Nakusp Medieval Days a blast from the past

Turns out there’s far more going on at Nakusp Medieval Days than just an exercise in nostalgia. Far more than merely a forum for staged battles, the festival boasts a wide array of revived ancient skills. Although numbers were down slightly this year, Daniel Abraham, Nakusp Medieval Society (NMS) president, says the event was a success. Judging by the delight I saw on the faces of young and old watching ‘sword’ combat, archery skills, Highland games, and jousting matches with competing ‘knights,’ I’d have to agree.

Don't panic! No sharp blades were used. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Don’t panic! No sharp blades were used. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The partnership this year with the NMS and the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) was a first for both organizations. The SCA was established some 50 years ago and represents “over 1,000 years of history from pre-17th century Europe and the cultures that influenced Europe.” For those new to this event, a little explanation helps. “Participants in the SCA develop a persona which represents an individual from the Middle Ages who might have existed (but not based on a real figure from that time…) For most SCA participants this means selecting a particular time and culture from the Middle Ages, building a name from documented historical records from that culture, and wearing clothing that someone from that culture would have worn.” And indeed, it’s this colourful array of costumed characters that helps create the unique allure of Medieval Days.

The Jousting Alliance of Washington State brought in fully armoured ‘knights’ competing with lances on horseback – another first for Nakusp Medieval Days. The event featured a ‘page’ or announcer who goaded the audience to cheer for just about any competitor besides the Black Knight, who delighted in taunting both his competitors and the audience. For safety the lances are designed to shatter on impact, but this is not a sport without risk. The female Green Knight, Ariana Wolf, sustained a slight injury at Saturday’s match when a lance deflected off her shoulder armour and caused a bruise on her cheek. Nakusp resident Richard Sahlman was ‘knighted’ for coming to their assistance when he drove to the border to tow a horse trailer when one of the jouster’s trucks broke down. The crowds loved it.

The Green Knight chats with admirers after a jousting match. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The Green Knight chats with admirers after a jousting match. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The war on Saturday pitched the principality of Tir-Righ, comprising BC and part of Washington, and Avocal, the kingdom to the east, comprising Alberta, Saskatchewan and part of Idaho. Contestants compete for ‘war points’ at various events throughout the year that can determine who rises to the position of royalty in the kingdom. Sunday’s Highland Games featured a half-dozen kilt-clad competitors displaying feats of strength and agility with such sports as the shot putt and caber tossing.

In an era when we’re accustomed to seeing everything from thumbtacks to iPads made in China or Malaysia, the merchants at Medieval Days are more artisans than mere retailers. William Litwin, a.k.a. Taliesin ap Hafgan, specializes in calligraphy, and explained the painstaking process he uses to create ink from black walnut, among other sources for his inks. His partner Christopher ‘Topher’ Mackenzie creates chain mail as well as being a spinner and weaver. Kimberley Grigg, a.k.a. Duchess Meaghan, hosted a sewing and weaving circle teaching young women her skills, including Norse knotwork (nálbinding) that predates modern knitting by some 2,000 years. Stuart Tringle and Aleyn Wyckington displayed handcrafted medieval period lyres and encouraged festival patrons to try them out. Metal artists displayed handcrafted armour for sale and there were blacksmithing demonstrations from Nelson’s Kootenay Arts Studio. Leather workers such as Vargas Hides and Dyes happily take commissions for armour or belts and pouches made to last. Someone at the festival was the lucky raffle winner of a handcrafted longbow by Kootenay artisan Clark Dennill. A medieval-style furniture maker came all the way from Denver, Colorado with his wife, who displayed a beautiful tapestry-in-progress. The festival also teamed up with Nakusp Secondary to create swords for sale to would-be knights.

This women's sewing circle hosted by Duchess Meaghan taught ancient skills. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

This women’s sewing circle hosted by Duchess Meaghan taught ancient skills. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

“We recognize that there’s a lot of traditional handcrafted arts around here,” says Abraham, “so we thought one way to promote tourism is to give them a chance to promote their wares at our festival. Last year we had 28 vendors but this year we had about a third more. We try to keep things as local as possible, as relevant as possible.”

No medieval festival would be complete without music and featured strolling musicians John Anderson on flute and Kootenay Kiltie Pipe Band bagpiper Dale Morris. Multi-instrumentalists Suzanne LeClerc and Bryn Wilkin, known as Vazzy, held court in their music tent, performing award-winning renditions of traditional French, Celtic, Métis and Canadian songs. Dr. Kevin Zakresky, who recently performed at Britain’s Wembley arena with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, offered short presentations on medieval musical history and Gregorian chant. Nakusp’s own Nikki Cole kept the kids’ tent well entertained with puppetry.

This woman's voice and medieval lyre were hauntingly beautiful. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

This woman’s voice and medieval lyre were hauntingly beautiful. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The food and beverage department was a blend of ancient and modern. A bakery vendor sold both traditional and gluten-free goodies. A big hit was the tent offering ‘Irish-style’ whiskey (only whiskey made in Ireland can be called ‘Irish whiskey’). Award-winning Kootenay Craft Distillery was there with their regular and flavoured vodkas. The Burton City Cidery offered a distinctly medieval touch to its high-test ciders. The festival tavern sold out of everything they ordered. “Last year we were a little more strict on the food, that it had to be medieval food,” says Abraham, “but we had only two vendors and they sold out fast. So this year we thought, we can sacrifice authenticity to keep peoples’ bellies full. And it worked.”

Haggling with a merchant at the armoury shop. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Haggling with a merchant at the armoury shop. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The festival closed around 6 pm each day, making it both a family-friendly and easy on the neighbours. Look for another exciting event at next year’s Medieval Days. For more information visit www.medievaldays.ca or www.sca.org.

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Avoiding the Circus of Fear

UPDATE: I wrote this poem following a harrowing period in my life during the latter days of the Stephen Harper regime, when he appointed Steven Blaney as his Minister of Public Safety. Photos of the man expostulating in Parliament were shocking: Blaney looked like a rabid demon foaming at the mouth. I was used to hearing such inflammatory rhetoric from American politicians but coming from a Canadian minister of government it was deeply jarring. I was shocked that our country might be following the path to perdition laid down by our disintegrating neighbours to the south.

Then one night I had an epiphany: if these men are so terrified of the world they feel the need to cage us in an ever tightening ring of security and surveillance, then they are truly to be pitied. Why should I fear them? They’re actually quite pathetic creatures. Thankfully with the election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, Canada has veered away from the abyss the United States and other countries seem to be plunging headlong into. For now. However, the old saying is true: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

What I learned from my Long Night of Fear under Harper is that it’s as essential to manage one’s own fear as it is to monitor those who cultivate it to their own ends. Once we can do that we can’t be manipulated nearly so easily.  It’s an especially important lesson as we watch the chaos unfolding in Turkey, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the world. Put simply: Don’t get sucked into the Circus of Fear.

Artwork created in 2015 to accompany the poem. ©2015 Sean Arthur Joyce

Artwork created in 2015 to accompany the poem. ©2015 Sean Arthur Joyce

Exorcising Demons

I saw you on TV—tongue

flicking fear

into our bones.

Haggard as a demon

on a three-day bender.

Bald as a bullet

biting the air

for its target,

halo of knives glinting

in oily light.

Your skin long abandoned

by touch, the leap

in the breast

all but forgotten.

 

Collars wrap serpentine

around your neck,

and everywhere you go,

you look over your shoulder,

listen for grit

beneath a boot.

And no matter

how many minds

you tie in knots,

they need only relax

to escape. After all,

the dead can sing

through anything.

While the armour

closes over your body,

they dance naked

in the streets.

 

Why should I fear you?

Your eyes are dark moths

beating weakly

against a screen—

desperate

for incandescence.

 

©2015 Sean Arthur Joyce

Posted in Poetry, Political Commentary | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Deadly Fascination: The Allure of Game of Thrones

  1. The Allure of Psychopathy

Why are people so fascinated by psychopaths? Judging by the runaway success of the HBO series Game of Thrones, which features a cast largely populated by psychopaths, the allure at this moment in history seems greater than ever. Right out of the gate with season one, “the box set sold over 350,000 units within the first seven days of its release, the largest first-week DVD sales ever for an HBO series,” according to Wikipedia. “Illegal downloads grew to about 7 million in the first quarter of 2015,” with a single episode in 2012 downloaded 4.2 million times. This kind of multi-media success qualifies it as a genuine cultural phenomenon. As the Wikipedia entry notes, Game of Thrones expressions such as “sexposition” have entered the lexicon. But in all the hoopla, it begs the question: What does it say about us as a culture that a TV series so dominated by sexual violence, objectification of women, and vicious brutality is so universally popular?

Game of Thrones: HBO’s most successful series ever.

My argument is that when you depict a society in which 90 percent of the characters are grasping, vicious psychopaths, you not only reverse the actual order of things, you normalize psychopathy. In reality, psychopaths attract attention not only because of their brutal crimes but precisely because they are such a deviation from the norm. Probably less than one percent of the population could be assessed as fitting the American Psychiatric Association’s checklist for psychopathy in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM). Good thing too, or the human race wouldn’t last very long. Of course, not all psychopaths are murderers like those depicted on Game of Thrones. Many of them are heads of our most prominent corporations.

But the point remains. In his book, Without Conscience, Robert Hare writes: “To give you some idea of the enormity of the problem that faces us, consider that there are at least 2 million psychopaths in North America; the citizens of New York City have as many as 100,000 psychopaths among them. And these are conservative estimates. Far from being an esoteric, isolated problem that affects only a few people, psychopathy touches virtually every one of us.” While we may not have the misfortune to meet a psychopath, we’re personally affected by the many corporate products that pollute the environment or destroy health simply for profit. By definition, psychopaths lack the capacity to feel regret for their actions or empathy for others, so the potential damage they can do is disproportional to their small numbers. There’s also the related phenomenon of sociopathy and narcissism, equally capable of leaving destruction in their wake. In fact, psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell argue in their book The Narcissism Epidemic that the condition is rampant in our civilization. “In a June 2009 national poll of more than 1,000 college students, 2 out of 3 agreed with the statement, ‘My generation of young people is more self-promoting, narcissistic, overconfident and attention-seeking than previous generations.’”[1]

Filmmaker Max Stossel calls time on making murderers famous. Image: USA Today

It’s an especially relevant point in the aftermath of mass shootings like Orlando, which prompted filmmaker and storyteller Max Stossel to produce a short film titled Stop Making Murderers Famous. He might well have used Murray McLaughlin’s song I Hate Your Gun as his theme song, from the overlooked classic 1982 album Windows. McLaughlin wrote it out of grief for the murder of John Lennon. Prefiguring Stossel’s argument by some three decades, McLaughlin sang: “May you die alone / Without publicity / Without sale of biography / A nobody for eternity…”

In part Stossel bases his appeal on research done by psychologist Sherry Towers and her team in concluding that, “We found evidence that killings that receive national or international media attention do indeed inspire similar events a significant fraction of the time. … The researchers did a statistical analysis of 176 mass shooting events in the U.S. from 2006 to 2011 and 220 school shootings between 1997 and 2013.”

