Edith Wharton: Art, Madness, and World War I

  It occurs to me whole cultures may be subject to the ebb and flow of melancholia, black bile as the Greeks knew it, black from melas, bile from kholé. We know it as bipolar disorder. At first the manic phase occurs, wonderful periods of expressive energy like La Belle Époque that so fascinated Americans of the era, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and made them give up the land of their birth and settle, art-starved expatriates on foreign shores. All the while the dreadnoughts were a-building, the anarchists plotting, the nations preparing to war furiously together until the nadir of catastrophe, the First and Second World Wars, virtually the same war, the darkest of destructive rages. Victim of her own prejudices, did Edith Wharton see World War II coming as did W.B. Yeats? I suspect not. She was famously engaged in the French war effort of the first World War and won the medaille d’honneur for her exemplary and extraordinary efforts. But her Europhile tendencies, her attachment to the values of La Belle Époque, her own latent antisemitism may have blinded her to the ultimate madness that was brewing all around her at the time of her death in 1937.    

Curious that the low point of her husband’s health and the crack-up of her marriage should have occurred a few short years before the outbreak of World War I, a strange symbiotic connection between the personal and the wider western culture that was her subject. In The Marne, Wharton depicted some of the extreme bipolarity of the era, the sudden collapse of La Belle Époque, so mercilessly replaced by the total victory of barbarism and insanity. In pre-war France, young protagonist, Troy Belknap’s…

“happiness would have been complete if there had been more time to give to the beautiful things that flew past them: thatched villages with square-towered churches in hollows of the deep green country, or grey shining towns above rivers on which cathedrals seemed to be moored like ships; miles and miles of field and hedge and park falling away from high terraced houses, and little embroidered stone manors reflected in reed-grown moats under ancient trees….

“And this young man, his dearest friend and companion, was to be torn from him suddenly, senselessly, torn from their endless talks, their long walks in the mountains, their elaborately planned courses of study—archæology, French literature, mediæval philosophy, the Divine Comedy, and vistas and vistas beyond—to be torn from all this, and to disappear from Troy Belknap’s life into the black gulf of this unfathomable thing called War, that seemed suddenly to have escaped out of the history books like a dangerous lunatic escaping from the asylum in which he was supposed to be securely confined!”

“What was war—any war—but an old European disease, an ancestral blood-madness seizing on the first pretext to slake its frenzy?” –A Son at the Front


One of her favourite novels, Wharton’s A Son at the Front poignantly balances the spiritual polarities of art and beauty, warfare and horror. Unlike many war novels written by men, this book remains studiously behind the lines – not that Wharton wasn’t familiar with them. Because of her reputation, French government help got her right there, an experience she wrote about in Fighting France. But the irascible painter protagonist of A Son at the Front, John Campton begins the novel in Paris as a skeptical American isolationist, desperate along with his ex-wife and her wealthy husband, to keep his son out of the war. But while American, George was born in France and according to French law, subject to compulsory military duty. In their circle, however, like many Wilsonian democrats of whose policies Wharton heartily disapproved, no one believed the outbreak of hostilities was even remotely possible, Campton’s son among them:

“I know French chaps who feel as I do – Louis Dastrey, Paul’s nephew, for one; and lots of English ones. They don’t believe the world will ever stand for another war. It’s too stupidly uneconomic, to begin with: I suppose you’ve read Angell? Then life’s worth too much, and nowadays too many millions of people know it. That’s the way we all feel. Think of everything that counts – art and science and poetry, and all the rest – going to smash at the nod of some doddering diplomatist! It was different in old times, when the best of life, for the immense majority, was never anything but plague, pestilence and famine. People are too healthy and well-fed now; they’re not going off to die in a ditch to oblige anybody.”

When the unthinkable occurs, it does so with a numbing, transfiguring brutality. Once French girls with little switches guided their geese down country lanes. Now Campton is pursued by “visions of that land of doom: visions of fathomless mud, rat-haunted trenches, freezing nights under the sleety sky, men dying in the barbed wire between the lines or crawling out to save a comrade and being shattered to death on the return.”

Such are the conventions of war fiction. But what so often distinguishes Wharton’s work is the unsaid. One of Campton’s best-known paintings is a portrait of his son. Nevertheless, he spends successive years during World War I trying unsuccessfully to capture a barely perceptible look that has flashed across his son’s face, a secretive, inscrutable look intimately allied to his son’s deliberate move away from the desk job his parents (and step-father) have secured for him and toward the culmination of nightmare, active duty. During World War II, correspondents spoke of the “thousand-yard stare,” the tell-tale sign of shell shock, now known as PTSD. George’s look is almost the mirror opposite, a conscious willingness to self-sacrifice, an impulse to serve and ultimately to die. His youthful comrades understand it and, fearing any parental attempts at sabotage, conspire to keep the older generation ignorant of its meaning. After being “smashed” once in trench warfare, it is a look George recovers in hospital, one his father briefly detects as his son returns to “his men” at the front. Hospitalized months later, smashed again, much worse, he wears it this time to his grave.

The depiction of George’s death – spare, precise, restrained – is one of the high points of the book. So are Campton’s reflections on life’s mysterious finalities, conscious, unconscious, always connected to art, or perhaps what lies behind the lines of art, as in the vision of Paris light unfolding for father and son from the top floor of the hotel Crillon:

“…the two stood looking down on the festal expanse of the Place de la Concorde strewn with great flower-clusters of lights between its pearly distances. The sky was full of stars, pale, remote, half-drowned in the city’s vast illumination; and the foliage of the Champs Elysées and the Tuileries made masses of mysterious darkness behind the statues and the flashing fountains.”

