Sunday, 25 June 2017

Marching Toward a Failing Society

On my mother's bookshelf is a series of books entitled "The Great Ideas Program" by Mortimer Adler and Peter Wolff (pub. Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1959).  Part of the preface reads as follows:

"...in high school we are told that we must begin to think how we are going to earn a living, and the prerequisites that are supposed to prepare us for that activity become more and more the ingredients of our educational diet. ... What is missing is education to be human beings, education to make the most of our human powers, education for our responsibilities as members of a democratic society..."

One of the books that I studied in university was The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom (pub. Simon & Schuster, 1987).  In a chapter about books, Bloom writes: "...whatever the cause, our students have lost the practise of and the taste for reading. ... I began asking my large introductory classes ... what books really count for them. Most are silent, puzzled by the question."

For over 50 years the educational system has been gradually failing.  Both my parents were high school teachers for 35 years and were witnesses to this failing first hand, as in their later years they had students who could not spell or do math adequately.  Other colleagues of theirs were reduced to having students draw pictures instead of writing essays. In high school.

The result of this educational failing is a population that does not understand the world around them, who are unaccepting of new ideas, and who think in terms of self instead of community.

One need go no farther than certain places in the United States, where there are people who believe that a woman can stop her period by gluing her labia shut, who claim that earthquakes happen when people swear a pact to the Devil, or who call on others to promote anarchy.

In a 2006 episode of the sci-fi show Doctor Who, there is this wonderful line: "You want weapons?  We're in a library!  Books!  The best weapons in the world!  This room's the greatest arsenal we could have - arm yourselves!"

Books such as the aforementioned Great Ideas Program, or "An Incomplete Education" by Judy Jones and William Wilson (pub. Ballantine Books, 1987, 1995, 2006) attempt to redress the educational gaps by offering reading lists, citing historical examples, and inviting discourse.  They should be a must on anyone's shelf.  If more people were willing to educate themselves, we would have a better society.

The philosopher and scientist Aristotle wrote: "If there is some end of the things we do... will not knowledge of it, have a great influence on life?  Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should?  If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is."

Sunday, 4 June 2017

If Wishes Were Horses

There has been another terror-related incident in the news, and once again there are people pointing at this and saying "This wouldn't have been so bad if the defenceless people had guns".

I'm tired of it.

Bear in mind that the majority of the police forces in the UK (except for Northern Ireland) do not carry firearms; only specially-trained officers have permission to do so.  However officers are armed with non-lethal alternatives such as Tasers or incapacitant sprays which are subject to the same regulations.

I don't hate guns per se.  I have family members who served in the military.  I know people who are responsible gun owners.  What frightens me is the "wild west" mentality, that there are too many people who use their guns as tools of intimidation, or worse.  The notion of open-carry makes me more nervous.

A few months ago I took part in a conversation with a gun enthusiast who, among other things, decried other countries as weak and said that they would no longer exist if the U.S. hadn't been involved in World War II.  He then went further and added, "We can walk right in if we wanted to and take what we want," before posting a photo of his personal sidearm.  I interpreted that action as a threat and immediately blocked him.

Someone I have known for a long time has, in recent years, become extremely pro-gun.  On almost a daily basis he posts gun-related articles and images on his Facebook wall and he fully supports open-carry.  That's his prerogative.  But when he began to encourage his fellow gun-owners to defy state legislations concerning background checks and other gun controls, that's when I had to draw the line and limit my conversations with him.  I eventually unfollowed him with great regret because I just couldn't bear to see his arguments any more.

More guns isn't the answer.  We should have more open dialogue with the disaffected.  There needs to be more services for people struggling with mental illness.  And there must be better controls so that people who are more likely to become violent won't end up hurting so many others.  Sadly, in many countries there isn't the money or the political will to do that.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Cruel Sport

Paul Simon wrote:
In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out, in his anger and his shame
"I am leaving, I am leaving", but the fighter still remains

I have never liked boxing as a sport.  I don't believe it's even a sport; it's only called such to give a veneer of civility on what otherwise is simply cage fighting with rules.  It's people hitting each other in the hopes of winning large sums of money, for the benefit of bloodthirsty coaches and spectators.

This choice of career leaves both physical and mental scars, no matter how accomplished the fighter might be.  Statistics show that traumatic brain injury associated with boxing occurs in approximately 20% of professional boxers.  The most famous case would be Muhammad Ali, who was a boxing champion and Olympic gold medallist in his prime.  However later in life he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Syndrome which was attributed to boxing-related brain injuries.

