Sharp Compassion: Scalpels Out

The wounded surgeon plies the steel

That questions the distempered part;

Beneath the bleeding hands we feel

The sharp compassion of the healer’s art…

-T.S. Eliot

If there were ever a time to question the distempered part of our body politic, it is now; now, as in no other time in my living memory. In the wake of four years of the disastrous kleptocracy that has been the Trump administration, the old world reels and rolls like a mast-less ship in a storm-tossed sea. The oceans which preserved continents from each others’ illnesses have been made millponds by trade and air travel. The former certainties of post-war alliances, of diplomatic protocols, of checks and balances within and between nations, have been put severely to the test. If we can return to a sense of a course steered towards an uncertain future, even to the sense that we are afloat in a boat whose captain no longer solves the problem of fuel shortage by tearing the ship apart and feeding the planks to the boilers, that will be a start. A start, but not an end.

I write days before the U.S. election, and it is far from certain that the Trump administration will be defeated at the polls, or if they are defeated, they will not burn the remaining planks of American democracy to keep their little pirate operation afloat. What is certain, is that if the Democrats take control of the Presidency and the Senate, they face a cleanup operation that makes the Exxon Valdez cleanup look like a post-party bottle collecting foray.

The last time the Democrats took control after Republican disaster, the U.S. was embroiled in several wars, and the thieves of Wall Street had, to use the great Lewis Lapham’s brave analogy, backed up trucks to the Federal Reserve and made off with some trillions of dollars. What Obama and company faced was a mountain of debt and chaos. Once again, they will (“the good lord willing and the river don’t rise”) be taking over a nation poisoned by greed and incompetence, a body politic literally sick unto death consequent to the utter failure of leadership of all the president’s men (and not of few of his children).

This is a shitshow. What cannot happen, as Biden, Harris, and company take command, is a repeat of 2008. Obama took over, and immediately began to issue invitations to the very group of people that had run the U.S. economy into the ground to come and help. He danced between the pylons of foreign policy in a country still smarting from the World Trade Center attacks, failed to address climate issues head-on, came up with unsatisfying compromise positions on urgent problems of water supply, domestic torture, health care, immigration, and pipelines. He tried to be everyone’s President. He didn’t get to appoint a single judge to the Supreme Court, and didn’t seize the opportunity to drastically revamp electoral corruption. As admirable a man as he is in many ways, he has now been out-manoeuvred by a man who has half his intelligence and none of his moral character. Whatever good was accomplished in his eight years has been undone, and more than undone, by the Trumpian fun-house ride of the last four years.

If the dems win the Senate and the Presidency, they must not repeat the error. Biden is already selling his aptness for the office by declaring that he will be the President for all Americans. The sad fact is that he cannot be. That nation now seems so divided against itself that nothing but surgery will suffice. The reactionary energy unleashed by the Republicans, and fed by the divisive influence of the false information glut is not going to disappear, and placating it is no more possible than extinguishing a fire with a bag of feathers. A firehose full of water must drown this conflagration of ignorance and bigotry. The economy will not be repaired by unleashing the wolves of Wall Street upon the problem. They’ll just feed on the dead. This wounded patient must be operated on like it was near death, with firm and bold strokes. The economy must be actively engineered, regulations and norms must be enforced, and the victim not allowed to wallow in a drug-induced state of unreality. As there has been no national guidance against the pandemic, so there must now be regulation and firmness. As the gun-toting “militias” have been given encouragement, they must now be curtailed, by force if necessary. As the ship has been dismasted and unruddered, so it must now be re-rigged, jury-rigged as the situation demands, until there is some sense of stability and proportion.

The rhetoric of the Democratic challengers has been conciliatory. But the true kindness for the diseased body politic of the United States of American will demand a compassion sharper and crueller than mere conciliation.

Tough Guys, or Why Trump Does Dumb


If you really want to know where Trumpism came from, you might spend 15 minutes watching Twelve O:Clock High, the 1949 flying epic starring Gregory Peck as “General Savage,” a hard-tack, uncompromising USAAF (United States Army Air Force) officer who takes over a B-17 squadron so that the old USA can show the rest of the world how they won World War Two…again.

The humour begins during the opening credits, when a very serious message about how authentic the movie is (“real combat footage!”) also assures us that, in 1942, the only Americans fighting in Europe were the brave boys of the US Air Force, and that they “stood alone,” in one breathtakingly arrogant swoop denying EVERY OTHER ALLY that had been resisting since September, 1939. Not to mention this little matter of Stalingrad… No wonder the Russians want to run Washington.

The tough-talking, hard-drinking, utterly MALE story that follows tells us of the importance of grit, courage, and uncompromising hardness that makes for military greatness. If you can stand to watch this unfolding, you will better understand what informs the psyche of post-war America. Bill Maher pointed out, in the weeks leading up to the November elections, that Trump and his cronies are 1950s guys, a last gasp of a social cohort who touted duck-tail hairdos, who thought a good punch in the face was a normal solution for a difference of opinion, who drank a lot of booze, and who poisoned the air with cigarette smoke and the airwaves with the carefully groomed narrative of American exceptionalism.

As a late Boomer, I get Twelve O’Clock High. I remember seeing the film in about 1960, and being awed by the scariness of the world they lived in. (My uncle had been a bomber pilot.)   But you can’t watch this movie in the 21st century without feeling like it was as foreign as, say, the public ceremonies choreographed for the people of North Korea. It is, however, instructive to re-visit such a film and remember that when Trump makes statements about the world that sound insane, he is merely expressing the conditioning of his youth.

Make no mistake: much of what Trump says (taken at face value, rather than as conniving political ploy)  is literally insane. Solving the USA’s problems with prescriptions from the 1940s is nuts: the values evinced by those who faced the Nazi scourge have little in common with the values that we share and need today. Equally irrelevant is the social miasma in which Trump lives, surrounded by those who merely reflect back at him the “alternate truth” he floats in. If you live in a golden temple in a high-rise tower, you are by definition out of touch with reality; that Trump is dangerously so is amply proven by everything he says and does.

