Relish

Relish

I relish my life in San Pancho

I Recline and read

I Eat and eat, and put back on the pounds it took twelve months to take off

I Lie and sleep

I Intellectually inquire and investigate

I Sit and write

I Hop around in the pool to cool off

I relish my life in San Pancho.

The SNC-Lavalin Affair

I have been discussing American politics for so long that it is easy to forget that I am Canadian. I did make a small reference to the issue in my previous blog and introduced the subject of Treasury Board Chair Jane Philpott’s resignation from the cabinet in solidarity with former Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane’s loss of confidence in the way the government had dealt with the criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin. In her letter of resignation, Jane wrote, “Unfortunately, the evidence of efforts by politicians and/or officials to pressure the former Attorney General to intervene in the criminal case involving SNC-Lavalin, and the evidence as to the content of those efforts raised serious concerns for me…The solemn principles at stake are the independence and integrity of our justice system.” Note the evidence did not lead her to draw conclusions, only raise concerns in her mind. So why did she not wait until the Ethics Commissioner handed down a ruling or the Justice Committee finished its hearings and possibly drew up a report?

I am currently mesmerized by the troubles Justin Trudeau is in over the SNC-Lavalin Affair and need to write about that even though many of my readers who are not Canadian may have only a marginal interest in the current Canadian political crisis. And it is a crisis. But should it be?

It is a crisis that should matter, not only to Canadians, but to the rest of the world. After all, it begins with an issue of corruption in the private sector of a Canadian company with a global reach. Perhaps, even more importantly at this time, it is about the stability of a country currently led by a centrist government that has been a target of disdain by Donald Trump, who launched a trade war with America’s largest economic trading partner. And it is not just about trade. For Americans who want to campaign in the next presidential election over the issue of a single-payer system for health insurance, America’s next-door neighbour offers an example of a polity where a charge of “socialism” as a vicious epithet is difficult, though, unfortunately, far from impossible, to use in characterizing Canada’s welfare state.

More to the point, given the difficulties of Donald Trump over charges of obstruction of justice, the centre of the crisis has shifted from the alleged corruption of SNC-Lavalin to the issue of whether the Prime Minister and, or, his staff in his office or the Privy Council brought untoward pressure on the Attorney General in charge of deciding whether to go forward with the criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin in a court of law. Americans may, probably very justly, see the controversy in Canada over obstruction of justice as a dispute about a few children playing in a sandbox since the offence, relative to the American situation, is so marginal and the consequences so peripheral to core political issues of international concern. But the issue is important and goes to the heart of the institutions at the core of a democracy.

I choose to write on this issue today instead of waiting to hear all the evidence when I could and will make my mind up on the issue when I have much more information than the paltry amount I have now. There is a parallel, and quieter, investigation by the Parliamentary Ethics Commissioner into whether there was a breach of Section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act prohibiting high-level government officials seeking to influence the decisions of another official to improperly advance “a person’s private interests.” Could the efforts of Prime Minister Trudeau or his office be interpreted as efforts to advance the interests of SNC-Lavalin, its executives and shareholders? I write now because I want to pre-empt hearing some evidence. Gerry Butts, who three weeks earlier resigned as Trudeau’s chief policy advisor precisely over this issue, is testifying before a House of Commons Justice Committee today. I want to read his testimony in full preparation mode. I also do not want his input to unduly influence me since, a) he is my former graduate student and b) he has remained a personal friend.

I had already predicted that the controversy would not go away simply because Gerry resigned. In fact, the resignation, I believe, provided a dollop to help escalate the crisis. But that is neither here nor there. What matters is getting a handle on the key issues. I anticipate that, contrary to the prediction of much of the press, Gerry will not provide a counter-narrative to that of former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould. I believe that both Justin and Gerry respected Jody’s abilities and her integrity too much for that. I note that, although discussions and communications between Jody and the director of public prosecutions remain confidential in accordance with standard practice, on 25 February Trudeau’s government issued an order-in-council to waive any claim for solicitor-client privilege that limit what Jody could say or reveal about her discussions with Trudeau and his office. However, though I do not believe Gerry will contradict what Jody said, I believe he will provide a different interpretation of the issue. I guess that his criticisms will be about political smarts rather than integrity.

Sheila Copps, who is also currently in Puerto Vallarta, argued that Justin should “lance the boil” and kick both women out of caucus. They have damaged the party and the brand. Jody claimed that she has not been free to speak whereas there has been no effort to suppress her from speaking. Further, Copps noted, that on this issue, Jody made it clear that she had made up her mind even before the PM spoke to her. Sheila accused Jody of being unable to listen and insisted that Justin should act tougher and more decisively. Chrystia Freeland, the outstanding Canadian Finance Minister, has also weighed in defending Justin as both a boss and a feminist.

This is very different than the way much of the foreign press and some of the Canadian press have dealt with the crisis. When I read the foreign press, particularly the American press, I find it distressing that the issue is being treated as one about a politician who is losing or who has lost his “star power.” Justin was the young, energetic, untarnished representative of a new generation of politicians driven by ideas and ideals. As The Washington Post reported this morning, his “charmed” rise to power has been lost. A key issue is not the loss of Justin Trudeau’s sex appeal as a superstar politico in the political entertainment industry.

But it is not just the foreign press. A headline on a Neil Macdonald story read:

TRUDEAU’S VERBAL PORRIDGE AND SERENE SMILE HAVE CARRIED HIM ALONG. UNTIL NOW

The reality is that the shine has been off Justin’s star power for some time. Some argue that the Indian trip and his family’s dress code did him in. Others trace it to Justin and his family going on a very expensive holiday provided free by the Aga Khan, who happened to be an old family friend. Still others trace his fall from grace to his reneging on his electoral promise to reform the first-past-the-post electoral system. Or was it the enormous sum the Trudeau government paid to bail out and possibly build a pipeline that had questionable prospects? Most egregiously, for others, Trudeau has joined his southern leader in kowtowing to the Saudis while, at the same time, getting into a row with China. Whatever the trigger, Justin’s entertainment value is not relevant. However, the perception and the reality of him as a political leader are.

It is not simply of importance to Canada. Democracy is under assault across the world. Canada is a beacon of hope in this challenge to democracy. Further, unlike many of its allies, most Canadians retain confidence that they have an honest government, whatever the differences over policy. Thus, the SNC-Lavalin affair is important, not only to Canadians but to the rest of the world.

Mark Collon offers a reasonably comprehensive summary of the various issues concerning the SNC-Lavalin affair and they can be accessed at https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/trudeau-wilson-raybould-attorney-general-snc-lavalin-1.5014271. SNC-Lavalin is facing charges of fraud and corruption in connection with almost US$36 million payments to Libyan government officials between 2001 and 2011, or under US$4 million per year.

Anyone familiar with the theft of monies from the Libyan people during these years will recognize this as a pittance. Years ago, inadvertently, I came across some key information on the quest to recover the fifty to one hundred billion dollars stolen in Libya and the location of those funds. I wrote up some of my findings in an article. It appeared that Israel’s Mossad and some Israeli billionaires had possibly played key roles in tracing down those funds and possibly sequestering them.

Shortly after my piece appeared, my computer seized up. I took it in to a service person to unlock the computer so I could at least recover my information and writings to transfer them to a new computer at the very least. I was told that this would be impossible. The problem was not with the computer’s electronics, but it appeared that someone had hacked into my computer and totally destroyed everything on it, programs and writings. Absolutely nothing was recoverable. I had no material to continue my series on locating the missing Libyan billions, though my older articles and other material had been stored on an older computer that I no longer used.

My point is simple. The SNC-Lavalin corruption case is very important to Canadians and to Canadian foreign policy promoting integrity in dealing with other states, particularly developing states. But in the overall scheme of things, the alleged corruption charges against SNC-Lavalin were not only small potatoes, but did not even rise to the level of salt on those potatoes. Nevertheless, like many such corruption issues, the after-effects in the political arena emerge as far more significant.

The case against SNC-Lavalin looked solid and, if convicted, SNC-Lavalin could be banned from obtaining contracts for ten years. But the issue is not simply the strength of a major Canadian business based in Quebec and its integrity, but the integrity of the Canadian government and its failure to maintain a wall between the influence of business and the integrity of the political process.

