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    Glen Pearson

    Artistic rendering from photo by Thomas Samson/AFP

    The Forest Secret – Chapter 1

    Posted on April 22, 2019

    He limped along the West side of the Seine, nibbling on what was left of his favorite rye loaf, his gaze followed the path of the tourist boats vying for the best views along the water.  There were so many of them now that it made what used to be a quiet and beautiful walk into an obstacle course of people, boats, smells and sounds.  He looked on in disgust.  Not for the first time he thought: A great city is not for moving but for absorbing.  It no longer mattered; that struggle had been lost decades ago.

    Aramis felt weary.  His legs no longer carried his frail form as easily as in the past and his grey eyes felt beaten up  and teary by the sun’s rays as it began its slow descent into the West.  He never wore sunglasses; he never would.  The active mind thought little of ozone or skin cancer.  To him, Paris was the city of his youth – virile, recovering from war, erotic, cultural, and all of it bathed in the beautiful French sunshine of a more meaningful era.

    The moving waters below him still carried the dull tones of the past winter but had begun their transformation to the bluish-green that would carry the metropolis through the glory days of summer.  Still, even on these chilly days, the Seine was the mirror in which the city found its own reflection.  Since the beginning, poets, painters, philosophers, architects, novelists and lovers – above all, the lovers – discovered that its waters worked their way directly through human hearts and souls, its effects more profound than the 10 of 20 districts of the great city than it ran through every day.  

    The Seine had always represented the past and present of Paris, starting back in those ancient years when the Romans attacked the tribes of the Parisi tribes nestled in the river’s island.  Back then the settlement had been called by its Latin name – Sequana, but evolved to Paris following the Roman takeover.

    Aramis knew he didn’t have many years left, but all of them he wanted to be this city that he loved for than anything else.  Except for perhaps when he gave his heart away to the twenty-seven-year-old Mary.  She had laughed delightfully when he insisted on calling her Marie.  Her father had been a diplomat with the British government and had been stationed in the French capital following the war with his wife and two daughters, of whom Mary was the elder.

    He was surprised how easily he gave his heart to her.  The process was more like a transformation than anything else, a kind of taking wing and soaring.  Mary had finished her college training, enjoying herself in that delicious interlude between education and marriage.

    Aramis felt the exquisite sadness of love gained and lost, all within a period of a few months.  His young heart was never destined to sustain the tragedy of losing that wonderful British ingénue to her parent’s designs for a more affluent life.

    He stopped for a moment, tossing the crust of the bread to the birds on the ground before him, increasingly lost in his thoughts of long ago.  How long he stood there he didn’t know.

    It was then that Aramis caught the first whiffs of smoke.  Someone was burning something nearby.  But the scent was different that the fires of coal or wood normal to Paris.  There was more to it.  He thought he detected paint, tar and an oakwood aroma that was new to him.

    His tired gaze was drawn to the orange glow just above the tree line.  Birds were frantically soaring above, shrieking unusual noises and flitting here and there with no pattern.  

    Then he heard the first siren.

    His creased hand cradling the metal railing that skirted the river bank, Aramis moved toward the growing orb of light that had become auburn in hue.  He moved between two lots of trees towards the great cathedral when he saw the unimaginable.  He lifted his hands into the air, crying, O Dieu, non (O God, no),  over and over.  People around him were too busy moving to the site to take much notice.

    There, in the encroaching darkness of an April evening, the great vaulted edifice of Notre Dame cathedral looked like some great depiction of a painting by Dante.  The two towers stood erect, as they had for hundreds of years, but the roof over the main part of the sanctuary was shrouded in  dark clouds of smoke, occasionally swept away by the updraft created by the heat, only to descend upon the scene again a few seconds later.  The glorious delicate spire protruded above it all but seemed somehow affected by the heat and smoke below it.

    “S’il vous pla?t ne le laissez pas être,” he cried out to heaven, entreating God to put an end to it.  But it was now an inferno, consuming all before it, including a glorious history.

