Keith Scribner has never been one to shy away from trouble. His first novel, The GoodLife, fictionalized the 1992 real-life account of an Exxon executive’s kidnapping, and his third novel, The Oregon Experiment (hardcover, 2011, Knopf; re-released as a paperback in summer 2012 by Vintage Contemporaries), plunges the reader deep into the heart of the wily Pacific Northwest, home of the WTO protests and an actual secession in the 1940s (involving parts of southern Oregon and Northern California). In The Oregon Experiment, now in paperback, a young couple, Scanlon (a professor), and his pregnant wife, Naomi, have recently moved to Douglas, a small town in Oregon, so Scanlon can collect material for a scholarly book on mass movements that he hopes will catapult him onto the cushy tenure tract back east. Naomi, a perfume designer who has suddenly lost her sense of smell, must make sense of a strange environment in both the lush Northwest and her now-foreign, lactating body. For Scanlon, meeting Clay, a local anarchist, and Sequoia, the leader of a local secessionist movement, is a dream come true. The book, he thinks, will write itself. Unfortunately, it does not contain the ending he envisioned.

I had the good fortune of speaking with Keith about The Oregon Experiment, the heart of conflict, the best way to search for Molotov cocktails on the Internet, and um, breasts.

Anyone following the political debate in the United Kingdom will have realised that yesterday London was filled with demonstrators protesting against the British Government’s public spending cuts. Predictably enough, within a few hours, gangs of hooded and very confused young men wearing black were attacking the symbols of their oppression: the Ritz Hotel, assorted bank offices and Fortnum & Masons (purveyors of fine teas, veal pies and ginger shortbread biscuits). I had to admire their persistence in managing to pulverise large plate glass windows with nothing more than well-aimed kicks and the odd claw-hammer.

While this was happening, the head of the Labour party, a certain mild-mannered and very well educated fellow named Ed Miliband, was standing on a Trade Union Congress rostrum invoking the fight of suffragettes (campaigning for women’s voting right) and the civil rights movement in the United States. The connection between such well-known human rights movements and a demonstration against government policy remained unclear to me, until I reflected on the fact that Miliband is a standard politician accustomed to intellectually patronising his voters, few of whom could possibly have his level of education. But judging by his performance, they may well be better off without it. I can almost see Mr. Miliband sitting in his swivel-chair with a frown on his polished face, telling his scriptwriters to “keep it real, keep it visceral, make it understandable…” Maybe those struggling scriptwriters should have invoked Churchill, the Blitz, the march on Rommel? That would certainly have stirred the buds of British patriotism. One commentator who did fall back on the workhorse of World War Two rhetoric was Liam Halligan – chief economist at Prosperity Capital Management – in an article in Britain’s mainstream broadsheet The Daily Telegraph. Halligan clarified the fact that while George Osborne, Britain’s amazingly schoolboyish Chancellor of the Exchequer, was aiming to balance the budget by 2015, this would only be the “end of the beginning” of the fiscal battle. For if Osborne’s plans go smoothly, that will be the year when his Government stop borrowing money every month in order to balance incoming and outgoing revenues. If the current rounds of savage cuts are applied and maintained for another four years, the country will then find itself in the lovely position of not having to borrow money every month to pay for its functionaries, hospitals and schools. Interest payments on its borrowing are swallowing 6% of tax receipts, and this will rise. Almost a trillion pounds of debt remain to be repaid once the day-to-day financial disorder has been settled.

How amazing it is to realise the scale of the problem not only in the United Kingdom, but also America and throughout Europe and the world. Whenever I sit at the breakfast table opening my bills and frowning at my incompetently managed affairs, I remind myself that I am an indebted individual living in an indebted world. My incompetence is a necessary product, even a requirement, in the world we live in, where people are obliged to buy useless things with the help of credit cards, overdrafts and payment plans.

Ever since the West began its assault on Islamic fundamentalism and our media spouted highly debatable conclusions about Islamic extremists I have been asking myself whether, in fact, the extremists are not the very people who claim to be our leaders? Churchill (let’s not forget him) once said “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject”. Here I think we are getting closer to the point. For in spite of the crowing of Capitalists about the superiority of their system over Marxism, increasing numbers of people are now suggesting that Capitalism has also failed and is only being propped up by banks (themselves propped up by Capitalists). Is it not, in fact, economists who are fundamentalists? – persisting with their flawed ideology even when the evidence is more than enough to put them in the dock. If so, then I think we can safely assert that economics, as a science, has failed.

