May 7, 2017

Margaret Mitchell

Local lineage

I picked up Margaret Mitchell's autobiography this spring after Glen Sanford gave a touching testament in the campaign office to her being a great person and a "great boss." She died on International Women's Day. The autobiography's title refers to her being laughed at in the House of Commons when, as the NDP MP for Vancouver East, she brought up the prevalence of domestic abuse in Canada. "Can you imagine?" as Glen said. People in the office who knew her teared up. I looked around and recognized for the first time a lineage.

“The Militant Mothers of Raymur” (great local case study in campaigning)

Raymur Housing Project, located in the Downtown East area, is one of the city’s oldest and largest public housing projects. It was imposed on the Strathcona community to replace demolished houses as urban renewal took place. It had no amenities and was often referred to as “the snake-pit” by poor people who felt trapped there and longed to escape. 

Children who lived at Raymur Housing Project had to walk across busy railway tracks to go to school. About twelve mothers who previously had been strangers formed a strong group, determined to gt an overpass over the railway to protect their kids. Mothers lobbied politicians and city officials for an overpass, but with no results. Finally they decided to take direct action. 

For a week, twenty mothers camped in their tents on the railway tracks, stopping train traffic to the Port of Vancouver. Activists from across the city swarmed to applaud and support them. Half of the women agreed to go to jail if necessary, while the other half agreed to look after their kids. Along with the other activists, I supported them each day, but we did not interfere with their decisions. My little red car carried a wine bottle and food for refreshment. 

Caroyln Jerome, the sister of the famous runner Harry Jerome, agreed to be on duty when officials came to serve an injunction to make the protestors insist. Each time they arrived, she tore off up the tracks and they were unable to catch her. Eventually the protesting women were taken to court by the powerful Great Northern Railway, which had several lawyers representing them. The Militant Mothers had none, until a sympathetic lawyer volunteered to represent them as a “Friend of the Court.” He eventually won on a technicality. There was great rejoicing! The city agreed to build an overpass. 

A strong sense of community resulted from this action, and tenants in Raymur organized many more improvements including a food co-op and recreation programs staff by people in the neighbourhood. They eventually negotiated to take over the Housing Authority offices, and the Ray-Cam Co-Operative Community Centre was built.  
Margaret outlines other examples of local campaigns, including the building of solidarity between Italian and Chinese communities in East Vancouver building together with existing associations to fight against evictions and housing destruction. The creation of CRAB Park. The fight for Chinese Head Tax redress.

“Canada’s First Woman Leader” (oh yeah)

Although women’s rights were high on the NDP agenda, caucus decisions were dominated by men. Several power-hungry men dominated executive positions, assigning duties as well as privileges, such as trips. 
When female representation increased to five, Audrey McLaughlin, Lynn McDonald, Mario Dewar, Pauline Jewett, and I decided it was time to have a great impact. We were actively recruiting women to run in the next election. When we began to caucus around the table in the Opposition Laounge, the guys began to wonder what we were plotting. When we moved into the “Ladies Lounge,” things got serious. (This lounge was originally provided for the sole use of wives of MPs–much to Claude’s disgust.) 
We realized that to have a greater say in decisions we would have to undertake leadership roles. The first step was to pass a motion recognizing “parity,” which was party policy requiring gender parity in key positions. This passed in caucus. To implement this with a minority of women, we decided to each run for a senior position on the executive. Audrey was elected chair and I was elected whip. The other three women also took on senior roles. And so the feminist revolution took place.
It was a little while before our colleagues recognized that a coup had taken place.  However, they soon began to feel the impact as we feminized the agenda and the style of operation with more group consensus and less belligerence in the House. 
…We decided to work within the party for nomination of a woman leader. 
[Audrey McLaughlin became the first leader of a Canadian political party with representation in the House of Commons, as leader of the NDP from from 1989 to 1995.]

Finally, a sweet clip from the chapter "Romance in Vancouver and Vienna", in which her Australian love Claude proposes with a list of things to look forward to

Later Claude wrote, “We will have a great life to live together with understanding, tolerance, a sense of humour, idealism, concern for our fellow man, music, work, discussion, a future to build together, our house that I want to build with your help. We will have children. We both love children so very much.” I was very moved, and when I wrote back, added to his list: “friends we both love, a love of nature and all things beautiful.” 
Margaret had ovarian cancer in her thirties (most women died of this at the time; the medical treatment involved radioactive gold), and couldn't have children, and she and Claude eventually separated, but she refers to him as being steadfast in her support of her. 

January 23, 2017

Let Our Fame Be Great

"Isn't it terrible about Chechnya?

Going into this book, I was about as informed as Bridget Jones in the 2001 film, when she's preparing to meet Salman Rushdie and wants to sound smart, so practices asking, "Isn't it terrible about Chechnya?" Chechens came up for me again recently in the fantastic and frightening show Okkupert (Occupied), when the Russians want to extradite and kill a Chechen man for terrorism.

But who does know that much about the Caucasus, that in-between region east of the Black Sea?

Oliver Bullough, for one. He grew up in Wales, chased a passion for Russian into the field of journalism, and pursued his curiousity to write this massive mix of history and personal stories, published in 2010 as Let Our Fame Be Great. Maps, long quotations, statistics, and some notes of travelogue make it into this book. He continues writing for The Guardian, most recently a profile of Putin, and is working on a book called Moneyworld.

The title

Apparently the original people of the Caucasus region were asked by their god if they wanted a life of plenty but in relative obscurity, or a life of absolute struggle in which they would be tested and damaged, but famous for their courage – held up as emblems of heroic humanity. "Let our fame be great," was their defiant answer. Their god failed on his end of the bargain, though, because how many people know the history, and the decimation by the Russians/Soviets, of the Circassians, the Ingush, the Balkars, the Chechens?


