I’ve been reading Conrad Black’s 1106-page history of Canada, Rise to Greatness.I can’t recommend it. For two reasons.
First, because it’s written at a level of turgidity rarely achieved since the Victorian authors. The friend who loaned me the book said he had to read it with his dictionary open beside him.
Conrad Black has a huge vocabulary and a superb command of complex sentences with an infinite succession of subordinate clauses. Unfortunately, he insists on demonstrating both of them.
On one page, to take one example, he refers to a Canadian politician’s acts as “not unimpeachable.”
A pedant might argue that there is a fine difference between “impeachable” and “not unimpeachable.” Does it matter?
Conventional wisdom claims that negatives cancel each other -- based on principles in math and electrical theory. Language is neither of those.
I can show – and used to, in writing/editing workshops I taught for some 30 years – that every negative forces the reader to stop, to consider the positive that the negative is negating. A second negative adds a further layer of complexity. A third renders the concept almost incomprehensible.
Not about Canada at all
Second, though, because this book is not really about Canada – it’s about Black’s obsession with high-level leadership, an elite to which he thinks he belongs. While the book does link the development of Canada to other world events, if peripherally, the text deals mainly, and in loving detail, with the actions of diverse Canada’s governors and prime ministers.
So although there are voluminous references to Sir John A. Macdonald’s speeches to parliament, there is not one word about the actual building of the transcontinental railway that linked a fledgling Canada “from sea to sea.” Alexander Mackenzie’s journeys to the Arctic and Pacific Oceans get shrugged off in two sentences. David Thompson’s mapping of the Columbia river system gets a single line.
In Black’s vision of Canada, everything important happened at the highest political level.
The unknown nation-builders
During a workshop I led in Edmonton, a few years ago, a participant said he was researching a book about the actual building of the CPR. What it was like for the navvies laying track across the prairies in the dead of winter? For survey crews slogging up mountain passes, fighting mosquitos and thickets of devil’s club, never knowing what to expect on the other side? Or for a powder-monkey blasting cliffs – and maybe himself – into the river below?
That book, I’d love to read.
I had a similar reaction to reading Pierre Berton’s two tomes about the CPR: The National Dreamand The Last Spike.Berton at least included anecdotes about eccentric Col. Sam Rogers struggling through the Selkirk mountains, and about laying track north of Lake Superior.
But too much of the story seemed to happen in Ottawa, or in bank boardrooms.
Perhaps that’s understandable. Banks and parliaments keep written records, accessible to later researchers; labourers don’t.
But let’s not kid ourselves. It was the nameless navvies who built the CPR. The nameless farmers who made New France a viable colony. The nameless indigenous guides who led nameless fur traders up nameless rivers through nameless forests and grasslands.
We have monuments to unknown soldiers. We should also have monuments to unknown nation-builders. Not just to speechifiers.
Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Last week’s column about opposing forces may have been overly theoretical. Nevertheless, several of you picked up on the implications.
Wayne Irwin offered an illustration of how opposing forces constantly amend themselves: “I appreciate this analogy. I often think of this in terms of snow on the roof. When snow arrives on the roof, (in a limited amount) the roof does not collapse beneath it -- because the walls holding the roof exert an equal and opposite force upwards to keep the roof in place. As the snow melts, this force diminishes, and hence the roof does not lift. But the 'equal and opposite' force appearing in the walls is subordinate to the initial force -- the increasing weight of the falling snow. The force in the walls would not appear if the snow did not fall.”
With tongue in cheek, Wayne offered some folk wisdom about opposing forces: “Hence the aphorism: ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’ Or as the child said, when seeing the manure in the barn, ‘With all this manure, there must be a pony somewhere!’”
At the end of my column, I had asked, “In an unstable world, do my actions promote evolution? Or entropy?”
Isabel Gibson commented, “Or both, in different aspects, or at different times? I don't think of evolution and entropy as opposites.”
Maybe they aren’t, in the sense that the universe will inevitably evolve towards ultimate entropy, absolute zero. In the shorter term, I think of evolution leading to increasing complexity, and entropy as winding down to uniformity.
Tom Watson focussed current applications: “A good example of something that has had incredible benefits to society, and at the same time has caused so much harm, is the Internet. A friend who is blind claims that the iPhone has been of enormous benefit to people such as himself because it has opened up worlds formerly largely unavailable to him. On the flip side, ask the teenager who has been the victim of cyber-bullying and you will readily see the pull in the opposite direction. Nothing is in and of itself wholly good or wholly evil.
“As to whether our actions promote evolution or entropy -- what is certain is that we must act, for the refusal to act will always lead to entropy. It's the eternal conundrum of human existence.”
Steve Roney challenged my theorizing: “The laws of nature by definition do not apply to God himself. To suggest they do it like arguing that, if I find that all gophers are brown, it proves that God is brown. God is obviously not required to follow natural laws…
“You are wrong to say that ‘human nature knows nothing that has a single dimension.’ Even physics knows such things. Heat has no opposite, only a negation. Cold is merely the absence of heat, down to absolute zero. Light, too, has no opposite; darkness is simply its absence. Evil is the absence of good, just as darkness is the relative absence of light, or cold the relative absence of heat.
“You [also] say ‘there is no such thing as an unalloyed good.’ But that is, by definition, God himself.”
JT: If that’s how one defines heat and light and good, then of course there can be no such thing as cold, darkness, or evil.
Ted Wilson wrote, “It would seem that [your principle of opposing forces] applies to voter preferences as well. Barack Obama was about as progressive as American voters have been to date. His successor is setting things back about 100 years. The contrast between Justin Trudeau and Steven Harper, while not as stark, is quite significant.”
There can be few laments as desperate as Psalm 22. We usually connect it with Jesus’ crucifixion: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…” But let’s not limit it to that event.
1 Alone -- I'm all alone.
There is no God; there are no friends; I'm all alone.
2 I call all day, but no one calls me back; I cry all night, but no one comforts me.
3 Could any God create this rotten world? Could any God watch this happen, and call it good?
4 Our ancestors were deluded.
They trusted God; they thought that God changed the course of history for them--
5 They actually believed it!
6 With scientific detachment, I know that I am nothing; Nothing I do makes any difference;
7 Universes and social systems roll inexorably onward;
They mock my pitiful efforts;
8 They laugh at my lofty ideals.
9 Yet still I talk to you, as if you were real.
I argue with you, as if you had a mind to change.
From the moment of my conception, I have conceived your will surrounding me like the waters of my mother's womb.
10 You are my umbilical cord, my source of life.
12 The ways of the world seduce me;
with honeyed visions they draw me downwards.
13 I would run in fear from a raging lion,
but I cannot resist the lure of luxury.
14,15 I would brace myself, but my bones have turned to water;
I would stand tall, but I become a puddle,
a fleck of fluff blown about by every wayward breeze.
For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,”an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony”-- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet