Palestinian civil defense attempt to control a fire after Israeli warplane bombed a house in Tal-Hawa in Gaza city. Via Motaz_Azaiza on instagram.

Chaos

October 8

Verily at the first Chaos came to be,
but next wide-bosomed Earth
— Hesiod, Theogony
If chaos was indeed
the first entity in existence,
we seem to be in a reverse course
as the 21st century unfolds,
nature doing its bit
to unleash the elements,
our fellow humans following suit
in state after failed state
and region after region
with conflicts bursting out,
enough to hurl wide-bosomed earth
back into the primitive condition
from which it first emerged.

An Eye for an Eye

October 10

An eye for an eye
and a tooth for a tooth,
the way the game seems to have been played
throughout recorded time.
Repeated attempts may have been made
through covenants and international law
to curb such practices.
But with the blood
of each side’s kith and kin
staining the soil,
one looks in vain for who can restrain
the chilling cry for vengeance.

Hostages

October 13

There are the familiar ones,
seized by armed groups or hostile states,
held in dank, dark cells
for ransom or prisoner exchange,
shorn of contact with the outside world,
subject to their captors’ every whim.

Then there are populations at large,
with little choice but to obey
the dictates of those who come to power
through insurrections, military coups,
one-off elections never held again,
with scant prospects of the nightmare
coming to an end.

Finally, there is metaphysical hostage-taking,
more insidious than the other two,
where one falls prey
to the lure of demagogues or rigid dogmas,
never breaking free,
though no prison bars the way,
only the fear of daring to say NO.

A Modest Proposal

October 19

Times of trouble demand not tears but counsel.
— Leopardi

Easier said than done,
with each side loathing the other,
and vengeance
the rallying cry of the hour.

It would be heavenly
to put a stop to the bloodshed,
but the gods themselves
are parties to this quarrel.

As for outsiders urging a pause,
a chance for everyone
to catch their breath
while civilians can resume their daily lives
and hostages be released,
this too seems like preaching to the angels.

So what if the Hamas leadership
along with the PLO’s for good measure
and the entire Israeli Cabinet
were transported to a desert island
or better yet the Antarctic Shelf
with UN mediators brought along
and a platoon of armed peacekeepers to maintain order
and left for weeks and months on end,
unable to return,
unless they had hammered a lasting settlement out?

La Lotta Continua

October 21

Weber dubbed us a pariah people,
living at the margins of other states and peoples,
with rites and rituals of our own.

And there were ghettos
beginning with the Middle Ages,
pogroms, expulsions, and wholesale extermination,
though also much by way of communal interaction,
intermarriage, and assimilation
in the many centuries that followed.

Which brings me to the dilemmas of today.

To be a Jew in Israel
is for the majority living there a given,
though those who do not fit the bill
have in large part become pariahs
in a land that they still claim.

Until October 7, though wars were not infrequent,
it seemed that Jews could feel far safer in this state,
a haven against an often hostile world,
than in their diasporic faraway.

No longer true, it seems,
not with more Jews,
even the most secular and open to the Palestinian cause,
done away in a single day
than at any time since the ill-famed Shoah.

So what of us living for the most part affluent lives
in an increasingly secular West,
some still practising their old religion,
albeit with variations,
others far removed from its sway?

Is there an equilibrium
between feeling Jewish at one level
and experiencing the pull,
as so many have through the ages,
to something cosmopolitan and larger,
or are we fated to discover
when conflict swirls around the Jewish state
that old stereotypes about who we really are
have a way of surfacing unannounced?

Dagon

October 21

The assassins struck first,
laying low the old, the young,
and those of all ages,
fouling the ground with the maimed and the dying,
putting to shame the pride
of the Israelites.

But then came the bombs,
strafing and levelling
the dwellings and shelters,
staining the earth with the blood and the limbs
of the children of Gaza.

The blind lead the blind
and the dead mock the living
as Lucifer’s minions cheer on the combatants
and keep a close count on all who have fallen
in a battle that sounds like a tocsin
to those who wish ill to this land.

From their graves the Philistines
take note of the carnage
as their much maligned Dagon,
whom all had forgotten,
wreaks vengeance on those
who displaced him.

Tragedy

October 23

Of the Greeks we remember
the houses of Atreus and Labdacus,
each doomed to repeat the curse
which the founders had engendered,
bringing untold misfortune in their wake.
And what of the house of Abraham,
the one son and his mother
consigned to exile and the desert,
the other son through his mother
the sole legitimate heir?

As History Unfolds

October 25

Pictures of endless ruins,
hospitals and shelters crowded beyond endurance,
cascade across the screen,
each side digging in,
the one crying for revenge
for the barbaric slaughter its citizens have endured,
the other for the unravelling of a blockade
that has kept them prisoners in a tiny open space.

Outside powers call for a ceasefire,
replenishment of a starving populace,
humanitarian corridors, hostages to be released,
all in vain,
as the shadow of Armageddon
looms ever larger over a region
where long ago a visionary
foretold a struggle to the end.

More grim days lie ahead,
with the battle’s outcome
too early to predict,
though in this game
where death throws the dice
the living always pay the price.

As Attention Falters

November 4

We should have known it would come to this,
public opinion not known to stay the course
with so many distractions along the way,
Matthew Perry’s death,
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s spurious claims,
another fusillade in a city or school,
a Middle East out of control.

It’s all too much to keep focusing
on an overshadowed Ukraine,
on what the big bad wolf next door
may be up to with drones and ammo
from its North Korean and Iranian buddies,
with sanctions leaking like a sieve
and Kyiv’s fair weather friends peeling off,
as movement on the battlefield stalls
and a second winter of bombing
and strafing beleaguered civilians
looms ahead.

In a chess game played for keeps,
the rogue side may yet win by default.

Desert Sands

November 7

The incubation grounds for peregrinations and hallucinations,
for commandments from on high,
angels entrusting sleepers with grandiose visions,
warring tribes and quarrelling kinsmen,
codes and rituals to transcend the generations.

Not clear why aspiring divinities
would choose such barren places
to plant the seeds of new religions,
not one, not two, but three,
and even these with multiple permutations.

They’ve gone planetary since,
nuclear if you prefer the expression,
with much blood spilled in the process,
for such creeds in their purest form
brook zero tolerance for rivals and apostates.

To think what the future holds in store,
as croplands shrivel in the heat
with desertification the prevailing norm.

Kristallnacht

November 9

Eighty-five years since shards of broken glass,
burnt synagogues and shops,
homes vandalized,
Jews murdered, brutalized,
force marched through German streets
as onlookers jeer,
and a future colder than the polar night
looms up ahead.

Flash forward to a Middle East in flames,
Hamas massacre of October 7,
Israeli hostages held for ransom,
the anguish and the calls for retribution;
Gaza pummelled into rubble,
its population forcibly displaced,
ten thousand dead and more,
living conditions to make the long years of blockade
resemble paradise.

Old enmities and new,
patterns of killing and destruction endlessly renewed,
with little in the misnamed Holy Land
pointing to redemption.

Red

November 14

The maple’s loom is red.
— Emily Dickinson

So it is this season,
even here on the west coast,
when conifers of every stripe
usually overshadow the maples and the oaks,
and the rain makes mush-pie of the leaves.

It has been a radiant autumn,
crisp air, lots of sun,
a deep texture to the colours on the trees,
the stuff to fantasize and give reprieve
from the devastation of this summer’s heat.

And red seems to be the flavour
of this tail end of the year,
as news of yet another war,
another deathly hurricane or massacre,
comes tinged with a colour that we dread.

Image: Zagranyasha, via Unsplash.

Fatal Flaws

November 30

Of democracy it can be said
its fatal flaw lies
in an inordinate faith
in the good sense of a demos
riven by rival interests and pursuits
and a not infrequent willingness
to take the confabulations of demagogues
who would lead their followers over a cliff
for the real thing.
As for autocracy
which would seem to provide an impenetrable shield
against the slightest flicker of disloyalty or dissent
its fatal flaw may lie
in the claim of its supreme leader
to an infallibility
that even Popes no longer assert
and to mistaking the flattery of sycophants
and the passivity of the masses it has subdued
for the real thing.

