Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for April, 2008

The Pirates, Then and Always

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Laws are made, says the old maxim, by those who have the power to enforce them.

The first laws, says Captain Charles Johnson, were probably made by a caveman who attacked the caveman on the other side of the river, “took everything he had, and made the rule that the river belonged to him and his family, of course. So there came government, and anybody from the other side of the river who did the same thing was a criminal committing an act of piracy.”

Johnson wonders who was the greatest pirate of the Renaissance. Was it Philip of Spain, who looted the Americas? Or Elizabeth I of England, “who sent out fleets to loot the looters? Or Drake, the greatest looter of them all?”

Captain Johnson is the central figure in Pirate’s Passage, the deliciously subversive book by South Shore writer William Gilkerson which won the 2006 Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Literature. Spectacularly-successful thieves, Johnson says, become monarchs, emperors and governments. Less successful thieves become criminals. If they’re sailors, they’re called pirates. The definitions come from codes of law and the history books, which are written by the winners.

If I had been told all this when I was a boy, it would have saved me a lot of later confusion. But I don’t know many children’s books as forthright and provocative as Pirate’s Passage.

The novel begins when Captain Johnson’s little yawl surfs into the village of Grey Rocks in a November storm in 1952. He stays the winter at the Admiral Anson Inn, where he befriends Jim, the 12-year-old son of the widowed innkeeper. Are there echoes of Treasure Island here? Oh, yes.

Jim is writing a school essay about pirates. Captain Johnson offers to help – and not only with schoolwork. The historic inn is in decline, and the village dictator, who heads a local clan named Moehner (pronounced “meaner”), is manipulating police, firemen and health inspectors, squeezing Jim’s mother to sell. Captain Johnson applies his strategic intelligence to thwarting the Moehners.

Meanwhile, Jim gets an astonishing view of piracy. In 1724, a Captain Charles Johnson published an authoritative General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates – and the Captain Johnson of 1952 eerily echoes his namesake. He sometimes implies that he is becoming younger again, raising the tantalizing possibility that he may indeed be the same man, having found some means to wax and wane in age.

The captain has a remarkable capacity to inject Jim straight into the scenes he describes. Again and again, Jim finds himself reasoning like a pirate and planning like a pirate – and inhabiting the subsequent action so vividly that he actually seems to live it. The experience, Jim says, “rattled my notions of reality,” as it is clearly meant to do.

Indeed, the point of these intense conversations is the captain’s insistence that Jim discard conventional thinking, and learn to see the world clearly and accurately. Once, for instance, Jim comments that the merchant sailor’s condition in the 18th century seems unfair, and should be changed.

“Changed?” the captain retorts. “What’s to change? The way of the world? Don’t overtax your brains with how things should be; you’re going to need all the brain power you’ve got just trying to figure out how things actually are.”

According to Johnson, “the Brotherhood” of freebooters created the world’s first true democracy at a time when most Europeans were utter pawns of absolute monarchs. The captain quotes with approval Captain Samuel Bellamy’s denunciation of those who live within the laws established by the wealthy as “ a parcel of hen-hearted numskulls.” The wealthy, he says, “vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage. Had you not better make then one of us, than sneak after these villains for employment?”

Good question. And if you think piracy and slavery are behind us, says the captain, think again. Starting with the Moehners and ending with a crew of armed thugs in a motorboat off Boston, Jim meets all manner of contemporary pirates. In the end, says the captain, there’s no such thing as “the pirates.” There’s just “them as lives in the seams and spaces between the rules…in governments, churches, academies, businesses, tennis clubs, and pub society – pirates ready to come out and ransack from the spaces between the spaces.”

The pirates are among us, and our best defenses are speed, courage and surprise. Pirate’s Passage a glorious romp and a vivid historical tale – and a foundation text in the political philosophy of survival. No doubt we have met our pirates already. Perhaps we are pirates ourselves, forsooth, in our moments of courage and freedom.

– 30 –

Paul Watson and the Armada of Death

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

Let me get this straight. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, aided by the RCMP, boarded and seized the Dutch-registered protest vessel Farley Mowat in order to prevent injury to sealers — just a couple of weeks after DFO drowned four sealers itself in a terrifying display of incompetence.

