Local Investment, Local Knowledge, and the Way Ideas are Imagined
In the March 13 2015 Prince George Citizen, reporter Frank Peebles quotes UNBC Creative Writing professor Rob Budde, who had just been nominated for a B.C. Book Prize for poetry, as follows: “I’ve noticed Prince George being erased by a lot of its artists in previous times, but now I can see a lot of thinking on this place coming through.”
Eager to know what this positive wave of “thinking on” might entail, and troubled by the vagueness of Professor Budde’s remarks about erasures by artists, I e-mailed him, sincerely congratulated him on the nomination just received, and asked him to clarify who and what the erasers/erasures were, and what the new thinking might entail.
I didn’t get a clear answer from him on the erasers—he mentioned one poet, a man who left the north about a decade ago—and he wasn’t forthcoming about either the nature and timing of the erasures or the new thinking “coming through”, although he was cautiously cordial in his responses once he realized I wasn’t setting him up for a thumping. What I think he meant by positive “thinking on” was that past writers had been erasing aboriginal concerns, and the new writers had them front and centre.
If this is what he meant, it is not untrue, as George Orwell cautioned us never to say. But in this instance the double negative is the only accurate way of putting it—it ain’t true as a blanket statement, but there’s some fairly black smoke issuing from it. That said, Budde’s use of the verb “erasing”, is, I think, overly dramatic. It smacks of the nastier euphemisms of the 20th century—the Soviet “liquefying”, or the South American “disappearing.” In Northern B.C., the aboriginal inhabits haven’t been sent to death camps in the high Arctic, as the Soviets did to millions of innocent people they considered enemies of their values. Similarly, no one, as far as I know, has thrown any B.C. aboriginals out of helicopters high over the ocean, which was the favourite method of disappearing people in Argentina during the 1970s and 1980s.
At most, some writers and artists around Prince George have simply ignored aboriginals, or more often, treated them as no more culturally exceptional than, say, Germans or Hungarians, both whom have had, at various times over the last century, local populations as large as that of the local aboriginals. And since the current Zeitgeist makes it artistically and politically risky even to imagine what aboriginals are thinking, and more censor-worthy to write about them, I suspect that most of these alleged disappearers might just have been studiously looking elsewhere, afraid that some shrieking professor will accuse them of Appropriation of Voice.
By the way, the current official population of the Lheidli T’enneh band of the Dakelh (or Carrier) aboriginal people was, when I checked it recently, 414 on and off the reserve, which is about 3/5s of 1 percent of the Greater Prince George population, rounded off conservatively at 70,000. But then it gets confusing. The 2011 Canada Census has some 9000 people in the Prince George area self-identifying as either Aboriginal or Metis, thus raising that aboriginal 3/5ths of 1 percent to beyond 12 percent. This certainly passes the eyeball test better than the Band’s estimate of their numbers, but the unexplained enormity of the discrepancy is either a marker of the gulf our current federal government has dug between on-the-ground perception and statistical reality, or there’s an aboriginal classification (or class) system no one is talking about. At very least it raises some questions about how real and unreal aboriginals are defined locally, and maybe a few about who is erasing whom.
So you know, I’m not one of those erasing artists. About the third story I ever wrote about Prince George—right after I got over writing about the “cruelty of mother nature” and “I hate my parents”—concerned an aboriginal woman whose mistreatment I felt guiltily powerless to halt. Aboriginals have, since then, figured in nearly all of the books I’ve written about Prince George, although not always in their currently popular-to-professors identities as environmental wise-persons, or victims of non-aboriginal injustice and prejudice. To me, they’re human beings first, and I take them one at a time: never as symbols, and not as ciphers in a class system based on prejudice or victimization. That’s why I’m not willing to use the term “First Nations”. It raises questions of hierarchy and class, and about what happens to people who are declared citizens of the sixth, eighth or 29th nation. To my mind—and history backs me up on this—all attempts to classify human beings this way end up having to use extreme kinds of coercion—usually concentration camps—to enforce the hierarchy.
