PETER DALE SCOTT:
The Meeting of Poetry, Prose and Politics
Peter Dale Scott comes from a worthy Canadian line and lineage. His grandfather, Frederick Scott, was a contemporary of Stephen Leacock, an important Canadian poet, an Anglican priest and padre to many soldiers and at the forefront of the Winnipeg strike in 1919. Frederick Scott embodied, in thought, word and deed, a vision of responsible citizenship, but he was very English. Peter’s father, Frank Scott, was one of the best known Canadian poets, constitutional lawyers and founder of the League for Social Reconstruction (LSR) and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). The LSR-CCF was the forerunner of the New Democratic Party (NDP). Frank Scott was a student of Stephen Leacock. As the English empire waned and the American empire waxed, Frank opposed the English colonial way of his father, but he tended to genuflect, in a subtle way, to the New Romans to the south. Peter’s mother, Marian Dale, was an accomplished Canadian painter. The Politics of the Imagination: A Life of F.R. Scott (1987), by Sandra Djwa, recounts, as an authorized biography, the life of Frank and Marian Scott. Marian Dale Scott: Pioneer of Modern Art (2000), by Esther Trepanier, makes abundantly clear the many contributions of Marian Dale Scott to Canadian artistic and political life.
Peter Dale Scott, therefore, grew up in the centre of most of the pressing and substantive literary, political, economic, legal and public issues of the time. Peter was born in 1929 in Montreal, and he completed a Ph.D in T.S. Eliot’s political and social thought in the political science department from McGill in 1955. Peter was a Canadian diplomat from 1957-1961, and while a diplomat worked at the United Nations General Assembly and for two years in Warsaw, Poland. It was while Peter was in Poland that he came to appreciate the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, and he worked with Milosz in translating the selected poems of the Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert. Peter left his job as a Canadian diplomat in 1961, and he became a Professor of English at University of California, Berkeley. Needless to say, Scott’s turn to California in the 1960s placed him front and centre in the student counter cultural movement, the Vietnam War and a revisionist read of President Kennedy’s death. Noam Chomsky was quick to quote from Peter Dale Scott in some of his 1960s articles, and Scott and Chomsky are contemporaries, although they differ on the reasons for Kennedy’s assassination. In fact, Peter Scott was writing about the escalation of the war in Vietnam before Chomsky stepped on the larger publishing stage. The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam (1966) is a classic missive in the area of American engagement in Vietnam. Oliver Stone’s film, JFK, drew deeply from Scott’s reflections on the reasons for Kennedy’s assassination.
There are many dilemmas in Peter Dale Scott’s life and writings, and I will touch on five in this short essay.
First, Peter Dale Scott had to wean himself from his father’s political and poetic outlook. Frank Scott was a pioneer and leader in Canadian political thought and action on the political Left. The Left, at the time of Frank Scott’s leadership, was closely linked with American unions and the clash between union and management, but both unions and business were at one on the primacy of the American way of life. They just differed on how the economic pie should be sliced and distributed. Frank was an avid fan and supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and, for the most part, the American battle, in the Cold War, against Communism. Frank tended to hobnob and vacation with many of those in the American political elite such as the Dulles family. There were mild criticisms of American foreign policy, but, when push came to shove, Frank tended to be a faithful fan of the American way. It was this uncritical merging of Canadian and American thought and life, at the highest levels, from which Peter had to cut the umbilical cord.
Second, Peter, who taught at UCLA-Berkeley in the 1960s-1970s, came to see that American foreign policy in Vietnam and Indonesia was brutal and violent. The land of manifest destiny, liberty and democracy could be as vicious and unbending as could Stalin or Mao. Many were the deaths of naïve and patriotic Americans and those from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia who dared to differ with the new Roman empire and its centurion guards. The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, and the CIA overthrow of General Sukarno of Indonesia in 1965 nudged Peter Dale Scott to ponder more deeply his father’s uncritical acceptance of the American empire as the great and good place for Canadians to bow and genuflect before. It was these events, and many others in the 1960s and 1970s, that moved Peter Dale Scott to put quill to parchment and ponder, in a personal and political way, through both prose and poetry, the aggressive nature of the USA. Literary criticism would merge with politics.