Psychologists Twenge & Campbell get to the root of the matter.

It’s a point reiterated in The Narcissism Epidemic. Social media has been gasoline on the fire of the sociopathic personality. Like Stossel, by Twenge and Campbell argue: “Given the upswing in the narcissistic values of American culture since the ’90s, it may be no coincidence that mass shootings became a national plague around the same time. …The first step toward severing the link between narcissism and antisocial behaviours is to make socially inappropriate behaviour go unnoticed and unrewarded.”[2] Granted, this is reality, not fiction, and the argument about causation or lack of it as a factor in real-life violence seesaws back and forth. But why take the risk of poisoning the well? Why not err on the side of the angels? Of course, that’s not as likely to make you a fabulously wealthy TV producer…

  1. The Fiction of Medievalism

The most common argument I get when I ask people about the deadly fascination of the series is, “Well, it’s set in a medieval society, and that’s how things were then.” Really? Are any of the creators or even viewers of the series that well versed in medieval history that they can say this with authority? In recent decades there’s been a number of revisionist histories written about the Medieval or ‘Dark Ages’ period. The good news? It was nowhere near as bleak as typically believed, and certainly nothing like the hopeless world depicted on Game of Thrones. Monty Python alumni Terry Jones has written an excellent and much-needed revisionist history, Medieval Lives, one of many such books published in recent years that shed light on the period. Jones, who studied medieval history before going into show business, writes: “An unholy alliance of 19th century novelists and painters with 20th century movie-makers has created a period of history which never existed.”[3] That said, Jones acknowledges that, “Chivalry was a fantasy, used to put a respectable gloss on the horrors of war.” And certainly, in the early post-Norman conquest period of Britain, the system was “totally based on violence.”[4]

Was the Medieval period as “dark” as we’ve been led to believe?

By the time the chivalrous knight of courtly fiction and poetry arrived, the Medieval period was already blurring into the Renaissance. It’s an ancient trope in literature: by the time a tale is finally committed to print, it’s already so old it’s in danger of passing into oblivion, starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh—probably a thousand years old before the first versions were committed to cuneiform tablets somewhere around 2400 BC. Gilgamesh is now known to have been an ancient Mesopotamian king of the city-state Uruk. All legends begin with a kernel of truth. But you can imagine the distortion that enters the tale over that stretch of time. Artistic license is a legitimate creative tool, of course. The problem begins with a culture like ours, steeped in 24/7 entertainment and steadily losing its legacy of critical thinking. As our educational system shifts ever more toward utilitarianism, the broad knowledge of classical literature that informs our reading of these stories has largely been lost.

What’s often overlooked about Medieval Europe is the fact that in the vacuum left by the collapse of the Roman Empire, communities had to pull together to survive. So far I’ve yet to see this better elucidated than in Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid. Kropotkin, known best as a writer of anarchist works, was a disciple of Darwin and set out to study examples of mutual aid in nature, in contrast to the “nature red in tooth and claw” theory advanced by Victorian social scientists. “Sociability and need of mutual aid and support are such inherent parts of human nature that at no time of history can we discover men living in small isolated families, fighting each other for the means of subsistence,” wrote Kropotkin. “On the contrary, modern research… proves that since the very beginning of their prehistoric life men used to agglomerate into gentes, clans, or tribes, maintained by an idea of common descent and by worship of common ancestors. …when the bonds of common descent had been loosened by migrations on a grand scale… a new form of union, territorial in its principle—the village community—was called into existence… Far from being the fighting animals they have often been compared to, the barbarians of the first centuries of our era… invariably preferred peace to war.”[5] The arbitrary and twisted notion of justice depicted in Game of Thrones is a far cry from these Medieval European communities. “The new occupiers of Europe evolved the systems of land tenure and soil culture… (and) worked out their systems of compensation for wrongs, instead of the old tribal blood-revenge… the deeper we penetrate into the history of early institutions, the less we find grounds for the military theory of origin of authority.”[6]

As part of that new social structure, guilds—the historical predecessors of labour unions—were formed for craftsmen and routinely provided for their widows and children in the event of their death.[7] Some Medieval communities had city charters stipulating that the necessities of life—coal, wood, grain, etc.—were to be offered first to citizens before retailers could purchase them to be marked up for profit. In many European cities, trustees bought goods from merchants to ensure their citizens would have fair access, stipulating in law that only an ‘honest profit’ could be made. Usury—the charging of excessive or compound interest—was illegal. In that respect, modern society has a lot to learn from the so-called ‘Dark’ Ages.[8] 

