The Context of Emory Douglas

Note: these images were photographed at the Ryerson Image Centre (which does expressly allow non-flash photography) as part of their excellent 2017 show: Attica USA 1971: Images and sounds of a rebellion.
Click on the top image to see all of them in high-resolution.
And do visit the (free) Ryerson Image Centre when they reopen.
I consider it the most exciting new-ish (2012) museum / gallery space in the city.

As minister of culture for the Black Panthers from 1967 until the end, and the designer of the Black Panther Newsletter (which he insisted from the start of his tenure, must thenceforth be printed web-press) – The artist Emory Douglas made uniquely powerful contributions to political graphics. His use of bold line graphics and spot colour were featured in every issue, and many remain charged enough to startle us still.

It is impossible to look at our historical moment, without also looking back to the political tumult of the sixties and seventies – the context in which Douglas was trying to pithily articulate political points. Our latest extremes, passions, themes, tactics and even (sadly) mistakes, all feel like reruns of depressingly familiar tragic plays, with scripts we should have bothered to improve and advance long before now.

Relative to most of the people in the world, we in the so-called ‘advanced’ west are shockingly ignorant about our own past, and we’re very bad at distinguishing opinions from realities in any case – but I remain convinced that when huge sacrifices are made on the basis of principle, we must pay attention and learn the difficult lessons that courage revealed, in order to show real respect for figures of genuine leadership, and for ourselves.

Empty words and bumper stickers simply don’t cut it. Making wrong-spirited use of great thought and action is just as lame or more so.

I know black history month is officially February in Canada and the US (though the UK and the Netherlands give it ten percent more air-time each year, by using October for the same purpose), but for me the natural peak of Black history in Upper Canada (Ontario) is midsummer. Just a couple of weekends after the enduringly fantastic Afro-Fest music festival, we have what most locals still call Caribana (despite disputes about the name) – one of the largest Caribbean carnivals anywhere outside of the islands themselves. Even better – for years now, we’ve had this famous and high spirited south-seas bacchanal on the Simcoe day long weekend!

Yes – to be clear – many outright malicious racists held power in Canada and influenced the formation of the country and its laws. But we cannot simply generalize and say all of those who arrived from overseas had purest arrogance and evil in them, because Simcoe accepted the founding governorship of Upper Canada only on these conditions, which he made clear in a speech to the British parliament before his departure.
“The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between natives of Africa, America, or Europe.”

He also draughted and passed the first anti-slavery legislation in the British Empire (1793) and by 1810 there were no slaves at all in Upper Canada, even though it took more than forty years (1834) for the crown to wake up, and the rest of the empire finally give up, their old and profoundly evil business.

Here’s another thing about Simcoe we don’t remember – in 1777, during the American revolutionary war, he proposed the formation of a loyalist regiment of free blacks – but was instead given command of the Queen’s Rangers. Even today, some people completely freak-out and lose it at the idea of a black person armed equally with a white one.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times in my podcast, the Black Panther Party (for Self Defence) formed in response to the exact sort of police violence which has shocked and horrified so many around the world recently – more than half a century later.

One of Huey Newton’s key insights came after watching furious street protests which followed the killing of an unarmed black teenager. He felt sure that if the power of all that righteous and justified anger could be disciplined, it could become a serious transformative political force – and that the way to lead such organization, was to show the state no fear.

There is a twin pull with such early movements, on the one hand, we are inclined to give them extra credit to make up for the dirty tricks and lying smear campaigns which we know were run against them by incredibly powerful, paranoid, well-funded and well-connected agencies of the government, misusing our tax dollars.

But if we make them cartoon heroes, we don’t learn anything about their struggle or tactics – and we leave evolution of principle aside entirely.

On the other hand – dismissing them as merely a gun rights group that finally made white people wake up and think about their power advantage, by confronting them with that nightmare image of black people, armed and unafraid, also throws away far too many of their valuable lessons.

The players too, must be distinguished. Eldridge Cleaver was held up as an early hero to many, but turned out to be an egotist with no principle beyond his own advantage. Not only did he betray the Panthers in a craven speech to lighten his own sentence – when he returned from exile, he’d become a born again Christian, then later tried inventing his own blend “Christlam” and finally opting for the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) as most consonant with his version of spirituality – which left room for his other main project – fashion – virility pants, based on the ancient codpiece. Especially creepy stuff for a guy who wrote that as a young man, he considered rape a revolutionary act.