I repeat, I am no economist, but it seems to me that given that we invented money and the whole system of economics, could we not now simply de-invent it? We are free, after all. Surely money is nothing but an idea, an outmoded idea? Why not simply abolish it altogether and cancel the debts? Milton Friedman (a Nobel Prize winner in the field of Economic “science”) may have established in the 1980s that too much money eroded wealth (an unlikely proposition, right?) but now it seems incontrovertible that “wealth” also takes a bit of a knock when it is nothing but a polite word for borrowed money.

The Royal Mint in the United Kingdom was established towards the end of the 1700s, headed by the stringent figure of Sir Isaac Newton, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist if there ever was one (though he was unlucky enough to be born before Alfred Nobel). Before the existence of the Mint, people used to make their own money out of bits of scrap metal (silver, gold, tin, etc) and the system seemed to work reasonably well. Once the Mint came along, the Government made sure that anyone counterfeiting their production of coinage was swiftly strung up from the nearest tree. The Royal Mint has had 200 years to prove itself, and surely that is long enough?

If it were not for China desecrating its environment and its people’s health in a race for economic development, if we did not have the expansive Indian, Brazilian and Asian systems similarly “developing”, the West’s decline would be even steeper.

Let’s say this very clearly: we are bankrupt. We cannot pay back the debts, because debt-repayment is itself dependent on running up more debts. The consumption model is thoroughly discredited. Banks make profits out of corporate and personal debt. And profits in manufacturing are generated by people running up personal debts to pay for their new acquisitions – this toxic mechanism applies to almost everything.

If, for instance, I went out this morning to set fire to a car, the Gross National Product of my country would increase. Why? Because the subsequent insurance payment would finance the purchase of a new car. Every time an airliner crashes and passengers are killed, we have positive financial results: a new plane is ordered, while the grieving next-of-kin go out and buy new houses and cars with the damages they are paid.

The problem of credit and debt has been debated for a thousand years or more. Economists should be made to read Rabelais, who once (sarcastically) said that debt, rather than the human spirit, was the true measure of man. Saul Bellow, in “Herzog”, once wrote: “Dear Mr. President, Internal Revenue regulations will turn us into a nation of book-keepers. The life of every citizen is becoming a business. This, it seems to me, is one of the worst interpretations of the meaning of human life history has ever seen. Man’s life is not a business.”

I believe the time is now ripe for universities all over the world to heed Mao Tse Tung and send their Economics undergraduates back to the countryside to learn the intricacies of chicken rearing and potato cultivation. Maybe in the bosom of Mother Nature they can learn something about the real creation of wealth and prosperity?



Victor is all excited. He finds a deal on the net for an Air Canada trip to Toronto for only $68! He buys our tickets and we’re all set to go June 24th and come home on June 28th. We have never been to Toronto before.

He finds a great deal on a motel. We don’t waste money on hotels; you just sleep there, after all.

So we’ve got a king-sized bed, non-smoking, in the Super 8 above the Chinese Cultural Center in Chinatown.

On the airplane, the flight attendant asks me where we’re going. I say we’re going to Toronto, thinking it’s obvious, since that’s where the plane is going. She says, “You mean you’re not traveling through Toronto, you are going to stay there? Now?”

“Sure,” I say, “why not?”

“Well, the G-20 is there at the same time, and those meetings are known for outsiders causing violence,” she says.

“Seriously?” I say.

“Oh, yeah,” she says, shaking her head.

Well, I think, we’ll be in Chinatown; we’ll be out of the trouble.

When we get off the plane the airport is like the Tower of Babel.

 

So many people in all kinds of strange clothes speaking so many different languages, all of us walking back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, the snaking line that lasts forever to Passport Control.

(When we get to Passport Control, the officials are all wearing Kevlar.)

Then we go to pick up our bags. We have the only suitcases which are not fully sealed in pink saran wrap. We are not pushing carts full of taped over boxes and bags. We’re just rolling two small suitcases.

(The baggage handlers are wearing Kevlar.)

Then we enter the mayhem of an octopus-like line which feeds many lines into one long line to Customs.

(All the customs agents are wearing Kevlar.)

Taxis are not yellow in Toronto! We finally line up for a taxi and got a taxi driver who didn’t speak English, just like home. Toronto doesn’t look any different from a biggish city in the States, except there are Moose everywhere.