  1. Nihilism as Catharsis

Game of Thrones as 21st century gladiatorial games? Image: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, Game of Thrones is neither history nor legend but fantasy, based on popular genre fiction. And a rather bleak, nihilistic fantasy at that. On another level, the series may be a 21st century equivalent to the Roman gladiatorial games. Since the Romans the principle of ‘bread and circuses’ as a mode of state control over a population has seldom been lost on rulers. And I’m sure no one since the promoters of gladiatorial games has ever gone broke promoting this kind of public spectacle. But this too is a form of narcissism or sociopathy that ignores the potential harm to the public good. The question left unexplored here is to what degree a fiction like Game of Thrones acts as cultural catharsis, a means of both reflecting and purging current conceptions of society. Certainly there seems to be a sense of civilizational decay in the air wherever we look, whether in the current presidential primaries in the US or the profusion of dark visions of the age in everything from movies to popular music. I make no creative judgments about Game of Thrones. However, reading between the lines, we may be seeing the same kind of right-wing solipsism as the one that promoted the false view of evolution as a bloody, inevitable struggle. At a time when the lines between fiction and our perceptions of reality seem increasingly blurred, it’s important to take in a little historical and sociological context. Without that, the old principle of ‘garbage in, garbage out,’ is likely to predominate, to everyone’s detriment.

NOTE: It’s worthwhile, if you’re interested, reading some of the debates on just the issue of sexual violence toward women in Game of Thrones. It seems a massive step backward to the cause of feminism to me, but hear what these women critics have to say: http://ca.complex.com/pop-culture/2016/04/female-critics-on-game-of-thrones-violence-against-women

The Atlantic has so far been the only major media outlet to provide in-depth commentary on the sociological implications: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/06/game-of-thrones-sexual-violence/396191/

On the issue of historical accuracy, read what Live Science has to say about Game of Thrones’ depiction of Medieval life: http://www.livescience.com/44599-medieval-reality-game-of-thrones.html

So far, only one media review outlet has chosen to no longer feature reviews of Game of Thrones based on its objections to the graphic violence and sexual degradation of women: http://www.themarysue.com/we-will-no-longer-be-promoting-hbos-game-of-thrones/

ESSAY SOURCES[1] Jean M. Twenge & W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2009, p. 34.

[2] Jean M. Twenge & W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2009, pp. 200, 207.

[3] Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Medieval Lives, BBC Books, 2005, p.13

[4] Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Medieval Lives, BBC Books, 2005, p.70

[5] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1989, pp. 153, 154.

[6] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1989, pp. 155, 159.

[7] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1989, pp. 169–176.

[8] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1989, pp. 181–184.

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A Mother’s Day Story–Mama Duck Gets a Helping Hand

This year my mother has not had the best of Mother’s Days. After suffering from chronic bronchitis that progressed to pneumonia, followed by fluid on the heart that caused a heart attack, she was rushed to Williams Lake hospital. It was determined that she needed to be air ambulanced to the Kelowna hospital, where they have the best cardiology wing in the BC interior and she could receive a full range of diagnostic tests. Anne and I had to quickly arrange to have our garden looked after, pack up the car and head off from our home in New Denver to Kelowna on the afternoon of May 3. It took them another day to finally get Mom to Kelowna and since then we’ve been at the hospital every day keeping her company.

Although Mom and I have never been close, it’s still a deep shock to see a parent in such a diminished condition, her dignity so battered down, her health so suddenly frail. As our friend Judy said, she’s your mother—the connection is visceral, beyond any other emotional considerations and personal history. Her breathing is laboured and she barely has the strength to lift herself back onto her hospital bed. Because she’s been suffering oxygen depletion from the pressure on her lungs, she’s not entirely lucid and often gets confused. This from someone who was always a very strong personality. Just a few years ago she chased off potential thieves on their ranch property with a shotgun! So seeing her phasing in and out of lucidity is particularly hard for me, as for myself I value my mental clarity and capacities above all else. And in the midst of an already challenging medical crisis it makes it hard to separate Mom’s reality from what is just another symptom of her illness.

After Anne and I got back from the hospital just before dinnertime on May 7, we were chatting with our hosts Keith and Judy on the front porch when we noticed a mother duck and her brood of ducklings come waddling through the yard. She seemed a little disoriented but it was immediately clear she was headed toward Okanagan Lake, which is only about three blocks distant from Keith and Judy’s place. However, as it is a busy residential neighbourhood with many fenced yards, people on bikes, driving cars, and walking dogs, I felt I should follow her to make sure she made it safely to the water.

Keith and Judy’s cross street is a dead end so poor Mama Duck found herself in someone’s backyard, confused about how to get out. I opened the gate and then realized I’d have to act as a shepherd to get her headed in the right direction. If I got too close she made a defensive posture and opened her beak as if to hiss at me, though she made no sound. I kept just far enough away so as not to scare her but close enough to herd her away from going down a dead end street or getting stuck in another fenced yard. Along the way people would smile and comment on the situation.

This scene is very much the one I observed as I acted as Mama Duck’s unofficial herder. Courtesy Wikimedia.

I managed to get her herded onto the main street that heads toward the lake but about half a block along she made a left turn into a rather lush looking yard at another of the lovely heritage homes in this neighbourhood. An older woman was on the porch with her iPad so I explained why I was coming into her yard and she immediately helped gently herd the Mama and her nine ducklings back toward the street, as again there was no other way out of the yard. The woman gave me directions for the shortest route to the water. I used those to continue herding the ducks in that direction.

Then in the next block a male mallard appeared, and decided he wanted to have at ‘er with poor Mama Duck. “Hey, honey, let’s get it on!” Of course she was having none of it but there was a few minutes of tense drama while he chased her in circles through the air. Somehow she managed to finally get through to him: “Look, I’ve got nine little ones already. I’m in no mood.” I was worried it could end badly, and kept an eye on the temporarily stranded ducklings. Another neighbour watched this drama play out as I explained to him my role in it.