Third, most Americans and Canadians, when they think of American foreign policy in the 1960s and 1970s, turn their attention to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The invasion of Indonesia and the many deaths of Chinese and suspected communists is often ignored. Peter Dale Scott turned his gaze in this direction and wrote voluminously about it. The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam (1966), The War Conspiracy (1972), The Assassinations: Dallas and Beyond (1976), Crime and Cover-up (1977), The Iran-Contra Connection (1987), Cocaine Politics (1991) and Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (1993) all point to an overarching preoccupation of Scott’s. The American empire is aggressive, expansionist and, at a level of deep politics
and power politics, quite willing to drive the sword into the back of their children who differ with them. Peter Dale Scott walked the extra mile to ponder why Kennedy was assassinated. Kennedy seemed to be moving in a more dovish direction, and he was willing to pull troops out of Vietnam. This worried the hawks in the Democratic and Republican parties. Such a move would make the USA vulnerable in the Cold War. The more Kennedy moved to the dovish left, the more the hawks circled him. He had to go. Oswald and Ruby played their parts well, but the strings of these puppets were being pulled at a higher level. Johnson was known to be tougher on the communists than Kennedy, hence with Kennedy gone, the hawks in both parties would be pleased, and the war in Vietnam escalated and in Indonesia initiated. Peter Dale Scott in the books listed above, and articles such as “The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967” and “The Vietnam War and the CIA-Financial Establishment” spelled out his arguments about Vietnam, Indonesia and Kennedy’s assassination in incisive and poignant detail. Oliver Stone’s JFK builds firmly on Scott’s arguments. Needless to say, Fred Scott would have his worries about the path and direction Peter Dale was taking, although by the late 1960s and 1970s any naïve faith and trust in the USA was eroding at a hasty and not to be forgotten pace.
Fourth, many of Scott’s articles and essays in books were, consciously so, public, revisionist and political. But, there was much more to Peter Dale Scott than this. Scott was also a poet as was his father and grandfather. Scott’s poetry brings together the personal and political in an autobiographical way in which his prose does not in the same way. Scott is best known for his trilogy, Coming to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror (1988), Listening to the Candle: A Poem on Impulse (1992) and Minding the Darkness: A Poem for the Year 2000 (2000). The seculum trilogy clearly established Scott as a first rank political poet that wedded his Canadian experience with his life in the USA. There is a delicate touch in these poems mixed with tough and demanding political insights. Scott does not flinch from facing the darkness in all its dread and brutality, but he also listens to the flicker of the candle in the process. Murmur of the Stars (1994) is a book of poetry by Scott that is often not read, but there is many a delicate and probing line in it. Scott’s two poems about his father, “Flight” and “The achievements of F.R. Scott” are quite touching and highlight some of the tensions that existed between father and son. These poems fold well into other poems that Peter Dale Scott wrote about his mother and father in the seculum trilogy. Scott has had a preoccupation in his literary career with epic poetry, but he has often been concerned with the way epic poetry serves power and imperial ambitions. Coming to Jakarta, Listening to the Candle and Minding the Darkness are written within the epic genre, but they seek to challenge those in power and the establishment. It is in this sense that Scott is doing a revisionist read on how authentic epic poetry should be written. The seculum trilogy threads together, in a way most do not, the finest of the Oriental and Occidental mystical traditions with a probing and searching analysis of larger events on the stage of global politics. It is this rare and unusual synthesis in Peter Dale Scott’s poetry that make him a must read. Scott has continued his prolific poetic output after the trilogy with Mosaic Orpheus (2009) and Tilting Point (2012). Sadly so, many Canadians have tended to ignore Scott, and in doing so, have, probably, been blind to the presence of one of our finest political poets.
Fifth, the fact that Peter Dale Scott has a Ph.D. in political science, was a diplomat, has taught literature and bridges the American-Canadian experience means that there is much he has seen and had to ponder in a way most have not. Scott’s writings on literature and literary theory have much gold in them. “Alone on Ararat: Scott, Blake, Yeats, and the Apocalyptic” and, more to the point of the Canadian-American literary traditions, “The Difference Perspective Makes: Literary Studies in Canada and the United States” are must reads and keepers for those who naively assume Canada is just a junior and younger brother in the greater North American family. The fact is Canadians are from a different family, and their DNA and genetic code makes them a different people. Peter Dale Scott’s two articles make it more than clear how and why he parted paths with his father and why and how Canadians part paths with the empire to the south. There are so many ways to approach the life and writings of Scott, it is often hard to know where to begin the journey. Will it be the literary critic, the poet, the activist, the critic of American foreign policy or political theorist on deep politics? 9/11 and the American Empire: Intellectuals Speak Out (2007), The Road to 9/11: Wealth, Empire, and the Future of America (2007) and American War Machine: Deep Politics, the CIA Global Drug Connection and the Road to Afghanistan (2010) address the latter issues in poignant, historic and graphic detail.
The fact that Scott was born in Canada, but has lived much of his life in the USA, means that certain connections he could have made, he has not. There is no doubt that the USA was behind the coup that overthrew Sukarno and brought to power Suharto in Indonesia in 1965. Scott connects the dots well. But, Scott speaks little about Canada-USA-Indonesia. If he had spent longer in Canada, such thinking could have been done. Elaine Briere, in her award
winning film, Bitter Paradise: The Sell-Out of East Timor, highlighted the explicit and complicit role of Canada in the take over of Indonesia and the Indonesian betrayal of the East Timorese. Peter Dale Scott does not deal with these connections any more than he probes Canada’s complicit involvement in Vietnam. Scott is more preoccupied, given his American context, with exposing the gap and chasm between rhetoric and reality in American domestic and foreign policy. There is no doubt such a deed needs to be done, and Scott, as a Canadian, like Chomsky, Said, Vidal, Herman, Stockwell, Agee, Zinn and many other Americans have made it clear that the USA is an empire, and, as an empire, it crushes opposition that opposes its imperial interests. This being said, though, there are plenty of allusions to Canada in Scott’s poetry and prose. The way Scott probes the complicated network of complicity on a variety of familial, educational, economic, personal and political levels does give Scott’s poetry a certain reflective integrity.
