietnam War, fought in the name of a ridiculous theory of small countries acting like dominoes, ruined what little credibility the United States had left. In addition to all the military coups and authoritarian governments it propped up in the name of bulwarks against Soviet influence.

And this will be how I explore these ideas in Utopias, at least in a broad outline. The neoconservatism that destroyed Iraq and global multilateralism was a self-blinding idealism. America’s elites remained in denial that all of America’s military and authoritarian terror was a bad thing. They remained convinced in the virtuousness of America’s actions in the world. 

The neoconservatives were of the same mind-set as Hannah Arendt, but they were Arendts who let themselves stay blinded to the hypocrisy of their hero, America. . . . To be continued

A Poetry Machine Man, A History Boy, 25/05/2016

I was originally going to continue my reflections on the Bush Administration, then I heard that Gord Downie was dying,* so I put that on hold. 

Yeah, Gord is dying. But very slowly. More like dying, but on hold. Probably not going to see 60, which is a horribly young age to die. But he’s 52 right now. Still likely a few more years. And he's going on tour again soon, in a concert series that fucking everyone will want to see.

In the context of this strange year that’s already seen the premature deaths of two musical legends already – Bowie and Prince – hearing the news of Downie’s imminent mortality still made me reflect on his place in my life. 

The Tragically Hip and Gord Downie particularly have such a legendary place in contemporary Canadian culture that every person’s memories of them becomes a small part of the country’s entire tapestry. So a few strands for the occasion.

A friend of mine tweeted that, like a lot of Canadians, his first big rock show was a Tragically Hip concert. I can’t lay claim to that myself. My first big rock concert was Bob Dylan on the Time Out of Mind tour, watching him in a 2000-seat venue with festival seating so I could get right to the front of the stage. So fuck you.

But a few years later came my first Hip show, on the Music at Work tour in the 6000-seat venue the city built to replace the old 2000-seat place so they could attract bigger bands. Then the Tragically Hip finally came to St John’s. Gord’s laid-back, unpretentious pose in his striking music videos – Canada’s great television surrealist Bruce McCulloch behind the camera – always made me feel like this was a kindred voice.

I was a teenager still figuring out that I wanted to write for a living, to spend some of my time in life producing art that would bring people some pleasure, happiness, and make them think. I didn’t know anything else about what my voice would be. And maybe in Gord’s eerie lyricism, there was something I could start with.

They were cinematic in how often and profoundly Gord’s lyrics were poems of imagery than they were narratives. Images that were more like the filmmakers I admired most deeply at the time and as I grew older – Kubrick, Herzog, Murnau, Iñarritu, Burton. 

And I think all of us in Canada knew that too. It was why the more ambitious, smarter MuchMusic hosts – George in his prime, Sook-Yin, Bradford, even Bill Welychka, who I always thought was kind of a dick – loved interviewing him. Gord was more than just a typically empty-headed pale CanCon imitation of some American musical archetype.

Yet I had a sneaky suspicion for years that this is all most people thought of the Tragically Hip and Gord Downie. It first developed when I read through reviews of the band’s albums on AllMusic. They’ve since been rewritten with some actual critical knowledge of the band, but when I first found them, they were weirdly ignorant.

The reviewer loved early Hip albums, with their unapologetic middle-of-the-road riff rock musical style. Then the songs started sounding a little artier around the mid-1990s. Trouble at the Henhouse started giving the AllMusic reviewers some trouble. It was as if they never heard Gord’s poetry in the early records, as if the band’s ordinary-sounding bar rock obscured the artistry of the verse.

The intellect was always there, underneath the party rock and too-frequent Leafs references.** Could so many not see it?

** This is the 21st century, so new Canadian songs about sports legends need to include at least the Jays and the Raptors. This isn’t a white country anymore.

I really don’t think many could. At least, there were many who didn’t, even if many others could. Gord could release brilliantly abrasive solo records, they could make poetic, evocative videos like “Music @ Work,” “Bobcaygeon,” and “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken,” tour with more obviously smart artists like Sarah Harmer, bring their names to environmentalist politics. The Hip were a party band.

I suspect that Hip fandom, once you take samples from across the country, includes quite a few who are also enthusiastic Nickelback fans. They like simple songs with chugging, poppy, bar rock riffs. They also probably don’t bother with Gord’s solo albums or listen to that many songs the band made after 1998.