And the European master and mate of the vessel have been jailed and charged with offences under a set of “marine mammal protection regulations” that were created specifically to stifle dissent by preventing protesters from approaching seals who are in the process of being slaughtered.

And all this hits the headlines just as the European Union debates whether to ban seal products from the EU completely. A triumph of Canadian diplomacy.

And the Minister, Loyola Hearn, contributes to the calm and rational discussion of the seal hunt by sneering at the internationally-venerated Farley Mowat, who had the effrontery to putup bail money for the jailed officers. Hearn also excoriates Paul Watson’s Sea Shepherd Conservation society as “a bunch ofmoney-sucking manipulators.”

If money-sucking manipulation is now a crime under the Fisheries Act, perhaps we should send a few fisheries officers to call on The Right Honourable Brian Mulroney. Whether or not Mulroney’s skulking encounters with Karlheinz Schreiber were otherwise illegal, there’s not much doubt that they represented “money-sucking manipulation” on an Olympic scale.

But that’s not true of Paul Watson. Say what you will about Paul Watson — and you can say, with some justice, that he’s intransigent, uncompromising, hyperbolic, pugnacious, rash and intemperate — you cannot ascribe cynicism to a man who has spent his whole life charging whaling ships with rubber rafts, getting himself tear-gassed and beaten and jailed, and confronting armed and angry sealers and whalers far out on the cold and lonely sea.

But Hearn, who has spent his entire working life in classrooms and legislatures, says Watson is “gutless.” Stunning.

Paul Watson is not a cuddly figure. He doesn’t mind risks, and he is not intimidated by the authorities. If they don’t give him a permit, he goes to the ice without one and takes the consequences. If he has to go to jail, he goes. If the authorities bar him from the ice, he organizes a shipload of others. If they harass his Canadian ship, he registers it in the Netherlands. If they tell him he can’t enter Canadian waters, he stays 13 miles offshore and lets the hunt come to him.

He is utterly devoted to what he’s doing. And his passionate commitment reduces DFO and its successive ministers to gibbering, frothing incoherence.

The truth is that two worlds are colliding every spring at the seal hunt. Loyola Hearn represents the fading world-view which holds that human beings somehow rank above all other beings, holding dominion over the living whole and exploiting it without restraint. Watson, a vegan, represents the leading edge of a new world of people who recognize themselves as part of nature, responsible for their stewardship of the natural world, and no more precious than any other species on the planet.

Watson was speaking for that new world when he said that the deaths of the four sealers was a tragedy — but the deaths of 270,000 seals was an even greater tragedy. The striking outcome of that remark — as I saw it on a CBC News poll — was not that many people were outraged by it, but that perhaps two-thirds of the callers agreed with him.

When I first met Watson, I’m quite sure that the proportion would have been reversed — that a single human life would have been considered far more valuable than the lives of any number of animals. That was in 1976, on the ice at the Front, north of Newfoundland. I was reporting on the seal hunt. Watson was there with Greenpeace, of which he was a founding member.

That year, the Front was covered by all the major American TV networks, the wire services, and influential papers like the Boston Globe. The gory images that flashed around the world were a disaster for the sealing industry and the Canadian government. Ever since then, DFO has worked implacably to prevent detailed coverage of the slaughter, and it has largely succeeded. Except for Paul Watson.

In those days we hadn’t begun to grasp the damage that human beings had already done to the oceans. We didn’t know about the fury of destruction that has eliminated 90% of the world’s large predatory fishes. We hadn’t watched while DFO “managed” the Atlantic cod and the Pacific salmon into commercial extinction.

But Watson understood in his viscera that we were confronting an armada of death supported by pliant and amoral authority. With growing support, he has fought them ever since — and, with his fellow green warriors — he has changed the world.

– 30 –

UnTV – An Audience of One

Monday, April 14th, 2008

“Okay,” says Candy Palmater, “we’ve got a video clip for you. Take a look at this.”

