The Kindness of… Rich People

Sticky

Twice, I’ve stood outside Notre Dame Cathedral without going inside, daunted by the long line-ups and the admission fee. After all, I’m an atheist who has already visited his share of impressive churches. This one was a youngster compared to some I’ve been to in Italy and Spain. Still, I now wish I had gone inside so I could see the not-quite-original interior. The present-day church was largely refurbished in the mid-19th Century largely at the urging of Victor Hugo – art intimidating life, as it were. And, I expect, despite the outcry of some folks, the church will be refurbished again. And that’s a good thing–the preservation of human history and art everywhere is part of what makes us human. I hope I live long enough to see it (they think it will take 10-15 years).

People have been shocked and surprised to see how quickly a billion dollars was raised from donations for the project—a lot of it coming from 2 French billionaires. It was quickly pointed out that there were lots of problems in France already, poverty and illness and so on, that a billion dollars could be used to fix. In Canada, the favorite has been the lack of clean water on First Nations. It reminds me of the similar outcry against spending money on the space program. But where would social media be without globe-circling satellites?

I get it. We see all these social issues and think something should be done (well, something other than supporting progressive politicians and paying our fair share of taxes) and, well, those guys have a lot of money, so shouldn’t they do it?

No.

The last thing any one should want is to live on the largess of the rich. Noblesse oblige was the basis of feudalism not of modern democracies. If the rich are going to pay for things, it should not because they are feeling generous to the poor little serfs beneath them but because we live in a system that reduces rather than exacerbates income inequality.

Because the root of the problem is not that billionaires exist but rather that, in late stage capitalism, where monopolies and oligopolies are the rule not the exception, our economy is designed to concentrate wealth and manufacture poverty. Even if you took a billion or a hundred billion or a trillion away from the mega-rich and gave it to the poor (the latter figure would give them each a thousand dollars), it wouldn’t change that system. The cash, sooner or later, would wind up in the same place.

And right now, it seems there is no alternative. (And don’t point to China or Russia either—whatever they call their system it is still a variation of the capitalist means of production). If we really want to make things better for the masses of humanity, we need fundamental changes in how we operate.

There are hints of what a post capitalist society might look like – you can occasionally find them in the talks of futurists or, even, in science fiction. It won’t be anything like the past, that much I’m sure of. With the end of regular employment caused mostly by automation (another thing people decry but seem powerless to stop), we will need a radical reordering both of social priorities and reward systems as well as the redistribution of wealth through guaranteed basic incomes and carefully designed tax regimes that get at international money transfers and hidden wealth stored in crypto-currencies. We will also likely need more free trade and more open borders, rather than less, so that the wealth of the world—there is no shortage of that—can be monitored and shared more equally.

Meanwhile, the people who would benefit the most fall for the old con, that the rich are somehow better than us and should care for their weaker cousins. And we vote for populists who distract us with fear of the other while their masters laugh all the way to the bank. Or the cathedral.

And that’s ten minutes.

End Days

Standard

Spending a few days immersed in intellectual discussions with an old friend while gazing at the calm waters off Salt Spring Island can lead to profound thoughts. Being deprived of Facebook for half a day only adds to the experience.

At the heart of my conversations with Jim is the matter of the numerous existential threats currently hovering over our world. It’s possible that one of the hysterical headlines will come true and a giant asteroid will take us out the way it took out the dinosaurs but that’s not what I’m talking about.

An asteroid would be quick and non-discriminatory. No matter where it hit, we’d all pay the price. Not so with the other potential threats to human life and civilization, which will strike the poor first and hardest. According to The Precipice, a new book by Toby Ord, the cumulative risk of total collapse in the next century is about one in nine. Unless we take specific actions to mitigate the many risks we face, the century after looks a hell of a lot worse.

Jim and I didn’t manage to cover the full range of potential disasters—we left out plague because we are sick and tired of talking about that and artificial superintelligence dropped off the agenda thanks to Facebook et. al. Still, there was plenty of other threats to wrap our heads around.

Climate change was at the top of the list, of course, as it should be. After the hottest summer on the BC coast and record fires, floods and storms around the world, it is hard to avoid the topic. It impacts everything, from severe weather, spreading invasive species, more tropical diseases in non-tropical places, massive refugee movements, and of more immediate concern to us both, the end of wine making in much of the world. We fear we may all be drinking Welsh claret before the end comes.