Or maybe all those other fans come home from the Nickelback concert and throw on Coke Machine Glow to chill with a joint, thinking to themselves, “I can’t ever let my friends know that I’m into this intellectual shit. The guys’ll never let me hear the end of it.”

I wonder if Canada will ever see a band like the Tragically Hip or a lyricist like Gord Downie after he dies. They seemed to articulate a kind of cross-Canadian identity that everyone could agree on. But maybe the times aren’t right for that kind of band right now.

Yeah, there are still a lot of people in this country who like Nickelback, which in the words of another famous Canadian, is both bogus and sad. But Canadian music has blossomed more than anyone three decades ago could have expected. Back when the Tragically Hip was the only popular band in the country that didn’t sound like some American band.

But there seems to be no one band now, in our embarrassment of musical riches, that can stand for all of Canada the way the Hip can in our culture. The huge number of bands and side projects around Vancouver’s New Pornographers, Toronto’s Broken Social Scene, or Montreal’s Wolf Parade, and all the social networks of awesome musicians that flow from those scenes. Our most popular rock exports Arcade Fire. 

But Canada is so much more than its rock music. Drake and the scene around him, like The Weeknd and everyone else with a vaguely defined contractual relationship with OVO or the Toronto Raptors, is a powerful statement of Canada and 21st century Canadiana globally. 

The triumphant rise of indigenous musicians and artists – and the political, social, and ethical messages they bring with them – likewise can’t be ignored. Indigenous musicians across the country have been catapulted to international visibility through the Idle No More movement. 

There is no sound on Earth like the joyous polar rage that screams from Tanya Tagaq. Buffy St Marie descends before them all like the resurrection of some Yoda of Saskatchewan. 

There’s never been anything quite like The Tragically Hip and Gordon Downie. When he’s gone, he will be missed. But the music of Canada is so much richer and bolder now than when he and his band began.

And I saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time.

Destroyer I: He Calls It a Coup and It Sort of Was, Composing, 24/05/2016

When I write Utopias, it’s not going to be an ordinary book of philosophy, in the academic style. There’ll be philosophical interpretation and thinking, of course, and it will draw explicitly on many different texts in and out of the tradition. 

But there’ll be more going on in the book than the straight-ahead arguments of a work of philosophy. Metaphors, imagery, and personal reflections on how the world has unfolded over the last two decades will be a major part of the book’s argument too. 

At this point, I think I can safely say that, on the scale of
our whole society, he's become more metaphor than man.
It’ll be a way of understanding the world – what the legacy works of philosophy themselves are. Philosophy hits its highest intensity and its greatest value for current and future readers and writers in the tradition when a work has that level of ambition. When it’s just as much art as argument.

One of the most important of those metaphors will unfold from exploring the meanings in the years of the Bush Administration in its destruction of Iraq, the wrecking of new liberal economics, and embracing the destruction of New Orleans. 

Those events didn’t cause the political situations that have flowed from them in a direct sense – the rise of ISIS, the Trump movement, the Occupy and Sanders movement, the foundation of outrage in the cry that Black Lives Matter.

But the Bush years formed a nexus of endings and beginnings. Any attempt at a comprehensive account of the political and social currents of the West in the 21st century has to reckon with their meaning. 

Utopias will do that. Through these exploratory posts on the blog, it’s doing that pretty regularly. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt did that in Commonwealth, though to a lesser extent. Negri and I have rather different goals in writing, after all. But the meaning of those years is important to us both.

I love how he calls the Bush years a coup. It’s a simple choice of word that clearly and directly communicates what a radical act of violence the American government unleashed on the world at the direction of Dick Cheney and George W Bush and all the rest of their administrators and advisors.

A clip from Threads, the BBC film that depicted nuclear
war and winter realistically, and will scar you for life.
The United Nations was a major part of why we never
actually experienced any of this hell.
But what was it a coup against? Not the United States government, as Bush was elected (and re-elected) fairly according to the ridiculous yet legitimate rules of their institutions. It was a coup against multilateralism, against the legitimacy of the United Nations. 

This is a long, sad journey, so I’ll spell it out over several posts this week. 