Statues

December 6

Statues are coming down, one by one,
our first Prime Minister, a tippler,
but worse far worse,
a perpetrator, it is claimed,
of cultural genocide against the first dwellers of this land,
and now Samuel de Champlain,
the founder of New France,
in the dog-house with the wokish set.
South of the border,
Confederate statues have been carted away,
and the names of Presidents
erased from prestigious institutes,
as history plays catch-up with a racist past.
In the U.K.,
statues of Rhodes
and imperialists of a similar feather
have bitten the dust,
and in the post-Soviet years
statues of Vladimir Ilyich
scattered right and left.
As the Ukraine war rages on,
Catherine, the one-time great,
is about to be dethroned from her pedestal
in Odesa/Odessa,
the former Paris of Europe’s East.
Statues, it would appear,
can prove just as mortal
as the figures
they were intended to revere.

Aletheia

January 1

The Greek word for truth,
carrying the additional meaning,
dixit Heidegger,
of unconcealment.

For the medieval world
that truth could only be God,
and manifold were the cathedrals,
monuments, works of art
to celebrate his glory.

For the Enlightenment
the truth was reason,
which would tear the veil
from all that had been hidden,
rendering humanity free at last.

For the Romantics it would be feeling,
tempering the excesses of reason
by emphasizing intuition
and emotional release.

For us moderns,
it has been technology
with the prowess science could unleash
crowning us sole masters of our fate.

In the century now upon us,
nature is the bearer of unpalatable truths,
heaping disaster upon disaster
as it unmasks the dangers to a species
that fancies itself the acme of creation.

Why?

January 30

You have been spared
Mauthausen’s 186 stairs,
Birkenau’s sinister smokestacks,
Terezin’s false veneer,
unlike the multitudes who perished there.

You have been spared the virus,
its light form with cough and passing fever,
its heavy form with victims gasping for air,
its long form with brain fog and organ failure.

You have been spared
the strafing and slaughter of war
spiralling out of control
with no enduring end in sight.

And you ask yourself the question, “Why?”

The World of Yesterday

April 4

Stefan Zweig wrote nostalgically
of a world he’d once known
with its comfort, immutability, security
blown away in the debris
of two successive wars.
We of the postwar generation
experienced prosperity, security,
an ever-expanding pie,
education as the magic key,
technology ensuring a cornucopia of things
for those lucky enough
to inhabit the affluent North.
But what if that too was a mirage,
a passing station along the way
to where polycrisis becomes the norm,
the precariat the lot of the many losers in the game,
and a malaise that dares not speak its name
the grim reality of the remaining century ahead?

Men on Horseback

April 21

From the safety of our northern homes
we watch askance as military strongmen
square off in a brutal battle for control
over yet another failing state.
“Tsk, tsk,” some might be tempted to exclaim,
as though the Roman republic
had not succumbed to rivalries just as grim,
Cromwell’s Roundheads not wrestled Cavaliers to the ground,
Napoleon with his whiff of grapeshot
not ended the havoc of the revolutionary years,
or Mao, adulated by a sea of future worshippers,
not solemnly proclaimed:
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Sudanese generals have learned that lesson all too well.

Choices

April 27

Islamic rule or military rule,
emperor rule or party rule,
gang rule or big man rule,
hardball or softball market-based regimes,
civil wars or interstate wars,
state surveillance or corporate surveillance,
the alternatives boil down to little more
as avenging furies gather in the wings.

Les lieux de Mémoire*

May 4

A peek into the inner workings
of the Left Bank set,
Foucault, transgressive, charismatic,
Braudel, imperious, dictatorial,
Lévi-Strauss, touchy, magisterial,
the Gallimards, the aristocracy of publishing.

The world where Pierre Nora gravitates,
a changing weltgeist
as history becomes a reinvented craft,
the loci memoriae of a France
in search of a different past.

Lots of gossip, shifting bed-mates,
dinner parties, country homes,
and heart-ache too,
aneurisms, cancers,
AIDS and strokes
that take their toll.

And through it all
the multi-volume testaments,
grand edifices to higher learning,
breakthroughs in the social sciences,
deadly seriousness with which adversaries
fight things out.

All this comes flooding back to me
as I recall those student years,
the electric charge that each new text,
each article in the serious press and journals,
seemed to represent,
when the world seemed to have an edge
and Paris was the stage.

*Pierre Nora, Une étrange obstination

Passing Reflections

May 12

Your childhood neighbourhood
in the Mile End
transformed into a shtetl,
black robes in beards,
side locks, and fedoras,
young women with wigs,
prams, multiple offspring,
an 18th century village cocoon
in a secular world brazenly rejected.

An urban landscape,
every second street blocked off,
voie barrée, trottoir barré,
as though the sewers,
water pipes, underlying infrastructure
were eternal supplicants for redemption.

Your friends and relatives have aged,
in the warm spring air
tulips and magnolia are in bloom,
the parks and lawns as verdant as before,
despite the retro feel the scene inspires
in a native son briefly passing through.

You visit cafés and libraries
like a pilgrim with his staff,
the cobblestoned streets of Vieux-Montréal,
the river sweeping outwards to the sea,
and memories come flooding back
of dreams and projects you pursued
in your halcyon days.

Still there’s the language mix,
so pleasing to your ear,
French intonations you all-too-seldom hear
out west where a different mindset looms,
the brassage of bilingual cities
where rival tongues intersect
and alloys are wrought
from cultures of the past.

Francis Fukuyama, Liberalism and its Discontents, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022. 192 pages.

Francis Fukuyama shot into prominence as the Cold War was ending in the early 1990s, with his The End of History and the Last Man. A Hegelian-inspired reading of where the world might be heading, the book was a celebration of liberal democracy as the final stage at which history had arrived. It brings to mind William Wordsworth’s Prelude with its line about the beginning of the French Revolution. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” For in the 1990s, liberal democracy was on the rise in many parts of the world where it had previously been in eclipse – eastern Europe, Latin America, South Africa.

Clio has not been kind to Fukuyama’s celebratory vision. The decades that followed the 1990s have seen significant regression from liberal democracy in country after country, with the current wave of authoritarian regimes and illiberal populist parties putting paid to any notion of liberal democracy as the necessary ideal that people throughout the world could aspire to or achieve. To be fair to Fukuyama, he has not been an ideologue wedded to his original thesis. He has gone on to author a number of books of high quality, in particular two volumes spanning millennia of state building and more recent democratic aspirations, The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay.

He has now written a shorter essay which probes the current status of liberalism as a credo and the challenges it faces from both right and left. Its primary focus is on the United States, but it has larger implications for the era in which we find ourselves.

According to Fukuyama, classical liberalism had a number of key premises – individualism, egalitarianism, universalism, the right to autonomy and the procedural importance of law. No less important in the more recent period has been its association with values like diversity, the protection of human dignity, economic growth through markets and modernization.

But some of liberalism’s core principles have been pushed to the extreme by its opponents. On the right, neoliberalism Chicago school–style – with its irrational opposition to government intervention, denigration of social solidarity and promotion of the selfish individual – has turned the efficacy of markets into something of a religion. In the process, a necessary balance between the principle of personal responsibility and state support under adverse conditions has been lost.

On the left, the proponents of identity politics with respect to gender, race and the like were justified in pointing to serious limitations in the original liberal formulation. But what began as a criticism of liberalism’s failure to live up to its own ideals turned into a critique of liberal ideas themselves. In the process, group rights came to trump individual rights, and the door was opened to intolerant forms of behaviour toward speech or actions that deviated from newly proclaimed norms.

In an interesting section of his essay, Fukuyama points to a parallel between the critique of rationality and science that can be traced back to figures like Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault and corresponding critiques on the right. Postmodernism fostered a conspiratorial attitude toward the subversive power of ruling capitalist elites, and a mirror hostility came to pervade the view of the alt-right toward technocratic and educated elites seeking to tell their inferiors how best to live and behave.

Threats to freedom of speech, Fukuyama notes, can come clearly enough from authoritarian leaders and governments of one stripe or another. But they can also come when media power is concentrated in too small a set of hands, when standards of civility and rational argument are thrown overboard, when platforms in social media simply reinforce existent beliefs and preferences.

For Fukuyama, neither right nor left provides a viable alternative to a well-ordered liberal society. A return to some kind of religiously bound order which traditionalists on the right might prefer is not on, at least in the Western world. Conversely, the introduction of identity politics into every sphere of ordinary life, as some on the left would propose, will not carry the day either, and neither will inordinate taxes on the wealthy.

