Dark Shadows Falling and Everest

By Joe Simpson
By Broughton Coburn

Following on a proven success is as much a part of the publishing world as it is in film. Interest in mountaineering, and especially climbing Mt. Everest, has been at a peak since the phenomenal success of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which has stayed near the top of the best-seller lists for several months and even been made into a television movie.

Krakauer’s book, which is one of the best reads of the year, is an account of the disastrous Everest expeditions of 1996. Those who have read Krakauer will recall that the team that led the rescue operation was an expedition filming the mountain for an Imax film. Everest: Mountain Without Mercy is a beautifully photographed account of the Imax expedition, and ends up covering a lot of the same ground as Into Thin Air.

The book has been published under the auspices of the National Geographic Society, so while the text is virtually unreadable, the pictures are spectacular. If you buy it as a visual companion to Krakauer’s book, you won’t be disappointed.

A different kind of mountain book is Joe Simpson’s Dark Shadows Falling. Simpson is a veteran climber who was left for dead after a fall from Siula Grande in Peru (an experience recounted in an earlier book entitled Touching the Void). His own near-death experience gives him a special empathy for climbers who have been left in similar situations. Thus he is outraged by a Dutch expedition that filmed a dying man on Everest without doing anything to help him, and the two Japanese climbers who blithely passed by three dying Indians on their way to the summit in 1996.

Simpson takes on the role of moralist of the mountains while telling his own story of an attempt on Pumori. Mountain climbing for him is a religion – at one with the “ethos of the ancient Olympians.” Part of this code means climbing mountains the hard way: without oxygen and taking original routes wherever possible. But while it is bad enough that many mountains today are being “conquered” by tourists without the slightest competence in mountaineering, it is the breakdown in human feeling that bothers him the most.

Taking the moral high road always has the risk of making the author seem arrogant, but Simpson manages to avoid this. His concern for the lowering of ethical standards at high altitude is grounded in a deeply felt personal experience: “I shall never forget the horror of dying alone – the awful empty loneliness of it.”

In Simpson’s world, “We have no need of codes by which to judge our ethical response to situations. We know intuitively what is the correct way to behave.” Passing by a dying man without even stopping to hold his hand is a terrible violation of this universal standard of humane conduct, and undercuts the very foundation of society.

Recently, the high cost of mountain climbing (up to $65,000 US to be guided up Everest) has come in for a good deal of criticism. Somehow, we feel, the commercialization of such an experience can only degrade it. What Joe Simpson lets us know is that there may be an even higher price to pay.

Review first published November 15, 1997.

The Cult of Impotence and The Myth of the Good Corporate Citizen

By Linda McQuaig
By Murray Dobbin

In his latest book, John Ralston Saul argues that Canadians have always leaned to the political left. And while that left-right distinction (Linda McQuaig would rather say “popular” and “market”) may be artificial, it does help to highlight a public-spirited attitude still reflected in most opinion polls.

These days, the main target of the Canadian left is the ongoing consolidation of corporate power, both at home and abroad. The arguments are fairly easy to summarize. Large, transnational corporations dominate government policy, without any corresponding responsibility to individuals or communities. The new world economy, increasingly driven by speculation in financial markets rather than production, gives rise to growing inequality, job insecurity, and lower standards of living.

As corporations get bigger, the individual shrinks. Citizens become mere consumers, and democracy is undermined by a “cult of impotence” – a false belief that representative government is powerless. Of course governments aren’t really powerless, it’s just that they’ve ceased to use their power to promote the public interest. Thus a secretly negotiated foreign investment treaty (MAI) is almost passed without debate, while a measure for taxing currency exchanges (the Tobin tax) gets short shrift.

I found these arguments, made in depth in these two books, convincing. Furthermore, I am in complete agreement with Murray Dobbin when he says that “it would be difficult to imagine a more impoverished set of ideas, principles, assumptions about human nature, and goals for society than those promoted by the new right.”

Because they deal with current affairs, both books show signs of haste. Dobbin has collected a mountain of supporting material, but relies too much on a shotgun blast of statistics to make his case. I would have been interested in his analysis of more fundamental issues. If, for example, there is such a thing as a disease of corporatism, and I think there is, its effects are wider than Dobbin implies. Corporate minds are shaped by corporate structures, which exist in universities and labour unions just as much as on Bay Street.

McQuaig is a more engaging writer, and one not afraid to indulge her gift for narrative. Unfortunately, her book tends to wander through too many anecdotes and unfocused history. As a result, she spends a lot of time off topic, and ends up seeming less than objective.