    Aramis sat on a bench, lost in unbelief and a growing state of shock.  Parisians and tourists by the thousands were arriving at the scene, only to be kept back by police and firefighters.  All around were the moans and gasps of an entranced and pained humanity.  The heat from the blaze occasionally descended to street level now, driving onlookers back even further.  It was clear this was something major, perhaps final, and the tears such a thought produced flowed a steadily as the Seine itself.

    And then the remembrance flooded over the reflections of the old man seemingly lost in agony.  Aramis suddenly recalled the promise he had made and kept for all these decades – a pledge whose essence lay in the midst of the consumed edifice before him.

    He rose then, carefully eyeing the security perimeter established by the police, who themselves appeared terrified by the sight of the heavens ablaze.  There, he said quietly to himself.  The phalanx of guards circled the part of the structure closest to the main avenue, but he was shrewd enough to spot the unattended St. Anne Portal, the Cathedral’s right-side doorway, shrouded in smoke but isolated.  He knew it well.

    He circled around the guards, one among thousands of gawking observers, then darted into the doorway eclipsed by encroaching darkness.  He looked up at the rounded arch marking what was the top of the door above the head of the Virgin Mary.  It had been the main gateway to the great Romanesque cathedral that had been torn down to make way of the great cathedral everyone knew today.  It went largely unused now, though occasionally seminary students availed themselves of it to escape the dreary catechism lectures and protocols. 

    Aramis approached the door, smiling at the male figures at the door’s top, all wearing pointed hats.  Few knew it, but the depictions were all of Jewish men and the hats were patterned after those that they wore in medieval France.

    He went to press down on the old iron handle until he noticed faints wisps of smoke drifted from the opening.  It was open!  Someone had likely fled the structure for fear of their life, perhaps leaving it ajar for the sake of others trying to escape the horror.  Aramis pulled it open, took one more look at the sky above him and said, Oui, le Seigneur me veut, Il me donnera donc la force (Yes, the Lord wants me, and he will give me strength).

    He old eyes took one last look around  and then the figure vanished into the structure, determined to do the one thing he now knew he had been destined for.

    As Darkness Falls

    Posted on April 18, 2019

    “Facebook, you were on the wrong side of history on that, and you are on the wrong side of history in this.”

    In these few words, journalist Carole Cadwalladr used the medium of TED Talks to call out the “gods of Silicon Valley” for ruining democracy.  She spoke to them directly.  It was stark, courageous and absolutely the right thing to do.  She had seen too much and her deeper sense of morality was erupting.

    Cadwalladr came by her assessment honestly, having been a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her investigative work on the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  Everywhere she looked, the writer found misinformation and outright lies manifested on social media platforms. She recounted how she returned to her home town in Wales shortly after Brexit and found everything surreal. These were people she knew for her entire life and yet they were living in some other kind of reality.  The town had new lease on life thanks to infrastructure funded by the European Union, yet everyone she talked said the EU had done nothing for them.  The locals were full of anxiety regarding the threat of immigrants even though the town had one of the lowest rates of immigration in the entire country.

    It didn’t take her long before she realized that Facebook had done a number on her home town.  It had been targeted with Facebook ads by the pro-Brexit campaign, the organizers of which were eventually found to have violated election laws.  Not only that, the neighbourhoods had been flooded with fake news and falsehoods. And yet somehow the locals never understood that they had been duped.  Months and years of filter bubbles would do that to any community.

    She realized how difficult it was to fight such an insurgence of skewed information.  When Facebook had discovered what she was about to publish on the Cambridge Analytica practices, it threatened to sue her and the publicist.  But they had experienced enough of the bully treatment and decided to go ahead anyway. They had already arrived at the conclusion that the social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, knew they were killing democracy but forged ahead anyway for the sake of wealth and dominance.  In the Ted Talks, she reminds her viewers that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had been requested to face the music before a number of parliaments around the world but that he had simply refused because – well, he just could.  He was too big to fail, or effectively fine, or break up.

    At one point, Cadwalladr spoke directly to the barons of Silicon Valley and put everything on the table:

    “This technology you have invented has been amazing, but now it’s a crime scene, and you have the evidence. It is not enough to say that you will do better in the future, because to have any hope of stopping this from happening again, we have to know the past … Liberal democracy is broken. This is not democracy.  Spreading lies in darkness, paid for with illegal cash from God knows where – it’s subversion, and you are accessories to it.”