And wouldn’t you know it – Cleaver swung so far back on his own tracks that he openly supported Ronald Reagan as president, even though Reagan as California governor was so hostile to the Panthers, he changed the state’s gun laws, specifically to outlaw their (constitutionally allowable) armed safety patrols.

Cleaver had always been attracted by the idea of armed insurrection – and he fought with one of the founding Panthers, Huey Newton, about this especially. By 1968, Newton and many others thought that the point about arms, the right to self defence and courageous assertion of constitutional rights had been adequately made, and their guns were now alienating more of their allies in the black community (as well as endangering their own members) than any remaining benefit justified.

Cleaver accused them of selling out – but the Panthers new emphasis on community programs was incredibly popular, and helped many kids and poor people with things like a regular breakfast for thousands of kids, free health clinics, fitness and martial arts programs to get youth off the street and feeling new pride. They offered drug and alcohol rehabilitation, rides to visit family members incarcerated upstate, first aid training, even their own paramedic service for badly neglected areas. You would think that this shift from arms to outreach would make them seem much less of a threat to the authorities, wouldn’t you? Not so at all.

Huey is a complex character, though still less weird by far than Cleaver – both made important contributions to a hugely influential movement, but neither serves well as an unalloyed hero in the modern age. Compromised by reckless violence and misogyny in particular. But the Panthers did have profoundly great spirits – as does any revolutionary transformation movement with a genuine spirit and program

My own favourite (and a special saint in my personal pantheon) is Fred Hampton, who has always seemed to me to represent the most important lesson which revolutionaries and change agents still try to wish their way past – rather than engaging realistically, with appropriate knowledge, tactics and resolve.

As I mentioned above – the Panthers move to shift their emphasis from armed defiance to community transformation, did not make them seem less of a threat to the institutions most hostile to them (J Edgar Hoover’s FBI above all, though many other agencies took an ‘active interest’) – quite the opposite.

The reason strikes a chord in common with Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Fred Hampton himself. Martin Luther King Jr had always made some uncomfortable – but people forget his later principled and courageous stances – not just against racism in America, but against war, imperialism, exploitation and injustice around the world. Going all the way.

Similarly, Malcolm X was long worrisome to the FBI because Hoover was deeply terrified about the potential emergence of a “Black Jesus” capable of inspiring a socially transformative movement. (If ever there was a revealing fear…)

But as long as Malcolm spoke against whites in divisive ways, he represented a localized threat that could be contained with heavy-handed policing. When Malcom travelled to Mecca for the Hajj, he had a revelation that never left him afterward. He saw people of every colour of skin from all over the world joining in common faith and spirit. His own racism was destroyed forever by this (though his understanding of injustice remained).

Upon his return, Malcolm began speaking about greater unities and greater justice in a way which threatened to build broad and serious political coalitions. History records his death as the fault of Elijah Mohammed – the leader of the Nation of Islam, and Malcolm’s own political mentor.

But history definitely does not record all of the trouble-causing phone calls made by wiretapping, surveilling and photographing others, to make sure every single disagreement created the greatest possible damage.

Fred Hampton is my favourite Panther saint for two reasons. He was not an advocate of violence (only self-defence) and always preferred to organize, rather than provoke and risk chaos and injury. There are no accusations against him of misogyny or bullying. He was a man of ideas, understanding, and dialogue.

I can’t help thinking that part of his success was due to his being assigned to help anchor the Chicago chapter of the Panthers. Many places have deep union history and traditions, but Chicago is special in that regard – many of the best ideas about coalitions of left and poor were born there.

The point is that Fred Hampton was not involved with inciting violence – but he was leading the most successful organizing in any Panther chapter. Creating working and solid understandings with white anti-poverty groups and progressive anti gang organizations helping steer kids toward hope.

Not only was he charismatic and effective at cross coalition organizing, he was relentless in the cause, personally teaching a six AM history class designed for busy workers every single morning, rather than delegating what some would consider a burdensome chore.

For his political relevance, brilliant speaking skills, keen understanding and judgement, and master level consensus-building, the state killed him.

They didn’t do this right away. First the FBI got a guy called William O’Neal (who was facing serious felony jail time) to agree to infiltrate the Chicago Panthers in exchange for charges reduced (no jail) and regular payments. O’Neal was successful beyond their wildest dreams – becoming director of security for the Illinois chapter, as well as Hampton’s own bodyguard.

Thing is – O’Neal’s reports infuriated Hoover. He said it seemed clear to him that in this chapter at least, they really were putting the bulk of their energy into being useful to their community, expanding their breakfast, educational and health care initiatives, in particular.