Locally, I’m not sure the aboriginals own Prince George, or even ought to, but I’m the first to concede that they matter both culturally and politically around the area, perhaps more now than at any time since the arrival of Alexander Mackenzie at the juncture of the Fraser and Nechako Rivers in 1793, at which time (he was either drunk or clinically depressed at having travelled through James Creek and the McGregor River into the Fraser) he didn’t notice that they were there. Nobody today is likely to make that mistake, even when they’re drunk or upset.
One of the several reasons aboriginals have recently become culturally focal in Northern British Columbia is that an excessive number of aboriginal women have disappeared in and around Prince George over the last 40 years, part of the approximately 1200 aboriginal women across Canada who have been murdered or have simply disappeared over the same time period. I’m not sure why this is, but most of the local disappeared and/or murdered women have been attributed to something called “The Highway of Tears”, said to be, according to Wikipedia, the 800 kilometre stretch of highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert, B.C. Eighteen women of aboriginal descent are said to be victims of “The Highway of Tears” between I966 and 2006, although a brief run through the list of the disappeared reveals that eleven of the eighteen women were murdered or disappeared well away from the defined Highway of Tears, some as far away as Hudson Hope (370 kms Northeast) or Highway 5 east of Kamloops, (520 km South). This has me wondering where the Catchy Metaphor Office that coined the phrase “Highway of Tears” is located. Not around Prince George, apparently.
It does seem clear that an American serial killer named Bobby Jack Fowler was responsible for several of the early killings, but no one knows who killed or disappeared the other aboriginal women, just as no one seems to know the difficult-to-pin-down-but-excessive number of other aboriginal women who have died by violence in and around Prince George over the last 100 years. No one, that is, except for an equally difficult-to-pin-down group of academic post-colonialist professors and their supporters. These people seem to know with a startling degree of certainty who is responsible: anyone who disagrees with their academic, social, and political priorities. The responsibility, according to the professors, isn’t direct, but never mind that: it’s in the hearts and minds of those they disapprove of.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the murder and disappearance of as many as 1200 aboriginal women across the country isn’t a legitimate and urgent concern, and that the general mistreatment of aboriginal peoples, both by white people and by other aboriginals isn’t an equally serious concern that everyone, including our current federal government, needs to address in a meaningful way. By “address” I don’t mean that they should study the problem and otherwise do nothing but rather, that the killing and beating up of aboriginal women needs to be stopped, and that we need to find those responsible for killing the 1200 missing women and remove those people from whatever communities they are part of. Then we need to force an attitude adjustment on our police forces so that they stop throwing aboriginal people out of cars in the middle of winter and otherwise treating every person of aboriginal background as if they’re automatically dead drunk and about to behave badly. Because they aren’t. A lot of other people, meanwhile, need to make a similarly more humane adjustment to their own attitudes toward aboriginal people.
None of this, however, is what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to celebrate an award for good writing, The John Harris Prize (and less importantly to propose that no writer from Prince George should ever use the word “however, ” particularly not when they’re writing about Prince George, its natural environment, or its diverse citizenry). I’m also here, because The John Harris Prize isn’t just one of those silly prizes for seeing how close a writer can get his or her lips to the ass of the marketplace but rather, a prize for unconventionally truthful writing, to talk about local investment, local knowledge, and the different ways we imagine ideas. Those issues, and the Harris Prize are connected.
So let me begin with a bold statement: The combination of local investment, local knowledge, and local imagination, accurately integrated, is the sole mechanism that will enable life in Northern British Columbia to become and remain tolerable, sustainable and just.
Yes, I understand that I’m implying that life isn’t sustainable right now, and possibly not tolerable. I’m aware that things-as-they-are are accepted by most northerners, but I believe that this is only because few can see any alternative, and none that appear practical. I’m also implying that people are still doing what they’ve done in the north for generations, although arguably now in smaller numbers because the obvious resource to exploit is destitute: they’re trying to cash out and get out at the first opportunity.
