Tiptoeing through a minefield of idioms

Should you do your “due diligence” or your “do diligence” when you set out to buy something more expensive than a box of Oreo cookies?

Christina Desmarais has the answer to that question and 19 others in an instructive article every business writer should scan. She cites errors found on websites belonging to Oxford University, the BBC, the White House, the New York Times and other high-profile organizations. Her examples may peak — I mean pique — your interest and save you from a minor embarrassment.

She notes that many of the errors won’t be caught by a spell checker. To test that comment, I used her examples in a Word 2013 document. The grammar checker identified only seven errors; it missed “shoe-in” and  “sneak peak.” It’s enough to disrupt anyone’s piece peace of mind.

So you think surveillance is oppressive today?

In recent weeks, the public has learned a lot about the extent of surveillance in our post-9/11 world. The Guardian’s story about the NSA’s activities set off a frenzy of speculation and comment. Naturally, Orwell was invoked by many commentators and Huxley by a few. My own thoughts turned to the small town where I grew up, to the intense and personal surveillance that did so much to knit the community together.

I spent my childhood and teenage years in a Western Canadian hamlet that was home to about 45 people. The surrounding farming population had already begun to dwindle as farms grew larger and families smaller. It was an intimate setting, where joy and pain were shared and no one made the mistake of thinking they were invisible to their neighbors.

  • The region had been settled for 60 years, so the families in the area had at least two generations of memories about each other. They remembered the hopeful years of early settlement, the near-despair of the Hungry Thirties, the worry and deprivation during WWII, the arrival of electricity in the 50’s and 60’s. And they remembered the courtships, births and deaths, community dances, rowdy brawls, sports days, church events and political campaigns that provided the context for our lives. Everyone had a history, and everyone else knew a good part of it.
  • Phone service was a party line. It was prudent to assume that no conversations was private. Fortunately, you knew who was listening.
  • Farmers’ fields were always open to inspection by their neighbors. On a relaxing Sunday drive through the neighborhood, anyone could see who wasn’t keeping their weeds down, who’s furrows weren’t straight, who’s harvest hadn’t been taken in quickly enough.
  • Since most of the grain was sold through the Wheat Board, with controlled quotas and pricing, everyone could estimate their neighbor’s income with a high degree of precision.
  • Most farmyards were open to view from various angles. At least one person I knew used a strong set of binoculars to keep tabs on nearby farms from her kitchen window.
  • The weekly newspaper in the nearby small city ran a social column about each of the hamlets in the region. Wednesdays brought a fresh batch of reports of Sunday visits, anniversaries, and various milestones, published for all to see.

Was this communal life unstintingly painful? Not at all. For every inconvenience or intrusion, there was at least one offsetting gain. The deep knowledge of one’s history conferred an undeniable dignity on each person; however frayed the bond, we belonged in each others’ lives. The party line was a lifeline which informed the entire community instantly whenever fire, accident or bereavement struck. Farmers who were struggling because of ill health did not have to ask for help because the need was evident in the state of their fields. The financial pain of depressed prices or hail-damaged crops was shared by all. No one grieved, worried or celebrated alone.

The surveillance was real, intimate, and omnipresent. In that corner of the world, it was more penetrating than today’s anonymous monitoring of emails, phone calls and Facebook posts. On balance, it contributed to a more intense social life which is preferable to the anomie currently endured by so many in urban centers.

Turn on the Twitter firehose

If you want to see what a digital mob looks like, try following a Twitter hash tag as an emotional event occurs.

Tweetdeck - image of tweets

Tweetdeck – image of tweets two days after the events in this story

This week, I followed the hash tag #gosnell when word broke that the jury was about to return a verdict in a sensational trial after several days of deliberations. Kermit Gosnell, a doctor in Philadelphia who had operated an abortion clinic accurately described as a house of horrors, was accused of brutally killing babies who had been delivered alive. The jury found him guilty on multiple charges; a hasty plea deal resulted in consecutive life sentences.

The damburst of tweets began immediately after the announcement that the jury had reached a verdict. The tweets appeared and ran down the timeline so quickly I could barely make out the words. In the hour that passed before the verdict became known, the flow of tweets accelerated as comments incited others to comment, in a cascading effect. Given the nature of the accusations and the disgusting details that had been made public during the trial, it’s no surprise that many of the comments were harsh in the extreme, demanding retribution. As soon as one reporter announced a summary of the verdict—guilty on three first degree murder charges—the detail was echoed in thousands of tweets per minute.

