Friday, December 31, 2010

What's in a Name - Really?

The then-known World
What’s in a name? We went to see The King’s Speech at a theatre in Edmonton a week ago and it brought up a discussion of names. King George VI had four names: Albert Frederick Arthur George. When he contemplated his coronation upon the abdication of his brother Edward, he might logically have become “King Albert,” but that seemed unsatisfactory and so he chose to be “George” despite the fact that he had pretty serious issues with his father, “George V,” who is portrayed in the movie as an unforgiving tyrant regarding young George’s struggle with a stammer. George VI grew up being called “Bertie” by his family. Take time to see the movie; it’s a story of substance for a change.

I also am “George.” The name doesn’t automatically confer king-like-ness. My mother told me the name was chosen because I was born on George VI’s birthday—December 14th. My father’s name was “Gerhard” and I recall that some of my aunts called him “George.” So I repeat, “What’s in a name—actually?” Would my life have been different if they’d chosen “Albert” or “Frederick” or “Arthur?”

Writer Rudy Wiebe taught me long ago that in writing fiction, naming characters is important. Names carry connotations: I met a young girl who will go through her whole life with the name “Precious Gem;” The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a 1760s serialized novel by Laurence Sterne proposes that anyone with the name “Tristram” is branded for life as . . . well . . . not-totally-robust.

There is a trend going on in naming, and that must mean something too. Statistics in the USA reported at show that the most popular baby name in 2005 was “Jacob,” followed by “Michael,” “Joshua” and “Matthew.” What’s the trend? Fluffy to solid? Back to the Bible? Both? Or are we simply followers of fashions that tilt—as it were—with the fanning of butterfly wings?

Back in R.D. Parker Collegiate, some staff members invented a student and got him inserted into the school records, even had the principal attempting to reach his parents to discover the reasons for his absences. They called him “Klavier Onk.” I’ve always liked that name, as evidenced by the fact that I haven’t forgotten it over these 30+ years.

Wouldn’t “King Onk III” be a hoot?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Happy New Year


2011 is upon us. We all know, of course, that if we were observing the earth from space we wouldn’t see our planet passing a signpost, we wouldn’t see a light come on although we might hear strains of Should auld acquaintance be forgot . . . wafting up through the ether. 365-day years, 24-hour days, 60- minute hours and 60-second minutes mean nothing anywhere except on earth. But—you may well protest—we don’t ever live anywhere except on the earth, so what’s your point?

David Suzuki has said that the most useful view of our home as humans is from space (we’ve all seen the photos) and understanding that that blue planet is the one and only human abode, shared by all of us. A hymn we used to sing goes: “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through.” The preacher in Ecclesiastes 1:14 says: “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” What they have in common is the notion that our time living in this home we call earth is not long; what they don’t share is a grand philosophy of this short sojourn.

The best you and I can do is choose an “as if” that seems to fit and live according to its precepts. Evangelical Christianity, Islam and Jewry (to a less-specific degree) incorporate an afterlife of the soul, and so the guide to life may be that one lives “as if” another, better life follows death. Ecclesiastes obviously poses the possibility that death makes the striving of the living purposeless, and to follow the “all is vanity” line of thought would mean that one lives “as if” working, planning and setting goals were no more than futile gestures.

Let me propose a grand philosophy for 2011. Let’s live “as if” we had been assigned a ration of imagination, energy and hope so that we might beautify the home we share and the lives of the people in it. Let’s throw energy and imagination into preserving what is good: the natural world and its life-giving and sustaining abundance. Let’s contribute an addition-of-value to this home by cultivating the arts, by creating refreshing newness. Let’s imagine peace, and insist that war and strife soil our common home. Let’s abhor hoarding and sing the praises of sharing. Let’s visit each other, talk to each other, sing and dance together, uphold each other in pain and rejoice with each other in victory.

Let’s have the courage to shout down the detractors who live “as if” nothing matters except their personal hoard of wealth, fame or comfort. Let’s have the temerity to suggest that selling the stones out of our common foundation is stupid.

Above all, whether or not we look forward to a blissful eternity or not, let’s not forget that in the grand philosophy the “as if” we choose for 2011 is significant beyond imagining.