Hoover told the agent who was ‘running’ O’Neal that he must either come up with evidence of plans for armed insurrection, or seek work elsewhere.

The Panthers did still have some weapons, as well as fair cause to fear violence against them. O’Neal made a map of Hampton’s apartment for the FBI showing exactly where Fred and his pregnant girlfriend slept. On the night they chose for their raid, (only days after a still unclear gun battle between police and Panthers, while Hampton was out of town) O’Neal followed orders and slipped a heavy dose of secobarbitol into his drink. Hampton later passed-out in the middle of a phone conversation with his mother, and was put to bed by his friends, who knew he never did drugs, and so assumed it was simple exhaustion.

Just before five AM, fourteen heavily armed tactical officers stormed the four room apartment where Hampton, his girlfriend and eight of their friends (who’d come over after the evening’s speeches) were sleeping.

The initial volley of police gunfire killed Mark Clark, who was sitting watch with a shotgun, and injured several others – but Hampton was only hit in the shoulder. Harold Bell, who was there, said he heard officers say
“Is he dead? Bring him out.”
“He’s barely alive.” “He’ll make it.”
Immediately after which all the surviving Panther witnesses heard the sound of two more gunshots, directly into Hampton’s head.
Then, “He’s good and dead now.”

The police tried to spin the story as a gun battle – but the Panthers countered that it wasn’t a shoot-out, it was a shoot-in – because no Panthers fired. Not every newspaper got it right at first, but that was proven true forensically – the only shot from any Panther was one into the ceiling from an involuntary spasm, when Mark Clark was shot directly in the chest.  Somewhere between ninety and one hundred bullets fired by police.

Now let’s just have another look at what was so incredibly threatening.

What radical insurrectionary doctrine had Hoover so terrified? Gee that’s odd – it looks considerably more like the American constitution, than the Communist Manifesto. Like I said – if ever there was a revealing terror.

And for the record – these 10 points and understandings were included in every issue of “The Black Panther Newsletter” which stayed in print from the sixties until the 80s when the group effectively dissolved/imploded. Powerful Emory Douglas graphics, throughout the historic run.


What We Want Now!
1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
2. We want full employment for our people.
3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.
4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.
6. We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.
8. We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
9. We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.

What We Believe:
1. We believe that Black People will not be free until we are able to determine our own destiny.
2. We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American business men will not give full employment, the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
3. We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as redistribution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities: the Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered 6,000,000 Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over 50,000,000 Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
4. We believe that if the White landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make a decent housing for its people.
5. We believe in an educational system that will give our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
6. We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
7. We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives us the right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.
8. We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
9. We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The 14th amendment of the U.S Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peers. A peer is a persons from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical, and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being tried by all-white-juries that have no understanding of “the average reasoning man” of the Black community.
10. When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, and that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such a form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accused. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, and their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards of their future security.

All In

This is a moment of high passion and righteous calls for justice. Good time also to think about the history of advances in rights, and the outcomes of previous movements – so we can incorporate lessons about strategy – and make sure this justice energy isn’t wasted, coopted or thwarted, by evil but politically skillful gamesmanship.

Sadly, many people who consider themselves ‘serious’ opponents of the right have worked very hard not to learn anything at all from the last disastrous election. Trump is not a Russian plot – no intelligence service would ever recruit someone so completely unstable, unreliable and unpredictable. The Russians definitely do enjoy watching him damage the national interest and take a giant dump all over the American brand, in the eyes of the world, but to suggest he is controlled by them is like saying George Soros is in steering control of every charity group to which he has ever donated money.

This class of ideas is a common, but still silly and paranoid form of tribalist thinking I’ve addressed before.

What Trump is, especially to almost all politically and historically interested people outside of America, is the most completely American president there has ever been. Some Americans love to use him to point out things they don’t like about their nation, as if they started just recently – but what makes this fellow unique is not his malicious intentions, for which there are long precedents, but only that he is a really transparent liar, and so naturally boastful that he frequently forgets when he is supposed to be lying, for the sake of national security, and just calls out secret evil policy directly.

And not only is he shockingly honest about very old games that Americans traditionally prefer to lie to themselves about – he is also the exact sort of personality the CIA has so often installed in foreign countries by force or trickery, when their democracy was getting too close to representing the interests of the people who elected them, instead of the interests of American and trans-national corporations.

If there was (and/or is) a populist coup in Washington, it wasn’t via facebook, and it wasn’t an evil Russian plot.

Many observers around the world assume instead that it was something a lot more like some small Wall Street club, inspired by the still unrepudiated Dulles brothers and Kissinger, who got together and decided it was time to try a little taste of Condor at home.