 

(The taxi driver was not wearing Kevlar.)

When we get to the Super 8, we find out that we have to wear special yellow bands around our wrists to prove we are bona fide tourists.

 

The museums and many tourist sites are closed, as well as the whole lake area of the city, for the sake of the muckety mucks.

Well, not a problem, I think, we can just walk the city and see what it looks like and see what is open. There are lots of interesting people around and about like Mr. Peru:

 

 

The next day we

Walk.

All.

Day.

This is what Victor likes to do on vacation.

(The meter maids are wearing Kevlar.)

We stop for a latte and the Frenchy French guy asks us if we heard all the commotion. There was a bomb scare on the corner. There wasn’t a bomb, so we didn’t hear anything.

Everywhere we walk there are people gathering and police gathering, with piles of apples, for energy.

 

 

A police car is on fire down the street. We go the other way. Many policemen are on foot, running up the block. We hurry across the street.

Some group — an offshoot of the peaceful financial Luddites — has a name with “Black” in it. They are not peaceful. They all have backpacks and blend in with the crowd and then apparently change into black. When they wear the black clothes, they put on their balaklavas and start swinging heavy objects at the glass windows. Starbucks, banks, record stores, Foot Locker, random small businesses, are all getting trashed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

We go back to the hotel. On the news there is yet another police car on fire. The police do not have permission to do anything. They just keep backing up. These are the most polite policemen on the planet. Canadian policemen don’t want to bother anyone, even evildoers. Police on foot, police on bicycles, police on motorcycles, Police in vans rented from Budget, police in school busses, in Greyhound buses and, my personal favorite: The MOUNTIES!

 

 

(All the police wore Kevlar, but the horses didn’t appear to be wearing any.)

Firetrucks are wailing down the streets, one after another. Ambulances are wailing down the streets too. People stop us and say, “These are not people from Toronto, or even Canada, doing this, you know.”

They seem embarrassed. Canadians are really nice.

Take a look at this store and tell me they are not the cutest!

 

 

 

There is a commotion up ahead.  Paramedics are taking a stretcher out of an ambulance. A huge, Canada-size white guy is comatose on the sidewalk. His legs are in shorts and the skin you can see is covered with weeping sores.

“Anyone know this man here?” says the ambulance lady.

All the vagrants walk away as though they never saw him before.

“You just left him here like this?” she says.  She is disgusted with people. She’s obviously seen too much of this sort of thing.  Even in Canada, it happens.

On the third day it’s pouring buckets out, but off we go on our 8 to 10 mile forced march. Luckily it stops raining for a while and is just spitting until later in the afternoon.

In case my kids are worried because they happen to see the news, I email them.

This is my email:

 

Dear Kids,

We’re fine.

Been quite a day.

Tell you about it when we get home.

Love, MOM

 

This is what Sara writes back:

 

Oooh! Drama! Can’t wait to hear about it. I hope you were charged with civil disobedience along with the anarchists! It’s about time the authorities were alerted to the societal hazard that you two represent. I’m just saying.

–smz

 

This is what Victor emails to all the kids:

 

Subject: Mom’s day of rage

Sara, et. al.

Mom was not charged with civil disobedience but….

Here’s what happened:

We were walking down College Street where some of the largest gatherings were taking place. There was a large crowd of young folks full of energy (no black clad thugs, just kids with honest, if misguided, ideas.) Before I knew what was happening, Mom had ripped off her shirt, fashioned her bra into an ersatz headband and was running down the street yelling “Freedom now” harkening back to the protests of yore. Well, with all the violence, the police were not amused. She was charged with “public indecency” rather than civil disobedience, taken into custody for several hours and the released after being fingerprinted, photographed and made to pay a substantial fine. I believe she was released because the authorities felt that seeing herself on the local evening news was punishment enough. At least she stuck to her principles and feels she “has made a real difference.”

An interesting vacation.

Dad

 

The next day, round about LA waking up time, we get a call on our cell phone from Lenore.

We told the kids to email us if they needed us, and only to call in an emergency because it is 71 cents a minute to call Canada from the States. We think something is wrong with Lenore.

 

“I got your email,” Lenore says, quiet and serious.  “Does mom have a record now?”

Lenore, my sophisticated child, (with a doctorate,) is completely taken in by Victor’s joke.

Please take a moment to read Victor’s email again.

My daughter believed this of me.

This is me:

 

 

Do I look like an anarchist to you?

I have nothing more to say.