So on they went. I had to keep to the street side of the ducky procession because drivers in this town have a habit of behaving as if they’re on the Indy 500 with their expensive cars (Kelowna is after all a kind of Beverly Hills North). I had to flag one driver to the fact that he needed to pay attention to the ducks and slow down. Another neighbour shouted helpful directions toward the lake.

The last main cross street before the lakefront is another busy street, with walkers, cyclists, more racing drivers, and even the occasional rollerblader. Luckily there was a lull in traffic as Mama and her brood crossed but then she seemed to want to continue along that street in the wrong direction. I blocked her, forcing her to go the right way again. She slipped under a tall cedar hedge and I could no longer track her. I walked along the sidewalk of the property, one of Kelowna’s rich houses, complete with iron gates, but couldn’t see them anymore. However, as it was the last property before the beach, and indeed has private beachfront, I figured Mama would be able to take it from there.

On the way back I met the lady in the heritage house on her front porch again, who wanted to know how they made out. She said, “Well, you’ve certainly earned yourself a nice glass of wine.” Back at our home away from home, Keith and Judy said, “You’ve done your bit for the environment today!”

Ah, the bond between mother and baby duck…

It was a lovely interlude in an otherwise deeply stressful time. I’m sure a biologist would tell me that to the mother duck, I was just another potential danger to be overcome in her odyssey toward the lake. But being the romantic I am, I can’t help but hope that Mama Duck remembers a tall stranger in a straw hat and red summer shirt who helped shepherd her and her babies to safety on the water.

Posted in environment, Nature | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Convergence 2016 Writers Weekend

Looking for a way to use your writing talents to inspire and guide a progressive 21st century? Join renowned Canadian authors J. Edward Chamberlin and Sharon Butala for Convergence 2016: The Spirit in the Landscape, a special weekend writers’ retreat held in Silverton, BC, May 13-14 at the Silverton Memorial Hall on Highway 6.

J. Edward Chamberlin is one of our featured guests at Convergence 2016.

J. Edward Chamberlin is one of our featured guests at Convergence 2016.

Subtitled “If this is your land, where are your stories?” from Chamberlin’s book of the same name, this year’s Convergence explores the growing worldwide movement to make sacred again our relationship with Nature, to return us to a sense that all beings are sacred and we are merely one strand in that web.

All stories, songs and poems teach values. This is an understanding inherent in many First Nations mythologies. Now at the other end of the industrial and technological revolutions, it’s time to allow ourselves to be re-absorbed into that sense of the sacred. And often it’s our storytellers, poets and indigenous elders who lead the way in crafting the narratives that point us in the direction of such a sacred relationship.

As Chamberlin writes in his book, “Other people’s stories are as varied as the landscapes and languages of the world; and the storytelling traditions to which they belong tell the different truths of religion and science, of history and the arts. They tell people where they came from, and why they are here; how to live, and sometimes how to die. They come in many different forms, from creation stories to constitutions, from southern epics and northern sagas to Native American tales and African praise songs, and from nursery rhymes and national anthems to myths and mathematics. And they are all ceremonies of belief as much as they are chronicles of events, even the stories that claim to be absolutely true.” (J. Edward Chamberlin, If This is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?, Vintage Canada 2003-2004, pp. 1, 2.)

Sharon Butala will speak on the theme of 'The Spirit in the Landscape.'

Sharon Butala will speak on the theme of ‘The Spirit in the Landscape.’

Our other guest at Convergence 2016 is renowned author Sharon Butala, whose memoir The Perfection of the Morning has become a Canadian classic. Written on the cusp of transitioning from a promising university career to life on a Saskatchewan ranch with her husband, it beautifully develops the ‘spirit in the landscape’ featured in this year’s Convergence theme: “Surrounded as I was by miles of prairie still in the state it had been in since the glaciers had melted back ten thousand years before, with mirages hovering in the distance, the nights filled with the distant wail of coyotes, and with the canopy of stars, and the wind a constant, whispering companion, I began to have the first intimations that there was in Nature, much more than met the eye, something that existed in back of it. I did not know what that something was. I didn’t even expect ever to know, but nevertheless I strained every day to catch a glimpse of it. I thought if I could just see it, maybe I would understand it and that understanding would show me how to live.” (Sharon Butala, The Perfection of the Morning, Harper Perennial, 1994/2004, pp. 23, 24)

Convergence was founded in 2012 by author Sean Arthur Joyce with a mandate to help writers concerned with social and environmental justice to polish their skills and engage in stimulating discussion with world-class authors and thinkers. Chamberlin writes that, “It is only through the pressure of our imagination that we can resist the pressure of reality,” and, arguably, to stoke the fires of transformation at this critical juncture in human history. “In this sense, all stories are resistance stories and all songs are songs of resistance, pushing back against the tyrannies of the everyday as well as the terrors of the unknown.”

Convergence since its inception has been hosted by Heart’s Rest Retreats in New Denver, British Columbia, operated by United Church ministers George Meier and Therese DesCamp, advocates for progressive, inclusive spirituality. Included on the Convergence board as advisor is renowned Canadian poet Tom Wayman.