    But then comes the real problem and she names it: “And for those of us who don’t run giant technology platforms, my question to everybody else is: Is this what we want? To let them get away with it, and to sit back and play with our phones as this darkness falls?”  She’s talking about me here, and millions of others just like me.  Why do I stay on Facebook after knowing all this?  

    Earlier this year, I transferred my published books from Amazon to the Canadian firm KOBO because of the monopolizing nature of Amazon’s dealings and it felt good.  Why not leave Facebook, too?  I’ve been asking myself that question for months, like many others I know?  

    I’m aware that my privacy is likely being used without my knowledge and, worse, it permits itself to be utilized in ways that twists knowledge, narrows the scope of understanding, ruins politics and permits veiled hatred.  Does all that likely outweigh the immediacy and ease of its use? It probably does, and that reality alone troubles me about my choices.

    Jaron Lanier, who initially coined the phrase “virtual reality,” is a computer genius, author and thinker.  He recently warned students in Santa Cruz about the perils of using social media as a means for networking.  Intriguingly, he warned them especially of Facebook and Twitter and how they are inherently structured to trigger a “fight or flight” reaction in their followers and how such use is destabilizing modern society.  Like Cadwalladr, he sounded the alarm: “Facebook is destroying democracy. I’m really concerned that it is going to kill all the democratic governments before we have a chance to regulate it

    The trouble is that Facebook and Twitter, among others, know this already and continue their closed practices,- they don’t care.  As Lanier added: “We’ve created a world in which anytime two people connect online it’s financed by a third person who believes they can manipulate the first two.” 

    Is our use of such platforms worth the alienation and soul-killing effects on us and our democracy? It’s a question many of us who care about humanity and our community are now asking.  And I admit it: I’m stuck.

    Hands Across the Bridge - Londonderry, Ireland

    Living on the Borders

    Posted on April 17, 2019

    In an era where cultures are becoming more entrenched and bitter, famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought his Bach Project to the border crossing between the sister cities of Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico in an effort for acquiring more understanding.  He is visiting 36 locations around the world to show how the 300-year-old music can build and explore connections between cultures.

    He chose this particular place and time to show that there are other alternatives to suspicion, fear and anger.  To highlight the commonalities among cultures, Ma chose a location where two communities, heralding two diverse cultures, have worked out a respectful relationship for decades.  As Laredo mayor, Pete Saenz put it: “And although people may perceive us as being so different, we’re not. Here the border is extremely unique in that it’s one organism. I’ve always said we’re interdependent, interconnected. We survived because the humanity survives, especially here on the border area.”  He acknowledged that the presence of a river and a bridge could lead to senses of alienation and difference, but instead the two communities have used them as shared resources – commonalities that bring them together.

    The noted cellist played in the shadow of the bridge in both communities, saying his overall theme was an appreciation what the two cities have established and how they see themselves as one community sharing a diverse culture.

    Yo-Yo Ma’s mix of rare talent and a positive outlook found its reflection in the concerts.  One local cellist noted, “For him to connect cello with what’s happening in the world is like, it’s a cultural bridge that was just built, and it’s amazing.”  The analogy of the bridge was something Ma referred to in both locations:

    “As you all know, as you did and do and will do, in culture, we build bridges, not walls. I’ve lived my life at the borders. Between cultures. Between disciplines. Between musics. Between generations.”

    Ma launched his project in 2018, in response to the rise of a global wave of populism that inevitably promoted hatred of “the other” and bred suspicion and anxiety.  He opted to spend two years travelling the world performing Bach’s six suites for solo cello in the belief that music has an ability to connect cultures and humanity.  The world has seen this over and over again through the centuries: where the words, the animosities, the politics, the tribalism leave off, music and the arts begin, weaving their mysticism of humanity and commonality.  And on a border where dedicated attempts are being made to roil the waters between two great nations, Yo-Yo Ma simply used the power of music to build a bridge over the wall.