I don’t think many people under the age of sixty could possibly bring themselves to watch the aforementioned film, not because it’s black and white, not because it doesn’t have a decent story arc (not to mention some authentic combat footage), but rather because its prescriptions for survival are so very, very irrelevant. And that’s what’s so bizarre and frightening about the current state of US power: the neocons who have control of the US government are perfectly equipping us all for life in 1942.

If this is the terrible danger in which we find ourselves, it is also a source of hope. This is the last time when the USA can go so mistakenly, so shockingly backwards. The Fifties Guys are already on Geritol, and before long, they’ll be on a slab. Take comfort.   Our progressive hearts will inevitably push forward, and it is not General Savage who will lead: it will be women.

In the meantime, if you want to see a really cool Peck performance, I must highly recommend Duel in the Sun, directed by King Vidor (one of my favourite Hollywood names). Peck plays the spoiled, nasty, sexy cowboy son of a rancher in a performance that’s as baroque and compelling as his rendering of General Savage is stiff and formulaic.

Techne and Psyche: Midway and A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood


Techne and Psyche: Midway and A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood rolls the end credits with the real Fred Rogers playing and singing one of the many songs he composed during the life of his TV show.  It’s a song about sticking to tasks until they are complete, and it ties together the ideas of overcoming the challenges of learning new things, and personal growth.  Greek has a word for how to do things: “techne”.  In this essay, I’d like to consider the techne displayed in two films that I both looked forward to, and felt anxious about seeing this season.  I want to compare the aforesaid film set in Mr. Rogers’ neighbourhood (yes, there is a “u” in that word) with the historical pic Midway.

I won’t dwell on the fact that, even though Midway’s backdrop is one of the most awe-inspiring stories in the entire history of human conflict, the redemption story at the heart of the other film is a more intense, dramatic journey than the steroidal blather in the utterly heartless war epic.  It is instructive that a film about someone who re-connects with his humanity by talking to a man who many (me included) first took to be a well-meaning simpleton is more gripping than a vastly expensive epic about the moment when America pulled through one of its darkest hours.   It shouldn’t be surprising that a story about the changing of the guard in one human being’s psyche resonates on such a deeper level than mere action… but it is.   

What really struck me, though, was that the tens of millions of dollars spent lovingly re-creating the ships and planes of 1942 was by degrees of magnitude a greater waste of filmcraft than the tens of thousands of dollars that was spent on the plaster-of-Paris set where Mr. Rogers practiced his artful communication with children.  The comparison reveals everything we decry in the post-modern era of CGI:  the little toy town is in fact more real than the Dauntless dive bombers taking off from the deck of a carrier.  There is a moment in A Beautiful Day where the camera pans along the re-creation of the TV show’s miniature set, and we realize with delight that the set has been expanded to include a wider city-scape, and that we are being taken on one of those clever anime-to-real transitions that the post-modern filmmaker delights in.  You know the shot:  “see if you can spot the moment when the CG image becomes a real shot (wink, wink!).”   But in Marielle Heller’s film, it’s very clear when we go from plasticine to concrete and brick.  This was one of the first moments in the movie when I breathed a sigh of pleasure, and felt I was in the hands of someone who was trusting me with my own judgement.

Midway’s whole aesthetic screams at us:  “Look what we can do!  Look how real the rivets on the planes are!”  Every green-screen shot challenges us to find the holes in the canvas.  For those of us who have either an overdeveloped nerd-dom about WW 2 aviation or about mere physics, there are glaring holes.  But I wouldn’t care if the techne were at the service of the story, instead of the reverse.  Ultimately, a film that fails to amaze us with the mystery of courage —or the literally awesome play of plain Good Luck that led to American victory at the battle of Midway— is a film that misses the point of its subject.  If you come out of a WW 2 movie with less insight into the soul of warriors than was provided by such crusty old American war films as In Harm’s Way or (for that matter) Midway (1976), you’ve paid for an experience no more meaningful than three hours watching Toons.

Fred Rogers composed a lot of music for his kids’ show.  He had a surprisingly deep understanding of jazz idioms (much like Chaplin had a surprisingly deep compositional musicianship).   Divorced from the playroom-set, the music is more sophisticated in its simplicity than you expect.  One of the signature scenes is set in a subway car.  Several school kids, realizing that the celebrated Mr. Rogers is riding with them, burst into an a capella version of the theme from the TV show.  Everyone joins in, and you find yourself admiring how what first sounds like a simple ditty (“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood/a beautiful day for a neighbor/would you be mine”) is in fact as good a show tune as some penned by Richard Rogers.  The cops and the bums join in, and you find yourself thinking, “yup, Americans would do this.” (Canadians would not.) “What a charming bunch. What a great display of open-handed community.”  It is one of the best uses of music in the movies I can remember.  Americans would also use orchestral music to beat you over the head in those flag-waving, emotionally manipulative moments of every blood-and-glory war movie you ever saw.  The method is so predictable, so camp, that you might find yourself blocking your ears at several points in Midway.

The techne of A Beautiful Day… reaches so much more deeply into your psyche by using simpler, time-tested methods:  at one point, Tom Hanks’s Rogers takes out two hand-puppets and tries to dig into the heart of journalist Vogel (Matthew Rhys) by addressing him through the voices of the puppets.  The scene is familiar:  the therapist gets the wounded child to talk to the less threatening cloth puppet.  What is bittersweet about this scene is that the child in question is a deeply wounded, deeply cynical adult journalist.  It causes genuine discomfort; the kind of discomfort that precedes psychological transformation.  Somewhat later, the Hanks character asks the journalist, in the middle of a busy restaurant, to think for one minute about the people in his life whose love brought him to where he is.  The clock starts ticking.  Everyone in the restaurant falls silent, everyone in the movie theatre falls silent, the one minute of time distends… and you find yourself being forced into the same exercise as the character.  