Just recently a boxer in Saint John NB was taken to hospital for emergency surgery to treat a bleed in the brain after he was knocked out during a match.  A quick Internet seach reveals that there have been fighters who have died on the mat as a result of a hit.

This sort of carnage isn't limited to the boxing ring.  Hockey, American football, and other sports that involve players hitting each other all contain risks of concussion and injury.  No amount of safety equipment will prevent that; in fact, the more padding a player puts on, the harder they will get tackled.

The reason the fighting continues of course, is that one of the basic human instincts is to compete over something: food, women, land, resources.  In order to present the appearance of civilization we cloak competitions with uniforms and rules, and call it sport.  Unfortunately some sports lend themselves to easily to brutality, and terrible injuries will continue as long as the people watching keep cheering for it.  Even on "The Flintstones" animated show, the two principal male characters would get tremendously excited whenever one of them happened to score tickets for "the fights".

Hockey was once my favourite sport.  Not any more.  I've refused to watch professional hockey for over two decades because of the increasing number of in-game brawls and injuries from hitting.  Too many players have been forced to retire early due to injury.  Some have even killed themselves because they couldn't cope with the physical or mental trauma.

The fighting has to stop, but it won't as long as there remains a demand for it.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Musical Beliefs

This afternoon, a song came into my head that I remember singing way back in grade school with the choir.  After searches on what I could recall of the lyrics turned up very little, I tried keywords instead and came up with my answer.

"The Pilgrim's Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come" is a Christian allegorical tale written in 1678 by John Bunyan.  The work is considered one of the most important works in English literature, and has been dramatized in film and on stage several times.  It's a story of a man named "Christian" who is guided by "Evangelist" on a very difficult journey toward peace and salvation.

In 1978 a musical based loosely on the book was written by Nick Taylor and Alex Learmont, called simply, "Pilgrim".  It was songs from this musical that the choir I sang in performed on a mini-tour of several local grade schools.

The lyrics of the first song are, in part:

There's a hard time a comin'
When the judgment bell will toll
There's a hard time a comin'
And the testing of the soul

I do not consider myself Christian.  I was raised in a secular household and we celebrated the high holidays in our own manner.  However the school I was attending at the time was an English Protestant school.  The Lord's Prayer was recited at the beginning of each weekly assembly and many of the kids attended church on a regular basis.  A few kids would ask me if I believed in God and I found it difficult to frame an answer that they would not find offensive.

Over the years I have been to many services in several Christian denominations in a personal effort to understand and respect the belief system, but always viewed the rites from an outsider's perspective.  I have sung in choirs that performed masses but the meaning behind the words has meant little.

A friend once asked for advice on behalf of her son: they weren't Christian but the choir her son sang in was going to perform liturgical works that he personally didn't believe in, so how could he in good conscience continue with the choir?  My answer was that he didn't have to believe in what the songs were about; he should simply consider them as a vocal challenge.  After all, I had done the same with all the choirs I sang in.

The actor David Tennant once joked in a skit, "You don't have to BE English to teach it."  So you don't have to be Christian to enjoy or perform Christian-related music.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Celebrating Beauty

The middle-aged white men with their heads stuck in the 1950s who are running the United States right now seem to be waging war on women and their rights.

In January, the current occupant of the White House reinstated a global gag rule that bans U.S.-funded groups around the world from discussing abortion.  In March, the Senate pushed forward a bill that would allow states to withhold funds from Planned Parenthood.  Many individual Senators seem to have no idea how how womens' biology works.  Judges in rape cases are admonishing victims for their clothing, behaviour, and actions.

Even Facebook, a supposed forum of free speech, removes videos that talk about women and their bodies - especially if said video contains nudity.  One such, "Choose Pussy over Pain" from Kundalinikak.com was taken down less than an hour after it was posted.

So murder, radicalization, and violence are okay but celebrating a woman's body is not?

Clearly these men have forgotten that women gave birth to them, nurtured them, and guided them.  If it were up to them, women would exist solely for their own benefit.  Sadly, this is the case in many countries already.

