New Jason Ricci album reinvents blues originality

It’s not often I write a track-by-track review so when I do you know that an album has fully captured my attention. (See my review of the Thornetta Davis album Honest Woman: https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2017/02/16/thornetta-davis-a-new-blues-classic/) Approved by Snakes by Jason Ricci and the Bad Kind is by far the most eclectic and successful blend of genres I’ve ever heard on a blues album.

jason20ricciJust judging by Ricci’s photo on the CD, “the Mooncat” is as much influenced by punk as he is blues, but clearly he’s a magpie for whom no ingredient is off the menu. As Paul Linden writes in the liner notes: “In the box, out the box, kick a hole in the box, if artistic freedom has shit to do with the Big Easy being a global music center, it’s in your hands right now.” I’m just old enough to remember the days of analogue LPs with liner notes the length of a short Rolling Stone article. I loved reading them all and regretted the era when they went out of fashion. If there were an award for most original liner notes, Linden would get my vote: “This record steps out from behind a tattered shade like a hooker hanging her plump thigh over the crowd below. As each succeeding side is thrust out—shamelessly or with passing modesty—the grime in the pavement starts to hiss and sizzle with anticipation.”

The song titles alone cue you to the fact that this is not your typical blues album. It leads off with My True Love is a Dope Whore, chooglin’ down the track with Ricci’s haunting blues harp and an almost breathless spoken word introduction. Ricci signals from track one that his lyrics are more concerned with sociological observation than moaning over lost loves. In my listening experience, few musicians are equally gifted as lyricists and composers, and in blues especially there’s a tendency to dwell on domestic quarrels or disappointments. Modern blues musicians too often forget that the blues originated as a covert form of social protest against slavery. Forget Son House’s famous axiom that “there ain’t but one kinda blues, and that consists of the male and female that’s in love.”  Early blues lyrics were often blistering rants written in clever code so “the Man” would miss it, while anyone on the wrong side of the social divide knew instantly what was being referred to. In other words, the early blues masters were also intuitive masters of that age-old poetic device, the metaphor. These days with the increased freedom of expression in the media, it’s not as necessary to cloak social protest in literary devices. But for the artist devoted to craft, it still doesn’t hurt to write lyrics that work simultaneously on several levels.

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Jason Ricci reinvents the blues on ‘Approved by Snakes.’ Courtesy band website.

And how many blues albums are stocked with numbers that stretch to nearly ten minutes, unless you’re talking a live jam of Got My Mojo Workin’ or Sweet Home Chicago? (There are four such tunes here and several that average close to seven minutes.) Ricci and the Bad Kind are clever enough musicians to make the long workout a many-textured, seamless ride without merely filling up space. Something Just Arrived, in true poetic fashion, has me wondering what exactly the singer is suggesting, and its mid-tempo lurch and grind carries us along nicely. Demon Lover slows it down to an atmospheric crawl, with minimal percussion and chord swells to create a suitably spooky vibe along with Ricci’s almost whispered vocals. Here again Ricci is tapping into a mythic vein that has been explored by writers for millennia—the succubus or night spirit of ancient legend. The guitarist’s swells from nothing to an echoey fullness and then back to nothing again are apt sonic evocations of the elusive night spirit. One of the longest songs on the album, its length allows a painstakingly slow climb to crescendo that holds you mesmerized.

The mood shifts uptempo for My Mom’s Gonna Yell At You, with a vocal line carried by the entire band, creating a sing-songy groove that could become an off-kilter radio hit with the right amount of luck and timing. (Two of the most essential elements in the tripod of success—clearly talent alone isn’t enough.)

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Ricci’s blues harp technique is reminiscent of the late great Paul Butterfield, but ‘the Mooncat’ takes it places even he never imagined. Courtesy T-Bois Blues Festival.

But just in case you were thinking Ricci and the Bad Kind were gearing up for the Parents’ Seal of Approval, next comes Broken Toy/I Fink U Freaky, a hybrid number that merits the “Warning: Explicit Lyrics” label on the CD. “I’m too well for the hospital / I’m too sick for the healthy… Just an outsider and a misfit / not your girl and not your boy… I feel just like a broken toy… I’m too fucked up for this little world / I’m too straight for the faggots / I’m too queer for all the little girls…” Ricci delivers the lines in an agonized tone just short of a wail—the tormented voice of the nonconformist relegated to outsider status and cast to the fringes of society. Late in the song it breaks into a semi-demented bridge, Ricci twisting his harmonica tone even further out of shape than usual and a solo guitar freak-out. The chorus of “I think you’re freaky and I like you a lot,” is a reassuring counterpoint to the singer’s isolation.

The closest the band comes to a jam is on Listen Here, introduced by a funky bass line played by Andy Kurz. By this point in the album you already know these guys know their stuff inside and out, but this is no mere filler. Ricci shifts seamlessly from a Buddy Guy-like vocal sandpapered around the edges into a double-time rap. Ricci uses this tune to demonstrate his blues harp chops—he reminds me of the fluency and tone of the late great Paul Butterfield.

Terrors of Nightlife has the feel of Sticky Fingers-era Stones, a bourbon-soaked voice laid over an acoustic guitar line graced with sweet-as-honey electric slide guitar. It’s not hard to imagine Keith Richards singing this one. Ricci’s harp solo has gorgeous echoes of Sonny Terry. The tune has the sweet, aching melancholy of the Stones’ Coming Down Again from Goat’s Head Soup. The cracking hard light of Ricci’s morning-after-blues is aptly followed by Got Cleaned Up, a jaunty number that—along with I’m Too Strong For You—is probably the closest to a standard blues romp this band gets. Disconnect gives us another golden opportunity to hear the Mooncat’s ripping harp set against an unconventional instrumental backdrop.

This is a highly diversified, deeply textured and thoroughly well-crafted album. I recommend it highly—a 4.5 out of five stars from me. Pre-order Approved by Snakes here: http://www.mooncat.org

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March of the Blues Divas

You could be forgiven for thinking the glory days of the blues are mostly in the past. The fragmentation of audience fostered by the Internet has been both a blessing and a curse to artists seeking to build a reputation. So it’s a great discovery to find that there’s a whole new generation of blues artists out there, with stellar standouts like Thornetta Davis, Mississippi Heat, and Reverend Freakchild, to name only three.

And all of these new blues acts have the benefit of a century of blues tradition to draw upon. So it’s not surprising that the myriad artists represented by Frank Roszak represent a broad spectrum of mix-and-match blues stylings. Like a Cajun gumbo, a little of everything gets stirred into the pot—zydeco, Delta, Chicago, folk, rock and at times even a little rap or punk. Blues musicians have an easier time than ever crafting a unique sound, even if cutting through the haze of a saturated music market remains a major challenge.

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The amazing Thornetta Davis, whose album ‘Honest Woman’ gets five stars from me. Image courtesy of the Windsor Star.

Of the many albums Roszak has sent my way, I find it interesting that many of the standouts are women artists. It’s as if this new wave of creativity has unleashed the March of the Blues Divas, as competent and diverse as their male counterparts. Broadly speaking, though, they seem to fall on either side of the stylistic divide—on one side you have the more commercial ‘Smooth Blues’ of Lauren Mitchell, Laura Tate, Lisa Biales and Gina Sicilia. On the other you have what I call the ‘Gutbucket Blues’—the floorboard-ripping, raw blues of Eliza Neal, Thornetta Davis and Polly O’Keary and The Rhythm Method and the soul-blues of Janiva Magness. Also in this category would be the acoustic roots-blues of Holly and Jon. The amazing Tony Braunagel, both a drummer and an excellent producer, is behind at many of the emerging blues divas. Braunagel has a golden ear for production and these women are lucky to have him in their stable. His mixes are always bright, rich and with beautiful separation and imaging of the various instruments. I tend to prefer my blues on the rougher side of town—the Gutbucket Blues that kicked off with Muddy Waters and Albert King and was excellently rendered during the Mick Taylor years of the Rolling Stones and Canned Heat. To me, nothing beats a fluent slide guitar solo fed through a Marshall stack, something Taylor mastered at a precocious age.