I also followed the hash tag #bosma when it was announced that an arrest had been made in the case of the disappearance of Tim Bosma, a young Canadian man who had fallen among thieves. The flow, proportionally slower than the Gosnell flow, still ran at a fast pace for hours.

What was the experience like?

  • At the peak of the flow, my eye could make out only random words from a message as it slipped down the page; because of the density of messages, the random words built of coherent picture of the prevailing sentiment.
  • The topic could shift and reorient like a flock of swallows; as soon as a fact or rumour was reported, the follow-up tweets absorbed and built on it.
  • Twitter was ahead of the main news outlets by several minutes; presumably,  the process of verifying information and composing readable dispatches accounts for the difference in timing.
  • The tweets on these occasions were expressions of emotions, not eye-witness accounts of unfolding events, so they contributed very little to the understanding of the events.

In both cases, Twitter’s main strength—immediacy—was negated by the sheer volume of tweets. So many people commented that no one could read the messages as they sped by; it would take a software solution to count and categorize the sentiments and expose the various threads of argument and commentary.

Given the nature of the events being commented upon, it shouldn’t be surprising that the nasty comments demanding retribution were the most prominent. Comparatively few spoke of mercy for the accused. The flow of tweets has been likened to a fire hose; in this case, it would have taken a fire hose to wash away to stain of anger and nastiness that spread with the succession of comments.

Gatsby, a parable for our times

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made ….

Jay Gatsby is in the news again. Commerce and culture have presented us a new movie version with tie-ins to Gatsby-themed fashions and a rush of Gatsby parties. Yet again, we float over the surface, envying the glamorous trappings of the Jazz Age with barely a thought for the corrupt and unstable foundation that supported it. Not so Scott Fitzgerald. Out of his early encounter with success, he created a story that revealed the corruption of his times and exposes the corruption of our own.

The Great Gatsby - spine of the copy I've read since 1974.

The Great Gatsby – spine of the book-club copy I’ve read since 1974.

The background details easily could be transposed into the present. Gatsby’s parties were notorious on a local scale; today, gossip magazine, websites and television reporting would simplify amplify the gossip to the farthest ends of the earth. Fixing the 1919 World’s Series was a precursor to the point-shaving, electronic eavesdropping and performance-enhancing drugs that have marred sports in recent years. Stock manipulation by Tom Buchanan’s set—with their polo ponies and lavish lifestyles—are outstripped by the misdeeds of our financial barons and frauds like Bernie Madoff. Bootlegging has given way to the drug trade.

The restlessness at the core of the characters’ inner lives is entirely to be expected. Wealth, pleasure, power and honor—the false gods of all times and places—lead them from the bright lights to the gloom of their self-made purgatory. Gatsby accumulates wealth but finds no satisfaction in his heaps of imported shirts, his mansion, his float-plane or his flashy car. In the midst of his gigantic parties, Gatsby stands aloof, dreaming of regaining his lost love and rewriting their past. Tom Buchanan carries on an unsatisfactory affair with Myrtle Wilson, out of boredom and a sense of entitlement; in a drunken argument, he breaks Myrtle’s nose when she taunts him with his wife’s name. Daisy, she of the breathy voice and the object of Gatsby’s desire, is generally too bored to rise from her couch.

In the midst of the drinking, double-dealing, partying and plotting, reality breaks in. An agitated Daisy, driving Gatsby back from a disastrous party, accidentally kills Myrtle Wilson and flees the scene. Gatsby hides the car in his garage and prepares to take the blame for the accident. He watches Daisy’s house through the night, fearing that Tom will beat her. But there had been nothing to fear: Tom and Daisy had reconciled.

Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, with a plate of cold dried chicken between them, and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her, and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while she looked up at him and nodded in agreement.

They weren’t happy, and neither of them had touched the chicken or the ale—and yet they weren’t unhappy either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.

The following day, Myrtle’s husband kills Gatsby, acting on hints from Tom that Gatsby had been driving.

The Great Gatsby, a cautionary tale, reminds us of how easily the well-lit path detours into darkness. Betrayal, misplaced loyalty, wasted lives abound. And not even the narrator, who maintains his scruples to a degree, escapes untarnished: he shields the hit-and-run driver from the law and makes himself party to the injustice he implicitly condemns.

The question that Gatsby poses is not one of fashion or fad or even literary merit; it is the hard question, directed to the discerning heart during the Baptismal rite, “Do you reject the glamor of evil?”