In live theatre, silence is a vital part of the techne, one of the writer’s, director’s, actor’s most powerful tools.  The movies rarely use silence for longer than five seconds, partly because each of those seconds of film costs a great deal of money.  It takes confidence and craft to mold silence into a fruitful moment, and this moment in the restaurant is infinitely more fruitful than the noise and bravura of bombs going off.  It holds, as t’were, a mirror up to our nature, and we see ourselves more human in it.

As a fascinated, slightly distanced observer of America, the two movies provide a striking metaphor for the two ends of its political spectrum.  On one hand, we have the much-ballyhooed, very expensive, rerun of triumphalism: America First writ large and loud.  On the other, a story about a simple man who strives to reveal the better soul of the individuals who inhabit that nation.  I know whose side I want to be on.

Back to the Future, God Damn It

Well, Alberta has stepped backwards again. Stepping backwards politically is an act so familiar to us that when we finally stepped forward and elected a progressive government four years ago it was a seismic shock to the national political psyche. Rachel Notley’s government stepped boldly onto the stage, and led the way for a shift to the left that seemed to open the way to the sunny uplands of post-Harper, post-Klein politics for Canadians.


But oh, just wait. The REALPOLITIK of international oil was about to cast a bigger vote than the Alberta electorate. Where the Conservatives had failed to advance Albertans’ interests when oil cost 150 bucks a barrel, the New Democrats were now going to have to construct a New Deal with a fraction of the resources that poured into the coffers of generations of right-wing Alberta governments.


Their strategy was to spend money. They spent it on infrastructure. Simple stuff: schools, roads, medical facilities. Yes, they ran the deficit higher.   They did so in a time of lower debt cost and cheaper labour. Albertans did not have ridiculously high-paying jobs in Fort McMurray any more.   Never mind that McMurray had had half the townsite burned to ashes by the worst forest fire in the province’s history. The dogged rebuilding of Alberta’s failing infrastructure continued.


This was precisely the correct thing to do. In the face of economic downturn, the NDP government worked to keep the province functioning, to keep the pump primed in the hope that international oil prices would gradually recover, and the ship would gradually right itself.


Then it gradually dawned upon all of us who were pulling for the progressive wing of Alberta politics: the one thing that could actually pull the oil industry out of its years-long slump was a national commitment to a national energy policy; instead of being shipped to the United States at steeply discounted prices, Alberta oil would be shipped in greater volume by additional pipeline capacity to the East and West coasts and made available to overseas markets. But this would not come to pass, because neither the British Columbia nor the Quebec governments felt it was in their interest to support such a policy, and they blocked it with an energy that might have been expected from the most vociferous of anti-leftist governments.


So Notley’s government, blocked by so-called left-wing governments from access to world markets, proposed a desperate new measure: increase rail capacity so more oil could be shipped by tanker cars. This would involve investment in millions upon millions of dollars in this failing technology. Rail cars are an ecologically and technically inefficient way to run what is effectively an above-ground pipeline. They constantly leak, they involve massive infrastructure, they deny native peoples the right to new royalty benefits, and they steer the economic benefits to the traditional economic powerhouses– the rail companies. This policy, in some form, now seems the most likely oil transportation scheme that is somehow, impossibly, the way forward.


This Pyrrhic victory for the “progressive” forces in British Columbia and Quebec helped ring the death knell for Notley’s government. Jason Kenny, the latest in a long line of right-wing populists, who has offered nothing but a return to the backward-facing politics of generations of Alberta conservatives, has been swept to power on a promise to balance the budget and “put Albertans back to work again.” Inventing an array of statistics and numbers about the horrible disaster created by the NDs, and promising a return to the comfortable boom-time economics of the 1990s, Kenny has managed to convince a vast plurality of Albertans that somehow, our province will economically bloom again in a world environment where Alberta oil is still worth a fraction of its former price.


For the immediate future, we can expect to see rollbacks in infrastructure funding, in education, and in health care.   The new schools that have been very visibly constructed across our province will be either finished (and then claimed as a triumph of the UCP gang), or left to languish. We will see vast cuts in public services in the name of budget balancing. We can also reasonably expect that our new government will have absolutely no answer to the REALPOLITIK of world oil price, but they will of course push for the oil pipeline: their very political future absolutely depends on it. Nor will this push have anything to do with a national energy strategy: their whole platform is anti-Fed.


And I, as a third (and if you count my children—fourth) generation Albertan left-winger am now left to tear my raiments and wonder what might have been if Notley’s government, had been granted a modicum of luck with regard to oil prices. One of her most-hated policies was the institution of a Carbon Tax, a five-cent-per-litre levy on gas purchase. Not doubt there are thousands of owners of gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs who will celebrate the fact that they can get a few kilometers futher down the road on their hundred-dollar fuel purchase. Personally, I’m going to miss the solar and wind initiatives that have been, and would continue to have been, funded by that tax. Get ready, Canada. We’re going backwards yet again. We’ve rejected a real leader, a woman of remarkable strength and vision, and replaced her with yet another clone.

Hacksaw Ridge: Gibson Apotheosis


After a decade or so in the wilderness, Mel Gibson may have made the movie that will bring him back to Hollywood respectability, and he couldn’t have timed it better if some clairvoyant had shown him the surprising election results of 2016 when he first conceived this project. America really needed a hyper-violent, xenophobic, feel-good story about a humble Southern Christian fundamentalist peacenik WW2 war hero played by an English actor, and Hacksaw Ridge is it.

As you have probably heard by now, the film follows a couple of years in the life of Demond M. Doss, a real-life Congressional Medal of Honor winner who was a medic in the ugly battle for Okinawa. Opening in a sepia-glow America about to manifestly meet its destiny in the fiery cauldron of the battle for the South Pacific, the story follows Doss as he falls in love with his plucky and faithful gal Bertha, while at the same time responding to his personal call of duty. As his Christian beliefs do not permit him to kill, he endures cliché after moldy cliché from his Sergeant (a role ripped to tatters by of all people Vince Vaughn), his fellow soldiers, and a succession of officers who either cannot, or will not believe that he is capable of going into action as a medic without first learning the proper arts of war.