‘Gutbucket’ Blues—with Soul

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Eliza Neals: rockin’ the blues in the Stones tradition. Courtesy band website.

Eliza Neals’ album 10,000 Feet Below has some fine, speaker-shredding slide guitar work courtesy of Howard Glazer, and her voice has an earthy, raw-edged timbre. In the finest Taylor-era Stones tradition, stellar tracks include Call Me Moonshine, You Ain’t My Dog No More and Hard Killing Floor, songs I return to often. As a blues singer Neals easily gives Jagger a run for his money. Glazer is as fluent and gutsy an electric blues player as Taylor, though he prefers a nastier growl to his tone, which is fine by me. This is the real deal. Unfortunately, the mix-down too often buries the instruments in an aural sludge that competes with rather than supports this fine artist. She should get Braunagel to produce her next album or remix this one. http://www.elizaneals.com/10000-feet-below-new-blues-rock-album-from-eliza-neals-2172017/

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Grammy nominated Janiva Magness: deep down soul. Courtesy band website.

Janiva Magness on her six-track EP Blue Again keeps the instrumentation simple but starkly effective, providing an ideal vehicle for her richly soulful, almost Motown voice. In true roots-blues tradition, she opts for flourishes of blues harp, Hammond organ and punchy guitar solos rather than horns or string sections. Magness duets with Sugar Ray Rayford on If I Can’t Have You, soaring to new heights of soulfulness. The compact length of this album is a reminder in this age of filler that less is more—there isn’t a wasted track here. Her previous album Love Wins Again was nominated for a Grammy and she gets a shout-out from the iconic Mavis Staples: “Sista Janiva’s robust and soulful voice is showering each cut with determination to make us all fall in love. Her delivery is as always sincere and straight from the heart. Soul music is alive and kicking.” http://janivamagness.com

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Polly O’Keary lets it rip on Black Crow Callin’. Courtesy band website.

Another fine Gutbucket Blues album is Polly O’Keary and The Rhythm Method on Black Crow Callin’. A power blues trio in the finest sense of the term, O’Keary handles vocals and bass with equal proficiency, and guitarist David Miller is a revelation. With drummer Tommy Cook, the band creates a tight, dynamic blues-rock groove occasionally supplemented by Hammond B3 organ, harmonica and The Powerhouse Horns. The songwriting is consistently strong and catchy without ever losing its driving edge—Hard-Hearted World, A Man Who Can Stand, and Red Light pick you up by the shirt collar and before you know it you’re settling into the slow blues groove of title track Black Crow Callin’. Miller’s crisp, clean Stratocaster solo propels the song to another level. Reconciled is another standout, a soulful ballad that gives O’Keary a chance to soften her rough edges. http://www.pollyokeary.com

All three of these albums will remain on my playlist!

The Smooth Blues department

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Lauren Mitchell crafts a smooth, engaging album on ‘Desire.’ Image courtesy Lauren Mitchell band website.

Lauren Mitchell’s album Desire features a diverse stable of songwriters, including Mitchell herself, with covers of songs originally performed by Etta James, Bettye Lavette, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and Betty Davis. Mitchell’s smoky vibrato is liberally supported by backing vocalists and soaring horns, giving her crooners a radio-friendly sheen that should appeal to a wide audience. But Mitchell can rock it out too, as in stellar tracks Desire, Jump Into My Fire, I Ain’t Been Licked Yet and Brown Liquor, a Mitchell original reminiscent of Take Me To The River. Reggie McBride provides a funky bass groove on the obscure Anti-Love Song, allowing Mitchell’s vocal improvisation full flight. But this isn’t an album for people who love guitar, horn or keyboard solos—everything is kept brisk and to the point. Given how tight the performances and arrangements are, it’s incredible this album was recorded in just ten days at Braunagel’s Los Angeles studio. It’s testament once again to the man’s genius for production. http://laurenmitchellband.com

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Laura Tate’s ‘Let’s Just Be Real’ is a well-rounded mix of pop, blues and light jazz. Image courtesy band website.

Laura Tate on Let’s Just Be Real similarly draws from a wide, sometimes surprising range of songwriters. Tate’s voice and vocal style leans even more heavily toward blues-inflected pop than Mitchell. She gives Terry Wilson and Teresa James a special shout-out for their help with the album. Wilson—who performed with the legendary Eric Burdon—plays bass here and is the writer of If That Ain’t Love, a snappy jazz-blues number. Wilson is also producer of the album and co-writer with James of I’ll Find Someone Who Will, a brisk, horn-driven tune. Tate offers a seductive spoken word intro to Can’t Say No before shifting gears for her interpretation of Thin Lizzy’s rock classic The Boys Are Back in Town. This could have been a huge misstep, but she wisely chooses a downbeat, lounge jazz rendering that shouldn’t work but somehow does, and beautifully. If anything, it makes the tune far more interesting than the original. Here again Braunagel’s presence is felt, though primarily as drummer, not producer. https://www.musicbylauratate.com

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Gina Sicilia goes beyond covers to craft a nearly all-original album on ‘Tug of War.’ Image courtesy The Bluegrass Special.

Gina Sicilia on her seventh album Tug of War is intent upon proving herself not just as a singer but an original tunesmith. She wrote seven of the album’s eleven tunes and co-wrote I Don’t Want to Be in Love with Dave Darling, who plays guitar and bass. Sicilia’s voice is well-rounded, never harsh and always deep. But this isn’t truly a blues album, except in spirit. According to American Blues Scene, the album was made in Nashville on the heels of a traumatic event in her life, prompting “a period of really challenging myself as a songwriter.” The Nashville influence is most prominently heard in I’ll Stand Up, yet never slips into country music kitsch or sentimentality. There’s a tasty acoustic guitar solo in Never Gonna End by Ron Jennings, who provides restrained, to-the-point guitar throughout. Abandoned has a catchy hook and a mid-tempo groove propelled by Jennings’ snappy electric guitar work. Sicilia slickly updates the Sixties pop classic Tell Him by Bert Berns. Her rendition of the Lennon-McCartney tune All My Loving I found less convincing. The album matches Braunagel’s high standard of production, thanks to Glenn Barratt and Dave Darling. https://www.americanbluesscene.com/2017/05/gina-sicilia-life-tug-war/ http://www.blueelan.com/gina-sicilia-store/gina-sicilia-tug-of-war-cd-pre-order

I’ll deal with the male blues artists I’ve been listening to in a separate review.

Posted in blues, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Popular Kootenay duo Freya releases debut CD

Noel Fudge and Martine denBok, collectively known as the duo Freya, have just released their much-anticipated debut CD. The album contains eight original songs performed on guitar, violin and viola, with an alternate version of one track. The cover art for the album was created by New Denver, BC encaustic artist Louise Ducharme. Anyone who has heard this accomplished duo perform can testify to the beautiful sonic textures they create together. Freya will launch the new album at the Silverton Memorial Hall on Saturday, June 24 at 7 pm and at the Vallican Whole on July 8 at 7 pm.