On various occasions, Campton comes close to seizing the meaning of that “look” he sees, one of the first just before George leaves for his desk job at the front. Two books are beautifully juxtaposed, his son’s red book, the livret militaire with its instructions on mobilization, and Campton’s sketch-book, which he opens while his son is sleeping. “Like the effigy of a young knight,” he thinks to himself. “It was the clinging sheet, no doubt, that gave him that look… and the white glare of the electric burner.” Of course, it is not the white glare of the electric burner. Campton opens his sketchbook again and wonders, “What watery stuff was he made of?…. What of Signorelli, who had sat at his dead son’s side and drawn him, tenderly, minutely, while the coffin waited?”

A second, more harrowing moment occurs in the Tuileries gardens the following spring, “spring with her deluding promises—her gilding of worn stones and chilly water, the mystery of her distances, the finish and brilliance of her nearer strokes. Campton, in spite of himself, drank down the life-giving draught and felt its murmur in his veins.” In the distance, Campton sees his son together with his mistress, Mrs. Talkett. As they move, George points out “some beauty of sculpture, or the colour of a lichened urn.” In peaceable years, these would occupy the foreground, just as Midge Talkett would seek a divorce from her “poor little ass” of a husband and marry George. The irrepressible Boylston declares: “… she loves him, and nothing else counts.” However, in these years of war, something else does count, the Arc de Triomphe on which the Maenad-Marseillaise “still yelled her battalions on to death,” the embodiment of the silent expository nature of art, something John Campton has yet to come to terms with. There will be no divorce; there will be no marriage, only sorrow and loss.

In the end, right before and after his son’s death, Campton does come to terms. He recognizes the entire conscription process, change of heart notwithstanding, has drawn him closer to his son, though he continues, ungenerously, to disparage Julia, his ex-wife….

“What did such people as Julia do with grief, he wondered, how did they make room for it in their lives, get up and lie down every day with its taste on their lips? Its elemental quality, that awful sense it communicated of a whirling earth, a crumbling Time, and all the cold stellar spaces yawning to receive us—these feelings which he was beginning to discern and to come to terms with in his own way (and with the sense that it would have been George’s way too), these feelings could never give their stern appeasement to Julia…”

Why not? And why not to her husband, George’s step-father who in his own way, loved his step-son very deeply? But what Campton does see is the primacy of memory, the key to “the richness of his own denuded life,”

“…when George was in the sunset, in the voices of young people, or in any trivial joke that father and son would have shared; and other moments when he was nowhere, utterly lost, extinct and irrecoverable; and others again when the one thing which could have vitalized the dead business of living would have been to see him shove open the studio door, stalk in, pour out some coffee for himself in his father’s cup, and diffuse through the air the warm sense of his bodily presence, the fresh smell of his clothes and his flesh and his hair. But through all these moods, Campton began to see, there ran the life-giving power of a reality embraced and accepted. George had been; George was; as long as his father’s consciousness lasted, George would be as much a part of it as the closest, most actual of his immediate sensations. He had missed nothing of George, and here was his harvest, his golden harvest. ”

The operative word is “consciousness.” When Boylston suggests a monument, Campton’s first instinct is dismissive. But he comes around: art, sculpture, painting, novels, all vessels of consciousness, “the golden harvest.” He pulls “out all the sketches of his son from the old portfolio” and begins, that transfigured “look” of self-sacrifice and dedication his primary objective.

Difficult it is for me to imagine a more congenial and supportive notion, since I concluded my own father-son novel on much the same ground. True, my lonely parent is a man of the word, not of canvas or clay. Mont Babel’s mysterious finalities have to do with the extremities of outer space, not with World War I, though from another perspective, World War is simply history’s black hole, another “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.” Mont Babel ends in recovery and life, A Son at the Front (seemingly) with the reverse, and yet the synchrony is evident.

Jim Benedict “thought of the first law of thermodynamics, the law of Conservation of Energy. There is such a law. Energy can only be transformed. It can never be created or destroyed. I hoped for an equivalent law of Conservation of Consciousness. It would seem such a waste if all our thoughts, loves, ideas, the miraculous emanations of the human brain, that biological organ that brings us closest to God, would simply evaporate and disappear, sucked into nothingness, into a great void. On the subject of heaven, that constant place, I’m convinced we can never exceed approximation. Hints, glimmerings, like blind men touching an elephant, that’s all we can expect. Music may bring us nearest, at its best, or life itself in its most intimate moments. That look of joy and tenderness on Iris’s face I confess I will never forget. I saw it. I was a witness, as in childhood she was a witness to alien beings, and what there was to apprehend I saw not just with my mind’s eye, but with the eyes of my heart and soul. There, with all my blessed sensory perceptions engaged, at the very center of my puny being, barely more than a mantis shrimp’s, I believe I had what religious people call an epiphany. And in the end, I hoped, after pens are laid down and computer screens closed, after the dimming of the light, the putting aside of all our precious instruments, and the quieting of our hearts, soul may join soul in mystic unity and families find peace.”

Keith Henderson has published six novels with DC Books, The Restoration (1992), The Beekeeper (1990), The Roof Walkers (2013), Acqua Sacra (2016), Sasquatch and the Green Sash (2018), and Mont Babel (2020), political essays from when he was Quebec correspondent for the Financial Post (Staying Canadian, 1997), as well as a prize-winning book of short stories (The Pagan Nuptials of Julia, 2006). He led a small provincial political party in Quebec during the separatist referendum of 1995 and championed Anglo language rights and the strategy of partitioning Quebec if ever Quebec partitioned Canada. He has taught Canadian Literature for many years.