Beautiful Slocan Lake, just a block from Silverton Memorial Hall, will provide plenty of inspiration. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Beautiful Slocan Lake, just a block from Silverton Memorial Hall, will provide plenty of inspiration. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Located 100 km. north of popular small arts town Nelson, BC, Silverton and New Denver are inspiring communities in the gorgeous Valhalla mountain range on the shores of pristine Slocan Lake—a truly inspiring setting. Local accommodations are affordable and the strong organic farming ethic in the Slocan Valley means you’ll eat healthy while here. Meals will be catered on Saturday so those registering are asked to let us know your meal preferences. Evening meals can be a problem during the off-season for tourism here so have your meal options planned for Friday evening and Sunday. (See webpage registration form at http://www.heartsrest.com/convergence/convergence-writers-retreat/.)

SCHEDULE: Friday, May 13, 7 p.m.

Presentation by Sharon Butala and J. Edward Chamberlin followed by audience Q&A. Open to the public.

Saturday, May 14: Writing workshops

Open to registrants only; registrants can take one or both workshops.

  • 9:30 am – 12:30 pm: Sharon Butala
  • 2:00 – 5:00 pm: J. Edward Chamberlin
  • 7:00 pm: Spirit in the Landscape panel discussion with Sharon Butala, J. Edward Chamberlin, Therese DesCamp, and Sean Arthur Joyce.

Full registration (online or at the door) covers Friday night and Saturday night events, plus Saturday writing workshops: $35.

Saturday only admission (writing workshops and/or evening panel discussion): $35.

Friday evening only admission: $5. 

  • To register in advance contact Sean Arthur Joyce at ajoyce@uniserve.com and let us know your preferences for writing workshops and meals.

NOTE: While we are happy to provide links to area accommodations, Convergence is not providing accommodations for registrants.

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The Atomization of Dissent Pt. 2

Part Two: Social Media Fans the Flames of Narcissism

Traditional social networks have been breaking down, putting the cohesiveness of social activism at great risk. Writing for OpenDemocracy.net, Michael Edwards notes that labour unions in the US declined by 43 percent between 1950 and 2000, while parent-teacher associations lost 60 percent of their membership during the same period. Yet these community-based social networks were the very heart of social transformation in the 20th century. As Edwards explains: “When one looks at the few times in history when civil society has functioned as a powerful and lasting moral and political lever—like the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s—large numbers of people became active in translating ethical action into power structures at every level, from the family to the courts and corporations.”[1] (italics mine) Tellingly, Edwards notes that although NGOs have blossomed as never before—with 1.5 million charities in the US alone and 90 percent of all NGOs established since 1975—they currently seem to have less, rather than more, influence on the political agenda. Obviously this too is debatable.

Occupy protestor. Photo by Sasha Kimel.

Occupy protestor. Photo by Sasha Kimel.

Gibson’s 2001 essay acquires a chillingly prophetic tone in light of recent political tensions between Russia and the Ukraine. Thirteen years ago, he wrote: “Few who study Russian political culture are optimistic about the development of a strong civil society in that country. In addition to the debilitating burden of hundreds of years of authoritarianism, contemporary Russia is said to lack two crucial elements of a civil society—interpersonal trust and a broad array of non-state voluntary organizations. For instance… 80 to 90 percent of Russians do not belong to any voluntary associations.”[2] Compare this with Edwards’ report of dropping membership in civic associations in the US over the past 50 years or so. Canadians tend to be just a few steps behind America in most sociological trends, so it’s not a stretch to suggest a similar plunge in Canada.

The age-old strategy of divide and conquer seems to apply here, particularly with the rise of narcissism in Western culture. Whether that strategy is planned or coincidental in the West I’ll leave the conspiracy theorists to debate. In part it’s a natural outgrowth of a consumer oriented industrial-technological society, where industries rely on continual mass consumption of their products to stay profitable. Obviously a community ethos works directly against this form of capitalism. Why share a lawn mower with your neighbours when you can buy your own? Why borrow a tool when you can have your own garage full of tools (even though you probably only use them a few times a year)?

This kind of consumerism set the groundwork for the narcissism we now seeing playing out on social media. “In data from 37,000 college students, narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present,” write psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell in The Narcissism Epidemic. “By 2006, one out of four college students agreed with the majority of items on the standard measure of narcissistic traits. …Narcissists thrive on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.”[3] (italics mine) Tellingly, a Carnegie Mellon study on online discussion forums found that they fostered “superficial exchanges instead of meaningful conversations.”[4]

Homelessness like many social issues has become fractured by conflicting interest groups.

The problem of homelessness, like many social issues, has become fractured by conflicting interest groups.

Narcissism strikes at the very heart of community—the traditional driving force of social activism. How can trust be maintained in a social media environment where anonymity is treated as license for abuse? How can a social group come together in an environment where disagreement is met not with well-reasoned debate but with ad hominem attacks? How can a social movement gain momentum when it’s constantly fractured because the art of compromise has been lost to egocentric posturing or turf wars? According to Twenge and Campbell, there are potential solutions. “The first step toward severing the link between narcissism and antisocial behaviours is to make socially inappropriate behaviour go unnoticed and unrewarded.”[5] It’s a word to the wise for those who find Donald Trump’s tactics appalling—the best strategy in his case would be ‘ignore him and hope he’ll just go away.’ Unfortunately, we live under a commercial system that profits from precisely this kind of sensationalistic gong show. More fuel for the destructive bonfires of narcissism undermining society and civil discourse.