The dream of the United Nations was to overcome the the basic human tendency to want to kill each other. The UN emerged from the Second World War into an era when nuclear standoff dominated global politics. Ensuring world peace between superpowers was important not only to avoid general slaughter like the wars in Europe, China, and the Pacific. It was necessary to ensure the survival of humanity.

Genuine progress toward global peace and a more equitable human society occurred thanks to the United Nations. Generally, the UN provided a high profile diplomatic forum for conflict settlement between states, and later to pressure member countries about internal civil conflicts. 

It provides humane services for refugees around the world, and peacekeeping forces in terribly dangerous wars. It brought an end to the formal imperialist era, providing an institutional framework to negotiate national independence of more than a billion people throughout Africa and Asia from colonial oppression in European empires. 

It’s easy to focus on the failures of the United Nations from the Second World War to the Iraq Occupation, and it’s certainly easy to focus on its structural flaws. 

Any organization whose procedures allow a horrifying violator of human rights domestically and in foreign wars like Saudi Arabia on an official human rights committee has some issues they need to work through. And the Security Council needlessly entrenched the contingent arrangement of the Second World War’s victors' being leaders of a global peace organization.

I recently bought a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello,
the career UN diplomat who led the official United
Nations mission in Baghdad after the US occupation in
2003. He only led it for a few weeks before being
blown to bits by a truck bomb along with the UN
building and more than 80 other staff. De Mello
may will become another key metaphor in Utopias.
But the UN was still a massive improvement over the violent chaos of the 50 years before its creation and the brutal global imperialism of the 100 years before that.

Then came 2003 and the United Nations was destroyed. It was one last effort to establish a unilateral, militaristic world order directed by a single world power. The goal of Bush, Cheney, and the politicians and intellectuals in their administration’s ranks, was literally making the 21st century America’s.

Multilateralism could never allow the true growth of democracy and freedom around the world, said the thinkers of Project for a New American Century. It allowed too much compromise with people Bush would simply have called “evil.” Only a massive military led by the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy could fight evil around the world.

That army of justice would land its first victory in Iraq, invading in 2003 to be greeted as liberators. The people would be set free from dictators to embrace electoral democracy. The economy would be set free from state control and immediately welcomed into the international system of free trade.

I think we all know now that they didn’t really think this through. . . . To be continued

Up In Smoke: And They Stole the Show, Sunnyvale, 21/05/2016

Trailer Park Boys isn’t just some weird little piece of television loved in Canada. We aren’t dealing with any King of Kensington small-time shit here. I remember when the most visible Canadian comedy show that wasn’t a CBC political sketch show was Dog House. You know the one? With the St Bernard dog who got his mind switched with a cop? Starring the kid gunfighter from Unforgiven? Doesn’t describing that show make you want to go watch Unforgiven instead? I know I do.

But Snoop Dogg just showed up in Sunnyvale with Doug Benson and Roseanne’s ex-husband. Let's be accurate here. Julian invented Moneyvale last episode as a casino, and he marketed it to folks just like the people in his own community and in the surrounding Dartmouth municipality.* These are clients far beyond what he’s prepared to deal with, and you can tell when you watch him try to sweet-talk Snoop and Doug. The biggest money.

* We all know people from Halifax proper are too stuck-up to party in Sunnyvale.

More here is going on than just a visit from the richest and most famous partiers Sunnyvale’s ever seen. This is the entire plane of Sunnyvale’s existence turning itself inside out. Snoop, Doug, and especially fucking Tom – they’re Trailer Park Boys fans. They aren’t there for Moneyvale. They’re there to hang out with Julian, Ricky, Bubbles, and the rest of the gang. 

No matter how many times Ricky might lose his temper at “these fucking idiots with their cameras!” showing up at the park again, it’s easy when you watch Trailer Park Boys to think that this is only a television show for you. You’d easily be forgiven for making that mistake. Back when Trailer Park Boys started its run, it was one of the only television comedies shot with handheld cinematography, in the style of an anthropological documentary. It was basically just them and Ricky Gervais’ Office, which was still a pretty cult property at the time. It would be another three years before the American office became a huge hit and everyone was ripping off Michael Schur.