But we also revisited a golden oldie: nuclear war. Incursions of Chinese airplanes into Taiwan’s air defence zone raises the question of what America will do if China actually invades the neighbouring island. Will they sit silent as they did when Russia invaded Chechnya or does the new military pact between the USA, UK and Australia suggest a more aggressive response? Would Biden threaten nuclear retaliation? Would he actually do it? And that’s not even taking into account the repeated clashes between regular forces along the China-India border. India, too, is a nuclear power.

Of course, the USA may have fish to fry closer to home, as some observers feel certain that civil war is just around the corner. While few people take right-wing militias and their bizarrely named Boogaloo seriously, the real efforts of red states to overturn civil liberties such as the right of women to choose and the ability to hold free and fair elections should give most people pause for thought. A real insurrection may well be in the works for 2024 unless Biden, the Democrats, and the few principled Republicans left in Congress don’t get their acts together real soon. Trump 2 will be a hell of a lot uglier than the first go round.

Of course, all of this discussion didn’t leave us crying in our beer, or, in my case, my red wine. Both Jim and I are essentially optimists and spent more time talking about solutions than problems. And we shared memories and music, food and laughter, and walks in the woods to remind us of the beauty and resilience of nature that will be here long after we are gone. In fact, after all of us are gone.

Between our discussions, I’ve been reading The Government of No-One by Ruth Kinna. While an understanding of anarchy may be useful for the coming end days, it’s actually research for the next Max Anderson novel. Follow the links below for the first two.

https://books2read.com/In-the-Shadow-of-Versailles here

https://books2read.com/By-Dawns-Early-Light here

Strategic Voting

Standard

As election day approaches, some voters are considering the merits of strategic voting. Though largely a tactic adopted by progressive voters, keen to reduce the likelihood of a conservative being elected in their riding, it doesn’t have to be that way.

For example, one might vote strategically in Quebec in an effort to ensure a federalist candidate was elected in place of a BQ. If your main desire is to see the Liberal seat count reduced or even Trudeau replaced as PM, a Conservative, say in a Toronto riding, might choose to vote for the NDP if they thought they had a better chance of defeating a Liberal. Conversely, a Liberal in BC might not want the NDP to win their riding and could consider voting Conservative as an alternative.

For strategic voting to work, you would first have to have a pretty good idea of who is in first and second place in your particular constituency. Riding level polls typically have small sample sizes and, hence, a significant margin of error. Where there are only two parties in contention, the strategic choice is clear but in close three-way or, in a few cases, four-way races, it would be hard to know where to place your strategic vote. In those cases, it might be best to forget strategy and vote for the party that suits you best rather than one that is just “good enough.”

Of course, some people think you should always vote for the party that best reflects your own values and let the chips fall where they may. Some object to strategic voting because it is mostly a negative thing – you are voting against someone, rather than for someone. Other voters think it doesn’t matter who gets in; they will be good or bad in equal measures. And, to some extent, that is true. In Canada, those parties that have managed to form governments at either the federal or provincial level have, with a few notable exceptions, seldom drifted a long way from the centre (although if you are strongly progressive or conservative, it may not feel like that). Still, there is a difference between centre right and centre left and given my druthers, I’ll take centre left every day.

What if the parties in first and second place are the ones you would choose anyway? Does strategic voting have a role to play then? Although we only vote for the person in our riding, the ultimate winner does become part of a party caucus. The size of those caucuses will collectively determine who will form the government and even one member might make the different between a Liberal or Conservative government (the only real likelihood based on current polls). Then voting strategically gets even more mind-bendingly complicated.

In the end, the important thing to do is to vote. Whatever way you make the calculation to cast your ballot to do the most good (or least harm), the key thing is to get out there and do your civic duty. Without voters, there is no democracy.

Since I’ll largely be out of Internet contact until after election day (I voted in the advance poll), here is my personal prediction of the final outcome: another Liberal minority. Seats with changes from last election.

Liberals   152 (-5)

Conservatives 116 (-5)

NDP 36 (+12)

BQ 32 (0)

Green 2 (-1)

PPC   0 (0)

Others  0 (-1)

A lot of sound and fury for not much change. Look to return to the polls in 2023.