The screenplay veers from one base to another, covering them all: the hero’s deep and unshakable faith, the gradual winning over of his colleagues and officers in the army, the revelation of his past as protector of a mother abused at the hands of a drunken father. We even are privy to a modest portion of his wedding night, when the pair of virtuous virgins, faithful to their vows, are about to have, well, ahem, relations for the first time. (Pan away to metaphorical curtains wafting.)

After what seems from here to eternity of making sure we know that the hero corpsman is indeed made of the right stuff, Mel gets on about the real business of the film, which is to expose us to the bloodbath at Okinawa, and this is where the film gets really energetic. Doss’s unit is to tackle the eponymous Hacksaw Ridge, and after making sure we really do get Mr. Gibson’s full share of ready-digested tropes of “lead-up to the battle” from every war film ever made, we watch the soldiers inexplicably scale up a massive hundred-foot rope ladder in order to take on the evil “Japs” at the top of this cliff. That the evil Japs in question, who are lying in wait at the top of the ridge, are not wily enough to cut the rope ladder down as the Americans ascend it, thus depriving us of the gore that is to follow, either explains why they lost the war, or is a set design idea that flies so strongly in the face of military logic that we would be better off ignoring it if we don’t want to be the only ones laughing in the theatre just as everyone else is girding themselves for Very Bad Things to happen.

And happen they do. Arriving at the top of the cliff, the hundred-odd Americans encounter a landscape blasted by the naval bombardment that was to have softened up the Japanese forces. The blasted landscape is also strewn with so much blood and guts, and so many severed limbs and heads that showing them nearly brings the story narrative to a halt. After making the point that war is a nasty business, the Caucasian forces encounter the enemy, who fall upon them with the WW 2 hardware that we all know from many a movie. The horrific images of flesh being pierced, flayed, blown up, of heads shot-through, are composed with a kind of fanatical desire to make us see how truly awful a thing it must have been to have been in combat. I could not help but remember that in the years after the Second World War, Hollywood was not permitted, and did not permit itself, this kind of imagery. I have a strong suspicion that those who had seen it, so to speak, in the flesh, had enough trauma in their memories to need no further reminder. Saving Private Ryan reset the boundaries of war movies, and Gibson has beyond a doubt made a conscious choice to extend them very much further. I’m glad I wasn’t watching this film in a cinema of the future, in which, if you pay extra, you will no doubt be able to be splashed with real blood.

The violence of the battle is there to present in high relief the heroism of the unarmed Medic Doss. However, Gibson is also means to remind us about what stout-hearted killers are his armed fellow Americans. While failing to show us that the unit has any cogent command or leadership (apart from Vince Vaughn, strangely-armed with a British Sten gun that never runs out of ammo, exhorting his men forward like Sergeant Rock of old), the battle scene smashes home the point that the USA produced fantastic soldiers to fight “The Good War.” The G.I.s recover from the initial shock of the Japanese ambush, push forward bravely, and destroy a pillbox before they are driven back by a massive horde of Nippon soldiers, leaving Desmond on a field of battle where he must scurry around under the very eyes of the Japanese, dragging mutilated but still-living Americans to the edge of the cliff, where he lets them down by rope to the waiting afterguard.

Having spoiled the main plotline for you, I will say that the actual history on which the film is based has already provided the spoiler, because everyone in the theatre who has a Twitter account knows that the man on which the story is based did in fact survive the war, and was in fact presented with the Medal of Honor. Knowing aforehand that the hero would not be killed took a big bite of the tension of the story, in spite of the bloodletting. The set-piece also suffers because, all the way through Doss’s ordeal, we keep wondering why the Japanese don’t just cut the damn ropes anchoring the huge rope-ladder and rid themselves of the pesky American assault force for good and all. Maybe it’s just me, but with this much verisimilitude of carnage on the battlefield, I cannot detach my mind from such a tactical malapropism. It’s like watching a supposedly realistic war movie suddenly invaded by the cinematic logic of The Expendables.

Doss is finally removed from the battlefield, having saved a large platoon worth of his buddies. By this time, the Corps of Engineers (one presumes) has created a sort of zip line under which his wounded form slides towards the bottom of the Ridge, and Director Gibson takes this cinematic opportunity to make sure we get it: his hero has achieved apotheosis, complete with heavenly light bursting through cloud. The moment is no more subtle than the lighting effects in The Ten Commandments, as his hero comes down from Golgotha and ascends into God’s grace at one and the same time.

I think it’s a worthwhile enterprise making films that show us that war is horrible, that it is fought by brave people, and particularly in the case of the two major wars of the 20th Century, was fought by civilians who laid their life on the line for patriotic or (more impressively) anti-fascist reasons. This film’s agenda seems stranger. Mel is using this quite amazing historical incident of a non-violent man’s struggle to help his fellow man as inspiration to make a declaration about Christian virtue, all the while bathing the film stock in carnage. It’s as though Gibson has morphed into the character of Desmond Doss. John Oliver pointed out a while ago that Mel Gibson has a penchant for being tortured in his movies. One wonders if in the martyred figure of his protagonist, Gibson isn’t in fact making a movie about his own martyrdom; surely goodness and mercy shall follow Mel all the days of his life, a stalwart Christian flayed and criticized by a Hollywood that has become more Vince Vaughn than John Wayne. The heavenly choir that accompanies the wounded Christ-figure down from the Golgotha of Hacksaw Ridge is in fact singing the sweet prince Mel Gibson himself to quietus, and at last the illogical image of the rope-ladder becomes clear: it is not a piece of second-war equipment, it is Jacob’s very Ladder. about which (in my brief stint in Sunday School) we used to have to sing the following childlike hymn:

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder/We are climbing Jacob’s ladder/ We are climbing Jacob’s ladder

Soldiers of the Cross.

