Saturday, November 26, 2016

My Log 539 Nov 26 2016: Death of Fidel, a man from a small island who had influence throughout the world, doing far more good than harm

It happens to few people in history to be known simply by their first name: but when the word went around the world that Fidel was dead, everyone must have known of whom the news spoke. And this Fidel was a man who led a revolution on a small Caribbean island 57 years ago. He was not everybody’s cup of tea: his revolution did not mess around. Within 80 days of taking office, they had summarily executed some hundreds of people who were judged by their revolutionary tribunals to be irreconcilable enemies. It was the signal for tens of thousands of other residents to decamp, with all their belongings and wealth, to the United States.
No one could have imagined that this tiny island led by its bearded guerrilla fighters could withstand the assembled power of their great neighbour for decade after decade. And yet, such was this man’s charisma, such his determination, his stubbornness, his idealism, often his wrong-headedness, and his caution in face of hundreds of assassination plots directed against him, that such has been the case. The Cuban revolutionaries are still in command, and the island is as far as it could be from the evil days when the dictator, supported and armed by the United States, made it into a safe playground for corrupt American gambling.
Not four months after marching into Havana, Fidel Castro visited Montreal to collect some 20,000 toys that had been collected for destitute Cuban children by the Junior Chamber of Commerce. I was a reporter in Montreal when Fidel visited in April 1959, and was assigned to follow him around all day. He was like no other politician the local security authorities ever had to deal with.  Immediately on emerging from the plane at the airport he broke away from his security and insisted on pressing the flesh with the people who had turned up to see him. He did the same thing throughout the day, giving headaches to his security men, and more especially to the local police who were assigned to protect him. He was taken to the hospital where he insisted on stopping off to meet sick children,  and spent so long with them that he immediately fell behind schedule, and when he arrived at the downtown hotel for a scheduled press conference, at which he arrived 40 minutes late, he gave of his time so generously that  he was still at it 90 minutes later, giving one-on-one interviews to television reporters (one of whom was Rene Levesque, who later became, just as Fidel has become in Cuba, one of the most memorable figures in the political history of Quebec.)
That press conference in Montreal was held in the months when Fidel was denying he had any interest in taking office in the new Cuban government. He also said he was anti-communist. But within months he took over the running of the government, and he never relinquished his hold on it for the next 47 years. I have a picture of that press conference, and I was surprised to see a little reproduction of it on the below mentioned web site, showing me scribbling away in the front row of journalists.
The day after the visit, when my story had been published in the newspaper, my boss came up to me and said, “I see you didn’t think too much of our visitor.”  And yet, other people who read my stuff and were used to my style, said to me, “How the hell did you ever get such a favorable impression of Castro into the newspaper?”  It was all done by smoke and mirrors. In those days I always considered myself part of the opposition within the newspaper, and had developed the useful skill of suggesting things that I would never have been allowed to say straight out.
The whole story of this visit is well told in a web site with the following link:
Of course, as the government began in the succeeding months to redistribute the agricultural land it had seized from the owners of the big estates, and finally to nationalize all American companies, the United States, smarting from this defiance, so much at odds with the previous history of Latin America, imposed an embargo on all trade, expecting to bring them to their knees overnight. That this embargo should have continued until the present day is a tribute to the irrationality of big power politics as well as to the stubborn resistance of the island’s people.
One of the outstanding characteristics of the new leader that is exhibited by the story of the locals who organized Fidel’s 1959 visit to Montreal, was the extreme difficulty they had in getting in touch with him, and the near-impossibility of pinning down anything like a meaningful schedule on which plans could be based. This was a caution that he carried through the rest of his life, and which accounted for the failure of so many well-organized efforts to assassinate him. One of my friends in later years was Robert Resha, a South African member of the African National Congress, who was assigned to London and whose job it was in the tough years of the 1960s (for the South African revolutionaries), to tour the world trying to raise money that would enable the AFN to carry out its proposed armed rebellion against the apartheid regime in their country. Robert visited Cuba in pursuit of this objective, and he told a remarkable story of waiting for days in a hotel room in the hope that his messages for Fidel had been delivered and he might be summoned to the presence. That never happened. But what did happen was that one night, when he was fast asleep, at something like 3 am, there was a knock on his hotel door, and the great man himself stood there, available at last.  He came in, sat down, and talked for several hours to his comrade-in-arms. It could have been that this meeting, and the rapport that Robert succeeded in creating with him, set the stage for the extremely significant interventions Cuba later made in the anti-colonial struggle in Africa.