In the meantime, why not read a good book? In the Shadow of Versailles

WTF?

Standard

Apparently, people took my last blog about the weirdness of the current election campaign as a challenge.

Let’s start with this morning’s news about the NDP. Two candidates resigned from the campaign with mere days to go over anti-Semitic comments on Twitter. These were not ancient dusty tweets from years ago – both were in the last two years. To make matters worse (for me), one of them is running in the riding I ran in in the dim recesses of history. I’m glad they resigned (or were forced to do so) but it does succeed in making this election even weirder. For the first time in living memory, no political party has a full slate of candidates on election day.

Meanwhile, Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau has had to defend snapping back at a protester making vile comments about his wife. After having responded previously with a mixture of compassion and humour, this apparently was a line too far. I’d like to ask the people who are questioning the PM what their response would be if their family members were attacked. (Of course, I’ve always thought that if Ted Cruz had clocked The Donald when he made similar comments, we might never have had a Trump presidency.) Speaking of assaults, a Liberal candidate was attacked in his own campaign office by a 56-year-old woman angry about god only knows what. She was arrested.

In related news, Jean Chretien has hit the campaign trail to support the Liberal campaign. Quite possibly as a bodyguard.

Meanwhile, at the Globe and Mail, John Ibbitson acknowledges that the People’s Party of Canada is far out of the mainstream but they deserve representation, which they are only denied by the vagaries of First Past the Post voting. He doesn’t, for obvious reasons (i.e. no Conservative governments ever), call for proportional representation, just good luck (or is it bad) in individual ridings. Once again, G&M editorialists demonstrate that while they observe politics, they don’t really understand how it works. The fact that fringe parties can’t win seats is a feature not a flaw of FPTP. Comparing them to the BQ (some polls put the national PPC vote as higher than the quasi-separatist Quebec party) is at best, jejune, and at worst, deliberately misleading. The BQ will get 25-30% of the vote in Quebec, more than enough to win a fair share of seats there. Even the Greens only achieved representation by building up a regional stronghold on Vancouver Island. I wonder where John was in 2019 when the Greens got 6% of the vote but only won three seats (instead of the 20 or so he says the PPC deserve).

Speaking of the Greens, Leader Annamie Paul upped the stakes by revealing she considered resigning from the leadership several times before and, apparently, after the campaign began. I hope she hangs in for the sake of her party and herself (though an actual resignation would up the weirdness quotient).

Erin O’Toole is now relying on thoughts and prayers to win the election, if the odd photograph attached to a CBC story is any indication. In more earthly news, a Manitoba Conservative has had to apologize for spreading lies, I mean, disinformation, about vaccines and their effectiveness. No resignation required this time, probably because it is a seat his party can actually win. Meanwhile, in a surprise move, Canadian unions reject O’Toole’s valentine to Canadian workers.

I’m afraid to say it can’t get any weirder. The secret cabal of lizard people might make a public endorsement of one of the parties. Anyway, get out and vote on Monday, if you haven’t already done so.

In happier news, my novel, In the Shadow of Versailles is now available as a paperback.

Consequence

Standard

Every action has a reaction. Every choice has a consequence. Every cause has an effect.

How hard is that to follow? Damn hard for some people, apparently.

Today, across Canada, “silent” vigils are being held at various medical facilities organized by the FNA (Fired Nurses Association, in case you were wondering). They are protesting against public health decisions made by governments to help prevent the spread of a disease, which at last count has killed 4.6 million people around the world. That’s the official tally; the real one is likely double or even triple that.

I know. A lot of the protesters believe there is no virus or that it doesn’t make you sick, that vaccines mutate your DNA, that the earth is flat, that lizard people secretly run the world, that pigs can fly, that they have a brain. Like the Red Queen, they try to believe at least six impossible things before breakfast.

The same logic that lets them believe those things is probably what led them to go to hospitals to protest politicians. Though, of course, what they really want is attention. Narcissists all, they want their victimhood to be acknowledged. Others are dying, but they are the real sufferers. Others are in anguish, but their imagined pain is so much greater. I could go on but what is the point. I’m preaching mostly to the choir; the people I want to yell at are standing around with their fingers in their ears going: LA LA LA!

