Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Can America (and the Democrats) find their better angels in the 'sacrifice zones'?

Just precisely when Joe Biden is being showered with laurels of commendation for his persistent choices of highly competent, highly professional, and also highly experienced administration leaders, (and not a moment too soon, hard upon the cluster of incompetents who bowed and scraped at the altar of trump), we are prompted to reflect on the tectonic divide between 73 million who voted for the incumbent and the 80 million who voted for Biden.

The irony of the adulation for meritocracy, however, cannot be allowed to linger like a silver lining in the Democratic party, irrespective of how satisfying such honorifics are. The divide between what has been dubbed meritocracy and ordinary people, a division upon which trump rode to the White House, begs numerous questions, and fewer solutions.

In the late 1950’s in small town Ontario, the prospect of going to university was considered akin to grasping the ‘brass ring’ of rising out of the lower middle class and potentially being granted the keys to the upper middle class. Other opportunities included nursing school and teacher’s college. There were no community (junior) colleges back then. In 1959, upon graduating from high school, I had never even heard the word “journalism” and considered the local paper and radio station as repositories of local ‘water cooler’ conversation. Both provided coverage of the occasional highway traffic accident, the list of obituaries, the local track and field results, the hockey news, and the infrequent story about a new business opening.

High school teachers were, for the most part, university graduates as were local clergy. Lawyers and doctors, too, had a similar halo of both intellect and social status. The retail sector, highly dependent on the summer American tourist invasion, competed with the large Toronto department stores known then as Simpson’s and Eaton’s, both of which published glossy catalogues that gilded the lily of fashion, home decorating, children’s clothing, footwear, and household goods like linen, bedding, drapes (and the necessary hardware).

Merit, then, was something to which young people could and did aspire, almost literally unconscious of the divide we were generating between ourselves and our classmates who turned to the world of work, wages, cars and, sooner than the rest of us, marriage. It was not so much that we considered ourselves ‘better’ than those in the labour force; we did not give them or their situation more than moment’s notice, unless we had already fostered a friendship prior to leaving. We were unaware of the struggles those young men and women faced, and most of us were not engaged in anything like the current tidal wave of altruism especially among young people that reaches into every corner of our culture, on both side of the 49th parallel.

Over the next few decades, in both Canada and the U.S., the embedding of the “learn-to-earn” cultural theme into the classrooms and the kitchens, the arenas and the movie theatres took root. Climbing the ladder to a reasonable living, including a decent wage, healthy working conditions, professional accreditation, family honour and respect as well as local endorsement all seemed to flow like a natural river through the lives of our generation, the first in almost all of our families to attend university. We entered various professions including teaching, nursing, medicine, law, accounting, business management, and journalism. A very small number ventured into the church, and an ever smaller few joined the military.

Universities extant during our undergraduate years would never have been regarded as ‘skill-development-training-institutes’ as many have become in the last two or three decades. The social and cultural hierarchy of academic subjects, while virtually level, nevertheless, continued to hold medicine and law a little above the average, along with graduate school, on the strength of the length of time required to complete all requirements. There was no Masters program in Education, for example, and the need for teachers in the mid-sixties was so great that many of us completed two or three summer programs as passport to eventual licensing and certification by the province. There was then no College of Teachers, as there is now in Ontario.

Our cohort of university students remained untouched and unmoved by the growing divide between the have’s and the have-not’s, given that much of the street talk as that decade went on focused on the war in Viet Nam. Draft dodgers from the U.S. were welcomed in Canada, and the Canadian political theatre was taken over by the charisma of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Trudeaumania. Beatlemania was a parallel social crush of adulation for a quartet of Liverpool pop idols.

The rise in the number of university graduates and the accompanying rise in the standard of living, based on higher salaries, enhanced benefits, a new health care system (in Canada) new housing developments, the rise of suburbia near the large cities all coalesced in a social, cultural, political and economic urge (and urgency) to provide similar opportunities for the children of those late-fifties-early-sixties grads, latterly known as baby-boomers. University expansion blossomed, as did enrolment, graduations and the rise in enrolments in grad schools. Driving much of this ‘ship’ was the lure of high personal incomes and new programs like those in finance, marketing, executive leadership, corporate law, and even a beginning of a trend toward international law and trade.

In the U.S., Wall Street became the golden ring, (graduated up from the ‘brass ring’) for many bright, ambitious, determined and highly strategic graduates. Profits in the financial services industry spiked, and like the magnet they were intended to be, attracted thousands, so many that even one auto executive (Lee Iacocca) was provoked to write to the presidents of both Yale and Harvard, pleading with them for answers as to why it had become so difficult, if not actually impossible, to attract American university grads into the executive positions in the auto industry. Both university presidents responded that they believed their schools had been teaching the wrong ‘things’ to their students, generating a societal shift from a balanced approach of looking after workers and earning a profit, to the pursuit of personal self-aggrandizement.

This exchange, while not accounting for the totality of the social shift from learning for its own sake, to learning as a means to another end (personal wealth), exposes one of the cracks in the erosion of the formerly stable social order that regarded the public good as an integral component of the social order. The rapid and somewhat turbulent growth of the labour movement, while essential for those in the then-frenetic manufacturing sector immediately following WWII, fuelled another growing set of expectations among those aspiring to generate products while earning a decent living, new worker benefits, weekends, and enhanced holidays.

“Rise-up”, whether spoken, written or even whispered was an integral and necessary component of the optimism that flooded the minds, aspirations imaginations and industrial executives across North America. New military technology was being designed and produced, following the awesome and historic power (? And risk) of the atomic and hydrogen bombs. The moon shot was metaphoric for the ambition, the muscle, the assertiveness or rather aggression of the new American political theatre of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In Canada, in the late 50’s, the Avro Arrow airplane, although scrapped by Diefenbaker, was considered the prototype of the future of air travel. Science, and the pursuit of scientific knowledge, experimentation, and the accompanying rising incomes served to magnetize more than a single generation of young people in Canada and the U.S.

Trends, pursued with vigor, including their belated endorsement by the political class, have a way of extending far beyond their initial propitious beginnings. What started as a reasonable, conventional, political, economic and social agenda, to enable as many young people to secure university degrees, and then employment consistent with that education, gushed forth as an almost uncontrollable “logic” that witnessed an explosion of university growth, including capital projects, laboratories, new athletic stadia, now emblazoned with the names of corporate benefactors. Riding statistical data points like employment and unemployment figures, new housing developments, GNP and GDP snap-shots and projections, enrolment figures in engineering and scientific programs, and the emerging flow of new technological innovations offered a wave of political opportunity, optimism, hope and even inflated expectations. In America anything and everything was considered possible, attainable, and regardless of how difficult or costly, worth the effort. As Kennedy famously said, “We do these things (in his ‘moon shot proposal speech), not because they are easy but because they are hard!”

At the same time, there was another more bleak narrative beginning to emerge that cast a darker shadow over the glossy promise of invention, creativity, new management skills and theories. The Cuban Missile Crisis, the insurgent and urgent drive to achieve racial integration in the schools and universities, and the divisive public debate and protests against the Viet Nam war, while commanding the headlines during the sixties, could now be seen to have thrown a cover over public consciousness and debate over the interior, social, family, domestic economic struggles that confronted many families, especially those of colour, and of immigrants and refugees.

In specific communities, for example, among blacks, browns, immigrants and refugees, real daily struggle as a measurable social and political crisis prompting debates over programs like how to feed the poor, how to ensure safe communities, how to manage the military (with or without the draft), in a context of a cold war. And if, as Jon Meacham suggests, the political conversation that book-ended the last half century from Eisenhower/Kennedy to Clinton/Bush/Obama saw the preservation of a pursuit of global order and institutions, then the same period in the development of young minds and bodies and careers witnessed an explosion of talent, training, transformational status and value-seeking (much of it camouflaged in family values) as well as a growing chasm of inequality that has now surfaced like a raging bull in the consciousness of America, especially in the middle of a pandemic. And while the tradition of foreign policy in America holding for that half-century-plus, that political party differences at the ocean shores, when dealing with foreign nations, the question of how to perceive, diagnose and then prescribe political platforms on domestic issues suffered from a deep division that has continued to today.

Republicans, conservatives, who have stood firmly on the concrete floor of small government, low taxes, strong military, and few corporate regulations, few if any social-safety-net provisions have made vivid comparison with the Democrats who believe that government has a significant role to play in offering what they call not a hand-out, but a hand-up, to those in need. Following the lead of FDR, on the heels of the Great Depression, Democrats have been the party ‘with a heart’ (in their own mind and advertising). Increasingly, however, the Democrats have been engulfed in another social, political, economic and cultural wave that has been severely impacted by the political and societal shift (drift? push? purchase? take-over?) to/by and for the right-wing capitalists.

Championing entrepreneurialism and the participants in that new, technologically-based, informational behemoth, both parties have espoused a political agenda that eschewed social programs, social safety nets. Both political parties also endorsed strong anti-crime agendas that, during the nineties, saw another pendulum-swing toward privatized prisons, the three-strike rule on drugs. The forces of enhanced skill training, enhanced law enforcement against drug abuse (heavily waged in minority communities where unemployment, and social unrest were/are more prevalent) and political opportunism, by both parties, saw some overlaps in agendas, with barely whimpers of difference, both continuing to increase their dependence and support of the big-donor financial cadre.

Shortened school careers, lower skill levels, eroded employment opportunities,  especially ensuing from the corporate outsourcing of jobs in order to capitalize on tax policies, and profit rainbows from lower production costs (based on the absence of worker rights, environmental protections and lower hourly wages) all conflated into a social and political and cultural cocktail that seemed to boggle the imaginations of both political parties.

Obama’s attempt to level the playing field with the Affordable Care Act, barely passed in the Senate, whose Republican majority blocked all of his reasonable and politically compassionate attempts, for example, to ensure the acceptance and safety of undocumented immigrants, to bring limited gun control into effect, and even to replace Justice Scalia with a moderate appointee, Merek Garland. Rising to the peak of the Democratic Party, Obama himself incarnated both the best (and potentially the worst, depending on one’s perception) of what has become known as the “technocrat, bureaucrat, the effete, intellectual, rhetorician” considered by Democrats as the epitome of political leaders, and by the Republicans, the devil-incarnate.

Historically, supporting the ordinary working “Joe” of the then-rising middle-class American worker, the Democrats have been painted, willingly and enthusiastically, by Republicans, as having abandoned that segment of the electorate. And while Republicans, under trump, have taken advantage of that perceived neglect, and retained some 73-4 million voters in 2020, Democrats are left scratching their collective heads in angst as to how to regain the needed support of the disaffected, less highly educated, even less appreciative of those with advanced degrees and their perceived ‘arrogance (superiority, indifference, hubris!) among the hinterland.

Coastal superiority among the highly educated, highly economically successful, technologically literate and sophisticated, environmentally sensitive and protective, globally engaged, internationalist-inspired-and collaborative….these are well-seeded perceptions of the Democrats, sewn by Republicans at all levels, among the hinterland of farmers, industrial and factory workers, some in law enforcement and many whose work generates minimum income, provokes the need for multiple jobs, especially among single mothers.

“Connecting with ordinary Americans” is a cliché that Democrats will utter and hear echoing in the next few months and years, while Biden and his administration will attempt to reconcile tow heads of a single beast. Janus, in ancient Roman religion and myth, is the god of beginnings, gates, frames, and endings. Usually portrayed as having two faces, looking to the future and the past simultaneously, he could become a symbol for Biden’s administration.

It will have to reconcile with the history of the Democratic Party’s and the nation’s past, including how to ameliorate the anger, the angst, the rage and the disaffection of the millions of those who continue to cling to conspiracy theories, like the primary fallacy of the fraudulent election being trumped by a hollowed-out and defamed trump. The Administration will also have to provide an intellectual, emotional and a cultural bridge between the second-tier “have’s” whose own hubris, like the mug-wump straddling both parties through self-interested, narcissistic cheques, precludes an authentic empathy for the socially struggling and the sanitary workers, the restaurant service workers, the ambulance attendants, the postal workers, the firemen and women, and many in law enforcement.

Celebrating a law that protects the privacy of judges, following the death of the son of a New Jersey jurist whose private identity was publicly available, while necessary, serves only as a thin pin-head light into the darkness of detachment, objectification and intellectual assessment by the Democratic leaders about the needs, aspirations and significant, yet untapped, potential of the masses. Can the new administration roll up their individual and collective sleeves, take off their erudite, technocratic, detached and policy-wonk glasses, and put on a pair of jeans and sneakers and take many walks into the areas where real people struggle to find hope in their daily routine. Can they then begin to listen, and to empathize, and to begin to embrace the truth of the millions of untold stories when they are formulating government policy.

Recommended reading for all members of the Biden administration for a starter, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. A portrayal of a suffering nation, the back cover holds this introduction:

Having worker alongside one another in the blood and barbarism of global conflict regions, Hedges and Sacco set a new course. Together they introduce American’s sacrifice zones, those areas that have been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit, progress and technological advancement. They who in words and drawings what life looks like in places where the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit…

From the western plains, where Native American were sacrificed in the giddy race for land and empire, Hedges and Sacco move to the manufacturing c enters and coal fields that once fueled the Industrial Revolution, but now lie depleted and in decay. They follow the steady downward spiral of American labor into the nation’s produce fields and end in Zuccotti Park where a new generation revolts against a corporate state that has handed to the young an economic, political, cultural and environmental catastrophe.

Philip Meyer, in The New York Times Book Review, is represented in these words:

Sacco’s sections are uniformly brilliant. The tone is controlled, the writing smart, the narration neutral; we are allowed to draw our own conclusions. This is an important book. 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

More debunking of Christian fundamentalism

It is not my bias and experience only that underscores the futility and outright malignancy of fundamentalism. In fact, there are far more relevant and impactful arguments that need to have as many voices uttering them in this wave of cultural , conspiracy theories, rejection of science and truth, and the toxic power of tyranny that comes with all of that.

Given that fundamentalism itself is a “conspiracy theory” of its own, based on a ‘rapture, a division of the saved and unsaved and their respective eternal ‘sentence or reward, there is an already extant appetite among those who adhere to its tenets for conspiracy theories which rise to the dangerous, lethal and cancerous.

There has always been a tension between things we ‘know’ through our faculties and through our reason and those things we ‘dream, imagine, envision, and generate as our attempts, however legitimate, to relate to the eternal, the ephemeral. Words and concepts like the apocalypse, hell, heaven, the rapture, satan, and purgatory portend not necessarily a literal end of times, but rather a metaphor for how we conceive of our relationship to our chosen deity. And although science has been elevated to the top of a cultural and cognitive and epistemological totem pole, the literalism science embodies and upon which it depends serves only as a reduction to our concept/projection/vision/interpretation of that deity.

Previously in this space, and repeatedly, the argument against any human attempt to know and to assert and to believe and to practice an ethic and a morality, especially in the most minute weed-like details, catapults human beings into a highly treacherous position, that of playing god. There is a significant danger of hubris attached to this posture, especially when it imposes itself on those who find themselves in highly vulnerable and threatening circumstances. The parable of the good Samaritan has been deployed by agencies around the world as justification for the multiple and various acts of rescue of those in threatening situations. And while the spirit of those rescues itself, and the accounts of those rescued from fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, draughts offers hope and new life to the rescued, as well as meaning to the rescuers, there is a legitimate and somewhat controversial view of the biblical story that points to the Jew taken for dead in the ditch as the metaphor for the Christ of Christianity.

At the core of these two variant perspectives on that ‘good samaritan’ parable are two different visions of the Christian faith: one that focuses on the ‘good works’ that received prominence in the book of James in the New Testament; another that focuses on the spiritual reality of the dark night of the soul, a moment, or a series of moments, that seem to come to each and every human in which the ‘bottom falls out’ of our life, gravity seems to give way to chaos, hopelessness, alienation, ostracism, failure, shame, loss, grief and even potentially the thought and too often the plan to terminate one’s own life in suicide. At the centre of this prospect, the prospect of intense and seemingly unendurable and insufferable pain, exhaustion, desperation, depression and hopelessness, lies the profound and inscrutable belief, from the Christian point of view, as well as from the perspective of other world faiths, that there is even then, or perhaps especially then, at the moment when all of our “strength and capacity and will have seemed to evaporate” we are still being somehow sustained, upheld, supported and although we will emerge bent and different, we will see light at the end of that tunnel. This is not merely a story of scientific proportions; it is rather an account of spiritual dimensions, a belief cornerstone that is fashioned on the deepest and broadest and longest human conception of how the infinite and the finite ‘touch’. And it is not a moment that can be attributed to the strong will, the limitless imagination, the physical or mental or emotional fortitude of the ‘survivor’…but can be attributed only to something ‘other’….and for many that ‘other’ is God.

Naturally, in the course of our daily lives, we like to tell stories of the ‘rescuing’ kind, and to connect whether consciously or unconsciously those stories to something ‘larger than ourselves’ that might be ascribed to that good Samaritan. It is not to disdain that parable but rather to note that ‘good works’ while necessary and noble and honourable and worthy of note are different from the experiences of that dark night of the soul, when we are so shaken, disturbed, transformed and re-birthed however wounded, yet nevertheless more conscious and aware of the depth of the human spirit including its resilience, its strength, its universality, its ignorance of race, ethnicity, social or economic status, political ideology, academic achievement, personal genetic code or even faith membership. There really are ‘things’ far beyond our capacity (intellectual, emotional, cognitive) to grasp fully, and it the indisputable ‘ground’ of that truth that stretches and enriches and ennobles and also sustains the human family.

One of the more challenging truths of this ‘other’ truth and dynamic is that it escapes the entrapment of human words, those frail instruments by and through which we attempt to communicate. There is nevertheless a significant difference between “voodoo” spirituality and accounts from multiple and various sources of the dark night of the soul and its repercussions. Just as the mystery of birth is so infrequently captured in fiction, by even the most accomplished, talented and seasoned writers, and when attempted, there is so much left out whenever a writer ventures into that mystery. Any account of an autopsy, too, fails to represent adequately the incredible and awesome mystery of the complexity of the human body/person/existence. Public discourse ventures into the area of specific illness, symptom, including even those considered chronic, without even considering at the same time, the totality of the human being. And such is the manner by and though which we relate to some of our most challenging health issues.

There is a fortunate aspect to this ‘narrow view’ through the lens of our apprehension; we are once again, cast in the light of our own ‘resistance to the truth’. The other side of this cultural perspective “that we cannot stand too much truth” is that we project our perceptions of our humanity onto others including god. Anthropomorphism, while inevitable, does not because it cannot denote or connote the ‘wholeness’ or any deity. And one of the most obvious dangers of approaching the shadows of infinity, eternity and deity on the wall of the cave in which we all live, is that we will be overcome, overwhelmed and thereby crushed by the immensity of its power.


However, the reductionism of God that underscores the fundamentalism movement is inescapable. A cultural historian, Catherine M. Wallace, also a member of the faculty of medicine of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern has written a series of book to confront fundamentalism. So in addition to the theological, spiritual legitimate disputes against this social and cultural disease, her words are recorded in a journalistic piece on the website, by Bill Tammeus, of the Kansas Star, November 26, 2016. From Wallace’s book, the “Controlling God”, Tammeus takes these words:

Christian fundamentalism speaks for God with breathtaking arrogance and sweeping authority, laying out in no uncertain terms what God demands and whom God condemns..and…Christian fundamentalism does not seek the just, humane, inclusive society preached by Jesus of Nazareth. It offers a religious cover to a political agenda that is sharply opposed to democratic government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Other quotes from Wallace, through Tammeus:

The theology of an ultimately controlling God legitimates—indeed requires—human political tyranny at the hands of ‘believers’. When these same believers are biblical literalists immune to arguments based on rigorously established fqacts, we are in trouble….Christian spirituality confronts Christian fundamentalism with a simple but profound insight: all God-talk is necessarily and inescapably symbolic”…it is hazardous to attempt to speak about God while remembering that God is not a topic about which we can speak. Anything anyone might say ab out God, no matter how persuasive, is ultimately contingent….The whole point of Jesus, theologically speaking, is demonstrating that God is also present to us in and as other people…Our knowledge of God is never complete nor final nor absolute, because we have no way to know what God in God’s creative fecundity will either come to be or come to reveal to us…Theological literalism is ultimately just as serious a mistake as biblical literalism. Churches that insist upon literalism are committing intellectual suicide. Irrationality is not a prerequisite for faith in God…The sanctity of gay marriage will never be widely acknowledged unless Christianity takes the lead…But Christian fundamentalism, is frankly homophobic just as , in the 1950’s, it was frankly racist and then vehemently opposed to equal rights for women….Christianity as I understand it centers itself in a God of love and compassion, not a God of command and control,. The Lord of command and control is the God of empire, the God of violence, vengeance, condemnation, and deliberately inflicted pain. The God of Jesus is someone else….The problem with religious absolutism, then, is not simply that it worships its own unquestionable interpretations. That’s bad enough, heaven knows. It’s a setup for the situation we face today: the Christian ‘brand’ has been co-opted. Its symbolic resources and its commitment to common good have been rendered invisible to most people. All of that should worry any thoughtful person, regardless of religious allegiance….I hope to convince you that the Gospels are not the story of a God whose outrage can only be mollified by brutal human sacrifice.

Wallace’s books bear these titles:

Confronting a Controlling God

Confronting Religious Denial of Gay Marriage

Confronting Religious Violence

Confronting Religious Denial of Science

Confronting Religious Judgementalism

The Confrontational Wit of Jesus

Not only does this scribe heartily endorse the spirit and the essential content of Wallace’s perspective, I also humbly suggest that her thoughts, perspective and arguments need to be read in the theological seminaries across North America. In fact, those schools of theology whose intellectual premises are based heavily on a fundamentalist foundation, especially, need to expose their students and faculty to this anti-fundamentalist critique.

There is a need also for a renewal of the fundamental importance of the teaching of reading, language development that stretches far beyond the ‘how-to manuals’ of the digital age. And that also includes the renewal of the curriculum common known as the liberal arts curriculum not merely for the sake of the restoration of those jobs for lecturers in Literature, History, culture and the grounding of poetry, the imagination, the basic difference between the various genres of literature, including the many genres incorporated into all works considered ‘scriptural’ or sacred.It says here that the sacred, by definition, cannot be captured in the finite, in the “power” agenda that has come to be identified with the colonial, the empire-building, the ‘divine right if kings’ partly underlines much of the cultural history of inordinate assumption and justification of abusive deployment of power. Ironically and paradoxically, the very sine qua non of a profound spiritual/religious/Christian life is not power over others, but rather the acknowledgement of powerlessness, vulnerability, need, and a reliance on the ‘hand of God’ that has never abandoned any of us.

Does Catherine M. Wallace accept invitations from Christian churches and theological schools and seminaries to deliver needed and cogent lectures about the Christian faith? She can be reached at Her CV reads:

She received has PhD. From the University of Michigan in 1977 and was Assistant Professor of English at Northwestern University from 1976 to 1982. She set aside her scholarly career in literary theory to stay at home full-time with newborn twins and a two-0year-old-all three of whom are now in high school. She has spent the last fifteen years reading eclectically, speaking and writing about literary approaches to spiritual issues, and working as a homemaker. Her writing has appeared in pamphlets published by Forward Movement Publications and in scholarly journals. 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Fundamentalism is a zero-sum game

 In our last entry, the issue of private virtue in the Christian faith was placed adjacent what Gregory Baum called the gospel of social justice. Within the church community, these two “schools” of thought have been in tension for decades, if not centuries. What has, unfortunately become increasingly clear is that a theology that believes and practices private virtue, including a fundamentalist/evangelical/literalist interpretation of scripture is no longer defensible. Indeed, the impact of this form of religion is so negatively impacting contemporary North American culture as to beg for a vigorous push-back.

