Thursday, 10 November 2016

Leonard Cohen. And me, I suppose.

So long Marianne; it’s time that we began, to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.


Tonight we think of Leonard Cohen.

I still have the songbook I purchased in the music store in West Point Grey where I took my first guitar lessons all those years ago: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.  With a picture of Cohen’s Greek visa - if that’s what it was - on the back cover. I wanted to learn how to play Suzanne, because everyone else could.  (It sounded so simple, though it wasn't.) Instead, I learned Bird on a Wire and So Long, Marianne. But really hardly ever played them. There was something impenetrably, ineffably unreachable in his unique juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane.  And I could never shake this feeling that they weren’t really songs; they were more like poetry barely set to music.  He was, I think, simply too adult for my 14 or 15 year old self.  It was far easier to set sail on the more approachable, or at least tuneful seas - flying machines and broken heartships - of Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor and Neil Young.

Oddly enough, I returned to Leonard Cohen a few years later through a side door: Jennifer Warnes’ completely perfect record, Famous Blue Raincoat.  That punching drumbeat in First We Take Manhattan cracks across your mind like some kind of weapon.  Her duet with the man himself on Joan of Arc is a wild tour into the unknowable, unresolvable mystery of mysteries. Song of Bernadette, which I played so often the grooves wore out on the vinyl and still today can bring me close to tears: ‘so many hearts I find, broke like yours and mine, torn by what we’ve done and can’t undo’ - well, isn’t that life in a dozen words?  And anyway, I was just old enough by then to be entranced by the idea of a Jewish poet from Montreal who couldn’t leave all these Christian icons alone. Jennifer Warnes helped me see the music that completed the poetry.

And then again, a long interruption, until the album The Future, and its Closing Time, which I played and played and played again, not just because it really is hell to pay when the fiddler stops, but by then I guess I was maybe old enough to start thinking about closing time.  But young enough still to think that the answer was simply to party on, and hope the fiddler would never stop.

If you will forgive me a moment of excess, I think I can say that the first twenty thousand times I heard Hallelujah - including as k d laing sang it at the 2010 Olympics opening ceremony (we were there for rehearsal night) it meant something to me, but eventually all good things - even really, really good songs, wear out their welcome. Not Cohen’s fault, I know, but there it is. It’s a curious song.  I’ve always thought it’s a lot like Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA: there’s something superficially compelling about it that allows you to disregard the true darkness that lies within it.  Sometimes I hear people sing it and I say to myself, are you actually listening to what he’s saying?

Pico Iyer’s writings about Leonard Cohen’s life with Buddhists brought the man into focus in ways that could only cause you to rethink your own way of living, or at least it did that for me, and I give them both credit for doing that.

Leonard Cohen is a special treasure to Canadians, of course.  A Montrealer who made it big in the larger world and never completely let go of his roots.  Someone whose muse also never quite let go, and drove him to create, to mystify and enlighten and even entertain us into his 80’s; well, that’s a powerful inspiration in his own right.  He’s thought of as an icon of the 60’s, one of the greats of a long ago era who managed to reinvent himself into relevance again and again for six decades.  I think his work will last.  Context always matters; the time and place in which creation happens is always at least relevant.  But the art that truly endures can stand outside its time and place.  That is a right reserved to very few creators.  Leonard Cohen is surely one of them, an immortal.  Few people prepare so publicly for their own demise, but I always thought that he was preparing us for his departure as much as he was preparing himself. He’s gone now, but the words and the songs will live on.

The morning after the morning after, and it's not getting better

A day later, and the future still seems pretty dark to me.

Yesterday morning, Hillary Clinton conceded defeat with grace and dignity, and a resolute commitment to the inevitability of social progress, confirming our belief that these have always been her qualities.  President Obama began the process of transition. He invited the President-elect to the White House as soon as today.  And in a quite remarkable attempt to re-contextualize 18 months of bitter, impassioned and angry campaign rhetoric, he quaintly described US presidential elections as "intramural scrimmages".

Well, we're all getting along now, I guess.  At least no one it seems, is any longer describing the US voting system as rigged.

Commentators are well into the post-mortem analysis.  For many, of course, that will have to include an examination of the question: what went wrong with their confident prediction that Americans would reject Trump?  (Of course, in one sense, they did: Clinton won the popular vote.)

There will be lots of explanations.  Here’s one that needs considering.  I won’t remember the numbers perfectly, but they went something like this: compared with 2012, the Republican vote decreased by a bit less than a million (in round numbers, 61 million to 60 million); but the Democratic vote declined by as much as 6 million (66 to 60).  Overall, a lower turnout.  But perhaps what really happened is simply that Republicans voted Republican, while millions of Democrats abandoned their party and candidate.  (These would probably be the blue collar workers who once formed the backbone of the New Deal Democratic coalition and who are now the bedrock of Republican support in the Rust Belt states where the election was won and lost.)

The other narrative that has returned to the media discourse as an explanation of Tuesday’s outcome is the argument that what really happened is that voters decided, as they do from time to time, to vote for change rather than continuity.  In crudely simple terms, it’s like this: “we’ve given those bastards a pretty good run at it; now it’s time to elect a different set of bastards.”  (The argument is pursued by Gail Collins in her op-ed in today’s New York Times.)

This idea was once very elegantly explained by the American philosopher Robert Nozick in his book, The Examined Life.  He called it the "zigzag" of politics.  He wrote,

“The electorate I see as being in the following situation: Goals and programs have been pursued for some time by the party in power, and the electorate comes to think that’s far enough, perhaps even too far.  It’s now time to right the balance, to include other goals that have been, recently at least, neglected or given too low a priority, and it’s time to cut back on some of the newly instituted programs, to reform or curtail them.”

It’s a philosopher’s argument (I don’t think he even names a political party throughout the whole of his discussion).  It implies, plausibly, that voters are rarely as entrenched in their adherence to the positions and views of parties and candidates as are the parties (and their ideologues).  It argues for a balance over time that ensures that different interests, priorities, and aspirations eventually all have their chance.  It underestimates the role that personality - as opposed to policy - plays in election outcomes.  But it is not a bad way of explaining one of the best features of healthy democracies, which is that long term one-party rule is the exception, rather than the norm.

So maybe what happened is that Americans - or at least some of them - were simply voting this week for change.

Fine. I can comprehend that analysis.  I might even agree with it.  But it doesn’t help.
Americans may have voted for change. But what they got was Donald Trump.  And that’s where the fear starts to rise again in the pit of my stomach.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

US Election night - first thoughts

As I write, late Tuesday night, the races in the last few states are too close to call, and there’s as much chance of a Trump victory as a Clinton victory, or even, perhaps, god help us, a tie.  As I write, the TV commentators are simply overwhelmed by the failure of their own understanding - informed and encouraged by the false promise of opinion poll reliability - of the country they are paid to claim they understand.

Whatever the ultimate result, over 50 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. Whose vision of the world is profoundly hate- and fear-filled, and utterly narcissistic.  And who appears to have - or at least demonstrates - not a particle of respect for the institutions of American governance. There are surely lessons to be learned from this for us here in Canada.  I do not think this is a time for smugness.  This is a time to reflect on the corrosive power of disaffection and alienation.

We ought to spend time thinking about the lessons of this US election. At the very least, we are called not to take for granted what we trumpet as our Canadian tolerance for diversity, our compassion, and our respect for difference.  For my part, I think I need to spend more time trying to understand the reality that intolerance in the United States is not just the strongly held ethos of a vocal minority, but possibly something close to a majority view, at least of those willing and able to vote.  A frightening thought.  If the country which is the home of pluralism (e pluribus unum) is actually ambivalent about diversity, that is a worrying thing.

But tonight I want to offer only one comment for our continuing consideration.  America, it seems to me, is a country deeply, profoundly, divided on the question whether government can be trusted to do or manage or solve anything.  It’s not quite the same thing as a vigorous debate about whether, on an issue by issue basis, government has got it right.  It’s a deeper view, a view that government is simply, irretrievably and irredeemably illegitimate in all imaginable ways.

How does such a view come to be so widely held?  Plainly, those who are alienated from the benefits of government, who see or feel nothing of the benefits of social and economic progress, the rule of law, or prosperity are eventually bound to question the basic legitimacy of government as a force for good. My worry is that all of the ingredients for institutional distrust are as alive and well here on the north side of the 49th parallel as they are in the United States.  Think for a moment of the last time a major decision was made by a government, an agency, or an appellate court in our country that was not immediately followed by extensive media coverage of the voices of those who do not simply disagree but completely reject the legitimacy of the process that led to the decision.  We increasingly have come to expect that this is the basic framework of our discourse.  Someone is given the power to decide. They decide. Someone immediately questions the legitimacy of the decision.  You never hear the voice that says, “I argued hard for my perspective, but I respect that others have made a different decision.”  A voice that, in my respectful view, is critically necessary if we are to function as a democracy.

I have no trouble with the idea of dissent and disagreement; they are fundamental to democracy.  But if our public discourse is dominated by voices that simply reject the legitimacy of any decision by any decision-maker, we will sooner or later lose any capacity to decide difficult issues with any confidence.  We will lose confidence in the capacity of government or its agencies to do the difficult business of governing.  We will come to hate government and everything it represents.  And after we’ve done that for long enough, we will start electing people who represent the perfect expression of that perspective: people who have no experience in public service, who know nothing about the complexities of the world, who traffic only in mindlessly simple, misleading slogans.  People, in other words, like Donald Trump.

My question tonight, then, is what can we do in this country to build confidence, support, and yes, trust, in our political institutions?  For all their failings, we simply need to cut them the slack to do the most difficult business of deciding and governing.  We are so accustomed to hearing the voices of those who challenge and question.  My concern is that in the long run we will only continue to earn the right to disagree if we can, at least sometimes, accept the right of others to decide even when we do disagree.  This is essential to the functioning of government.  It is also essential to civilisation - to have the grace to accept defeat, to join hands sometimes with your opponents, to applaud the achievement of a society that has nurtured both government and the right to disagree.  Trump won - or at least achieved surprising success - by campaigning against government, against even the idea of government.  That way lies madness, or at least chaos.  We must choose a different path.