I wish you all a happy and prosperous New Year.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A World Without Islam - Graham E. Fuller - a review.

teacher's desk
Fuller, Graham E. A World Without Islam. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010

The central thesis of Fuller’s book is that even if Mohammed had never been born, or if the Islamic religion had never taken hold, the tensions in the Middle East would be very similar to what we see today. He refers a number of times to the Islamisization of the conflicts in the Middle East. More and more, the rhetoric of democracy against Islam is used to provide context for the wars, and more and more, the public is being encouraged to see Western intervention in the Middle East as a defense of Western democracy against a brutal, dangerous Islam.

Fuller begins by tracing the history that led to the current tensions in the Middle East. Many readers will find chapters like “The Third Rome and Russia: Russia inherits the Orthodox Legacy” or “Colonialism, Nationalism, Islam, and the Independence struggle” challenging; there are whole blocks of world history that we in the West typically didn’t even touch on in school. He makes a reasonable case for asserting that what we have often seen as religious wars were really geopolitical conflicts, sometimes taking on the shape of religious disputes because the combatants were of different religious persuasions. Fuller maintains that religion doesn’t start wars, but can exacerbate tensions and contribute to the context of disputes, can be harnessed as a means of diverting attention from the real motives of the combatants.

Religion will always be invoked wherever it can to galvanize the public and to justify major campaigns, battles, and wars, especially in monotheistic cultures. But the causes, campaigns, battles and wars are not about religion. Take away the religion, and there are still causes, campaigns, battles and wars (p.286).

Fuller opens the question of how terrorism is defined, viewed and responded to in the west. His argument that Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acts of terrorism in exactly the same way as 9/11 was, is persuasive. The extreme escalation of terrorism via suicide bomber attacks on the symbols of power is, however, a recent development and in the West, the opinion that it is enabled by Islamic religious beliefs is widespread. Terrorism is the way in which a weaker combatant wages war against a stronger. Having no military force to match the one considered an oppressor, the weaker one resorts to terror, the infliction of fear through the mechanism of surreptitious sabotage. Not unlike Robin Hood. Fuller doesn’t excuse terrorism by any means, but his contention that we need to define terrorism in a global manner and apply it evenly to all occasions of dispute is timely.

Insurgency may be “illegal,” but it is the essence of human response to unjust conditions (p. 292).”

Fuller agrees with an opinion I’ve expressed on numerous occasions: 9/11 should have been treated as a criminal act rather than an act of war, as George W. Bush declared it to be shortly after the event.

Efforts to identify and stymie terrorist acts must be carried out through intelligence and police work; capture of terrorists should be the prerogative of international organizations or local countries, and not by the United States operating on an illegal extraterritorial extension of its sovereign rights to capture and assassinate individuals at will (p. 301).

It’s hardly necessary to add that Fuller sees the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and the closure of foreign military bases to be the first necessary steps in arriving at eventual peace in the Middle East. He considers the Israeli expansion and its displacement of Palestinians to be the most irritating barb in East/West relations, and advocates for the reversal of this expansion. Until this happens, the Arab/Muslim world will always be in a posture of defense against outside aggression, and it won’t be a consequence of religion, but of geography, politics and the right to defend oneself and one’s community against foreign aggression.

I remember a conversation with a man in Belfast during a tense period of “the troubles.” He said—in effect—that the Western media completely misunderstood the conflict in Ireland as being a Protestant-Catholic feud. He went on to say that it hinged completely on nationalist/loyalist grounds and had no reference to religious differences. In Northern Ireland, as in the Middle East, religion was used to further ends of both British loyalist and Irish nationalist’s goals.

That the Canadian and American governments should be putting a beneficial spin on the news of their activities in Afghanistan is understandable; much money and many lives have been invested in what is most certainly going to prove itself to have been a fool’s errand. There is no military solution to terrorism; it’s foundations must be found and addressed. The average Canadian, I observe, has a very poor grasp of the foundations of the Middle East conflicts and deals in platitudes, half-truths and herd wisdom. It’s time we all read and studied Fuller’s book.