She waves her hand towards the side of the cavernous, funky interior of the Marquess Club. A video screen abruptly comes alive, showing Candy dressed up as a sportscaster, interviewing a feckless wimp in a suit. Candy wants to know why white people are so sensitive to odd things, like being sports mascots and having teams named for them.

“What’s wrong with the name ‘Whiteskins?’” she demands, as the screen cuts to a really nasty-looking cartoon of a muscular white dude with yellow hair.

“Look,” whines the white guy, “how would you native people feel if it happened to you? Supposing there were teams called the Redskins, or the Braves? Or a car named something silly like ‘Cherokee?’ How would you feel?”

“Oh, come on,” laughs Candy. “Nobody would ever do anything as silly as that.”

This is a pilot taping of The Candy Show, a potential half-hour series for the Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network. Candy herself is a reformed lawyer, a Mi’kmaq lesbian comedian backed by a hot band called the Nasty Habits. Her guests include a much-tattooed belly dancer named Monique, the celebrated Mi’kmaq drumming group Eastern Eagle, modern blues singer Charlie A’Court, and the powerful R&B vocalist Asia.

The Candy Show also includes a video clip from a new film directed by another of Candy’s guests, Juanita Peters. Hannah’s Story is a profile of a Winnipeg girl so appalled by homelessness and hunger that – at the age of five — she took on poverty as a personal challenge. She founded an organization called the Ladybug Foundation, which has raised more than a million dollars for anti-poverty work. Hannah has become an internationally-recognized advocate for social justice. And she still isn’t old enough to vote.

Fundamentally this is a TV variety show of the type pioneered by the likes of Ed Sullivan. In Sullivan’s day, though, there was one vast undifferentiated audience, addressed by just two TV networks, whose signals reached us through enormous metal aerials on our rooftops. Even cable was only a distant possibility. Network TV was run by middle-aged white men in suits, and its programs all had to be acceptable to every narrow-minded dimwit in its mass audience.

The proliferation of cable channels shattered that mass audience into 500 pieces, with individual channels dedicated to golf, sex, mystery, history, you name it. Look around inside this black-painted, post-industrial space on Gottingen Street in Halifax, and you see an audience of minorities – black, white, Asian, aboriginal, young, old, men, women, gay, straight – brought together entirely by taste and attitude.
The space within which The Candy Show has grown up simply didn’t exist until the fragmentation of the mass audience. TV has become a mosaic of specialized outlets – like Aboriginal Peoples TV – which serve many small audiences. And it’s on the verge of another sweeping transformation.

The Candy Show is produced by Pink Dog Productions, which consists of two former CBC producers, Dawn Harwood-Jones and Roberta Hancock, and a young techie named Steven Morrison. The trio also run a broadcasting enterprise called untv.ca – and I believe that untv.ca is the future of broadcasting, the ultimate fragmentation and reconstruction of the audience.

Untv.ca bills itself as “Canada’s first Internet television station, producing original content for an on-demand audience.” It will broadcast The Candy Show the Internet – not as a single half-hour show, but as several short segments.

“Untv.ca is a new form of broadcasting,” says Dawn Harwood-Jones, the CEO. “But there’s a new audience out there. lot of people under 30 don’t even a TV. They watch everything on their computers. And they don’t want long-form shows, they prefer short segments.”

On the Internet, that’s easy. The Internet imposes no length constraints at all. A show can run seven minutes or seven hours, and it can run without commercials, too, if it can find an alternative source of revenue.

What untv.ca really demonstrates is that the audience has shrunk yet again. Now the audience is just one person, with a mouse. Internet television is personal television, to be watched whenever and wherever you want.

And yet, paradoxically, Internet audiences can be huge – immensely larger than cable audiences. In many parts of Canada, for instance, cable companies don’t carry Aboriginal Peoples TV, so its programs simply aren’t available. Nor are they available to viewers outside the country, though they might be of great interest to the Maori or the Mayans.

On the Internet, however, the programs of untv.ca are always available, anywhere on the globe. And though only a tiny percentage of any population may groove on The Candy Show, tiny percentage of six billion people represents an enormous audience.

Altogether vast. But just one at a time.