Both authors do a good job exploding some of the commonly repeated myths of neo-liberalism (that is, right-wing economic theory). Among other things, they explain in clear terms how the government can play a dramatic role in job creation, why more regulation of the market only makes sense, and why the private sector is really no more effective or less bureaucratic than the public.

Of course, the mother of all ecomomic myths, at least in the ’90s, has been the debt. Not that the debt itself is a myth – only the blaming of it on government spending for social programs. In fact, social programs have contributed little. Government spending on programs and services has been falling for 10 years. What is growing are the interest payments on the debt.

McQuaig suggests that our real problem is neither globalization nor technology, but simply a lack of political will. Our impotence is selective. We could, for example, make fighting unemployment a higher priority without causing our currency to collapse. International markets do not take nearly as dim a view of Canada’s situation as our leaders do.

Technology poses a different, and I think harder problem. There can be no question that new technologies are making many fields of labour obsolete. Postal workers and bank clerks, to take a pair of obvious examples, are clearly on the endangered species list. And what are these people going to do when they are replaced by computers? Design software? We have yet to see how the information revolution will play out, but in the short term it seems clear that there will be more losers than winners.

While both Dobbin and McQuaig make impassioned pleas for democracy, their real thrust goes deeper than politics. What they are trying to affirm is a new humanism – one that places human concerns and values ahead of global capital, corporate interests, and abstract economic theories (like the absurd “natural rate” of unemployment). This is certainly a worthy goal, and part of a debate that we all should be engaged in.

Review first published April 11, 1998.


By Edward O. Wilson

Is there a unity of knowledge that underlies the fragmentation of learning we find in today’s universities? Edward Wilson, one of the world’s foremost science writers and a leading researcher in his own right, thinks there is.

Wilson calls such unity consilience – the theory that all of nature is organized by simple universal laws of physics to which all other laws and principles can be reduced. Every thread on the loom, from atoms to ecosystems, from quantum mechanics to Shakespeare, can be traced back to these master blueprints of the material world.

So far it is just a theory. Most of Consilience is “gap analysis,” focused on what we don’t know about life, the universe and everything. On his home turf of the natural sciences Wilson has the easiest case to make, but he has no intention of stopping there. Human history can be a natural science too, and so can the rest of the humanities. All that is needed is an agreement among academic disciplines on a common body of abstract principles and evidentiary proof.

The wider Wilson spreads his net, and it gets pretty wide, the patchier the argument starts to look. There are many valid generalizations made about the arts, but the devil is in the epigenetic details. Consilience in literature, for example, seems only to be warmed-over archetypal criticism (archetypes being expressions of our single genetic human nature). Obviously we have a way to go.

As it stands, consilience is most useful for the critique it provides of the social (or pretend) sciences. The book takes special aim at economics, and performs the practical function of reminding us that it is not really a science at all. At bottom, economics is dressed-up folk psychology with little foundation in empirical research and virtually no predictive power. For a self-professed disciple of the Enlightenment, this will not do. “The time has come for economists and business leaders, who so haughtily pride themselves as masters of the real world, to acknowledge the existence of the real real world.”

This is the voice of wisdom calling.

The best is saved for last. Even readers who reject the theory of consilience entirely should take a look at the brilliant final chapter, “To What End?” Here Wilson looks at the future of the human race, beginning with the “volitional evolution” of the species through genetic engineering (clearly the major ethical debate facing science today).

Of primary concern is the approaching “bottleneck” in the world’s population – set to peak sometime in the next century. Wilson makes it clear that in order to avoid rigorously Malthusian solutions to the problems of overpopulation and scarce resources we must learn to become creative conservationists, and fast.

Ending on such a challenging note is no mistake. Consilience is a deliberately provocative book, filled with ideas that demand attention and discussion. One may disagree with what it has to say, but it should not be ignored.

Review first published May 9, 1998.

Conduct Unbecoming

By Howard Margolian

On June 6, 1944, the 3rd Canadian Division landed on the beaches of Normandy and drove inland toward Caen. In their way was the 12th SS Panzer Division “Hitler Youth,” an inexperienced unit largely staffed by Nazi zealots and brutal thugs.

In this valuable new book, war crimes investigator Howard Margolian tells the story of how 156 Canadian PoWs were ruthlessly murdered by several different elements of the 12th SS, in various sectors of the field over a 10-day period from June 7 to 17.

Not stopping there, Conduct Unbecoming goes on to relate the “glaring failure of Canadian justice” in prosecuting those responsible. Once the war was over the government grew strangely apathetic about the whole affair, and seemed content to let matters slip.

The results of this policy were shameful. The most infamous of all the war criminals, Kurt Meyer, ended up spending less than 10 years in prison – and he was one of only two senior officers of the 12th ever to be tried.

While Margolian does a very effective job, and no one can dispute the worthiness of his subject, there is still a need to be critical. Such an important history must be held to the highest standards.

It is hard to fault the research of a book that appends 77 pages of notes to 186 of text. Nor would I question the justice of the author’s morality. But some, admittedly minor things are not made entirely clear.

Take, for example, the issue of reprisals. It is suggested at one point that some of the Normandy murders may have been motivated by revenge for British mistreatment of German prisoners, and later that Canadian soldiers settled “a few old scores” with prisoners of the 12th. But there is little explanation of either of these incidents. Was no further evidence available?

After Kurt Meyer was arrested he was sent to the London Cage (a special detention centre), where he was subjected to “well established” interrogation techniques as well as “less savory practices.” What is being implied here? Was there evidence of torture? Does Margolian know something he isn’t telling?

Margolian admits that the “cornerstone of the historian’s craft” is to be objective and detached. When he does digress into editorial comment he is fully justified in doing so. He manages to “personalize and universalize” the tragic events he describes in a very powerful way.

But passion can be a liability for a historian when it leads to a lack of precision. Here as well I had some concerns. Margolian makes a thorough and convincing case against Wilhelm Mohnke as the instigator of what became “the single worst battlefield atrocity committed against Canadians in the country’s military history.”

He has looked at all of the extant investigative records and shows how they point to the “seemingly inescapable conclusion” of Mohnke’s guilt. I am entirely persuaded by the evidence, but was disturbed to find, only five pages later, Margolian referring to Mohnke’s ordering of the massacre as a “fact.” This it is not.

Another example of (understandably) overzealous prosecution occurs in the description of Meyer’s trial. After pleading not guilty to the charges against him, Margolian describes Meyer as bowing awkwardly to the bench. He then goes on to say that this “gesture of servility seemed out of place in a Canadian court.” This is hard to understand. Even today one is supposed to bow to the bench in a Canadian court. And while this was a military court, Meyer could hardly have been expected to salute (as others present did). Is it not likely that Meyer was simply doing what his lawyer told him to do? And why “servility”? The contemporary newspaper report of the trial only describes the bow as “deferential.” This has an entirely different meaning.

It should go without saying that none of this is meant as a defence of Meyer, Mohnke, or any of the other killers. These are only minor quibbles with what is, overall, an excellent book. Conduct Unbecoming sets out to honour our oft-forgotten Canadian heroes and it does so with rare distinction.

This was a story that needed to be told, and we should be glad that Howard Margolian has told it with such intelligence and feeling.

Review first published April 4, 1998.

Closed Chambers

By Edward Lazarus

The judiciary plays a crucial role in both the American and Canadian systems of federal government. As independent interpreters of the nation’s laws – including its supreme laws, the Constitution – they preside over the administration of justice, shape public policy, and defend individual rights and freedoms.

That is the theory. In practice, our courts often fall short of the ideal.

In this fascinating and groundbreaking book, Edward Lazarus provides the first eyewitness account of the personal and political power struggles within the U. S. Supreme Court over the past half-century. The story Lazarus tells has two main acts: The “Rights Revolution” of the radically liberal Warren court, followed by the conservative reaction of the present court, headed by William Rehnquist.

Lazarus describes the defining legal debates (over the death penalty, race, and abortion) with skill, presenting a number of difficult legal issues in lay terms. Although he is an unashamed liberal (he clerked for the Supreme Court under Harry Blackmun in 1988), he is scrupulously fair in his judgments. He frankly blames liberal icons such as Justices Brennan and Marshall for a narrow-mindedness that inspired much of the wrath to come. He also questions the power of the clerks to shape law, especially in their writing of draft opinions.

According to Lazarus, the main problem with the present court is its ideological polarization. The judges do not not engage in meaningful debate, but simply interpret the law in any way that furthers their own political agendas. As a result, the court becomes a forum for the mere exercise of power and loses its integrity. This raises an issue that is potentially devastating to a society based on the rule of law: “If law is no more than power, no more than five votes supported by doctrines of convenience, why should we obey?”

I have to admit, this is a book I have been waiting to read for a long time. It is very rare to hear a clerk of any court speak out in this way and raise these kinds of issues. Lazarus is also an excellent (if dry) writer, blending personal observations with historical awareness and precise legal analysis. Few books in recent years have given as clear a picture of America in the 20th century – where it has been, where it is, and where it is heading.

Review first published April 25, 1998.


By Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

When Paul Kennedy sent out early drafts of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers for comments he was surprised by the response. Readers wanted more – more background coverage and more detail supporting a thesis that Kennedy originally thought he could develop in a “brief” book.