In any case, I don’t care. They can protest silently all they want. They can even be noisy and loud and rude. They can revel in their vulgarity and embrace their stupidity. They can stand on their head and spit nickels (which would probably be the most valuable thing they’ve ever done). It’s a free society; everyone is free to make a fool of themselves.

But if they make threats against health care workers, impede ambulances from getting to emergency, throw stones at doctors, commit vandalism to hospitals, then they should find out exactly what it’s like to have their freedom taken away – not their imaginary freedom but their physical one.

Eventually, most (though not all) will give in to the logic of the situation. They will grow tired of not being allowed to go to restaurants or baseball games. They will see their economic opportunities shrivel and their ability to travel curtailed. Most will come around to the view that maybe the scientists and doctors are right and the ranters and ravers are wrong. One by one, they’ll sneak off and get the jab and, like the rest of us, return to a normal life.

As for the holdouts, life is tough. If you willingly walk into traffic, you have little reason to complain when you get run over by a bus. If you step off a cliff because you think gravity is an imposition on your rights, you might be in for a fall. You can leave your own examples in the comments.

Sorry for the rant – but these people are starting to make me sick. I hope my way to the hospital isn’t blocked…

Now, I’ve got more important things to do, like putting the finishing touches to the second Max Anderson mystery, due out in a couple of weeks. What! You haven’t got the first one yet? Never too late – you can find it here.

The Turning Point

Standard

I’ve been watching elections – federal, provincial, municipal, other countries – since I was 14. This may be one of the oddest I’ve ever seen.

When we should be talking about pandemic recovery, indigenous reconciliation, and, more than anything, climate change, we wonder why we are having an election, worry about provincial legislation and policy (it’s a FEDERAL election, folks), and people throwing stones at politicians (turns out that was a Peoples Party of Canada riding association president – since removed).

Parties are falling all over themselves to disavow candidates and officials for misrepresenting themselves, or facing accusations of sexual harassment and racism. Let’s hope none of them get elected. And a politician who is not even running got mentioned five times in the last leaders’ debate.

Meanwhile the polls drift around, a five-point Liberal lead at the start of the campaign turned into a 5 point Conservative lead after two weeks and now both parties are essentially tied, with the Liberals holding a slight edge in the seat projections. The NDP are doing marginally better than the last two elections, but sadly, haven’t come close to Jack Layton’s result in 2011. The Greens are imploding due to party infighting and a lack of cash. Their leader now says she’s not helpful to some of their candidates. The BQ are floating below 2019 results but will still likely win 25 or so seats.

Then we have the PPC. They seem to be doing better than last time but how much better is anybody’s guess. Most pollsters have them at around 5%, probably enough to win one seat, but EKOS pegs them at 12% which is… weird, since they seem to be taking votes from everyone but the Conservatives. It seems unlikely but then this is the unlikeliest election of all.

In other words, we probably are going to wind up with a Parliament that doesn’t look a lot different than the one we had a month ago. Likely a Liberal minority or maybe a Conservative one, though O’Toole may find it difficult to find dance partners. While I’m not keen on a Conservative majority, my worst nightmare is a Conservative minority relying on the BQ to govern.

Well, that’s what we’ll get unless we’ve reached a turning point.

The oddest thing I’ve seen so far is the latest Globe and Mail editorial that, in the politest possible terms, calls Erin O’Toole a liar. The G&M is not the most progressive voice in Canadian journalism. Their actual reportage is fine but generally their opinion writers are all on the right side of center (and I don’t mean the correct side). In 2015, the editorial board called on Canadians to re-elect the Conservatives but defeat Harper, which was, of course, an impossibility. Desperate times call for ridiculous measures, apparently.

But, now, they say the Conservative platform, which they earlier called the most progressive one the party has put forward in decades, is, in fact, a sham, a smoke screen, well, a lie (my words, not theirs, but you can read it for yourself).

I wonder if that’s why the latest polls from Nanos and Mainstreet saw a 4-point shift in support for the leading parties. From Blue to Red. Might be a blip or it might be the turning point. We’ll know for sure in nine days.

Now, since I’ll be out of town on election day, I’m heading out to vote.