Magdalena North: a Canadian’s view of Netflix’s Bolivar

The average family income in the state of Maryland is US$78,000. Chile’s is the best in South America, US$24,000, twice as much as Colombia’s. Venezuela is a well-known catastrophe.


Why? North and South/Central America both began in colonialism, possessed ample natural resources, benefitted from European connections, separated from their imperial roots in the same 90 years between 1775 and 1867, and ought to have pursued parallel trajectories toward power, unity, stability, and prosperity. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, Venezuela the current, most egregious example. Why the difference? Some answers can be found in Netflix’ sprawling, 60-part Spanish language (English subtitles) series, Bolivar, more in Gabriel Marquez’ The General in his Labyrinth, a sobering, heart-wrenching, sometimes horrific In Memoriam to that same, larger-than-life, Latin American Liberatore, about whom most North Americans, myself included, remain woefully ignorant.


In 1783, Simon Bolivar was born into a wealthy Creole family whose estates, among the best in Venezuela, lay in the vicinity of Caracas. Raised by a family slave, having lost his father at age 3 and his mother at age 9, in his teenage years Bolivar was shipped off to Europe where he acquainted himself with the writers of the French Revolution and (some say) witnessed Napoleon crown himself emperor of France, an act subsequently ratified by the 1804 constitutional referendum but which Bolivar came (curiously) to disapprove. At 18 he married a young Spanish aristocrat of Venezuelan origin, Maria Teresa del Toro y Alayza, and returned to Caracas, only to see her die nine months later of yellow fever.


One could argue these last were the seminal events of Bolivar’s life. Dedicated to personal libertad, he subsequently burnt through countless affairs and never remarried, substituting instead the “love of the people,” to whom he was pleased to present himself in the heavy gold-embroidered and epauletted uniform of a conquering general, mounted, like his inspiration, on a ubiquitous white horse. As befits so contradictory an historical figure, Bolivar’s ambivalent admiration of Napoleon is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. Napoleonism is what separates him (and 200 years of subsequent Latin American history) from the successes of North America.


On the positive side, Bolivar was a consummate military leader, certainly the equal of Washington, if not superior, in wars of astounding scope and brutality of the sort Goya captured so eloquently in Spain. High among Bolivar’s 79 battles ranks the 1819 crossing of the Andes at Pisba, a pass so dangerous, so cold, and at such altitude his royalist enemies never thought he could negotiate it, though he did, at the cost of a thousand lives of peasant fighters who followed their general despite the fact that they were without coats and even shoes. Bolivar descended the western slopes of the Andes, gathered more men, and in scenes masterfully recounted in the Netflix series, took Santa Maria di Bogota.


Liberals have spent the last 150 years pooh-poohing Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory, mistakenly, I believe, their critiques a variant of the “you didn’t build that business” poppycock, a leveller-type “you’re no better than we are” fantasy that distrusts genius and anything unique. Bolivar was unique, prodigious, unprecedented. Still, we are creatures of our times and have seen where egomaniacal “greatness”, puffed-up poseurs like Il Duce, and mesmerizing screamers like Adolf Hitler, can lead. “Washington’s words,” writes biographer Marie Arana (Bolivar: American Liberator), “were measured, august, dignified … the product of a cautious and deliberate mind. Bolivar’s speeches and correspondence, on the other hand, were fiery, passionate…, the prose at once lyrical and stately, clever but historically grounded, electric but deeply wise.” Can we miss which our biographer prefers? But then, almost in the same breath, she announces that, unlike Washington, Bolivar “came to believe Latin Americans were not ready for a truly democratic government: abject, ignorant, suspicious, they did not understand how to govern themselves….” Electric? Deeply wise? Or tragically misguided, superior, vain, and ultimately corrupt, the very reverse of cautious political dignity and deliberation.


North American revolutionaries had much in their favour, chief among which a unified, white, protestant political and military cadre. Bolivar made much of the difference. A slave owner himself, it took him years to appreciate that non-whites might fight valiantly (if not viciously) for their freedom, a fact that asserted itself more and more clearly as coloured plainsmen, led by the cunning and barbaric Boves, defeated him, collapsed his second republic, and sent him fleeing into exile in Haiti. Imagine Washington facing not only British troops but hordes of fighting, vengeful black ex-slaves, all excellent horsemen, bound on reversing a racial hierarchy that had persisted for over 300 years. “Our people are nothing like North Americans,” Bolivar later wrote:


It is impossible to say with any certainty to which human race we belong…. This diversity places upon us an obligation of the highest order…. We will require an infinitely firm hand and an infinitely fine tact to manage all the racial division of this heterogenous society.


For South America, a truly democratic system was out of the question. Such a system, he believed, was “so sublime that it might be more fully for a republic of saints.”


Consider the hard-won constitutional inheritance jettisoned by such attitudes. Forget Magna Carta. The rule of law is replaced by presidential decree. Term limits don’t exist. The best we see is a “president for life” or “dictator of Peru” (both posts Bolivar held) making a semblance of abandoning power, teasing the political élite with the chaos that might thereby ensue, then feigning reluctance at reassuming unquestioned authority – a pattern of behaviour the Liberatore repeated more than once. Checks and balances are scattered to the wind, elections replaced by parades and popular festas, complete with nubile women bestowing laurel wreathes on conquering heroes. Congress becomes a sham, constitutions mere pamphlets to be ripped up and rewritten, federal principles anathema – too divisive, “Unity, unity, unity!” Bolivar’s watchword, while disunity and separatism, violence and rapine abound, as regional warlords compete for power. Bolivar’s dream of a United States of South America is dispersed, his Gran Colombia quickly segmented into the ancient Spanish vice-royalties that preceded it. Assassination trumps orderly succession, the prime victim General Antonio José de Sucre, Bolivar’s political son, substituting for the biological one he never had, shot in the back in the forests of Ecuador.