I fear that Peter Dale Scott, like Noam Chomsky, and unlike Frank and Fred Scott, lacks a substantive understanding of the positive role of political parties and the state. Scott does not go as far down the anarchist path as does Chomsky, but there are consistent anti-statist probes in his writings on deep politics. It is much too easy and simplistic to only see the negative role of the state, and chant this mantra ad nauseum. There is no doubt states do brutal things, and Chomsky and tribe are needed to make this clear. But, states also provide many goods, and when an excessively negative view of the state is taken, particularly by Canadians and within the Canadian context, most of the evils protested against such as American imperialism, globalization and the neoliberal institutions (that are cheerleaders for neoliberalism), are facilitated by naïve protest anarchists and advocacy groups. It is only states that have the power to question and oppose the institutions and organizations that facilitate global injustice, and when protest and advocacy types, like Chomsky and Scott (to a lesser and more thoughtful degree), are cynical of the state, they might just be the agents, in a subtler way, of furthering the actions they so firmly oppose. I realize, in saying the above, that Peter Dale Scott does not hike as far down the anarchist and advocacy path as Chomsky, Zinn and tribe: such a clan tend to see formal politics as structurally given to power, and those in power are impotent and incapable of bringing serious or substantive changes in the world. In fact, Scott in Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (chapter II) makes it more than clear where and why he parts company with Chomsky and ilk. Scott is not as cynical or as simplistic in his analysis as Chomsky, Zinn and tribe; he, as a result, has more hope in both the role of society and the state. But, in saying that, much of Scott’s work has been in the area of exposing how the power elite (deep politics) in the USA works through the state in a destructive manner, and, in response, the need for a renewed and revived civic life in society to point and embody new political directions. The tension in Scott’s thinking between society-state is healthier than in Chomsky, but much of Scott’s writings, like Chomsky’s, walk the extra mile to expose the follies, hypocrisy and injustices of the state.
There is no doubt that Peter Dale Scott is one of the most important Canadian political poets. His merging of the personal, mystical and political has much to commend it. Many are the subtle parry and thrust in both the poetry and prose. Scott’s epic poetry challenges the classical notion of epic poetry as a servant of power just as his analysis of the deep politics of American and domestic and foreign policy lays bare the real facts of the empire. Do read this genius of a Canadian poet. Much will be learned, and much gold will be found in the learning. But, be also willing to ask some critical questions of those who are sure footed about what we are to be free from but weaker on what we are to be free for and, equally important, the practical and prudential means by which such freedom might be imperfectly realized.
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Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Peter Dale Scott: the Meeting of Poetry, Prose and...":
I do fervently hope that the literary elite in Toronto pay attention to this article, and more importantly, to this "genius of a poet" as Ron Dart names Peter Dale Scott.
Posted by Anonymous to Riffs & Ripples from ZenRiver Gardens at 4 January 2015 at 10:28
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Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Peter Dale Scott: the Meeting of Poetry, Prose and...":
Dear Dr. Dart, in your piece on Peter dale Scott, you state: "I fear that Peter Dale Scott... lacks a substantive understanding of the positive role of political parties and the state... It is only states that have the power to question and oppose the institutions and organizations that facilitate global injustice..."
In this regard I fear it is you who 'lack a substantive understanding of the state'. By stating that 'only states have the power to question and oppose the institutions and organisations that facilitate global injustice', you have exposed yourself as not having much -- if any -- knowledge of international relations and international relations theory.
The foundation of the international system is one which you think is naive in domestic politics; that of anarchy. The anarchical structure has very real affects on states and their foreign policies, and indeed creates and facilitates the global injustices by forcing each state to participate in a 'self-help' system, in which states compete for their survival.
Therefore, the idea that states are the only ones who can correct global injustices is laughable. States are the primary cause of these injustices, whether directly via war/conflict, or indirectly via the ideologies of nationalism, corporatism and violence, it is the foundation of the system affecting all other aspects (states living under anarchy) which creates such turmoil/injustices.
Simply put, states are forms of organised violence. Though any administration in control of the state apparatus claims legitimacy, such legitimacy is a subject value of each citizen ruled by the laws under which they live. To think that the very institutions and organisations that themselves are funded created and allowed to exist only due to states' will/support are the cause of the injustices, rather than the states themselves who created them, is wholly wrong.
The UN, the WTO, NATO, et al. etc. are all products of the dominant states in the world who use violence as standard measure of power and control to direct societies and humans as a whole.
Posted by Anonymous to Riffs & Ripples from ZenRiver Gardens at 5 January 2015 at 08:06
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