According to Robert, Fidel never slept in the same bed for two nights in a row. And his experience is reflected in the later stages of the account of the Montreal visit given on the above-mentioned web site.  A Montreal businessman who had offered a gift of tractors to Cuba,  managed to get his gift delivered, but he wanted, if possible, to have it formally accepted by Fidel.  He travelled to Cuba with that expectation, and contacted the people who knew about his gift, and the circumstances of the Montreal visit. But he waited for one night, only to be told Fidel was at the other end of the island, then a second night, a third, a fourth, and finally he announced he would have to return to Montreal. He never did get the picture he so wanted for his company’s publicity.
 On the same subject, the National Film Board made a very amusing film called Waiting for Fidel, which recorded the experience of the Newfoundland premier, Joey Smallwood, who once travelled to Cuba, in company with a newspaper proprietor of his acquaintance, with the expectation of meeting el jefe.  They travelled around, visiting hospitals and the like, waited and waited some more, and even had time for the newspaper proprietor to stand on his head on the beach at the Bay of Pigs, but they never did get to meet the boss.
 Fidel was definitely cheeky. He not only provided a signpost to better possibilities in Latin America (although Che Guevara’s ill-advised attempt to foment revolution in Bolivia was a miserable failure), but as his nation outstripped all others in Latin America in education and medical services, he also began to make an impact by exchanging thousands of doctors in exchange for oil and the like, much to the chagrin of he Americans. His intervention in Africa was probably the most significant of his foreign adventures. It began in the 1970s, when he sent 5,000 troops to help the leftist FNLA government of Angola to resist the American supported and armed right-wing group UNITA. This Cuban involvement in Africa had so enraged Henry Kissinger, that, according to the US National Security Archive, which released documents to this effect, he had urged President Gerald Ford to order a massive bombing of Cuba to be followed by an assault of ground troops based on the US base at Guantanamo Bay. But its most important effect came a decade later when South Africa sent its army into Angola in an effort to stem a government advance.  Cuba in 1987 sent a force of 15,000 troops (later, according to the Archive, increased to 55,000) who fought huge battles against the invading South Africans, and beat them. The UNITA rebellion was beaten off, and, although this is not widely known  --- but it is recognized by the AFN --- this defeat was one of the major influences in the later downfall of the apartheid regime.
So, Fidel is dead. And whatever may have been his weaknesses, he certainly was a figure of world-wide influence, who apparently knew when his time had come to quit (unlike so many others in the developing world), and who, to judge by the articles he contributed until almost his last year, certainly understood very well the affairs of the wider world, and kept his marbles intact right until the end. The world will miss him; I miss him already.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

My Log 538 Nov 18 2016: Surrounded every day by young people hurrying to get The Knowledge: but is it the sort of knowledge we really need to save the world?

Almost every day, as I walk at my old man’s pace through the campus of McGill University on my way to my morning coffee, I am almost overwhelmed by the sheer energy of the thousands of students who surround me. There they go, I think, whizzing past, crash, bang, half of them talking to themselves (or would that be talking into a hidden microphone? Wonders will never cease), their earnestness above all being what most impresses me.  I have worked out a small joke for myself: they are relentlessly in pursuit of The Knowledge, meaning, the accumulated Knowledge of humanity, the transmission of which, from one generation to the next, is conceived to be the business of modern universities.
To judge by the numbers, there can be little doubt of the success of these institutions, for we must at this moment have more educated and knowledgable people in the world than ever before. I spent some time this morning trying to discover how many university students we have in this one city, and it comes to something like (at a conservative estimate) 184,000, made up of   55,000 at the University of Montreal, 40,000 at McGill, 46,000 at Concordia, and  43,000 at the University of Quebec at Montreal (known to everyone as UQAM). These are amazing figures, and they probably pale beside those of Ontario, where the University of Toronto has 90,000 and York university 53,000, just to mention two of them. Then think, in each case, of the army of professors engaged in passing on The Knowledge to their charges. Thousands upon thousands of them.
No wonder the students are hustling and bustling past me, on their way, no doubt, to beat out the tough competition which must face all of them if they are to get their degrees, without which, it is said, in these modern times no meaningful life is really possible any more. All around the University in the city streets, one peers amazed into neighbourhood coffee shops, to see that right into the late evenings, every table is occupied by students leaning over the computers that are propped up before them. Hot in pursuit of The Knowledge.
And yet…. Perhaps one may be forgiven for expressing a slight doubt. If these universities are doing such a great job, how is it that by our human actions, the health of the very elements on which all life depends --- that is, clean water, fresh air, richly productive soil, biological diversity ---- are all deteriorating at an exponential rate. For all our brainpower --- and it is brainpower that the professors are supposed to be working on, increasing its effectiveness by filling each brain with The Knowledge, better and improved with every generation --- for all our brainpower, we have not fully grasped so simple a truth as that our very lives depend on such apparently insignificant animals as bees, or those worms and slugs that live in the top three inches of earth and are constantly at work transforming the earth into productive topsoil. Without either of these insignificant  classes of animal, human life would go phufft!