There’s nothing remarkable or new in any of this. First of all, no one in their right mind can argue, any more, that the way we’ve lived here since the arrival of Europeans has been sustainable. Then, depending on what you’re smoking, there’s that inconvenient shortfall in trees that is anywhere from twenty to fifty years. That shortfall, by itself, has removed even the illusion of sustainability.
Any way you look at it, this shortfall has been self-inflicted. The superbug that killed the pine forests was bred right in the North with our fire-suppression skills and with Williston Lake, the 500 mile–long hot water bottle that changed the climate so the pine beetle larvae no longer freeze to death in winter. And we’d brutally overcut the rest of the forests before the superbugs arrived in force.
That’s all water under the bridge, and there’s some hope that a few lessons have been taken from it for next time. My concern here isn’t with superbugs or blame, but with the possibility that we did something worse than inflict an environmental catastrophe on ourselves, and that we did it to ourselves and to our settlements. We gave up—although sometimes it was taken away from us by force or threat—our ability to reinvest the economic profits from the forests in the local community and landscape. Most of this lost ability occurred more than 40 years ago, between 1956 and 1975. In the years before 1956, every mill operating in the Prince George Forest district was locally owned and operated. As such, these mills reinvested a huge percentage of their profits back into the community. Almost equally important, most of the non-lumbering businesses in the area held largely the same ownership and reinvestment patterns.
By 1975, there were less than a dozen “supermills” operating in the area, and along with lumber and logs, they were exporting most of their profits, if not offshore, then at least beyond the zone of local benefit. In the city’s non-forestry related business sector, the franchises were rapidly buying out or bankrupting the locals, with the new pattern and flow of profits and reinvestment capital identical to that of the forest industry.
And yeah, I hear the shouting. In a capitalist democracy, corporations are responsible only to their shareholders, and have the right to ruthlessly exploit any community or environment in which they operate.
But let’s look at how that has operated in Prince George.
As recently as 1961, 604 independent mills operated in the Prince George Forest District. By 1972 there were less than a dozen, and since then that number has dwindled to one or two. The local forest industry is now run by multinational corporations small enough in number to count on the fingers of one hand.
Since then, plenty of corporations have invested in Northern B.C. The corporate investors in the forest industry have made harvesting the forests significantly more efficient in every sense: greater harvests, larger profits, even less waste of the trees, which are now referred to as “fibre”. The larger profits are a result of more “efficient-to-profit” technology, which has radically reduced both the number of workers and the number of operators.
But the important measure of this fundamental alteration of efficiencies, locally, is the distribution of the enhanced profits. Before 1972, a significant proportion of lumber industry profits were reinvested in the local community. Some if it was in wages for workers and incremental wage increases, but much of it was spent by the owners not just on improved mills and better equipment, but on new homes and the amenities of day-to-day living: the money moved into and through the local economy and culture like oxygen moves through the body, nourishing it, giving it the ability to grow.
Since 1972, virtually none of the profits from the forest industry have been reinvested locally, aside from the proceeds of continuously-lowered stumpage fees and corporate taxes taken in by senior and increasingly disinterested-in-the-north governments. And no, a piece of harvesting machinery brought in from the U.S. or Europe that sends dozens of workers to the unemployment line is not really a local investment, even if the corporations claim it is. The operators today are now corporate employees; the owners live—and spend—at distances that have been growing in their remoteness for decades.
The non-forestry business sector of the north has been similarly transformed, with branch managers for franchised operations coming and going, and the profits all being shipped out, to be invested (or wasted) elsewhere.