At the end of his life, beset by tuberculosis, a shadow of his legendary stamina and prowess, escaping popular opprobrium in a boat on the appropriately named Magdalena river, Bolivar tasted the food of his choices. Could there be a more sombre, telling prophesy for the future of a continent? “America is ungovernable,” he wrote.


He who serves a revolution ploughs the sea. All one can do in America is leave it. The country is bound to fall into unimaginable chaos, after which it will pass into the hands of an undistinguishable string of tyrants of every colour. Once we are devoured by all manner of crime and reduced to a frenzy of violence, no one will want to subjugate us.


Such are the bitter fruits of Napoleonism. As prescient as Bolivar could be on the battlefield, how could he not have foreseen where his anti-democratic, his anti-constitutional predilections would lead? Could we imagine Washington or Lincoln, not to mention Thomas D’Arcy McGee ever saying such things?


After the death of his wife, Bolivar buried his baptismal garments in her coffin. A notorious womanizer, he might just as well have buried his constancy, both toward democratic norms and in his personal life. Sexual freedom, political freedom: in the general’s mind they were the same. He once interrupted the voyage of an entire squadron of ships bound for Venezuela in order to pick up his mistress and her mother on another island. Usually the interruptions went the other way – prosecuting revolution the perfect pretext for abandoning love affairs. He abandoned many, throughout the Caribbean, sometimes more than once, as he did to the great love of his later life, the woman who twice saved his life, his mujer loca, Manuelita Sáenz.


The illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Quito businessman, Manuela Sáenz was raised in a nunnery. A less “conventy,” docile young girl would be hard to imagine. After jumping from the convent window to pursue an affair with a royalist officer, Manuela, played with glamorous aplomb by California-educated, Colombian actress Shany Nadan, submitted to her father’s demands and married James Thorne, a British-born trader 20 years her senior. “The lobster,” she called him, whom Arana described as a “portly, stuffy, middle-aged fuddy-duddy,” though (felicitously, as it turns out) Netflix cast the basketball player sized, six-foot-nine Tim Jannsen in the role. Plainly unhappy with her lobster, “as jealous as a Portuguese,” Manuela followed Bolivar’s revolutionary ascent from a distance and when he entered Quito in triumph she made sure to be noticed, the start of their powerful, scandal-ridden, tragically moving love affair.

As played by Nadan, Netflix’s Manuela Sáenz is feisty, gritty, beautiful – well-matched to Luis Gerónimo Abreu’s immensely credible Bolivar. She insists on fighting at the front, dances with him in his victory celebrations, nurses him through his increasingly violent coughing fits, spirits him hurriedly out of bedroom windows, and bars the way to her lover’s would-be assassins with the butt of her rifle. Despite all this overweening loyalty and pluck, Bolivar often refuses to allow her to accompany him on his frequent military excursions, sometimes lasting for months, shows no unwillingness to share her with her lobster, avoids commitment, asks her for “time,” relents, then slips away again, suggesting that she’s too untoward, that she embarrasses him, (using puppets, she’d organized a mock execution of his rival, Santander), that she doesn’t understand the proprieties demanded of a “president for life.” In occasional scenes in the film, Nadan’s Manuelita does approximate the mistress’s excesses. She drinks and swears with her ribald soldier buddies and smokes cigars, but there’s never quite the degree of rambunctious eccentricity Gabriel Marquez depicts in The General in his Labyrinth, where Manuelita travels to meet her general,


in a caravan worthy of Gypsies, with her trunks on the backs of a dozen mules, her immortal slave-women, and eleven cats, six dogs, three monkeys educated in the arts of palace obscenities, a bear trained to thread needles, and nine cages of parrots and macaws that railed against Santander in three languages.


The final months of Bolivar’s life represent a tragic guttering out, of physical energy, of political aspiration, of spirit, of love. Surrounded by an almost universal opprobrium in Bogota, denied the right to return to his birthplace – Venezuela, now a separate, hostile republic – penniless, mortally ill, bereft of his beloved Manuelita whom he never saw again, and accompanied only by a few loyal supporters, Bolivar journeyed northward down the Magdalena River, stopping at Honda, at Mompox, at Barranca Nueva, his goal ostensibly exile in Europe, but his true destination emptying himself into eternity. Unable to eat, beset by bouts of delirium, compounded by the sweltering humidity of these river towns and the Magdalena itself, brown and infested with crocodiles, Bolivar died on December 17, 1830, having been removed by ship to the more salubrious island of Santa Marta, at the time an enclave of Spain. In a modest ceremony, he was buried in a tomb in the island’s cathedral walls. His beloved Manuelita suffered a similar fate. Exiled from Bogota by Santander, whom she loathed, she landed in Paita, as Arana describes it, “a tiny fishing village on the coast of Peru,” where she sold cigars and sweets and did translations for passing whalers, “consoled in her abandonment,” writes Marquez, by memorable visitors like Garibaldi and Herman Melville.