It makes one wonder if the way they are teaching The Knowledge in these expensive universities is really doing the job. I remember I was myself in charge of a  university  class of undergraduates for one term. It was one of the most farcical jobs I ever had. There were 122 of them, sitting out there, waiting for The Knowledge. I depended on a computer to give me a list of their names, and I never got that until two weeks before the term was over. I know one thing: they never got any Knowledge from me.
When I was an active journalist, working in London, England for a Canadian newspaper, I spent a lot of time poring over a study of higher education, which exposed the totally class nature of the education system. As an enthusiastic socialist I deplored all of it, supported the idea of comprehensive high schools at which levels of education would be raised and harmonized for the mass of students, and excoriated the nakedly class method they had of separating children at the age of eight into those destined for higher education, and those destined to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.
I never had to suffer a university education myself, having left school after four years of high school, and gone straight into the work force at the lowest possible rung of journalism. That certainly had its advantages: I learned the craft by performing it, and have never really been a supporter of the idea that a university education should be compulsory, as it is now, for an upcoming journalist.
It is probably not the first time I have raised doubts about the university system in this space. But they have been on my mind since I read the autobiography of Peter Medawar (which I previously mentioned in My Log 534 on October 30.) He went to Oxford University in 1932 and gives an extraordinary account of the university’s system of teaching, which was by tutorials, with the ratio of students to tutors being 1:1. In this age of mass education that sounds completely unattainable. Yet I took the trouble to look up Oxford as it is today, and the tutorial system is still in effect, with the number of students to each tutor varying from one to four.
Impossible, one would think, in this day of mass education. I’m not so sure about that. In the richest nations in the world they keep telling us it is impossible to afford free university education to those who want it, or are qualified for it. In both Canada and the United States the burden of student loans has become immense. Students owe more than an estimated $22 billion, according to the Canadian Federation of Students calculation, and in the United States, student loans are said to amount to more than $3 trillion.
Unsurprisingly, in the capitalist world it is really only in the Nordic countries --- countries like Sweden, for example, have always boasted they have a capitalist economy and a socialist society ---- that free education at all levels has been offered. Communist countries like China and the USSR provided education free of charge, but as they have transferred to a capitalism economy, an essential element has been to put higher education on a fee-paying basis.  There are of course, exceptions, Cuba being one of them. One of the major questions that Canadian capitalists should have to answer is: if Cuba can afford free higher education why cannot the far more prosperous nation of Canada do the same?
The original purpose of university education was to produce a well-rounded individual. But that seems to have gone by the board with the arrival of mass education. Now the emphasis seems to be on producing the fodder, in the form of trained workers, needed to keep the economic system ticking over.
This system certainly seems to have caught the interest of the generations just coming into maturity, those young men and women scurrying past me as they hurry from class to class. One can only hope they are getting what they want. And even more profoundly, one would hope that great changes should be underway in the sort of Knowledge that is being transmitted to them in their classrooms. The essential knowledge needed now is: how do we keep our life-support systems from being irrevocably degraded? I hope to hell that is why these young people are in such as hurry to get to their destinations.  For finding the answer to that question has become a matter of urgency.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

My Log 537 Nov 13 2016: Two sources upset my supposed knowledge of Rugby Union football: a scholarly book about origins, and a gritty film about indentured football labourers

It will be well-known to most people who read this site that I am a somewhat fanatical follower of the game called Rugby Union football. I am so because as a kid growing up in New Zealand my bedroom wall was covered with pictures of every representative New Zealand team (still known everywhere as the All Blacks from the colour of the jersey they wore when they first sallied out into the world in 1884). I knew the names of most of the players who travelled to Brtain in 1905, and the later team, just as successful, of 1924, so it could be taken that I am fairly well versed in the history and myths of the game.
In the last week or so I have come across two items that have surprised me. One of them is a French film in which the recruitment of Polynesian players by French clubs is likened almost to slave traffic; and the other is a scholarly book that calls into question the founding myth of the origin of the game, which was supposed to have taken place in 1823, when a boy at Rugby school called William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it, thus distinguishing the game from the prevailing soccer.
This myth is so firmly established that when the World Cup of Rugby was established in 1987 the trophy for which it is played was called the William Webb Ellis cup.