If you’re interested in more of my opinions and observations you can pick up my book, Let Me Gather My Thoughts, here or on Amazon. On the other hand, if you would like a break from current affairs why not try my mystery novel, In the Shadow of Versailles, set in 1919 Paris. Get it here.

From a Simmer to a Boil

Standard

Two weeks until election day, and the campaign is starting to warm up even as summer wanes. Though the media would have us believe we have all formed overheated opinions about the platforms and leaders, I suspect most Canadians have only now begun to tune in.

Erin O’Toole came out of the gate, surprisingly cool and collected. We were treated to a nice beefcake shot on the cover of MacLean’s, reminiscent of the tough guy poses of Ronnie Raygun and Vlad Poutine, a clear message to the base that he is a man’s man: a real honest-to-gun leader. He showed a softer side, too, by dumping a candidate accused of sexual harassment in a riding the Tories haven’t won in twenty years. Still, he managed to bob and weave his way through the first few weeks and saw his party’s fortunes rise even as the Liberals fell.

Justin Trudeau did as Trudeau does, a little bit hesitant and halting but earnest and sufficiently morally outraged over Conservative slips on health care and climate change. Similar to his long campaign for Liberal leadership and his 2015 winning strategy over Harper, Trudeau used a rope-a-dope style to weather early setbacks and hang in the race. The statesman’s beard is gone, replaced by handsome, if maturing, good looks. If O’Toole looks tough, Trudeau looks graceful, more lifeguard than weightlifter. [Don’t you love all these sports metaphors – just like a real pundit.] He had his troubles with harassing candidates, too, eventually forcing one out when he had too many strikes against him, tough as it was a seat the Liberals expected to win.

Jagmeet Singh has had a good campaign, even if the wheels did fall off his poutine truck, though the NDP still struggles to rise above their historic ceiling of 21%. As election day looms, he will have to use all his persuasive powers (and maybe a few martial art’s moves) to keep his supporters from making a last minute defection to the Liberals in a desperate move to prevent a Conservative plurality (majority seems out of reach for everybody at the moment) and return us to the 2019 status quo.

Blanchet is–oh, who cares? The BQ is a 90s throwback and, in the last 2 years, have talked a good fight but won few battles. The Quebec Premier on the other hand… but that’s a different story. As for the Greens and the PPC, they’ll be lucky to have seats in Parliament at all.

I can’t close without mentioning the entourage of anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, white supremacists and associated riff-raff who have been dogging the PM’s campaign. Trudeau has handled them with his usual gentility, deploring their tactics but hardly ever calling them the names they deserve to be called. The Conservative leader quickly and wisely disavowed his party’s campaign volunteers who took part, but they may have already done the damage to the right-wing cause. Still, the protestors are lucky it wasn’t the elder Trudeau or, better yet, Chretien, they were yelling at. Shawinigan handshake anyone?

We are now into the hard grind of the campaign. The conservative lead in the polls of 5-6 points has shrunk to 2-3 in the wake of the first leaders’ debate (for those who think the French debate doesn’t matter). With two more debates this week and the blitz of ads to come, it’s still anyone’s guess who will be PM after September 20th.

As usual, I’m full of opinions and observations. If they entertain you, you can read a lot more in my book, Let Me Gather My Thoughts, which you can get here or on Amazon.

What’s in a Name?

Standard

Ryerson University has decided to change its name and everyone is all atwitter. While many are applauding the move, some say it doesn’t go far enough. Others are calling it “cancel culture,” a somewhat ironic term, given that Ryerson and his colleagues literally tried to cancel 50 or 60 actual cultures. We are re-writing history! Or we should re-write history! Depending on which side of the middle you happen to fall on.

Of course, no one is trying to re-write history. What we are doing is deciding whom a modern culture should commemorate, that is, show respect for, honour, hold up as a role model. Edgerton Ryerson did a lot of things in his life, some positive, some negative and the University has decided that, by today’s standards, the negatives far outweigh the positives. Therefore, he will continue to exist in the history books but will no longer be commemorated or paid tribute to.

What! Applying modern standards to historical figures? That’s outrageous!

Nonsense.

In 1935, there were plenty of people who thought Adolph Hitler was pretty alright, including the King of England and Henry Ford. Now, the only people who think that are racists and whack-jobs and no decent person or society would raise a statue to him (though I understand he is in Madame Tussaud’s Was Museum in the category of Monsters of History). But I can find a thousand books and films that discuss his place in history.