Washed-up and beautiful

Apologies for my absence – not ’cause I don’t love ya, I promise!

More essays, podcasts, photography, poetry and my usual general craziness are definitely on their way.

Managed to get some creative energy going – weirdly difficult nowadays – especially since this is not something I usually have any trouble with at all. First I got a few pieces of work-work done, then I turned the energy to my personal file and I was finally able to get a very important manuscript tweaked-up and into shape.

I have a kind friend who is far better at fine detail than I, looking at it now, so I can send it on to the printers with the fewest possible goofs. I’m really looking forward to this volume “At A Crazy Time Like This” being released, because it completes the set I began with “Structural Happiness,” and continued (in far more conventional short story form) with “The Kind Of Friend You Need.”

The central motivation for these books was definitely gratitude to crazy, wonderful, creative and eccentric friends and teachers – the themes are inspiration, hard-knocks, kindness, art, determination, love and loyalty.

I used the phrase “Glorious failures” in one of my poems – and I have even discovered it in aviation history (a consolation prize was given to one team which crashed while trying to fly across the Atlantic, for their glorious failure).

I embraced that concept for these books not only for sentimental reasons, but also as a deliberate refutation of the classic ‘heroic’ form of writing, which has been questioned for quite awhile (by some of my favourite feminist writers, especially), and seems to me to serve us poorly nowadays – because it fits too well into ‘celebrity culture’ – where we delegate most of our respect for humanity upward to a few token representatives, instead of saving all of our best gratitude, respect and affection for those around us, who could actually benefit from it.

We all know people who failed to achieve high glory, but were inspirational to us for the way they tried. I find these folks, who simply would not be stopped, even more inspiring than those whose talent fortune found, and far better rewarded. They had to find every bit of it within their circle and themselves!

I was also trying very deliberately for the universal in the specific. That is – these are all stories about real people doing real things, with lots of historical texture (from the eighties, in particular), but I bet every one of them will remind you in one way or another, about someone who touched your life once.

Uplift through the back stairway.
Hope and heart – behind the scenes and just next door.

Really looking forward to sharing the results with all of you – soon-soon!

The Big Flywheel

I got this lovely picture and quote from my brilliant cartoonist and illustrator friend Joseph Salina a few years ago, and I’ve kept it on my desktop ever since. Doris Lessing has been one of my greatest heroes since I was a teenager, and I think she’s an especially good person for creators to think about right now.

She was born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919, grew up on her family’s farm in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), left school at 13 and home at 15, to work as a nanny (and get her first few stories published). In the span of a few short years she had three kids and two failed marriages, got into leftist writing and theory, and realized she was not well suited to staying at home and raising small children, before finally sailing to London England with one of her sons in 1949, when the great city was still being rebuilt after the second world war. She had long been active in politics – was banned from Rhodesia and South Africa for her years of anti-apartheid work, and In 1956 she finally left the British Communist party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

No education, no money, left her own cultural tribe on principle – one might think she was done already by the age of 37, but she was just about to embark on one of the most important literary careers of the 20th century. Best of all, she wasn’t finished being a principled troublemaker, either! Throughout her life she kept speaking-out strongly and clearly, even against her own allies, when they were being harmful, dishonest or misguided. Principle before tribe – always.  Later she studied the ideas of Jung, before finally becoming a student of Idries Shah, the brilliant popularizer of ancient Sufi wisdom in the west.

— “The Golden Notebook” is widely considered a masterpiece of feminist literature – but she was sure that it was widely misinterpreted, and very few caught her actual intentions. (Far more about psychology and the novel-form, than the gendered polemic so many wanted it to be).

— “The Four-Gated City” is a profound, moody and hyper-realistic novel set in post war London that helped take me past mere tribalism, by portraying the evolution of thinking of a group of serious leftist idealists over many years, in a searching and critical way.

— The “Canopus in Argos” series is, along with the work of Ursula K LeGuin, the very foundation of feminist science fiction – and much as I like LeGuin, Lessing’s fierce intelligence made her works advances not just to feminist literature, but to the Science Fiction form itself.

— The first volume, “Shikasta” is a masterpiece – moving from a dreamlike mythic timescale down to days and hours in the life of a few individuals dealing with chaos, on a planetary scale (just a bit worse than now).

— “The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire”, from the same series, proves that Orwell would have done better with sharper humour. One of the funniest pieces of fiction with serious philosophical and political purposes I’ve ever read.