This all makes sense in view of Gibson’s affiliation with a radical branch of the church that offers blood sacrifice as a central trope. The radical piety of a Lamb bathed in the sacrificial blood of stalwart Americans, and of a lot of very dehumanized Asian people, seems like an all-too timely panacea for a nation deeply wounded and divided by the events of November 2016.

Annals of Tzar Donaldovitch


The first in a series of short tales about the new Tzar at the head of the royal family now running a certain former great Republic.


After months of promising to Make Amerikov Great Again, the former billionaire name-brander, education-fraudster, and steak-oil salesman known as Donald Drumfk is now the Leader-Elect of the nation until recently known as the (“use-ta-be great”) USA. “There’s gonna be rebranding! Lotsa rebranding!” exclaimed Donaldovitch. “That old Amerikov was a disaster, so I’m gonna tear it up and start over. From now on, that old building down in Washington—dumpy old place, old, no glamour, all loser— isn’t gonna be used as the main palace. Too flat, looks like a building that’s trying to be tall by lyin’ on its side. I’m gonna live in Nueva Yorki, where things are really happening.   (See that smart rebranding I did there? New York was a disaster, just a disaster, ask anybody!) Me and the kids, we’re gonna use the old Washington place as our country dascha, you know, put in a big pool, really big pool, get some stags and… well…other deerlike… stuff… in case my pals from the National Rifle Secretariat want to come down on a Friday after a hard week of harassing Congress, for a little vodka and ka-bang, ka-boom. Speaking of which, we’re gonna rename that building where all the generals work. ‘Pentagon’ sounds like a place where a bunch of geometry nerds hang out. From now on, we’re gonna call it something sexy. Palace of the Grand Army? I’m working on it, it’s gonna be great. And we’ll get some real architects in there. People who know what a ninety degree angle looks like!”

This week’s surprises included the re-naming of Donaldovitch’s Cabinet. (“Cabinet is too confusing. A cabinet is a place where you keep stuff.”) Under the new regime, advisors to the Tzar will be called The Secretariat of People Not As Smart As Me, or PNASAM. Named to the PNASAM are prominent figures from the world of fantasy fiction, like Sarah (“I see Russia from my back window”) Palinova. Palinova is excited to be coming to Nueva Yorki. She’ll be able to bring her ski-doo from home, as Donaldovitch has promised unrestricted access to Centralski Park for Sarah and her kin.

The Secretariat of Learning is to be in the charge of Elana deVosinschka, who will take time off from her twice-daily prayer meetings at Our Lady of Perpetual Ignorance to enforce new Education priorities, such as a math curriculum dedicated to the measurement of Noah’s Ark, and a geology curriculum focusing on the tough question of How God Planted All That Fake Evidence.

Most importantly, Donaldovitch has created the position of Grand Visier, and appointed his stalwart commander Sven Bannonovski, formerly Chief Disseminator of Falsehoods.  It’s unclear what Bannonovski’s function is to be in the PNASAM, but there is speculation that he will spend his nights at Donaldovitch’s bedside whispering into his ear.  When Tzara Melanianska, the Royal Consort, was asked if this might be intrusive, she coyly responded, “I sleep through anything.  The Tzar, he like to tap on phone most nights anyhow.  I have good earplug.  Diamond.”

Tzarina Ivaka Donaldovna, Donaldovitch’s star daughter, posed for photographs, after arranging for new red carpeting to be installed at all of her father’s hotels, so state visits to Amerikov “can be kept in the family.”


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The Annals of El Presidente Donaldovitch II: “Hearts Purple With Pride.”


The Czar-Presidente has signed two new executive orders today that could, in his words, “be bigger than big!” The first appoints Czarina Melania to the newly-created position of Secretary of Fashion. The Czarina, whose remarks were mumbled owing to a facial injury apparently caused by “falling downstairs,” vowed to “make America Ten Again.” Before the luxury dinner celebrating this new Department’s rollout, the Czarina was towed down the Washington Mall atop Donaldovitch’s former private jet. It was pulled by a team of refugees hoping to gain enough favor with the current Administration to have their Green Cards recognized. The plane has been repurposed as a parade float, as El Presidente claims “I got a way better one now. Just needed to redo the décor. Too plain before, no round beds, no chandeliers. Now it’s all class!”


The hoopla surrounding this event almost overshadowed the second new Executive Order, supposedly penned by Stefan Bannovitch himself. It calls for a new Loyalty Test for American citizens. Simply put, every Americanski will be required to fire at least one bullet into a part of their bodies. This will “kill a few birds with one stone,” as Donaldovitch claimed as he waved the new Order above his head at the press conference. “First, it will stimulate the economy, increasing gun sales all across our beautiful country. Next, it will separate the real Americanskis from the fakers, and third, it will provide every red-blooded citizen with a life-long mark that proves their devotion! PLUS…” said the Czar-Presidente, pausing for effect, “every single citizen will be eligible for…wait for it… A PURPLE HEART!” Trump’s Mendacity Advisor, Kellyova Con-wry fainted at this point with an audible thump on the ground. (Asked about it later, she denied any fear of pointing a gun at her own body and pulling the trigger. “I was just so inspired,” she said, in a nasal tone so grating that paint peeled from the wall behind her.)


As for the Czar-Presidente’s own family, Donaldovitch assured the assembled journalists from NotsoBrite Bartnews that his whole family were “absolutely ready to take a bullet for our great nation. We’ll be discussing caliber at the next Cabinet meeting.” A staffer, who begged not to be identified whispered something about special “needle-width” bullets for the First Family. “They might be planning to combine it with their Botox procedures.”


Trump supporters have loudly proclaimed their support for the new initiative, claiming there will be “shootin-parties” all across the Republik. A poll of those who didn’t vote in the last election revealed that many thought it advisable to shoot themselves in the foot.