I know about this first hand. My father, a man who ran radio ads in the early 1960s that asked people to “help support local industry” had an inkling of what the shifting balances of profit distribution and local investment was going to do to Northern B.C. His inklings didn’t help him, much. He was forced out of his ice cream and soft drink businesses by the corporations by the mid-1960s. Like many Northerners, he took the money they offered and left—settling in the Okanagan Valley, which was about as far as he could see.
He had his inklings about what was going to happen to Prince George, but that didn’t mean he saw it coming with any clarity, or that he saw it as an injustice. He didn’t recognize the scale of what was happening—which was happening across the North American hinterlands—and he didn’t see it as an injustice. He was part of that generation of practical-minded optimists who believed, in the 1950s, that Prince George was a land of opportunity, and that the city might have a population of half a million or more people by the 21st century if everyone worked hard and honestly. Suffice it to say that he got a fair bit of that wrong.
What he did understand, when the city’s growth stalled in the mid-1980s, was why it happened. “Business profits,” he told me, “are any community’s development capital. When those are exported along with the “fruits of the resources”—he liked this sort of biblical allusion to describe business processes—that community stagnates. And, as you know, if you don’t go forward, you’re doomed to go backward.”
At the time, I didn’t know that. What he was saying was this: what happens to the profits from that vacuum cleaner you just bought from CostCo or WalMart is crucially different than if you’d bought it from Northern Hardware. When you buy from WalMart, the profits leave town in a hurry, whoosh. When you buy from Northern Hardware, the profits stay in Prince George, and get re-circulated as development capital. I’m not convinced that capitalism is the ultimate glory of human innovation or even an inevitable one, but I will say that my father was right about this element of capitalist mechanics, and that it is the secret that economic globalism tries to keep people from seeing, and that it matters a lot more than most people recognize, particularly in places like Prince George.
For three decades now, Prince George has been in an era of recycling, reinventing and repurposing its on-the-ground resources, all without admitting it, or/and even examining its core values. The ethos of capitalist expansion remains the Zeitgeist even though nothing sustainable is expanding anymore, and the primary natural resource has that 20-50 year supply shortfall, with its forests decimated by disease, waste and over-cutting.
Most of the recycling, reinventing and repurposing, meanwhile—and it is little and inadequate—has been a matter of building a university in the north, presumably, har, har, to re-employ as teachers and professors all the forestry workers rendered obsolete, or to retrain them to other highly-paid work so everyone in town can continue to own a snowmobile and be able to risk accidental decapitation while driving it. The university has been somewhat successful if ideologically embarrassing to those right wing enthusiasts of capitalism—who include the local elected MPs and MLAs around here—who believe that governments shouldn’t be allowed to do much of anything, and that if we just unleashed the entrepreneurial spirit a little more, everything would be splendid, and we wouldn’t be cutting each others’ throats in a far north miniature of the NeoDarwinian monetary conflagration that recently almost brought down the global banking system while transforming the once-dominant American economy into the virtual bumboy of the Chinese Government. But the reality is that if Prince George wasn’t the junction of four highways and two railways, it would be Endako. And Endako isn’t a good place to be if you’re trying to get rich or build a viable community.
So that’s my rant, for what it’s worth.
But while I was ranting (and trying to figure out what it is that the obviously sincere Professor Budde and his generation of ideologically over-certain academics are trying to achieve, I stumbled, while reading at an obscure location in the work of American sociologist Talcott Parsons, (a now-obscure thinker I’ve been mining for ideas most of my life) onto a genuinely new idea that might allow Prince George to rethink and even solve the predicament it is in with an authentically northern way of looking at things.
In some ideal world that hasn’t had a material existence in our lifetimes, everyone would get the ideas that govern their essential actions from the wind blowing through their back yards or from their parents—from close observation and discussion of immediate conditions, in other words. My generation, (or maybe it’s just me and a few of my friends) got our essential ideas from dramatically remote locations because the core ideas in Prince George for more than half a century coincided with the grinning ideology of the Chamber of Commerce, an ideology that merely paid lip service to democracy and the meritocracy of the practical—heavily diluting even those with business optimism and anti-communist paranoia. As such, the Chamber’s ideology offered practical and spiritual instructions only about how to crank up a chainsaw and ram the business end of it against trees or anything else that annoyed or offended it.