For SNC-Lavalin had managed to get an amendment included in the Criminal Code in a 582-page omnibus budget bill in 2017 based on a promise by SNC-Lavalin to reform and on the prospect of SNC-Lavalin’s plans to expand its Canadian operation. SNC-Lavalin President and CEO, Neil Bruce, had lobbied the Canadian government and sent a letter to Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough to that effect to change its anti-corruption rules “as expeditiously as possible” so SNC-Lavalin could avoid prosecution by creating a plea-bargain alternative, known as a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) between the government and a corporation which had demonstrated that it had reformed after a record of corrupt behaviour. SNC-Lavalin, he claimed, was now a leader in exemplary ethical conduct and had forfeited a great deal of business abroad to avoid improper conduct. Those changes in Canadian law would, purportedly, align Canadian laws with those of the U.S., Britain and France and allow SNC-Lavalin to operate on a level playing field.

The actual detailed changes to the “integrity regime” have still not been published, but the issue remained whether individuals and firms committing economic offences – bribery and fraud – should be spared criminal charges in order to “reduce the negative consequences of the wrongdoing for persons — employees, customers, pensioners and others (there are 9,000 in Canada, mostly in Quebec) — who did not engage in the wrongdoing.” The Criminal Code specifically excludes using nation-state economic interests or inter-state foreign relations as a reason for the application of a DPA.

Jody claimed that, in one conversation with the PM, and in others with various officials, including 11 from the PMO, the Privy Council Office and the office of the Minister of Finance (Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford, his then-principal secretary Butts, PMO staffers Mathieu Bouchard and Elder Marques, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Morneau’s chief of staff Ben Chin and Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick), she had been subjected to “a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the Attorney General of Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with SNC-Lavalin.” Sheila Copps in her interview on “As It Happens” on CBC quipped, if 11 discussions and 7 emails constitute pressure, Jody has no idea what pressure is. Sheila, when she was in cabinet, but especially when she was Deputy Prime-Minister, on any single issue was subject to hundreds, even thousands, of communications. She wondered aloud, what if the jobs of 9,000 First Nations people had been at stake. On the other hand, was Trudeau being a structural racist when he first offered Jody the responsibility for Indigenous Services? Jody declined (according to Butts, unprecedented) because she had spent her life fighting the Indian Act and could not in good conscience administer it.

The Attorney General in the Canadian government has an independent, non-partisan role, especially in the oversight of federal prosecutions. Jody claimed that in one conversation with the PM on 17 September 2018, the PM told her he needed a solution to the problem since many jobs would be lost without a DPA, that the company threatened to move out of Montreal and possibly Canada, and that an election was on the horizon, but denied he was pressuring her and insisted only that he was merely searching for a solution to the problem.

Jody insisted in turn that she had done her due diligence and made up her mind, as Copps noted, even before discussing the issue with the PM or cabinet. She was not going to interfere with the decision of the director even though, under Section 10 of the DPP Act, the AG is permitted to issue directives “on the initiation or conduct of any specific prosecution.” Further, Jody insisted, the only relevant factor was the criminality of the accused, even though the DPA specifically made provision for settling a case out of court. She, as minister, could neither be nor be seen to be responding to political pressure. The problem remained – when do advice and information and exchanges of views amount to pressure and even a direction?

Justin specifically denied any direction. Gerry even denied that any pressure had been applied. Trudeau had insisted that, in the end, the decision was hers to make alone. Most importantly, Jody herself stated that nothing that had transpired had been illegal.

What we do know for sure is that in October 2018, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada made a determination that SNC-Lavalin had not met the criteria for a DPA. Jody refused to intervene in that decision, though she could have issued a direction in writing to be posted in the Canadian Gazette. The issue was not that she could not intervene, but that she would not. On 7 January 2019, Jody was demoted and moved to another more junior ministry, Minister of Veterans Affairs, and expressed the belief that this had taken place because she had refused to issue a DPA for SNC-Lavalin.

The crisis unfolds. Questions to keep in mind:

Should Jody have threatened to resign if the attempt to “pressure” on her did not desist?

Should she have resigned rather than accept a demotion?

Should and will Trudeau exclude her from the Liberal caucus?

Why are Jody and Jane dealing with this matter as if it is central to the integrity of government?

Whatever the factors, has Trudeau demonstrated incompetence in managing his own ministers and his House of Commons colleagues?

What does the crisis say about recruiting two very accomplished and committed women and promoting them to cabinet when they lacked any deep roots in the Liberal party and in the day-to-day requirements of compromise needed for effective governing?

Is the whole crisis one of integrity or political management or both?

Walls VIB: Opening in a Wall Preserving Conservatism

Walls VIB: Opening in a Wall and Preserving Conservatism



Canada and the International Red Cross

Yesterday, I circulated to a few friends a CBC interview with my friend, Irwin Cotler, on the SNC Lavalin Affair that is roiling political life in Canada (https://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/the-house/segment/15674284) After that, Jane Philpott resigned from cabinet after considering Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony before the House of Commons justice committee.
Jane resigned over her differences with cabinet colleagues since she could not reconcile her criticisms of how the government had dealt with Jody versus her commitment to the principle of cabinet solidarity. At the centre of the debate was the wall that separated the Attorney General’s right and responsibilities to determine which prosecutions should go ahead and her cabinet responsibilities with respect of public policy and cabinet solidarity. My suggestion is that there has been too much emphasis on the wall and too little on the way openings in the wall should and can be exploited to encourage dialogue across the wall and, possibly, reconciliation.
In the CBC interview, Irwin described the tension between the role of the Attorney General and Justice Minister to speak truth to power at the same time being mindful of the need of ALL ministers to take into account policy and respect cabinet solidarity. Irwin was clearly impressed with Jody’s evidence and noted that she has a habit of taking detailed notes. Irwin had once recommended that the of taking minister responsible for prosecutions should NOT be in cabinet to ensure that a wall be retained between the duties of a Justice Minister to prosecute crimes on the one hand and, on the other hand, to participate in the formulation of public policy.

His recommendation was not accepted. Irwin says that he was faced with a similar tension, but did not see it necessary to resign when policy overruled the recommendation to pursue a criminal prosecution. Irwin distinguished intentions of an action and its consequences, suggesting that the evidence revealed thus far did not support a conclusion that the PM intended to stop or intervene in a prosecution, but the effect of persistent pressure may have had that effect. Irwin suggested that the continuing pressure beyond the point when Jody said, “Enough is enough” and decided the criminal prosecution should go forward, possibly had crossed a red line. However, further efforts at persuasion were inappropriate though not criminal. Finally, Irwin openly indicated that the inquiry is only at the beginning and testimony would be offered by many others as well as concrete evidence.

Should there be a wall between decisions to proceed with prosecutions and determinations of public policy such that the Attorney General not even be part of cabinet? Or should the wall be porous to facilitate a dialogue between issues of public policy and decisions to pursue prosecutions which therefore could not be entirely free from political interference?

The recent case of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Ltd., who was arrested on 1 December 2018 at the request of the United States, is another case in point. U.S. Authorities want her extradited to face bank fraud charges. It is unclear the extent to which the American decision to prosecute was motivated by its trade disputes with China. Was there a direct link between a decision to prosecute and American trade policy? The debate has certainly affected Canada’s relationship with China in at least two areas.

China detained two Canadians, allegedly over the issue of the Chinese technology executive being arrested by Canadian authorities and facing possible extradition from Canada to the United States. Michael Spavor, a businessman in Beijing, and Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat living in the northeastern city of Dandong in China, were arrested on suspicion of “engaging in activities that endanger the national security” of China.

The repercussions on public policy of a prosecutorial decision have not only affected China-Canada diplomatic relations, but economic relations as well. Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod announced that he was putting on hold a trade mission intended to be sent to China in light of the arrest of the two Canadians. Should the Canadian cabinet have discussed the possible public policy implications of detaining Meng Wanzhou and possibly prevented her arrest given the serious international repercussions and the detrimental economic and political affects?