Annals of Il Presidente III

Orange is the New Black


The Czar-Presidente made headlines today when he attended ceremonies to celebrate Black History Month. The ceremonies were held in his private sauna, as the organizers of Black History Month had refused to reveal to the Czar-Presidente the location of the authentic opening ceremonies.


This did not deter Donaldovitch from making a few proclamations for the occasion. “That Martin Luther King guy had some good ideas, fantastic ideas. People have been saying they were very American ideas, about freedom, like the freedom to choose what kind of health care coverage you want your family to have. Take me, I don’t want any of that socialist medicine, where there’s a bunch of people in a room that looks like hell, cockroaches on the wall, you know. American hospitals are a mess. Public health is a disaster. I’m going to replace it with something fantastic. I’ll be making a big announcement. Tuesday. Or Wednesday.


“What? Oh, ya. Black History. There’s a lot of it, you know, everyone is saying so. There were some bad misunderstandings, bad people got involved. But you know, like, Rosa Parks and the X-man guy… Malcolm. They just kept asking politely until things changed. It was fantastic, really. Because prejudice is a terrible thing, really terrible. It’s like when all the fake-news people start ganging up. You want to see oppression? I’ll tell you about oppression! Oppression is when a bunch of East Coast media types keep picking on you, even after you’ve told them to shut up. Do I know what Rosa Parks went through? You think not being allowed to drive a bus even compares with the kind of oppression I’ve been going through since the election? And why? Because they’re a bunch of lying bastards, that’s why! They won’t accept that this country’s smallest, most oppressed minority has the right to govern! They oppress every rich person in this country the way the try to shut you up before you’ve even signed the first dozen Executive Orders.


I’m glad for the freedom we have to vote in this country. I wouldn’t have been elected if we didn’t have that freedom, and I want all my colored people to know. I stand with you. I mean, I’m a few floors above you, but I’m with you. God Bless Amerikov!


(A big thanks to Chalaundrai for the title!)



The Annals of Donaldovitch: IV “It was a massacre.”


Things in the Republik of Amerikov continue to go “fantastically great” according to Czar-Presidente Donaldovitch, as latest polls show his popularity dropping below that of the Dogfaced Shitgibbon, a creature so disliked by other gibbons that they hurl faecal matter at any member of the species that shows up at a watering hole.


Donaldovitch was responding to allegations of blank-faced lying on the part of his team after Kellyova Con-wry, spokesperson for his PNASAM (People Not As Smart As Me) team was again under attack for referring to the Bowling Green Massacre, an event that apparently took place in an alternate reality to the one experienced by ordinary people (the ones who, for example, possess that troublesome human organ commonly referred to as a “conscience”).


The Czar-Presidente was not ruffled by this addition to recent history, and in fact pointed out the ignorance of the press for confusing Bowling Green, Kentucky with the bowling green located Ms. Con-wry’s parents’ old folks home in Damned Lies, Florida. “She was talking about the terrible, terrible job the immigrant green-keepers did, applying so much insecticide to the lawn that it was like a massacre. Terrible! Bad! Fake News!”


Stephen Bannovski, newly named duel Minister of Propaganda/Minister of Black Ops in the PNASAM, announced the formation of yet another new agency under the direct control of the Executive Branch. Henceforth to be named the Ministry for the Invention of Massacres, it is to be headed by none other than Con-wry herself. At an interview with CNN, who are still inexplicably giving broadcast time to her skull-shaped visage, she claimed “The M.I.M. is going to be very active. Already we have plans to imagine the Massacre of Innocent White People By Agents of Martin Luther King, the Massacre of Innocent Prison Guards at Treblinka, and the Massacre at “Me Lie,” where vicious Vietnamese children murdered hundreds of U.S. servicemen. There’s going to be more outrages committed against god-fearing citizens than you can shake a schtick at!”


When Ms. Con-wry was asked if this wasn’t just out-and-out lying, she shot back in the offended, wheedling tone that has become her beloved trademark, “I don’t know how you can even say that, when Hillary’s emails… were… existing.”


When Bannovski and Donaldovitch were seen in the halls of the Presidential Dacha (the building formerly known as the White House), they were laughing maniacally and slapping each other on the back. One Dacha staff member, who begged our correspondent to swear on the grave of his mother not to be identified, said they were saying something to each other that sounded like, “that’ll keep ‘em guessing!” That seems certain to be the only purely truthful statement to have emerged from the mouth of the Czar-Presidente since that remarkable day on January 20th when millions of invisible supporters sung joyful hymns of celebration at his Coronation Ceremony.


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“Allied”: Thanks for asking


Hollywood Gets It Wrong, Again… But Thanks

I went to see “Allied” the other night with my French Canadian girlfriend.   This movie is set in wartime Casablanca and England. And for those of you who might ask, “which war?” I can only respond, “the big one.” Brad Pitt plays an intelligence officer who must decide whether or not to trust the agent with whom he has been sent to perform an assassination. Later, they are married and have a child (for which plotline the setting moves to England).

The most amazing thing about this movie for me was the unapologetic presentation of Brad Pitt’s character as a French Canadian. This is probably the first time since 1940 that a Hollywood film with a real budget presented an authentic Hollywood star playing a Canadian as the central character of an action drama, and certainly the first time that the character was specifically French Canadian.

It is a sometimes risible effort. No one familiar with franco-Canadian culture could possibly believe that Brad Pitt’s character is French Canadian, any more than we believe that Sydney Greenstreet’s character in Casablanca is a North African. Brad’s well-meaning attempts to speak “Canadian” French cause ripples of laughter in the Canadian audience, no less than the misapprehension of Canadian geography, which has Pitt’s character seemingly going from Ontario to Southern Alberta for occasional calming weekends. (This would have been a very hard 4-day train journey each way in wartime Canada. I know: during the war, my father managed to get back to Alberta exactly once as a serving Royal Canadian Navy sailor.)