Power and Possessions in the Gulag

“Pride grows in the human heart like lard on a pig.”
[Gulag, vol. 1, p. 163]

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, a dam-burst of words which swept away a half-century of lies and denials about the Soviet state’s oppressive nature, first washed across the west forty years ago. It was acclaimed as a great work: an extraordinary feat of research and memory; a brave act of defiance written with the clarity and flintiness of an Old Testament prophet. Since then, the Soviet state has collapsed, taking with it the obvious political relevance of Solzhenitsyn’s great work.

Why should it continue to be read, a generation later?

One answer is that it explores the moral development of one of the most significant thinkers of the past century. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s moral clarity was acquired in part through a painful struggle against external oppression. It also grew out of his struggle to understand and overcome the temptations that drew him onto the oppressor’s path.

Consider how Solzhenitsyn’s attraction to power blinded him to his own complicity with oppression. After enduring months of humiliation and threats in officer training school, he revelled in his new uniform and its symbols of power—gold buttons and blue shoulder boards. He bullied his orderly, humiliated men in front of their colleagues and sent at least one man to his death in a useless mission. When he was arrested at the front, he and seven other men were marched to a detention center: six were Soviet soldiers who had been captives in a German POW camp and the other was a German civilian. Told by a sergeant to carry his own heavy briefcase, Solzhenitsyn refused, clinging to his now-vanished power.

“I am an officer. Let the German carry it.”

As his Simon of Cyrene carried the briefcase over the muddy, treacherous roads, he was overcome with exhaustion. Wordlessly, the Russian POW beside him picked up the bag and carried it as far as he could. Then another picked up the burden. One by one, the other Russian POW’s and the German civilian took turns carrying the bag, without speaking to or even looking at Solzhenitsyn.

While the other prisoners carried his bag, Solzhenitsyn treated their service as his due. After all, he was an unselfish patriot and a superior person. Only later did he recognize that his actions were in keeping with the oppressors. For him, the problem of evil became personal:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? [Gulag, vol. 1, p. 162]

From that time on, he knew that under different circumstances, the lure of power might easily have drawn him into the secret police.

His lessons about the corrosive effects of possessions came months later. After enduring a lengthy stay in Lubyanka Prison and a taxing interrogation, Solzhenitsyn was sent to the Gulag to serve an eight-year sentence. As his voyage into the dark realm began, he received a food package from well-meaning relatives. In time, he would come to see it as

a poisoned gift, because it transforms you from a free though hungry person into one who is anxious and cowardly, and it deprives you of that newly dawning enlightenment, that toughening resolve, which are all you need for your descent into the abyss. Oh, wise Gospel saying about the camel and the eye of the needle! These material things will keep you from entering the heavenly kingdom of the liberated spirit. [Gulag, vol. 1, p. 546]

When he arrived at a transit prison, he was assigned to a cell that was not yet completely filled. The men already in the cell were distributed in what he came to recognize as the standard configuration: the thieves monopolized the top bunks and the gray mass of men used the lower bunks. Solzhenitsyn and a companion, clutching their food parcels, slipped under one of the bunks, looking to avoid trouble. Without warning, a group of young thieves swarmed over them like a pack of rats and made off with the parcels.

Solzhenitsyn slid into the aisle, enraged at his loss. Instead of assaulting the ringleader, though, he angrily demanded access to the bunks as compensation for the theft. The ringleader assented and had two of the ‘gray neutrals’ thrown out of their bunks to make room for the newcomers. Insensitive to the injustice he had committed, Solzhenitsyn spent the rest of the afternoon grieving his material loss.

And it was only at night that the reproachful whispers of our neighbors reached us: how could we ask the thieves to help us by driving two of our own people under the bunks in our place?  And only then did awareness of my own meanness prick my conscience and make me blush.
[Gulag, vol. 1, p. 548]

Power, possessions, honour and hope for the future were all stripped away from Solzhenitsyn in the prisons, labour camps and cancer wards that were to be his home in the coming years. And with them went the easy justifications and self-deceptions that wrap us in the comforting blanket of our own self-regard. In their place emerged Solzhenitsyn’s prophetic message, words of hope for the oppressed and of warning for the affluent.

Remembering the charisma of Pierre Trudeau

Justin Trudeau’s emergence as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada has brought the memory of his father, Pierre Trudeau, back into the national conversation. The younger Trudeau’s ease before the cameras is drawing comparisons to his father’s charisma. For sixteen years, the elder Trudeau dominated our national politics and set the standard by which other politicians were judged.