Most Russians think Vladimir Lenin, embalmed and on open display in a Moscow mausoleum, should be given a decent burial. Venezuelans have the opposite problem. They can’t seem to leave Simon Bolivar’s body alone. In 1842, only a dozen years after his death, his arch-nemesis, Paez, began the first of a series of desecrations. He disentombed the general, to please Colombians left his heart preserved in a small urn in the Santa Marta cathedral, and buried him (to take advantage of his popularity) in the same Caracas to which he’d denied him access twelve years before. Thirty years later, another Venezuelan dictator dug him up again and reburied him in a newly constructed “National Pantheon.” Hugo Chavez followed the same path in 2010. He ripped up the constitution, rewrote it, declared Venezuela a “Bolivarian Republic,” and performed the ritual disinterment, this time along with a handful of Paita dirt labelled “the symbolic remains of Manuela Sáenz,” destined for reburial in the same National Pantheon. Bolivar’s exhumation was for a very special purpose: to perform a socialist DNA test. The general had been poisoned, hadn’t he? By “Colombian autocrats” no less. But Chavez’ results proved inconclusive.


Conclusive beyond a shadow of a doubt is the fact that Manuela Sáenz did not accompany Bolivar on his final voyage down the fated Magdalena River. He left her behind, as he so often did, and in his bouts of delirium kept calling out for her, though they were never reunited. In his lucid moments, Bolivar was able to prepare his will. He left nothing to his Manuelita. Bolivar cared little for personal commitment in love. It seems he had the same indifference to Edmund Burke’s wisdom of preceding generations, bequeathed to us in the form of judgment and settled law, the basis of what we’ve come to call “peace, order, and good government,” what may well constitute the defining difference between North and South America.


Conclusive too (in an ironic way) are the modesty and simplicity of Bolivar’s Santa Marta cathedral tomb, not to mention Manuelita’s unmarked grave in Peru, quiet pointers not to the political theatrics of dictators, South America’s endless parade of Caudillos, Juan Peron, Augusto Pinochet, Fidel Castro, but to the cautious political dignity and deliberation of a Washington or a Thomas D’Arcy McGee. For Canadians, the lessons are particularly poignant, Bolivar’s life and legacy clear reminders of the dangers of disrespecting constitutions and the rule of law, of playing the Napoleon card, conducting referenda on the future of the country (which we did twice, in 1980 and 1995) without the slightest legal framework surrounding the results. To this day, the leaders of Quebec’s political élite play Paez to the rest of Canada’s “Gran Colombia.” They refuse to sign constitutions, use their demurral to blackmail the rest of the country into absurd political concessions, pump up French generals by naming bridges after them, pretend to have the authority to set their legal status within the federation (or out of it) all by themselves, and disparage the amending formula, the only mechanism that could enable legally sanctioned change. We have our own inheritors of Bolivar and the Bolivarian tradition. The trouble is most Canadians don’t know it.


China, Telecom, and Canada’s Deep State

Much has been made recently of the Liberal government’s special deal for SNC-Lavalin. Outright bribery of Libyan dictatorship officials? No problem. Remember it was only at the last moment eight years ago that Muammar Gaddafi’s son was prevented from sitting on the Board of Directors of SNC-Lavalin as an Executive VP. SNC-Lavalin paid millions in bribes to his wife and family, paid for his luxury condo in Toronto, half a million for an exclusive performance by rapper 50 cent at the Toronto Film Festival, paid for his huge yacht, and as Libya collapsed, tried to secure him a visa on the way to permanent residence in Canada. Nothing there, really, is there? Remember, too, prominent Quebec Liberals sat on the Board of Directors of SNC-Lavalin, already found guilty of making all sorts of illegal campaign contributions.

Eight years and pending court cases later, the same Liberal deep state operatives tried to get a plea deal organized for the company they’re so close to. They snuck enabling legislation into an omnibus finance bill. Connected people wanted this to happen. But an aboriginal Attorney General apparently didn’t, so she was removed from her post and a potentially more pliant Liberal replaced her, with results that remain to be seen.

In all these outrageous preparations for impunity, Canadians haven’t paid sufficient attention to the involvement of Canada’s often compliant mainstream media and the big telephone companies that sometimes own them. Who broke the story about Jody Wilson-Raybould? Bell Globe Media did. Could they have covered it up? Most certainly they could have. It was a story based on anonymous sources. NBC sat on the Harvey Weinstein affair with far less pretext. The entire SNC-Lavalin story is a saga of backroom deals and secret arrangements that continue to this day, the most recent evidence the brazen stone-walling of the Liberal Justice Committee, which met on February 15 and refused even to invite the former AG to testify. Perhaps the Liberal majority might vote in favour in a few days, but that decision will be made behind closed doors.

If Bell Globe Media could have covered the Jody Wilson-Raybould story up, why didn’t they? Perhaps their editors are filled with journalistic integrity. But perhaps there’s another explanation, an open field for conspiracy theorists, always plausible when the context is one of thoroughly shady dealings.

Consider the parallel case here, that of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou, under house arrest in one of her Vancouver mansions and awaiting trial for extradition to the US. The Chinese clearly do not want this to happen, since they’ve kidnapped two of our citizens (one a diplomat) and threatened to execute another in retaliation. Neither do giant Canadian Telecoms, the ones who, with the complicity of the CRTC, charge you more for your cell phone service than virtually anywhere else in the world. Rogers, Telus, and Bell have invested billions in Huawei equipment to build out Canada’s 5G network. America does not want them to, because the State Department and CIA (along with Australia and New Zealand) suspect Huawei of being a high tech stalking horse for the Chinese intelligence service – not an unreasonable assumption, given the company’s founding by a prominent member of the Chinese Army.

