Friday, February 16, 2018

Village of Widows

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Canada has become a leader in the movement against the racism practiced against indigenous peoples that has so long been common practice in much of the world. Is it possible that Ottawa will really follow the lead of Alberta and other provinces by recognizing the rights given to aboriginal people in the Constitution without hassle?  Such an act would shift cases out of courts into nation-on-nation negotiations.

It’s taken 36 years since repatriation of our constitution for our national government to reach this point, and it will take many years more for the system to move from legislation into practical reality. But in the end it will reduce legal conflict, generate goodwill and save taxpayer dollars. That’s a lot, and it’s part of a larger story I’d like to share. This tale began when the dogs of war were raging across the Atlantic during WW2.

Although he was a life-long pacifist and supporter of human rights causes, Albert Einstein will ironically be remembered also as the man who convinced US president Franklin Roosevelt to begin the Manhattan Project. Led by the United States with support from Britain and Canada, the development of nuclear weapons took place during World War II. It led to the only use of nuclear bombs in anger (so far), at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In a now-famous letter, Professor Einstein suggested that nuclear chain reactions in large masses of uranium could release “vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements.” And, he speculated, “Extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.” While America had only poor ores of uranium, Einstein said, “There is some good ore in Canada.” Therein lies a tragic story.

Twenty years ago, an indigenous woman from the Sahtu First Nation described that tragedy to a United Nations conference on Human Rights. Cindy Gilday spoke on a panel considering whether the environment, the economy and human rights were “cross currents or parallel streams.” 

The company I worked for, Amoco Canada (now BP), had sponsored Ms. Gilday’s presentation at the conference. Held in Edmonton, its purpose was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document largely drafted by John Peters Humphrey, a Canadian who served as the first director of the United Nations’ Division of Human Rights.

The Edmonton conference brought together human rights activists from around the world. Many had been jailed for having the impertinence to suggest, for example, that their national governments endorse democracy.

One speaker after another described the global struggle for human rights. They argued forcefully that rights are universal, and do not conflict with cultural or religious values. Ms. Gilday’s presentation spoke to the experience of one Indigenous nation during the Second World War. At the time, her people lived a largely nomadic existence: few spoke much English, and they knew almost nothing about the war. As it happened, however, their traditional territory was near the uranium mine being developed for the Manhattan Project.

The ore came from a rich deposit of uranium and radium along the shores of Great Bear Lake, in the Northwest Territories. During the long days of summer, a wartime mining company hired local men to carry 40-kilogram burlap bags of ore from the mine to the Mackenzie River. They carried those loads for long hours, for months on end. When the bags ripped apart, the Sahto people shifted the spilled ore off the trail, but took the contaminated bags to their temporary village. There, the burlap found many uses.

Years later, the ore-carriers began dying of cancer, and the community (today a settlement of some 450 known as Deline, 544 km northwest of Yellowknife) became, in Ms. Gilday’s words, “a village of widows.” The people became aware of the connection between radioactivity and cancer. They also came to understand that they had unwittingly helped contaminate their remote northern homeland with radioactive waste.

The families of the men who served as ore-carriers during the war had wounds that are yet to be healed, Ms. Gilday said. “Like most Native Americans, their culture, spirit and their very beings are linked intimately with the well-being of mother earth. This has been compromised by uranium mining contamination....If their environment is compromised, their lives are compromised.” She said their wartime experience involved a breach of human rights, which no government had ever attempted to redress. But there was a war on, and that took precedence over everything else.

But whichever side of this argument you take, I thought at the time, Ms. Gilday’s story illustrated three powerful trends in modern society. The dynamic relations among public health, safety and the environment were a single issue. Another was that many of the world’s indigenous peoples were learning to mobilize public opinion in their effort to reclaim traditional lands and livelihoods. The third was that moral claims based on human rights have economic and political force. “Each has powerful implications for globally organized business,” I reported.

Declarations of Human Rights. Another important source of change in Canadian attitudes to each other came indirectly from the human rights efforts of John Peters Humphrey, a Montréaler. Montréaler Mr. Humphrey drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the UN passed in 1948. The following year, he drafted and the UN passed a group of related international agreements, which included the four Geneva Conventions.

The Soviet Union’s UN representative, Andrei Vishinsky, dismissed the declaration as just a “collection of pious phrases.” Sadly, for the first two decades of its existence, Vishinsky’s assessment seemed to be accurate. But by the 1970s the declaration had begun gathering momentum. For example, in 1977 Canada passed the Canadian Human Rights Act, with the express goal of extending the law to ensure equal opportunity to everyone with our country.