In his penultimate chapter, on the question of national identity, Fukuyama recognizes that there is a tension between the universalist claims about human rights that liberals are prone to make and the particularist attachments of nationalists. But nation-states dominate the present world order, and the ability to enforce rights rests with them. So while pursuing universal ideals, liberals need to take appeals to patriotism and cultural traditions seriously.

He concludes his essay with a recapitulation of key liberal principles that need to be upheld. These include the need to avoid extreme inequality in society, a degree of devolution of power through federalism or subsidiarity, freedom of speech, the primacy of individual rights over the rights of cultural groups, and the need to prioritize public-spiritedness, tolerance and open-mindedness.

There is much in Fukuyama’s essay that will appeal to those of a liberal temper. But the same is unlikely to be true for those who, for one reason or another, see liberalism as a bogeyman of sorts. For those of a more conservative temper, it opens the door to excessive diversity as an end in itself, insufficient respect for the values of tradition and religion, and a cult of universalism that goes uneasily with the rooted societies in which we live. For many on the left, it is still caught up with an earlier history of colonialism which most liberals of the day supported, and with a set of capitalist values that, in light of the climate-related crisis we face, are even more ominous today than in the past. For these critics, liberalism is a comfortable doctrine for those in the top tiers of a hopelessly unequal planet headed for the rocks.

Though I lean to the left, I am prepared to be more generous in my assessment of Fukuyama’s essay. I like his willingness to admit liberalism’s historical failures or deficiencies on a range of issues like colonialism or equal rights for all; his insistence on the need for an active role for government to counter the limitations of the market; and his emphasis on the importance of universal rights and freedoms as ideals, even if they cannot always be realized in practice.

But what perhaps endeared me most to Fukuyama’s essay was the Greek precept “meden agan” – “nothing in excess” – with which he ended his essay. By pure coincidence, I concluded my 2020 memoir Itineraries: An Intellectual Odyssey with exactly the same precept, emphasizing the need for balance in our lives and, by implication, in the way in which our societies can function. There is still much that we moderns can learn from the ancients, and Fukuyama, to his credit, has taken this verity to heart.

Photos by Jonah Resnick.

The Balcony

May 31

From the balcony above the cove,
one sometimes see Mount Athos to the north
and the Sporades islands to the east;
one can imagine fleets that sailed
from Homeric to Hellenistic times,
when Byzantium was at its peak,
through harsh centuries of Ottoman rule,
to where the arc of time has passed;
one senses legends come to life,
the blood exchange that war decrees,
the chroniclers of human fate;
beneath the surface of the waves,
the shimmering faces of nymphs appear
and sailors drowned in turbulent seas;
refugees in flimsy craft
from every failed state on the earth
now join the eternal search
for safe haven from catastrophe;
and when silence grips the night,
those on the balcony can divine
sparkling stars that seem to mock
a species the gods have often cursed.

The Lucky Country

July 2

A newly made German acquaintance
here in Damouchari
reminds me how fortunate Canadians are
to be living so far from the killing fields.
Thousands of miles away,
we happily play along with our NATO team,
delighted to see Finland and Sweden eager to join in,
promising to up our commitment to the common cause,
though only marginally,
content meanwhile to carry on
debating equalization payments,
minority language rights,
and unresolved First Nation claims
for all eternity.
Not to speak of our anti-vaxxers, bless their souls,
convinced of an ongoing conspiracy
to undermine their God-given right
to be free.

Superpowers

July 6

The one is now engaged
in trying to retrieve tatters of its former empire
in a Pyrrhic battle
raining wholesale destruction on its own conscripts
and on its designated foe.
Its long-time rival,
once proud to be the leading world power,
is bitterly divided,
with a constitution showing its many limitations
and weekly massacres of its own citizens
the new norm.
And in the shadows
a third is rising to the challenge
with techniques of surveillance
and thought control over its population
to put the other two to shame.

In the Ancient City of Thebes

July 10

I am king, and responsible to myself.
Does not every state belong to its ruler?
— Sophocles, Antigone

So speaks Creon,
as a crucial moment in the play unfolds,
unwilling to yield,
even to his own son,
the sceptre of authority,
the power to decide
what is right and what is wrong.
We know that Creon is not alone
in staking such a claim,
that through the ages
down to our own time,
rulers have thought like him
and acted with similar impunity.
Thousands, millions have paid the price,
not only Antigone
and Haemon, her ill-starred lover,
in the ancient city of Thebes.

In a Beach Town

July 12

Incongruous at first
to meditate upon power and its discontents
in a beach town,
buzzing with kayakers, swimmers, selfie-takers
on a summer day.
And though the room you sit in
has thick stone walls
that would have done a prison proud,
yours is no dungeon,
but a renovated living quarter
in an old storehouse
with a balcony overlooking the sea.
Yet the misdeeds of states and rulers
dominate the news,
Ukraine brutalized, pulverized,
because an ex-KGB agent
seeks to undo 1991,
Sri Lanka paralyzed
because two brothers
have plundered the state clean,
Mali, the Central African Republic,
a good dozen other African states
with coups, mercenaries, militias, as the rule,
Haiti and Central America’s former banana republics
as failed states,
aspiring great or regional powers
like China, India, South Africa, or Brazil,
each with accountability problems
spiralling out of control,
not to mention Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan,
Hungary or the good old USA.
But you are in a beach town, after all,
best to forget the world’s problems for a while.

Pinocchio’s Nose

July 21

The geography is different now.
— Sergei Lavrov, July 20, 2022

So the Special Military Operation
morphs into something larger
as Western weapons stiffen the fight
for the Black Sea ports,
even as the Donbas,
piece by bloody piece,
falls into the Russian net.
Observers will be shocked,
having seen the Russians
forced to back off on their initial thrust
to take the whole Ukraine
in one fell swoop,
to now hear the Russians’ minimum demands
growing with each day.
Much like Pinocchio’s nose,
save this is no Italian fairy tale,
but a Slavic horror story
straight out of Baba Yaga.

After the Funeral

September 3

When the old guard passed on,
Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko,
they pulled out all the stops,
an official day of mourning,
a full-fledged military guard,
Chopin’s Funeral March,
before consigning their bodies to the earth.
They were more niggardly with the last,
perhaps the greatest leader the Soviet Union ever had,
and the distaste of the current master of the Kremlin
for the one he blames
for bringing the empire to its knees,
was manifest.
But the thousands who turned out to bid farewell,
to one who for a brief time
allowed a vision of a freer land
at peace with the Europe and the West
his predecessors had spurned,
reminded us what this day really was about.
Farewell to the hopes that Glasnost and Perestroika had spelled,
to the walls that had once come tumbling down,
as mourners with their flowers and their tears
exited the Hall of Pillars
and a cold wind blew in from the steppes.

The Borrowed Crown

September 13

In my adolescent years,
I could reel off the names
of every king and queen of England since the Conqueror
without a hitch.
For a summer job in Ottawa
during my university years,
I swore allegiance to the Queen
with nary a second thought.
It was only later that it dawned on me
that Canada had been a privileged member of the imperial family,
that the Opium Wars, the Amritsar massacre,
the countless booty pried from the “coloured” colonies
had been a dominant facet of an Empire
on which the sun would never set.
So as a reign that began when I was still a child
comes to an end,
I can’t help but wish
that this last vestige of the old imperial tie,
this borrowed crown,
would also be put to rest
along with the departed Queen.

A Strange and Marvellous Thing

September 23

Referenda come in various shapes and sizes.
The margin between winner and loser can be razor thin
– those of us of a certain age
can recall Quebec’s second referendum,
when it took over two hours to declare
that the “No” side had won,
because of “money and the ethnic vote,”
to quote the Premier of the day.
So too Brexit not so long ago,
which highlighted in clear relief
the gap between the “Somewheres” and the “Anywheres”
in England’s green and pleasant land.
But then there are happier lands
where the outcome does not hang in the balance,
even if the guns of war are pounding away
and alien voices denounce fraud in the making.
For as Stalin,
a hero to the current master of the Kremlin,
once declared,
“It matters less how people vote
than who gets to do the counting.”