The issue of walls between policy debates and issue of justice concern not only criminal but international justice as well. They concern not only the issues of democratic governments in a nation-state but the conduct of international humanitarian agencies as well. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) provides a case given its determination to maintain a wall between its primary objectives and all other possible issues, including other humanitarian obligations, some similar to the SNC Lavalin case insofar as they concern economic issues and some distinctly different because they concern ethical priorities that translate into humanitarian policies.

According to the commentary of my Geneva colleague, Danny Warner (http://danielwarner.blog.tdg.ch/archive/2019/02/13/the-red-cross-crossroad-297300.html), a recent interview in the Tribune de Genève with the director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Yves Daccord, and a letter/response from a former ICRC delegate, Thierry Germond, signalled a crisis at the ICRC and in the humanitarian ethos. On one level, it is about tradition versus change. On another level, it is about much more. It is about whether to build a firewall around an institution’s mandate in order to protect that mandate.

ICRC humanitarianism always prioritized the separation of the humanitarian goals from business and politics ever since Henry Dunant founded the organization, even though he needed money to fund access to victims and prisoners of war in situations of violent conflict. At the same time, he was involved in the promotion and development of humanitarian law that could take primacy over state law. That has been the tradition of the ICRC and usually it has managed to sail safely between the need for independence and its diplomatic dealings with states and donors.

ICRC’s current President Peter Maurer joined the Foundation Board of the World Economic Forum (WEF) to enable the ICRC to access both decision-makers and potential donors. When Hillary Clinton gave highly paid speeches to Wall Street, did that not create a suspicion that she could easily become a tool of major financial institutions? Would it not have been worse if she had accepted membership on the board of one of those financial institutions or an overarching body? There is always a tension between a non-profit or charitable organization’s need for money and the necessary obligation to ensure that it is not influenced or seen to be influenced by that money. In order to fulfill ICRC’s mandate, should Peter Maurer not have declined an invitation to join the WEF board?

ICRC has developed a number of practices to enable it to protect its mandate and not kowtow to powerful organizations. However, in many cases, a method of confidentiality developed over decades may clearly seem to indicate that the ICRC is in the pocket of the perpetrators. In the case of the Abu Ghraib torture victims, in order to protect access to those prisoners, ICRC remained silent about the crimes being committed. ICRC chose to protect the principle of confidentiality to ensure access, but risked a charge of complicity as a bystander to torture.

The tension is not always between the ICRC and a perpetrator, but sometimes even with another humanitarian agency. In 1982, under the auspices of the Refugee Documentation Project at York University, we went to Lebanon to count the number of refugees made homeless by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. We were impelled to do so when OXFAM (UK) published full page ads in British newspapers claiming that 600,000 had been made homeless by the Israeli invasion. Since we were otherwise involved in verifying counts of Palestinian refugees, since virtually the only ones made homeless in Lebanon were Palestinians because of Israeli attacks on Palestinian refugee camps, and because, at the very most, there were only 250,000 refugees in those camps and most seemed not to be homeless, we went to undertake an accurate count. We had a scholarly agenda. We wanted to demonstrate that even in the times of war, one could make reasonably accurate estimates of the number of displaced persons.

Israel claimed to have made its own count. The government insisted that, according to its count, 27,000 had been made homeless. There was an enormous discrepancy between 27,000 and 600,000. There is a convoluted story about how we got into Lebanon in the midst of a war to undertake our counts, which I hint at later, hint because it is not germane to the theme of this blog. Suffice it to say, I ended up in the office of the ICRC in Sidon in Lebanon. When I explained the purpose of the trip, the head of the office almost breathed a sigh of relief. For the ICRC had been responsible for issuing the figure of 600,000. However, in their cable to humanitarian organizations, they had said that 600,000 had been affected by the invasion. They did not claim that 600,000 had been made homeless.   

The ICRC had not corrected the figure because of their policy of neutrality and avoiding public relations spats, even though they privately decried what they knew to be a spread of false information, possibly in an effort to raise funds. They supplied a vehicle and a driver to enable us to go around Lebanon to do our counts with the understanding that the Refugee Documentation Project would take exclusive responsibility for the results. They also expressed a preference that their help not be acknowledged.

I asked if the ICRC had undertaken a count. They said that they had. I asked about the results. They were very reluctant to share them. I gave them a number of arguments why they should and assured them that I would not publish the source without their permission. Finally, they shamefacedly agreed. The shame was not about the figure, but about the method that they had arrived at their count. It was about 50% higher than the Israeli count – 40,000 had been made homeless in southern Lebanon according to their count.

They had arrived at that figure by multiplying the number of kitchen packages (pots, pans, dishes, etc.) that they had distributed and multiplied by three. They had distributed just under 13,500 kits. They had no idea of the degree of accuracy and did not compare to the actual head count that the Israelis had undertaken. Except, we told them, that the Israeli report had made a simple adding mistake. The Israeli numbers added up to 37,000 not 27,000. The Israelis were very embarrassed and allowed us to enter the war zone as we convinced them that figures issued by a research organization could be much more trusted than one publicized by a combatant, especially given the error in addition.

As it turned out, we did not have to do any counting. We discovered that in addition to the Israeli and ICRC counts, there were ten others, the most detailed and accurate by the Palestinian teachers, even though they included individuals in the count who had lost homes that they did not inhabit but rented out to guest workers for years. But they recorded that fact. There were other more or less similar counts, such as one by the municipal engineers.

We adjusted our mandate to reconciling and verifying the counts already done. The result – 40,000 Palestinians had been made homeless as a result of the Israeli invasion, ironically, the same figure as the ICRC rough estimate. The Israeli counters had missed several pockets of displaced persons, hence their undercount by 3,000. We published the results and they were cited by both sides in the conflict and by the international community.

The point of this story, however, is not to document the work of the York University Refugee Documentation Project, but to illustrate: a) that conflicts can arise not only between humanitarian agencies and state power, but between humanitarian agencies as well; b) that principles can be maintained, but their occasional detrimental effects can be overcome using alternative methods that do not compromise the principle of avoiding arguments in the press.

My argument is that what appears to be a debate between tradition and innovation both goes deeper and becomes a debate between principles and practices versus alternative principles and practices in a case where power may hold the trump card. But not always power. The conflict may be with another humanitarian organization that compromised its integrity out of carelessness or bias or an eagerness to raise funds or some combination of these and other factors. The solution was a case in which tradition and innovation came together to complement one another.

In many situations, ICRC becomes involved in an internal debate between its traditional preference for not going public and the wrong that results from silence. In the case of the American use of torture at Abu Ghraib, ICRC determined that the tradition of retaining access to prisoners was more important than its going public; the latter would have threatened ICRC’s access. On the other hand, not going public opened the ICRC to a charge of complicity with, as my Geneva colleague suggested, the failure to make the abuse public eroded the moral authority of the ICRC.

Independence, impartiality and neutrality are aspirational goals and principles. When to compromise, when to bend, when to find alternative ways around a conundrum, depend on the context and the skills of the players involved. A wall was generally not the answer. Communicating through the pores and openings in the wall and finding a solution that respected both was the answer. The logic was not one of either/or but of both/and. Except!

Except, some cases are clear. A wall may indeed be needed. As my colleague Danny Warner commented, “The World Economic Forum touts itself as ‘an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.’ Shaping ‘global, regional and industrial agendas’ is a far cry from ‘preventing or alleviating the horrors of war.’ Peter Maurer’s membership in the WEF’s Foundation Board calls into question the ICRC’s humanitarian mandate and the essential separation of the humanitarian from business and politics.”

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Wall VIA – Opening: Conservatism that in Not a Wall

I have spent a large amount of time on blogs dealing with walls with a short foxtrot into space and openings. On the sacred plane, there are guardians for openings. Openings connect the past and the future, connect history to revelation. Coming to an opening is the opposite of living in the moment, for it sees the moment simply as a transition between the past and the future. This does not mean the self is not present. For unless it is fully present, the self will miss the opening.

My last blog probed into those who sever their concerns from their historical roots. As I depicted it, such a posture “is always irreverent, seeming to idolize that which is not rooted in traditional trust and an emphasis on reliability, such as folk music. Rock is anti-institutional. Hence its association with the antithesis to the rule of law and convention. The responsibilities of ordinary life were considered distracting annoyances. In combining passion and energy rather than sensitivity and delicacy, ideas became exciting and sexy. And both conviction and convincing became the two sides of its rhetorical thrust as the lightness of being and attention to detailed exposition were both ignored.”