Notwithstanding the above, I am grateful to this film for helping to redress decades of historical falsehood. Canada’s WW 2 sacrifice somehow escapes notice from Americans no less than from the English, our two staunchest allies in the Second World War. By proportion, Canada sacrificed more casualties than the U.S.A. in the fight against Hitler. And yet my countrymen disappear in the record as presented by American film fiction and British history alike. British histories persist to this day in saying that there were three “British” beachheads on D-Day. This is false. There were two British beachheads, one Canadian, and two American. In other words, Canada, with its tiny population (and with no vested interests in the outcome of the war) was tasked with one-fifth of the Western Allied war effort on June 6, 1944.

So thanks, Mr. Pitt, for your characterization. If the accent is a little off, I must say our Air Force Blue looks great on you, and you do your Northern neighbours proud.

As for the movie itself, I highly recommend that people go see it. Ma blond et moi, nous avons trouvé l’histoire captivante, and we were literally gripping each others’ hands as the story of the star-crossed lovers, a couple caught up in the world drama of the war, came to its thrilling conclusion. In other words, the film delivered the kind of emotionally engaged, hope-for-the-good-guys thrill ride that we used to expect of movies about the war.

There is a kind of nostalgia about all narratives about the Second World War. Although it was undoubtedly not “The Good War” (anyone who ascribes the adjective “good” to an event which killed 60 million people is clearly not in touch with reality), it certainly was a story with unmistakable villains. And that, for once, a Canadian was The Good Guy in a Hollywood movie about the event was a gratifying pleasure.

Lindros and the hockey culture

kid-on-outdoor-rinkEric Lindros has been voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. I hear the sportsjocks talk about this as the correction of a horrible injustice. What none of them knows, remembers, or wants to talk about is the reason why, when he was drafted first overall by the Quebec Nordiques, Lindros refused to go. The subtext was an ugly bigotry towards Quebec and French Canada in general. This was at a time when tempers were running very thin, and the political situation in Canada was at its most delicate. The first separation referendum had lost by twenty points, and the second was on the horizon, one in which Quebec voted to remain in Canada by the narrowest of margins.

Lindros was an effective NHL hockey player, largely because he was the (literally) prototypical modern power forward. He was big, mean, and skilled. In the view of many in the hidebound hockey community (let’s call it the Don Cherry Worldview), he was a working stiff hero expressing himself. In my own view, Lindros and his family were classic Anglo bigots who expressed, consciously and consciencioiusly, an ugly old sentiment that this nation has yet to completely grow out of.

Hockey is culturally and symbolically important to Canadians; its strong associations with our youth and our climate give us a focus around which we can gather. Like everything, it has a political subtext. Sometimes the message is beautiful and positive: the whole conduct and life of Jean Beliveau evinced a grace that everyone in our sometimes divided nation could be proud of.

All too often, the sentiment is less worthy. Professional hockey players are, after all, not required by their culture or their calling to be philosophers. They are required to play a game that calls for the balletic balance of a figure skater, the hand-to-eye skills of a surgeon, and the motion-vector analysis of a WW 1 fighter pilot. It also requires the physical courage of a warrior. No other sport is played on a surface as hard as asphalt, with two knives attached to each foot, in the confines of walls that can break bones if you make uncontrolled contact with them, and carrying a spear. The very object with which it is played can– and often does– cause injury.

Occasionally, however, a player rises above the undercurrent of violence in the sport, and plays a transcendent game of skill. Those who have played hockey know that this takes superb talent underpinned by real courage.  The combination is what makes us watch our national heroes, both men and women. And it is why the greatest hockey players are not the most brutal, but those who most transcend the brutality.

There is a reason why many people went into the Hockey Hall of Fame before Eric Lindros. The transcendent ones are very rare beings indeed, and deserve to be there first. Lindros was blunt in his approach to the game, and his whole family was blunt in their rejection of a city that is a unique cultural gem on this continent. Some of us have not forgotten that.

What right hath these writers?

My play Anatolia Speaks was recently dismissed in a weekly arts publication on the basis that because I am male and not of the country I am writing about, the piece was somehow less valid.


I was deeply amused to read Miss Culkin’s little piece about my play Anatolia Speaks in the last issue of Vue. This young lady evidently believes that all of that play’s very real educational and moral intentions can be decried because I have had the temerity to write a monologue about a Bosnian woman when I am neither female nor of that deeply tragic country. I congratulate her for stumbling upon this vital critical tool. What cleansing vistas it opens up! We can now dismiss those vile old men Sophocles and Euripides (the latter of whom was probably transgendered, and thus might be excused). Down with Kyd, Marlowe, Webster! Away with that pretender Shakespeare, whose Hamlet can now be thrown onto the rubbish heap of literature, for it is very doubtful that the so-called Bard of Avon had even a Danish cousin. Damn Moliere (that wasn’t even his REAL NAME)! Onto the rack with Miller for daring to write about the mad religious witch-hunts of Salem when he himself wasn’t even a Christian! Let us eschew and desecrate Lysistrata, Ophelia, Lady Bracknell, and Blanche Dubois. In the political cleansing of our minds and our literature, let us whitewash, like Pol Pot defacing the street signs in Cambodia with mind-numbing white, all signs of former times, when mere imagination was enough to launch a poem, a play, or a painting.

I look forward to Miss Culkin’s future literary efforts, in which she will no doubt dismiss all the male characters created by Timberlake Wertenbaker, George Eliot, or Judith Thompson.

Universal Studios: Nostalgia Trip

Universal Studios

Universal Studios May 26

When you’re in the presence of America functioning as all-out as at Universal Studios theme park, you are in the belly of the beast. This place is the machine of fantasy at its most unrelieved. The thousands of guests are funnelled from pillar to post as efficiently as one can imagine without outright violence, and the makers of the park have tried to achieve a perfect balance between controlled reality and the illusion of choice. In that way, it’s like American politics.