By one estimate, around the time of the 1864 exodus, 400,000 Circassians were killed, 497,000 deported (a third or more likely died in transit or upon arrival, mostly in what is now Turkey), and only 80,000 allowed to remain.

Americans and Brits visiting Circassian villages were scandalized to learn about the widespread slave trade, of sorts, in which poor villagers would sell their daughters to Ottoman harems and their sons to the Ottoman military, in exchange for goods and weapons that they could use to defend the homeland. The foreigners wanted to be enraged, but couldn't help but notice that the children were largely comfortable with the arrangement and understood the necessity.

Did you know that Circassians make up the Jordanian royal bodyguard?

Hearty, unreliable, and good

A traveler to the Caucasus, Florence Grove, who may well have been the first to climb Europe’s highest mountain – Mount Elbrus – wrote of the Katachai-Balkars:

Strong, healthy men as most of them are, well capable of doing a long day’s work without the slightest distress, it is wonderful how they loiter on a journey, and what frequent and protracted halts they may. Most irritating, too, is their procrastination. It will be seen then that, though the Caucasians are not always to be relied on, and at times try the traveller’s patience largely, the good much predominates in their character, and I think that those who have sojourned among them cannot fail to carry away a most pleasant pastoral remembrance of this simple pastoral race...

The importance of a literary movement

Before the events of the 1990s and 2000s, including the hostage taking and killing in the school in Beslan, a literary and cultural development bubbled up in the city of Grozny.

The shows that Zakayev’s theatre in Grozny put on in the 1980s had titles like Freedom or Death or There is Only One God, and these were to become slogans of the nationalist movement that was to explode at the end of the decade. The generation that the literary movement was to create would stand on the barricades with them.

What constitutes, I wonder, the current literary movement that will create the generation that will stand on the barricades–real or metaphorical–to come? Not for a nationalist movement, but for a movement for a world that we and our descendants can survive or even thrive in? Who is jumping in? Naomi Klein? Micah White? Zadie Smith? 

Although the number of people involved in these groups was small – just a handful really, compared to the mass of the nation – their influence would be disproportionately large.

December 23, 2016

Genghis Khan: The Man Who Conquered the World

Instead of buying this newish biography from a little bookstore in Kanab, Utah, I waited to borrow it from the Vancouver Public Library. I skimmed a lot of it, looking for the juicy bits to share. Here are a few:

Food for journeys

The mounted archers on campaigns mainly ate meat jerky, kept under the saddle where it could be massaged and tenderized, and dried cheese, which could be rehydrated in a water flask.

Different sense of time

Genghis Khan made a famous Taoist travel for four years to visit him, because he was interested in immortality.

Origin story

Genghis Khan killed his own brother for grabbing and eating a fish without sharing, which was in keeping with Mongol steppe acceptable recourse.

Vision, illiteracy, and making it up as you go along

Genghis Khan was the greatest conqueror the world has ever known. He and his sons vanquished peoples from the Adriatic to the Pacific. The Mongols eventually reached Austria, Finland, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Vietnam, Burma, Japan and Indonesia. 


All this was achieved by a man who seemed to come from nowhere; the only similar feat, though in a very different sphere, was that of Jesus of Nazareth. Genghis had no tradition to build on, for although there had been powerful steppe kingdoms and nations before him, he was unaware of them. Alexander the Great had a powerful military machine constructed by his father Philip of Macedonia; Julius Caesar had three hundred years of Roman military superiority to build on; Napoleon could rely both on the ancient French tradition of Condé and Turenne as well as the élan of the French Revoluation and the mass mobilization it unleashed.

In a real sense Genghis had to invent his own tradition and solve a plethora of political and social problems as he went along.  Besides his military and administrative genius and his uncanny ability to read men, Genghis was truly original in that he saw how it was possible for nomads, employing the quantum leap in military technology afforded by his mounted archers, to dominate civilised societies and extract tribute from them. All this he did while being illiterate and having no access through books to the wisdom of the ages.


Every winter, a massive hunt or "battue" would be organized, taking up to three months for an ultimate animal massacre.

The battue was a central event in the Mongol calendar and it had a threefold significance, as military training, an important source of food and as a great social event that inculcated the idea of the organic solidarity of the nation.

All soldiers (i.e. every man, except those who wanted to be unpaid labourers for the empire) would start on a line up to 80 miles long. Eventually the ends would form a semicircle and then a circle. Each section of the circle was commanded by a commander of a minqan (unit of 1,000 men).

Finally, the animals were contained within a narrow circumference, within which was a panicky melee of roaring lions, bleating stags, lowing wild oxen and the ululation and cacophony of scores of different breeds.

Genghis Khan and anyone looking to appear brave and capable would enter the melee, on horse or on foot, and begin the killing. They would let enough animals escape to keep up populations.


Before invading China, Genghis wanted to subdue the “Forest Peoples” in the northwest.

Much of this vast area was an immense forest of birch, poplar, cedar, larch and fir, with an interpenetrating undergrowth of rhododendron, mosses and lichens.

Sounds nice.


Geneticists have recently established that about 0.8 per cent of the population of Asia has an identical Y-chromosome, indicating the likelihood of a common ancestor, possibly some time around 1000 AD. This would imply that about 0.5 per cent of the world’s population has this common ancestor and that he has 16-17 million descendants.


As he was dying:

To his sons he reiterated the arrangements about the succession and the division of the empire, remarking sadly: 

‘Life is short. I could not conquer all the world. You will have to do it.’