I know, apparently, I’ve lost this argument because I brought up Hitler. Do you prefer Stalin? A lot of his statues were torn down when the Soviet Union collapsed, though some people are pushing to put them back up. Because that’s how commemoration works – society’s change and their evaluation of who is worthy of being honoured changes right along with it.

The process of honouring and, later, de-commemorating people has been going on for a very long time. During the Roman Empire, they went through a lot of emperors, all of whom had statues and plaques commemorating them during their lifetimes. Many then had all those tributes torn down, some before the blood was dry on the Praetorian Guards’ swords. Yet, we still have a record of them in history. Amazing, right?

Then, there’s the French. The Pantheon in Paris was the final resting place for the heroes of the nation (though for the last 150 years most of those heroes were politicians, writers and scientists because… France). Some times the internment is immediate; others, it can take decades (and in few cases, centuries) before France decides that person deserves honouring. And yes, a few people have been disinterred, though not recently.

What is far more common is for street names to change. Some streets in Paris have had three of four names over the last 150 years, as one person or event loses its luster and another deserves to be honoured. Sometimes, the street sign will show the new name and, in smaller print, its former name. Finding out what a street was called in 1919 was one of my biggest challenges when researching my novel, In the Shadow of Versailles. Why not pick up a copy and see if I got it right? You can get it here.

Calling All Voters

Standard

It’s summer! It’s hot! It must be time for an election!

Why are we having an election in August? Who would want that?

You may have forgotten that the election of 2015 (the longest campaign in recent history) also started in August. Why? Because the Conservatives had more money than the other parties and thought they could buy their way back into power. The timing was a deliberate play for power. It didn’t work.

But wait, don’t forget John Horgan, the NDP premier of BC. He called an early election (in the midst of COVID) even though his coalition with the Greens hadn’t run its course. Why? He could read the polls and wanted a majority. It was a deliberate play for power. Horgan got 4 more years.

Flash forward to 2021. Justin Trudeau was ahead in the polls. He wanted to leap on that lead to return to power—hoping for a majority. The timing was a deliberate play for power. The outcome is uncertain.

There is no ruling politician in the history of Canada that hasn’t tried to manipulate the calendar to their own advantage. Well, not entirely true. Mulroney/Campbell PCs delayed the election until the last possible minute hoping things would turn around. Not exactly a power play since they wound up scoring on their own net.

But…but…but we have a fixed date election law! Yes, a completely unconstitutional one which is why no one has ever bothered to take the matter to court.

Politicians want power. I know that sounds evil but the reality is that without power, they can’t implement their ideas and plans, plans people actually vote for (or against). Perhaps, it would be better if we had a different system—say proportional representation. We would have permanent coalitions (like Germany, if we’re lucky, like Israel if we’re not) and shifting alliances. More people would have power but some people still would have none. Bargains would be made, which no-one had voted for.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think PR is better than what we currently have. But it is not paradise. And, by the way, it’s not entirely Trudeau’s fault we don’t have it; the other 4 parties made a bargain which almost ensured the proposal would fail. Not being able to get exactly what they each wanted, they made sure nobody would get any change at all and Trudeau could take the blame. But that’s another story.

We have an election. Voting day is still 25 days away, though with mail-in ballots, advance polls and other forms of early voting, some people may cast their ballots in a little more than two weeks, the day after the English language leaders’ debate. You’ll need your thinking caps on full to figure out what’s what, who’s who and which is best for you and your country.

Good luck!

Don’t worry, I’ll be dropping in on a regular basis with thoughts, opinions and observations on the current campaign. Because I love politics so much, I even included them in my mystery novel, In the Shadow of Versailles, which you can buy here.

Rome Invades Kabul!

Standard

There is a cartoon making its way around social media in the wake of the US departure from Afghanistan and the resurgence of the Taliban. It shows an Afghan warrior hanging an American helmet on a stick and saying good-bye. Next to the US helmet is a Soviet one, a British Empire one and a Roman one. The implication is that no-one can hold onto Afghanistan – imperialists beware!