There was a security check at the main gates, with metal detectors, a bag inspection, and a man walking about with a bloodhound (whether it sniffed for drugs or explosives, or both, I don’t know) . When my jack-knife was discovered, I was sent back to my car (“you can’t bring THAT in here, sir”). Universal knows that it’s a perfect target for a terror attack. What could more disturb the mullahs than people enjoying themselves on the empty calories of American entertainment? Not that the parks don’t have lots of Muslims enjoying themselves as they ride the Harry Potter train or scream with pleasure as they splash down in a raft at Jurassic Park. I’m glad to note, not without a cultural sneer, that the women in burkas are no less engrossed in the antics at the Terminator 2 show than those in flesh-revealing cutoffs.

What IS the Universal theme park? It took me a while to get it. Apart from the opportunity to line up and ride around on some kind of vehicle that goes fast, gets you wet, or tries to provide some other visual thrill, the experience being vended is nostalgia.

I’m surrounded by people on a nostalgia trip, and the nostalgia is largely about the imagery of innocent, purely fantasy films. The world of Harry Potter has been painstakingly recreated in Diagon Alley (one of my favourite puns in modern literature). Kids whose parents have parted with enough freight to purchase a plastic authentic wizard wand can stand on certain spots and wave at birds or skeletons or books that actually move or dance, or open. I was struggling with my phone-camera in front of a “wizarding” bookstore in Hogsmeade when a mature lady, polite like all Southerners, offered, “would you like me to open that for you?” and stood proudly on the appointed spot, waved her wand, and the book in the shop opened. She was as delighted as a six-year-old with her feat.

It is a testament to the power of nostalgia that even such a cynic as I can stand self-consciously grinning in front of the old BSA (although the brand is not ascribed) and sidecar that Robbie Coltrane might have ridden as Hagrid. This is partly because I love those old bikes with their clunky engineering, but it’s partly that I’m recalling the pleasure I felt when I watched as delighted as my kids when the bike descended from the sky in the first Harry Potter film. After all, the Harry Potter films are themselves powered by a kind of nostalgia, specifically a nostalgia for a Britain that was still Great.  Hagrid’s BSA (standing for Birmingham Small Arms) that was one of the relics of a bygone era when Britons still gave themselves licence to shoot foreigners in their own homelands.

For the record, I did resist buying Butter Beer just to find out what Hollywood thought it should taste like (very sweet, my daughter had reported to me).

Every Attraction is an opportunity to sell some nostalgia-infused gack, be it an authentic Neuralizer from Men In Black, a hat from Jurassic Park, or a T-shirt that says, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good” from Hogsmeade. More subtly, you can also buy stuff that celebrates your affinity for the darker side of the Potter mythology (“I survived Azkaban”).

Food is for sale everywhere; outlets for pizza, burgers, ice cream are appropriately associated with their place on the site (the donut shop in the Simpson’s area, Lard’s Donuts, cashes in the very irony that The Simpson’s satire depends on, and markets it back to us: “go ahead, indulge yourself just like Homer would!” And we do.

Why is this nostalgia bath so attractive?  Are we so devoid of real memory, real experience, that one of the busiest places I’ve ever been, one of the most cherished destinations on Earth, is a place where your average Joe or Jane merely wanders around, half-baked by the Florida sun, going from one adrenaline-pumping “experience” to another, with long waits for each, eating expensive junk food?

In a galaxy far away, psychologically speaking, we kids would walk over to our public parks with a ball of some kind, and in twenty minutes, enough children would gather to start a game. On a summer’s evening, we would produce a tin can and play what the Boy Scouts used to call a “wide game” called Kick the Can. In the winter, we actually had a Wonderland of snow falling through 150-watt bulbs illuminating hundreds of skaters swirling around on the ice, forming trains, whiplash-lines, games of kiss-tag. I remember hearing my first stories from Canadians who had come back from Disneyland, self-titled “the Happiest Place on Earth.” They spoke with wonder of the “real castle” or the “real Mickey Mouse.” Those of us whose parents either could not afford the Disney experience, or who utterly distained it, had to be content with real dirt, real scraped knees, real meals cooked by real grannies, real snowflakes, real competition, real hurt feelings, and real kisses from real-life princesses.

Fast-forward to the pressed-cement bricks of Gringott’s Bank, or the artfully-designed cartoon imagery of the Popeye Cruise ride, and it is little wonder my children feel less grounded, less secure, and less sure of their place in the world. We have traded reality for nostalgia, what’s more nostalgia for worlds that only existed in the imagination.   At Universal Studios Park, we celebrate the imagination of James Cameron, or Barry Sonnenfeld and Lowell Cunningham, or of Ms. Rowling, a woman who invented a fascinating world sitting in a coffee shop. Truly, their imaginations deserve to be celebrated, but we did that already by buying the books and going to the movies.  The theme park experience is at a further remove, and judging by the empty, longing faces that I watched walk past me  yesterday, the promise of Nostalgia Realized is less than delivered.

As the afternoon wore on, I found myself in line for the live show starring animals trained for the movies. The innocent pleasure of watching dogs, cats, birds, and even a pig go through the routines that they had been taught was comfortingly old-fashioned: a quaint kind of real-world skill had been required to train these beasts, and it seemed to me they were the happiest performers in the Park. Our affection for them is as unfeigned as their pleasure at receiving a treat for doing well. It gave me a satisfying nostalgia for simpler things.

Post script:

It goes without saying that a terrorist attack did in fact take place in Orlando since I wrote this article, which prevented me from posting it for some time.  That the target was a nightclub where gay people are known to hang out is bitter indeed; targeting the LGBT community is a more specific kind of hate crime.  In retrospect, I want to make clear my view that, although the kind of cultural alienation that the theme park represents is worth questioning, the utterly bizarre fantasy world that fundamentalists inhabit, where your god rewards you for barbaric acts of hatred, is psychotic delusion on another level of alienation altogether.