— “The Good Terrorist” is another masterpiece, and like the title above, a good introduction for those who haven’t yet enjoyed her work. How do counterculture kids turn into a terror cell? Easily – and as she shows here, more of the characters attitudes and arguments are familiar than we think.

— “Briefing for a Descent Into Hell” is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read – it describes the collapse of our comfortable life more plausibly and realistically than any other approach I’ve seen – with full emotional clarity and detail – rather than Hollywood pyrotechnics and fight-scenes.

— And if you still aren’t convinced she can out-clever Huxley, outdo Orwell for humane insight, and still surpass John Brunner for world encompassing future realism (nuanced doom), you can always subject yourself to “The Making of the Representative for Planet 8” but I warn you, this one is heartbreaking – because you won’t ever be able to dismiss the suspicion it is our true story.

— A rich, friendly welcoming read? Try “In Pursuit of the English” which captures post-war London characters with awesome precision – and lovely skeptical affection.

— When I leant her book “African Laughter” to my friend from Ghana, he returned it with gratitude and a new perspective. “I never realized the women back home worked so hard,” he told me. Pretty neat trick for a mere book to show you what you never saw about your own home and life.


Anyhow – the reason Lessing (and her lovely quote) is on my mind, is that I have to get my own big heavy creative flywheel moving again – for metabolic reasons as much as any other – and also because I do have work I know I must do (since I don’t know anyone else who will do it, if I don’t), and time really is finite. My usual ‘starter’ is pretty simple – a set of ideas and themes, coupled with someone or group who might enjoy hearing them – never before has the context about and into which I was writing itself been in doubt.

It is very hard to say what the world will be like in a few weeks, months and years. We may be working very differently, and we may have a harder time doing a lot of things that we used to think necessary or nice. But we are still going to be people, trying to figure it out, so we’ll still need stories to entertain and stimulate us. Perhaps the real trick is to write realistically, without minding the fact that by the time it makes it into print, your realism may well have been entirely transformed into nostalgic science fiction ;o)

Doris is still right – conditions are always impossible. Best be about it!


Her reaction to being told she’d won the Nobel Prize was, I think unique (though the exact quotation varies widely). “Oh Christ, I could care less,” she said when reporters ambushed her with the news, “now you’re all going to want me to say something inspirational.” Then she thought for a minute, and in typically impish fashion said, “I’ve won all the literary prizes in Europe now, it’s a royal flush!”

Her official Nobel acceptance lecture was called, “On Not Winning the Nobel Prize” and focussed on all the people around the world who are left out of high-culture by poverty and lack of education.  It was later printed as a book to raise funds for poor children around the world, suffering with HIV/AIDS.

Which reminds me, her Massey lecture (and small book) “Prisons we choose to live inside” is a compact masterpiece of thinking about human contradictions and complexity. I leant that one to a friend who had given up on reading altogether for years, and he read it carefully, and thanked me afterward – just as I had, he found it to be valuable, powerful and unforgettable.

She really was the furthest thing possible from a misty-eyed tribalist idealist, and yet one always felt her aspiration, drive, intelligence and love, powering the whole.  She even wrote three whole books about cats! (haven’t yet read them, so I can’t personally swear to their quality – but if ever there was a cute gateway…)

Oh yeah – and the records kept on her by MI5 and MI6 over the years came to five entire volumes of reports and intercepted correspondence – which are now kept on public display at the National Archives. Which not only proves she was active and bold enough to raise attention, but also that J Edgar (Mary) Hoover really wasn’t the only paranoid who kept tasking the resources of the cold-war state, to the harassment of creators and leaders of thought.  Puts her in good company, to be sure.

The Ultimate Adversary

Hello my friends – here’s a podcast which brings together our shared strange experience of pausing normalcy, and several themes I’ve talked about before, and makes something of them. You don’t have to have listened to anything else I’ve posted for it to make sense – but if you have, you might enjoy a bit of a punchline feeling by the end.

This is definitely not my last word about the themes of compassion, joy and connection, our survival as a civilization and species, or social and personal transformations. But it is nice to put several big ideas together now and then. Use our cumulative effort to answer very serious and sometimes overwhelmingly big questions, which can sometimes be put on the back-burner for years on end, by one petty stressor after another.

How could we achieve the sort of humane and reasonable society that so many of us say we want?

Not by adding anger or force to the lives of others, but by proving that we can be that society ourselves.