In this blog, I want to explore a very opposite posture, or, at the very least, one which at least attends to the past and history even if revelation is bracketed. Gerry Cohen is an outstanding philosopher at Oxford, but also a brilliant stand-up comedian. He was such a superb mimic of Isaiah Berlin that when we were together at Oxford for a week with other academics who were once students of Isaiah’s and Isaiah walked in late after Gerry had been imitating him commenting on an issue, we told Isaiah that his presence was not needed because we already had an impressive doppelgänger. Isaiah laughed and stayed.

In Gerry Cohen’s essay, “Rescuing Conservatism: A Defense of Existing Value,” that he delivered at the Centre for Ethics at the Munk Centre at U of T just over ten years ago (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQA_PghU0H4 – it is included in the collection, Reasons and Recognition: Essays on the Philosophy of T.M. Scanlon edited by R. Jay Wallace, Rahul Kumar and Samuel Freeman), he wrote that,

“The conservative attitude that I seek to describe, and begin to defend, in this paper is a bias in favour of retaining what is of value, even in the face of replacing it by something of greater value. I consider two ways of valuing something other than solely on account of the amount or type of value that resides in it. In one way, a person values something as the particular valuable thing that it is, and not merely for the value that resides in it. In another way, a person values something because of the special relation of the thing to that person. There is a third idea in conservatism that I more briefly consider: namely, the idea that some things must be accepted as given, that not everything can, or should, be shaped to our aims and requirements.”

Gerry was not always a conservative. When I first knew him, he was a preeminent Marxist thinker. Though his Conservatism has come to the fore, it is not inconsistent with an anti-capitalist stance, if capitalism is characterized as maximizing utilitarianism, the willingness to sacrifice the present for what is considered a more valuable future.

Conservatism for Gerry is primarily about valuing how things are, what we have now in favour of something held to be better or of greater value in the present. Conservatism seeks to preserve this particularity. As Gerry insists, “This orientation encompasses causes dear to the left, such as the conservation of nature, species, architecture, and folk traditions.” But it also respects “enthusiasms of the right such as the preservation of national character and ways of life.”

Conservatives of this ilk resist change and challenge the desire to sacrifice what we have for what is held out to be a higher value. They value “what they are” and do not favour giving preference to what might provide more value over what we already have. Gerry is not in favour of the principle of conservation of value, which is a principle derived from the law of the conservation of energy, but the conservation of what we value, of that which has either intrinsic value, value to us personally (personal value) or simply the value that prioritizes retention unless overwhelming arguments are offered for its sacrifice. And instrumentalism of any kind does not count as an overwhelming argument. Nor do natural laws.

Let me illustrate this form of conservatism. Ignoring the controversy over the cover of the magazine illustrating Jennifer Percy’s story, “The Life of an American Boy at 17” in the March issue of Esquire, Ryan Morgan is portrayed as a depiction of “what it’s like to grow up white, middle class, and male in the era of social media, school shootings, toxic masculinity, #MeToo, and a divided country.” Morgan grew up in the middle-class town of West Bend, Wisconsin, a blue-collar overwhelmingly white town (2% are African-American) of just over thirty thousand outside Milwaukee with a strong German heritage in a county where Donald Trump won 67 percent of the vote. His parents are conservative. In West Bend, a moderate Republican is a liberal.

He is for:
• The death penalty
• Putting tariffs and limits on the import of foreign goods
• The woman in a marriage quitting her job if a couple have a baby though he professes to support marriage equality
• Football, the most exciting part of his life.
He is against:
• Welfare, except if you are working
• Needle exchanges
• The distribution of condoms in high school to prevent pregnancy
• The legalization of abortion.
He is proud of his behaviour:
• He is decisive whereas his girlfriend of four years, Kaitlyn, is tentative and waves other drivers on even when it is her turn at a four-way stop
• He likes playing video games
• He does not drink or do drugs
• He does not party
• He does not use Facebook or Twitter
• He does not hang out with the “white guys who all hang out with their trucks and guns and say, ‘Heil Trump’ and all that,” yet he supports Trump even though, “Everyone hates me…I couldn’t debate anyone without being shut down and called names. Like, what did I do wrong?”
• He does not think that Trump is racist or sexist, although the president “tries to piss people off a little too much.”
• He is an apologist for Josh Hader, a pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, though Hader when he was 17 and 18 in his tweets used the n-word repeatedly and made an allusion to “white power” and revealed himself as both a homophobe and a misogynist
• He is a conservative moderate in a school where most young people are liberal
• He, like his fellow teenagers, worry about getting a job and making money
• He is sceptical about attending college, though academically he does well, because attending college might change him and make him more liberal
• Ryan’s father, Owen, a taxidermist, has taught Ryan that taxidermy is not about showing off the biggest thing you’ve killed; it’s about preserving memories.

Note a number of things about Ryan’s Conservatism. He is wary of mass psychology. He does not surrender to the norm of political correctness. Nor does he defend what he believes by insisting that a universal law underpins it. He has been educated to believe in preserving memories, but they are memories only in a limited sense; they are self-referential. A preserved item is intended to stimulate the emotions and excitement once felt at a particular place and time in the past.

The article did not probe Ryan’s views of Black Americans or of migrants from Mexico. However, from the overall tone of the interview, there is no indication that Ryan felt any animus towards Blacks or towards migrants. However, if he identified the latter’s entry into America or preferences given to African or native Mexicans with a threat to his way of life, he would be inclined to adopt more restrictive entry policies and to try to eliminate any preferential treatment based on a past record of abuses.

Because of his attitude to abortion, to gun rights, to capital punishment, all rooted in what he might consider threats to his predisposition to value what exists more than what could be, he is a moderate supporter of Donald Trump. One way to wean him away from that support is to try to establish in his mind why Donald Trump’s radicalism and disruptive tendencies are both opportunistic and a long-term threat to his way of life. Donald Trump is no defender of personal values, but a person who betrays personal values such as courage, such as loyalty, such as civility. Given Ryan’s self-referential view of memory, it will be of little utility to appeal to his identification with underdogs, whether they be migrants or minorities who suffer discrimination.

Democrats will have to choose between adopting a moderate agenda that could wean away conservatives (and independents) from Donald Trump or direct their appeal to the frustrated working class who feel betrayed by globalism. Or they could target some other group that gave their support to Trump. DT managed to cobble together a contradictory message that appealed to a swath of voters, each group made to feel that DT was the better alternative, even receiving possible reinforcement from the working class in places like Ohio. The propensity to support Trump by those of a conservative predisposition will be more likely reinforced if Democrats choose as their candidate a person advocating radical changes.

Tomorrow and the following day, I will continue this essay by discussing two almost entirely opposite cases, first a case study of Conservatism based on altruism. I will follow this with an examination in much greater detail of the claim that Conservatism allegedly defending the notion of self-interested individualism actually takes undermines conservatism in the most disruptive way to our inherited values. But let me first end with words from one of my readers as both a conclusion to this essay as well as an introduction to the next in which I will explore the predisposition to value what exists more than what could be and see how it can be complementary to rather than at odds with progressivism.

Tomorrow, I will continue this essay by discussing two almost entirely opposite cases, first a case study of Conservatism based on altruism rather than self-interest versus a claimed Conservatism in the name of defending the notion of self-interested individualism in the most disruptive way to our inherited values. But let me first end with words from one of my readers as both a conclusion to this essay as well as an introduction to the next in which I will explore the predisposition to value what exists more than what could be and see how it can be complementary to rather than at odds with progressivism.

My reader objected either to Darwinism or to depicting Darwinism as reifying the notion of self-interested individualism as the moving force of action and history. “The notion of ‘human nature first and foremost self-interested’…ignores the essential element of human connectivity and collaboration or at least cooperation.”

