& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A new social contract

Keep it in the ground is an evocative campaign that The Guardian newspaper (London) launched recently. Advocating strict policy measures to tackle climate change, the Guardian Media Group divested its entire £800 million portfolio (about $1.4 billion) from fossil fuels, which it will re-invest in socially responsible alternatives. It is urging the world’s two largest charitable foundations — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust — to stop investing in oil, coal and gas companies.

The debate over climate change is the only one that should dominate our century. Nothing else matters. Two recent events in Toronto focussed on the urgent need to focus on climate change not merely from an environmental perspective, but as an economic, social and moral imperative. On April 7, Smaro Kamboureli, the Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature, presented Literature Matters that featured Canadian author Thomas King, and Naomi Klein, the author of a series of books on the exploitative nature of capitalist economy, who’s most recent book This Changes Everything Capitalism vs The Climate, has comprehensively changed the debate. 

On April 12, as part of the Spur Festival, Imre Szeman, Canadian Research Chair in Cultural Studies and professor at the University of Alberta; and Chris MacDonald, Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program discussed the Moral Economy – Canada’s new social contract; the intersection between public permission to operate and important sectors of the Canadian economy. Konrad Yakabuski of the Globe and Mail moderated the debate.

The two events overlapped on several key issues.

Klein believes that we are dealing with a profound failure of imagination, even though nobody is disputing the claim that capitalism is destroying our planet, there is no attempt to find an alternative to capitalism. There is a near-universal sense of defeat. The two prevailing thoughts that have contributed to inertia are: We screwed up, but we’re God’s species, so we’ll eventually fix it. The other is: We did it, and it’s too late to fix it, so we should let it all burn down.

Klein characterized it as either defeat or war. The idea of peace with the planet is not part of the narrative.

She attributed the policy paralysis in terms of tackling climate change to the increasing fundamentalism of market-driven economics. The dominance of capitalism as a determinant of global economics has left us without any alternatives, and this has stifled both debate and action. 

A few days later, at the debate over Moral Economy, Szeman emphasized that the policy paralysis stems from a paradigm shift. It’s not just our economics that are market driven, market philosophy has taken over our way of life, and it has now become an integral part of every human endeavour.

The debate over social licence – the new social contract that governments and corporates need to negotiate with the society – is acquiring dimensions that appear to question even the democratic basis of our societies. Szeman, in fact, stated so rather bluntly. The issue of climate change is no longer about individual choice, it is a collective responsibility. By embracing globalization, western societies have outsourced pollution.

Klein quoted Andreas Malm, who has termed climate change as an “atmospheric expression of class warfare.” Writing in Jacobin, Malm says, “Few resources are so unequally consumed as energy. The 19 million inhabitants of New York State alone consume more energy than the 900 million inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa. The difference in energy consumption between a subsistence pastoralist in the Sahel and an average Canadian may easily be larger than 1,000-fold — and that is an average Canadian, not the owner of five houses, three SUVs, and a private airplane.”

The debate also needs to factor the traditional rights of people over their lands. In Canada, it’s the first nations people, who have been systematically deprived of their economic right as their traditional resources have been usurped by the government and the corporates that profit from extractive resource sectors.

The debates were both insightful and disturbing; and Thomas King, the critically-acclaimed Canadian author, gave it a human dimension. The academics and the journalist marshalled facts, arguments and statistics to prove their contention, the author touched the audience’s heart by telling a simple story of the greed for more candles. As part of Literature Matters program, Lee Maracle, one of the first indigenous authors to be published in the 1970s, ‘robed’ Thomas King with a handmade blanket she had woven together from pieces of cloth gathered from around the world. Later, Joseph Boyden paid a tribute to King.

The role of religion in contemporary society

What is religion’s place in the society? Should a non-believer be described differently, without – or outside – the frame of reference of belief? In a postmodern world, do we now need to redefine the notions about secularism which has fostered the idea (dogma?) that religion should stay personal, and that it has no place in the public. Is religion inherently pernicious? 

These are straightforward questions with too many answers, and therefore no answer; also these are some of the many contentious issues that surround religion in the Canadian society that is avowedly multicultural.