In Karen Armstrong’s penetrating work, A History of God, we read these words: Amos was the first of the prophets to emphasize the importance of social justice and compassion. Like the Buddha, he was acutely aware of the agony of suffering humanity. In Amos’ oracles, Yahweh was speaking of behalf of the oppressed, giving voice to the voiceless, impotent suffering of the poor. In the very first line of his prophecy as it has come down to us, Yahweh is roaring with horror from his Temple in Jerusalem as he contemplates the misery in all the countries of the Near East, including Judah and Israel. The people of Israel were just as bad as the goyim, the Gentiles: they might be able to ignore the cruelty and oppression of the poor, but Yahweh would not. He noted every instance of swindling, exploitation and breathtaking lack of compassion: ‘Yahweh swears it by the pride of Jacob: ‘Never will I forget a single thing that you have done. (Armstrong, op. cit. p.46)

And these words of insight from Armstrong: “All religion must begin with some anthropomorphism. A deity which is utterly remote from humanity, such as Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, cannot inspire a spiritual quest. As long as this projection does not become an end in itself, it can be useful and beneficial.” (op. cit. p. 48)

Writing in the New York Times,  Matthew Sutton, professor of history at Washington State University, May 25, 2019, in an essay entitled, The Day Christian Fundamentalism was Born, writes:

For many Americans, it was thrilling to be alive in 1919. The end of World War I has brought hundreds of thousands of soldiers home. Cars were rolling off the assembly lines. New forms of music, like jazz, were driving people to dance. And science was in the ascendant, after helping the war effort. Women, having done so much on the home front, were ready to claim the vote, and African-Americans were eager to enjoy full citizenship, at long last. In a word, life was dazzlingly modern….But from many other Americans, modernity was exactly the problem. As many parts of the country were experimenting with new ideas and beliefs, a powerful counterrevolution was forming in some of the nation’s largest churches and Bible institutes. A group of Christian leaders, anxious about the chaos that seemed to be enveloping the globe, recalibrating the faith and gave it a new urgency. They knew that the time was right for a revolution in American Christianity. In its own way, this new movement—fundamentalism- was every bit as important as the modernity it seemingly resisted, with remarkable determination…,.Beginning on May 25, 1919, 6000 ministers, theologians and evangelists came together in Philadelphia for a weeklong series of meeting. They heard sermons on everything from “Christ and the Present Crisis” to “Why I Preach the Second Coming.” The men and women assembled there believed that God had chosen them to call Christians back to the “fundamentals” of the faith, and to prepare the world for one final revival before Jesus returned to earth. They called their group the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. …Unlike more mainstream Protestants, fundamentalists did not expect to see a righteous and holy kingdom of God established on earth. Instead, they taught that the Holy Spirit would soon turn this world over to the Antichrist, a diabolical world leader who would preside over an awful holocaust in which those true believers who had not already been raptured to heaven would suffer interminable tribulations….At the conference and in the years that followed, they matched up biblical prophecy with world events. Perhaps the most significant sign was the world war. In the New Testament, Jesus had told his disciples that ‘wars and rumors of wars’ would presage the end times….The reshaping of Palestine served as another warning that the end was near. Fundamentalists believed that the return of Jews to the Holy Land must precede the second coming of Christ, and the wear seemed to make this a real possibility…Fundamentalists viewed the proposed League of Nations as another potential landmark on the road to Armageddon. They were sure that as humans moved toward the end times, governments around the world would cede their independence to a charismatic world leader who would actually be the Antichrist….Their beliefs drove them to support the Senate’s ‘irreconcilables,’ those who fought the president’s efforts to join the league….(T)hey opposed any expansion of the power of the federal government and became highly suspicious of anything that seemed to undermine their religious freedoms and longstanding privileges…..As the fundamentalist movement grew and expanded, its leaders waged war against religious modernists for control of the major Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches, colleges, seminaries and missionary boards. The liberal Christian Century magazine summed up the controversy in 1924: ‘The differences between fundamentalism and modernism are not mere surface differences, which can be amiably waved aside or disregarded, but they are foundational differences, amounting in the radical dissimilarity almost to the differences between two distinct religions.’ ‘The God of the fundamentalist,’ the writer concluded, ‘is one God; the God of the modernist is another. The Christ of the fundamentalist is one Christ; the Christ of the modernist is another. The Bible of fundamentalism is one Bible; the Bible of modernism is another.’…While modernist Protestants emphasize patience, humility, willingness to compromise and tolerance on a range of important issues, at least in terms of ideals if not always practices, fundamentalists believed that they were engaged in a zero-sum game of good versus evil.

Having passed my childhood in a church dominated by a ‘fundamentalist, evangelical preacher,’ (not incidentally the fundamentalist movement morphed in the evangelical movement of Billy Graham), I witnessed the very zero-sum game of absolutism every Sunday for at least a decade. Absolute judgement that belonging to the Roman Catholic church was a sentence to “Hell” along with the more trivial evils of wearing make-up, going to dances and movies and preparing meals on Sunday spewed in one belch from a single sermon, adequate to provoke my own sixteen-year-old decision never to return. The first-year class in theology at Huron College, in 1987 was comprised of 12 students, 8 of whom were fundamentalists, while the remaining 4 were liberals. I proudly included myself in the latter group. The most prominent feature of the ‘fundies’ was that they were determined to “save” the world from evil. Opposed to this intransigence, the liberals were determined to ask questions, occasionally prompting a ‘fundie’ to demand of the professor, “Never mind those questions; just tell us what we have to know so we can get out of here and save the world!”

On the strong recommendation of the then Dean, after completing first year, I was almost directed to find training and formation at a different School of Theology. His diplomatic, formal and professional recommendation came in the form of a strong recommendation that I seek a second unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. Knowing that such a unit was unavailable for the upcoming semester at University Hospital at Western, I was advised to pursue such a training unit in Toronto. The Toronto Institute of Pastoral Relations accepted my application, providing opportunity to pursue Clinical Pastoral Counselling, as compared with Chaplaincy, in the first unit at Scarborough Centennary Hospital.

The theological training for second and third year would be provided by Trinity College, the ‘other’ Anglican seminary, (Wycliffe is the other.) Of course, Trinity hosted primarily liberal students and lecturers, where questions were at the core, as opposed to answers, in shaping the paths of ministry development. At Trinity, the primary issue of tension, conflict and real dispute focused on the issue of feminism. Fundamentalism took a back seat to the issue of how men and women were and were going to relate in the future church.

Nevertheless, in the first parish to which I was assigned as Deacon, I immediately encountered the fundamentalist movement incarnate. Resident, long-serving wardens were aghast at the sermons I preached. One demanded my instant dismissal, only a few weeks after my arrival. He was determined to show a video produced in the United States by the fundamentalist movement to complement the fundamentalist syllabus of the Christian education program. The explicit  instructions to teachers in that program went like this: Say this to those children who are saved, and say something quite different to those who are not saved! The parish had not welcomed the most recent publication of Sunday School curriculum that then bore the title, The Whole People of God, an approach very different, more integrative, welcoming, questioning, searching and much less dependent on absolutes than the fundamentalist program. Rather abruptly, and clearly not diplomatically, I requested that the latter program replace the fundamentalist program.

The church school teachers were also engaged in the operation of a Christian bookstore, also dedicated to the interests of the fundamentalist movement. And when I inquired whether they carried the works of Matthew Fox, and/or Scott
Peck, I encountered outright hate. When I arrived home later that day, I was treated to a phone message that said, “You are a heretic, the antichrist, for even suggesting works by Fax and Peck…!” Linking the phone call to the face-to-face confrontation by the warden (also a heavy financial contributor to the parish) demanding my removal, I had to ‘stand firm’ and assert that I was not leaving. Shortly thereafter, I asked a supervisor to support my formal removal of that warden from his position as warden. I delivered a letter informing him of the decision that his service would no longer be required.

The fundamentalist zero-sum game reared its ugly head later in Toronto, shortly after the June 1995 provincial election in Ontario, in which Mike Harris was elected as premier. In a homily I delivered while pinch-hitting for the rector who was in Bejing for the United Nations Womens’ Conference, I commented that the premier needed to be restrained from his proposal to cancel provincial funding for the Wheel-trans program, a primary requisite for physically and intellectually challenged persons to access training, employment and basic necessities. Upon the return of the rector, triggered by my request for a travel honorarium, a kangaroo court of parishioners was convened, to determine a parish decision on my future in the parish. By a vote of 9 in favour with 4 opposed and 2 abstentions, the secret and anonymous court agreed to extend my relationship with the parish. As in each and every ecclesial enactment, even those held ‘in camera,’ the trickle of truth often morphs into a river. What I learned later was the eventual impact of two f pointed, highly impactful statements from parishioners that seemed to have reversed the kangaroo court’s decision. The first was, “We cannot have him arguing with the premier we had just elected!” The second was (to this day I have no idea who uttered this statement, nor did I have any prior knowledge that it would be uttered): “He’s a leader and you are not a leader!” To an aspiring female clergy, determined to rise in the hierarchy of the most prominent diocese in the nation, such a statement would be anathema. Clearly, I was toast!

