Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Books I'm Reading These Days

All sorts of things going on in Canada and the world right now but I think I'll blog about my latest readings.

First of all, I read Vassily Grossman's Everything Flows.

I'm a big fan of Grossman. He was born into a secular Russian Jewish family in the1905. He was first a chemist and then began a career as a novelist and short-story writer in the 1930s. He volunteered for the Red Army after the German invasion of the Soviet Union and was given a job as a war correspondent for the Red Star army newspaper where he covered everything from the army's near-collapse to the battles of Staingrad, Kursk and the fall of Berlin.  I've read Life & Fate (the second part of his World War II epic) and A Writer at War (a collection of his wartime writings edited by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova). [Part one to Life & Fate was originally released as For a Just Cause and was criticized for its clunky Stalinist realism. Apparently there's a new translation based on suppressed writings now entitled Stalingrad which is better that I plan to read.]

Everything Flows was Grossman's last novel, finished four years before his death by stomach cancer in 1960, and it was never allowed to be published in the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities attempted to confiscate all the copies of his manuscript but it was smuggled out of the country and published in the West in 1980. Its main focus is on the thoughts and experiences of a man released from thirty years in the labour camps. It also contains a chapter on the sorts of people who denounce others and send them to the camps. There's a chapter about the inherent authoritarianism of both Lenin and Stalin and Russia's enslaved soul. A woman who befriends the main character gives him a first-hand account of Stalin's terror famine in the Ukraine. One chapter goes to a heartbreaking account of a woman sentenced to the labour camps for not having denounced her husband and how her small hopes of returning to her family are slowly killed within her.

In this work, as in Life & Fate, Grossman describes a society wherein people were afraid to speak freely. How even among colleagues or friends, one had to constantly monitor oneself. It's odd that nowadays, through surveillance technology we're all being spied upon, only our watchers don't really care what we think or say. They only need to move if we start to organize. There's a real cultural strength in our myths that Stalinism didn't have. But, we see it's starting to break down in France and in the USA.

Anyway, good book.

Next up is Detroit '67: the year that changed Soul by Stuart Cosgrove.

The book describes the social-economic-cultural milieu that produced Berry Gordy's MoTown Records and the tensions and struggles within the company in the year 1967 in half the book, while the other half deals with the wider conflicts going on inside Detroit itself which led to the five days of rioting in late-July. Cosgrove is a good writer who has a good eye for what was important for an understanding of this bit of history.

Finally, there's From Treaty Peoples to Treaty Nation: A Road Map for All Canadians, by Greg Poelzer and Ken S. Coates.

I can't say that I like it. Reading it I'm reminded of how Canadian academics (and many opinion writers) have this way of writing that uses dullness to obfuscate their nasty biases. They know that what they want to say is offensive so they drain their language of as much bile as they can and decorate what remains with soulless words meant to convey a patina of benevolence. (I'm tired and that's as hard as I'm going to try with that.)

Poelzer and Coates are still, nonetheless, pretty blatant in their biases. In surveys of the thoughts of Indigenous and non-Indigenous thinkers on First Nations issues, they use the word "radical" as a term of derision. Whether or not an argument for First Nations sovereignty is valid or not is of secondary importance to whether or not it is popular with the majority population in Canada. It's also quite evident when they're summarizing a writer or policy-maker who they're sympathetic to.

Here's a couple of examples of what I mean: On page 129, the first page of Chapter 6, they want to deliberately steer away from stories of First Nations sufferings to stories of positive achievement. I've no problem with that. But it takes a certain amount of hubris to do that the way they ended up doing it:
It is easy to get depressed about Aboriginal conditions in Canada. Scarcely a day passes without another sensational headline. If the story is not about impoverished conditions on a reserve then it is documenting urban violence, a child welfare crisis, or an Aboriginal protest.  Politicians routinely highlight the statistics of despair, and First Nations leaders, struggling to get the nation's attention, speak openly of endemic drug and alcohol abuse and decry the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the prison system. And on it goes, [!] from a glue-sniffing epidemic at Davis Inlet to filthy water at Kashechewan, from corruption in Aboriginal organizations to the difficulties attracting teachers to isolated northern reserves, from unemployment rates above 90 percent on some reserves to bitter battles over child apprehensions and Aboriginal control over social welfare, from multimillion-dollar legal bills for fighting the government to gut-wrenching descriptions of the evil acts of pedophiles in residential schools. 
Again, I understand that Poelzer and Coates are going to be writing about how their are signs of First Nations resilience and achievement and how it isn't just a litany of suffering. But in presenting that list of tribulations the way that they do, instead of conveying that they're well aware of the nature and extent of the problems faced by First Nations people, they instead demonstrate that they have no clear conception of their significance. Furthermore, they seem at a loss as to the source of all or almost all of these problems, which is in the policies of the settler society.

Another instance of their bias comes in their brief summary of Chief Shawn Atleo's struggle to win acceptance of the 2014 First Nations Education Act. Like many mainstream academics. Poelzer and Coates have bought into the narrative of nation-states being irrelevant in the new world of globalized capital. (Increasingly, what with the massive military budgets, surveillance budgets, bail-outs and other supports of the "titans" of finance, this irrelevance is shown to be a myth. A myth to convince people that they can expect nothing from the states to which their incomes are taxed to support.)

The writers employ this myth to disparage the First Nations struggles for sovereignty, and recognition of their Treaty rights, and to shift the focus to "practical" reforms to make things better in the here and now. Atleo's work on behalf of the stephen harper government's First Nations Education Act is framed as that of a practical man, wanting to compromise and achieve real benefits for his people, being frustrated by unreconstructed firebrands: "In fact, opposition to his support for the government was so strong that Atleo felt compelled to resign his office. His successor, Chief Perry Bellegarde of Saskatchewan, ... favours a rights-based approach to government relations. The desire to fight with the government lives on."

Have no fear though, gentle readers, because (the paragraph continues): "Many Aboriginal people, however, are getting on with business."

The writers had earlier shown nothing but praise for stephen harper's empty words of apology for the residential schools tragedy. ("Talk is cheap" adequately explains why harper felt motivated to make that "historic" apology.) I went to find out more about this Education Act. This CBC story makes it sound as if its failure was merely due to a clash of personalities (similar to Poeler and Coates making it about First Nations "radicals" who would rather fight over empty words like "sovereignty" than achieve lasting benefits for their grassroots). One has to go to less mainstream sources to get the real story. The First Nations Education Act was about micro-managing First Nations schools in exchange for more and steadier financial funding. It was tabled without having given First Nations peoples a chance to look at it and propose changes or amendments.

I suppose I'll finish the book. There is some valuable information and it's always good to know what the enemy is thinking.

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