I once knew a family that professed to be Catholic even though they hadn't attended church regularly for years.  However they clung to many outdated beliefs, including that a woman must obey her husband in all things.  To them, if a wife refused to bear children or if a spouse had an affair, that was grounds for disownment.  They didn't care about the reasons, all they cared about was what was "proper".  I felt sorry for them and for the recipients of their wrath.

These things should not happen here, but they do, and women still pay the price for male arrogance and need for control.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Gun Rules or Guns Rule

Stop me if you've heard this before.

One topic of conversation that gets me riled is the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and people insisting that gives them the inalienable right to carry any weapon they choose - either concealed or in plain sight.

What they so conveniently ignore is the first part of that Amendment: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..."

The definition of "militia" is "A military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency" or "all able-bodied civilians eligible by law for military service".

Therefore, by that reasoning, a gun owner should be educated and trained in the proper use and storage of a firearm.  On top of that, said owner ideally should be a member of a trained unit of some form, whether it be a militia, the police, the National Guard, or the Army.  All those units are regulated and the types of firearms allowed in each are specified by law.  (Contrary to popular belief, the National Rifle Association is not a military unit even though they like to think they are.)

However that's not how the system in the U.S. works.  Just about anyone can walk into a shop and purchase a gun after going through a rudimentary background check, and sometimes not even that.  Adding to the confusion is that the regulations concerning licensing and registration in each state vary considerably.

What's worse is that many web sites perpetuate myths about guns and how "X would not have happened if someone had been armed".  Studies have clearly shown that if a gunman sees that you also have a gun, you are more likely to be shot and killed than the other way around.

Speaking of gun myths, someone I know who is very pro-gun shared a photo from a Facebook page called Alien Gear Holsters.  That photo and others like it on the page show Fred Rogers of TV fame holding a weapon of some type and saying "Not in my neighbourhood".  I take a huge exception to people using images like that, and I called out the creator of the photo.  Several members of the group told me about how Mr. Rogers had served in the military and was awarded medals for the kills he accomplished in Vietnam, and how he wore long sleeves on TV to cover his tattoos.

All wrong.

Fred Rogers never served in the military.  According to his official biography he studied music and the ministry, and went directly from college into the media.  The reason he wore long sleeves was to maintain formality and convey authority to his audience.  There are statements on official U.S. military web sites that Mr. Rogers never served.  So when I asked the hecklers on Alien Gear Holsters to show me the proof, naturally they shut up.

Here in Canada our gun laws are much more sane.  The statistics on gun-related incidents per annum prove it.  For example, the number of firearm-related deaths in Canada in 2013 was 1.97 per 100,000 people.

In the United States for the same year it was 10.5.

Think about that.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Warmongering

I have a message for Donald Trump supporters.

When is it going to get through your thick skulls that the man is insane?

Less than two weeks into his presidency, he and his cronies have already put the American train so far off the rails that it'll require many years of hard work to get it back - if at all.

He has insulted multiple heads of state, prompting Germany to abolish a law that prohibits prosecution of anyone deemed to have insulted one.

In addition he has become persona non grata in the UK and earned the ire of Prince Charles concerning the environment.

He has banned immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, but conspicuously did not include those countries with which he does business, such as Saudi Arabia.  This caused mass confusion and even prevented U.S. citizens abroad from returning home, simply because of their country of birth.

Incidentally, 15 of the men involved in the 9-11 attacks were of Saudi origin.  Look it up.

He has threatened Iran and also North Korea and expressed no compuctions against using nuclear weapons against them if things go sour.

He has said nothing about the recent illegal pro-Russian attacks on the Ukraine, which have left an entire city of 20,000 people with no electricity or water.  No doubt because he doesn't want to get on the bad side of his buddy Vladmir Putin.

My parents were young when they witnessed the start of World War II.  Now my child is young and we might be witnessing the beginning of World War III.

But Trump and his ilk won't care.  They'll most likely be the first ones to hide in their bomb shelters with their millions of dollars and gloat that they "won" while the rest of the world burns.

I'm really and truly frightened, and you should be too.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

This Might Be a Shock Event

Original article by Heather Richardson, Professor of History at Boston College.
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"I don't like to talk about politics on Facebook -- political history is my job, after all, and you are my friends -- but there is an important non-partisan point to make today.

What Bannon is doing, most dramatically with last night's ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries -- is creating what is known as a "shock event."

Such an event is unexpected and confusing and throws a society into chaos. People scramble to react to the event, usually along some fault line that those responsible for the event can widen by claiming that they alone know how to restore order.