However, many deep state Canadian operatives have centred themselves around the Canada China Business Council, including Stockwell Day, former Tory leader now CBC commentator, as well as executives from Power Corporation and SNC-Lavalin. Should this be a surprise? Some weighed in on the Meng Wanzhou extradition. “A terrible idea,” they claimed. Chief among them was Canada’s Ambassador to China, John McCallum, who made his pro-Wanzhou views known publicly, not once but twice, clearly (and undiplomatically) enough that he was summarily dismissed. So, the Liberal government didn’t take the obvious hint. Lay off Meng Wanzhou. Lay off Huawei, those wonderful folks who, courtesy of Rogers, now bring you Hockey Night in Canada. As the dictatorship in China has frequently suggested, you can put your finger on the scale of justice and tilt it in the right direction. Do so. But if you refuse, as seems the case with Trudeau and Huawei (no credit to the PM here, as he has Trump watching his every move), well, then we’ll expose your hypocrisy at great political cost both to you and your government. You won’t tilt the scales in Huawei’s instance, but you will in SNC-Lavalin’s? Well, you may not be Prime Minister for long – courtesy big Telco.

Time to aggressively buy NOT FROM CHINA

Big box stores like Home Depot, Walmart, and Canadian Tire are warehouses for poorly made Chinese products. I suggest Canadian Tire rebrand itself. “China Tire” might state the case. How many electrical products (to take only one example) have I bought from these outlets only to find the instructions semi-incomprehensible and once installed the products don’t work? Take them back? Sure. And what about all my wasted time? I guess that just doesn’t count.

So frustrated have I become with shoddy Chinese goods, I make a concerted effort to find out where any product is made beforeI buy it. Not an easy task. Take my latest purchase as an example. My pepper mill bust. The plastic bottom just broke and I don’t know how or why. I figure that product was made in China, though I didn’t keep track, so I checked out Lagostina at Canadian Tire. Good price, right? Lagostina: the iconic Italian brand. 

That misleading information sits squarely on the Canadian Tire web site. I noted, however, there was really nothing on where the pepper mill was reallymade. I had to do separate research on that question to confirm what most Canadian shoppers now suspect. Lagostina: Made in China. Where do you think those massive shipping container trains rolling through our cities get their boxes?

I paid moremoney for a French made Peugeot pepper mill. They’re proud of their just-by-the Swiss-border factory. I’m happy to buy from them because I can count on quality, as I would be happy to buy from a Japanese or South Korean auto maker. I would notbe happy to buy a Chinese electric car. 

I think the web site Canadians would love is the NOT FROM CHINA web site. Go there. Search for the product you need, up pop North American and other “market economy” choices and where to get them. I would use such a site as my first choice, ahead of amazon.ca or anybody else. 

Of course, there’s the bigger picture. Like borer beetles, China scrap invades our markets and kills off local manufacturing. All of a sudden, we don’t have any choices. Are there any electrical products NOT MADE IN CHINA left on the shelves? You have to dig deep to find them. China, with its “big brother is watching you” spy culture, now wants to take over Canada’s 5-G cell phone network via Hauwei. Trudeau is dithering about whether to let them, even though our other allies like the US and Australia have already said no. 

Consider this. In a rich irony, Bell Canada (owner of liberal, left-of-center CTV news) has committed billions to Hauwei equipment. Hauwei’s rise to the top of the telcom equipment pyramid started with their industrial espionage hacking of Bell subsidiary Nortel, fifteen years ago. The Chinese state enterprise stole all their intellectual property, Canadian intellectual property, and drove Nortel into bankruptcy. Canada’s answer? Reward them! Videotron, Bell’s separatist owned and operated competitor in Quebec, runs mostly on Hauwei equipment. Bell will soon follow suit. The problem is 5-G will be connected to every little object in your house via the “internet of things.” How’d you like the spy-crazy Chinese government to have potential access to every home in Canada – oh, yes, the way they do things in China right now. 

“Silly paranoid person! We’ll have ways to control Hauwei. They’ll never be able to get away with that.” So say the Sinophiles among us. But Chinese hackers have made their way into the US Defense Department suppliers and even into US government agencies. How does Canada have the wherewithal to counter them? And when US authorities try dealing with Hauwei malign actors (like arresting one lady in Canada, who owns two houses in Vancouver worth over $22 million), 3 Canadians are kidnapped in China as retaliation.

Suggestion. Anti-Trumpers who started a boycott American Products campaign during the NAFTA negotiations ought to do a big pivot. The target? The Asian communist economy. Time to buy aggressively NOT FROM CHINA.

The Passport: a Canadian’s critical view of Netflix’s Al Hayba


I’ve been watching the Lebanese Netflix production Al Hayba, the fictional name of a small town in the Bekaa valley. The series features Alia, a young, attractive Canadian widow, of Lebanese descent, who returns with her ten-year-old son, Joe, and the body of her husband (dead by natural causes), in order to bury him with his prominent and very traditional family. The story is one of return, of deep-seated cultural division between western, Canadian values and over a thousand years of Arab tribalism and clannishness, best personified by the elderly matriarch queen of Alia’s husband’s family, Em Jabal, ailing, sharp-tongued, cane-bearing, wrinkled, probably the most convincing performance of the entire series. The contrast between the old lady’s black drapery and her daughter-in-law’s precious, body-fitting jeans with just the right tears in just the right places, couldn’t be starker.

This Canadian is used to the gradual victory of tolerant, western liberal values in a Netflix production over medieval tribal violence and obscurantism. Not in Al Hayba. Each of thirty episodes (and that’s only season one) peels away the onion skin of Alia’s naturalized Canadian-ness. What’s left is, to my mind, total victory for local values, best articulated in Em Jabal’s oft-repeated phrase, “What’s right is right.” I know absolutely no Arabic, but I intuit that the sentence loses much in translation. The word I think I hear (transliterated) is “shyh,” and “shyh” strikes me as much more than the English word “right.” It suggests right, proper, even sanctified, by tradition and by ancestral, family norm. “Right” is modern and recent. “Shyh” goes back centuries, if not millennia.