“The image of the isolated self-interested Self is an interesting illusion, a response to disintegration anxiety and usually a marker of a compulsively attachment avoidant individual. The psychology of the individual interfaces with social psychology just as the proteome interfaces between the genome and the environment. The evolutionary success of humans depends on successful cooperation for goal achievement, especially when self-interest gets in the way. ‘Survival’ does not exclude self-sacrifice, which evolutionary forces sometimes demand, e.g. sacrifice of a parent for a child or between partners.”

In my reader’s argument that, “Darwinism does not/cannot preclude altruism,” he suggests that “a basic understanding of biology (i.e. mine) [that is, his] suggests the genome is a multi-way avenue not codified and barebones reductionist…the genome produces the proteome; the proteome is exquisitely sensitive to the internal corporeal biochemical environment and vice versa. The internal corporeal environment is exquisitely sensitive to the extracorporeal environment.”

This argument, while complementary to my own, roots ethical imperatives in nature. I want to argue that the “predisposition to value what exists more than what could be” is not “natural” but a predisposition of some. Further, that predisposition must remain in tension with desire, the passion to overcome the limitations of what is to produce something greater. Opting for one or the other side of this dialectic ends up on a path of disruption and destruction.

Ryan Morgan needs to be weaned off his attachment to Donald Trump by showing that a) Donald Trump is a dangerous threat to Conservatism and b) Conservatism is strengthened if it lives in tension with progressivism and serves to limit its utilitarian excesses.

The Sacred and the Profane: Between a Rock and an Edel

On Friday evening, serendipitously, I ended up having dinner with the daughter of an old colleague from York University, Arnold Rockman, who passed away several decades ago. He was a sociologist who, along with Donald Theall, specialized in communications theory at Atkinson College. Arnold had studied with the anthropologist, Edmund Carpenter, (as had I) who had been an early partner of Marshall McLuhan in the publication of the journal Explorations. Arnold was called a McLuhanite, which did not mean that he was an acolyte of Marshall’s, but only that he, like Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis, believed, prophetically, that communications provided a key to understanding the modern economic, political, cultural and artistic world.

Until Friday evening, I had completely forgotten about Arnold. Yet I had been writing about secular and sacred spaces, both positive and negative. I believed I recalled Arnold speaking and writing on the same subject. I looked him up. I was wrong. He had written of sacred and profane spaces, more accurately, the placement of objects in sacred and profane places.

Arnold had written an introduction to an exhibition he had organized in the late sixties at UBC (University of British Columbia) of randomly selected artifacts in the movement in poetry and visual arts then known as “found art.” It was part of the development of conceptual art, what Lucy Lippard had called the dematerialization of the art object. The show was called, “Random Samples.”

At about the same time, I was involved with the architect, Arthur Erickson, in developing a student housing plan for Simon Fraser University. For some reason, I associate Arnold with the composer, Murray Schafer at Simon Fraser University, with whom I believe he sometimes collaborated. Or perhaps he did not. The association may have been because Murray, at about the same time as Arnold, was launching his first Soundscape, a musical composition in which the musicians were placed on the side of mountains around a valley as Murray conducted his “symphony.”

Murray had introduced the whole concept of a soundscape. Sounds he deemed very appropriate to a specific locale were located in the positions where he placed the musicians. As Murray wrote in his introduction to his notion of schizophonia, “We have split the sound from the maker of the sound. Sounds have been torn from their natural sockets and given an amplified and independent existence. Vocal sound, for instance, is no longer tied to a hole in the head but is free to issue from anywhere in the landscape.” He called his process of composition a recombination of these sounds, schismogenesis.

Murray borrowed the term from the anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, who, like Arnold, had been very influenced by the philosopher Émile Durkheim. To give you a sense of the term, last evening when we sat down to dinner with friends, two different groups of young male performance artists put on a show of breakdancing, an athletic and acrobatic form of street dancing. The performances could be described as an example of competitive schismogenesis between the two groups and complementary schismogenesis within each Mexican youth group, parallel to what Bateson had observed among the men in New Guinea whom he had studied.

Bateson had defined schismogenesis as “a process of differentiation in the norms of individual behaviour resulting from cumulative interaction between individuals.” In competitive schismogenesis, among individuals rather than between groups, each male performed in turn, edged on by the others shouting and clapping, to encourage the next male to exceed in the exhibition of his acrobatic skills. Last evening, we observed and heard each team perform a form of complementary schismogenesis. Between the two teams that performed last night, we observed an example of sequential competitive schismogenesis.

Arnold Rockman in his exhibition, Random Samples, juxtaposed objects torn from their normal context and arranged them together in a plastic rather than performance art exhibition. It was his version of schismogenesis in which objects complemented and competed with one another. Thus, it was not the landscape music of Murray Schafer that induced me to associate the two, whether or not they were actually friends, but the comparative enterprises in which each was engaged in different forms of artistic expression.

In his introduction to that exhibition called Random Sample, Arnold had written: “The cultural historian Johann Huizinga and the sociologist Emile Durkheim both felt that the distinction between the sacred and the profane is crucial to our understanding of such phenomena as the arts and religious ritual. As soon as a particular space is set aside for an activity that is regarded as different from the ordinary profane activities of ordinary life, then that special space, and the activities performed in it, acquire a sacred character….

“If we think about the simplest set of combinations of sacred and profane spaces, we can clearly discern four main types of aesthetic performance or exhibition: a) sacred things displayed in sacred spaces (the traditional aesthetics of performance and display); b) profane things displayed in sacred spaces (exhibitions and performances such as Random Sample and Piles); c) profane things displayed in profane spaces (ordinary events and activities that take place in distinctly different spaces in the city streets without any conscious aesthetic intention); d) sacred things displayed in profane spaces (sculpture in the street; a Mardi Gras parade; early Soviet agit-prop theatre; medieval mystery plays in the market place)…

“The performance called Random Sample, N-42 is intended to illustrate two sentences which are significant in the history of equalitarianism and democracy in the arts. The first sentence is by John Constable, the English landscape painter and precursor of French impressionists: ‘My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up.’ The second sentence is by Georg Simmel, the German aesthetician and sociologist: ‘To treat not only every person but every thing as if it were its own end, this would be a cosmic ethic.’”

A sacred space is an extra-ordinary space, a set-aside space, a special space. A profane space is ordinary; that is its defining characteristic. Arnold lifted the quotations of both Constable and Simmel out of their contexts. Simmel views the highest ideal as making all things, not just Golden Calves, sacred. Constable wanted to see the extraordinary in the ordinary without setting aside anything, but by using art to enable others to see everything, to really see it, in its ordinary setting. But neither exemplify what Rockman tried to do with the sacred and the secular.

Rockman claimed that sacred space was particular. In my scheme, that is only necessarily true of secular space. In the Torah, the mishkan belongs everywhere and nowhere. The mishkan is portable. Space is enclosed but not closed off. The space has guardians but no guards. The space is not walled in nor walled off, even though access is restricted by a curtain.

It is true that the sacred and the secular are distinctively different spaces, but a beautiful (and exclusive) beach club is set aside as much as a sacred space for the pursuit of what is advertised and considered an extraordinary experience. It specifically makes a statement that it is not part of ordinary life. On the other hand, it does not, no more than sacred space, put down ordinary spaces as “profane.” Further, no one makes a claim that it is a sacred space.

Profane space is certainly secular. But most secular spaces are not profane and do not destroy a beautiful landscape by the erection of ugly structures. The profane is irreverent; the secular is, in general, agnostic and shows no contempt for the sacred. Even the French in drawing a radical line between the sacred and the secular did not profess any contempt for the sacred. The non-religious is not the irreligious.

Thus, even if an activity is set aside from everyday ordinary pursuits, that does not make it sacred. A special space is not a sacred space. La Patrona Beach Club in San Pancho is a very special place. It is not a sacred place or space. Further, a difference has to be made between places, such as mountain tops, considered to be sacred, and space that has no place considered to be sacred. This is what happens when the techniques of Daoism are divorced from an identification with their physical roots. Daoism (its equivalent to the Torah is the Daodejing) is not just an ancient religion to be utilized by New Agers as if Daoism were only a set of technical exercises and practices to facilitate self-cultivation, enlightenment and a life of rectitude in the latest expression of psycho-therapy called mindfulness.