The ideas my generation of writers and intellectuals deployed against that ethos was an unsystematic and largely ineffective mélange of social democratic sentimentalities, Pierre Trudeau’s moderate version of nationalism, and about equal parts lower case localism, feminism, and environmentalism. Our goals were pretty modest, and fairly narrow: we wanted to get beyond the unquestioning belief in economic expansion that was, a generation ago, already taking on a globalist veneer of inevitability. That, and we didn’t want to be assholes. We thought—or maybe we just hoped—to discover, within the local and the particular, measures that would sustain life here in not just an economic sense but an intellectual and spiritual sense as well.
We were trying to be Aboutists, people who insist that content, context and specificity matter. More than ideology and theory. Our best qualities were a nose for bullshit, and a willingness to stare down the things coming at us without moral and intellectual panic and the arbitrariness that usually follows.
Which brings me to Talcott Parsons and his idea. He raised a distinction between what he called “effulgent” ideas, and “lucid” ideas. Let me begin by giving you a fairly neutral version of an effulgent idea. In The City in History (1961) Lewis Mumford proposed that the modern city, civilization, the very civilities that permit us, big-brained baboons that we are, to live together without utter and continuous mayhem, originated in the matriarchal Neolithic villages that he believed were humanity’s brief respite from the successive barbarisms of hunter-gatherers, warrior classes, military and religious kings, demagogues, archbishops and commissars, and now the plutocratic noblepersons of market-focused capitalism. As an idea, Mumford’s notion of sweet matriarchies were, for many, a liberating device. But it was also what I’ve implied it is: an intellectual effulgence that lacks the conceptual lucidity and data rigor required to secure it as either productively true or untrue. It just made you feel good, without really changing anything fundamental.
History, if not always life, is filled with effulgent ideas. Increasingly so, actually. Some are relatively benign, like those of Mumford or Simone De Bouvoir, or Albert Camus or Charles Olson. Others, like those at the root of Fascism, Bolshevism and Nazi (or racially-based) Fascism, are anything but.
Fascism, in its racist forms, was defeated in the Second World War. But Mussolini’s definition of Fascism—“a merger of state and corporate power”—continues to haunt the boundaries of political and economic life to this day. Similarly, the core ideas of Bolshevism, even though the Soviet empire has collapsed, also remain alive and well, mostly in our universities. That core now permits a self-defined elite to claim virtues and rights for oppressed minorities it plans to supervise in perpetuity, just as the Soviet and Chinese Bolsheviks supervised the proletariat into a kind of misery than can only be described as hysterical and oppressive at the same time. The result of this has been—in every instance in which Bolshevism has been politically applied across history—a ruthlessness and violence toward the non-compliant that beggars that of purely plutocratic regimes. And who are the non-compliant ? Anyone who falls outside either the elite or the elusive minority (it always turns out to be a minority) on whose behalf the elite undertakes to act: anyone who doesn’t march in the parade, in other words.
The point I want to make about effulgent ideas is that only a short step beyond invariably lurks rigid political or social ideology or dogmatic religious codification, and the violence that such moral certainty inevitably inflicts.
So what, then, is a “lucid” idea? A lucid idea is, first of all, phenomenological and observational rather than prescriptive, and can rarely be extrapolated on. Unlike an effulgent idea, which is often propelled by the dark energies escaping out the overburdened exhaust vents, it deliberately seeks to reduce the possible range of interpretation and extrapolation without trying to reduce ambiguity. It makes you think more deeply about the world around you, and sometimes it makes you think twice. An example? This one from Primo Levi:
Intolerance is inclined to censor, and censorship promotes ignorance of the arguments of others and thus intolerance itself: a rigid, vicious circle that is hard to break. (The Drowned and the Saved, 1986)
Or another, this one locally generated, and typically more short-sighted and practical:
If you get beaten up for the same thing twice, everyone will know that you’re stupid.