Upright Wobblies and Low-Down Commies

Somebody still has to shift these boxes (top photo)

Hello, my friends – podcast time once again. Today I’m looking at a bunch of things which are popularly misunderstood on purpose, to support myths that we rather like. I don’t challenge these falsehoods to be mean, but because these myths get in the way of our clear understanding in some key areas, and make broader political understanding far more difficult than it has to be.

Along the way I talk about the early labour-organizing socialists, the Soviet Union, the first and second world war and the cold war which followed – which so many older folks still remember quite clearly. There is still more to say about the way very different things on the left are falsely linked and confused – but this seemed the necessary foundation upon which all the rest depended. I’ll have an episode about the human potential movement side of things, coming very soon!



The work of Count Alfred Korzybski continues to amaze and inspire today – and thinking deeply about his themes and approaches to clarity and understanding remains useful, even if you aren’t a student of logic or linguistics. Sadly, it is much harder now to find a nice print edition of his masterwork, “Science and Sanity” than it is to find a book about the philosophy to be found in a Disney film franchise.

Gregory Bateson also rewards the reader powerfully, and in his “Mind and Nature” especially, asks much less hard work of us, for the many intellectual and spiritual delights on offer.

Victor Suvorov contributed several volumes which are essential to anyone interested in the weirdness of the cold war USSR, seen through Russian eyes. “The Liberators” talks about his time in the Red Army in a darkly hilarious way. Sometimes sounding as if Joseph Heller had been describing literal truth, and not writing surreal satire.

“Aquarium” tells of his time in the GRU (military equivalent of the KGB) and Soviet intelligence philosophies.

Icebreaker” and several following volumes break down his view of second world war history in detail. There is still controversy (decades of myth aren’t swept away instantly), but it does explain many things which were always highly unbelievable about the official narrative.  The Germans are especially offended at the idea that Stalin was a smarter megalomaniac than Hitler.  Strange what pride people will derive, even in a backhanded way.

Extra fiddly-detail note, just for my fellow technician friends, I should point out one more piece of missing history from the Battle of Britain – the British didn’t just have brand new radar systems to guide their outnumbered forces to where they could do the most good – they also had a well organized system to recover, repair and cannibalize any aircraft which had been damaged or shot down. The Germans had planned this side of things very badly, and major repairs on their aircraft required rail shipments from the forward airfields in France all the way back to specialized workshops in Germany. As the battle wore on, the Germans had more and more machines which weren’t serviceable for battle – while the British were putting more and more cannibalized planes that might easily have been seen as write-offs, back into the battle successfully. The way the curves of repair backlogs change over the course of the battle says just as much as the daily casualty figures. More, in some ways, since both sides were always wildly off in their estimates of enemy losses, in every phase of the war.

Mind you – I still think it was the ‘big wing’ strategy – which would have been foolish and wasteful, if launched early in the battle, but was finally tried after weeks of incredibly hard fighting – which shocked and then shattered the confidence of the Luftwaffe. To be told by your commanders that the enemy was almost completely out of aircraft because of your superior skill and equipment, and then suddenly see bigger formations of planes in the sky than you ever had before, had to have been incredibly disheartening. The network of production factories had already been going full-tilt for months – it was the technicians and mechanics (including many women in the skilled trades) and their overall organization which really made that big-wing shocker possible. The Germans were forced to switch tactics – and though the night attack “blitz” which followed was very difficult for civilians, it also meant the Germans were too afraid to attack by day in numbers, and had given up completely on their plan to invade and conquer England before launching the main event – the opening of hostilities with Russia.


The Most Useful Kind

Today’s podcast is about some of the reasons that sincere people have fought for progress for many years, and yet have somehow lost ground. It is also about the sort of opposition which really scares the forces which conspire to deny our best will and aspirations as citizens of democracies.

Little us, that is, filled not with the sort of mindset that shapes and drives blind consumption, but equipped instead with the sort of awareness, determination and empathy that really can still change and perhaps even save the world.

The policy group I talk about here really is frightening and worth looking into – but it isn’t a good reason to get discouraged. Better to consider what it says about the difference between the voices and needs of citizens and those of corporate monopoly multinational capitalism – so that we all more clearly understand what to demand of our leaders, in order to effectively restrain and leash these predators.

Yoke them to humane service – instead of letting them make us into desperate, stressed out, hyper-entertained and yet ultimately powerless digital-age serfs.


And just in case you think I’m being overdramatic about self-proclaimed freedom lovers and the projects of tyrants – some fairly up to date numbers worth considering.

US total population – 329,549,922 – (all figures here from latest tables on Wikkipedia)

US incarceration rate – 655/100,000 – 21% pretrial remand. Total prison population – 2,121,600

Canadian population – 38,000,148 – very similar culture, about 11% of the US population, way fewer guns.

