Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Arts and a sustainable future

 For the past few years I've belonged to a group of lawyers, academics, businesspeople and former politicians that meets once a month to engage in friendly debates. They call themselves the 'Muddy York Debating Society.' 


A few months back I was invited to debate on the subject of "Are the Arts essential to a sustainable future?" I argued in the affirmative. Here's what I said:


As we all know, these debates always come down to definitions, and lawyers love to play with definitions. As they told us in law school, definitions make the difference between fly poop and pepper.


“The Arts are essential to a sustainable future.” The three key words for definition in this short sentence are “arts”, “essential” and “sustainable”. Let’s deal with each of them.


In common parlance, “sustainability” has become just another sociological and feel-good marketing flim-flam. Your yoga mat has to be made of “sustainable” materials. Your morning coffee has to be “sustainable”. Your investment portfolio has to be composed of “sustainable” investments in “sustainable” corporations. Like “organic”, ‘fair trade” or “free-range’, “sustainable” has become all but meaningless, making a debate about whether something is “sustainable” as slippery as a politician’s promise.


A good working definition of sustainability is the capacity to endure in a relatively ongoing way across various domains of life. It has a narrow environmental meaning, but sustainability is larger than that.


But if we go back to the simplest meaning of the word – enduring – then there is no doubt that the arts are the most enduring and therefore sustainable part of the human past, and therefore of our future.


Art. What is art? Is it like pornography – we know it when we see it? Or is it defined in the negative? As The Edge of U-2 once commented, "We don't know what it is, so it must be art." Leaving aside such philosophical questions, the seven arts are traditionally agreed to be: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Music, Poetry, Dance, and Performing.


When we look at the long story of recorded human history, what is it that endures? Art. The oldest known cave painting is a red hand stencil in a cave in Spain. It has been dated to older than 64,000 years. In fact, it isn’t even human – it was  made by a Neanderthal. In the end, Neanderthals were not sustainable, but their art was. It endured longer than they did.


Architecture is one of the most enduring and therefore sustainable of the arts. We can still stand on pyramids and ziggurats built thousands of years ago. Egypt's Old Kingdom era tombs were constructed some 4,500 years ago, making the mosaics of Pompeii look positively youthful at only 1900 years old.  We can still stand in the Roman Forum and Nero’s box at the Coliseum. We can still shop and discuss at the Acropolis at Athens and the Agora, from the 5th century BC, where Plato and Aristotle taught.


Sculpture. How many people have stood before the Venus de Milo, or the Winged Victory? The Venus de Milo was sculpted sometime between 150 and 125 BC. The Winged Victory of Samothrace dates from 200 BC. Both are mere babies compared to Venus of Hohle Fels, an Upper Paleolithic Venus figurine made of mammoth ivory dated to between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago. It is the oldest undisputed example of a depiction of a person. This isn’t even Neanderthal – it is from the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic from the earliest presence of Cro-Magnon in Europe. Now that’s sustainable.


I mentioned Plato and Aristotle. We can still read their literature – along with other plays and philosophies of Ancient Greece. The Histories of Herodotus is considered the founding work of history in Western literature written almost 2500 years ago. Who hasn’t struggled through Chaucer, or Spenser’s Fair Queen, or Beowulf? Literature is an enduring art.


Poetry is one of the seven arts, from Homer’s 8th century Iliad and the Odyssey, to the Song of Solomon, and TS Elliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. For those who think poetry is dead art form, consider National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda S. C. Gorman, who spoke at the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, and moved a nation with the power of her poetry.


Performing: Who among us didn’t have to read Antigone, one of Sophocles's trilogy of plays written in 441 BC. The Roman historian Livy wrote that the Romans first experienced theatre in the 4th century BC, with a performance by Etruscan actors. The Greeks had theatres centuries before that. Shakespeare entertained packed houses 400 years ago, and continues to today. In fact, there are no fewer than 525 feature films which give William Shakespeare some form of writing credit - although no royalties - including The Lion King and West Side Story. No doubt people acted out the hunt around campfires since the origins of the human race. Mozart, Wagner and Verdi still draw crowds. Theatre and performances are one of the great communal activities humans enjoy – and one we have sorely missed during Covid. Surely the performing arts are “sustainable”.


Sustainable may also include the idea of relevant or relatable. Can we relate to ancient art? Can we see ourselves and our humanity in art from persons and civilizations long dead? Yes. It still moves us.