Two Elections

October 4

There are elections where the opponents,
for all their rival agendas,
remain civil towards each other,
and though the electoral system
leaves much to be desired,
know that the stakes are not so high
as to jeopardize the foundations
of a shared community.
And then there are ones
where enmities run so deep,
accusations, imprecations,
threats to turn to violence
if one’s godforsaken foes take the helm,
that one shudders knowing this is a land
where rich and poor
have always dwelt apart,
where death stalks the favelas,
the public hospitals, the rainforest,
and the future is as chequered as the past.

Prophets

October 23

The twentieth century had two prophetic figures:
Woodrow Wilson
– wanting to make the world safe for democracy,
and for nation-states to boot,
irreconcilable goals in a way –
felled by a cerebral stroke
even before his dream began to go astray;
Vladimir Lenin,
alighting at the Finland Station,
turning a revolution still in gestation
into one putting the Jacobins to shame,
he too felled by cerebral strokes
five years into an experiment
that left the world ablaze.
And who might the dour prophet be,
in his parson’s frock,
as pandemics, wars, droughts, famines,
floods, fires, cyclones
crowd the twenty-first-century stage
– can that be the ghost of Malthus?

Too Much

October 23

Too hot,
October days
mimicking July,
too dry,
riverbeds and lakes
that cannot slake a planet’s thirst,
too lonely,
the COVID years
and their tenuous aftermath,
too grim,
images from war zones
and inner-city neighbourhoods,
too much
for the overwrought human brain.

Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash.

A Faraway Country

February 23

A quarrel in a faraway country of which we know nothing.
— Neville Chamberlain, September 1938

Most countries are faraway,
and what goes on in them
is not the stuff to keep us up at night,
fretting about things we can’t control.
We may feel sorry for minorities
that have been dealt a nasty hand,
for places where to speak your mind
or dare to question abuses by the regime
is to forfeit your freedom or your life,
and thank our lucky stars
for having being born where we are.
But in an electronic age,
when news flashes across the screen
in the twinkling of an eye,
and one sees an all too familiar scenario replayed,
tanks and heavy armament and cyber-tactics
about to be deployed,
an overbearing ruler who traffics in poison and in lies,
a neighbouring state whose people
have borne their share of horrors
in the recent past,
we cannot prudently avert our eyes.
The map of Europe is about to be redrawn
in a faraway country
where the sirens are sounding
even as we sleep.

The Spain of Our Generation

March 3

It seems so long ago,
those images from a forgotten war,
Madrid under siege, the International Brigades,
Jarama, Guernica, Homage to Catalonia,
a mere prelude to a greater horror shortly to unfold.
We had been spared such scenes,
at least in our cocooned and affluent West,
though if we deigned to cast our eyes afield,
scenes of butchery were all too often on display
in civil wars, military coups,
repression that could take a dozen different forms,
Suddenly our own world has been turned upside down,
waking each morning to video clips
from martyred Kharkiv and beleaguered Kyiv,
from bombarded Mariupol and occupied Kherson,
harried refugees steadily streaming West,
as we’re forced to come to terms
with the demon we thought we’d put to rest.

Is It Because?

March 10

Is it because there is so little heroic
about our ordinary lives,
that we had learned to place an inordinate price
on every personal gain or loss,
as though there were no higher purpose
or worthier cause?
Is it because we stand in awe
at those prepared to die without a second thought
for values for which our generation never really fought,
to see their homes and cities pulverized,
their loved ones forced abroad,
the better to resist a despot’s iron grasp?
Is it because, much to our surprise,
as we have watched the tale unfold,
we sense a burning need for solidarity
with those who’ve taught us
what matters most,
and what matters all for naught?

Pictures from an Invasion

March 14

Like a reprise of Goya’s sketches
or Otto Dix’s skeletal wartime drawings,
they flit across our screens,
shattered buildings with their entrails
scattered in the streets,
an eighteen-month old
with shrapnel in his throat
dying on the operating table,
dead soldiers frozen in the snow,
cellars with their huddled human targets,
rockets, shells exploding overhead,
carnage where hospital, schools,
and shopping malls once stood,
civilians learning how to load Kalashnikovs,
floods of refugees fleeing the bombardment,
and from the scrupleless invader
a steady stream of brazen lies.

The Russian Ark

March 18

The danger in dark times like these
is that the good will be consigned
pêle-mêle to purgatory,
Andrei Rublev’s iconic paintings,
Eugene Onegin with his Byronic mien,
Natasha, Prince Andrei, and Pierre,
Mussorgsky and Scriabin,
The Cherry Orchard, the poets of Russia’s silver age,
Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
Only the indelible dark stains will remain,
Ivan the Terrible doing in his son,
the Grand Inquisitor in the Karamazov tale,
the sinister Odile and not the beloved Odette,
the infinite pain stored up within the Ark.

The Grand Inquisitor

March 25

You go into the world with some promise of freedom,
which men in their simplicity and innate lawlessness
cannot comprehend, which they fear and dread.
— Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

So spake the Grand Inquisitor
in Dostoyevsky’s famous parable
where Christ, returning to earth in Seville
as fires of the autos-da-fé light up the sky,
is told in no uncertain terms
that the earthly church knows better what’s at stake
than the naive innocent crucified at Calvary.
Heady stuff,
that seems so scandalous to Alyosha,
Ivan’s angelic younger brother who hears it first,
and to many of Dostoyevsky’s Russian readers since,
aspiring to more than magic, mystery, and authority
for their misgoverned land.
Yet sad to admit,
the dour scribe penning his final novel in St. Petersburg
was not so far off the mark,
when half the planet – or is it two thirds? –
even in our age
bend their knees to a strongman at the top
with scarcely a second thought.

Reset

It had been a costly error from Day 1,
this bombing, strafing, murderous assault,
the thousands of fallen civilians
and combatants on both sides,
the horrific damage to no plausible end.
The camaraderie between kindred peoples
would be reborn,
the war damage, with due compensation, made good,
rival territorial claims resolved
through binding jurisdiction of the World Court,
Western sanctions lifted,
NATO itself dissolved,
Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus
candidate members for the EU.

April 1.

Why This War?

April 7

There had been no shortage in recent years,
Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan,
Tigray, the Sahel, South Sudan,
yet this one hits home with rare intensity.

Is it because a Westphalian-type peace
has been shattered,
a major power crossing a red line,
its blatant act defying our moral code?

Or, as some would claim,
because the victims of the piece,
fair-skinned, blond hair, blue-eyed,
look more like us than others
who may have suffered just as much?

Or is it a question of cell phones,
social media, apps,
that bring missile attacks,
corpses lying in the streets,
bombed-out silhouettes of city blocks,
stirring speeches of a wartime president,
directly home to us?

Fortunate though we are
to have been spared such calamities in the flesh,
symbiotically this has now become our war.

Clio

April 9

A King is History’s Slave.
— Tolstoy, War and Peace

Have we been mistaken all along,
thinking the horror of the Ukraine war
is the Kremlin spymaster’s design,
pursuing a mad conceit to revive an empire
that had given up the ghost?
Perhaps larger forces have been in play,
eclipsing the great man view of history,
much as the chronicler of 1812 had foretold
in the conclusion to his epic work.
The ebb and flow of history through ten long centuries
has put its own harsh stamp on Muscovy and Kyiv,
ensuring that the one would forcefully engage
and the other struggle to get free,
while Clio set the pace,
remaining the ultimate arbiter of destiny.

Elisei Ryabukon

April 20

Killed as he escaped, Elisei is one of 200 child victims.
— BBC Website, April 19

He would have been fourteen in May,
a humble, helpful boy, not into fighting,
killed as the Russians,
having given the family permission to leave their town
and wished them luck,
opened fire on the car without compunction.
His picture graced his coffin,
a smiling kid with pleasant features,
a life still waiting to unfold,
one more exhibit in the chamber of horrors
spawned by the spymaster’s unprovoked invasion
of a neighbouring land.

Curious Symmetries*

April 24

The secret of great epics,
at least those oral in derivation,
like Gilgamesh, the Iliad, or the Kalevala,
is that a few chosen phrases
will be repeated time and time again.
The tragic secret of wars,
great or small,
is that the same brutality
and disregard for ethical considerations
will be repeated time and time again.