A similar encounter with zero-sum game fundamentalists reared a slightly different face and head in a small mission church in the Colorado to which I arrived in the fall of 1996. Barely surviving on life-support, with 6 attendees, having failed to attract a clergy after two years of national advertising (I was never officially informed of this deficit by those in charge in the diocese!) this mission open conversations on a premise of extreme scarcity, a bone-dry well of hope, and the tightly-fisted hand of the treasurer on the bank account. They never wanted a full-time clergy; they merely wanted a sacramentalist for Sunday services, the occasional funeral and wedding and the concomitant minimal expenditure. Previous clergy warned of the need ‘for a completely new and different cast of characters’ if the church was ever going to survive. The issue that dominated my forty months there was one of cultural dimensions:

Ø the rough-individualist ‘real wild west’ county that has twice voted for trump (87% in 2016 and 80% in 2020) complete with the conspiracy theories,

Ø the RNA indoctrination,

Ø the contempt for anything smacking of “the east”,

Ø a hard-wired bias of systemic racism, a border-wall that precluded acceptance of authentic invitations to other clergy to exchange services in order to “blow some different thoughts, perceptions and personalities into the spiritual desert”

Ø a ubiquitous and also hard-wired concept of maleness that borders on ‘the outlaw’ beside a small cluster of women who acquiesce to this malignancy

Ø the proliferation of booze shops and the flow of alcohol as well as the invasion of drugs on the methamphetamine drug path

Ø acknowledged abandonment by the officials of the diocese

It is no surprise that my departure was both swift and unceremonial. It will also come as no surprise to the reader to learn that my failure to reconcile with the Anglican/Episcopal institution will outlast my time on the planet. I have attempted, obviously unsuccessfully, to embody a theology of awe, of searching, of questions, and of wonder. Absolute answers, colonialism, hierarchic unappealable authority, and the elevation of private virtue above social justice and a hard-hearted, hubristic masculinity do not, indeed cannot, embody, inspire or even authenticate a ‘christian’ theology and spirituality.

Two closing anecdotes: In an interview for another urban parish also in Colorado with a parish “leader” closely attached to the bishop (by his own proud acknowledgement) I listened to these words: “I am proud to have routed the last clergy from our parish; he was not spiritual enough and neither are you!” These words came from a Motorola executive so deeply embedded in his own material, extrinsic and political conception of the Christian church and his role in protecting its ‘spirituality’ which for him meant whatever marketing techniques would attract new members, new dollars and enhance his standing in the diocese.

In an interview in a Nebraska church, I heard one male expound, “We don’t want that pinko, Canadian communist!” words uttered in front of his wife who had already expressed a sincere interest in my candidacy. Was he feeling threatened? Duh! D’ya think?

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Let's cease from finger-pointing and its underpinning rationalizations

 In each and every aphorism lies its demise…..Too much egalitarianism renders chaos. Too much authoritarianism brings on another form of chaos….and when individualism is at the root of any and all political attitudes, we know that such a root, taken to an exaggerated degree, inevitably generates a different form of tyranny.

In North America, where the domination of capitalism is so deeply established, we can trace some of the underlying causes to a kind of religion offered by some christian preachers that is based on “purely personal understanding of the biblical message. In other words, the Bible does nothing more than save individuals, one by one, from the common destruction. According to them, the Gospel generates private virtue, not social justice. The government deserves support when it promotes private virtue, but should be opposed when it tries to establish ethical norms for public affairs, such as limitation of arms production, the reduction of nuclear weapons, assistance to Third World countries, the protection for the environment, and the containment of the free market.” (Gregory Baum, Compassion and Solidarity, The Church for others, CBC Massey Lectures Series, 1987, p. 103)

If millions of individuals have consumed, digested and integrated such a theology into their lives, as we know they have, then the prospects for a different kind of Gospel interpretation and application is going to prove difficult, if not nearly impossible. An epistemological crisis, (see last entry in this space) is compounded by a faith crisis, which pits an “individualist” salvation proposition against a social justice theology. And we all know too that “for centuries and centuries, the major churches, Catholic and Protestant, have tended to side with the powerful, with the dominant sector society. In the Third World the churches have supported colonialism.” (Baum, op.cit. p 106)

And in that light, of the mainline churches siding with, in fact advocating for ‘the establishment’, the churches have both consciously and unconsciously served as mouthpieces for that establishment, increasingly dependent as they are on the cheques written both by individuals and by trust funds owned and operated by wealthy, establishment individuals and corporations. Baum articulates many of the establishment-based messages that have been delivered, supported and underscored by the mainline churches in these words:

Today we are told that we have lived beyond our means, that society has been overlyo8 generous, that we have given away money, and that, accordingly, the government deficit is the central problem of the economy. We must recognize, we are told, that we live in the tough world of competition. We must advance our economy by letting private enterprise be the locomotive that pulls us out of the present slump. We hear that the successful entrepreneurs are the creators of wealth. That is why they deserve the assistance of government, tax breaks, and subsidies, along with the riches they make for themselves. The reason that our industries are th Carolinanot competitive on the world market is that labourers ask for excessive wages. The unions have become too powerful. There are too many strikes. It is their fault that we suffer economic decline. We all will have to tighten our belts—all, one assumes, except the creators of wealth….This is not the time for free lunches. Government should no longer assume responsibility for people who cannot make it in a society that gives them every opportunity…A certain toughness has become necessary to make labour work harder, to encourage business confidence and to attract foreign investment….The neo-conservative cultural trend that I have been describing makes selfishness respectable. Am I my brother’s keeper? According to the prevailing mood, the answer is No. It is all right to let the social gap become wider. There is not need anymore even to pretend that social solidarity counts. (Baum op. cit. p 101-102)

Although Baum wrote and spoke those words 33 years ago, on the CBC national network, they are echoed today by the right-wing conservatives in Canada, and certainly by the Republican Senators who even today are refusing to engage in a negotiation that would see a COVID-19 aid package for the up to 54 million Americans who are reported to be facing food insecurity.

One American thought and faith leader is Dr. William Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. In a report written by Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker, May 07, 2018, Barber is quoted as saying: I worry about the way that faith is cynically used by some to serve hate, fear, racism and greed. The Cobb report continues with these words from Barber, in a sermon, “The Bible says woe unto those who love the tombs of the prophets.” The duty of the living, he said, is not simply to recall the martyrs of the movement (e.g. Dr. Martin Luther King) but to continue their work. We’ve got to hold up the banner  until every person has health care, we’ve got to hold it up until every child is lifted in love, we’ve got to hold it up until every job is a living-wage job, until every person in poverty  has guaranteed subsistence.

Private virtue and social justice serve as code words for political prize-fighting, with much of the rhetoric being personalized in words like “family values” and “socialism”….as if, in order to hoodwink the electorate who might glide past the nuances, each side behaves as if it has the ‘key’ to the golden kingdom or nirvana. Let’s peel the make-up off each of these “hot-button” propaganda words (family values and socialism) and see what we are left with.

Family values has the connotation of picket fences, warm hearths, rich and captivating scents from a family kitchen in which the turkey for Thanksgiving is cooking and the pies are already warm on the counter. It also connotes marriage only between a man and a woman, profound and even lethal opposition to abortion, the right to bear arms (and the fear that any legislation to limit assault rifles is the first step in removing guns from every house), deep although preferable secretive distaste for the PRIDE movement, and in some cases even contempt for         #BlackLivesMatter. Smothered in the scents, and the smiles of a happy family celebrating Thanksgiving, these ‘family values’ are effectively political and theological and often spiritual goals to be embraced by those who deem to consider themselves “Christian”.

And for many in this category, “socialism” connotes a quick and easy slide into communism, defacto tyranny, support for Putin and the Russians, fear of the Russian cyber-invasion of whatever misleading information  ‘bots’ ‘they’ might have developed, government take-over of the health care system including dictating which doctor you can visit, contempt of any government leader’s advice to wear a mask in the pandemic, thumbing your nose at all government shut-downs and crowd control measures in the pandemic. Such a gestalt definition of socialism is not only a complete abnegation of the meaning of the word, but also demonstrates a profound seduction, likely through fear, by those seeking to uphold the “establishment” capitalist system.

It is the ‘right’ to operate a business, to make a profit, to run that business free from government regulations, and especially free from government taxation schemes that would support those struggling to feed their families, educate their children and access health care that single and collectively are attached to the opposition to ‘socialism’.

