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Television Interview with James George

jgeorge_mm.jpg“In the Spirit of Diplomacy”
Commentary by John Robert Colombo on a Television Interview with James George

Work ideas are so precious and so powerful that I find that I am
loathe to discuss them lightly with all and sundry; indeed, I avoid
doing so. For this reason it is surprising, bracing, and encouraging
when some of these ideas are conveyed in the mass media in a form and
in a format that preserves some of their special nature and character.

This happened on Sunday, September 24, 2006, when CBC-TV telecast an
interview with James George. I call it an “interview” but “profile”
might be a better description of the thirteen-minute program which
followed upon the CBC’s National News show. It was carried nationally
by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation which (on a clear day)
reaches 33 million Canadians. For readers who lack access to the
program – most readers of this News-blog, I guess! – here are some
personal program notes.

James George wears a number of hats, one of them astrakhan. The public
knows him as a career diplomat who served with Canada’s Department of
External Affairs from 1945 to 1977 when he opted for early retirement.
Born in Toronto in 1918, a former Rhodes Scholar, he served as High
Commissioner to India and Ambassador to Nepal between 1967 and 1972.
He did so with distinction. Now in his late eighties, he might be
viewed as the last of the “mandarins,” the term used lightly for the
“boffins” of the Department of External Affairs (now known as the
Department of Foreign Affairs) who forged an identity for the country
as a “middle power” or “helpful fixer” and assumed the role of
contributor on all levels to the United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty
Alliance, and the country’s self-elected policy of “peacekeeping”
(which has subsequently declined into “peacemaking” or miltiary
policing operations).

Following retirement, Mr. George has donned other hats, including the
beret of the ecologist and the bowler hat of a founder of the
Threshold Institute which is committed to world-wide conservation. The
astrakhan cap identifies him as one of the country’s two senior
Gurdjieffians. (The other is Tom Daly of Montreal, the renowned
producer of documentary films for the National Film Board and the
representative of the estates of Olga and Thomas de Hartmann.) I am
not really knowledgeable about Mr. George’s current activities but
these surely include acting (with his dynamic wife Barbara) as elder
statesman, unofficial spokesperson, Group leader, etc. Mr. George has
a face shrouded in white hair, patriarch fashion, and rather resembles
in looks if not in manner the late Martin Lings. He is very soft
spoken, as befits a distinguished diplomat.

The program was titled “James George: In the Spirit of Diplomacy” and
it consisted of responses from Mr. George, comfortably seated in his
Toronto condominium, with its many Eastern artifacts, which overlooks
a picturesque ravine and a parkway, to general questions asked in a
feeble voice by an unidentified off-camera interviewer, interspersed
with still photographs of the energetic diplomat and film sequences of
him as a young diplomat in action in India. His definition of the role
of the diplomat is interesting: “A diplomat is ideally a harmonizer,
bringing understanding and agreement where there has been fear and
distrust and therefore violence. The roots of violence, as Thomas
Merton has said, are in fear.”

A still photograph showed him practising yoga; in his youth he was
lanky and loose limbed and able to sit cross-legged without pain or
embarrassment. A film clip shows him in 1971 interviewing Indira
Gandhi in Delhi, radiating the splendour of a sun-god, whereas Mrs.
Gandhi, rather like Golda Meier, appears moon-faced, fraught with
difficulties and worries. Here are some of the points made by Mr.
George after referring to how he brought the teaching from “beyond the
East.”

“In my twenties, I connected with the Gurdjieff work …. It is a form
of work that is contemporary …. Being aware of what’s actually
happening, moment by moment, that’s the core teaching of Gurdjieff and
of the authentic path … the practice of presence … being aware of
being a part of the wholeness of life, not just a part of it … the
practice of being present … our only chance to change anything
is now …. You really need to have a trained attitude that is not
self-centred, but world-centred …. Part of my job, as well, was to
understand what made people of that culture what they were.”

Photos showed him with Dag Hammarskjold, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the
Dalai Lama, etc. He walked the fine line between boastfulness and
humility in claiming to have influenced the world’s (or at least
Canada’s) conceptions of peacekeeping and collective security. He did
boast of the role he played in the failure of Canada to “sell” its
state-of-the-art CANDU reactor to the Shah of Iran. He felt at ease
discussing the work of the Threshold Foundation and its search for
sustainable development in a just world. Apparently, Greenpeace was
out front in protecting the giant whales; the Foundation was
“discretely behind.” He glowed with an inner blaze when he accounted
for his presence on the mission of the Friends of the Earth to Kuwait
in the aftermath of the Gulf Crisis to report on the 700 “oil fires”
still burning. The result was a coalition of twenty-four nations that
extinguished the last of the fires in six months rather than the
projected five years.

Brief attention was paid to the appearance of his memoirs, “Asking for
the Earth: Waking Up to the Spiritual/Ecological Crisis
” (Element,
1995). Unmentioned was the remarkable role he played in convincing the
Dalai Lama that the priceless scriptures brought out of Lhasa to
Dharmsala should be microfilmed for posterity at the Official Canadian
Residence in Delhi. For no reason that was explained, there appeared
full-screen images of “Mr. Nurbakhsh, Sufi Teacher,” Shivapuri Bab,
“Indian Sage,” Dudjom Rinpoche, “Tibetan Buddhist Teacher,” and G.I.
Gurdjieff. (I guess Nurbakhsh lacks a known first name, and Gurdjieff
needs no id.) The viewer is led to believe they support Mr. George’s
efforts, or he theirs. His parting words: “What am I doing here, and
what should I be doing? How can I be different, so as to be in harmony
with the whole?”

Throughout were restful reverberations from the solo piano of Stafford
Ordahl who played what the credits called “Easter Music.” Other
credits include producer Marco Mascarin with “special thanks” to
Jean-Claude Lubtchansky and Paul Saltzman.

To my eyes and ears “James George: In the Spirit of Diplomacy” amounts
to a model television interview or profile. There is more here than
meets the eye or the ear. To be fully truthful, however, there is also
a dimension of the program that smacks of what is called “United
Church basement,” but this reference might be lost on non-Canadians.
It refers to the attitudes of middle-class, middle-of-the-road
Christians, neither Anglican nor Roman Catholic on one hand nor
evangelical nor fundamentalist on the other, to the very real problems
that people and democracies face. The result is that the attitude
presented seemed slightly displaced in time, as if what it has to
offer the world in the 21st century is yet more 20th-century
multiculturalism, more do-good-ism, and more political correctness.
Yet I am being unfair because the program went to some length to offer
without critique what Mr. George himself found: precious and powerful
Work ideas.

John Robert Colombo, known across Canada as the Master Gatherer, is
the editor, most recently, of the collection “Stories of Fear and
Fascination: The Fiction of Maurice Level.” Currently in the works to
appear this fall is his volume “One Word Poems.”

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Written by SOPHIA WELLBELOVED

February 28, 2008 at 4:37 pm

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