* inspired in part by a passage in Amartya Sen’s
wide-ranging memoir Home in the World

The Lavrov Doctrine

April 30

Our special military operation in Ukraine contributes
to the process of freeing the world from the neocolonial
oppression of the West.
— Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, April 30, 2022

What dupes we had been all these months,
we naive camp followers in the west,
taken in by images of death, destruction, Gotterdammerung,
by the rhetoric of the neocolonial regime in Kyiv,
goading on its NATO masters to keep delivering arms,
and imposing an American-centric model of the world order
on mankind.
True to its messianic roots,
Orthodox, Soviet – take your pick,
Russia has been engaged in a salutary enterprise all along,
freeing the misbegotten lot
in Grozny, Aleppo, Belarus, and now Little Russia too
from whatever false illusions had blocked their path.
The oppressors can only be the West,
the liberators those who follow their version
of the age-old imperial script
of brandishing naked power
and sanctifying it with the doublespeak of peace.

Philip Resnick’s review of Éric Zemmour, Le suicide français (Paris: Albin Michel, 2014) appeared in Inroads 37 (Summer/Fall 2015). Rather than revisit Zemmour (now a candidate for the French presidency), he has chosen to highlight Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020).

When Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century appeared in 2014, it became a publishing sensation. Its key argument was that capital had been growing at a far higher rate than other factors of production in Western societies in recent centuries, with the singular exception of the period between 1914 and the 1960s when labour was successful in securing a more equitable share of economic wealth. The book, a densely packed study of over 600 pages, replete with tables and well-honed literary references, caught the attention of the mainstream media and financial press and went on to become an international best-seller – quite exceptional for a serious work in economics.

Since then, Piketty has not been sitting on his laurels. As a professor in the Paris School of Economics, he has helped form a whole generation of graduate students working on issues of equality, inequality and social justice. He has also been a frequent intervenor in public debates within France and the European Union. And in 2020 he released a new volume entitled Capital and Ideology – this one exceeding 1,000 pages, footnotes included.

While his latest book has not received the lavish attention showered on his first, it is no less worthy of attention. For it extends his analysis of the rise of capitalism and of some of its contradictions and limitations by working on a broader canvas than before.

He goes back to the Middle Ages in his discussion of a trifunctional order of society based on the nobility, the clergy and a third estate. He then goes on to map the emergence of a proprietarian order in Europe and in much of the world which it came to colonize. What is new is the key place he now gives to ideology, no less than capital, in coming to terms with the broad sweep of historical development.
In comparison with his 2014 book, his geographical horizons have broadened too, as he embraces Russia, India and Japan and pays attention to Africa and Latin America, thus engaging in a version of global economic history. In doing so, he was clearly aided by an army of research assistants, his own graduate students, a full hundred of whom are acknowledged in the preface to the book. The scope of many of the chapters reminds me of the great French economic historian of a previous generation, Fernand Braudel, and his multitome study of Civilization and Capitalism.

Capital and Ideology

However, it is Piketty’s analysis of recent developments that is likely of most interest to readers of Inroads. He examines the course of social democracy but emphasizes its ultimate failure, despite important contributions to improved social welfare, to address structural problems of inequality. He is sharply critical of Communist societies for their political as well as economic failures, which in turn help explain the revival of nationalism in the post-Communist societies of eastern Europe. And he sees the current phase of globalization as one of hypercapitalism, with the financial wing of capitalism in the ascendant.

Among his most pertinent observations is his analysis of the conflict between what he calls the “Brahmin left” and the “merchant right” – that is, between the highly educated, urban-based professionals and middle class of first-world societies and the plutocratic element in capitalist society. The Brahmin left has paid much less attention to the concerns of the lower 50 per cent of society than an earlier left. Identity politics has come to displace a more class-based politics. Combined with disparities based on unequal access to education, the upshot has been large sections of the traditional working class gravitating to the populist politics of the right. Voting patterns in recent elections have largely reflected this.

Piketty maintains that we should be thinking about economic, fiscal and political initiatives to help create a just society. This leads him, in perhaps the most arresting chapter in the book, to propose what he calls a participatory socialism. He calls for a progressive wealth tax, a Capital Endowment Fund for the young, increased power sharing within firms, a progressive inheritance tax, progressive taxation of carbon emissions and increased allocations for the least advantaged primary and secondary schools.

Given the strongly market-infused era in which we live – and this despite the depredations and rethinking of priorities that COVID-19 has entailed – Piketty’s proposals would strike many as dreaming in Technicolor. They are certainly not about to be introduced holus-bolus into society as we know it. Yet one is struck by survey after survey of young people in Western societies who are disillusioned with capitalism. The cost of housing is prohibitive for many living in major urban agglomerations. Dead-end jobs that can follow years of higher education don’t help. The climate crisis bearing down with ever greater severity leaves little room for rose-tinged illusions.
Piketty may not be where the zeitgeist seems centred at the moment. But 25 or 50 years from now, he may turn out to have been a true prophet of the failures of hypercapitalism.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels.

Philip Resnick has a number of poetry collections to his credit, including his most recent book Pandemic Poems, covering the period from the outset of the pandemic to the end of 2020 (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2021). The pandemic is still with us, but Philip Resnick’s muse has also directed his attention to other subjects, as the following selection of poems illustrates.

Happy Slaves Day

May 27

“Happy Slaves Day,”
the graffiti an Azeri dissident,
Bayram Mammadov by name,
had dared to scrawl
on a monument to the founder
of Azerbaijan’s reigning Aliyev dynasty.
Condemned to ten years in prison
on a trumped-up drugs charge
– the fashion in matters of raison d’état –
he was pardoned in 2019,
or so it seemed,
living ever since in exile in Istanbul.
On May 4 of this year,
the body of the twenty-five year old,
fully clothed,
was found floating in the Bosporus,
as the Internationale of Autocrats
scored yet another hit.

As the Earth Turns

July 11

As the earth turns,
heatwaves trail drought,
cyclones and typhoons
generate devastating rainfalls,
mutations of the virus
leapfrog through the Cadmian alphabet,
wreaking havoc in every time zone they visit.
Perhaps there are simply too many of us,
almost eight billion and counting,
pillaging the seas,
plundering the landscape,
elbowing other species into extinction.
Perhaps the fault lies in our insatiable nature,
our recourse to conquest and to war,
irreconcilable divisions over ethnicity,
religion, political orientation,
an incessant desire for more.
Perhaps the gods,
who the faithful claim
first moulded us out of clay,
should have rethought the blueprint of creation,
entrusting a species
with far too big a brain for its own good
with custody over the planet.

Those*

July 28

Those who are forced to migrate
and those who are not,
those who perish in the waves
and those who do not,
those who flounder along the way
and those who will not,
those who can live and die in peace
and those who could not.

* inspired by Claudio Lomnitz, Nuestra America
(New York: Other Press, 2021)

Thirty-eight Million

August 24

The population of Canada,
an election underway,
its outcome unlikely to sway
the course of daily life in any major way.
The population of Afghanistan,
a major cross-roads breached,
as twenty years of Western intervention
turn into ignominious defeat.
Fate decrees that some will savour modernity
with its virtues and its flaws,
and others languish where a desert creed
dictates a harsher moral code.

What If?

August 31

What if we could undo
the last twenty years of cyber-wars,
terrorist attacks and retaliatory strikes,
return COVID to the lab or bats
whence it emerged,
turn down the global temperature a notch or two,
get failed states back on track
and the population bomb under control,
learn – at least the affluent in our planetary mix –
to live with less,
remember that community precedes and supersedes
the unchecked libido,
that civility is not a secondary trait
to functioning democracies,
that no religion or ideology has a monopoly on truth.
What if?

Pandora Papers

October 4

In the papers … I read little that comforts me.
— Ingeborg Bachmann, Autumn Maneuvers

Hegel, in one of his more effusive moments,
characterized morning newspapers
as a form of morning prayer.
Perhaps they are
– or what remains of them in a digital age –
if one confines oneself to the sports pages,
crossword puzzles, recipes,
feel-good stories about locals getting ahead.
But of late,
the news is grey on grey, black on black,
with little levity to outweigh
endless accounts of ICUs overrun,
longevity in retreat,
drought and food shortages
the lot of the destitute left behind,
even as the potenti of the earth
merrily go about stuffing their ill-gotten gains
into fiscal paradises,
beyond mortal reach.

Monuments

October 20

History is argument.
— Simon Schama

They seemed innocent enough,
Kings on mounted steeds,
Confederate generals in public squares,
Prime Ministers who had fostered residential schools.

To which one could add
slave-traders and colonizers of every sort,
whose names adorned the streets and towns
of every corner of an empire
on which the sun refused to set.

Well set it has,
and with a thud,
as the global South comes into its own,
though the legacy of empire lives on,
in banking firms with roots in the opium trade,
in states still formally tied to a foreign crown,
in racial biases that never seem to fade.

So what should one do
with the history we teach,
the monuments some want to keep,
the self-image we hasten to project?

Welcome to another quarrelsome age.

Meanwhile, Here in B.C.

November 15

First a heat dome,
the aged and infirm
gasping for their every breath,
next raging fires,
felling dwellings and woodlands in their path,
now diluvial rains,
mud slides shutting highways,
threatening properties in waterlogged terrain.
All this within six months
of a single year,
before the climate gauge
goes into overdrive.

Calais

November 26

The town besieged by Edward III,
its burghers with ropes around their necks,
surrendering the key
and with it their liberties
in an episode from an endless war
immortalized by Auguste Rodin.

Now the site of would-be migrants/refugees
from the global South
desperate to reach by any means
the chalk cliffs overlooking Dover Beach
where Matthew Arnold famously rued
an old world yielding to an unfamiliar new.

In the background
the festering sore Brexit has unleashed
as yesterday’s adversaries square off again
and we learn, as though we’d never really known,
that island and continent can never meet.

For more of Philip Resnick’s Poetry, click to read Pandemic Poems – Year II.

Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash. Edited by Inroads Journal.

As the pandemic has continued its course, Philip Resnick’s muse has continued to inspire his poetic reflections. Here we present a selection from the last six months. Philip’s book Pandemic Poems, covering the period from the outset of the pandemic to the end of 2020, is now available from Ronsdale Press in Vancouver.

Nov. 13, 2020
November 13th

Friday the 13th,
an inauspicious calendar day,
heralding disaster on every front.

As though we haven’t had our share,
this annus horribilis,
the burning Austral bush to set it off,
the plague – a tiny far-off blip when it began –
escalating to pandemic size on a global scale,
an election dramatic enough
to keep one in perpetual suspense.

Yet somehow I take comfort on this day.
The numbers are well enough aligned
to ensure power will be transferred in the end,
however much the demagogue and his enablers bray.

The sound of mandolins on the radio
as I sip my tea
evoking Vivaldi’s Venice
and tales of plagues that ultimately fade away.

And the biscuit I dip into my cup
summoning up memories of happier days,
of why life, despite its treacheries,
remains the greatest gift we can receive.

The Ancients
November 29th

Knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future.
— Thucydides

We scorn the ancients at our own expense,
confident that ours is a vastly superior civilization,
with its industrial heft, technological prowess,
material abundance,
beggaring all that had preceded.

There are many more of us
on this beleaguered planet,
of every race, tribe, and ethnic description,
and the common lot,
at least in the more privileged corners of the globe,
has attained a living standard
that the helots or plebes of old
could only have envied.

But the ancients knew that hubris
– in great empires as in petty city-states –
came at a price,
that wars and plagues and civil discontents
were not one-off events
but part and parcel of the human disposition,
that what had once occurred
could haunt our future days.

We scorn the ancients at no small expense.

Through a Looking Glass
December 17th

Back then,
when we could greet each other
with a friendly gesture or an embrace,
engage in conversation face to face,
not have to give a second thought
to droplets in the air that might do us in
or set us back for weeks and months on end,
we were unaware a time might shortly come
when to interact would take place behind a mask
if peradventure we found ourselves in a common space,
but just as frequently through a looking glass,
in a parallel universe
where things were never quite the same.

Frailty
January 11th

If we were inventing gods,
as the Greeks were prone to do,
we might want to consecrate frailty too.
Democracy, as we have seen in recent months,
bears all its marks,
threatening to yield
whenever the impulses of the losing side
seek to sweep aside institutional barriers
in victory’s path.

As for our body parts,
we who take pride
in our species’ superior status,
heart, brain, lungs, pancreas and spleen,
limbs, lymph, arteries and veins
remain vulnerable to infection and collapse,
even without the pandemic to perform a victory lap.

And then there is the earth,
Gaia to recall her ancient name,
buffeted by forces from without and from within,
cosmic ones that in a flash could do her in,
stochastic ones like the fossil fuels driving climate change,
exterminationist ones implanted in our genes.

The Clock
January 12th

Souviens toi que le Temps est un joueur avide
Qui gagne sans tricher, à tout coup ! c’est la loi.
— Baudelaire, “L’horloge”

As the pandemic enters its second year
and fresh confinements weigh
like a grounded albatross with its leaden wings
or slate grey days without a glimmer of light
to brighten their melancholic charge
and we are forced to focus yet again on the steady movement of the clock,
on inveterate memories of things lost
and states beginning to fall apart,
we half surrender to the spirit of the age,
sensing that resistance would be in vain,
as time ticks down the hours
and perfidious actors swarm the stage.

Year II
January 30th

We are becoming islands,
sheltering within our respective shorelines
and the narrower compass of homesteads
and familiar surroundings,
flights point south suspended,
travel within regions a risky undertaking,
as the second wave engenders a third,
with mutations the new year’s greeting card.
But though the numbers soar
into the hundred millions
and death seems posted
at every thousandth door,
we are suddenly old hands
at navigating the pandemic’s inner channels.

Globalization: Mark 2
March 1st

It began with Wuhan,
bats and pangolins,
quickly spreading into every nook and cranny
on the planet.

Then came mutations in the spike protein,
the English variant, aka Kent,
the South African,
the Brazilian from Manaus on the Amazon,
its P1 variant facilitating a wave of reinfections.

Little by little
the virus is displacing capital
as the free vector
in the globalization game.

Brazil – Ordem e Progresso
March 13th

Covid is taking over: Brazil plunges into deadliest chapter of its epidemic
— The Guardian, March 13, 2021

Like stations of the cross –
20, 19, 18 –
they’re lined up with tubes and ventilators
in rows of field hospital beds,
teams of health care workers monitoring vital signs
just outside their reach.
A picture from a sports coliseum in Santo André,
on the outskirts of São Paulo,
as COVID marks a sober anniversary
and a new surge of mutations and infected,
many in their middle years,
opens a more sinister round
in a land where order and progress
has morphed into political disaster.

As the Pendulum Swings
April 8th

Cycles have their own strange dynamics,
much like the tribal gods one used to worship,
or the phases of the moon.

Only yesterday austerity was the reigning mantra
as monetarists, neocons, and globalizing gurus
buried the Keynesians of a previous era.

As for the Marxists,
with their predictions of recurring crises,
Friedrich List with his defence of national economics,
the mercantilists with their specie fixation,
Clio had long since dispatched them to the garbage bin.

Surprise, surprise,
a little virus out of nowhere
has turned economic thinking topsy-turvy,
with state expenditures overflowing,
corporate rapacity an object of derision,
inequality and sovereignty subjects back in fashion,
climate change a burgeoning concern,
as blustery winds blow through the firmament.

Death is the Only Truth
May 1st

Uttered by a Hindu priest
presiding over 36 pyres in concrete cremation pits,
convinced that heaven awaits,
the phrase is meant as consolation.

But for relatives
searching in vain for canisters, placebos,
anything to relieve the anguish and breathlessness
of the stricken,
little solace from such priestly ministrations.

The heavy hand of Shiva has descended on Mother India
in this second wave,
and the boisterous talk from the Modi sycophants
and Hindutva crowd
cannot erase a single death.

The Poor Empress
July 12th

You work on paper which is smooth, supple and offers no opposition to your imagination or pen. But I, a poor Empress, work on human skin which is rather irritable and sensitive.
— Catherine the Great to Diderot

Pity the poor Empress
who must contend with human frailty
while seeking to weave, almost against nature,
a far-flung and discordant empire together.

Pity the Party Secretary
who has reason to fear
the duplicity of his rivals
and the resistance of an exhausted populace
to promises of a glorious tomorrow.

Pity Presidents and Prime Ministers
who must sacrifice their privacy
to the full glare of prying eyes
and the pursuit of personal gains
(or so they claim)
to the blandishments of power.

Pity the poor subjects
whose skin and bones so often pay the price
for what those who wield dominion over them
determine to be their fate.

On a Passage in Dante
July 13th

Rejoice, Florence, since you are so great that you beat your wings over sea and land, and your fame spreads throughout hell.
— Inferno, xxvi, 1–3

America, the beautiful,
the free, the powerful,
the most envied state on earth,
unflappable in its self-confidence,
a league or two above its would-be rivals
in technological prowess, in material abundance,
in its approximation to El Dorado.
Florence had been no backwater in its day,
its commerce spreading far and wide,
its artisans justly esteemed,
its architects, painters, sculptors, literati
setting the gold standard for the Renaissance.
But the exiled Dante in visiting the Inferno
noted how many of its illustrious denizens
had ended up down there,
their self-preening the flip side of the disaster
which endless conflicts between Guelfs and Ghibellines
and factions within each could not allay.
So with America in the year of the pandemic,
its failures too conspicuous to conceal,
its racial tensions, its venal rulers,
its overweening rich
amidst a sea of hapless losers,
its divisions even more bitter
than Dante had ever had reason to record.

In Illo Tempore
July 23rd

It doesn’t matter if you’re stupid or smart, if you’ve got money or not, if you’re handsome or ugly. The earth swallows us all.
— Miguel Braga, São Paulo gravedigger

Some lock themselves
behind concrete walls and gardened villas,
others throwing caution to the wind,
party as though there were no tomorrow,
a few seek solace in jogging for hours,
others in yoga or stern meditation,
myriads suffer from hunger, others from gorging,
some from solitude, others from crowding,
experts declaim on the need for strict measures,
white coats compete for a miracle cure,
tensions show no signs of abating
as infections keep surging and reprieves prove hollow,
and despite the bromides one hears from one’s leaders
the gravediggers prove the wisest of all.

A Global Age
August 17

Crafty inventions, subtle beyond believing, now onto evil bring them, now onto good.
— Antigone, 364–5

It seemed a global age had dawned,
consumer goods to adorn the shopping malls,
connectivity reducing the barriers of space and time,
air travel for a song, exotic holidays,
a burgeoning middle class’s dreams fulfilled.
Multinational corporations had proven more powerful than states,
wooing politicians with the glitter of high tech,
promises of jobs in droves,
tax havens with their pots of gold.
Journalists and academics, the paparazzi of the age,
made the rounds of global entrepôts,
touting a fail-proof economic model,
a perpetual motion machine,
destined, in the ripeness of time,
to lift les misérables from the planetary slums.
Like a Sunday sermon to the faithful,
globalization had become a generation’s credo.
Yet nature held a trick or two in store,
ice sheets melting in the polar regions,
the atmosphere overheating,
ever fiercer tornadoes, floods, desertification, droughts,
with zoonotic interlopers driving markets to a halt.
Only for a brief intermission, to be sure,
for the push to economic growth and global domination
would inevitably resume,
with continuing rivalry between contending powers,
the intrepid lifting themselves off the ground
as they had always done,
convinced that they too could become
masters of the universe
and put the lie to doomsayers of old
warning that overarching ambition
heralds an ignominious fall.

Shedding
September 17

Slowly we have learned to shed
simple verities we took for granted,
easy intercourse with strangers, friends
now that the very air had become a lethal conduit,
venues where we had turned for simple satisfactions –
restaurants, bars, gyms, cinemas or sports arenas –
the workplace with its endless bustle,
subway lines, airport hubs,
vacation getaways, family celebrations.

We have come to face
new trials and tribulations,
clouds of locusts,
wildfires of surreal proportions,
surging seas with cyclone after cyclone,
diluvial downpours from the pages of Gilgamesh.

Peeling away layer after layer,
we have discovered how little we had progressed
from civilization’s earlier foundations,
from the Cro-Magnons who had preceded us,
from when sheer survival as a species
sweeps away all sundry preoccupations.

The Second Wave
September 24

It was tough enough adjusting
to incessant calls to wash your hands with soap,
avoid touching your face,
remember to mask up,
stay as far away from strangers in your path
as safe distancing dictates,
work from inside your domicile when possible,
help your kids negotiate
the bargain basement classes on the screen,
and keep your sanity intact.
Now comes a second wave,
perhaps less lethal than the first, perhaps not,
where congregating together, eating out in groups,
rallying in numbers for some cause,
praying communally to some god,
are once again taboo.
This time the young, or young at heart,
are designated as the carrier group,
as overstretched hospitals and staff
prepare for yet another round of testing sites,
improvised wards and ICUs,
the mood out there darkening with the autumn sky
as folks who thought the virus was a one-season pest
learn that visitors like this
have come to call our species home.

One Million
September 29

The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.
— Stalin

COVID-19 has passed the official one million mark,
though we know it is a good deal higher,
for statistics are lacking or suppressed in scores of countries,
and many who die outside of hospitals and nursing homes
will not be properly reported.
Those who have lost a loved one
can pin a face, a life story,
a tragic turn of fate,
to their disappearance.
As for the millions who may be lost
in the carnage still underway
 – the little father of the people was an expert in such matters –
we struggle to think of them
as more than a statistic,
given the challenge to our constricted human minds
to grasp the full significance of seven-digit numbers.

Masks
October 1

An uninvited stranger masked in red,
crashing the survivalists’ retreat
in Poe’s macabre tale,
Verdi’s masked ball,
where jealous rivalry
does in a reigning king,
a geriatric on a Kyoto bus,
spine contorted,
face masked from hostile gaze,
Halloween revelry
as squealing kids, suitably disguised,
weave their way
along toffee-dappled streets,
and now a universal presence,
bedecking rich and poor alike
in one bold planetary sweep.

Hermit Crabs
October 7

You must catch the October sun between 10 and 2,
before it begins to wane
as fog descends on the beach once again
and a breeze off the sea
sends shivers through the spine,
forcing you to hurry along.
For if temperatures are surprisingly mellow
for this time of the year,
you sense this is but a side-effect
of climate change,
even as the virus continues to eat away
at familiar things,
turning us into hermit crabs,
self-absorbed in the only world we still know,
the one contained within our shells.

M
October 17

You wake as the infection rate or R
ticks up another notch,
even as the morale index or M
incrementally continues to collapse.

The Horror, the Horror (For Samuel Paty)
October 16

Like a scene out of the Reign of Terror,
a decapitation in broad daylight
in a quiet suburban town
of a high school teacher who had dared to show
a caricature of the prophet Muhammad
as part of a classroom discussion of free speech
in what passes for a secular republic.
Knowing what had preceded
 – the Charlie Hebdo massacre,
the rampages of ISIS and its associates
through Africa and the Fertile Crescent,
9/11 and its aftermath –
should we be in shock?
Intolerance seems to be the mantra of our era,
not only of the religious sort,
but political, ethnic and racial as well,
and one more horrific martyr
will do little to stem the spiral.

Pandemics
November 5

Violence pandemic like a new disease.
— W.H. Auden, “Sonnets from China,” XIX

For leaders right and left
we are at war with a pandemic
which unchecked would put our hallowed civilization
– GDP, consumer goods, jobs,
health care and vaunted pension plans –
into meltdown mode.
And well it might,
for who but a few Cassandras on the battlements
might have foretold
what zoonotic transfers might unleash?
What of the other kinds of war,
the ones that marked the century now passed,
with their mangled corpses in the muddy fields,
their incarcerated bodies,
their starving masses and burned-out towns
or closer to our age
the civil wars that rage
from the sands of the Sahel to the Afghani hills?
And what of the lies
with which puppet-masters
with their fake blond hair, military swagger,
wooden sloganeering Maoist-style,
arrogance of Sultans from yesteryear
hold populations in their sway?
So many pandemics to endure.

Covid-19
February 28th

Plague has always had a fascination
for those who map the subterranean, the macabre,
black bile overflowing, feverish gaze,
bloated corpses, tumbrels rolling through medieval towns,
death in Venice,
love in the age of cholera.
So it is with the conoravirus,
spreading its bat-like wings across the planet,
transforming species that had become our prey
into avenging angels,
hugging the elderly to their chests,
surfacing where least expected,
turning the global economy topsy-turvy
and the best-laid plans of empire builders
into crumbling sand.

The End of Time
March 19th

For centuries, apocalyptical and Old Believers prostrated themselves,
lacerating flesh and entrails,
convinced the great upheaval around them
had some higher purpose,
that out of chaos and destruction a New Jerusalem,
for those who had abjured their sins,
would ultimately emerge.

Subsequently, as traditional beliefs were cast aside,
new credos arose with their adherents,
having beheaded kings and overthrown czars,
certain a new age could begin
and humanity shed the vices
that ignorance and accumulated privileges
had instilled and petrified.