And when tyranny, of any ephemeral imaginative shape, size and political face  (especially one hung in effigy on a billboard paid for by a right-wing funding source like the Koch Brothers) is evoked, the sceptre of the original American Revolution against the British King is re-enacted, embraced by a religion that somehow, almost by accident and by inference, sanctifies a fear that evokes a fear of God, the Devil, Satan, and especially Hell. Demonizing a political opponent, for the sake of winning an election, or even of converting a neighbour to one’s political ‘side’ is so cliché that it evades even consideration as hate speech.

If a nation, like the U.S. is to embrace ‘freedom’ as its North Star, in its cultural galaxy, then those who disagree with “ME” have to be considered agents of Satan.

So, it is not implausible to link an epistemological crisis to a crisis of religion, and faith and essentially to a profound erosion of basic literacy. Eroded too in this protracted process is the capacity both to allow oneself to be seduced by con-artists, and the concomitant atrophy of what English teachers used to call ‘critical thinking’.

Starving children, seriously ill children, parents without work and the horizon that even hints at the return of once-cherished employment….these are not compactible into the slogans of “family values” or ‘socialism’ or the indifferent embrace of a political class dedicated to its hold on power (in both parties). Access to clean water, adequate numbers of health care practitioners, clean air, a rigorous, free and equal education and work with dignity also refuse to be stuffed into a metaphoric “Santa sack” of goodies, like Hallowe-en candy, in order to be trotted out like various panaceas of placebos at election time.

There is no Republican, and no Christian and no Muslim diet that needs adequate, dependable, reliable and bacteria-free fruits and vegetables and protein. There is no black or white or brown child’s need for respect and dignity….and there is no protestant, Roman Catholic, evangelical or Nazareen need for clean water, clean air, freedom from assault weapons and drug gangs and lords. There is no rich or poor segregation among those who need (not aspire to, or wish for, but need) streets that are free of racially charged law enforcement operatives, bigots, and those so insecure that their uniform and gun are their primary source of identity.

The vast majority of churches, while vigorously engaged in daily acts of ministry, like food banks, hospital visits, charity fund-raisers, even international foreign aid projects, remain silent in the face of the glaring, insidious, preventable and clearly objectionable political gridlock that finds politicians cowering from negative tweets, negative headlines, negative gossip and evaporating fund sources. Church leaders, like political puppets, cling to a politically correct silence, unless there is an opportunity to “act” in charity, while the glaring existential issues, (hunger, poverty, illiteracy, hopelessness, depression and climbing suicide rates, environmental catastrophe) go virtually unaddressed, except by small pockets of social activists. In a report on depression and suicide thoughts among college students in The Star, November 24, 2020, the life and death of Kyle Gardiner is documented by Robert Cribb, Morgan Bocknek, Charlie Buckley and Giulia Fiaoni. The report includes a December 2019 tweet from Kyle Gardiner, discovered long after his death: “Isn’t it insane that we’re facing the inevitable collapse of society in a few decades and we’re still like, ’yay we banned plastic straws?!?!?!’”

Time to document the failure to provide adequate, timely mental health support for people like Kyle in another space, although the dramatic spike in both suicides and mental health crises in the lives of young and old alike is one of the many glaring, obvious and clearly preventable symptoms/causes of distress today. Moreover, those whose hands hold the levers of power to make changes seem paralyzed by a kind of rigid fear of the impact of saying it like it is, in case the truth is so dramatically upsetting that it might inflate the numbers and severity of human tragedies beyond our capacity to cope.

This piece does not hold that only by mounting an army of Dr. William Barbers in each and every church pulpit on the continent will our social devastation disappear. However, it does suggest or more emphatically state that silence in the face of the collision of so many factors that, individually would degrade hope and optimism, collectively serve as a radioactive repeating time bomb, on generations already here and clearly, if we continue to do the “same old” will continue to generate even more tragic results.

If Barber and Buber, McKibbon and Klein, Thunborg and Malala, and Baum and Moltmann, King and Lewis, and the hundreds of thousands of thought-and-action leaders and advocates are unable to arose a public that is becoming both somnolent and slumbering as well as exhausted and dispirited, then not only do leaders have to find new and creative ways to awaken us to our own peril. The populace, too, has to come to the senses that Canadian Press reporter, Stephanie Levitz (on CTV’s Question Period, November 22), who in a voice of deep concern, pointed to the responsibility of each individual to take measures like wearing a mask, keeping social distance, washing hands and staying free from large groups. Government cannot resolve this current pandemic crisis without the serious commitment, without vengeance, reprisal, anger or contempt, from each and every citizen on the planet. And that model, perhaps, could serve us all well in the recovery from this universal dark period of our own withdrawal.

The time for finger-pointing has to come to an end, as do all of the rationalizations that support that social addiction. Religion, ideology, social class, level of literacy, political affiliation and funding puppeteers can no longer be deployed against our common needs, our common aspirations, our common secure good health, and our promised healthy future to our grandchildren.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

We are IN an epistemological refuses denial

“If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.” (Barack Obama in conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, in The Atlantic, November 18, 2020)

Oxford defines epistemology: theory of the method or grounds of knowledge.

Dictionary defines epistemology: the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

In simple terms: Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge> It seeks to answer the questions “what is knowledge? and How is knowledge acquired? Epistemologists are philosophers who are interested in questions such as whether it is possible to have knowledge, what kind of knowledge there is, and how people come to know things. Epistemology is considered one of the four main branches of philosophy along with ethics, logic and metaphysics.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Tern epistemology comes form the Greek words ‘episteme’ and ‘logos’. Episteme can be translated as ‘knowledge’ or ‘understanding’ or ‘acquaintance’ while logos can be translated as ‘account’ or ‘argument’ or ‘reason’….(E)pistemology seeks to understand one or another kind of cognitive success (or, correspondingly, cognitive failure.

The phrases “what do we know?” and “how do we know it?” come to mind, whenever the word epistemology arises. And if Obama’s observation has merit (this scribe believes it has considerable merit!), then we have to take time to reflect that “alternative facts” is an oxymoron irreconcilable with “what we know” irrespective of how we ascertain those “things” (concepts, facts, emotions, perceptions) of which we are certain.

At 2:46 p.m. on Tuesday, November 18, I pluck the keys on this laptop, in a small town in Ontario Canada. Out this window, I see some blue sky, some cumulus clouds, a few grey puffs, and the occasional snow flake.
How do I know this? My eyes confirm, with corroboration of my wrist watch, the calendar, the map of Canada and the view from the window of my study. My ears also confirm that relaxing music is rising from the Stingray music channel on our television set. This simplistic list of information seems readily available to this observer, and could slide relatively smoothly along to a reader whose confidence in the ‘source’ is adequate for acceptance and belief.

However, within the hour, I heard, also from the television news, (MSNBC) that trump has ordered a draw-down by half of American troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, to 2,500 in both countries. And while most watchers/listeners/interpreters of American politics likely concur with the facts of the announcement, there is no doubt a wide, disparate and highly energized debate over whether or not such a decision makes “sense” at this moment in history.

The critical capacity to distinguish, rationally, and ‘epistemologically’, between the fact of the troop draw-down and the various “interpretations” is a first level of discernment between something known, and something conjectured. And those conjectures themselves, once detailed and made public, also flow into the river of facts, this time however, over the ‘name’ of the specific observer. “X” says, “whatever about the draw-down!” And for the journalists, this attribution is critical to his/her reputation as a recorder of whatever it is the interpreter says.

In elementary school, teachers stress the difference between a piece of information and an ‘inference’ (a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning). This skill, however, does not embrace or tolerate a leap into a proximate universe in which information that is incompatible with and irreconcilable to a given fact. One historic example of this kind of ‘alternative universe’ has been perpetrated by those known as ‘holocaust deniers’. In May 2014, The Atlantic reported in a piece written by Emma Green:

“Only 54 percent of the world’s population has heard of the Holocaust…Only a third of the world’s populations believe the genocide has been accurately described in historical accounts. Some said they thought the number of people who died has been exaggerated; others said they believe it’s a myth. Thirty percent of respondents said it’s probably true that ‘Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust. Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, two-thirds of the world’s population don’t know the Holocaust happened—or they deny it.”

The clear divide between those who “know” the holocaust occurred, and resulted in the death of some 6 million Jews, and those who do not “know” or who deny its veracity is an obvious failure on some many levels. On the superficial level of distribution of information, through media, and more significantly through educational systems, either the message is not being delivered or, if delivered, it is not being credited as believable. A story out of Arkansas, at the time when Bill Clinton was Governor and his wife was attempting to transform the education system in that state, we learned that some teachers were teaching about World War Eleven, mistaking the Roman numerals for 2, (II) for the Western Arabic Numerals (11). Obviously, the implications of this kind of mis-perception, embedded in an epistemology in those classrooms and transferred to those students has had, and will continue to have a significant impact on the “foundational” knowledge of that generation of students.