I mean Trailer Park Boys. Everyone was ripping off Trailer Park Boys

But think about the idea hidden at the heart of the faux-documentary format. Trailer Park Boys, the show we all watch, is a fictional television series that was first made by Canada’s Showcase cable channel, and is now made by Netflix. Its cinematography is in the style of handheld vérité, a style that implies that it’s filmed on-site, with real people acting as they naturally do. Our own interaction with Trailer Park Boys as an audience – the camera – implies that Sunnyvale is a real community outside Dartmouth. The show’s own camera, our eye on Sunnyvale, tells us that the camera is really in a community called Sunnyvale, and that we’re watching the edited adventures of its residents. 

Snoop Dogg, Doug Benson, and the sidekick from True Lies are real people who work in the entertainment industry. They all love watching Trailer Park Boys. If they got word that the community was open as a casino and entertainment park for people to visit, they’d get a crew together and go. It’s the Sunnyvale Reality Tour,** the Sunnyvale Experience. And now we’re watching the documentary crew that brings us our weeks and months in the life of Sunnyvale record Snoop visit the town with his buddies Doug Benson and his Soul Plane co-star.

** Oh, wait. Wrong show.

But Trailer Park Boys is a fictional television show. Ricky, Julian, Bubbles, and the rest of them are all actors. I’ve met John Paul Tremblay when he and I were in St John’s Newfoundland at the same time last August. Julian is a character he plays, and he is a real actor and television producer from Halifax. My girlfriend and I were drinking on the outdoor deck that’s shared between Roxxy’s, Distortion, the Bull & Barrel, and whatever bar has taken over what used to be CBTG’s. The deck isn’t licensed, but everyone drinks out there anyway and no one cares. So I go to the Bull to use the bathroom – it’s the only bar that never charges cover – and there’s Julian surrounded by a sea of fans, drinking.

So we chat, I tell him how much I loved season nine, and he tells me that he’s really proud of the work they’ve done on season ten. He’s wearing a tight sweater and a baseball cap, and perfectly in character as Julian. John Paul takes a picture with me and my girlfriend, we shake hands, he moves on to the next group of fans who want to buy him beer. 

A few days later, we saw him with his wife and kids at the Regatta – a giant county fair that occupies an entire lakeshore in the east end of old St John’s, which shuts down the entire city for a day every August. He was wearing a tank top and sunglasses, looking irritated to all hell pushing around a baby carriage and hauling toddlers around. I knew, looking at that face, that he would respond to the next call of “Hey Julian!” with the angriest “FUCKOFF!!!!” I have ever heard. Or else just punch them in the face.

He was very much John Paul that afternoon.

Probably, he’d been surrounded by fans just as obnoxious (if not even more so) than that fat dork who I think I saw on an old Sons of Anarchy episode. He hounds everyone in Sunnyvale like an indulgent superfan with too much money to spend. He’s an open and enthusiastic poverty fetishist, loving every minute of hanging out with Bubbles in his shack that’s barely above a shantytown hovel. He darts from person to person in Sunnyvale like they’re a roadside attraction there to dance for passers-by in exchange for some loose change. He watches a documentary series about the lives of eastern Canadian trailer trash, real people with real lives filmed, edited, and broadcast for his amusement. And visits Sunnyvale to mock these people’s real lives, as if they were Disney mascots or actors in a theme park.

The celebrities’ presence reduces everything in Up In Smoke to a cheap joke at the expense of real people’s lives. When Barb, Donna, and Candy come to the town to stare down Julian, the confrontation between Candy and Randy becomes a joke. And it’s a deadly serious situation – this is Randy’s chance for vengeance against the women who raped him in the last episode. This is something we should be aware of when we watch this scene. Randy is squaring off against his rapist in front of the entire town of Sunnyvale.

And the celebrities make a mockery of this intensely serious moment, with Snoop taking bets on it like it was a cockfight. The attention of the local media only demeans Randy’s shot at redemption even more, taking all of the cameras away from the fight itself – which we barely see – and putting it all on Snoop Dogg charming the locals.

Yet it also redeems Randy at the same time. Because Randy loses that fight. He gets his ass kicked. But thanks to Snoop, Doug, and that other guy,*** it doesn’t turn out to be a moment of traumatizing, brutal humiliation. It’s a cartoon cockfight with a giant mega-butch lesbian. Tom’s jokes about banging fat women land harder than any of Randy’s punches. Snoop, Doug, and Tom have turned this deadly serious situation of Barb’s assault on Sunnyvale into a joke. They’ve been defanged, at least for this moment, and lost their power. 