The book I came across for 50 cents at my favorite used book store in Montreal was a history of the split that occurred around 1895 between the amateur game, Rugby Union, whose development was based on its popularity among English public schools, and the professional variant, today known as Rugby League. The main difference between the two versions is that the Union game has 15 players, while League has only 13. In this book, Rugby’s Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football, the author Tony Collins says the commemorative plaque at Rugby school to Ellis’s great initiative, a plaque that is regarded as authoritative, was not erected until 1900, and that Ellis’s name was never mentioned in relation to the event until 1877 --- that is more than half a century after he is reputed to have taken the ball in hand and run with it. This is about equivalent to the Gospels recording Jesus’s time on earth being written years after the events by obsessed followers of the religion that had been developed around his name. Not the most reliable witnesses, one would think.
Collins suggests that even though an inquiry into the origins of the game conducted by the Old Rugbeian society had been unable to find either witness or even hearsay evidence for Ellis’s supposed contribution, they nevertheless went ahead with their commemoration because of their desire to establish that the Rugby game did not arise in any way from the traditions of folk football. In other words it was a class act, not at all surprising when one considers the history of class distinctions that have always plagued Britain.
In fact Collins produces another surprising fact, namely, that in its earliest forms, the game of Rugby was distinguished primarily by a practice known as “shinning” --- in other words, the deliberate, and quite vicious kicking of the shins of the opposing team. This was carried to such lengths that particular forms of boot with pointed, reinforced toes were used to maximize the damage done to the opposing shins.
The film I saw this week about the recruitment of Polynesian players into French Rugby is called Mercenaire, and was screened in Montreal as part of the Cinemania festival of films. It is the first feature made by Sacha Wolff, and it is a gritty, realistic effort that, as Wolff said in an interview when his film was screened at this year’s Cannes film festival, deals with an area of life that has been little investigated by filmmakers, but that, according to him (and I agree) should yield interesting results if they would only take the trouble. His film certainly contains some wonderful close-up footage of the game under way, but its value lies in the sociology of its subject.
A huge young man from New Caledonia, played by a French Polynesian, Toki Pilioko, is put in touch with a lower-level  Rugby club that is importing players in the hope that they might help the club rise to higher level competition. When the lad tells his father about this, the father says he is going nowhere. But the son insists, “I am going,” the first time the youth has ever opposed his father, and is then thrashed mercilessly by his powerful belt-wielding father, who ends the thrashing by declaring that his son is now dead, he no longer has a son, and he can go wherever he likes.
Of course, once he arrives in France he finds himself enmeshed in a pack of lies: for example, the local Pacific agent in New Caledonia told his prospective purchasers that he weighed 140 kg, but he turned out to weight only 120. The promoter uses this as an excuse to sell his contract to a minor club (Agen was named: I found this of especial interest, because this was the club which a few years ago brought to France from Fiji a man going by the resplendent name of Rupeni Caucaunibuka who is widely regarded as possibly the greatest winger ever to play the game, a prolific try-scorer at even the highest level of the game; unfortunately, he turned out to be a mysteriously unreliable man, often simply not turning up, disappearing, in fact, without notifying his club who would find out only later in the week that he had returned to Fiji to see his children, or because he was homesick. He was frequently suspended by his nation, Fiji, and his club, Agen, and by others who hopefully hired him, only to suffer the same inconsistencies, until his career dribbled to an ignominious close as a player who seemed to answer to higher calls than those of his contracts).
Anyway, the conditions in which this boy finds himself, an innocent, unused to the ways of the world, but a lad brought up in a religious environment, and with a strongly entrenched sense of right and wrong, are shown as being not much short of what is known these days as indentured slavery. The film is permeated with violence, not only on the field of play (in which it is perhaps overplayed) but between the various characters. It is not a particularly pretty film, but it is fascinating because of the unusual quality of its protagonists, a film very much worth seeing.
The only other film I can recall which deals with Rugby is the 1963 film by Lindsay Anderson called This Sporting Life, in which Richard Harris had his first starring role, leading him to an Academy award nomination. The film was lumped into the category of “kitchen sink” drama that had enlivened the British stage. It was certainly a gritty study of a man who, except for the racial difference, was not unlike the Polynesian  hero of Wolff’s film. A man of strong feelings that he was inexpert in expressing. A man given to violent solutions, and impulsive actions.
That film remains probably the best ever made about any variety of football, with the possible exception of Oliver Stone’s amazing study of the gridiron game, Any Given Sunday, made 35 years after Anderson’s film, and a film in which he uses the game as a metaphor for American life.
That only three such films spring to mind in the last half century seems to suggest that Wolff is right: it is a field that would reward greater attention from film-makers.