Without attending to the sacred spaces and places, such as Mt. Hua, Daoist practices lack both a grounding and a heavenly thrust. There are shrines and geographic features that the pursuit of perfect subjectivity of New Agers, who deify the experience of one’s own body, ignore and, thereby, profane it. In effect, in copying Daoist practices while ignoring the foundations of Daoism, they profane that religion. For New Agers secularize Daoism through such practices as Yoga and ignore the ethical imperatives of the religion. For them, Daoism – and possibly any religion – is but a supermarket offering to enable one to buy individual selections deemed healthy for one’s own body and spirit. It is religion as consumerism. It is post-religious eclecticism.

This is as true of the Yoga derived from Hinduism. When I was nineteen attending university, I practiced Hatha Yoga for an hour per day for over a year. It is one version of Rãja yoga. I focussed on breathing exercises rather than various postures (asanas) and physical exercises of what I used to call the “Life of Canada” yoga, for the latter was called, “Vivekananda.” Yoga, however, is more than a set of physical and breathing exercises, more than learning the technique of meditation. It is a branch of Hinduism with its own philosophy, epistemology and metaphysics. I made the claim at the time that I did not dissociate the techniques from its philosophical roots, but, in retrospect, I suspect I was a fraud. In any case, I never identified those roots with any imperative to visit its sacred shrines and mountains.

Enough of my petty griping about a form of religious schizophonia in which techniques and practices are divorced from both their intellectual and physical groundings. Rockman was concerned with a spatial expression of schizophonia, with things in space divorced from their original context. I am concerned with space itself and what makes it sacred or secular, and, in either realm, its aestheticism. I am not concerned primarily with the profane, though I can cite dozens of sites that profane the environment. Similarly, I can cite celebrated architecture that profanes secular space, such as the new addition to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto that opts for sensationalism and betrays the fact that a museum exists to preserve memory and, through memory, allows history to be constructed that is both honest and comprehensive.

Instead of erecting a new museum, the extension to the ROM was intended to expand an existing building to better accommodate more history within its walls. It certainly expanded the space, but most of it is unusable for displaying artifacts of history. Instead, architecture is turned into a projectile into space and the new addition was turned into a façade. It was a clear example of beauty used to profane a secular space in the name of the sensational. Open forms and expressive architecture can be used as constructions to help clear away the mythical accretions, the inherited narratives of the past, that prevent understanding and liberation. Daniel Libeskind, instead, constructed an edifice as an expression of his own personal vanity.

A space is not made sacred by being set aside from the ordinary. In Judaism, it is because it is the space where God can live in this world amidst His people and not on a mountain top. It is a portable space. Like Rockman, I distinguished four quadrants, positive sacred and secular space, negative sacred (worship of the Golden Calf) and negative secular space (the crisis of despair as in romanticism). Whereas Rockman in his secular bias, instead of glorifying the aestheticism in both the sacred and secular realms, defines religious ritual simply as a form of aesthetic performance or exhibition, just as New Agers use Daoism as a set of techniques for self-improvement.

Rockman                                                Adelman

An Aesthetic Lens                   A Phenomenological/Theological Lens

    Sacred    Profane   Sacred    Secular
Sacred things in sacred space Profane things in sacred space Space as sacred Space as secular
Sacred things displayed in profane spaces Profane things displayed in profane spaces Profaned sacred space (the Golden Calf|) Secular space profaned – the hollow within

If I use our respective names as metonyms, as stand-ins for a set of concepts and attitudes extant at a certain time and place – namely the sixties and seventies in Toronto and Vancouver – then, on the one hand, a rock is a solid found in nature made up of an aggregate of minerals, OR, it is a genre of music current at the time. On the other hand, “edel” in German means noble, with a hint of spiritual nobility that was totally out of place in both Toronto and Vancouver at the time and, certainly, is never simply of its time. There is no suggestion that I was noble or, for that matter, that Arnold was solid or an expression of a type of music. My memory is too feeble to know with any certainty. But as stand-ins, they might provide some further insight.

Rock was brash and brassy. Edel suggests refinement – that is why you know for certain that it was not me. Not just refinement, but an attitude to life that suggests a languid rather than an energetic approach. Edel also suggests a developed and delicate sensitivity – further proof it could not be me. Rock, on the other hand, sticks out, projects outward. It is hard rather than tender. Rock has a 4/4 time signature alternating verse and chorus.

Music associated with “edel” – not the sentimentality of edelweiss – suspends tonal harmonies so they float freely in the air rather than being music which thrusts its beat in your face. Rock, though loud, is solid and stable and plays on the familiar rather than the strange. Whatever it is, it is neither complex or lush. But it is always irreverent, seeming to idolize that which is not rooted in traditional trust and an emphasis on reliability, such as folk music. Rock is anti-institutional. Hence its association with the antithesis to the rule of law and convention. The responsibilities of ordinary life were considered distracting annoyances. Combining passion and energy rather than sensitivity and delicacy, ideas became exciting and sexy. And both conviction and convincing became the two sides of its rhetorical thrust as the lightness of being and attention to detailed exposition were both ignored.

Rock is dense, thick and somewhat barbaric, until the Beatles lent it an ethereal edge. However, it is never sweet or sparkling, but explosive and full of fireworks. Edel, on the other hand, is spacious and allows the lyrics to be heard. It has clarity rather than clamour. Most of all, rock is hypnotic. It inhabits a space rather than allowing the song to emerge from a space. Most of all, rock is exciting but never transformative. The listener is always in the moment rather than travelling from here to there. Rock, instead of offering openings seems to be full of lacunae.

That is what it really means to put the profane in a separate space called sacred.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Space and Time in Sacred and Secular Space Vayak’heil: Exodus 35:1 – 38:20

There are four ways in which we can experience space. Two of those ways lift our spirits up. Two depress us, even if one of those two ways hides that depression in a frenzied dance and wild shouts of joy. The first two positive senses of space are sacred and secular respectively, which I have depicted in the last few blogs where the mishkan and the La Patrona Beach Club in San Pancho were discussed. I also discussed negative sacred space in the depiction of the worship of the Golden Calf. It is what is referred to as idolatry. In this review of the various forms of sacred and secular space (and time) in both their positive and negative versions, I begin with the depiction of negative secular space.

Instead of flying through space, one falls through space, this time downwards toward the sea instead of outward towards it. If you are too near the shore, you will plunge down and splatter on the sand just beneath the surface of the water. The most you can hope for is falling far enough out to sea so that you dare not crushed but plunge deep into your own soul and hope you can resurface alive. And the reason you are falling is that you feel the emptiness in yourself rather than listening to the emptiness between the two cherubim. You are in pursuit of more – wealth or fame or both. But you are unhappy. You are empty. There is a void within you. And you feel that void within even though you are surrounded by the greatest glitter. You want to, you need to change; you need to fill the void.  Just as you feel less, just as the less you feel, you want and need more.

The Oscar Award-winning song, “Shallow” from the movie A Star is Born as sung by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper captured that sense of negative secular space.

Shallow

Tell me something, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there something else you’re searching for?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself longing
For change
And in the bad times, I fear myself

Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself longing
For change
And in the bad times, I fear myself

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
We’re far from the shallow now

Oh, ohh
Oh, ohho

Wohhhh!

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
We’re far from the shallow now

[The song was written by Lady Gaga with Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt]

 

Instead of hope or even contentment, the song is an expression of fear. It is a cry from neediness. It is a scream from the emptiness one feels within oneself. It is a longing to fill a void, not to have an external void filled. There is a need for more, but no place for that more to reveal itself.  It is a longing for change in the absence of an agent strong and powerful enough to bring about that change. While needing more and more, one experiences less and less.

Sacred space is empty, but guarded, guarded by winged creatures that can help you soar aloft towards the heaven. Anti-sacred space, negative sacred space, is grounded, filled in and solid. Before that solidity of a Golden Calf, one can experience a Dionysian revel, a frenzied dance of revelry. In secular space such as in the San Pancho La Patrona Beach Club, as opposed to sacred or pseudo-sacred space, the space, as in sacred space, is also empty. The construction allows one to soar skyward, but never towards heaven. The space connects horizontally out to the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean and inward towards the land on which you are standing. And always to expand the focus on the material self, on the body, on its beauty and its possibilities.