– 30 –

Greening Our Minds

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

“All of what we produce is going to be waste,” says Claude Ouimet. He waves his hand around the brand-new seminar room, studded with audio-visual devices. “This beautiful room, all this equipment, it’s all going to be waste. It’s just a matter of time.”

Claude Ouimet is head of InterfaceFLOR Canada and Latin America, a subsidiary of Interface Carpets of Atlanta, Georgia, a company already familiar to readers of this column. Inspired by its visionary founder, Ray Anderson, Interface aims to be not only the world’s first zero-impact corporation, but also the world’s first restorative corporation – an organization which actively improves the environment.

Claude Ouimet has thought a great deal about the future and the environment. He fears that his legacy to his children – our legacy to our children – is “a first class ticket…. on the Titanic.” And what he has just said is a stunning, transformative thought.

“All of what we produce is going to be waste.”

It is, too. I never thought of it this way, but viewed from the perspective of Gaia, the “economy” that we treasure so much is just a vast apparatus for the production of garbage.

Nor does the transformation from goods to garbage take very long. Claude Ouimet was speaking at EcoPrise 2008, a conference on business and the environment organized by Dalhousie University’s Norman Newman Centre for Entrepreneurship and its Eco-Efficiency Centre. The Eco-Efficiency Centre’s director, Ray Côté, handed me a graph produced by The Natural Step showing that of the raw materials and energy that go into US manufacturing, only 7% is transformed into products. The other 93% becomes waste – slag heaps, emissions, heat, by-products. And of the 7% that reaches the market, 80% is discarded after a single use. Think of packaging, motor oil, tissue paper, garbage bags.

The result: 99% of the raw materials and energy that we took from the earth to make industrial products has become waste within six weeks of sale. Ninety-nine percent!

Nature, by contrast, wastes nothing. Nature is cyclical, fluid and creative. One organism’s wastes are another’s nutrients. The fallen tree shelters the mouse and feeds the fungus. Substances and energies interweave, separate and re-join, looping together like the circles that represent the Olympic Games. Life forms are created, abandoned and re-created in the most intricate of dances, powered always by the sun.

Industrial societies, by contrast, are linear and reductive – and we’re only beginning to understand the implications of those qualities. For instance, Nova Scotians are rightly proud of the fact that we’ve reduced the amount of solid waste going to our landfills by more than 50% — but in truth that’s only a baby step. We need to choke the waste stream at its source, resisting lavish packaging and planned obsolescence, refusing to buy what we don’t need, re-learning to value quality and durability, ridding ourselves of “disposable” products that actually linger for centuries.

In short, we have to green our minds, change the way we view the world, and accept responsibility for our life decisions. More and more, our lives need to mimic natural cycles. If everything we produce is going to be waste, we have to ensure that it’s useful waste, waste that nourishes life.

These are great challenges – with great opportunities. We’re lucky to live at a time when all human activity is up for re-examination and re-invention – and not just by vanguard corporations like Interface, but by ordinary people and small local businesses. The dangers are great, but the opportunities are glorious.

One participant at Ecoprise 2008 was Robert Taylor, the whiskered, plain-spoken president of Taylor Lumber Company of Middle Musquodoboit. Taylor Lumber began in 1945 as a small local sawmill and horse logging operation, and now includes a major sawmill, a planer mill, a chipper, and a building supply store in Musquodoboit Harbour.

Taylor’s problem was the mountains of chips and sawdust created by its mills. The solution was to use those wastes to fuel an electrical generator. The generator powers the mills and provides electricity to the local community. Its heat dries wood in the kilns, and its ashes replace lime on the fields of nearby farmers.

Taylor is now looking for a good use for the hot water from the generating plant. He contemplates using it to heat greenhouses, or possibly to warm up ponds for aquaculture, growing species like Arctic char.

The company also practices sustainable forestry, planting enough trees to replace what it cuts. Since the trees provide the mill’s energy as well as its raw materials, the operation begins to take the elegant shape of a sustainable natural cycle.

“All of what we produce is going to be waste.” A sobering thought – but it’s also a splendid opportunity to free our minds, liberate our imaginations, and discover a new, green world.

– 30 –

The Discipline of the Market

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

If you owe the bank $1000 and can’t pay, says the old maxim, you have a problem – but if you owe the bank a million dollars and can’t pay, the bank has a problem.