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Noel Fudge and Martine denBok of Freya. Photo courtesy ICandy Films.

Noel is a versatile composer and guitarist, whose accomplishments include film scores, choral and orchestral works, and singer-songwriter material. His instrumental music has been commissioned as soundtracks for ICandy Films video productions. He holds a BFA in composition from Simon Fraser University. Noel wrote and performed with the band Crop Circle, a group that received extensive airplay and toured Western Canada, opening for ZZ Top and Bif Naked. A popular music teacher, he established Fudge Music Factory in Maple Ridge nearly 25 years ago prior to moving to New Denver in 2015. He teaches guitar, bass, composition and brass instruments. Last year he composed the soundtrack to the performance poetry suite Dead Crow: Prologue by Sean Arthur Joyce.

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The encaustic artwork created by Louise Ducharme for the Freya CD cover.

“Part of the story of the CD is the connection between us,” he says. “From the moment we first played Sue together we realized we had to keep going with this. It doesn’t really fit into a genre – there’s elements of folk, classical, jazz and contemporary music that pushes the boundaries.”

When I ask him the usual question about his musical influences, he rattles off a decidedly unconventional list that includes obscure guitarists Andy McKee and Tommy Immanuel. But for Noel it’s a moot point. “The music of Freya, to be honest, isn’t reflective of my musical influences. It’s a compositional approach. I consider myself a composer before a guitar player. I wanted to create something that was both technically challenging but also beautiful melodically.”

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Freya in beautiful New Denver, BC. Photo courtesy ICandy Films.

Martine denBok has a master’s degree in music performance from University of Victoria and bachelor of music in violin performance from University of Alberta. She is the current principal second violinist for the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra. Previously she performed with the Symphony of the Kootenays, Galiano Ensemble and Die Mahler String Quartet, both in Victoria. As with many musicians, performance has been a part of her life from an early age. Her training includes choral music, and she has performed with Kokopelli Choir, the sister choir to Corazon. While living in Edmonton, she performed with an all-girl band known as Combo Platter as well as the string quartet String Beans. Not afraid to range outside the classical canon, with these groups she performed everything from chamber music to songs by Coldplay, Queen and Metallica. She says you haven’t lived until you’ve heard the classic Jimi Hendrix song Purple Haze played on violin. Improvisation isn’t something that comes naturally to most classically trained musicians. But Martine found herself adapting easily to Freya’s mode of composition.

“I think my melodic mind is one that comes from a singing voice,” she says. “The ability for me to improvise has come from just being comfortable with the other artist I’m performing with, and that there are no wrong notes. The process for me when tunes were brought to the table was to just listen, over and over again. And then take up the instrument and see what fits.”

Freya’s compositional approach differs from the standard model of having one musician playing the melody while the other supplies the basic chord progression. Instead, the guitar and violin interweave throughout every song, adding unique and complementary textures and tones. “I think we always set Freya out to be a duo that has both technical and musical capabilities,” says Noel. “But we put the music first – the composition. If there’s something really technical to learn, we put in the time to do that, but not just to show off. It has to fit the theme. When I met Martine it was a really easy synthesis because she understood that as a symphony musician.”

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Noel & Martine of Freya: making beautiful music together. Courtesy ICandy Films.

Although the album is instrumental, each song is a journey. “Every single song has a story to tell—our personal story,” says Noel, “and I don’t think it would do justice to it to have a single word on it.” This becomes startlingly clear on songs like No Words, as eloquent a statement of love and longing as could be imagined in the absence of lyrics. Another example is the song Kyoto, whose sonic landscape reflects the city itself, with its uneasy juxtaposition of the ancient and modern. Pleiades references literary themes connected with the actual constellation, originating in ancient Greek myths but also appearing in First Nations stories of the Seven Sisters. The bonus version of Mistress has a special guest appearance by bass guitar legend Don Schiff, who has performed with Elvis Presley, Pat Benatar, Tina Turner and other greats.

“The music is so balanced,” says Martine. “You really hear how the instruments support each other, with the exception of No Words which is all guitar. One of the reasons it’s hard for people with instrumental music is to find a way into it. For example, once you know that Mozart wrote the opera Don Giovanni about his Dad, it opens up the whole piece. In Pleiades, it really is about the constellation; there are different themes introduced for the different characters. In the end it doesn’t matter what our story is. It’s the individual’s perception of it, their response to it, that brings meaning to the music for them.”

Fortunately for Freya’s fast-growing fan base, the duo already has enough material for a second album, which will take a more lyrical approach. Many of the new songs have already been performed live at their concerts. The duo is constantly on the lookout for instruments that can add new texture to their music. The day I interviewed them, Martine had just picked up an octave violin, something I’d never heard of. “It’s actually a viola that’s tuned to regular violin tuning but sounds somewhere between a viola and a cello,” she explains. The resulting tone is considerably lower than a violin, with a lovely, resonant bass. Last year Martine picked up a beautiful vintage accordion and quickly became proficient at it.

“Freya will always be a duo,” says Noel, “but we love playing with other people so we’re meeting with a drummer and a bass player for our larger shows, at least for certain songs. It’s always what’s best for the piece.”

To order the album visit fortheloveoffreya.ca.

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Convergence Writers’ Weekend a Unique Opportunity

by Sean Arthur Joyce and Tom Wayman

The deadline is fast approaching for the chance to have your imaginative writing responded to by one of Canada’s best known activist authors at the 4th annual Convergence Writers’ Weekend in beautiful New Denver, BC. Nestled in the Valhalla Mountains and on the shores of pristine Slocan Lake, it’s an inspiring setting for writers. Join authors Gary Geddes and Carolyn Pogue for a fascinating weekend of writing workshops and discussions. The event will be held this year on Friday, June 16 and Saturday, June 17.

“A house divided against itself will fall,” goes the old proverb. Our house—our world, our community, even our sense of self—is threatened with many issues of ethical dislocation, injustice and dis-ease that can divide us or paralyze our forward momentum. Some of these things are new, some have been with us throughout history. Whatever threats we face, one of our most powerful tools for motivating social progress and justice is the written word.

Every day the world discovers more and more how everything is inter-connected. Our Convergence 2017 theme, We Will Not Be Separated, will focus on exploring positive connections we can make with our own creativity, spirituality and activism. We will learn from and encourage one another. We’ll look at how the world is, and how the world could be. New and seasoned writers are welcome.

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Renowned Canadian poet & author Gary Geddes will teach at this year’s Convergence event.

Convergence 2017 offers registrants a chance to work on their writing with either Carolyn Pogue or Gary Geddes in Saturday workshops. You can hear them speak Friday evening at a session open to the public. And Saturday night an optional session provides the opportunity for registrants to read from their work and to discuss what they’ll take away from Convergence.

“May 19 is the deadline for anybody wishing personal feedback on their writing from invited presenter Gary Geddes,” said Convergence Writers’ Weekend coordinator Nadine Stefan. “Spaces are limited to 25, and we’re half full already.” For people who don’t want to submit samples of their own creative writing, the registration deadline for the June 16 and 17 writers’ weekend is June 1, Stefan said.

Registrants in Geddes’ poetry workshop will learn about line breaks, how to make a poem nest in the ear without depending on rhyme and metrics, or how to turn a local image into a structural component in the poem. “I’d like to show you how to write up a storm, not a perfect storm but one that resonates at the levels of sight, sound and idea.” His most recent collection of poems is The Resumption of Play, which explores the experiences of those forced to endure Indian residential schools.