That is not true of negative secular space. What we see and hear is a performance, an act, not of love, but of the pretence of love while the lyrics and the melody convey despair and desperation. This love, instead of a promise, is a cry of longing. The best that can come of it is the avoidance of death as the two “fall” together in love, but a love that is as empty as the brilliance of the acting, of the performance. In that sense, this Oscar is a representative of Hollywood in general in its most facile form. For even the movies about race and discrimination, about gay female affection and purported history, mislead. For even The Green Room will likely have very little impact on the quest for social justice, though it does record one tiny step on the way. The mistreatment of asylum seekers and those in prison for smoking weed, an activity now in the process of being legalized, will not be addressed by such films.

Instead, these movies look backwards and bear the strong imprint of nostalgia. Bohemian Rhapsody, the celebration of the band, “Queen” and its lead, Freddie Mercury, is certainly a loud salute to pleasure, to engagement in and with the frenzied voices in celebrity worship, but this filling of the void with admittedly a very inventive revolutionary sound, has no boundaries, no guardians of the spirit, no cherubim, and the life of desperation spirals out of control crashing into the sea, but not the shallow waters. There is resurrection, as is often the case in romantic love, but there is no redemption. Just the further pretence that celebrations of sound in Live Aid can change the world simply because the reunion of Queen was so triumphal, an evocation of one the greatest performances in rock history that can so easily make us forget that it is just a performance.  It will serve to inspire dreamers but not, in the end, those working hard to create a better world. Distractions, however entertaining, belong to idolatry, to negative sacred rather than positive sacred space. The fact that such performances live as examples outside the boundaries of the secular world does not change their character or the structures of this world.

Racial discrimination is structural. Gender discrimination is structural. They are about privilege and unwarranted formal authority. They are about power. They are about excessive private wealth indifferent to community benefit or the well-being of this planet.

What the Soviet regime did through a command economy, portraying the world as a golden calf when it was just a stolid idol of gold, America does through a consumer economy that exalts the wonderment of negative secular rather than negative sacred space. Soviet forced collectivization displaced and sacrificed millions who were starved or executed. American individualized voluntary displacement leads into an imaginative fantasy of negative secular space at a cost of lives self-destroyed in the pursuit of fantasies. In the end, negative spaces, whether sacred or secular, are always black holes that implode. They exist only for the moment and do not connect the past to the future, which is the task of positive secular and sacred space.

That is why it is important that secular space be democratized as much as possible, that as many people as possible be given the opportunity to enter a world of true beauty that gives proper consideration to the health and wealth of the material world. And that is why sacred space must be guarded and provided an opportunity to speak to us out of the vacancy to signal the direction of revelation, of the future, of how the sacred will reveal itself.

This will not happen if the sacred declares war on the secular world, if the ultra-religious world represses the personality of a gifted child whose primary interest may be aesthetic pleasures rather than ethical norms. Whether Solomon Maimon, the 18th century Lithuanian Jewish aesthete, or Isaac Mizrahi, an escapee from aesthetic repression in the last two decades of the twentieth century and the first two decades of this century, it is important to recognize that God loves beauty as well as Truth and Justice. Isaac Mizrahi’s father believed that drawing and art were a waste of time. (See his memoir, I.M.) The only thing of importance was study of the Talmud.

This week’s portion is a testament to the falseness of such a position. In fact, the Israelites spend six days a week in dedication to their artisanal crafts to create such beauty, both in the secular and the sacred realm, while only dedicating one day exclusively to the sacred realm, shabat. The object was not to turn all seven days of the week into a sacred regime. God Himself worked on the material world for six days and declared that making the material world was good.

Aesthetics without the rule of law and social justice will end up in empty negative secularism. The rule of law, especially without the pursuit of social justice, but divorced from aesthetics, will end up in idolatry, in the worship of the sacred that is negativity. And both that aesthetics and ethics must be constructed on the solid ground of truth. Chapter 35 of Exodus begins:

א  וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה, לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם. 1 And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: ‘These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.
ב  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה, יוּמָת. 2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death.
ג  לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם, הַשַּׁבָּת.  {פ} 3 Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.’

Everyone was addressed, not just the priestly and warrior and legal elites. God commands everyone to work six days, to work productively, to work aesthetically in accordance with His examples and instructions. We should and must have a secular life of physical and aesthetic pleasure. But to enrich that pleasure, to ensure that pleasure serves a higher purpose, we must rest and reflect. Shabat must be a holy day, a sacred day, a day of rest from such work when we quiet the fires of our passions in favour of trying to listen and hear the voice that may speak between the cherubim guardians, not from their mouths, but from the open space between.

If you do not do this, you shall surely die, either via romantic self-destruction or in the false revelry before a Golden Calf made by some collectivity in substitute for God or as a claim to be the exclusive representative of God.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The San Pancho La Patrona Beach Club

I have already distributed my own commentaries on the mishkan and the tale of the golden calf as well as my daughter’s commentary on the relationship of the two. What does a beach club in San Pancho, Mexico, have to do with the mishkan discussed and described at great length in Exodus (400 verses in all, almost six times as many as those devoted to the Temple in Jerusalem)? You likely cannot answer that question because, even if you have bothered to read in the Torah the detailed instructions on how the mishkan was built, for the vast majority of my readers it is highly unlikely that they have even been to San Pancho let alone seen or read about the La Patrona Beach Club, one of the most beautiful structures that I have ever seen or been in.

At first glance, a beach club juxtaposed against the mishkan may seem improbable. Though both display luxury, it is for radically different purposes. A beach club is dedicated to hedonism, to the pleasures and joys of the beauty and bounty that we owe to nature. The mishkan was dedicated to sacrifice, to the recognition of a possible world, to ethics and law rather than aesthetics for its own sake. In the mishkan, we sacrifice the best food we nurture and grow to God who lacks a mouth and a digestive system to consume that food. It is truly a sacrifice because the best food is offered, but it is given no material worth. And that is the point of the sacrifice. In contrast, a quality beach club generally promises fantastic dining that appeals to all our senses.

For example, the Beach Club and Resort in Parksville on Vancouver Island’s east coast on the site of the historic Island Hall Resort offers spectacular views out across the Pacific Ocean and of the mountains. It has a seaside pool, hot tub, Stonewater Spa and fitness centre. Like most good beach clubs, it is dedicated to the worship of the healthy and beautiful body.

What is perhaps just as or even more important is its architecture as an expression of place, more particularly what has become known as West Coast style. Given the role of trees in the temperate rain forest that is British Columbia, the West Coast style is most marked by its use of post and beam construction. By exposing its timber structural members, it offers an explicit identification with a particular and special place on this earth. At the same time, there is a worship of light in the use of skylights and extensive glazing. Horizontally, it offers a sense of unity and connectedness among functions with the use of an open floor plan in places and spaces that bring people together. There is also the explicit connection between the interior and the exterior, between human habitation and the natural world outside. This is emphasized by the use of wood finishes in both the interior and exterior facades. Buildings are oriented to ensure maximum exposure to the beautiful views and vistas. And our eyes project outward to the vast sea as the mountains rise to tower over the flat roof designs in the West Coast style.

West Coast style also expresses a particular time, generally the thirty years between 1945 and 1975 when that style was at its pinnacle as British Columbians insisted on their own pride and exceptionalism in this world as their architecture became a reflection of the local landscape and climate. The decline in the pre-eminence of West Coast design was first adumbrated by Arthur Erickson, one of the foremost architects who placed his own signature on the West Coast style, when, in the design of Simon Fraser University, he turned towards globalist brutalist architecture as its defining motif in trying to dominate its perch on a mountain in Burnaby rather than seamlessly fitting into it.  Subsequently, British Columbian architecture has at least thankfully turned toward globalist modernism, but that has seemingly made the West Coast style appear parochial and passé.

I put forth this brief summary of the Beach Club and Resort in Parksville as both a foil for my description of the San Pancho La Patrona Beach Club, but also to point out similarities. The main difference is that the B.C. facility used post and beam construction while the La Patrona Beach Club (LPBC) combined the internationalist modernist style with a traditional Mexican palapa, but one that was architecturally unique and outstanding, transforming the traditional palapa into a modernist expression. To get a glimpse of that structure, look at:

https://lprluxury.com/lapatronabeachclub/.