Lastly, let’s look at “essential,” as in “the arts are essential to a sustainable future.” The essentialness of the arts is proven by its very endurance. That it has been present since literally before we were human proves its essential nature to our humanity. It is clear to see that creating art is a natural, innate, primal behavior. Children instinctively make art. It exists in every culture. It is a fundamental human behavior. It is part of who we are.


Art is an essential part of human communication. It helps us share ideas, emotions and concepts that are otherwise difficult to express in words. Art extends the way we are able to communicate.


There is a contemplative and spiritual aspect to art that transcends ordinary communications. Some would argue that it allows us to connect with the divine. Jung thought the artist was “one who carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic life of mankind.”  Freud, argued that it taps into deeper human psychological forces that allow us to better understand ourselves. Aristotle believed that art purges the soul of dangerous thoughts and gives a pleasurable relief to the strongest of emotions. It is cathartic.


Art is a history lesson, an historical record, a preservation of culture, and a human autobiography all in one.  Art reflects cultural values, beliefs and identity, and records our own lives and experiences over time. Surely that is essential. It is not only sustainable – its sustains us.


Experiencing and creating art is a social activity, whether we fight through the crowds to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, sit at an opera, ballet, play or concert. Being part of an audience connects us not just to the art but to each other. As social animals, this connectiveness is indeed essential.


What would our future be without the arts? It is impossible to imagine. Humans have always been creative. There is a deeply ingrained impulse to create and share, tell stories, build monuments, sing and compose. The question is, can there even be a future without the arts?


You get it – the arts are old. From an unknown Cro Magnum man or woman carving a fertility goddess from mammoth ivory 35,000 years ago to Picasso and Banksy. But remember that we are now living in their future. In some cases, their distant future. That is proof that the arts have been and are sustainable, and there is no reason to think that they will not be in our future as well.


One of the things the arts have been used for is to help us imagine the future. From Thomas More’s Utopia to Star Trek, authors, painters, actors, and movie makers have created a vision of the future. They have imagined flying cars and moving sidewalks, rocketships and alien races. They have also imagined perfect societies, and more recently a raft of dystopian worlds. These stories help us ease into the future and spur us on to discoveries and technological breakthroughs. They also use futuristic settings to teach us lessons about ourselves – often they are parables about race and war and environmental degredation. They also show us the consequences of taking the wrong path – about futures that are not sustainable.


To use the most narrow of definitions of “sustainable”, fiction and movies routinely warn us about the perils of environmental devastation. From Soylent Green to the Handmaid’s Tale, or even those artistic masterpieces, Planet of the Apes and Mad Max, the arts in popular culture caution us about what an unsustainable future could look like. The arts help us imagine and therefore create the future we will live in, and the consequences of living unsustainable lives. They are a glimpse into the future, and a way to vividly imagine the results of bad choices.


I’ll conclude with a statement from Patrick Kabanda, author of The Creative Wealth of Nations: Can the Arts Advance Development? On the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations he wrote:


Data is important, But data alone doesn’t necessarily change people’s minds. On climate change, for instance, we have the science, but still there are many people who do not accept it, even when we throw numbers at them. So what do we need? We need stories. We need poetry. We need an emotional connection.


What Kabanda is reminding us is that the Arts are indeed essential to a sustainable future.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

What an Original thought about Constitutional "Originalists"

 I have never understood American "originalist" legal theorists like Amy Coney Barrett and other "strict reading" constitutionalists who believe the American Constitution is forever perfect and can never be re-interpreted by the courts to meet modern challenges. 

Canada has them too, generally on the right who decry "judge-made law" and courts interpreting Charter protections to address emerging social realities.
For the "originalists" like Amy Coney Barrett who believe that the American Constitution is perfect and forever frozen in amber (never mind that slavery thing, or women voting), the best critique is actually from an "original" - Thomas Jefferson, founding father and primary author of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote in 1816 the following:
"Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors..."
"By the European tables of mortality, of the adults living at any one moment of time, a majority will be dead in about nineteen years. At the end of that period, then, a new majority is come into place; or, in other words, a new generation. Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself, that received from its predecessors; and it is for the peace and good of mankind, that a solemn opportunity of doing this every nineteen or twenty years, should be provided by the constitution; so that it may be handed on, with periodical repairs, from generation to generation, to the end of time, if anything human can so long endure."

By the way, some of the above was considered so important that it appears on the wall of the Jefferson Memorial.