Western democracies expected their leaders to raise human rights issues when they visited such countries as China. Large corporations that bought from Third World sweatshops or operated within the countries that were the worst abusers of their citizens frequently found themselves the targets of boycotts and picket lines. And countries that systematically violated human rights found the world’s economic powers imposing embargoes and economic sanctions upon them.

No one understands this better than South Africa’s Anglican archbishop emeritus Desmund Tutu. As a critic of the former South African system of Apartheid, Mr. Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. His moral influence led to intense international economic and diplomatic pressure on the racist government of South Africa, and his efforts contributed to abandonment of institutional racism, in 1994. This was an important victory for the human rights movement outside the western world.

Tutu was the keynote speaker at the human rights conference in Edmonton. The charismatic archbishop characterized South Africa’s victory over Apartheid as a “spectacular victory over the forces of evil and wickedness.” In his introduction to a wide-ranging address on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings, which he had led, this tiny man added a small but enormously significant comment, to thunderous applause. “Our victory is your victory,” Mr. Tutu said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, for your support.” His work, as a matter of interest, led to the formation of Canada's own Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on residential schools. Here is a link to the Commission's report, which is worth reading.

After centuries of human rights abuses, Mr. Tutu said, “We in South Africa are a wounded people, in need of reconciliation. By enabling this reconciliation to occur, perhaps God is setting up South Africa as a beacon to the world.” He chuckled about “the perverse sense of humour” of the Divine, which he said could make “a troubled country like South Africa a beacon of hope for such countries as Bosnia, Rwanda and Serbia.”

The movement that Mr. Tutu so articulately represents had gained strength in recent decades. Why?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a group of related international agreements, including the four Geneva Conventions signed in 1949, created a body of thought respecting human rights, war crimes and humanitarian law. Although it took some time, national governments and international bodies have given teeth to this body of law. And publicity promoted by human rights groups is combining with TV and computer screens full of graphic scenes of humanitarian disasters. Victims are no longer seen as someone else’s problem.

There is also the question of the moral high ground. Many – perhaps most – of the world’s human rights activists are driven by a sense of higher purpose. Albert Einstein famously remarked that “God does not play dice with the universe.” Cindy Gilday talked about the “culture, spirit and very being” of Indigenous peoples as being “intimately linked with the well-being of mother earth.” And Archbishop Tutu’s profession speaks for itself.

While spiritual values are no doubt one important value behind the human rights movement, “the struggle for democracy” is another. In a notable book by that name, Patrick Watson and Benjamin Barber put the point concisely. “We found that to tell the story of democracy is also to explore the fundamental human urge towards self-mastery and liberation: the inclination to speak openly, communicate freely, pray according to one’s beliefs, dance to one’s own tune, think as one pleases – but to do so in the company of other men and women in a spirit of cooperation.”

At the time, I was a true believer. Many forces shaped the human rights movement. The expansion of democracy was one. The human spirit is certainly another. A sense of the Divine, perhaps, is a third. And a growing body of international law underlies all three. Whatever the causes of this remarkable movement, people throughout the world have benefited.

This movement took on a new character with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The UN issued the declaration in 2007, but Canada was one of four countries that initially objected to it – the others were the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. That began to change after July 2015 when the Government of Alberta announced plans to incorporate UNDRIP provisions into law and policy. The federal government followed suit and withdrew Canada’s objector status in May 2016, although at the time Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said the government’s stance on the declaration couldn’t be adopted as is into Canadian law.

“Simplistic approaches such as adopting the United Nations declaration as being Canadian law are unworkable and, respectfully, a political distraction to undertaking the hard work actually required to implement it back home in communities,” Wilson-Raybould told the chiefs at the 37th annual Assembly of First Nations.

Will it continue? That’s the question of the hour. The decline of the once-great American democracy worries me greatly. So do wars and environmental damage throughout the world – disruptions which have created conditions in which our planet now hosts more than 65 million refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people.

As the map at the beginning of this piece illustrates, Canada, Scandinavia and a few smaller nations in Oceania are the lucky countries in the world. In those countries, dynamic democracies are fighting the racism Sahtu activist Cindy Gilday described with such fervour twenty years ago.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Tristan Chord: A book review

The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy; Brian Magee, 2000, Macmillan

 A book review by Peter McKenzie-Brown

Tristan und Isolde is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner to a libretto he wrote himself. I’m not sure how well you know Wagner. A lot of opera lovers, including my wife, find his operas difficult and only listen to them under duress. Personally, I love his work. Today, I want to talk about the evolution of a revolutionary chord in this opera. I’m not going to push your musical skills too far; my own are not up to the task, in any case.