*** Didn’t I see him in that old Coneheads movie? I loved that movie when I was 10.

And when Lucy finally explodes on Julian over the missing money for Trinity’s wedding? And the fight threatens to break up the Boys’ entire lifelong friendship? Tom steps in and fronts the cash right away. “I’ve spent literally millions of dollars on weddings! What’s a thousand?” He does it simply because of a simple truth – it’s not worth ruining a whole friendship over money. These real people from one of the most morally brutal places in the West – Hollywood – have come to Sunnyvale for the sake of exploiting it. Instead, they ended up using their mastery of the media and comparatively huge material wealth to heal friendships and defang the powerful and violent. 

Whose boom is that in the shot? Ours or the TV crew's?
Our world has smashed into Sunnyvale. Sunnyvale has become our world. Its power to turn even the most serious situation into a ridiculous, joyful laugh has become our power. Snoop, Doug, and Tom gained it just from spending a few hours in Sunnyvale, as Sunnyvale itself was starting to lose it. Villains aren’t laid low through violence, they’re mocked to death and laughed at until their weapons won’t work anymore. Joy conquers hate. If Snoop Dogg could do it after just a quick visit to Sunnyvale, why couldn’t we do it when we’ve visited Sunnyvale through our televisions for 15 years?

Of course, we all know that they’re just playing comic versions of themselves on a television show, right?
• • •
Sunnyvale is already going to be a hell of a project, but your monthly support of my weekly posts can make it even bigger and better. Sponsor the project on Patreon to earn rewards and contribute ideas for posts and supplementary material. Check out the full index of entries at my introduction to the project

Love Power II: A Tradition of Hope and Freedom, Research Time, 20/05/2016

Continued from last post . . . I originally wasn’t going to continue yesterday’s post about the power of love. But then I realized there was a little more to say. At least before I get into the most surreal and meta-textual episode of Trailer Park Boys Season 10 in Sunnyvale Psychochronography tomorrow.

One thing Antonio Negri* is doing in his exploration of the political power of love is looking through the history of Western philosophy to create a new tradition. He’s tracing a path through the history of European and American ideas to find better alternatives to the cynical political ideas that have followed on from Thomas Hobbes’ capitulation to humanity’s worst impulses.

I've been listening to a lot of Curtis Mayfield while I write
these last two posts. It's plain to see why.
* And the originator of this idea, Louis Althusser.

I mean, it’s almost to be expected that Hobbes, who lived through the English Civil War, would develop a political philosophy that understands humanity in terms of our most violent impulses. 

But Spinoza, the genesis of Negri’s history of a political philosophy of love, lived through the uprisings and repressions of the Dutch people through the turbulent rule of the House of Orange. Jan and Cornelius de Witt, leaders of the republican revolutionaries against the Dutch monarchy, were personal friends of Spinoza. Spinoza’s own life was in danger from the same royalists who murdered the de Witt brothers. 

You might think that suffering defeat as a democratic, republican revolutionary at the hands of brutal monarchists would have made Spinoza a pessimist about human nature too. But he was stronger than that. 

Belief in the power of love to be the fundamental principle of human society sounds corny as all hell. As Negri says, it sounds crazily naïve. It sounds especially naïve now, given our current political climate defined by hatred, resentment, and violence at so many different levels of human life. 

But believing in love as a fundamental political principle isn’t as simple as any belief that human nature itself is fundamentally good. That would fail to explain all the horrors and cruelty of human history. You’d be right to call that idea stupid.

But the idea that there’s a fundamental, unchanging human nature, and that it is evil, cruel, egotistical, and violent is just as naïve. Just as naïve and dumb as the belief that there’s a fundamental, unchanging human nature which is good, kind, open-hearted, and peaceful.

There being an essential human nature at all in this ethical sense is really the heart of the problem. Throw this belief away. 

Love will win.
But humanity isn’t a blank slate. We may not have a fundamental nature, but we still have our tendencies. And love is the active force in constructing human nature. The problems arise not through love or the privation of love. It’s the corruption of love.

There’s an old Christian idea that evil is the absence of good. Well, evil and cruelty is a lot more insidious than a sick call from our better conscience. Corruption isn’t the absence of love. It’s the power of love converted to make us cruel instead of making us kind.

Here's an example of what I mean. Understand nationalism this way. When it’s functioning properly, love leads us to care for our neighbours. We build relationships with them, look out for them, and help them out when we’re able. This is a good thing to do.