Clever but…

The Roman Empire never extended into Afghanistan, actually not even close. The Greek successors to Alexander the Great did set up an empire that included the area but they only held control for a bit less than three centuries. Not long really. Their successors from Persia (modern Iran) took control and remained for 400 years, were pushed out by other invaders, returned and left and so on for a thousand years. Even the Sikh Empire was there for a couple of generations.

I’m no expert on middle eastern affairs or the history of Afghanistan (whose borders only solidified in 1880) but even a cursory review of readily available information shows that the history of this ethnically diverse region has never been a simple case of us vs. them. But complexity is hard to capture in a single cartoon.

If your goal is to claim that no invader can last long in Afghanistan (though British influence, if not outright control, extended over a century) well, of course, you would want to include the best-known (for Westerners) empire of them all—the Romans. Who cares if it isn’t true; it rings with truthiness.

Another factor is involved besides playing fast and loose with history. There is a tendency (and this is by no means a modern development) to believe that what is happening now or in the relatively recent past (say the last fifty years) can be extrapolated backwards – to the British experience (partly true), to the Roman experience (not true at all).

I suppose it doesn’t really matter. People don’t live in the past (well, they do, but that’s another issue), they live in the present and need to try to understand, or justify, current events or decisions by past examples. No harm done, except that it lets us embrace simple solutions to complex problems. It may surprise you to know that simple solutions seldom solve complex problems, but oh, well.

Not that we can’t learn from history. We can learn a lot, though the aphorism that “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it” is itself a simplistic understanding of the value of history. Events don’t map onto each other from one time and place to another. Still, a nuanced understanding of the past of one place might provide insights into the present or even future of another.

That was certainly what I discovered when I delved into the history of Paris from the Belle Epoch to the Second World War. Many parallels exist between Paris of that period and the present day in the western world. Differences abound, too, and deciphering what is similar and what diverges will keep me busy for years.

That’s why I wrote the first Max Anderson mystery, In the Shadow of Versailles, which you can buy right here. It’s also why there is a second novel, By Dawn’s Early Light, coming soon (October) and I’m already drafting a third.

Is this a COVID-19 Story?

Standard

A writer friend who authors cozy mysteries recently asked a group of her readers if she should include elements of the pandemic in her next couple of novels. The answer was a resounding NO! Still, it is a valid question. Many of my writer friends are describing their latest short stories as COVID stories and they are not particularly happy about it. How, they ask themselves, can you write truthfully about something you don’t yet quite understand?

Think how Emma Donahue must feel. Her recent novel, The Pull of the Stars, was conceived as a story to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Spanish Flu but the final draft was delivered in March 2020, just a few days before WHO declared the pandemic. It is an excellent book and reflects a deep understanding and contemplation of the end of WWI, the impact of the flu on individuals and society, the especial impact that the pandemic had on women and a whole bunch of other things. Plus it is deeply moving and ultimately hopeful. It might resonate with people going through the current pandemic but clearly it is not a COVID novel. What happened in 1918-20 might parallel the events of the last two years but they are not the same.

It is frequently said that novels, whether set in the past, present or the future, reflect the author’s understanding of critical things that happened in their lives and worlds ten years before. For most artists, it takes that long to dig below the surface interpretation to create some version of the truth—even if it is only true for them.

Of course, lots of people have rushed things into print that are purportedly about our recent experiences. Maybe these people are operating at warp speed or have been cybernetically enhanced to allow them to discover deeper truths lurking below surface experience. But I doubt it.

In any case, I have no intention of seeking out their work. Covid-19 is still dominating my real life; I hardly need more of it in my imaginary one. Maybe I’ll be ready to read about this pandemic when the next one hits.

Sadly, you can be sure there will be a next one. Global interconnectedness and climate change pretty much assure us of that. Fortunately, the advances we’ve made in biology and medicine in the last 15 years and especially in the last two likely ensure that our response to the next one (and the one after that) will be quicker and more effective.

Not that that will matter much if climate change turns the planet into a cinder in the next few decades.

Sorry, as you get older, you keep seeing images of doom (if only your own) around every corner.

In case you were wondering, my latest novel, In the Shadow of Versailles, is not a Covid-19 novel either, even though the Spanish Flu does play a role. The first draft was finished several years ago when the pandemic was just a glimmer in your favorite conspiracy theorist’s eye.

You can see what it’s all about for yourself, for a modest sum, right here.