I was in junior high school when Trudeaumania first rolled across the country. Less than a decade later, I was on Parliament Hill as an assistant to Ralph Goodale, one of three Liberal MP’s from Saskatchewan. During my time in federal politics, I had three opportunities to watch Trudeau work the cameras and the crowd. Those events were milestones on a slide to defeat and the apparent end to Trudeau’s public career.

* * *

At a Liberal policy workshop in Toronto in March 1977, attended by 500 delegates, Trudeau showed how easily he could toy with an audience and upstage his competitors. His entry and his speech went as expected: the party faithful basked in his presence. It was what he did when he was out of the spotlight that showed his mastery. Trudeau took his seat at the head table, a short distance from the central podium where earnest policy specialists would spout their statistics and platitudes for the rest of the afternoon. Dressed in a light brown jacket and turtle neck sweater, hair flowing to his shoulders, Trudeau sat, quiet and still as a monk in contemplation. At intervals, he slowly flexed his shoulders and then gazed out at the crowd to see if anyone had noticed. Everyone had. And when he settled back into contemplation, the audience turned back to the speaker, wondering where they had lost the thread.

* * *

In the following spring, Trudeau paid an early-morning visit to Estevan, Saskatchewan, to attend a pre-election breakfast meeting with 400 potential voters. Resentment ran high over gun control, bilingualism, metrification and the National Energy Policy. By the time he arrived at the Legion Hall, a noisy, angry demonstration had turned out to challenge him. The volume rose as an official-looking car pulled up. Out stepped Pierre Trudeau, alone—more vulnerable-looking than they had expected. The demonstrators went silent as he stopped to shake hands and reach out to them.

“He’s smaller than he looks on TV,” one murmured.

A slow crescendo of applause and greetings, a smattering of subdued heckling followed Trudeau as he passed through the quieted demonstrators and entered the packed hall. Patiently, he snaked his way through the crowd, shaking hands and allowing himself to be touched, like a holy man among the believers. Finally, he arrived at the podium. The fatigue in his voice was unmistakable as he made his first tentative effort to connect with his audience.

“When I was flying low over the prairie, on my way here, I was looking at your fields and your towns, wondering what I could say that would show you I understand.”


“How I could convince you that a man from Montreal can share your concerns.”

No response.

The pause lengthened. Suddenly, a voice from the crowd, in French, heckled.

In an instant, Trudeau’s words flowed, passionately and directly, briefly in French, at length in English. Language policy, fairness among regions, the strength of the economy, the beauty of the country, his vision for the future – powerful words delivered with conviction to spellbound skeptics, opponents and supporters. Alternately challenging and reassuring, he spoke like a man in command of his thoughts. The crowd followed his every mood. As he descended from the stage to make his way out, the crowd pressed against him, protectively and gently, willing him to stay longer, reaching out to touch him again. No placards waved, no hecklers broke the spell as his car pulled away, taking him to the next gathering.

* * *

By the time Pierre Trudeau arrived in Weyburn, near the end of the 1979 election campaign, he knew that he was in trouble. The polls were bad, the crowds small and restless, the opposition buoyant. Ralph Goodale had run a strong campaign and was able to fill the upper level of McKenna Auditorium for Trudeau’s visit. The speeches had already begun when Trudeau’s car stopped in front of the hall.

After a lengthy pause, Trudeau and Jim Coutts, his principal secretary, stepped out of the car. Trudeau’s shoulders were slumped, his pace slow, as he approached the front door. Coutts, like a solicitous undertaker hovering near the grieving family, kept pace with Trudeau.  When they entered, they were met by a lone reporter, who merely watched, and one of Ralph’s assistants. As the assistant greeted Trudeau and exchanged some quiet words with him, Coutts drifted back and mournfully observed the scene.  The conversation with the assistant continued until applause from upstairs signalled that it was time to get back to work.

Trudeau drew in a deep breath and turned to face the staircase leading to the auditorium. He paused and gathered himself at the foot of the stairs. As his foot touched the first step, his shoulders began to straighten. A couple of hesitant steps, a quickened pace, and the transformation was complete. Trudeau the worn-out campaigner had become the master of the stage as he bounded into the room and the crowd’s welcoming roar washed over him.

That night, television viewers saw a passionate, defiant Trudeau in his gun-slinger pose, radiating energy and confidence. But fewer people were taking in the message. Within a week, voters turned him out of office, apparently for good.

* * *

In the summer of 1979, Trudeau resigned his position and retreated from public life, his time in the spotlight over, his charisma spent and unwelcome. The slide from the commanding heights to the pit of defeat had been as quick and dramatic as his appearance in 1968. Surely, there would be no comeback.