But “shyh” has very little to do with “right” (or rights) as Canadians would understand the words. “Shyh” means little Joe must learn to call himself by his Arabic name, Jabal, and so, symbolically, reclaim his lineage and his heritage. “Shyh” means little Joe stays in Lebanon, even if his mother Alia might wish them to return to Canada. Therefore “shyh” means kidnapping little boys is just fine, as long as it furthers clannish family unity, as black draped Em Jabal interprets it. “Shyh” means learning how to protect yourself and your business in a dangerous neighborhood, so “shyh” means learning how to use guns and how not to be afraid to kill. Little Joe prefers playing soccer. Little Jabal must be taught how to shoot birds. “Shyh” and guns seem to go together. Semi-automatics are ubiquitous in this Bekaa valley town. They get carried everywhere, in every huge black American-made SUV. They’re shot off in celebration at weddings, in mourning at funerals, against enemies in lawless vendetta and retribution.

At first Alia is disgusted and outraged by what her husband’s family has done, stolen her child and imprisoned him in their smuggling redoubt sanctuary, a beautiful Mediterranean mountain home filled with stone and wood and fine furniture. Little Jabal doesn’t mind. He’s found an extended family he’s never had, plays in open spaces protected by among others, his armed uncle Sakhar whose gun he mistakes for a toy and, to his mother’s horror, accidently triggers in a bedroom. Alia seems desperate to leave. She temporarily abandons her son to seek refuge in Beirut and to organize Joe’s rescue with the help of the Canadian embassy. But she runs out of money. Her brother-in-law, divorced, putative head of the family, Jabal al-Sheik Jabal, has her constantly watched and aided by his corrupt Lebanese cronies, has her credit cards blocked and her lawyer intimidated. He also impounds little Jabal’s passport. The black-draped matriarch has already made Alia’s choices abundantly clear. Before her daughter-in-law left for Beirut, in a scene worthy of the middle ages, Em Jabal tossed a white shawl at Alia’s feet. She was free to leave (but not with her son.) If she stayed, she would have to marry her brother-in-law. One or the other. That too, it seems, is “shyh.”

But here a major problem in motivation enters the film. Writers and directors have Alia convince herself she has no choice but to stay with her son. That means returning to Al Hayba according to the terms her mother-in-law has laid down. Yes. Alia, hitherto confident, self-assertive, westernized, filled with the liberal scruples one would come to expect, succumbs, implausibly, and abjectly agrees to marry her brother-in-law, an antediluvian gangster and murderer for whom she has never exhibited the slightest regard. She could have returned to Canada, resumed her well-paying managerial post, saved her money and organized a legal campaign to wrest her boy out the hands of kidnappers and arms smugglers. However, the idea never seems to occur to her. Marriage it is, so marriage it will be, complete with celebratory gunfire, as long as she and her little Joe can be together. For the matriarch’s benefit, unbeknownst to her, the erstwhile betrothed even agree to play act. They will share a bed, but will engage in no sex, an absurd game that persists for weeks if not months, as Alia’s distaste for the family and its values slowly ebbs and her usual dour looks for both matriarch and son are replaced – inexplicably – by smiles and acceptance. She learns how to shoot and listens indulgently every time Em Jabal raises the possibility (even the duty) of producing a new son for the family.

Alia’s is not the only story in Al Hayba of trading western feminism for servitude. Rima, a cousin, parallels her course. At first, she suffers the unwanted and overly-possessive attentions of Jabal al-Sheik Jabal’s brother, Sakher. In this town, one does not dismiss members of the ruling Jabal family lightly, however distasteful their behaviour. But Rima prefers fellow university students, whom Sakher routinely threatens. Obsessed, Sakher has her name tattooed on his arm, but the girl eventually plucks up enough courage to tell him she doesn’t want him following her around in his big black SUV and insisting on picking her up after class, that she cannot love him and never will, a declaration that edges Sakher, never the most stable of characters, toward suicide.

The worst occurs when (western-style) Rima opts for a one-night stand with a chance encounter in a Beirut bar. Her bedmate videos the event, blackmails her, and threatens to expose the entire night on the internet. Horrified by the prospect of such dishonour, Rima herself considers jumping out a window when she’s (conveniently) saved by a phone call from the very young man she jilted. When he learns what occurred, Sakher hunts the blackmailer down in his apartment, subjects him to a vicious game of Russian roulette, as he points a pistol loaded with a single bullet at his head, asks him questions about what went on that night, then pulls the trigger each time. After five attempts, the single bullet never fires. Tired of this game, he ties his victim up in some kind of flammable binding, pulls out his lighter, and quietly leaves the apartment while the man burns to death. “You killed him?” Rima asks when Sakher finds her. Knowing the answer changes everything. All of a sudden, he’s a hero. Could there be a better reason for love than “shyh”?

