Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Democracy is when the indigents, and not the men of property, are the rulers. (Aristotle)

The more things change, the more they stay the same. No mean thinker, Aristotle is not revered for nothing. His prescient insight has never been more needed than the current time, although it was written so long ago. And yet, in the ‘hallowed halls’ of political power, academia, ecclesial sanctuaries and most importantly in the board rooms of the corporate giants, this “wisdom” is so debased, denied, trashed and declared irrelevant as to be rendered an integral component of today’s mountain of non-recycled garbage.

I recall an incident, (probably referred to elsewhere in this space) in which a twenty-nine-year-old was suffering testicular cancer, and facing a large infusion of chemotherapy. As he was no doubt going to be rendered sterile by the chemicals he was about to ingest, he was offered and accepted the opportunity to deposit sperm for future reclamation. The first specimen was destroyed in the trip to the sperm bank; the second attempt was spilled; and I happened to be the chaplain intern advocating for a third attempt. When I approached the oncologist on the morning of the administration of the chemotherapy about delaying, for only a matter of hours, the response I heard has rattled through my head for the ensuing thirty years: “His I.Q. is the same size as his age; we are going ahead with chemotherapy right now!” The oncologist’s wrist dripped with gold bracelets; his compassion, and in my mind his ethics, somehow did not make it into the hospital corridor that morning. Needles to say, the chemo treatment began immediately, without the provision of recovered and stored sperm.

While that story is not significant from the perspective of national governmental policy (although it might have relevance for the medical fraternity!), it is nevertheless indicative of an attitude, especially an attitude of the “privileged,” the “better educated,” the “power elite,” “the wealthy,” and certainly of the “the establishment.” 
We are part of a culture of ambition, competition, status-driven, wealth-driven, power-driven achievers. We judge people by their address, by the size of their house, their car and the chic of their wardrobe. We also judge people by the type and number of degrees behind their name. And, from sociological research, we “value” achievement and the status conferred by those achievements. In the supermarket, the men and women who stock shelves are not considered to be among the “leaders” in our culture. In fact, just this weekend, listening to a clip from Lisa Ling’s “This is Life”  I heard one woman being interviewed for a documentary on prostitution comment on camera, “I would rather be doing ‘this’ than stocking shelves in Walmart!” Those who live in slums, in houses unfit for human habitation due to their lack of heat, and clean water, are the last people sought out for their views on how public policy might change for the improvement of their lives.

Prisoners, for example, both those accused and found guilty and those falsely accused and convicted, are among the lowest of the low, on the citizen-ladder of public approval, and even public acceptance. An the evidence on which too many of them have been convicted is often quite flimsy and suspect, as are the specific crimes for which they are serving time too often so specious and so vindictive and punitive, based largely on the motive of elevating the political status and longevity of those legislators who passed the laws that made their conviction possible. And then, to turn the prison system, (in the United States) into a “for profit” business, that pays taxes and provides “jobs” again to pander to the political class’ need for public approbation through taking the incarceration business “off the public purse” is another example of misguided and even unethical public policy.

Those living on the street, under the overpasses on our highways, on the East Side of cities like Vancouver, for example, or on Gerard East in Toronto, or in City Park in Kingston, are real people, whose lives have taken probably more than a single turn into the ditch filled with “nobodies,” literally people who literally do not matter to anyone, and clearly are considered a heavy burden on the public purse, that measuring stick of all things related to public policy.

Oh, of course, we claim to “value human life” until we don’t! And then, after we stop valuing an individual, especially an individual who is not a member of an interest group, political party, profession, or some other “political voice” that  has to be listened to, we turn our backs, both literally and figuratively, on those real people. And we do it individually by walking past their upturned caps, or pots or guitar cases, open in the hope of some shekels for food, (of course many will argue that money solicited on the street is more likely to be spent on drugs or booze). We pity the indigent, a shame on us for our indifferences! We study the indigent, as if they were specimens in some scientific experiment, or examples in a documentary, or “talking heads” for a novel perspective on what it is like to live on the street, in an underpass, in an abandoned and decrepit building, in a dumpster, or in a cottage abandoned for the winter.