No doubt. But if the bank owes billions of dollars and can’t pay, then the taxpayer, the consumer, the small investor and the householder all have a problem. That’s the latest message from Wall Street – that the Masters of the Universe can take idiotic risks, and if they lose, the little guys should bail them out.

My degree is in English literature, so naturally I don’t understand finance and economics. But I do hold certain financial truths to be self-evident. I agree with J.P. Morgan who, when asked what the stock market would do, replied, “It will fluctuate.” Indeed it will, and sooner or later, all soaring markets will tumble. When gleeful investors tell you, “This time it’s different,” head for the exits. Remember when the NASDAQ stood at 5000 points? Since the technology stocks crashed, it’s never reached half that height again.

We’re seeing a similar crash in US housing.

Fundamentally, houses are not investments; they’re places to live. The amount that people can pay for housing is limited by their family incomes. For generations, the rule of thumb was that a down payment should be 25% of the value of the house, and that a family should not spend much more than 25% of its income on housing. Prudent lenders charged higher interest rates to families which strained these criteria.

No more. In recent years, US institutions have been lending 100% of the cost of a house – in some cases, 105% or 110% – to borrowers whose credit histories and incomes were ridiculously insufficient. New buyers rushed into the market, pumping air into the bubble. Initially, they got a very low interest rate, and often paid only the interest on the mortgage. By renewal time – so went the theory – the value of their houses would have risen, and buyers could raise cash by re-financing.

And if house prices fell? They wouldn’t. “This time it’s different.”

Ah, yes.

Loans like that – loans that the borrowers can carry only by defying gravity – are the financial equivalent of goose guano. But the Masters of the Universe had another wrinkle. Roll a bunch of these “sub-prime” mortgages together, and call them a bond. A few of the assembled mortgages might go sour, but the whole bundle surely wouldn’t, so the bond was a perfectly safe investment. The boys in the bond-rating houses would give it a good rating, and all kinds of institutional investors would buy them – universities, pension funds, municipal governments in Finland.

But the bonds were simply gift-wrapped globs of guano, based on a game of musical chairs. When the music stopped, house prices plunged. Homeowners found themselves with $300,000 loans on $250,000 houses. Worse, mortgage payments increased sharply once the incentive periods had passed. People couldn’t manage the new payments – and why would they try? Much simpler just to walk away from the house.

Wall Street’s fifth-largest investment bank, Bear Stearns, was hugely successful at peddling mortgage-backed bonds, which drove its share price to $170 in 2007. Alas, gift-wrapped guano is still guano, and when the music stopped, you couldn’t give those bonds away. To stave off a bankruptcy which might have started a whole cascade of bank collapses, the US government, through the Federal Reserve, advanced funds to JPMorgan Chase & Co to buy Bear Stearns – for $2 a share, later increased to $10.

This is “the discipline of the market” which sends right-wing ideologues into rhapsodies. The omniscient Market God impassively allocates rewards and penalties in accordance with the courage, perception and skill of the players. If some poor slob in Cleveland gets bounced out of his house, that just shows he lacked those sterling qualities. Tough guano.

Today, tens of thousands of US houses stand vacant and abandoned. A search for condominiums under $50,000 in Fort Myers, Florida – a very pleasant place – turns up 91 properties. Two bedrooms, one bath, $34,900, a price that would be competitive in Reserve Mines. Nationwide, whole streets are in foreclosure, placed there by the implacable discipline of the market.

But when a contagion reaches financial institutions, the Market God is rudely shoved aside, and government bails out the bankers. This is the social safety net of the rich. When the discipline of the market threatens Wall Street, hard-nosed free-enterprisers suddenly discover the merits of socialized banking.

People with degrees in necromancy and prestidigitation – who are far more qualified than I to comment on the markets – contend that the Federal Reserve was right to shovel cash into the financial system. Maybe so. But after this episode, could we please be spared any further guano about the discipline of the market?

– 30 –

Last Sunday was Easter Sunday — and since the Sunday Herald doesn’t publish on Easter Sunday, I did not write a column.