    Where Did Compassionate Conservatism Go in Our Politics?

    Posted on April 16, 2019

    I encounter Conservative friends and associates every day.  Aware that we all have different leanings, we nevertheless roll up our sleeves and get to work building our community, our world.  So many of the London Food Bank’s volunteers, donors and clients are conservative in temperament and in political leaning and they help the organization to function throughout the year.  I also see others at church, or in meetings where they help us with the work in South Sudan, and I find myself wondering where such efforts would be without their commitment.

    Because of this familiarity, I have learned that the majority of these citizens have deep reservations about the manner in which Conservative parties – federally and provincially – are carrying themselves in recent years.  If the problem for progressives is that they can’t find a way to come together, for Conservatives it’s that they’re having trouble staying together. It’s not hard to see why.  By flirting close to the line with alt-right forces in modern society, both federal and provincial Conservative leaders are hoping to align the same sentiments that Donald Trump was successful in capturing in 2016.  It’s a gamble – one which many Conservatives like those I mentioned earlier are reticent to support.

    The conservative disposition is one that helped to build core principles in this country.  It, along with the progressive dynamic, served as the yin and yang of political values and the tension between them introduced the fluid dynamic that is the nation of Canada.  With such a vast rural expanse, conservatism will prove an essential aspect for the foreseeable future.

    But that form of conservatism is not what we are witnessing in certain regions.  Historically, it stood in opposition to the more radical designs of Liberal and NDP engineering of public life.  They believe, and still do, that it remains a dangerous thing for senior levels of government to attempt to control the economy or even communities. It believed – to a lesser degree now – that the great institutions should be supported to “contain” the more deviant and selfish nature of citizens – houses of faith, schools, police, military, businesses, service clubs, etc.  And most distrust or even detest abstract arguments about public policy or society – any attempt to relax societal controls so that excesses become more apparent and appealing.

    These are genuinely held points of view and they have co-existed more or less peaceably with the alternatives for most of our history.  Whether we agree or not, they are to be respected, not just because it is their right but through their historic willingness to support the balance of ideals that run through Canada.

    But thousands of Conservatives no longer sense that moderate spirit that guided the Conservative movement over the decades.  They are increasingly voicing that something is seriously wrong, not just with the Centre or Left, but with the Right.

    We only need to look south of the border to see where this is heading.  One of the most repeated headlines in right-wing media has been, “What’s Happened to the Republican Party?”  As the Economistnoted in an opening paragraph: “The GOP is no longer recognizable as the party of traditional and moderating values.” Though Donald Trump is blamed for it all, the transformation began years earlier when that historic GOP caution was no longer applied to the free market.  From Nixon’s era onward, the financial market became unmoored, rampaging across the globe and ravenous in its appetites for wealth and deregulation. With the era of globalization came a Republican party no longer comfortable in its own skin.

    But with the arrival of Donald Trump and all his excesses that the party tolerates, traditional American Republicans are growing more remote from what they see as the ruination of their beloved party.

    The same is happening north of the border, including the majority of those Conservatives mentioned at the beginning of this post.  They are decent, compassionate, respectful, collaborative and institutional.  But it’s highly unlikely they will vote NDP or Liberal. In a word, they are lost.  They watch as the Canadian Conservative scene becomes much more extreme in its pursuit or maintenance of power.  But it is the increase of hyper-partisanship and rage, reminiscent of Trump, that so troubles the moderate Canadian Conservatives. To them, such traits are demeaning, distasteful, and ultimately unCanadian.

    Shannon Proudfoot’s insightful Maclean’spiece of a few weeks ago (This isWhat’s Wrong with Canada’s Right) is instructive.  Quoting former Stephen Harper minister James Moore, she reported: “It’s too much.  Politics can’t handle it.  It’s more than what politics was made for.”  Moore is right.  When he expressly worries about things “getting dark really fast,” he is pointing to what the next decade is going to look like.  And it won’t just be the Conservatives willing to split to country to gain the vote.