Those who prefer to explore non-fiction will benefit equally from Geddes’ tutelage. In Drink the Bitter Root, he travelled to Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Somaliland in ‘A Search for Justice and Healing in Africa.’ Geddes’ newest book, Medicine Unbundled, is an account of Canada’s long-time provision of segregated health care for indigenous people.

Reviewing Medicine Unbundled in the Vancouver Sun, Tom Sandborn writes: “Geddes gives a passionate and persuasive account of the devastating impacts of Canadian government policies on the lives and health of this nation’s first peoples. This book deserves to be widely read, and should be acted upon boldly. Anyone who cares about human decency and social justice owes a debt to Gary Geddes and to his indigenous informants.” Geddes has written or edited 50 books.

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Calgary author Carolyn Pogue will be our second featured author at Convergence 2017.

Pogue, too, has written on a variety of topics in her many books. As a descendant of a British Home Child, she has written two young adult novels, Gwen and West Wind Calling, about this aspect of Canadian history, one of which was a finalist for the 2010 City of Calgary Book Prize.

Her other books include Language of the Heart: Ritual, Stories and Information About DeathPart-Time Parent: Learning to Live Without Full Custody, and a follow-up to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Sorry: Why Our Church Apologized, which with other authors explores the United Church’s expression of regret for its part in the residential schools. Pogue also co-founded a peace camp for kids, and contributes a twice-monthly column to the United Church Observer.

Pogue’s Write the Spirit workshop will encourage seasoned and beginning writers to explore how the world is and how the world can be. Using “freefall” writing, discussion and a variety of exercises registrants will explore possibilities for peace, justice and healing within ourselves, our country and our planet. Work in any genre you choose.

Convergence is supported by the ProVision fund of the United Church’s B.C. Conference, and by the Regional District of Central Kootenay’s Area H Director, Walter Popoff.

Registration fee of $45 plus GST = $47.25 covers all events Friday and Saturday. Friday’s session is open to non-registrants by donation.

http://widespot.ca/convergence-writers-weekend/

Posted in Activism, Poetry, The Kootenays, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lemon Creek class action lawsuit certified by judge

  1. Judge Masuhara rejects defendants’ arguments
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Containment booms on Lemon Creek, August 2013. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The wheels of justice grind on at a glacial pace, but sometimes they do the right thing. It’s taken four years, but the BC Supreme Court has finally certified that the class action lawsuit may proceed on behalf of those affected by the Lemon Creek fuel spill in July 2013. Robert Kirk is its representative plaintiff on behalf of 2,500 Slocan Valley residents. Kirk, whose 51-acre farm includes a kilometre of riverfront property, is represented by Nelson-based attorney David Aaron. The suit is described by prosecuting law firm Rosenberg-Kosakoski as “the first environmental class action against the Province of BC.” The class action as certified by Judge David Masuhara includes those who owned, rented, leased or occupied property in the evacuation zone on the date of the spill, claiming damages for “diminution of property value and loss of use and enjoyment of property.”

According to Rosenbeg-Kosakoski, the Province “hotly contested the application to certify this action as a class proceeding, attempting to point blame at its co-defendants,” Executive Flight Centre (EFC), Transwest Helicopters, and truck driver Danny LaSante. Judge David Masuhara rejected the Province’s arguments, concluding that, “I do not find it fair or efficient for individuals to be required to advance through an individual action to obtain some form of redress from the defendants. Moreover, litigating the common issues through a class proceeding has the significant advantage of key findings being decided once.” A further argument, that Kirk be disqualified as representative plaintiff, was also rejected. Judge Masuhara cited a legal precedent stating that, “The representative plaintiff represents the class, but need not be representative of the class. He or she need not have a claim typical of the class, or be the ‘best’ possible representative.”

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Nelle Maxey, former RDCK Recovery Centre manager. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The defendants had tried to argue that there was not enough evidence of two or more residents being sufficiently affected to constitute a class. Among those filing affidavits on behalf of the class action was Nelle Maxey, who served as the RDCK’s director of the Recovery Centre in Winlaw in the weeks following the spill. To cite only a few of the examples Maxey recorded, there were 30 residents who reported fuel product on the river or shorelines or in their tap water/toilets; 23 residents who reported health concerns and symptoms, with eight reports involving children, and five with symptoms medically diagnosed as resulting from exposure to fuel or vapor associated with the spill; and 16 residents who were concerned about the safety of their drinking water, both before and after the Interior Health authority canceled its order.

The Province also argued that because it “did not have possession nor control over the fuel that escaped from the fuel tanker,” and could not have foreseen the actions of the contracted driver LaSante in using a decommissioned road, this should be disqualified from the class action. However, Judge Masuhara concluded that without an examination of the facts it was insufficient grounds to deny inclusion in the action. The Province asserted that it no longer has a “duty of care” for a closed, unmaintained road, noting that two signs were posted, reading: “End of Maintained Public Road” and “Road Closed.” It claimed that, “there also is the likelihood of indeterminate liability and the impact on the taxpayers if the Province has a duty of care to maintain a closed road.” Here again the judge disagreed, pointing out that, “there remains a factual determination as to whether the road was closed, particularly where the road was accessible and accessed by Mr. LaSante.” Judge Masuhara agreed that there was reason to expect the Province to go beyond road maintenance to include “a duty of care to communicate, warn, deactivate and obstruct and/or deter access.”

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Evidence of fuel in Lemon Creek persisted 10 months after the spill. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

All the defendants argued that there were no facts “supporting groundwater contamination or any contamination beyond the affected waterways.” EFC says “it did not ignore its obligations to the public… (and) took immediate action to clean up, remediate and address community concerns.” It claims to have spent $5.4 million remediating the spill, and that the site and surrounding waterways “have been remediated to regulatory standards.” But Judge Masuhara agreed that the class action could claim “direct exposure, continuation and damage to properties throughout the Evacuation Zone.” Attorney David Aaron says his team has hired experts in biology and organic chemistry to assess the long-term environmental impact.

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Algae bloom in Lemon Creek following the fuel spill. PHOTO: Jon Burden

“We now have the benefit of a single proceeding to determine questions as to the presence and persistence of residual toxins in the environment and the impact of the spill,” says Aaron. “It was definitely a shock to the whole community and it’s debatable whether the environment will ever fully return to its pre-spill state.”

Aaron adds that the lawsuit has been remarkable for “the extent to which the defendants are pointing the finger at each other in terms of who’s to blame for the fuel spill.” Separate proceedings include the Province suing EFC for recovery of spill costs and EFC suing the Province for failing to provide indemnity.

“What we have here is a web of litigation wherein no defendant has taken responsibility for this environmental disaster. We are intent on making sure that the people of the Slocan Valley are not left out high and dry to bear the burden of other peoples’ negligence.”

Aaron says he is still getting phone calls from worried residents wondering if they need to register to be included in the class action. By default all those persons included in a class definition are automatically represented unless they explicitly opt out. Court-approved notices will be published both for the mechanism to opt out and the current status of the case. However, personal damages, such as the medical impacts of exposure to jet fuel inhalation, are included in a separate civil suit. The plaintiff has yet to bring an application to court for certification of that action.

  1. The True Costs of Negligence
Winlaw ceremony 3

Slocan Valley residents gathered to sing, pray and mourn the desecration of their valley in the weeks following the spill. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Out of sight, out of mind. When the headlines fade, it’s easy to fall prey to this human tendency to forget. But for those families living on or owning property in the Lemon Creek fuel spill’s evacuation zone, the environmental effects are distressing and persistent. I’ve been following this story since the day after the spill on July 26, 2013. It’s been deeply disappointing to see both government and the private firms involved minimizing the human and ecological impact on the Slocan Valley. As attorney David Aaron has stated, whether or not the ecology will return to its pre-spill state is unknown.