The problem comes when this drive for social solidarity becomes corrupt. One common way it becomes corrupt is when solidarity develops a boundary. When it isn’t an outreach, but a way to separate and divide people. That’s when love ends up creating nationalism and racism. 

When love and inclusion of one implies hatred and rejection of another, love itself is still driving you, but it’s become corrupt. Like any kind of malfunctioning organ or tool, love then has to be repaired so that the feelings and drives that used to create nationalism and racism lose their tendency to exclude. Until they become all-inclusive, as they’re supposed to be.

Philosophy is political medicine.

Love Power I: Sunnyvale Spoilers, Research Time, 19/05/2016

Today's post is about some more ideas I’ve been developing in dialogue with Antonio Negri’s books. It’s also a bit of a spoiler for the Sunnyvale project. Let me explain how that works. 

The posts of Sunnyvale Psychochronography are walks through the stories of individual episodes. They focus on different characters or narrative turns that I think turn an eye on whatever aspect of Trailer Park Boys’ underlying philosophical ideas I want to focus on that week. Each post discusses these ideas in terms of the characters and their actions. Not the ideas themselves in an abstract sense.

If everybody in the world had a
flower instead of a gun, there would
be no war. There would be no hate.
There would only be love.
Negri advocates a central idea at the end of his major trilogy – that love can be the founding principle and engine of politics. Love is the fuel and motor of justice in human society. Love has the power to produce a thriving economy through the social solidarity that grows among people in a community working together. Their interpersonal relationships and organizations produce the wealth of the community.

Reading Negri, he discusses how contemporary communications technology – the globalization of personal relationships and person to person communication – lets the productive networks of love spread all over the world. Today, it’s actually possible to build a world order based on common communication, cooperation, and love.

Looking at the community of Sunnyvale and the Trailer Park Boys, the show itself is a demonstration that such a productive order is possible at all. 

You see, it’s very easy to write off poor, ignorant people whose business activity lives on the margin of legality. This is true enough for poor people in countries like Canada where we have a lot of government services and proper infrastructure to keep people living dignified lives. But it’s doubly true for the residents of shantytowns and favela sprawls. You live in a corrugated tin shack, people barely think of you as human.

Write those people off, sure. But if you do, you dismiss the value of literally billions of lives. Notice the scale and you see what you’ve done. That’s the magnitude of your mistake. 

Sunnyvale is a community that we’ve all come to know where everyone lives on the margins of mainstream society and legality. But it’s a community – in all its conflicts and farcical craziness – that’s still held together by love, and the solidarity that flows from love for each other and your community. All Julian’s actions in this latest season come ultimately from his love for his community.

Sunnyvale is a demonstration that love is the primary motivator of human relationships and community. And when you shift the discussion to Negri’s context – writing as a critical contributor to Western political philosophy – Sunnyvale itself makes a demonstration against the long-standing presumption of humanity’s violent nature.

Negri is writing as a philosopher who’s had a base in a university throughout his life. Throughout Commonwealth, he’s in a dialogue with many legendary writers in the Western philosophical tradition, Thomas Hobbes especially.

Yeah, the lesser evil right here, Thomas. Right here.
You can think of Commonwealth as an argument against Leviathan. That earlier book was an argument that humans were inescapably weak, paranoid, and prone to violence against each other. Peace and productivity needed us to cede our freedom to a central authority, who could inspire in us enough fear not to kill and steal from each other.

The repression and terror that a state government can inflict on people is, if you follow the ideas of Hobbes, which are entirely mainstream in Western philosophy, actually a lesser evil. The greater evil that government repression blocks is the anarchic, chaotic “war of all against all” that comes from people being totally free.

Even the modern libertarian idea – which is now mainstream in North American political thinking – is no real solution. It still presumes humanity to be essentially egoistic, cruel, and violent. It just says that permitting that violence is the lesser evil compared to state repression. That’s no solution, though. 

The solution is – brick by brick, person by person – to build a society from our own networked organizing that is actually based on love. Companionship and friendship spreading all over the world through our communication networks. 

This is the heart of the Sunnyvale project. How can people – with all their conflicting desires and personalities – succeed in building a society based on love? Because so much mistrust and traditions of suspicion stand in the way. . . . To be continued