As a result, his simple argument – that modern history shows a correlation between relative economic strength and military power – took nearly 700 pages to explain.

What happened to Kennedy’s book might be taken as a model for what has become a trend in popular history books. Today we frequently find mountains of detail and footnotes supporting theses that are almost banal. John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards is one good example. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Civilizations is another.

Fernandez-Armesto defines civilization as a relationship with the natural environment, one that recrafts the environment to meet human demands. “Civilization makes its own habitat,” and a civilization is only civilized “in direct proportion to its distance, its difference from the unmodified natural environment.”

The implications of this definition are developed in a highly original taxonomy of civilizations. Juxtaposing past and present, “high” and “low,” civilizations are sorted by environmental categories such as desert, highland, forest, and seaboard. Our learned tour guide, with extensive view, surveys humankind from the Kalahari to the Aleutians, demonstrating there is no environment that cannot be adapted to human needs.

But there is no such thing as progress. “Societies do not evolve: they just change.” There are no stages of civilization, no patterns of development, no “survival of the fittest.” Indeed, if we do want to use the survival of a particular group or lifestyle as a mark of civilization, it would be the least likely groups, those who have done the least to transform their environment, who would have to be considered the most civilized.

Thus while Fernandez-Armesto believes in the civilizing “itch” or impulse (he is candid about preferring culture to nature), his thesis implies a reversal of traditional ways of thinking about civilization. The more “civilized” a particular civilization gets – meaning the further it distances itself from its natural environment – the more unstable it is likely to become. “For the history of civilizations is a path picked among ruins” – monuments to noble and spectacular failure.

And that’s it. It is not the sort of argument that really requires 600-plus pages to make, but the detail is there for anyone who wants it. Some hint as to the magnitude of accumulation can be seen in the book’s love of epigraphs. There are over 40 chapter epigraphs appearing in at least five different languages (not all of them translated, or, for that matter, relevant). In fact, there are so many epigraphs they have their own section in the endnotes! Even for an Oxford historian this is four-flushing it.

On the positive side, the writing itself is very good, and makes one think the author might want to try his hand at writing a novel some day. His description of the casinos of Las Vegas, seen in the cold light of day after a night of debauch, shows him at this best:

Their mighty signboards, which looked glamorous or at least glitzy a few hours before, seem half-dressed in daylight: the struts and cables show, dangling or drooping, like unzipped flies and slack stockings.

This is nicely observed, as is the rest of the book, but it does not make up for the fact that Civilizations contains a simple message that doesn’t need anything like the development it receives here. The idea that readers always demand so much more needs to be reconsidered.

Review first published February 10, 2001.

Chasing the Chinook

By Wayne Grady

The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed that “Every word was once a poem.” “Bare lists of words,” he thought, could be “suggestive to an imaginative and excited mind.”

For Wayne Grady, every word might be an essay. The starting point for Chasing the Chinook is Grady’s belief that Canadian culture is expressed in a distinct Canadian language.

For those who don’t believe Canada has a language (or languages), he suggests that every time we peer into a gopher hole or dump a hockey puck into a corner we are “participating in a linguistic event that is distinctly Canadian.” That is, we are participating in Canadian, not American culture.

Luckily, this is not a rigid thesis. Grady does not see his essays as arguments. Instead, he borrows a definition of the essay from Michael Hamburger: “An essay really ought not to be on anything, to deal with anything, to define anything. An essay is a walk, an excursion, not a business trip.”

The style fits the form. Grady is an effective but still casual writer. The brief chapters in Chasing the Chinook are like little walks, with may diversions. Along the way there are many stops for anecdotes and digressions drawn from his impressive range of reading.

In terms of content, each of the 41 essays focuses on a word that is either demonstrably Canadian “or at least arguably Canadianish.” In most cases the connection is clear (as with “garrison mentality” or “filles du roi”), but even sympathetic readers may find the link is sometimes strained.

There are, for example, several inventions or discoveries made by Canadians that seem to have no particular relevance to Canada at all (such as “kerosene,” “polygraph,” and “Peking Man”). These essays, while enjoyable, don’t have much to do with nationality, words, or culture.

The same thing could be said about “ice.” Ice truly is interesting stuff, and there’s no doubt Canada has a lot of it, but it does not, as Grady suggests, stand in the same relationship to Canadians as sand to Saharans or air to birds. Canadian culture is not quite so large as that.

Objections like these, however, are part of the fun. Any cultural commentator capable of making lucid generalizations of some originality (and there aren’t that many out there) is bound to provoke disagreement. In doing so, Grady forces us to arrive at our own definitions of what is and is not Canadian. The result is a fresh, invigorating approach to that most familiar of our national pastimes.

Review first published November 14, 1998.