Thursday, December 09, 2010


Silver Leaf

A sometime reader of this blog recently said he was waiting for my comments on Wikileak. Frankly, I’m getting a big kick out of seeing all those important people covering up their private parts with their hands as the world discovers that “the emperors have no clothes.” And then there’s commentator Tom Flanagan losing control of his vitriol levels for a minute and suggesting that Assange would justifiably be assassinated. It’s altogether the funniest political event since John McCain selected Sarah Palin to be his running mate in the 2008 presidential election. The outcries about the potential damage public leaking can do are heating up.

Hello! What are being leaked and posted are quotes, not inventions. The only way Wikileaks will post something stupid about you is if you say or write something stupid.

I know that during negotiations compromises are reached in stages and that publicizing an interim position can jeopardize the process. It’s  “diplomacy at work.” On the other hand, where persons or institutions with power are able to act and make decisions without fear of “leaks,” the creep toward corruption is certainly facilitated. Public knowledge can, for instance, prevent “interrogation techniques” from gradually escalating in severity until we discover suddenly that our governments are allowing the torture of prisoners.

Most of us have known all along that our emperors are running around naked, as are we all. Wikileaks doesn’t teach us this; it simply underlines what we already knew. But the terror in the eyes of our leadership is hard to miss, and they’re fighting back vehemently. Where I live, the site has been yanked: “Sorry. This site is not currently available.”

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a neighbour says to Jem and Scout that their dad is the same man on the street that he is at home. People in public life need to be aware that honesty, integrity, courtesy and respect are no less required of them than they are of the rest of us. Negotiate privately if you must, but don’t assume that the people for whom you are working have no right to expect certain minimum standards to apply when the public can’t hear you.

Of course, one person who probably has no worries about leaks is CBC hockey commentator Don Cherry. When he has a quarrel with the media, he simply hauls out in public and urinates all over the “left-wing pinko kooks.” Nothing hidden there. Nothing to expose. Would that it were.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


Good-bye, F-150
Sunday morning. Just finished printing up a sermon I’m scheduled to deliver this morning. It’s called, Repent and Reconnect. The title was given to me by a sequence we’re following in the Advent season services. I’d rather be talking about the three kings of the Orient; I was just involved in three evenings of dinner theatre under the banner, “The Gift of the Magi,” featuring choral music and the short stories of O’Henry, namely The Last Leaf and The Gift of the Magi. Readers’ Theatre. It was well received. The dinners were phenomenal.

Repentance takes such odd shapes, doesn’t it. Tom Flanagan regrets his glib remarks on a CBC TV program in which he advocated the assassination of the founder of Wikeleaks; I’m pretty sure his regret is genuine, but he did feel compelled to say that the leaks on the website ought to be stopped nevertheless. Sort of an “my stupid comments were provoked by a man who is way badder than I am” kind of apology.

Then there’s the “I was seduced” repentance, in one case constituting the defense of a man who was charged with sexual misconduct with a minor!

Probably as inane as any is the “I’m sorry, but I was drunk at the time” repentance.

I don’t find the admission and regret part of repentance as hard as I used to. I can remember making all kinds of excuses for stupid things I’d done as a pre-adult. When your public image is as important as it is in your teen years (or as a public figure), face must be saved, and the straws grasped at to accomplish that can be bizarre. Repentance without penitence, and without the prerequisite intention of changing course.

Even more astounding is the public tolerance that allows people in power to make massive blunders with little demand from us for repentance. I’m puzzled, for instance, by the fact that although Bush and Cheney and the rest of the American administration of the time led the US into Iraq on the basis of a lie—or ignorance, depending whom you ask—and thousands died as a result, there doesn’t seem to have been a concerted demand for genuine repentance, i.e. admission, remorse, change. Why is that, do you suppose?

But, I don’t want to stray too far from home on this subject. Here and now, I repent the fact that I’ve allowed myself to be recast as a consumer—as opposed to a person—and in so doing, have been joint contributor to an economy that can’t work in the long run and an environment that can’t sustain the continual attacks upon it. So I’ve admitted it, but I ought to feel more remorse, and I’ve still got a lot of changes to be made, although I sold the pickup truck I loved and have reduced to one, small vehicle. Whoopee ding. I also recycle. Hey, and I don’t buy bottled water.

But I’m not sure I’m ready for the real repentance, when I and my fellow “consumers” genuinely say “enough is enough.”

I guess there’s always that other face-saving excuse. “The devil made me do it!”