When opponents speak out, the authors of the shock event call them enemies. As society reels and tempers run high, those responsible for the shock event perform a sleight of hand to achieve their real goal, a goal they know to be hugely unpopular, but from which everyone has been distracted as they fight over the initial event. There is no longer concerted opposition to the real goal; opposition divides along the partisan lines established by the shock event.

Last night's Executive Order has all the hallmarks of a shock event. It was not reviewed by any governmental agencies or lawyers before it was released, and counterterrorism experts insist they did not ask for it. People charged with enforcing it got no instructions about how to do so. Courts immediately have declared parts of it unconstitutional, but border police in some airports are refusing to stop enforcing it.

Predictably, chaos has followed and tempers are hot.

My point today is this: unless you are the person setting it up, it is in no one's interest to play the shock event game. It is designed explicitly to divide people who might otherwise come together so they cannot stand against something its authors think they won't like.

I don't know what Bannon is up to -- although I have some guesses -- but because I know Bannon's ideas well, I am positive that there is not a single person whom I consider a friend on either side of the aisle -- and my friends range pretty widely -- who will benefit from whatever it is.

If the shock event strategy works, though, many of you will blame each other, rather than Bannon, for the fallout. And the country will have been tricked into accepting their real goal.

But because shock events destabilize a society, they can also be used positively. We do not have to respond along old fault lines. We could just as easily reorganize into a different pattern that threatens the people who sparked the event.

A successful shock event depends on speed and chaos because it requires knee-jerk reactions so that people divide along established lines. This, for example, is how Confederate leaders railroaded the initial southern states out of the Union.

If people realize they are being played, though, they can reach across old lines and reorganize to challenge the leaders who are pulling the strings. This was Lincoln's strategy when he joined together Whigs, Democrats, Free-Soilers, anti-Nebraska voters, and nativists into the new Republican Party to stand against the Slave Power.

Five years before, such a coalition would have been unimaginable. Members of those groups agreed on very little other than that they wanted all Americans to have equal economic opportunity. Once they began to work together to promote a fair economic system, though, they found much common ground. They ended up rededicating the nation to a "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Confederate leaders and Lincoln both knew about the political potential of a shock event. As we are in the midst of one, it seems worth noting that Lincoln seemed to have the better idea about how to use it."

Monday, 30 January 2017

Nobody is Immune

Last night someone shot up a mosque in Quebec City. Quebec. Canada.

Contrary to popular belief, it CAN happen here.

The following is credited to my friend and fellow writer J.D. Hobbes.

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The outpouring of sadness and solidarity for the Muslim community in Quebec is heartening, but too many people are quick to blame Trump, as if Canada was somehow immune to the racism that he is institutionalizing in his own country.

Have we already forgotten the despicable Charte that Pauline Marois championed to save Quebec from anything that didn't look Christian enough? It was just 4 years ago when that proposed piece of legislation emboldened too many to speak their racism aloud, to harass and attack anyone they felt looked too foreign. Even now, chapters of the despicable Sons of Odin walk the streets of Quebec city looking to oppress anyone who looks too foreign (yes, I am mentioning them very specifically).

This year marks the 150th anniversary of a country that founded itself by using the religion of a foreign land to oppress and to attempt to eradicate the First Nations people. The last Indian residential school operated by the Canadian government was closed in 1996, only 20 years ago.

It's easy to blame Trump, an outsider, for bringing this tragedy to our homes, but he is just one of many who rile and legitimize an undercurrent of racism that has been constantly humming in our country for over 150 years.

As an open and educated society, it does us no good to pretend like this came out of nowhere and wail "How can this happen in Quebec/Canada?" We need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that this kind of racism is not only a part of our history, but is also a pulsing fragment on our living, present culture. We can choose to stand against it, to support all of our brothers and sisters, and to move forward to embrace a positive, inclusive, multi-cultural society, but we can only do this by acknowledging that we all play a part in the inherent racism and bigotry that exists in our living culture.

I choose to stand against it, but my eyes are not shut to the inconvenient truths. #jesuisQuebec

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Conservation

You know that Chinese curse?  Well, we are living in interesting times indeed:

Climate change has been declared a hoax.

Oil companies are being subsidized to the tune of billions of dollars.

Some countries are fishing illegally...