The indigent, too, are not only robbed of their respectability, their dignity and their “value” to society. They are paid the most indecent insult: they are numbered, as part of the equations of “unemployed” or the rising numbers of people depending on food banks, and if they are drunk, they are incarcerated, to “dry out” and then return to the street for more isolation. They are pawns in the equations of governments, social service agencies and workers, Crown Attorneys, police, ambulance workers, hospital emergency rooms. This is not to imply that each of those individual people working in those settings treats each indigent with contempt or indifference, (there are, after all, professional standards of conduct). However, as a group, they are mere numbers and in some cities they are literally given a bus ticket to a city far away, so that the local politicians, and their minions do not have to read about them in the local paper.

I recall, as a adolescent, meeting a homeless person on a street in our town, and then asking the local police officer whom I knew quite well what could be done to help the man. The officer’s answer, clearly remembered as if it were yesterday, “Mind your own business, John!”

Apparently my inquiry was not welcome; in fact, it was spurned unceremoniously.
And in spite of all these perspectives, the indigent are real people, with real hearts and minds and spirits. Many of them are intellectually and creatively quite remarkable, even if their talents have been “under the proverbial bushel” for decades. Their lives, in most cases, have been reduced to the barest of essentials, and their truths are the most elemental variety. They neither tolerate nor deal with bull shit; they expect tomorrow to be much like today, with little or no help from anywhere or anyone. They know they don’t count at all to any former family members, former partners, former employers, former teachers, former coaches or former clergy. And yet….

Their perspective is one the society desperately needs, and needs especially just now. Whether the indigents are refugees, migrants escaping war or terror, alcoholics, drug addicts, intellectually or emotionally challenged, illiterate, physically challenged or merely those who have given up on trying to integrate into the “respectable” society, they are people just like the rest of us: scratch or more likely stab them and they bleed, offer them a coffee and they say thanks, toss a few coins into their open cap and they may offer a facsimile of a smile. In another life, I spent a very short time at a church on Gerard street in Toronto where some graduate nurses and volunteers offered and provided basic health care for indigents: a bandage on an open and festering wound, whose origin was never disclosed, a needle to forestall disease, tweezers and a skilled hand to remove lice, hot coffee, or maybe even a place to wash a face and hands, before heading back out into the cave of the city. One day, we found a man hiding in a small space behind a building column, having been hit by passing car and having dragged himself off the busy street into a safe place, so collapsed was his sense of self, his dignity and his courage to face even the nurses in the building. A couple of us helped him up and shepherded him in from the cold, where more committed and more professional help was offered.

On another day in another life, I had the opportunity to visit some homeless men and women in another day shelter. It was not open for overnight accommodation. Any of these people were unable to read, and at that time Frontier College volunteers were offering literacy teaching, by using the most available and most necessary words: street signs, store signs, bus signs, street car signs, street maps, food labels on cans. Literacy, just to find one’s way around a section of a city, was only beginning to be offered to these people. And they were extremely grateful.

There is an old axiom that says that if you need help, ask a poor person, and not a “wealthy” person; the poor is far more likely to help. And, since the indigent sees the world from the perspective of the basic needs of survival, and likely has the smarts and the resourcefulness to use whatever resources he or she finds, there area no more “qualified” people to design government programs to alleviate not only indigents but also the accompanying voices they give to most issues facing any town or city.

Powerlessness, by definition, is a great equalizer. It strips all the pretentions from the face, the mansion, the BMW, the corner office, the investment portfolio and the honoured church pew that has been in the family for a century or more. And when the indigents have real power then and only then is a democracy fulfilling its own definition.

What will it take to have the indigents in power in our democracies?

Well, for starters, it will take revolution in how we see ‘the other’ every time we walk down a city street on which homeless indigents are sitting begging.

It will also take a revolution in how we educate our children, from teaching them job skills so that they can secure one of the few remaining jobs (rather than start their own business, as entrepreneurs, the new sacred calling) to providing a liberal education for its own sake, without regard for whether or not it results directly or indirectly in the securing of a job.