No, Al Hayba is not an ironic exposé of all that is wrong in Arab life. The Jabal family are celebrated, their actions ultimately exonerated. In the final scenes, “evil dogs” (a competing family) attack the compound when Jabal al-Sheik Jabal is at his weakest and hiding out “in the wilderness” with his brother Sakher, who’s been blinded in a car bomb attack. Back home, automatic weapons at the ready, the women of the compound fend off the attackers, an act which before her arrival in Lebanon, Alia would have found inconceivable. Later, the senior Jabal avenges all that has gone wrong by pulling his enemy out of a barber’s seat and shooting him in the town square in broad daylight. The last episode of season one ends with Rima tenderly attending to Sakher’s ruined eyes. “Do you remember what you used to call me?” she asks. “Rima,” he answers. “No. What else.” “My cousin,” he says. “No. More,” she replies. “My soul and my eye,” he finally admits. Alia enters the scene bearing the son her mother-in-law has always desired. “Do not worry. Everything will be fine,” her husband comforts her, repeating what he has always told her. Then he calls her his “Em Jabal.” The peeling of the onion, the jettisoning of western values is complete.

As a Canadian, I find it hard to be indifferent to this unfolding, these transformations. Al Hayba presents (and I would argue propounds) a set of principles most Canadians would find very disturbing. The series raises the oft-avoided question of a values test connected to immigration. Imagine Al Hayba, season 2. Life gets a little too dangerous, even for those inured to danger or, like Alia, recently affected by it. The Jabal family decides to move back to Canada. Now it’s not just little Joe and his mother. It’s Alia’s second husband, a gangster and murderer (though in Lebanon’s corrupt society, never convicted of anything). It’s the evil matriarch herself, convinced of her own honour and integrity. It’s Sakher, another murderer and his wife, even blinder than her husband. At issue is the whole questionable machinery of chain migration. Should Canada not ask a single question of such people? Would we want them living amongst us?

Oh, but you would now be creating two classes of Canadian citizens, the more liberal-minded of us might argue. We can only have one class of Canadian citizenship. We can’t possibly start imposing such tests.

Really? First of all, Canada already has two classes of citizens. Certain institutions (like the federal government) can post signs in English and French with lettering of equal size. Try doing that if you’re a small businessman in Quebec. (Unless you’re a Canadian of Chinese origin and you’re posting in Chinese and French. Then the Chinese can be even larger. Three classes of citizens?) Or try sending your kid to an English school in Quebec if you’re a Canadian citizen originally from Lebanon.

Secondly, what’s wrong with asking people who want to come here whether their beliefs and attitudes can easily assimilate with our own? We’re under no obligation to them. Perhaps we’d like to screen them, make sure we’re getting the best, not the worst.

But they’ll lie, is the most frequent retort. All you’ll get is what they know you want to hear. And so? Let them lie. And if in the future, in court cases or otherwise, their documented dishonesty comes into play, so should their citizenship. Public lying in such serious situations as requesting citizenship or landed immigrant status should always bear consequences. The worst policy is never to ask.

A pivotal scene in Alia’s systematic de-westernization occurs toward the end of season one. Having ingratiated herself with the family and its matriarch, Alia manages to escape to Beirut with her boy, armed with a newly minted Canadian passport. Aware of her escape, her husband tries to organize his corrupt Lebanese airport cronies to place little Joe on a no-fly list. He needn’t have bothered. At the last moment, Alia gets cold feet and aborts the escape. After her return to the family home, her husband tells her he could have made big trouble for her at the airport. Alia responds that her boy’s Canadian passport would have made even bigger trouble for him. The only explanation we ever get for why she fails to return to Canada occurs in a brief conversation with her sister-in-law, Mona. “Why didn’t you leave?” Mona asks. “You don’t really belong here.” “I couldn’t,” Alia answers after a pause. That’s all she says. So, we can conclude, her staying in Lebanon is not something that bears logical scrutiny. It’s a feeling in the heart, large, strong, irrational.

Unavoidable is the thought that, however inarticulately, Alia has made a conscious choice. What exactly she has chosen is worthy of examination. Alia has chosen oligarchy, where one man, who happens to be her second husband, rules as judge, jury, and executioner. “Master,” he is frequently called, for whose sake it is a toady’s privilege to serve and even to be imprisoned (as occurs in the film), unless “Master” is violently supplanted, of course. Attached to such oligarchy is the complete subversion of the rule of law and the utter corruption of public life. In such a system, public services are sketchy a best, local wars simmer like lava pits beneath the surface of national life, and order is enforced by gang beatings. No economy can flourish in such a system of money laundering and tax avoidance. Political assassinations are routine and civil war can explode at any moment, as it did in Lebanon in 2006, when 40,000 Lebanese with Canadian passports, many of whom hadn’t been in Canada for years, insisted that the government immediately send ships to evacuate them. Incredibly, Canada did. Most of these Lebanese returned after a month or so to pick up where they’d left off.

The irony of Alia’s perverse Lebanese metamorphosis is instructive. She chooses a degraded system but retains her Canadian papers. Who knows when they might become useful again? She turns her back on Canada and its values, ceases to contribute anything to the country, but keeps her citizenship of convenience, her bolt-hole second country just in case her questionable choices don’t quite work out for her. In the end, it’s hard to have any respect for her, for Al Hayba, for the extended Jabal clan, but even harder to respect a country, Canada, that lacks the moral fortitude to revoke a passport. ESR

Keith Henderson has published five novels with DC Books, The Restoration (1992), The Beekeeper (1990), The Roof Walkers (2013), Acqua Sacra (2016), and Sasquatch and the Green Sash (2018), political essays from when he was Quebec correspondent for the Financial Post (Staying Canadian, 1997), as well as a prize-winning book of short stories (The Pagan Nuptials of Julia, 2006). He led a small provincial political party in Quebec during the separatist referendum of 1995 and championed Anglo language rights and the strategy of partitioning Quebec if ever Quebec partitioned Canada. He has taught Canadian Literature for many years.

See Acqua Sacra–Keith Henderson’s transatlantic anti-corruption novel