Then there’s that idea my father had about local investment: Business profits are a community’s development capital. When those are exported, that community stagnates.
What all three of those ideas share is that they lead to specific example and application, and to complexity—in an “oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought of it that way“ fashion. Levi’s quote pushes toward the larger implications of censorship, asking where the urge to censor comes from and where and to what it leads, characteristically or pathologically. For instance, when an anthologist finds himself rejecting elements of his anthology subject’s work because it offends the sensibility of the anthologist or those he represents, then the anthologist, even with the most virtuous of motives—say, not wanting the vocabulary of the author he’s anthologizing to offend or upset people the anthologist believes he is responsible for protecting—then isn’t that anthologist practicing precisely the same sort of intolerance and bigotry he is attempting to censor?
And isn’t Prince George a community that has been beaten up for the same mistake innumerable times? The mistake I’m referring to is that of believing that large capital projects controlled by people from outside the local community will benefit the community being subjected to them. This mistake may seem obvious and correctible (as in, wise up, turkey), but in practice it hasn’t been. The first kick in the head of this sort Prince George took was the Grand Trunk Pacific railway, for which locals built “demonstrator” townsites, and then sold out the local aboriginals when the railroad selected a third site—a selection that should have been seen coming given that the two demonstrator sites (South Fort and Central Fort George) had insufficient flat land for rail yards. The Grand Trunk was followed by the PGE, which took decades to arrive, and when it did merely made it possible to export resources in less-processed forms. That was followed by the ridiculous Axel Wenner-Gren monorail hoax of the late 1950s; the hydro electric projects in the Peace River in the 1960s, which indirectly created an environmental calamity—Williston Lake—that the North will suffer from for decades to come; the corporate takeover of the local forest industry, and a dozen smaller megaprojects—remember the chopstick factory?—that either didn’t happen or succeeded in accomplishing little more than to suck the money and initiative out of the local economy. The only megaproject that appears to have worked has been UNBC, and even there, the results are mixed, particularly if you’re being harassed by a professor intent on imposing his or her ideological fixations on you.
Then there’s my father’s small idea about why Prince George stagnated. It isn’t the sort of idea that will get Prince George another economic development program or another megaproject, but it does explain why most of the megaprojects that have been inflicted on the north haven’t helped the way they were promised to, and it might help the city to deal more accurately with the next boondoggle. And maybe this small distinction I’m making between ideational effulgence and ideational lucidity might, by itself, help Prince George and places like it—of which there are many—to defend itself against one dimensional civic imagination, and maybe against well-intentioned professors who want to supervise what writers write about, what painters paint, and I suppose, what ordinary citizens—of which writers and painters are as typical as anyone—think about.
It’s pretty simple, really: I’m saying that in the north, people should keep their thinking in the “lucid” band of ideation. I suppose this applies universally, but I’m deliberately not thinking universally here. I’m thinking about Prince George, my hometown, and how to make things better. Effulgent ideas, and all the smelly detritions that follow in the wake of effulgent thinking, have been very bad for Prince George. Effulgent ideas get people’s heads in the clouds, and that’s not where you want your head to be when there are taut choker cables in the vicinity, and somewhere within hearing range, there’s a chainsaw running. And even if the trees are gone and the industry is almost employee-free, those choker cables are as taut and heavy as they ever were, and the chainsaws remain unsecured, or in the hands of crazy people.
So let’s make sticking to lucid ideas and lucid thinking a local method—a way of not running with scissors or playing in traffic, or listening to professors trying make us bow to conditions that may have their primary existence only inside the heads of the professors and those folks down at the catchy metaphor office who don’t know where highways begin and end, what goes on along their margins, and don’t know who any of us really are.
4775 words June 3, 2015