It will take a revolution in how we see God and humans, especially in the reversal of the starting point of “evil” as the depiction of humans to “seeing that of God within” every person.

It will take a tidal wave of reflection among and of the part of those who consider themselves “the power elite” the “propertied” as the definition of “success” and thereby the holders of political power in what is now called a democracy.

It will take a revolution among land owners and landlords to reverse their self-image as the “controllers” of our real estate economy.

It will take a revolution away from the pre-eminence of the capitalist model of economics, based as it is on the pursuit of profit by whatever means available. For in its case, the end (the acquisition of wealth) justifies the means, and those means currently bulldoze over all those indigents who are considered “burdens” and “costs” and “trouble-makers” and “worthless” and for some “beneath contempt”.

It will take a revolution, like the Occupy Movement, to resist all law enforcement efforts to remove them, their tents and their megaphones from city squares and for this to happen, it will take the election of town and city councillors who understand the benefits, and overlook the short-term threats posed by such movements.

It will take an information system, including scribes, editors, publishers (both digital and lithograph) to have been trained to confront the power brokers, and to refuse to back down, (similar to Jorge Ramos from Florida, the Latino reporter who refused to be cowed by Trump and his thugs) as well as an entertainment system that is focused not on investor profits from ratings, but on generating the conditions necessary for a true democracy.

And it will take a reversal of consumer economics from private acquisition as the signs of success to creative rewards for activists who engage in promoting, educating and underlining the social goal of  “public good” activities, laws, and their enforcement.
Please, do not lose sleep for this “dreamscape” to unfold in our lifetime, or in the lifetime of our grandchildren. Not only are we on the opposite course, we are increasing the speed at which we are pursuing its narcissistic, and self-destructive and myopic ends, the more we individually and collectively genuflect before the power and property idols.

Aristotle would be neither surprised, nor elated!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Reflections on the report on family violence in Canada