“We are grieving,” says Marilyn Burgoon, President of the Perry Ridge Water Users Association. “The memory of all that was lost is sad and haunting. Not knowing the long-term effects makes our community anxious.”

Lemon Creek booms 7

Jet fuel byproduct seen along Lemon Creek during the initial cleanup in 2013. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

As the representative plaintiff for the class action lawsuit, Robert Kirk’s testimony is eye-peeling. He’s noticed that the formerly abundant bird life on his 51-acre property has decreased alarmingly. On average, he says, four great blue herons would feed at his pond and along the river throughout the summer months. Since the spill he has only seen one heron that made a brief appearance in 2015 but didn’t stay long. He was used to seeing a daily average of 16 whistling swans on his property over a 30–45 day period during the winter. He now reports one sighting of only five swans for a brief stay and thinks that the spill has left them nothing to eat “because the bottom of the river is barren.”

“For the 16 years that I resided at my property prior to the spill,” Kirk states in his affidavit, “I would have to refill the feeder each week. Since the spill, I have noticed that the feeder is now infrequently visited, such that I need only refill it once every three months.”

The damage extends to other creatures. At least a dozen painted turtles used to show up on his property in spring, remaining throughout the summer. Kirk has seen none since the spill, and very few frogs or dragonflies. Nor has he seen the “thousands of flies hovering over the river surface and trout jumping up at them,” except for a few minnows in the summer of 2015. Butterflies too have disappeared. Valley residents are well familiar with the age-old game trails for deer and moose winding through their land. These have been eerily empty on Kirk’s property since the spill. And bats – our best natural defense for controlling mosquito populations – have also disappeared from his acreage.

Dead Hummer 2

Just one of many victims of the fuel spill. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Wayne Savinkoff grazes cattle on Kirk’s property and they too are giving signs that all is not well. “Prior to the spill, the cattle were content grazing at my property throughout the summer. Since the spill, the cattle will not drink around the shoreline of the Slocan River. Rather, to drink from the river, they wade deep into the river up to their bellies. After spending a week on my property, they try to push the fence down and leave.” Kirk adds that there seems to be a 40-foot strip along the river that is avoided by wildlife.

Grand Forks resident Nadine Heiberg says her family has owned a property on Nixon Road near Appledale since her father William Nevocshonoff bought the property in 1942 while working as a horse logger. When he died, the property was inherited by Nadine and her sister Annette Davidson – a seven and a nine-acre parcel.

“I have seven children and we used to visit and go inner tubing on the river,” says Heiberg. “What residue is in there now? It was pristine and now it’s changed, the land is contaminated. We feel violated – this was someplace to heal. How do you put a price on paradise lost?”

The human toll has been no less. Slocan Valley farmer Jim Ross welcomes the certification of the class action lawsuit, calling the spill “a preventable tragedy of huge proportions. There has been tremendous suffering: burning eyes, blisters, sore throats, headaches, respiratory distress, and neuromuscular symptoms. Scores of wildlife are dead. People have been displaced from their homes, their farms contaminated, their businesses shut down.”

Versions of these articles will appear in the Valley Voice newspaper, May 18 edition, valley voice.ca.

Posted in environment, Lemon Creek jet fuel spill, Nature, Slocan Valley, The Kootenays | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Kootenay Lake poets release anthology

Just in time for National Poetry Month in April, a group of poets from Kaslo and area have released an anthology of their work titled Five Kootenay Lake Poets. The writers’ group, comprising Mark Mealing, Robert Banks Foster, Sheila Murray-Nellis, Anne Heard and Sheila Falle, have been meeting to workshop their verse since about 2004, inspired by a poetry workshop with Susan Andrews Grace.

The late great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once said that, “my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests.” Much the same could be said of these five poets, whose poems in this volume draw on the Kootenay landscape for theme and subject matter. Yet their scope goes far beyond that, drawing on literary influences from around the world.

Mark Mealing

Poet and Anglican minister Mark Mealing.

Mark Mealing, who studied folklore and ethnopoetics at the University of Pennsylvania, became fascinated with First Nations lore, particularly the Coyote trickster myths. His book Coyote’s Running Here was published in 1980 by Pulp Press and the theme is continued here. Mealing, who is the minister of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Kaslo, has also studied classic Chinese verse forms and these metrics are transposed into English in several poems. Chinese poetry was typically written by aristocratic court poets who found themselves in exile for being on the wrong side of the politics of the day. Proving once again that well-crafted poetry never loses its social or political relevance, their poems of political corruption and chaos continue to resound through the ages. Mealing’s lines in Late Snow echo the classic Chinese poets and could have been written, not just of Trump’s presidency, but of any despotic ruler: “One ruler keeps his court leashed tight / and heaps sacrifices to greed and anger / his boot pressing the land and the people.”

Anne Heard reading at the Kaslo Public Library April 23rd. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Anne Heard’s poems hew closely to the Kootenay landscape she clearly loves, describing hikes into the Purcells, the Kaslo Community Garden, and other pastoral subjects. She deftly uses various poetic forms, including haiku (or as close as English can get to the original Japanese form), rhyming quatrains, or the more commonly used free verse. In To Carlyle Mountain Lodge, her interest in Kootenay history preserves a powerful memory:

Dave tells the story of three miners

working into November

caught in an avalanche

One killed outright

One injured, legs useless

One unscathed to go for help, never to arrive or to return

The injured man, snowshoes on hands

Made it to Cody, pulling himself along the snow

Heard also delves into folklore with The Enchanted Flounder Prince Left a Streak of Blood, which uses the traditional pantoum form to create a kind of fairy tale mantra. Heard says she has “memorized and recited, read and written poetry from childhood on,” making her something of an endangered species these days. “Authors on my bedside table include Tom Wayman, Art Joyce, Joy Kagawa and Lorna Crozier.”

Robert Banks Foster Conv 2012.2

Poet & photographer Robert Banks Foster. Photo by Linda Crosfield.

Robert Banks Foster was born in Victoria, BC but educated in both the US and Canada at the University of Victoria and Syracuse University. He was co-editor of the Canadian literary journal CV2 (Contemporary Verse) with legendary poet Dorothy Livesay. Foster weaves into his poems a deep environmental and social justice sensibility, with one suite, Water Sequence, inspired by the work of global water activist Maude Barlow: “Faith in the marketplace replaces many faiths. / All tears collected—the rushing river hits the rocks.” In his suite Glacial Going, a tribute to the Jumbo Requiem, his influences draw from a wide range of literature—Andrew Marvel, Aeschylus, William Dunbar and John Ralston Saul. The language is sparse yet precise in its evocation of glacial beauty, interspersed with quotes from these poets and authors. Far from merely flexing his intellectual muscle, these serve as a kind of chorus of voices from the history of literature. The poem foregrounds the reality of our global environmental crisis in powerfully compressed language: “The glacial tongue leaves a lake. / Ice faces vanish into the faces of the rocks.” Foster displays the poet’s skill in distilling social phenomena into a few lines: “The cosmeticians who teach us imperfection so they / can perfect us. / We belong to the land. / We are told to rape our mother.”

