Living on the Edge: When Push Comes to Shove

Montreal, September 1, 1998

As I involuntarily compare Montreal and Dallas, Canada and the US, with respect to the way in which euclidian views engender dysfunction, my mind goes back to an incident in Libya, in 1970. David and Susan were about 9 and 7 respectively, at that time, and when they went to the cinema one day, there was a large crowd waiting to get in. The doors were late opening and the crowd around the corner, at the end of the piazza-corridor were impatient and beginning to push on those in front of them. The pushing was amplified to the point that David and Susan, close to the doors, were being squeezed to the point that they had difficulty breathing. Fortunately the warning shouts of those at the front were passed back until they were heard and heeded by those around the corner, occupying more comfortable coordinates. It was scary stuff, and we all know what can happen, and what has happened, for example, at the football matches.

This reminiscence came to me in the form of a framework, in which I saw Canada as a kind of soft-centred chocolate egg and the US as a bristly chestnut. The associated meaning attached to these structures, was as follows;

People in a crowd are not cognizant of space-time flow; i.e. how their pushing flows and amplifies through the crowd over space and time, nor the 'edge effects' which occur where there may be open space (e.g. a balcony) or a hard boundary (a wall). So it 'feels ok' if you are in the middle or somewhere safe and your pushing may even seem like a joke or maybe just a mild warning for others to 'get moving'. Of course, if the ones in the middle were feeling the resultant effect that the ones at the edges were feeling, they would be backing off, and that's what fortunately happened in the case of the Libyan cinema crowd, ... the ones pressed against the door who were strong enough to still fill their lungs with air, yelled 'back off' and the comfortable ones beyond the 'squeeze zone' recognized the urgency in the tone of voice, and complied.

Now it was not my intent to bring Libya, per se, into this metaphor, (nor the Sudan or any other country) although the metaphor could well be applied to global 'police-push'.).

What my thought was, is that Canada, perhaps because of the peace cultivating and 'moral force' external role it has assumed for itself (as opposed to the international policing role of the US), has evolved a kind of a hard exterior shell (not 'hard' as in 'flinty' or 'bristly', but hard as in 'competent', like an eggshell) along with a 'soft' center. That is, the internal culture seems slower paced, and more generally 'human-oriented' (rather than business oriented) than Dallas (actually, New York would be a better contrast to Montreal) and somewhat protected from external events, and the external world is largely isolated from the internal goings-on in Canada. In the crowd metaphor, then, those in the soft center operate in kind of an independent manner from the government and regulatory folks in the 'shell'. There is a kind of detachment between the external/internal regulatory machinery emanating in both directions from the shell, and the party atmosphere in the center. Part of that detachment of the soft center seems also to be associated with Canadians associating the impact of the nation more with governmental foreign policy and peace-keeping support as opposed to the economic force of Canada's internationally operating corporations.

This 'disconnect' between what the man on the street does and feels, relative to what the authorities do, was striking to me, particularly with respect to the currency crisis. The party-goers in the center of the egg, seem to think that the shell will do the best job it can and while they continually criticize it, the belief seems to prevail that the world out there is 'honest' and 'fair' and that Canada must cooperate, maintain peace and keep the trust etc. My feeling is that because of this shell of protection and the nice time, relatively speaking, everyone is having in the disconnected soft center, there is more naivety (lower awareness or engagement) than in the US, with respect to the forces which influence such things as international exchange rates. I.e., while Canada's dollar continues to decline, the man on the street seems to believe that the 'global economy' is a 'fair game', even while many economists, like James Galbraith, mentioned in my last note, would say that it is 'out of control'. Not only is there an apparent complacency with respect to the global economy becoming more and more like a global casino, featuring large scale currency speculation by powerful individuals and interests, there seems to be low awareness here, that it is the smaller players who lose most in tilted-field financial competitions.

Looking back at Dallas, New York or the US in general, the external perturbations seem to pass through, relatively less impeded, in both directions, from the center to the space beyond the shell and vice versa, and this makes the US look very 'bristly' and responsive from the outside. At the same time, it makes for less detached partying at the center of the egg, except by the affluent who establish their own 'shoving centers' and construct their own protective 'shells'.