The reservoir, or perhaps even the underground mine of what many would consider the treasure of what most consider “foundational” knowledge, (while it is subject to new research, and the discovery of amending information) is nothing less than essential for the potential of legitimate, consensual, reasoned, and reciprocal conversations even to take place. Nevertheless, embedded in what many consider ‘foundational’ knowledge, there are in each cultural demographic, a sizeable cluster of what might be termed “old wives’ tales” or cracker-barrel wisdom that challenges empirical verifiable information. (“Red sky in the morning sailor’s warning, red sky at night, sailor’s delight! is just one well-treaded example.) While repeated ‘tests’ of the validity of this maxim may tend to support its likelihood, nevertheless, it can hardly be called a ‘law of the universe’ as ‘gravity’ for example, warrants.

Those standing firmly in a religious-foundational-belief system will, hopefully, embrace the dubious, highly problematic and easily disputed basis of this conversation I had as a teen, when asking my mother to stop smoking cigarettes: Her response, “If God had not wanted us to smoke, he would not have made tobacco!” This comment in the mid 1950’s continues to rebound among many others that beg more forgiveness than cognitive and rational response. The notion of human will, human discernment and the potential of human individual (and collective) choice, through decision-making processes that balance individual desire, or pleasure with the negative risk of nicotine and tar on the lungs and circulatory system, one might have thought, would have been readily grasped by a graduate nurse. Nevertheless, just this morning, the entrance to a prominent teaching hospital was populated by professional health care workers smoking their favourite cigarette brand, while preserving the 9-meter restriction away from the building.

The facts, the truth, the scientifically indisputable “knowledge” about the dangers to human life from smoking, both for smokers and for those in the presence of smokers who inhale second-hand smoke, have been promulgated for decades. At the same time, billions of dollars have been poured into the campaign to deny the danger to human health by the tobacco companies, is a pivotal and historic example of how “interests” compete to capture the flow of ‘information’ (including self-interested propaganda). A similar conflict has also been underway for at least half a century, over the negative impact of fossil fuels and the emissions of toxic gases like carbon dioxide and methane on the environment of the planet. The corporate profits of the oil and gas companies rely directly on the recovery, refining and sale of fossil fuels, as do the mega-corporations which depend on these fuels for their manufacturing and processing facilities. A similar tension has existed between environmentalists and coal producers, although this conflict has focused on the contamination of natural streams, and drinking supplies, as well as the health impact on miners from toxins inhaled during their work in the mines.

We can all agree that loss of the capacity to function, to breathe, to speak, and even to think clearly is impacted by the collision of certain chemicals, gases and toxins with our bodies. Even those whose 401 portfolios generated while serving as executives in tobacco, oil, gas and coal companies “know” that they are engaged in an industry whose long-term prognosis is clouded. Nevertheless, along with their political surrogates, they continue to beat the drum in favour of government laissez-faire with regard to environmental regulations that would crimp their industry.

“Prophets”, armed with the new “knowledge” of impending environmental danger continue to plead their/our case through the media, in classrooms and labs, generating graduates in environmental engineering, a class of graduates not even envisioned when those of us who graduate in the early 1960’s. The word “prophet” however, is one of those words that tends, like mercury, to slide between ‘believers’ and ‘critics’, depending on the degree to which each side is committed to ‘arguing’ and ‘advocating’ for his/her side of the argument.

In the academic community, however, these debates have a kind of discipline under clearly established ‘rules’ and traditions. Both sides can and will agree to a set of facts, and then engage in the “interpretations, implications, inferences and both exaggerations and minimizations of those facts, as is suits their respective argument. However, this model of intellectual decorum and professional discipline, while rigorously defended and embodied by those academics, as well as their medical and legal graduates in the conduct of their professions, does not apply to those practicing the ‘art’ of politics. Words, when used in political campaigns, and their under-studies in the editorial pages, the opinion pages, the social media platforms, have been unhinged from both their original intended meanings and have been ‘weaponized’ in what amount to military-style campaigns that pit one set of “data” against a completely alternative set of “data”. Individual personal character of an opponent, it seems, is also a subject and a target of these scurrilous attacks, when and where even the ropes of a boxing ring and a referee have both been abandoned.

The rise of social media, along with the appetite for sensational, titillating, and paradoxically enervating headlines screaming the fall from grace of prominent people, along with the scurrilous and humiliating and captivating and seductive details of that tragedy, as a gestalt, has given rise to an industry that rakes in literally billions for its perpetrators. And it is a gullible and apparently starving public that snatches these pieces of political radioactivity, morphing what once were Roman amphitheatre duels in which the masses were spectators, to political death-duels panting for both naïve and gullible audiences, and gladiators willing to submit to the ravages of this new political landscape.

And given that not only aspects of human behaviour is or can be confined to codified law, in any attempt to restrain the worst of our tendencies, and also given that linguistic traditions of grammar, sentence structure, thematic argument through the retrieval, curation, interpretation and presentation of packets of facts as the legitimate manner by which to advance a cause, have to a large extent fallen by the roadside, and given that the pursuit of power and wealth for their own sake have shoved the public interest off the public agenda, the extermination of any agreed set of facts has resulted. Rather than truth being the first casualty in war, we have all been complicit in turning our public discourse into a war in which each micro-act and each word have become the bullets, the arrows, the spears and the cannons of our battle. And there is no boundary on the battlefield; we each hold that battlefield in our hands, in our cell phones, or our laptops, or tablets.

We are not only at war with those whose words and actions and beliefs and attitudes we dispute, and we are instantly permitted, anonymously, to ‘fire’ our verbal rifles onto any one or more of several unregulated and voraciously profitable platforms. We are also untrained in this new pseudo-military-industrial-informational-cyber-technical political warfare. There are no apprenticeship programs for political neophytes, except those operated by dark money, or those funded by internet agents which serve a national government and/or an international cartel or cabal. We are all learning through experiments for which we are ill-prepared and under-tutored.

And so we are living, not only in and through a global pandemic that has already killed more than a million and threatens to eliminate many more lives, but also in a world where we, like those toxic gases, are the erosion and the atrophy of our capacity and discipline to deploy words, not as weapons, but as hand-shakes, even with those whose ideas we oppose. We have trampled on the subtle and nuanced meanings of words, as well as on the willingness to surrender our tyrannical domination of our knowledge “framework” based on a foundation of agreed information, beliefs, attitudes, traditions and even laws. We have not merely “dominated” nature as the misinterpretation of the old Testament suggested. We have morphed into ironic, paradoxical, and mythical self-defined and self-declared super-heroes unimpeded by the traditions of those cultures on whose shoulders we have tread for centuries and whose foundational precepts, principles and prophecies have served as guiding lights. We are now verging on the tragedy of self-sabotage, through our glib and willing surrender of those boundaries that define truth, that seek decency, and that envision authentic dialogue, not without humility, but with a level of grace that extends both to our competitors and adversaries as well as to ourselves.

Having abandoned shame, and a reliance on a body of foundational premises and facts, and fallen over the cliff of mature restraint, we are all endanger of succumbing to an intellectual, biological, chemical and political chaos for which we are unprepared and potentially unwilling to prevent.

To Obama’s words, I would suggest we are already IN an epistemological crisis, one we are endanger of denying!

Monday, November 16, 2020

Leaning into disclosure and active listening

The greatest threat to our civilization is a failure to communicate in an open way, combined with an unwillingness to listen to one another. (Rabbi Michael Dolgin, Temple Sinai Congregation, Toronto, in, November 16, 2020)

The two-headed snake, failure to communicate openly, and a willful decision to refuse to listen to one another, lurks like toxic smog at the doorstep of each and every house, business, professional office, corporate boardroom, hospital operating and emergency room, and in every ecclesial sanctuary.