Palapa is a word of Tagalog origin. Any of the Philippine nannies who worked for us in the past when our children were young would easily recognize the term that has been incorporated into Spanish. The genesis of the word may come from the far Pacific, but its architectural expression is viewed as indigenous to Mexico and viewed worldwide as one of the most important architectural contributions of West Mexican culture.

A palapa refers to the petiole of the palm leaf, that is, the long stalk that attaches the palm leaves to the stem of a palm tree. This long stalk and its attached leaves are dried and used to form the thatched roof of open-sided dwellings called palapas worldwide. In hot weather regions, they are terrific in providing shade yet protection from heavy rains in the rainy season of most tropical countries. They are also viewed as ecologically sustainable based on the use of local materials available. Aesthetically, they are also seen as combining simplicity and rustic charm at the same time.

The huge palapa of the LPBC raises rustic charm to high style, especially in the context of all the modernist elements. It does so first by height. I estimate that the palapa of the LPBC to be about 50 feet high. Secondly the pillars that hold up the palapa consist of a combination of bamboo stocks of virtually equal dimensions that have been filled with material to provide stability. They are wrapped together to provide a column. They are quite a contrast with the pseudo-Greek columns that hold up the palapa in the house we are renting in San Pancho. In the LPBC, the bamboo stalks wrapped together simulate a tree that holds up the thatched roof, with the branches flayed out to serve as trusses.

Instead of a pastiche that replicates classical structures using local materials and styles, the architect has created a unique modernist pillar that pays homage to the area in which it has been constructed and its natural materials that are easily available. The reality, however, is that the stalks were imported at great expense from New Zealand and then sent to Costa Rica to be bent in precisely the needed way through the use of steam. Thus, instead of a pastiche of classicism and the rustic that is explicitly imitative in what I would regard as creating an unearned sense of gravitas and history to complement local charm, as in the house we rent, we are offered a very modernist expression of the local even though it is dependent on foreign sources and the technology of nearby states.

Thus, as with the Vancouver Island beach club, local climate and the landscape squeezed between the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean and the forested mountains, LPBC’s forested mountains are jungles and not a temperate rain forest. Hence, the choice of a very different support material and, most importantly, an absence of glazing and skylights. Instead, glass is used as a separation and reflective material rather than as a protection against outside elements. For example, on the evening we were there, there was an art exhibit in which the colours of the paintings included all the bright greens, red, oranges and yellows of traditional Mexican art and the paintings were reflected through the glass and from a very shallow reflecting pool to make it appear that the hanging paintings were reflected on the imaginary level below. Further, the hanging blown glass large bulbs serving as lights appear like huge coloured droplets swaying to the ocean breezes from the ocean side of the palapa.

The floor plan of LPBC was, like its Vancouver Island parallel, open, but the openness extended towards the sand beach and the ocean and the sand beach itself was replicated in one area as floor material in LPBC. In other words, interior and exterior spaces were even much more integrated than even in the West Coast style.

As one example that can be viewed in the picture cited above, there is a high separation wall within the palapa that divides the professional kitchen from the dining area. It is unique in that its covering consists of ceramic folded rectangles bolted in place to give the effect of waves rising vertically. To add to that effect, in the openings behind and between the ceramic “tile” pieces, there are additional cup-like pieces that I believe were other tile pieces, but brightly coloured to suggest the deep blues and reds and various bright colours of a coral reef beneath the surface. Perhaps this was intended to suggest that the food being prepared behind the white-wave wall was as exotic and colourful as anything found in the deep sea.

Whereas the usually stained wood finishes in both the interior and exterior of the Vancouver Island structure were often stained dark, the wood finishes on the outside LPFC wall on the road side appeared as light almost blond vertical strips. In contrast, the dining and serving tables of LPBC were made of a dark and very dense wood which I did not recognize, but it appeared to be very rare, perhaps of Brazilian origin.

We went up a staircase with modernist glass side panels to a flat deck and into a walled room that served as a yoga studio. Except the walls were made up of a bamboo-like material in panels that could be opened up to the full length so that one stood on a roof deck protected from the sun by another roof. However, with the walls pulled back, the yoga studio was directly linked with the beach sand and the ocean waves. What was of particular note, there were no railings protecting someone from falling off. The Toronto building code would never have permitted such a use, but safety barriers would have totally spoiled the effect.

The materials chosen to display opulence were not jewels. Nor were the exteriors painted in the usual pastels – greens and oranges and reds. Instead, beautiful stone work made up the wall separating the building facing the road, but with plenty of peak-through features. The same could be said of the iron fencing on the road side which looked more beautiful than any iron work I had previously seen, and Mexico is particularly noted for its excellent grates and gates on windows and openings.

As I interpreted the separation walls, they did not serve as physical barriers as much as they were social barriers that communicated openness to the general public while, paradoxically, sending out a message that this was an exclusivist preserve. The ordinary riff raff, or even the ordinary middle class, did not seem to be invited in. This might explain why we had not previously ventured forth to see the inside of the facility previously. The iron grill work and stone wall signalled a social and economic barrier more than a physical one.

When we attended the art show, everyone was treated as if they were millionaires there to purchase an expensive painting. Egalitarianism was the rule of the day. That is, once you were inside. But it also seemed clear that everyone was not welcome in spite of the direct link to the public sand beach on the ocean side and the ability to peak in from the road side. The real barrier was as invisible as God. Instead of a space where the divine would appear in the emptiness guarded by two cherubim, there were no guards in sight. Further, this was not space in which access was forbidden except to High Priests. Access was limited by a more invisible process; this exclusive club communicated a class barrier.

The mishkan was an enclosed and very sacred space. LPBC was a very open space, but closed in by a very invisible class barrier. Without the need for neon lights, the muted colours of the stone, the glass, the sand and the wood as well as the high-style design, communicated exclusivity. In that sense, the golden calf was egalitarian in the extreme. Everyone had easy access to its worship. There was no mediation required of a high priest. No one was obligated to pay half a sheckel in homage. The golden calf was a populist materialist god as distinct from a plutocratic hedonistic secular one. The latter message was clear since LPBC was owned by and linked to La Patrona Polo Polo and Equestrian Centre (LPPEC) just a few city blocks away. Polo in itself is a message of expense and exclusivity.

Though people attend the Sunday brunches and watch the polo matches dressed casually in open shirts, shorts and even flipflops, its huge expanse (220 hectares in total), its elegant tone, its horse stalls with slate floors and wooden finishes on the walls that are far more expensive to build than the tiny houses of local Mexicans, send out a message of a regal sport set in a huge sprawling and stunningly designed and coiffured club with a soaring steel 20 foot high roof structure. There are, in fact, three polo fields, not one, two regulation size, each nine times as large as a soccer field. There is even a hospital and therapeutic pool for the horses.

The owners, a Mexican billionaire and a Swiss billionaire, Iván Echeverria [no relation to the former kleptocratic president] and Gabrielle Weber, have succeeded in created a hymn to physical pleasure and delight of the highest sophistication which, paradoxically, at one and the same time, conveys total transparency and an invisible exclusivity. A space apparently open to all is really only accessible to the extremely rich. God does not appear in the empty space between the guardian cherubim. Rather, there is a physical emptiness that has been raised to an enormous aesthetic height, but there is no voice that will ever come forth with a divine message about faith and obligations. The invisibility is, paradoxically, invisible, communicating openness when it is really very exclusive, communicating fullness and sensual satisfaction in a high style that disguises the very sins underpinning that form of plutocratic life. The club is representation and valorization of a life spent in pursuit of the fullness of a healthy physical life but, ironically, also conveying the emptiness of that life. There is no absent or hidden god there.

Do not expect anyone to come to La Patrona Beach Club to atone for their sins. The patrons come to get a fix. It may not be heroine, but it is the regal materialist equivalent. The patrons do not come to seek change or to be changed. They do not come to remember past traumas but only to experience current pleasures. In the worship of nature and the earth-bound, the club also tries to sore upward, but only towards the sky and never to heaven.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman