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  • Panis Angelicus

    Gene Miller

    January 2018

    Could Victoria be a civilizational lifeboat in these crazy, conflict-prone times?




    THE START OF A NEW YEAR, and time for this column’s annual post-Christmas bummer. “But, Gene, all your columns are—” Okay, let’s move on.

    Dropping all niceties, 2018, possibly less than a month old as you read, is damned if not doomed. In a world now operating on tightrope conditions, and in the absence of any snappier handles, I offer this mouthful: “The Year Converging Urgencies Become Emergencies.”

    Explanations are still congealing in the effort to explain a politically profane and socially toxic 2017 next door. Folks in my circle are clinging to the prayerful fantasy that Trump and the cohort who elected him are some kind of pothole in history’s highway, some “time out for crazy,” and not the new toll road.

    I wouldn’t underestimate Trump’s canny ability to embody or exploit the raw edge of mood in America. Remember, he didn’t come out of nowhere. He’s the political expression of a years-building discontent based on real, not imaginary, conditions of growing social disunion and economic (and US hegemonic) decline. Trump’s the smart version of something mob-angry and very dangerous right now: namely, America has a hole in its soul.

    The values, sensibilities and practices of the progressive agenda (Canada in America, if I can put it that way) are undergoing both policy setback and the ruin of hope. In a likely foretaste of worse-to-come, Trump’s gift of projecting his own bad values as political semiotics—winks, nudges, tweets, aggressive off-the-cuff vulgarities—has liberated and emboldened something tidal, dark, racial and xenophobic, re-expressing itself as the drumbeat of the so-called American alt-Right. Now, every under-the-rock hater and neo-conservative I-told-you-so has a float in the parade.

    It’s practically biblical, Old Testament redux: The Flood in the Book of Genesis—relevant, with the slightest of spins, as an ecological metaphor in our time of rising sea level. Mind, I heard the delicious story that the planet is warming because Hell is getting larger. In the era of Trump and the widening sins of the corporate oligarchy, that fits well with my ontology.

    While we might wish that our neighbour’s mounting chaos stopped at the border, today’s connected world doesn’t work like that. Besides, the progressive agenda in many countries is retreating before “identitarian” politics grounded in culture and race, and yielding to murky, ever-shifting realignments based on “situational principles” as we enter a contractive, anti-globalist, neo-isolationist and altogether more positional era.

    What’s that word…horripilation? Trust your skin; it’s a cognitive organ. We are in “all bets are off” times, and the Canadian challenge is to determine any possible means of culturally, economically, geo-politically surviving an unfolding and probably messy US meltdown able to take large swaths of the world with it. Given physical adjacency, economic entanglement and cultural porosity, we’re hardly bystanders.

    Build the hedge, Justin.

    Of course, it could be too late for that, given national identity pretty much limited to universal health care and $2 coins. Trump just declared opioid abuse a “national emergency.” The US is the per capita world leader in prescription opioid consumption. Number Two? Canada.

    I’m mystified by the mutability and the apparent rejection—the why and the why now—of a value system whose corner-points seemed well-anchored and in good health just a US president ago. It feels as if mutuality has been abruptly, utterly, replaced by self-interest—“us” by “me”—and, in certain circles, the Good Book tossed in favour of Mein Kampf.

    I digress to assure you that despite the churchy title, you don’t have to wear your Sunday best to this column. Panis Angelicus (Bread of Angels) is a brief spoken portion of a longer church service, the Sacris Solemnis, written by St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275): 

    The bread of angels
    Becomes bread for mankind
    The bread of heaven
    Ends all worried thought
    Oh, miraculous thing!

    These serious and sacred lines may invite vigourous theological parsing (white, whole wheat or multigrain? for example), but seem to me simply to ask us to sustain our better natures if we wish to thrive as a human community.

    Elsewhere, in his Summa Theologica, St Thomas boldly argues that the answer to “Why?” is “God.” Blind to the mad circularity of that argument, he would, I imagine, reject an assessment of his ideas as proof of crazy assertiveness—a defining feature of our own times as well as his.

    Crazy and correct—the surreal outcome that results when reality is asked to contain perverted, up-is-down logic. Israeli psychoanalyst Yolanda Gampel describes an “interminable uncanniness” that lurks within people experiencing residual Holocaust effects, having witnessed (and survived) the “unreal reality” of mass murder. “Such an assault on the boundary between fantasy and reality becomes traumatic in itself and leads to great fear of one’s thoughts.” Gampel means, I believe, that for such people reality never again quite meets at the corners, never “lands,” and they remain wedded to anxiety for a lifetime.

    The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg adds Trump-era currency: “there’s no way, with a leader who lays siege to the fabric of reality, to fully hold on to a sense of what’s normal.”

    You think your life embodies conventions and broadly agreed-to rules for conduct and, suddenly, those rules don’t function, or they function badly. You push the button, nothing whirrs, nothing drops into the slot. Worriedly, problematically, this unreality reaches into the everyday, and whole societies are caught in unreal reality, in a strangely synthetic and fraught normalcy that doesn’t quite meet at the corners and that leaves all of us with a faint but nagging sense that we’re operating in some fictional condition.

    This raises a disturbing and provocative question: If some human community—oh, let’s pick Victoria, out of thin air—was staring straight at the calamitous denouement of this onrushing near-future (to be called the Second Dark Age in its aftermath), could it stand sufficiently offside to re-cast itself as a preserver of social capital and sanity, activate strategic forms of preparedness, behave counter-chaotically; in essence, be a civilizational lifeboat? Or, with the world drowning in threat, would this place, lacking courage, character and means, collapse in survivalist mayhem?

    The Guardian’s Paul Mason reported recently on a leaked German government worst-case scenario for the year 2040: “EU expansion has been largely abandoned, and more states have left the community. The increasingly disorderly, sometimes chaotic and conflict-prone world has dramatically changed the security environment.”

    “Conflict-prone world has dramatically changed the security environment.” Quick, a synonym, please. World War III?

    My assessment is this: An extraordinary 3-generation, 70-year run of relative wellbeing is climaxing, and its conclusion is not likely to be “gracefully managed” or “transitional” or “incremental.” How will it climax? Not sure. When? Soon. How soon? Just...soon. Why? Street view: shit happens. Or slightly more thoughtfully: a collision of converging urgencies results in human systems and institutions hitting the limits of structure and elasticity, leading to spasm.

    At the conclusion of Alexander Sokurov’s stunning movie Russian Ark, the year is 1914 and the aristocracy, at the end of a gorgeous evening of hobnobbing and dancing, slowly descends the grand stairs of the Winter Palace, diffusing and vanishing into the St Petersburg night as if to greet the Russian future: that is, the soon-arriving 1917 Revolution with its 9 million “unnatural” deaths, including the execution of the entire royal family.

    You may be feeling a growing irritation with this column’s elaborate millenarian vision, but before pique gets the best of you, spend some time reading New York Timescolumnist David Brooks’ melancholy October 31, 2017 piece in which he reflects on “politics used as a cure for spiritual and social loneliness [by] people desperately trying to connect in the disrupted landscape of an America where bonds are attenuated—without stable families, tight communities, durable careers, ethnic roots or an enveloping moral culture.”

    All of which lays the ground for the social mission I am proposing for Victoria—possibly, our shining chapter in the human story. If anything defines or describes the place, sets it apart, it is what I have elsewhere called its “genius for inertia,” really, its remarkable talent for social agreement, alignment with limits, love of continuity, and consanguinity with nature.

    I call this mission commonwealth; that is, to preserve memory, culture and values of collaboration; to sustain a social grammar and legibility…the idea that all is shared. Commonwealth: intangible assets held in common. What a simple, logical, immediately understandable idea! Not an abstraction but the city you live in, your friends, neighbours and adjacent strangers.

    You may recall from a previous column Jennifer Senior’s remark about social belonging, that we have so little regard for what’s collectively ours. Were I looking for conceptual grounds for commonwealth, I would land right there.

    Our civic identity strongly embodies this kind of thinking. The past is our compass, we champion community, nurture social belonging wherever we see it germinating, and ambitiously innovate new structures of belonging that will enrich commonwealth.
    I close wishing you a good year, and with the suggestion that we adopt this chaste slogan as the city’s motto: “Victoria, Where You Belong.”

    Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with partner Rob Abbott, has launched the website FUTURETENSE: Robotics, AI, and the Future of Work.

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