...prompting other countries to go the extreme of sinking any illegal fishing boats they see.

The sunniest places around can't have solar panels...

...while people are punished for collecting rainwater.

All this and more is why it's extremely important to pay attention and be more proactive about safeguarding the environment for future generations.

I remember my late aunt as being highly conscious of her surroundings and of the environment.  She spent her youth during the Great Depression years and learned what it meant to be frugal and to go without.  After raising five children and caring for her husband who eventually died from cancer, she moved from the city of Toronto out to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere on 250 acres of land.

After taking pains to repair the cedar rail fences around the house to keep animals out, she grew her own vegetables and stored them in a cold room.  She allowed her neighbour's beef cattle to graze across her property in exchange for packages of fresh meat whenever an animal was slaughtered.  Food scraps
were composted or taken to a field a fair distance from the house and buried.  Paper and cardboard were cut into strips and used as kindling for the wood stove during the winter.  In her house, very little was wasted.

Nowadays I can walk down the street on garbage day and come across all sorts of items that could be repaired, reused, or donated to someone in need.  Instead they are tossed aside.  There are people who actually pick through neighbourhood garbage for items of value to repair or resell.

There have been a few occasions where even I have picked up kids' toys left in the trash and repaired them before taking them to a donation center.

I will never understand how our precious oil resources continue to be used to make plastic toys for children, which become useless and not recyclable when they break.  And don't get me started on how often I see empty drink bottles or juice boxes just tossed into the street.

We have a long way to go.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Moral Accomplices

Original post written by author David Gerrold. I take no credit.

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I was able to block over a dozen people instead of giving in to the temptation to ask them why if they are not racists, homophobes, or sexual predators they voted to put one in the White House.
You cannot claim you are not any of those things if you voted for one -- because if you voted for one, you are a moral accomplice to the tragedy that follows.
I remember (yes, I am this old) the year of Nixon's resignation. (And see, this is why you should listen to people with experience, you could learn something.) By July of '74, I was actually feeling sorry for the republicans who had voted to put Nixon in the White House. Because they were the ones he had truly betrayed. They had trusted him, they had believed in him, they had endorsed him with their voices, their dollars, their votes, their time, and their spirits. And when he was revealed as a vile and venal little putz, unfit for the office, they were the ones whose faith was shattered.
But when Trump's administration unravels -- and it will, because whatever Donald Trump might be, he is not a competent leader -- I will not feel sorry for the people who voted for him. We had a year-long campaign, the primaries and the general, in which Trump revealed himself as a liar, a con man, a swindler, a cheat, a bigot, a bully, and a sexual predator. If you voted for him, you cannot pretend you did not know what he was.
Referring back to Nixon again ... The political vacuum created by Nixon's resignation was an opportunity for the neo-fascist wing of the republican party to start building its strength -- a 40 year process that has resulted in what historians will eventually call "the American coup".
I do not believe we will have to wait long for the inevitable disintegration of this administration. The resistance movement is still an amorphous mass of fear, grief, despair, and a few sparks of anger that will eventually ignite a political firestorm.  It's a law of physics that when energy flows through a system, it tends to organize that system.  The energy that was pumped into the teapublicans gave us Trump.  But it looks like even more energy is going to be pumped into the resistance, and the resistance will likely organize itself into some very powerful movements and if the past is any guide to the future, it could happen very quickly.
What seems likely to me is that the resistance is going to create a new generation of leaders -- people who can speak to the realities of American politics in a way that a majority of voters can respond to. It's not impossible -- we saw FDR energize the nation in 1932. It is possible that our next progressive president is already organizing for 2020 -- but first, he or she will have to be a major force for 2018's midterm elections. And to accomplish that, he or she will have to establish serious credibility among a very angry and impatient electorate -- on both sides of the aisle.
It is possible -- notice how careful I'm being with these speculations, they're possibilities more than predictions -- it is possible that Trump will unite the country the same way Nixon did, by creating a massive backlash against himself.
If and when that happens, it will be a Shakespearean event. But where Nixon's fall from grace was a Shakespearean tragedy, Trump's will be a Shakespearean comedy, with the Karma fairy laughing her ass off at the inevitable unraveling of this Emperor's tattered pretense of clothing.
But along the way, the real tragedy will be all the lives that are hurt, damaged, or even ended, by the rampaging rabid rhinoceri, crashing their way through the china shop of government.