In Canada, our Constitution (and Charter of Rights, which is part of the Canadian Constitution) has been interpreted more expansively since the 1929 "Persons Case", where Lord Sankey ruled: "The British North America Act planted in Canada [is] a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits." 
The "living tree" doctrine has ruled our constitutional interpretation since. Conservatives have preferred the "frozen concepts" (originalism) doctrine, but in the 2004 "same sex marriage" case, the Supreme Court of Canada stated:
"The "frozen concepts" reasoning runs contrary to one of the most fundamental principles of Canadian constitutional interpretation: that our Constitution is a living tree which, by way of progressive interpretation, accommodates and addresses the realities of modern life."

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

China's swagger wins few friends.

A new article from me about how China's heavy-handed tactics win them few friends and influence people - the wrong way. 

I frequently travelled back and forth to the PRC on business from 2000 to 2012. It was a time of great transition for China. Those were the formative years when it emerged as a world economic powerhouse, but now it is finding its uniquely Chinese version of Manifest Destiny doesn't breed trust or love in the West.


As the 21st Century began, the investing West discovered China. It was often referred to as the ‘Marco Polo Syndrome’ as North American investors and mineral explorers rode into China to seek their fortunes and show the Chinese ‘ how it’s done.’

For a brief while China also felt it needed the West’s cash and expertise to catapult it to prosperity. It welcomed and even was deferential to the army of foreign investors and joint ventures in mining, technology, telecom, manufacturing, and a host of infrastructure projects.

There were bumps along the way. Like the dot com boom and bust, projects that should never have been funded had money thrown at them in the rush to grab a piece of the China gold rush. With no experience of western business relationships, there were misunderstandings and some outright cash grabs by Chinese partners, with little recourse to western safeguards like courts or regulators. It was easy to blame the Chinese for early business failures, but many of the failures were made in North America because corners were cut by the people in New York, Toronto and London who feared missing the boat in the rush to establish a foothold in the massive Chinese market.

There were a number of great successes too, from mining to Volkswagen to Apple, as well as hundreds of other projects big and small. UBS recently estimated that Walmart imports 26% of its merchandise from China, while Target imports 34% of its products from China ( ). As China became more prosperous internally, it became even more of an attractive a market.

But then a seismic shift – both financial and psychological – occurred in 2008 that changed the West’s relationship with China. The market meltdown started by the collapse of mortgage-backed securities crippled the hedge funds and other financial institutions of London and New York. For the first time, China saw the West’s weakness and its own strength. It had found its swagger. The ancient Chinese belief in ‘tianxia’ - that China was the rightful center of the civilized world – was back.

In the late 20th century the Chinese Communist Party realized limited capitalism was the key to prosperity, and opened up to foreign and domestic trade and investment. Almost overnight they became “capitalists in a hurry” going through rapid expansion most like the rough-and-tumble late 19th century robber baron capitalism of the US.

China, like Russia, takes advantage of chaos and distraction in other countries. China took advantage of the 2008 economic crisis to expand its influence into Africa and elsewhere to secure needed raw materials. It is currently taking advantage of Covid-19 and the domestic turmoil in the United States and England to forcefully push back on the promised “two systems, one country” policy of Hong Kong semi-independence, the border with India and hegemony in the South China Seas. In Canada, the detention of Hauwei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou for extradition at the US’s request resulted in the retaliatory arrest and arbitrary detention of two Canadian citizens.

This is a good example of how China’s regaining its swagger has recently backfired internationally. In a global economy, bullyboy tactics in trade rarely produce good or lasting results. China’s general belligerence on the international stage has, among other things, disqualified Hauwei’s otherwise good 5G technology in the West, with countries opting instead for alternatives from Sweden’s Ericsson or Finland’s Nokia. Not being able to break through the suspicion, Hauwei only derives about 6% of its revenues from the West.

Outward bound Chinese investment is received with the same wariness, with concerns about security. And while Western projects and investments inside China have been generally more secure than the investing public gives it credit, it can’t help feel the chill caused by China’s bull in a china shop reputation in the West.

Can China break this cycle of jockeying for the upper hand with more stick than carrot? It’s unconditional demand for respect and obedience – a product of not just years communism, but deep-seated in its ancient self-image as the literal center of the world – makes it unwilling or unable to do what is necessary to be welcomed into western markets.

Until then, China’s swagger makes it its own worst enemy.


This article originally appeared on