Canadian incarceration rate – 107/100,000 – 38% pretrial remand. Total prison population – 39,579

You Can’t Guilt a Fascist

Hi folks! Time for another hard truth and a big hug. Today: “You can’t guilt a fascist.”

But so what – what harm is there in any catharsis – ultimately paradoxical or not? The harm is that it throws off our aim, and encourages us to waste a lot of energy that we could be using far better, to effect genuine lasting positive change!


The world is getting more and more chaotic, more people have been disrupted than left alone, and fewer and fewer of us have realistic hope for any sort of a future worth living, let alone training and excelling to master.

Of course some older people will always feel nostalgic, under conditions like this – “Can’t we just go back to the way things were, when I could go through life without ever worrying about this stuff?” But we all know in our hearts there is no going back – those who were silenced before, will not keep silent any more.

We are either going to figure out how to rise together, or we are all going down for the count.

To quote “Never trust anyone over thirty” back to the generation which first invented and celebrated it, would be crass – a bit too much of an “I told you so.” But unlike so many of their confrontational slogans, that one does still hold up and carry some weight – whether or not the insight flatters us.


Forgotten Heavyweight

King meets de Gaulle (top photo)
Black and white photos from an exhibition of American press images of Canada
– at the fantastic Ryerson Image Centre –

Mount Pleasant cemetery contains the graves of many Canadian notables, but few who are more important to the history of the country than this man, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who was not only the longest serving prime minister in Canadian history (1921-1926, 1926-1930 and 1935-1948), but also the only one to earn a PHD (just one of his five degrees, from University of Toronto, Osgoode Hall law school, and Harvard).

He’s a hugely contradictory character in a lot of ways, a big part of a student strike at U of T in 1895 (yes, students were political, even back then), and powerfully influenced by his social studies and progressive anti-poverty movements of the time, he was convinced that capital and labour were natural allies, and irresponsible actions and unreasonable positions taken by either side were destructive to the best possible outcome of freely negotiated enlightened cooperation.

As the first full minister of Labour in a Canadian government (1909), he passed two bills which cracked down on a whole range of exploitative and monopolist big-business practices, and thus directly improved the lives of workers (and customers) across the country.

Taking office as prime minister originally, just after the first world war, he worked for years to heal the deep wounds and divisions it had produced, especially with the farmers all the way from Ontario right out through the Prairie provinces, who were frustrated by trade blockages, and were (curiously) strongly inclined toward democratic socialism, and also free trade. King’s zeal for social reform was genuine and practical enough, that he was able to bring much of that progressive reform movement back into the Liberal fold, which has a lot to do with its centre-left position to this day. Capitalist, yes, but less than cut-throat. Compromise and balance between interests, always front and centre.

He was also the first Prime Minister to assert a Canadian foreign policy completely independent of the wishes of Britain. His refusal to support the mother country in one of its interminable petty squabbles even helped bring down the government of Lloyd George. Shocking insubordination!

He did not speak French and had little deep knowledge of Quebec politics – but he had supported Wilfred Laurier, in opposing conscription in the first world war (which might well have split the country, Quebec was so opposed) – and it must be noted, huge numbers of volunteers came from all over the country, Quebec included, without having to be forced. He also selected a couple of brilliant deputies to advise and deal with Quebec, one of whom (Louis St Laurent, who had resisted entering politics formally until he was sixty years old!) would succeed him as Prime Minister.

Considering his lifelong dedication to social reform, poverty reduction, and urban planning – it might seem surprising that he was not an enthusiastic ‘new-dealer’. Nevertheless, his government passed a huge range of key legislation which now forms the backbone of the Canadian welfare state: family allowance, help for farmers, students, industrial workers, the unemployed, protections for unionized labour, subsidized housing, and even state pensions for the blind. It took Lester Pearson to finally pass modern universal healthcare – but it was under King that federal payments to the provinces to subsidize healthcare began. He also made the National Bank of Canada a crown corporation, taking it out of private hands.

Culturally, we owe him for establishing the CBC, Trans Canada Airlines (later Air Canada), and one of our most under-appreciated treasures – the National film board of Canada. Animation and Documentary superstars!

Nothing to smoke (with Churchill and Roosevelt)

King was an intellectual, but not a charismatic one – never became a great orator – but he was at the helm through the second world war, and the speed with which he organized the Canadian economy to assist besieged Britain helped immensely, during the war’s darkest days, when the US was still sitting on its hands, and U-boats were so effective against shipping, they threatened to starve the UK into surrender. (Churchill’s worst nightmare).