Wagner’s compositions stress musical themes, and his operas are quite long. Our version of Tristan is more than four hours in length. In effect, Wagner made the orchestra the prima donna in his opera, and this innovation affected other German composers.
According to Bryan Magee, “because of the weight and seriousness of his work [Wagner] is widely supposed to have been someone of a ponderous and humourless disposition, but this is not so at all. For instance, we have this account of his behaviour during rehearsals for the first performance of Tristan: ‘if a difficult passage when particularly well he would spring up, embrace or kiss the singer warmly, or out of pure choice stand on his head on the sofa, creep under the piano, on to it, run into the garden and scramble joyously up the tree…’ Standing on his head was something he did quite often, usually as an expression of delight. So was climbing. Once, arriving at a friend’s house, the first thing he did was climb up the front of the house. On another occasion, visiting a friend for lunch, he immediately clambered to the top of the tallest tree in the garden – and this at the age of fifty-seven. He was always much given to sliding down the banisters – again well into middle age. It would be considered extraordinary if someone behaved in this way now, but it was a great deal more extraordinary in the middle of the 19th century. There was something not only of the theatre about Wagner but of the circus, something of the acrobat or clown….” (McGee, 236-237)

Wagner wrote the opera (including its libretto) in the late 1850s; its first performance was in 1865. It is one of the great works of opera, and broke new ground in its use of chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, orchestral colour and harmonic suspension. In a letter to his lover – the wife of a businessman who had befriended the composer, and funded his work – Wagner wrote the following:
“There is no country, no town, no village that I can call my own. Everything is alien to me and I often gaze around, yearning for a glimpse of the land of Nirvana. But Nirvana quickly turns back into ‘Tristan’; you know the Buddhist theory of the origin of the world. A breath clouds the clear expanse of heaven: it swells and grows denser, and finally the whole world stands before me again in all its impenetrable solidity.”

Elsewhere in that letter, Wagner cited a musical passage a young composer named Hans von Bülow had written, and offered a bit of constructive criticism. He did not criticize von Bülow for writing dissonances but for emphasizing them. Rather, he said, composers should conceal their dissonances.

Wagner did not take his own advice, for soon he would be emphasizing a dissonance himself, using a chord that he possibly discovered first in the score of von Bülow’s opera Nirwana. Although it could with justification be called “the Nirwana chord,” it has become known as “the Tristan chord.”

First, let’s get the story out of the way. Tristan is a nobleman from Breton, and the adopted heir of Marke, the king of Cornwall. Tristan’s job is to accompany Isolde, an Irish princess, to Cornwall to marry King Marke. With the aid of a love potion, Tristan and Isolde fall in love aboard ship. This causes a great deal of commotion in the story. By the end of Act III King Marke has shown himself to be an honourable man, but Tristan is dead.

The Tristan chord includes the notes F, B, D♯, and G♯. It is the opening phrase of the opera, and is a leitmotif – a theme – relating to Tristan. I read somewhere that it “contains within itself not one but two dissonances, creating in the listener a double desire, agonizing in its intensity, for resolution. The chord to which it then moves resolves one of these dissonances but not the other, thus providing resolution-but-not-resolution. It is not until we reach the opera’s closing notes that the chord finds resolution.

When it came to promoting his work, Wagner was an almost hyperkinetic genius. For example, he promoted and personally supervised the design and construction of a theatre in Bayreuth, which contained many architectural innovations to accommodate the huge orchestras for which Wagner wrote as well as the composer’s particular vision about the staging of his works.

It was there, in fact, that American humourist Mark Twain heard Tristan. “I know of some, and have heard of many, who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away,” he wrote after the production. “I feel strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the one sane person in the community of the mad; sometimes I feel like the one blind man where all others see; the one groping savage in the college of the learned, and always, during service, I feel like a heretic in heaven.”

Some years ago the Calgary Philharmonic Opera dealt with the Tristan chord in an extraordinary way. The philharmonic didn’t play the opera, obviously. Rather, it played a composition that began with the opera’s overture and travelled through its orchestral finale. This was an extraordinary way to hear the Tristan Chord, which gradually went from unresolved to full resolution.

Note: I used many sources for this book besides Bryan Magee’s extraordinary book. A useful online source is available here.