Rodin's The Thinker: It's too easy to miss subtle cues with social media.

Rodin’s The Thinker: It’s too easy to miss subtle cues with social media.

All technology comes with a price, one we’re seldom encouraged to consider. ‘The tool shapes the shaper.’ Add to that the fact that for thousands of years humans have relied on non-textual cues to communication—the raising of an eyebrow, shifting in a chair, a rise or fall in the tone of voice—to interpret meaning. With social media the majority of this information is missing, leaving only text to interpret. The pathetic ‘smiley face’ emoticons of social media cannot possibly replace all this lost information from the sender.

This is nothing less than a radical transformation of human communications. Yet we’re somehow expected to adapt to it within the space of a generation. Certainly you could argue that traditional cursive writing also left out many non-textual cues. The difference, however, was that great effort was taken in public education to train people to express themselves in writing with eloquence and flair. Compare even an average letter written in Victorian times with an email or Facebook post. I’m willing to bet the range of expression will have seriously contracted. And if it’s Twitter you have even less space for eloquence. Not to mention, a forum that rewards instantaneous, often thoughtless expression over thoughtful, reasoned eloquence. This is hardly a formula for social cohesion, much less any major social change.

The corporate consolidation that began in the early 1990s, with the concomitant rise in lobbying to direct the political agenda, has had as much effect on NGOs, democracy and social activism as digital media itself did. This is a fundamental premise of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything. An increasing focus on ‘branding’ and ‘market share’ slipped over from commercial realms to influence NGOs competing for public donations. Gradually they came more to resemble, rather than contrast, the corporations they were fighting. Adam Smith’s ‘law of the marketplace’ thus did a far better job of undermining social change than any concerted infiltration could have done. In analyzing the communications weaknesses of NGOs, Milan and Lubetkin point out that, “More coordination is needed in order to speak with a unified voice to policy-makers.”[6] Instead, the imperative to stake out an NGO’s unique slice of the funding pie has largely kept them from presenting a united front, a single rallying cry for millions. Obviously some groups are more effective at this than others, for example Avaaz and 350.org.

Bill McKibben is probably glad he has tools like Facebook and Twitter to rally the troops, as was seen in recent global climate change rallies. But I’m willing to bet he’d prefer to see us create or join community-based social networks—like the old civil associations and unions—that carry forward the work far beyond a single day of activism. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Naomi Klein makes this very point.[7] As journalist Adam Vaughan explained: “She said it was not just the scale of the march in New York that had impressed her but the diversity, made up of local communities who had been hit by superstorm Sandy, indigenous people fighting tar sands developments, anti-fracking campaigners and what she described as the first time the Labor movement was out in force, calling for job creation in response to climate change.” (italics mine)

Who knows? Maybe that would help us reboot civil discourse, and with it, civil society.

SOURCES:

[1] Michael Edwards, When is civil society a force for social transformation?, OpenDemocracy.net, May 30, 2014, https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/michael-edwards/when-is-civil-society-force-for-social-transformation

[2] James L. Gibson, ibid.

[3] Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Simon & Schuster Inc. 2009, first Atria paperback edition 2013, pp. 2, 110.

[4] Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, ibid., p. 111.

[5] Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, ibid., p. 207.

[6] Stefania Melan & Mario Lubetkin, ibid.

[7] Adam Vaughan, Naomi Klein: UK fracking trespass law flouts democratic rights, The Guardian online, October 7, 2014, note video interview at 1:13:31, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/07/naomi-klein-uk-fracking-trespass-law-flouts-democratic-rights

 

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The Atomization of Dissent Pt. 1

Part One: Has Civil Discourse Become Outdated?

INTRODUCTION: To celebrate the fifth anniversary of this blog—to the day—I’m publishing this essay, which was originally submitted to the annual Dalton Camp Award, a $10,000 prize for writing that links journalism and democracy. Continuing in my unbroken string of no-wins for literary prizes, it did not win. Read the winning essay and decide for yourself whether my essay should have had at least a runner-up award. http://www.friends.ca/DCA/2015/SpencerKeys

“Totalitarianism undermines civil society through the atomization of individual citizens. …totalitarian states ‘atomize society so that people become isolated and mistrustful of one another and hence unable to concert their efforts in organized political activity. Society itself thereby becomes an instrument of coercion…’”  —James L. Gibson, Social Networks, Civil Society, and the Prospects for Consolidating Russia’s Democratic Transition, 2001, Washington University in St. Louis

The atomization of dissent—one expects it under a totalitarian regime. But I would argue that this atomization has also happened in Western ‘democracies’ whose political power structures have become subsumed by commercial interests. This atomization has been achieved in much more subtle fashion in the West than it was in the former Communist bloc countries or in China. Rather than a Stalinistic crackdown and ‘disappearing’ of dissidents, the commercialized West has opted for the appeal to narcissism through personalized technologies. Rather than suppress access to media, Western corporatocracies have actually increased personal access to media. Now anyone can write a blog or host a Facebook group page, granting them absolute control over what they publish with no system of editing or vetting. This is why Robert McChesney and John Nichols, in The Death and Life of American Journalism,[1] have argued that, while a key component of democratizing media, the blogosphere can never replace traditional journalism. Universal access to media too easily fosters a kind of Bill O’Reilly Syndrome, where any bigot can spout uninformed, divisive opinions with at least some guarantee of an audience. Social media has only exacerbated this problem. What are the implications for democracy then, and the social discourse required to achieve it?