Sheila Murray-Nellis reads at the Kaslo Public Library April 23rd. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Sheila Murray-Nellis clearly got Aristotle’s memo that the command of metaphor is at the heart of poetic genius. Her poems are both an evocation of wilderness and a tribute to the creatures that inhabit it. I’m reminded of nature photographer Jim Lawrence’s breathtaking portraits of grizzlies, eagles, and other animals. In her poem The Wolf, this much-maligned creature “lifts his snout / to the wind’s ladder… asking his question…” This is poetry at its best, employing unique use of language to challenge our perceptions, make them new again. Wolf Cull, another pantoum, reminds us that our weapons are “more deadly than tooth and claw.” Yet her compassion extends to the human animal too, “the myriad ways we fall / and still… get up each day.” (Conversation) She grew up in New England, where she “enjoyed readings by many of the great American poets.” She has twice won first prize in the Kootenay Literary Competition (2012 and 2012), giving her the confidence to publish a collection titled You Are Meant to Be Like Fire and a book of poems and photographs titled Presence. She is also the author of two children’s books. “Writing poetry is a contemplative experience for me,” she says. “I look for the words to express what is just beneath the surface of things.”

Sheila Falle reads at the Kaslo Public Library April 23rd. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Sheila Falle writes primarily in free verse, but with taut lines that allow no room for excess verbiage to get in the way of the images and ideas she presents—a key lesson all poets must learn. Demonstrating a haiku-like precision, in just three lines, I Believe illustrates the point: “Rhymes that wind inside the mind / like the tangle of a too-long nightgown / awaken.” Again, In Spring uses just a few words to create a vivid picture: “Bright green on each tip makes / spring fir trees look like / ruffled party dresses…” Like the other poets, Falle explores a folklore theme in Riddled by Stars with her unique take on Humpty Dumpty. “My poetic education and background began in early childhood with Dad’s love of the sounds found in poems and songs,” she recalls. “Now I favour poems that distill and universalize experience yet remain each poet’s own expression.”

My only criticism is that it would have been useful to have a table of contents. Five Kootenay Lake Poets will be available on Amazon in April as either a print or e-book.

Posted in Arts & Culture, book reviews, Poetry, The Kootenays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Brave New World of 1984

  1. Entertained to Death

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” —Harry S. Truman

It’s a scene straight out of a dystopian novel. After Kellyanne Conway defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s use of the term “alternative facts,” sales of George Orwell’s novel 1984 soared, driving it to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. This isn’t the first time real world events have intersected with the long afterlife of the book. According to the Washington Post, “Sales of the novel also enjoyed a marked spike in 2013—one edition experiencing a 10,000 percent jump in sales—following the leak of National Security Administration documents.”[1] Given the mind-bending distortions of language indulged by the Trump administration, it’s clear we are indeed living in a 21st century Orwellian dystopia, or at very least an empire in the final stages of terminal decline.

Already by the time of the 1966 edition shown here, Brave New World had sold nearly 3 million copies in 33 editions. It and 1984 should be read together to get a full picture of autocracy.

That said, I’ve always maintained that the novels 1984 and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley need to be read together as companion volumes if one wants a true picture of the social engineering that has taken place during the past half century or so. As other commentators have pointed out, Orwell’s vision was extrapolated from the post World War II communist bloc developing in Russia and Eastern Europe. The coercive methods of control adopted by the Big Brother state in 1984 were reminiscent of the Stalinist cadre that operated by means of brutal repression and a Ministry of Truth-style media. It’s a totalitarian state that was envisioned as early as 1921 in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, predating the publication of Brave New World by more than a decade and 1984 by nearly 30 years. We was certainly an influence on Orwell and probably Huxley too, though he denied it.[2]

A young Aldous Huxley.

By contrast to the punitive regimes envisioned in We and 1984, Huxley’s dystopia maintains its control by genetic engineering, the state-sanctioned drug ‘soma,’ and the programmed sensual indulgence of its members. As Huxley himself commented in Brave New World Revisited, a series of essays about the novel published in 1958, “In light of what we have recently learned about animal behaviour in general, and human behaviour in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behaviour is less effective, in the long run, than control through the reinforcement of desirable behaviour by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children.”[3]

As Huxley explains, overt repression, in the long run, doesn’t tend to work as well as learning how to keep a population sensually gratified. “Almost everyone starts out with a prejudice in favour of beer, cigarettes and ice boxes,” he wrote, “whereas almost nobody starts out with a prejudice in favour of tyrants.”[4] The collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s proves the point. Continual repression tends to result over time in either open rebellion or a self-destructive internal rot. Meanwhile, Western nations have been engineering a subtle form of state control that owes more to the current glut of personal digital devices and 24/7 wall-to-wall entertainment than it does to any overt forms of repression. The irony is that for many of us, entertainment has become a refuge from the exponentially increasing stresses of modern living. But its role as a pacifier of citizens has been known at least since the Roman Empire, when, Huxley wrote, “the populace was kept in good humour by frequent, gratuitous doses of many kinds of entertainment, from poetical dramas to gladiatorial fights, from recitations of Virgil to all-out boxing, from concerts to military reviews and public executions. But even in Rome there was nothing like the non-stop distraction now provided by newspapers and magazines, by radio, television and the cinema. In Brave New World non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature (the feelies, orgy-porgy, centrifugal bumble-puppy) are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation.”[5]

Zamyatin’s novel We was an early example of the dystopian novel that influenced Orwell and Huxley.

Thought control is another essential tool in the dictator’s armory and in Brave New World this is accomplished through hypnopedia, exposing sleeping children to a steady stream of whispered propaganda designed to instill unquestioning obedience to the social order. Although the technique has since been discredited,[6] in modern advertising we have far more proven methods in use for brainwashing. With some homes now leaving their TVs on steadily from early morning ’til late evening, children often grow up in a media saturated environment, with its subtle conditioning of values via ads promoting consumption. As the documentary The Corporation noted, advertising companies employ PhD psychologists to advise staff on expert methods of manipulation, among them the ‘nag factor.’ “Targeting children makes a lot of sense from a marketing perspective,” writes The Corporation author Joel Bakan, “as it allows advertisers to bypass media-savvy parents and engage the considerable persuasive power children wield over their parents. Children are also easier to manipulate than adults… the youngest viewers… cannot distinguish advertising from regular television programming…” [7] Multiply this sophisticated psychological manipulation by 24/7 saturation bombing via movies, TV and pop-up ads on digital media, and you have a brainwashing environment easily analogous to Brave New World’s sleep conditioning. “The average American child sees 30,000 commercials a year on television alone… Comparing the marketing of yesteryear to the marketing of today is like comparing a BB gun to a smart bomb,” explains Harvard Medical School expert Dr. Susan Linn. “The advertising that children are exposed to today is honed by psychologists… And also it’s everywhere. They can’t escape it.”[8]

And if, as Marshall Macluhan said, “the medium is the message,” then the current obsession with ‘smart’ phones, iPads and other digital gadgets has reached critical proportions, creating generations of children addicted to their devices. In a New York Post article by Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, based on his book Glow Kids, he argued that, “young children exposed to too much screen time are at risk of developing an addiction ‘harder to kick than drugs.’ …Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex—which controls executive functioning, including impulse control—in exactly the same way that cocaine does.”[9] Author Nicholas Carr adds, “The Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.”[10] And it’s clear from neurological research that the rapid-fire, short attention span nature of digital media is literally rewiring our brains, and probably not for the better. Yet school boards everywhere are investing wholesale in iPads as ‘educational devices’ despite studies showing they lead to a decline in academic outcomes.[11] National Post journalist John Robson wrote of the absurdity of a new stationary bike with a video screen being marketed for small children. “In terms of developing young minds, very little could be more beneficial than going outdoors, on foot or on an actual bike, exposing your brain to reality in all its dimensions… Pry your kid away from artificiality in all its forms.”[12]

  1. Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out

In Brave New World, due to the sterilization of women and the use of their ovaries in “hatcheries” designed to condition fetuses to fit specific social castes, sexual freedom is universal and another useful tool in keeping the population from resisting the established order. This too has contemporary resonance. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, at first viewed with horror by the governing elite, has turned out to be incredibly useful in keeping people distracted. And isn’t it just possible that the millions of pounds of hormone-disrupting pesticides and herbicides sprayed on food crops every year[13] is a causative factor in the current wave of “gender dysphoria”? Gender and sexual orientation tend to be core issues of personal identity, so if these are in question, it’s a matter of all-consuming importance to individuals. Understandably, that can leave little time or energy for political action beyond the identity politics of the group with which they identify, further fracturing resistance to the State’s broader agenda. But, as usual in Western culture, we skip right past causative factors and rush to normalize the effects, since any serious examination of root causes could lead to a dent in corporate profits.