I feel no sense of judgement here. This is stuff that I am trying to understand from a practical point of view; i.e. like many others who have been through the 'system' or at least had a good long look under the kimono, I have a story I would like to share, particularly with youth, about the models we are implicitly using and how they can lead to dysfunction which effects others as it effects ourselves, "contaminates our own bed" so to speak. Working within a large corporation and a rapidly evolving international industry was like being a lab technician in an immense experimental laboratory, and I have been fortunate to have had vantage points which gave me a broad overview of experiments which have gone well and others which have gone poorly; ... an overview which engendered some strong inklings as to the 'whys'.

I am certainly not alone in this desire to 'share my story'. When I organized 'wellsprings' sessions in Dallas (three small sessions and later a large session at the Nov. '97 Society of Exploration Geophysicists annual meeting), there were many in attendance whose story-diaries were very full indeed, representing a lifetime of coming to grips with how the 'system' works and how it might be improved. Many people, particularly those who occupied high positions and felt able to speak freely in retirement, would love to take youth, as they contemplate their entry into the adult 'system' (not just business, but the whole euclidian schmear) up on the Goodyear blimp to stand beside them and share a review of space-time, where they could point out the characteristic geometry of the 'high roads' and the 'low roads' and the many pitfalls along the way. However, there seems to be little 'market' for the experience-based views of elders in our society. As anthropologist Michael Mead says, it's the sign of a healthy civilization where the outgoing generation shares their experience with the incoming generation, and it is a sign of a decomposing society when both 'ends' of the circle are being marginalized; where rebel youths, repulsed by the ways of those in the middle are put in jail and where elders are 'silenced' by the middle, by being ignored and placed in 'homes'. [what was that childhood game, 'king of the castle', perhaps this quest for the middle could be set to music, and the last man in the middle would take home the CD player and turn the lights out]

The experienced folks at the wellspring sessions said that 'they loved their work but hated their jobs'. This view seemed pervasive and captured my feelings as well. In the most revolting of work situations, the saving grace is that one is often surrounded by great people, both with respect to companionship and talent, and the non-political learning experiences can be tremendously challenging and personally fulfilling.

This 'duality' in our experiencing of the 'system' can be visualized in terms of the 'shovy crowd' model. The person in the middle of the crowd, e.g. the corporate employee, is often asked to push in a way he does not like to, and if he refuses, he may have to find another job, if not another career, probably closer to the 'edges'. You don't have to be selling tobacco to know that one's 'pushing' is causing discomfort somewhere out there in space-time, at the edges of the crowd, but one often doesn't see how, as an individual, to prevent this from happening or to avoid it. So one, ... I should say 'we', turn towards enjoying the company of friends and colleagues, and 'dissociate' from what may be happening to others as the evolutionary outcome of our collaborative actions. It's possible to 'drift' all the way up to the top of the organization in this 'dissociated' manner to the point where one's personal pushing is having mega-effect. Roger Smith, CEO of General Motors, demonstrated this 'dissociative mindset' very clearly in the film 'Roger and Me' (by Michael Moore). Undoubtedly Roger was surrounded by an insulating crowd of admirers, wannabees and friends as he rose to the top of the 'compost heap', the term poet David Whyte uses for the 'system' because of its public admiration for those on the rise, and its ignoring of those being 'recycled'.

We live in a crowded world. We can do like Roger, and insulate ourselves by focusing on our local social circle while dissociating from the evolving space-time swirls of our 'pushing' as it launders in with those of the other pushers. This is our 'euclidian' or flat space heritage springing from the 'Golden Age of Rationality' in the western mediterranean, having us perceive our reality as 'causal' and 'deterministic'. If you are in the middle of the crowd pushing, and a pregnant woman is pushed over a balcony and killed, they will never 'get you' for it, because causality and determinism do not apply in turbulent flow. Deterministic chaos reigns, which means that responsibility is laundered out by 'butterflies' in the system. Roger Smith knew it, you know it, and I know it. And it's the reason why some of the most highly placed (in their career) retirees in the wellspring are very emotive and want to express their views about why the 'system' got worse rather than 'better' on their watch. Of course, no-one was breaking down their doors to ask these 'elders' for their opinions on such issues.

What happens at the edges of the crowd is not initially visible, particularly if one parachutes into the middle, ... and I really wonder how many of the McGill students, who I can right at this moment see and hear celebrating across the street, perhaps freshman being initiated, are accelerating down the entry ramp into the 'middle of the crowd' for a chance at Roger's old job, rather than out of enthusiasm to listen to the stories of reform?. As the retired manager's at the wellspring put it, the 'cream of the crop' professional coming out of college, seems to be increasingly characterizable as a 'humility-less twit' who sees work strictly in terms of wielding objective knowledge to 'make one's numbers' rather than human experience.