Spur Festival, the annual celebration of politics, arts and ideas that shape Canada, organized a discussion on the Role of Religion in Contemporary Society.

The participants were Ara Norenzayan, Ingrid Mattiso, Eva Goldfinger, and Mark Toulouse. Three of the four (Ingrid, Eva and Mark) are believers, and three of the four (Ara, Ingrid and Mark) are academics. So, the discussion was expectedly erudite, polite and agreeable. Brent Bambury, of CBC moderated the session.

The Al Green Theatre at Miles Nadal Jewish Cultural Centre (Spadina & Bloor) was surprisingly filled to capacity, despite it being the first day of spring weather in Toronto (April 11). More than a discussion on religion, it turned (again, expectedly) into a discussion on the need to evolve interfaith understanding.

But to achieve interfaith understanding is almost impossible. A majority of believers have to depend upon agents of god (there really is no better way to describe the swamis, priests, mullahs, rabbis) to understand their own beliefs, and these agents prefer to protect their own turf rather than get into others’ domain. Their interests are better served by being isolated, not by amalgamation.

So, for all practical purposes, the interfaith dialogue and understanding has a limited appeal, and is likely to be so for the foreseeable future.

But, coming back to the discussion: Scholarly erudition can make even the most complex ideas accessible. And during the hour-long discussion the audience must have felt warm and happy that in Canada (unlike down south) we’re all tolerant and conscious of the need to be more accommodative of alternative belief systems.

The usual suspects – Stephen Harper, Quebec Charter of Values, Charlie Hebdo, Bill C-51, ISIS, – got the knuckle-rap they perhaps deserved.  The panel also questioned the selective demonising by the media of some events, and selective amnesia of other events; it questioned the selective funding of religion-based schooling by the government.

Each panelist had at least one idea that was thought-provoking. Norenzayan said we need to acknowledge the universality of religion in public life and be curious about it before analyzing or critiquing it. Mattiso said we must break down the silos and compartments and reach out to believers of other faiths in a genuine attempt to foster better understanding. Toulouse said we are in a postmodern world where the traditional European dichotomy of the separation of the state and the church was no longer meaningful or relevant. Goldfinger said it’s necessary to redefine the debate over belief and non-belief. To term non-believers as atheist is restrictive. She said she preferred to be termed a humanist.

These scholar-believers stressed on tolerance. The hurdle here is that the common believers of all religion generally prefer to be among their own kind, secure in their belief, and don’t necessarily go out of their way to mingle with believers of other faiths.

Also, the implication of a more public role of religion in the society that was advocated by at least two of the panelists, seems to ignore the potential of trouble it would create in something as basic as the workplace, where people of many religions work together.

Moreover, it is unrealistic (as the panelists advocated) that religion or religious practices would change and become more attuned with the changing world. It means acceptance of blasphemy, sexual orientation, interreligious marriages; it also means rejection of proselytizing, religious texts that propagate bigotry and intolerance. This is unlikely to happen in a hurry.

It may sound terribly antiquated, but I think Marx got it right: Religion is the opiate of the masses, and of scholars as well.

Image: http://www.foodgalaxy.org/food-and-religion

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts - Fsala-15

The fourth edition of FSALA – the Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts will bring together more than 40 writers and musicians from across the world, and Canada to Toronto from Friday, May 15 to Sunday, May 17.

The three-day festival of readings, seminars, music and dance has become a much-awaited and anticipated fixture on the literary calendar of Toronto. The festival celebrates world literature like nowhere else, and for the fourth edition, will have participants from Canada, India, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Trinidad, Tanzania, Philippines, and the United States.

A new feature in this year’s festival is the inclusion of the East Asian panel on the program, and a writing workshop. Among the international authors expected to participate are Anar (Sri Lanka), Walter Bgoya (Tanzania), Ajmal Kamal (Pakistan), Dannabang Kuwabong (Puerto Rico/Ghana/Canada), Perumal Murugan (India, withdrawn), Harish Narang (India), Elizabeth Nunez (Trinidad/USA), and Jose Dalisay (Philippines).