Robert Whitaker’s book chronicles the addiction of America to psychiatric drugs of questionable efficacy.

The One Percent were similarly dismayed by the rise of the drug culture in the ’60s amongst youth, though it was a hypocritical concern, given that they’d already been medicating adults with questionable drugs such as Miltown since the 1950s. Huxley in Brave New World Revisited wrote extensively of the various drugs being road tested during that era, and was right to see a fulfillment of his prophetic vision. In the social order of Brave New World, a drug known as ‘soma’ is handed out with the paycheques, inducing a state of either euphoria or restful sleep depending on the dose. While the socialist distribution of soma in the novel parts ways with today’s multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical profits, its prevalence in daily life is true to form. A recent report by epidemiologist Elizabeth Kantor of Harvard University charted an increase in the use of prescription drugs in America from 51 percent to 59 percent just between 1999 and 2002. “However, one of the most startling increases was in the use of antidepressants, with use steadily growing at every two-year measuring period,” doubling from 6.8 percent to 13 percent of Americans.[14] Yet despite the fact that these drugs are prescribed as ‘safe and effective’ medical treatments, notes author Robert Whitaker, “the number of disabled mentally ill in the United States has skyrocketed,”[15] from one in every 468 Americans suffering from mental illness in 1955 to one in every 184 by 1987, with that figure rising annually. “Canadians now take 50 million prescriptions for antidepressants a year, so we can’t be that happy in our Brave New World,” writes John Robson.[16]

What’s even more disturbing is that childhood—that state once held by society as sacrosanct—has now been invaded by this onslaught of drugs. “Mental illness is now the leading cause of disability in children,”[17] writes Whitaker, with more than 500,000 children on the disability rolls in the US for some form of mental illness. Given the dubious efficacy of modern SSRI antidepressants (test data have so far failed to confirm any statistically significant improvement in depression compared with placebo),[18] it’s arguable that this huge rise in mental illness is as much worsened as improved by these drugs. “Twenty years ago, our society began regularly prescribing psychiatric drugs to children and adolescents, and now one out of every 15 Americans enters adulthood with a ‘serious mental illness.’”[19] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in December 2013 on a study that covered the period 2005–2010, noting that, “more than six percent of adolescents reported the use of psychotropic medications.”[20] Even more worrying, the National Health Interview Survey for 2011–2012 reported that, “Seven and one-half percent of children aged 6–17 years used prescribed medication during the past six months for emotional or behavioral difficulties,” with the highest portion of this group concentrated among families living below the poverty line. [21]

From that perspective, the pharmacological experiment in treating mental illness may be judged mostly an abject failure, as Whitaker’s extensive research shows. However, it has had the effect of making generations of people dependent upon these drugs. And cultivating dependency is always a useful means of keeping a population subservient, just as much so as financial slavery through debt. Huxley’s ‘soma’ was itself a kind of idealist’s view of the effectiveness of pharmacology, just in its infancy in the 1930s when he wrote Brave New World and only beginning to flourish in the ’50s when he wrote Brave New World Revisited. Soma was supposed to have no side effects, an unrealistic expectation for any drug, however benevolent. The very notion of medicating children as young as six with psychotropic drugs, when their brains and immune systems are still in the vulnerable stages of early development, is insane. This is what happens when public health policy is driven by the profit motive. In a way it’s too bad hypnopedia doesn’t work. At least it would be a whole lot less toxic.

  1. Hybridizing Dystopia: Where Do We Go From Here?

So what we have today is a hybrid dystopia comprised of elements of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. The total surveillance state envisioned by Orwell has been a reality since the inception of the Patriot Act in the US and similar security bills in Canada and Britain. The ubiquitous screens in 1984 that double as ‘news’ networks and surveillance devices in every home have a close analogue in the so-called ‘smart grid,’ enabled by electrical ‘smart meters’ and the ‘Internet of things’ now being rolled out. We’re reassured that the only data being collected has to do with our consumption habits but as Wikileaks has already made clear, Americans and Canadians are routinely spied upon by their governments in the ongoing ‘war on terror.’ It reminds me of a scene from Terry Gilliam’s brilliant film Brazil, in which a shopping centre is blown apart by a terrorist bomb and the wrong man is eventually arrested and tortured. This has already had a real life counterpart in the tragic story of Syrian-born Canadian Maher Arar, who was extradited to Syria and tortured based on misinformation from intelligence agencies. Gilliam also seems to have realized when he made the film in 1985 that the Western world’s future dystopia would be the bastard child of 1984 and Brave New World.

Orwell, it turns out, got a lot right in 1984, but Huxley nailed the consumer capitalist nightmare.

And as the very first press conference held by the Trump government made clear, we also now have a world power willing to employ the Orwellian principle of ‘doublethink’ with concepts like ‘alternate facts.’ Certainly they aren’t the first to do so—Hitler and Stalin made good use of the technique as well. “In the case of a word like democracy,” Orwell wrote in his classic essay Politics and the English Language, “not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy… Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.” The US government has traditionally made this a hallmark of their propaganda operations, just as the perpetually warring nations of 1984 did, justifying invasions and regime overthrow as ‘bringing democracy’ to those in need.

Also like the fictional nations of Orwell’s novel, the US since its inception has been in a more or less constant state of war as a primary support of its domestic industries. Between 1898 and 1934 alone, notes author Joel Andreas, “the Marines invaded Cuba four times, Nicaragua five times, Honduras seven times, the Dominican Republic four times, Haiti twice, Guatamala once, Panama twice, Mexico three times, and Colombia four times.”[22] Although unlike the political powers in 1984, who maintained the fiction of war as a means of social control, American wars have been quite real and quite profitable. Just in 2004, the US military portion of the federal budget accounted for 51 percent of all government spending.[23] Already by 1950, General Electric chairman Charles Wilson admitted that without keeping the populace convinced of the imminent threat of war, “it would be impossible for Congress to vote the vast sums now being spent to avert this danger…”[24] In a page straight out of Orwell’s novel, GE—a producer of military hardware—would go on to acquire radio and TV stations to reinforce this message.[25]

Addicted to War is an indispensable companion to the reading of American history.