A personal friend of Rockefeller who opposed monopolists in spirit and legislation throughout his career, and sincerely strived to lift people out of entrenched poverty. Racist by policy and philosophy – against Asian immigration from early in his career – and later interned many Japanese families during the second world war – despite advice from both the RCMP and the military that almost all were peaceful law-abiding citizens, who posed no threat.

And yet the war might well have been lost without his deft governance – and rapid shift from principled defiance of England, to unstinting and tireless support, in her hour of greatest need. We weren’t even Canadian citizens before King passed the citizenship act – technically, we were British subjects living in Canada. Most impressively – between 1939 and 1945 the GDP of Canada more than DOUBLED! It was widely recognized at the time that no allied nation employed their economy more effectively.  All while balancing a myriad of regional tensions.

Wages rose by two-thirds, during this same period – and post-war, Canada was firmly established as a middle-power on the world stage, with fantastic industrial promise, fast rising standards for it’s people, and a key role in establishing the United Nations (see this piece on Lester Pearson).

There is so much more – great and terrible – to say about the man. But I’ll end with this thought – crucial to Canadian independence (from the UK and US both), national unity and broad social progress – while much less charismatic than others more often discussed, and horribly wrong in some huge and unforgivable ways, his is nevertheless a big part of the soul that got built into our machine. National character achieved through progressive legislation.

Compromise master – ultra Canadian. Keep those plastic flowers dusted.

Fun and Games

Hey folks – seems a good time for a rainy-day show, with a few ideas about things we can do to stave off frustration, when we are forced to put all of the projects we’d planned on-hold, for an indefinite time.

Part of this is about creative outlets – and if you’ve been reading or listening to me for awhile, you’ll know I’m an advocate for every kind of art and craft making. Experience is unbeatable here, and even if our own skills never advance too far, our appreciation of the art and craft around us grows immeasurably. So too does our respect for the cumulative contributions of so many, which we live inside and take for granted, far too often.

But it is unrealistic to expect your best work under this sort of stress – and unfair to demand new creative peaks from those who aren’t accustomed to tapping-in to this source of energy and pleasure at all.
Thing is, even if we haven’t got the energy to create anything new, we can still wander around inside some lovely, elaborate and absorbing creations of others. Books, movies, and games are all diverting, and full of unexpected inspiration.



The division between gamers and those who look down on gaming is roughly generational – but there are many communities who are welcomed into surprising literacy within gaming culture, who often defy this simplistic sorting. Dyslexics who experience great difficulty accessing a text that many share, feel no such barrier in this realm, and often find their unusual emphasis on spacial relationships an outright benefit. Finally, they can join-in without any feeling of penalty for their neuro-diversity.

Perhaps even more unexpectedly – the more options and freedoms that players have been allowed by the game worlds they play inside, the more themes of real social value have gained prominence in the world of gaming, and user created projects never conceived by the creators have been added to the original concepts, extending their possibilities in quite extraordinary ways.

Rockstar games is often singled out as offensive (and just as often called the best game company there is). Their flagship product, the Grand Theft Auto series, has been criticized endlessly by non-gamers, for allowing freedoms to their players, which ought to be forbidden. Badly confusing the idea of real world consequences for physical actions – with censorship of the thoughts and options available in fiction and imaginative play.

The series does have some pretty strong content – but each episode is a simulation of the career of a successful criminal, rising from the streets to the upper ranks – so it would be weird not to expect that, and also frankly lame, were they to limit the story to the restrained, cliche or predictable.

What I (and millions of others) found hilarious when they got to their most recent instalment, was that they managed to make both the East coast Mafia character of the early games and the LA gang Member of the later ones seem like restrained and rather sensible people, in contrast to the meth-cooking maniac way far out in the desert.

Despite a lot of violence and crazy characters, the depth of the latest instalment is quite amazing – missions far more flexible than scripted, plenty of room for personal style and genuine strategy. Most surprisingly, the world has grown to encompass far more than just simulated capers. There are now a number of support groups who meet way out in the virtual desert together, play around on their motocross bikes, and console each other over their medical and psychological conditions, in emotionally important ways.

Sure, not as good as actually being there – then again, for reasons of money and health both, presence simply isn’t an option for everyone – and spending some time with pals, having fun, goofing off and sharing painful soul-stuff that really counts, is something of genuine humane value that the able with more options ought not to deny the house-bound, simply because we haven’t understood the genre.

Toronto Publisher

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