Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Rant - A little good news, please

Rant - A little good news, please
Not that I’m a big fan, but one of Anne Murray’s hits in the 1980s, “A Little Good News” (written by Tommy Rocco, Charlie Black, and Rory Michael Bourke), has been playing in my head almost daily of late. “I sure could use a little good news, today,” goes the refrain.
Distracted as we are by politics south of the border and across the pond, the truth is that domestic news stories this past couple of weeks have brought to my mind not just the song, but also Frank Macdonald’s IMPAC Dublin-nominated novel, A Possible Madness (CBU Press, 2012).

Frank is revered for his cutting-edge satire as much as for his priceless (and oh-so-real) characters and for his enduring commitment to Cape Breton, warts and all. His commitment, like his satire, cuts deeply when addressing the injustices of political and corporate hegemony, and A Possible Madness bleeds truth; it’s well worth a re-read.
Take for example the news that a pulp and paper company near New Glasgow, NS, recently applied pressure to a local chain bookstore to cancel a scheduled book signing by the author of a book that outlines the mill’s history from the standpoint of community protests over the years. The legacy of this mill, a major employer and economic driver in the region, has long been in tension with environmentalists and health-conscious residents. The title of the book, The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest, by Joan Baxter (Pottersfield, 2017), is self-explanatory. Reaction by the mill’s managers and by people dependant on it for their livelihood is both predictable and passive aggressive. Surely communications professionals have something better to offer the community they purport to prop up? You can read the Chronicle Herald story by linking here.
In the same vein, and this is not to compare the scope of Macdonald’s fictional unholy alliance between politics and unbridled capitalism, but rather to recall the rhetoric of “us vs. them” (also the title,and subject, of a great novel by Hugh R. MacDonald – CBU Press 2016), so prevalent in small and undernourished communities.

When citizens are emboldened to think above their station and ask questions of their political and capitalist masters, they are often marginalized, and even vilified.
A revitalized proposal for a rock quarry would hollow out Kelly’s Mountain in the middle of Cape Breton Island—an island, by the way, touted by politicians and bureaucrats as one of the top ten most beautiful places in the world to travel. Islanders went through this quarry thing 25 or 30 years ago too. Now, as then, Indigenous voices are raised in objection, for the mountain is held sacred in Mi’kmaw tradition. Read the news story here.

Not too far away, as the eagle flies, is the seaside community of Donkin, where with great fanfare for nearly twenty years a submarine coal mine has been revitalized, despite global calls for an end to extracting coal as a combustible resource. Years of community support for the mine came to a grinding halt recently, when it was revealed that the mine’s owners now want to do sonic seismic testing along the coast—we gather to gain a better understanding of the subsea geology, and thus a better understanding of the risks to men and machines working below the sea floor. But the chosen manner of the testing is proven, sufficiently for some, to harm marine life—and is thus a threat to the livelihood of lobster fishers in that area. Their fears have, of course, been marginalized. You can read the news story here.
About midway between those battlefields, the Cape BretonRegional Municipality has reached a deal—which must be kept confidential to protect its proponents’ interests—to transfer umpteen hectares of harbour-side land to a group of investors who were earlier granted exclusive rights to develop a marine industrial park. That park proposes to include a massive container-handling facility that most residents consider unrealistic and therefore unlikely to come about. Be that as it may, two centuries of more failures than successes on the part of governments and businesses have spawned a populace tired of being spurned. You can link to the news story here.

These latest rounds are invigorated by social media, by which means pundits and pugilists alike rouse and ridicule the ungrateful rabble. You’d think by now local governments and the cabal of development gurus would have a handle on addressing their ideas with people’s ideals.
And finally, for this post at least, in the 21st-century media landscape, no one should have been surprised by the grand newspaper swap between Torstar and Postmedia of umpteen small market newspapers, many of which will now be silenced. Surprised, no. Saddened, yes. You can read that news story here. The death of many of those newspapers will surely mean the death of reporting in those markets. Small or not, newspapers have been vital for getting the news, but also for getting to the bottom of the news. Maybe the song in my head should parody Bob Marley: “no paper, no pry.”

What does this have to do with a work of fiction? Well, the main protagonist in A Possible Madness is a city-trained journalist turned editor-owner of a small town weekly. David Cameron’s journalistic instincts, homegrown ethics, and not a little courage manage to expose to his community an ill-conceived development plan that will ostensibly boost the local economy at the same time it risks the very lives of those it promises to employ and the very survival of the town itself.
No local organ: no voice for the people. Newspapers and broadcast media—increasingly squeezed by diminishing financial returns—have become organs for governments and business. Once proud journalists have been reduced to following up press releases and social media posts as news—not all journalists, of course, and my apologies to those who have to balance their instincts with feeding their families, and a shout-out to those independent media trying to thrive and survive.

All this leads me to my favourite review of Frank Macdonald’s second novel, A Possible Madness. Conflict alert: I was Macdonald’s publisher.
Back in 2013, essayist Wilf Cude, himself a product of a mining town in northwestern Quebec and now a resident of Roberta, Cape Breton, published a profound review of A Possible Madness in The Antigonish Review (no. 172, winter 2013, ff. 119). Cude quotes the great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who once opined about the limits of our so-called free speech, the free circulation of ideas. To paraphrase, we are free only by definition; in reality we are “hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad.”

“‘[T]he need to accommodate mass standards ... frequently prevents the most independent-minded persons from contributing to public life and gives rise to dangerous herd instincts that block successful development’,” said Solzhenitsynin a speech at Harvard University.
Wilf Cude writes that journalism had schooled the fictional David Cameron that the malign circumstances of “an economically deprived part of the world, preferably sparse in population [is an essential starting point] where rapacious exploitation could be unleased with impunity.”

“A slick web of professional rationalizations” for schemes and talks between corporate interests and governments “ ‘everyone but the people who live here and who will have to live with whatever consequences there are’,” is uncovered by Cameron.
“Dismayingly, [Cameron] encounters one after the other the many subtle obstacles our society has put in place to frustrate any serious inquiry about the truth behind contentious policies.”

“The tiny community of Shean is in truth very real—and is in truth everywhere.”
Art imitating life imitating art – still.

Mike Hunter, December 2017.

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