Why are we so concrete in our failure to communicate openly? First there is John Powell’s (S.R.) reminder that if I tell you who I am, and you reject me, that is all I have. So, we can likely agree with Powell that fear of rejection is implicit in our. We hold back open disclosure of those events, decision, statements, judgements, which lock those moments in a vault of personal secrecy. Keeping secrets, tragically, is a disease that infects and thereby affects each family, and by extension each and every institution, workplace and organization. There is neither time nor interest, in most places, to listen to those so-called personal melodramas that compound our lives, and if and when we encounter someone willing to listen, we are surprised and somewhat curious and sceptical. Private conversations with an intimate partner, perhaps, might offer space, confidentiality, trust and the chance to unlock some of those previously locked secrets.

Our memory, like an attic filled with storage boxes, suit cases and photo albums, tends to gather dust, and fade into the sepia of forgetfulness, as we attend to the duties, chores and agendas of each day. Also like that storage attic, it is rarely disturbed, only occasionally shifted, tested, and opened ever so slightly, on the occasion of an anniversary, a birth, a death, a marriage or perhaps even a search for a diploma or a baptismal or confirmation certificate. Sometimes, a single comment will strike a chord of anxiety, shame, embarrassment or even potentially of dream-like reverie, and morph into a trigger for recollecting. Lurking near the front of our consciousness, always, is a question that asks, “If I had trouble coping with that moment when it occurred, will I be able to withstand its impact if it is revisited?” And then, “If I revisit a tragic and painful moment, and I even consider whether to share it, with whom will that sharing be feasible?” “Will that person be OK with me, upon learning of my ‘bad’? Will that person keep the story confidential? And What would happen if the answer is “no”?

We have all had moments of truth-telling that went awry. And there was another layer of angst as our story served as an act of self-betrayal. What we often fail to bring forward into our thought process is that each other person has his/her own story locked securely in another safe-deposit box of memory. Conversely, I recently revisited a moment some three decades ago, through social media, in order to extend a heartfelt apology for having made utterly unacceptable comments to a supervisor in a learning session, at a time when my thoughts and emotions were running high and highly conflicted. To my grateful surprise, I received an authentic apology from that person, for his failure in offering support when, on reflection, he now deemed my need for support could have replaced his attempt to challenge. The exchange prompts a reasonable inquiry: Are more people trapped in a fear of sidisclosure that are open to the potential healing through honest apology?

Another aspect of failure to communicate hovers like a vulture over domestic/marital relationships. Pride and a determination to perform duties, both those expressed as expected by a partner and those implicit inside one of the on partners, having been deeply learned and embedded from his/her family of origin, dig trench ‘boundaries’ that lock in feelings of tension that can and will only fester without release. Those trenches, once established, have a tendency to make themselves ‘permanent’ if only through an unchallenged habit. Separated both from our connection to our underlying reasons and perceptions for doing or not doing specific things, or from saying those things we anticipate could be unsettling, we perform a security-check on ourselves that can later be summarized in words like these: “I feared rejection if I disclosed who I was and what I thought and believed, and ironically I was rejected for not showing up!”

 If it is anecdotally and experientially true that ‘showing up’ comprises most of what human existence entails, and we presumably are all cognitively conscious of the veracity of that epithet, then why is it so difficult to show up? There is an ironic twist of emotional power politics in this dynamic for which those of us who tend to be dubbed “gushers” for the obvious reason that we are far more ebullient, effervescent and perhaps even dominating need to be and to become much more conscious. We all know about physical and emotional space, especially in this time of social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. What we do not speak of as often is what I might call, verbal space, referring to the time some of us take to express our thoughts and feelings, while inevitably and thoughtlessly depriving another of a similar and equal opportunity. If we fill the air, and the time together with our ‘emoting’ we are at the same time robbing the other of a legitimate opportunity to share his/her thoughts and feelings.

It is the discernment of appropriate ‘showing up’ both from the perspective of being too withdrawn as well as from the perspective of being too overwhelming that much of our repression can be traced. Repression, analogous to keeping secrets, although not necessarily the same, can occur without anyone actually taking conscious note of its happening. On the one hand, a rather shy person begins any encounter with unfamiliar people as an observer, keeping distance, keeping silence and gathering the ethos of the situation, in order to ascertain the mood, the tenor, the tone and the feelings of comfort or discomfort in the situation. Conversely, another person rushes into a conversation with new faces, seemingly ignorant of if and how his/her person is charging like the proverbial ‘bull in a china-shop’ into the room. Insecurity underlies both types of response to a new situation; however, how each person responds to insecurity withheld or exaggerated will have an impact on many of the responses.

In court rooms, and in diplomatic negotiations, terseness is considered professional. Discretion, in terms of protecting information, and of delivering information in manner strategically designed to influence the ‘court’ or the ‘other party’ includes a detached, unemotional and professional “friendship” encapsulated in the legal profession in the words attached to the opposing legal team, “my friend”. Rules of engagement, developed over centuries and codified in transcripts (now dubbed read-outs) guide participants in the ‘normal’ manner of professional discourse or more appropriately debate.

The world of the reporter, on the other hand, while fixed on the prize of a newsworthy quote, the accuracy of which determined by the absence of any denial or reprisal is guaranteed, nevertheless permits the contextualizing atmospherics, both in background, and in tone, and in what might be expected to ensue. Whether the ‘source’ is disclosing the whole story, or a tightly guarded miniscule crumb, poses interminable digging obligations and opportunities for the reporter. Public figures, stereotypically, have arrived in their current position through exuberant, enthusiastic and ebullient expression, often filling the air and heads of their audiences with entertaining decorative presentations of their own exemplary qualities and promises. Increasingly, ordinary people are grabbing microphones in order to pose serious and often troubling questions of those figures. And consequently, some public figures are shying away from town hall formats.

On the listening side of this equation, too, there are those whose strength and success have come from paying attention to those persons including parents, teachers, coaches, and supervisors in part-time jobs, whose mentorship they have valued, and from which they have benefitted. And then there are many more who have blocked the impact of many of the mentoring caveats, believing their own attitudes and values trumped those of their mentors. There may have been persistent experiences of debasement when persons positioned as coaches used their position to abuse, even if their motive was to challenge and to test their charges. Power, whether in the form of a quiet, private, confidential suggestion, or in the form of a public display of embarrassing demeaning, nevertheless lands in the moment it is delivered, without the coach usually taking time and care to assess the long-term impact of his/her actions and words. I deeply regret my own carelessness in not being as sensitive to the impact of my coaching volume and intensity, and my failure to consider options before losing it and embarrassing a player who could have benefited from a more humane approach.

Another cliché about listening is that it is very difficult, in fact impossible to listen while engaged in a cataract of words gushing from one’s mouth. As a long-term teacher, I bear both guilt and responsibility for having heard most of the cognitive connotations of oral responses from students, without actually having integrated the emotional connotations of those responses. My own directed intensity to ensure that the experience of the classroom never devolved into what the student would have considered boring may have been a factor in my negligence. Nevertheless, active listening, a process through which one individual hears the cognitive and the emotional and the psychic messages from another, and processes the complexities of those various layers of communication, is a process few are taught and fewer are willing to take the time and the care to consider. Naturally, those in the therapeutic professions are both trained, and hopefully adept, at the highly nuanced skill. And, occasionally, they may even have moved beyond the skill to integrating the process into their “presence” a sine qua non of the needed process of growing trust between client and therapist.

Among families, there is a deep divide between men and women, the former paying diligent attention to the factual literal meanings of whatever communication is coming from his partner. Women, on the other hand, seem to have an innate capacity, and comfort in, hearing multiple levels of meaning in the communication in which they are engaged. This is not to disqualify men, or to put women on a pedestal; it is rather to attempt to level the playing field, in the hope that women will pause to indulge our bluntness and unnuanced receipt of their messages, and to encourage men to experiment with a way of hearing that carries many of the overtones of feeling, and implication to which we previously turned a deaf ear and a blind eye and a blank mind.

The less we actually “hear” the more frustrated will our partners be; the more we disdain any notion of opening our ears and our hearts to intimate family communication, the more we will deprive ourselves and others of the potential of being fully ‘understood’ and fully ‘known’. If we can begin to clear some of the stereotypes of those identity traps that keep us wandering through our trenches, and start exploring new pathways both to disclose and to listen, while it will be frightening at first, the possibility does exist that we will become known to those who matter and they will also become known to us in ways previously out of reach.

Deception, like obfuscation, dissembling and distraction, is a defence from which we can free ourselves, if we no longer need it as part of our mask. And regardless of the professional requirements of communication etiquette and ethics, perhaps we can begin to replace its prominence with confidence and disclosure even in our diplomatic ventures.