Canadian authors and moderators include Shauna Singh Baldwin (Milwaukee), Gurdev Chauhan (Trenton), Cheran (Windsor), Denise Chong (Vancouver), Jawaid Danish (Toronto), Safia Fazlul (Toronto), C Fong Hsiung, Tasneem Jamal (Kitchener), Sang Kim (Toronto), Anand Mahadevan (Toronto), Kagiso Molope (Ottawa), Tololwa Mollel (Edmonton), Narendra Pachkhede (Mississauga), Dawn Promislow (Toronto), Asma Sayed (Edmonton), Jasmine Sawant (Mississauga), Shailja Saksena (Toronto), Munir Saami (Mississauga), Olive Senior (Toronto), Charles Smith (Toronto), Nasim Syed (Toronto), Madeleine Thien (Vancouver), Rahul Verma (Montreal), Terry Watada (Toronto).

The musical interludes include Kamini Dandapani (New York), and Tichaona Maredza (Toronto). On Saturday May 15 evening, the festival will feature The Book of Sandalwood dance performance by InDance with Hari Krishnan. The program to be held at the Al Green Theatre, Miles Nadal JCC, Toronto, will also feature readings by three world authors: Tololwa Mollel (Canada/Tanzania), Jose Dalisay (Philippines), and Elizabeth Nunez (Trinidad/USA). Admission to all the events is free except for the Saturday night event. It is advisable but not essential to pre-register.

Olivia Chow, the Toronto-based diversity champion, will give the keynote inaugural address on Friday May 15.

Saturday May 16, 2015 program
Buy tickets here: Fsala-15-Saturday

For the full program, please see the festival website. Fsala-15

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Afterlife of Stars - Joseph Kertes

Running through a minefield; seeing many dead men swaying by the lamppost; dodging bullets hiding inside the massive bronze boots of Stalin’s statue that had been toppled over; seeing a man’s head blown off; being privy to a confession of a grandaunt who suffered horrific torture; accidentally discovering the family’s dark secrets; and all the time having to deal with an over-the-edge older brother, who is obsessed with divinity, human anatomy, history, and the family’s past.

It’s difficult to forget such experiences especially when young. They remain etched on the mind forever.

Joseph Kertes’ novel The Afterlife of Stars is an amalgam of emotions and episodes that would generally take a lifetime to accumulate for an average person. However, Robert, the youngest member of a Jewish Hungarian family that is fleeing Budapest as the Soviets tanks overrun Hungary, experiences all the horrors of war and displacement in a matter of a few days, and they are embossed on his mind forever. 

The family that has yet to come to terms with the horrors of the Holocaust has now decided to leave Europe, and try their fortunes in the new world – in Canada, but before they start afresh, they have to come to terms with their past, and with their guilt of betrayal.

That’s not easy, especially for the young Robert, who knows why his grandaunt’s hands have turned into claws. The young boy, burdened by the enormity of the family's sorrows and secrets, prefers silence, and becomes an observer and a narrator of the family’s journey to freedom. 

But at every stage, he realizes the futility of physical freedom especially because all of them have been perennially jailed by their memories of guilt.

The Afterlife of Stars is an ambitious novel. It is told in the voice of a child who is living a life through hell, who willingly loses himself to the imaginative world of adolescence, who is eager to explore the most bizarre ideas of his brother, who is innocent enough to audaciously face the most foolhardy risks, and who sombrely touches the hearts of his elders by his meek acceptance. 

I attended a book club meeting (my first) at the Spadina Museum yesterday organized by Diaspora Dialogues where Joseph Kertes discussed his novel with Helen Walsh. Not surprisingly, the book is autobiographical; the author is one of the thousands who fled Hungary in 1956, he was five-years-old then.  Kertes is a natural raconteur, and narrated gut wrenching stories of the Holocaust. Though the audience was thin, everyone had read the book, and the conversation was engaging.

Reading the book, I had assumed that the family had stopped in Paris before coming to Canada. This is because the description of Paris, especially the city’s sewers, is an incredibly evocative part of the novel. 

To my surprise, Kertes said that was all fiction.