Ok, back to my point. No, I'm not suggesting there's a bigger market amongst the 'crowd' here in Montreal, for studying 'crowd effects' (and the limitations in perception and inquiry of our current paradigm) than there was in Dallas, and perhaps there's even less. The problem associated with this non-receptivity is the same as in Dallas, but the granularity is different; i.e. here in Montreal, the granularity inside the insulating sphere, amongst those who have the good fortune to be in the middle of the crowd rather than squeezed up against a hard place or losing their footing on the brink of an abyss, seems larger than in Dallas. As 'Le Guide du Montreal Ethnique' points out, while Montreal is among the largest of French speaking cities in the world, it also continues to cultivate 'dizaines de communautes ethniques' within it (the guide segments these as follows, giving districts, festivals, clubs, restaurants etc. for each; "bengalie, japonaise, kampucheenne, coreenne, laotienne, pakistanaise, philippine, sud-asiatique, sri-lankaise et tamoule, tibetaine, vietnammienne, noir, haitienne, balte (estonie, lettonie, lituanie), bulgare, tcheque et slovaque, hollandaise, allemande, hongroise, polonaise, roumaine, ukrainienne, yougoslave, grec, italien, juif, argentine, bolivienne, bresilienne, chilienne, mexicaine, salvadorienne, portugaise, espagnole, armenien, egyptienne, iranienne, baha'i, libanaise, maghrebine, palestinienne, turque.).

This is interesting because many of those represented in these groups must have come from the hard wall or the balcony's edge overseas to get to the middle of the crowd here in Montreal. I know my own maternal grandfather, Matteo Fiorito did so, back in 1890. After a history of being pushed, why not take a break when one finally escapes to the middle? Perhaps it was the tension between english and french which opened up a large enough crack for this ethnic 'mineralization' and the slow precipitation of the city (Montreal is over 350 years old) which gave rise to the large granularity ethnic 'crystals'.

While it is with great difficulty that one moves from the wall to the middle of the crowd in the case of a real crowd, there is another way to achieve it within the euclidian paradigm, and this is to redefine the center. This is essentially the story here in Quebec, where the Quebecoise have been too long pushed against the wall by the larger, predominantly anglo-canadian 'crowd'. The Supreme Court of Canada ... "has recognized the legitimacy of the sovereignist movement supported by half of all Quebecers. And the rest of Canada now has a duty to negotiate with the Quebec government in case of a Yes vote in a future referendum." (Montreal Gazette Sept. 1, 1998). Separation will shift Quebecers away from the hard place and into a local center where they will have better traction for doing their own pushing, and at the same time it will shift the walls and balconies over towards someone else, perhaps to 'les communautes ethniques'. And so it goes, as they say, ... different granularity, different level of 'dissociation', but same old, same old, euclidian 'crowd-push' mentality.

Clearly, when you are in a crowd where everyone is trying to move towards the center and to improve their pushing traction, they are not much interested in 'tuning-in' to messages about how 'their' crowd movements may effect those inheriting the hardspots and cliff brinks along the newly evolving edges. Paradigmatic reform is not welcomed by those in their moment of glory, as they attain the seat of power abuse which has been so long used against them. It's true that Benoit, the baker (who I have not yet met) has urged that 'it's time to become larger than our judgements', but its hard to see groundswell support for Benoit's humanist sentiment, and it's certainly not being voiced by Quebec politicians such as Lucien Bouchard, as they prepare to trade in their poor-provincial-cousin crowd-pushing gear, for the more potent world-class nation-state variety. For these folks, the name of the game is to at last move to the middle (by redefining the control center) and be a pusher instead of a pushee for a while. Meanwhile, those pushees in the remote, truly hard places and cliff-edges, far from Canada's shores, are unlikely to experience a lot of improvement from this implanting of yet another center of pushiness.

Many of the first nation peoples in Canada also appear eager to build new 'shoving centers', in contradiction to the non-euclidian philosophy they so well articulated as they negotiated their 'peace treaties', i.e. ..."Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself." Nevertheless, my information is that there are still traditionalist elders out there amongst the indigenous people who persist in these beliefs, and I am in the process of 'learning how to give tobacco' so that I might have the opportunity to smoke with them, perchance to speak about the web, sharing stories on how middle and edge coincide, and space-time is a continuum. Maybe Benoit would join in as well. Where there is smoke, there is fire, as they say.

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