McChesney & Nichols argue that blogs aren’t enough to replace investigative journalism.

This atomization of Western society, combined with the rapid-fire nature of social media, has created a potentially dangerous erosion of civil society. I’ve lost count now of how many times I’ve inadvertently been drawn into what I call ‘Facebook wrangles’ where, simply by disagreeing with someone’s opinion, I’ve been the victim of the most vicious name-calling and abuse. Perhaps due to the many tragic reports of teen suicides in response to cyber-bullying, Facebook administration now takes complaints very seriously and slanderous content is removed quickly when reported. But the question remains: Are we no longer capable of civil discourse?

What has happened to the simple right to ‘agree to disagree’? How can a society retain its cohesiveness if its members can’t even disagree with one another without resorting to vicious and even libelous behaviour? And how can any semblance of democracy be maintained if its members can’t debate the most basic of issues without descending into a verbal free-for-all? The theme of the Dalton Camp Award is how media informs democracy. While much has been discussed about the role of social media in political activism, such as in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, little has been said yet about its role in civil discourse.

There’s no doubt social media is a powerful tool for change, though the depth and extent of the change wrought by it is open to question. Clay Shirky, in his 2011 essay for the Council on Foreign Relations, The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere and Political Change, argues that the real power of social media is “in supporting civil society and the public sphere—which will produce change over years and decades, not weeks or months.”[2] Undoubtedly, this is a conservative opinion, given that the Council is an elite establishment. However, as we’ve seen in Egypt, the ousting of a corrupt regime is only the first step. The actual building or rebuilding of civil society is a much larger, longer-term task. Social media can only claim to have been the tool that pried the lid off an already simmering kettle. It provided a vital logistical tool but no long-term strategies for social cohesion. And of course, for regimes not committed to a democratic agenda, there will always be counter-measures. As Shirky notes, this takes in the two central arguments against social media’s ability to transform national politics. “The first is that the tools are themselves ineffective, and the second is that they produce as much harm to democratization as good, because repressive governments are becoming better at using these tools to suppress dissent.”[3] The second point is somewhat suspect, and reflects an establishment concern with preserving the status quo. But the first point, social media’s effectiveness for sustained democratic change, is at least arguable.

Occupy Wall Street protestors make their point.

Occupy Wall Street protestors make their point, if somewhat fractiously.

In the 2013 State of Civil Society Report, an essay by Stefania Milan and Mario Lubetkin acknowledges another challenge to political transformation through social media. Not the least of which is the growing concentration of media in few corporate hands, a trend that began well before Facebook or Twitter were even invented. To this complication Milan and Lubetkin add both “the predominance of ‘infotainment’ and ‘sensationalism’ over information and analysis, and the prevalence of Western voices at the expense of a silenced global South.”[4] Once again, McChesney and Nichol’s magisterial analysis of the fall of journalism in the United States (and by extension, Canada) bears on the discussion. In their view, the sharp decline in investigative journalism has been a direct result of corporate concentration, with its fixation on the bottom line and continual cuts to staff. Put simply, quality journalism costs money to produce.[5]

Which brings us back again to the role of civil discourse in an atomized, highly individualized society. As Milan and Lubetkin point out, “social media and blogging platforms, by privileging an individualistic approach to communication, are sometimes at odds with the ways in which organized civil society traditionally communicates.”[6] James L. Gibson’s analysis of the potential (or lack of it) for democracy to take root in post-Cold War Russia has relevance here. “Although conceding that the emergence of a civil society was one of the reasons for the decline of Soviet communism in Central and Eastern Europe… Many analysts argue that civil society in the mid-to-late 1990s is being undermined by the radical individualism, social anomie and distrust, and just simple greed that characterize politics in these polities.” Gibson’s thesis focuses on social networks as “a key attribute of a civil society… the antithesis of a civil society is atomization—a condition in which each citizen is dissociated from every other citizen.”[7] (italics mine) By “social networks,” Gibson wasn’t talking about Facebook or Twitter. He was talking about old-fashioned, face-to-face socializing in what sociologists call groups with ‘weak ties,’ that is, social rather than family or clan groupings. Most ominously for social media, he contends that for these kinds of social networks to have transformative effects, they must be “politically relevant—they must encourage and support discussion of politics among citizens. …social networks are a means of transmitting innovative information and values in a society, and consequently, in democratizing polities, those with more developed networks are more likely to adopt democratic values.”[8]

[1] Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Nation Books, 2010, pp. 78-81.

[2] Clay Shirky, The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere and Political Change, Council on Foreign Relations, January/February 2011, http://www.bendevane.com/FRDC2011/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/The-Political-Power-of-Social-Media-Clay-Sirky.pdf

[3] Clay Shirky, ibid.

[4] Stefania Melan & Mario Lubetkin, ‘Messages that Make an Impact: Rethinking Civil Society Communication Strategies,’ 2013 State of Civil Society Report, http://socs.civicus.org/?p=3879

[5] Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, ibid., pp. 81-82.

[6] Stefania Melan & Mario Lubetkin, ibid.

[7] James L. Gibson, Social Networks, Civil Society, and the Prospects for Consolidating Russia’s Democratic Transition, 2001, Washington University in St. Louis, http://jameslgibson.wustl.edu/ajps2001.pdf

[8] James L. Gibson, ibid.

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