Now that such beliefs have also bitten the dust,
and a new globalist disposition come to the fore,
seers amongst us and myriads suddenly living in fear,
sense climate wars, droughts, and unleashed pestilence
foreshadowing the end of time.

Globalization’s Children
March 23rd

We later civilizations – we too know that we are mortal.
— Paul Valéry, 1919

It seemed obvious enough,
for those who had bloodied themselves in the trenches,
seen the swath of carnage
bell-towers and market squares had endured,
millions dying from the accursed flu,
as though a vengeful god
were calling in a sinful continent’s debts.
What about us, globalization’s children,
spared the previous century’s major wars,
wearing our affluence like a fashion statement
from a new-age couturier,
convinced the arrow would always point in one direction, upwards,
and the merry-go-round would never stop
for us lucky ones who’d managed to embark?

On a Passage in Lenin
March 25th

There are decades when nothing happens,
and there are weeks when decades happen.
— Lenin

True enough where revolutions are concerned,
the French, the Russian for starters.
No less true for financial crises,
1929, 2008, to name two of the biggies.
Plagues too have had their cataclysmic high points,
the Black Death, the Columbian Exchange, the Spanish flu.

Still early days for the coronavirus,
no seers at the city gates or on distant Judaean hilltops
able to foretell
just how or when it will evolve or peak,
or how much of the societal carapace will crumble underneath.

But we sense,
much like animals before a hurricane or tsunami,
that sometime in mid-March
the earth turned on its axis
and that those living through it
will never knowingly efface the moment.

Contagion
March 26th

Into the notable city of Florence there came the death-dealing pestilence
which had some years before appeared in parts of the East.
— Boccaccio, The Decameron

“Of what use is the past?” the moderns asked,
secure in the comforts of the present day
and the promise of a future still at hand.

“Of what use the aged,” the millennials chimed in,
“they who have enjoyed the earth’s fruits these many years,
and refuse to clear the way for those now come of age?”

“Of what use the homeless and the poor,” the well-off complained,
“they who spread vermin in their clothes and hair
while we must take shelter behind the ramparts of our homes?”

“Of what use your pristine beaches and winter holidays” the ascetics railed,
“when the pillars of your temples and pleasure palaces
have come crashing down?”

“Of what use your lamentations?” the sybarites replied,
“let us drink and eat and copulate our fill
while we party through the night.”

Fear
March 27th

You see it in their faces,
in the quick manoeuvres to step aside
on sidewalks and on trails,
in the panicked emails,
the endless stories in the papers
or posted on the Web.

Pandora’s box has been pried open,
spectres one had thought wrestled to the ground
by scientific research, biotech,
haunt the deserted boardrooms and chancelleries
from one OECD capital to the next.

Half the planet has gone into hibernation,
even as the other half, the poorer half,
awaits its turn,
hospital wards already overflowing
with the prostrate, the skeletal, the short of breath.

Through the ages fear has worn many masks,
conquering armies, devastating famines,
despots doing in their subjects with a mere flick of the wrist,
but its most primal form as always
remains the fear of death.

Nemesis
March 28th

There had been intonations of a bubbly stock exchange,
target cities – Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam –
besieged by tourist crowds,
cruise ships too big to dock,
real estate markets too frothy for mere proles.

The game seemed so humongous it would never cease,
the moneyed folks too powerful to fail,
their chains of command spanning continents and seas,
dwarfing nation-states along the way.

True, climate change frayed at the edges,
a host of civil wars raged on,
fraught refugees and asylum seekers
vying for a brief fifteen minutes in the sun.

So when the virus made its first appearance
in the then little-known city of Wuhan,
it seemed a minor nuisance,
a freakish zoonotic passage from bats to humankind.

The rest is history
as the global skein unravelled,
country after country falling prey
to a long forgotten scourge, the plague.

Nemesis, vengeful goddess,
through a tiny agent
was stirring from the depths,
sending the global circus careening to a close.

The Lucky Generation
April 4th

We called ourselves the lucky generation,
in many ways we were,
spared the wars, the dole,
the diseases, the back-breaking toil,
that has been our predecessors’ lot
and that of the myriads who had come before them.

There was comfort in knowing we could choose
which college to enrol in,
which profession we might enter,
what city or country to put roots down in,
where we might holiday winter or summer
or retire to when our working lives were over.

There were passing clouds in the sky,
Islamic disruptions here and there,
the occasional economic downturn,
hints of glaciers melting or sea levels rising,
but for the large part problems
the millennials and their offspring would have to bear.

And suddenly we learned how quickly the script could be rewritten,
carefully constructed stage sets taken down,
the myths of exponential growth,
globalization as some kind of magic key,
affluence as a guarantee of personal immunity,
reduced to tatters.

The old Greek precept which Solon had first uttered
had stood the test of time:
“Do not count yourself fortunate until your final day.” 

Confinement
April 14th

Half the planet, including its perennial high-flyers,
courtesy of the spiked intruder,
has discovered the fine points of social distancing,
of living in a closed space, 23/24 on 7,
even as the sun is warming up the earth,
the trees and shrubs are burgeoning,
and normality of a sort
will eventually reemerge from its cocoon.
A mere facsimile
for what the unjustly imprisoned
would have taken to be their lot,
zeks with their infected lungs in the Gulag’s frigid wastes,
les damnés de la terre the Internationale had once extolled.
For a brief moment,
the Gatsby set has met the lower depths.

In the Season of the Plague
April 20th

In the season of the plague
a global assembly was convened
with eminent philosophers, theologians
and assorted illuminati
to guide humanity out of its downward spiral.

Sitting a row apart from one another,
the first intervenor held up The Qur’an
with cries of Allahu Akbar reverberating through the hall,
the second The New Testament
with echoes of the Matthäus-Passion as a refrain,
next an angry tribune, abjuring hedge funds
and rapacious bankers, waved a copy of Das Kapital,
with a more smartly dressed opponent
preaching the gospel according to Adam Smith,
followed by a poker-faced emissary extolling The Prince
along with choice bits from Kongfuzi’s Analects,
even as a dissident freshly released
trumpeted The Social Contract’s enduring beliefs.

So the debate raged on for days,
ecologists, virologists,
semiologists, psychologists joining the fray,
until the assembly by now much depleted,
having reached no agreement, was duly disbanded,
as a lowly cleaner, a Dalit by birth,
disinfecting the cavernous hall and latrines,
scattered herbs from her village and chanted full-throated
mantras to exorcise the abominable plague.

A Litany of Plagues
April 22nd

The Athenian plague 430 BCE.  100,000 dead
that did Pericles in
The Justinian plague 541–2 CE.   25–100 million dead
that helped do the Roman Empire in
The Bubonic plague 1347–51
that did 25–50 million Europeans in
The Cocoliziti plague – perhaps TB – 1545–8
that did 15 million indigenous Mexicans in
The great plague of London. 1665–6. 100,000 dead
The plague of Marseille.  1720–3.  120,000 dead
The Russian plague.  1889–90. 1 million dead
The Spanish flu. 1918–19. 20–50 million dead
The Asian flu. 1956–8. 1–3 million dead
AIDS. since 1981. 32 million dead
SARS, MERS, EBOLA – tiny numbers as their toll
COVID-19
Humanity has had a long-time fling
with lice, rats, marmots, pigs, and bats
and the bugs always win.

(Inspired by an article and chart in Le Point, “Et les puces precipitèrent la chute de l’empire romain,” April 16, 2020)

Checks and Balances
June 2nd

In the ideal republic,
quoth Polybius, Montesquieu or Madison,
power must check power.

The kingly one is too dangerous
to entrust to an unchecked figure
all too quick to trample
over both sacred and profane
with a praetorian guard at his command.
The legislative, with too weak an authority in control,
can quickly overswell its banks
and divvy up within its own encrusted ranks
the spoils of office.

Judges for their part,
given too free a rein,
can use the instruments of self-interested interpretation
to impose rules
where lawmakers never deigned to venture.

A fine doctrine for fair-weather times.
But when the times are rife
with strife, pestilence, and fear,
and citizens too bitter and divided
to recall the underlying need
to show a minimum of regard for one another,
how easy for the demagogue, the providential leader,
to overwhelm the forces of restraint
and impose an iron rule
from which republics cannot easily recover.