    I know that there will be many in the Conservative Party that will quibble with this post, but what they can’t countermand are those thousands of their own political kin who no longer feel much affection for politics.??So, with the progressives split (see last post) and the Conservatives fraying, it’s only a matter of time until a nation well known for its ability to get along divides even further.??

    Why Do Progressives Keep Shooting One Another?

    Posted on April 12, 2019

    It’s become a common habit in this country to easily interchange the words liberaland progressive.  In fact, most people can’t even name the difference between the two.

    That isn’t quite true for the United States, where, especially within the Democratic Party, progressive is on its way to replacing the term liberal.  But not completely.  Traditional Democrats comfortable with being called liberal look with alarm at younger progressives, who they see as putting forward destructive policies that could ruin the nation.  Progressives believe that the liberal Democratic establishment has already done that and push hard to overcome the prolonged inertia that has kept the Democratic Party back from making the changes required to get the country moving once more.  They perceive moderation as giving up.

    In Canada, the tensions are more muted, but the debilitating effects are similar.  In fact, they might be worse.  With three parties in historic contention for power, and with a rising fourth party – the Greens – adding to the mix, things get pretty complicated. The math goes something like this. If the Liberals, NDP and to a lesser degree the Green Party remain in serious contention, then it is likely the Conservatives will prevail.  Should either the Liberal or NDP party sink abysmally in the polls, then there’s a good chance one of them will form government.

    Sound too simplistic??Maybe, except that the political map continues to play out like that election after election, as when the Liberals won their majority in 2015 when the NDP faltered.??With one Conservative party and two liberal or progressive parties, the odds are clear that the progressive votes will split and Conservatives will frequently win.??Quibble if you will, but it’s how it is. The Conservatives learned this lesson from the 1990s, when the party was split, resulting in a series of Liberal majority governments.

    And then there’s the other problem.  Progressive Conservatism is waning, in its place a more rampant right-wing element that finds its easier to gain support by enraging their followers instead of enlightening them – heat has replaced light in the journey into the past.  Following the Trump playbook, they seek to “take back” their country from what is has become after decades of progressive enhancements and they will do whatever is required to accomplish it.  The Conservatives parties, both federally and provincially, no longer hold attraction with progressive Conservatives who find the concepts of hate and division unacceptable.

    Yesterday was the kick-off the London Food Bank’s 32ndSpring Food Drive.  While the press conference was going on in the warehouse, volunteers milled about, unpacking and sorting items, while all the media spotlights were elsewhere.  In moving among them to thank them for their assistance, I came across conservative, progressive and socialist inclined individuals moving together for the sake of a noble cause.  They knew the moment they introduced politics that the hegemony would be lost and so they concentrated on their community and the values it represents.  I knew some of them and of their increasing inclination to just move away from politics altogether.  Those official parties that had historically represented the leanings of those volunteers were now in the process of warfare at the same time these citizens were doing what politics was intended for at its very best – bring people of varying opinions together for the sake of a larger vision.

    These volunteers understood what the politicians can’t: the more people attack one another for their politics the less progress will be made.  

    And this brings us to the vital question: who will save our democracy from its destructive tendencies? If it’s not going to be those political parties so enmeshed in their enmity, perhaps it could be the decent and fair-minded individuals at the food bank yesterday, or those who volunteer at libraries, hospices, schools, sports activities, love their families, grow their businesses and seek to build communities instead of destroying their common ground.  They are learning that the moment partisan politics of the caustic variety is tolerated, the quicker will their efforts be wasted as community collapses around them, and the longer those they seek to serve will be forced to wait for justice and fairness.

    Progressives are a number of things at the moment – frustrated, despondent, divided, vengeful, even traumatized – but what they aren’t is together.  It is equivalent of a circular firing squad.  There needs to be reconciliation, forgiveness, self-examination, some visionary ideas around co-sponsorship of important issues and above all an end to the no-win rhetoric that burns everything before it.“Denial is the way people handle what they cannot handle,” noted Shannon Alder and right now we’re all in a state of denial because we can’t find a way forward. If progressivism can’t find common ground, what is it good for, and how else will it move forward? 

    Next post: Where did Compassionate Conservatism go in our politics?