The way forward for citizens of conscience is obviously away from policies of constant war, corporate bailouts at public expense, exponentially increasing poverty, and the indoctrinating of our children in consumerism. The million-dollar question, of course, is always: How? Clearly the fracturing of dissent that has been fostered by digital media and the pursuit of identity politics will need to be halted, if not reversed, if any progress is to be made. It will require the kind of broad solidarity movements that effectively brought about women’s right to vote, rights for blacks and gays, and the labour movement of the Great Depression era. That requires getting our kids off the soma of digital addiction, while replacing ‘clicktivism’ and social media campaigning with boots-on-the-ground, face-to-face community building of unions and civic associations. Otherwise, Huxley warned, “A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time… not here and now… but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.”[26]

Huxley wrote of the need for “education for freedom,” something the Left has long understood. Unfortunately, education alone isn’t enough in a sociopolitical paradigm maintained by the subtle coercions and brainwashing of consumerism. Huxley makes the point by using the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale as a metaphor: “In charge of advertising we find an anti-democratic… Mr. Hyde—or rather a Dr. Hyde, for Hyde is now a PhD in psychology and has a master’s degree as well in the social sciences… And he does this… simply in order to find out the best way to take advantage of their ignorance and to exploit their irrationality for the pecuniary benefit of his employers.”[27]

Joel Bakan, author of The Corporation. Wikimedia Commons.

In other words, Huxley foresaw that, as The Corporation’s Joel Bakan points out, social justice advocates are up against expert professional manipulators. It will take far more than good values and goodwill to defeat them. Thankfully progressives have their own experts, such as cognitive linguist George Lakoff, a former adviser to the Democratic Party whose books and articles apply his research to political action.[28] His work refutes the common misconception of humans as ‘rational actors’ who simply need to be educated properly in order to make the correct choices. Huxley hinted at this in Brave New World Revisited when he wrote: “Such an education for freedom should be… an education first of all in facts and in values—the fact of individual diversity and genetic uniqueness and the values of freedom, tolerance and mutual charity which are the ethical corollaries of these facts. But unfortunately correct knowledge and sound principles are not enough. An unexciting truth may be eclipsed by a thrilling falsehood. A skillful appeal to passion is often too strong for the best of good resolutions. The effects of false and pernicious propaganda cannot be neutralized except by a thorough training in the art of analyzing its techniques and seeing through its sophistries.”[29] This latter recommendation—what amounts to a kind of Media Literacy 101—while undoubtedly a great idea, has yet to happen, though I’ve long been an advocate of having such courses taught in high school. And “a thrilling falsehood” certainly describes many of the “alternate facts” espoused by members of the Trump team, who—like ‘Dr.’ Hyde—know how to push the right hot buttons to get the reaction they want. As Lakoff has explained, Right-wing strategists have long understood that people respond to values statements, not facts or policy papers.[30]

Huxley winds up his dystopian critique by arguing for the teaching of “a set of generally acceptable values based upon a solid foundation of facts. …the value of charity and compassion, based upon the old familiar fact, lately rediscovered by modern psychiatry… that, whatever their mental and physical diversity, love is as necessary to human beings as food and shelter; and finally the value of intelligence, without which love is impotent and freedom unattainable.”[31]

NOTE: For more discussion of Orwellian/Huxleyan dystopia, check out ‘Welcome to dystopia—George Orwell experts on Donald Trump’ at The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/25/george-orwell-donald-trump-kellyanne-conway-1984

Neil Postman’s son Andrew Postman has written that his father’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, forewarned that we’d be facing a Huxleyan, not an Orwellian future: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/feb/02/amusing-ourselves-to-death-neil-postman-trump-orwell-huxley?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+main+NEW+H+categories&utm_term=211477&subid=15377526&CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

And finally, the venerable Margaret Atwood, thanks to her celebrity, gets the jump on me in this well-thought out essay: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/find-your-next-read/extracts/2017/feb/margaret-atwood-introduces-a-brand-new-world/#Tw4JxOPHSsVTRlqm.99

FOOTNOTES & SOURCES:

[1] Travis M. Andrews, “Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 spike after Trump spokesperson presents ‘alternative facts’’’, Washington Post, January 25, 2017. http://news.nationalpost.com/news/world/sales-of-george-orwells-1984-spike-after-trump-spokesperson-presents-alternative-facts accessed February 2, 2017.

[2] Wikipedia entry for Zamyatin’s novel We. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_(novel)

[3] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, Harper & Row Perennial Library, 1965 edition, p. 5.

[4] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 49.

[5] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 36.

[6] Jonas Mikka Luster, MS Medicine and Healthcare, Goethe University Frankfurt, “What is Hypnopedia and How Does it Work?”, https://www.quora.com/What-is-hypnopedia-and-how-does-it-work, accessed February 2, 2017. See also Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep-learning

[7] Joel Bakan, The Corporation, Penguin Group Canada, 2004, pp. 120, 121–22.

[8] Joel Bakan, The Corporation, ibid., p. 123.

[9] Nicholas Kardaras, “The Frightening Effects of Digital Heroin,” New York Post, August 27, 2016, http://nypost.com/2016/08/27/its-digital-heroin-how-screens-turn-kids-into-psychotic-junkies/, accessed February 2, 2017.

[10] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, W.W. Norton & Co., New York / London, 2011 edition, p. 116.

[11] “Investing heavily in school computers and classroom technology does not improve pupils’ performance, says a global study from the OECD. The think tank says frequent use of computers in schools is more likely to be associated with lower results.” Sean Coughlin, “Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, says OECD,” BBC News, September 15, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-34174796 accessed February 3, 2017.

[12] John Robson, “Developing Minds, Bodies Need Reality,” National Post, January 9, 2017 p. A8.

[13] “Roundup, which contains the active molecule Glyphosate, was described as an endocrine disrupter because non-cytotoxic concentrations inhibited progesterone synthesis in vitro.” Study conducted by Fiona Young, Dao Ho, Danielle Glynn and Vicki Edwards at the Department of Medical Biotechnology at Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia. Many other studies verify this data.

[14] Justin Karter, “Percentage of Americans on Antidepressants Nearly Doubles,” Mad in America website, https://www.madinamerica.com/2015/11/percentage-of-americans-on-antidepressants-nearly-doubles/ accessed February 2, 2017.

[15] Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, Broadway Books, New York, 2015 edition, pp. 5, 6.

[16] John Robson, “Developing Minds, Bodies Need Reality,” National Post, January 9, 2017 p. A8.

[17] Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic, ibid., p. 8.

[18] “The new drugs, it turned out, were no more effective than the old ones,” writes Whitaker. “Erick Turner from Oregon Health and Science University, in a review of FDA data for 12 antidepressants approved between 1987 and 2004, determined that 36 of the 74 trials had failed to show any statistical benefit for the antidepressants.” Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic, ibid., p. 155.

[19] Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic, ibid., p. 246.

[20] CDC, “Psychotropic Medication Use Among Adolescents: United States, 2005–2010,” CDC website, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db135.htm#x2013;2010</a> accessed February 2, 2017.

[21] CDC, “Use of Medication Prescribed for Emotional or Behavioral Difficulties Among Children Aged 6–17 Years in the United States, 2011–2012,” April 2014, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db148.htm#x2013;17%20Years%20in%20the%20United%20States,%202011–2012%20</a>, accessed February 2, 2017.

[22] Joel Andreas, Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism, AK Press, 2004, p. 7.

[23] Joel Andreas, Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism, ibid., p. 1.

[24] Joel Andreas, Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism, ibid., p. 59.

[25] In 1984, enemies of the state are just as carefully cultivated, “object(s) of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was generally at peace with the other.” 1984, Penguin edition, 1983, p. 14.

[26] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 37.

[27] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., pp. 47, 48.

[28] See George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Chelsea Green Publishers, Vermont, 2004.

[29] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 104, italics mine.

[30] Don Hazen writes in the Introduction to Don’t Think of an Elephant!: “As polls dramatically underscored (in the 2004 American election), many Americans voted their moral identity and values, often at the expense of their economic interests.” Ibid., p. xi.

[31] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 107, italics mine.

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