There is a report making headlines across our country about the details of reported cases of family violence. Portraying a tragic set of circumstances in a “developed” country,” where the levels of poverty and hunger and homelessness and military violence are, compared to many other less favoured countries, significantly lower, the report asks out loud the question of what are the roots, motives and causes of this pattern.
Of course, by far the majority of the perpetrators of this family violence is perpetrated by Canadian men and so any analysis that attempts to discern the roots and causes of this violence has to look at the failure among men to deal with their volcanic emotions, their hatreds, their failure to command the tools and skills of negotiation, mediation, even including the capacity to first believe that there are options and there are others who can and will help before the violence is committed.
“Dealing with emotions” is a cliché that is so detested by so many men that it is not an exaggeration to suggest many men simply consider such an observation or recommendation to be insulting and to ask men to be more like women, something many men find revolting. This kind of detachment, disinterest and even contempt for “emotions” is evident in little scenarios like the Honda Civic television commercial in which the young black man is still resisting a mother’s hug. (Capturing the nature of the culture is one of the ways for big car companies to secure the attention and the “like” of the target audience.)
This “emotions” question, or issue, starts very early in a baby boy’s life. From an early age, we know that mothers spend fewer seconds in face-to-face embrace with their sons than with their daughters, unconsciously connecting at least differently, if not more negatively, with their sons than their daughters.
Research revels that we generally top touching boys when they reach the age of 8, and we teach them to reject access to feelings, emotions and emotional vocabulary because these are deemed “too feminine.” So they end up mostly being able to express themselves through sex, violence, sports or work. (Dr. Joe Kort, Top Ten Myths of Male Sexuality, in The Good Men Project, October 20, 2016)
For men to begin to “deal with their emotions,” they (we) first have to come to the point of resistance, the point at which they recognize, accept and acknowledge that their emotions are an integral component of our nature just as they are for women.
 (The “existential moment” is that moment when an individual comes to the conscious awareness of the meaningless of his/her own existence and thereby requires him/her to take responsibility for the meaning of that life.) Similarly, although seemingly less momentous, the moment of “resistance” to the existence of and the significance of a man’s emotions holds the potential to open our minds to another gift, a signal system that is like an early warning system built into our hard wiring. Rather than consider emotions to be “feminine” or “girly” or something to be avoided because to acknowledge their importance is to surrender one’s masculinity, men could begin to see those emotions as an important arrow in their quiver in orienting them (us) to the reality they are experiencing. Just like the points on a compass men use when they are wandering through the bush in search of game like deer or moose, our emotions are signals that detect the imprints on our psyche coming from the environment. And those emotions point ‘north’ for a cold feeling, ‘south’ for a feeling of heat, ‘east’ or ‘west’ for a less intense but perhaps even more interesting experience worthy of additional investigation. And there are at least as many different emotions in both men and women as there are points on the compass. Instead of using the words from the directions on the compass, people tend to use more conventional words that do not have the exclusivity of a technical instrument. For all people (men and women) know instantly when they experience a sense of the coldness of a situation or another person, or the warmth of the situation or other person….and these experiences are indicative of our “feelings” about that person or situation. This sounds so obvious that is hardly needs to be uttered. However, perhaps the compass could help men to consider an exploration and acceptance and then an appreciation of the kinds of emotions we are experiencing without finding the experience either threatening or emasculating. (Warning: men do have more emotions than “hot” signifying anger or arousal and “cold” signifying rejection, frustration, dismissal and avoidance. We also feel dozens, if not hundreds, of nuances between the extremes, and it is this middle ground that needs to be identified, accepted and explored as more moderate, more nuanced and more complex and therefore potentially more interesting.)
There is a strong myth among both men and women that men experience only hot (anger or sexual arousal) or cold (avoidance, rejection) emotions. And that myth is both a denial of reality and a sabotage of masculinity and often leads to such common and detestable epithets like “all men are jerks” or “all men want only one thing” or “all men are little boys and will never grow up” that are so often blurted out in anger, frustration and rejection of men by women, and then they become an accepted depiction of men in too many situations.
Nevertheless, while pointing men to the sensibility and the sensitivity that are involved in “dealing with their emotions” there is the continuing and persistent threat that many men will either ignore the invitation of pieces like this, or more dangerously, outright throw out any suggestion of a new way of perceiving their emotions.
And, if the patterns of history are anything on which to base an estimate of the future, the report about the incidents of family violence, at least of the documented and therefore reported incidents, will only indicate a growth in those numbers, and for many, they are already astounding and very tragic.
 Every day, just over 230 Canadians are reported as victims of family violence.
·       In 2014, 57,835 girls and women were victims of family violence, accounting for seven out of every 10 reported cases.
·       Every four days a woman is killed by a family member.
·       Population surveys tell us that a third of Canadians, that is 9 million people, have reported experiencing abuse before they were 15 years old.
·        About 760,000 Canadians reported experiencing unhealthy spousal conflict, abuse or violence in the last five years.
·       In 2014, Indigenous people were murdered at a rate six times higher than non-Indigenous Canadians, with Indigenous women being three times more likely to report spousal abuse than nonindigenous women.
·       Every day, eight seniors are victims of family violence. (CBC, October 21, 2016)
There will be the inevitable public outcry for men to change their ways, to refuse to use violence to “express” themselves and to get their needs met. And that outcry will undoubtedly focus on the need for men to learn how to “articulate” their emotions in words. “I feel” statements will be proposed as the starting point of that change. “I feel” statements are considered by the therapeutic community as a place where all men and women can begin to “own” their emotions. However, many men, especially men who have already been punished for their violent expression of their very strong feelings, will already have deeply imprinted messages that tell them “your feelings are too dangerous and too threatening to be expressed” and the punishment you have received, (inside and outside the legal system) is to separate you from the violence you have inflicted, and make you think about your ‘crime’. Too often the expression of strong emotions leads to a crossing of boundaries: ethical boundaries, social boundaries and criminal boundaries. And for those men, numbering in the millions, who have crossed those boundaries, the retracing of their steps, through shame, guilt, embarrassment and loss and potentially to healing and self-acceptance will be long and hard. For others not yet caught in the web of the entanglements of their emotional needs, they will have the opportunity at least to consider how they might approach the issue of how to express their feelings.
Talking about frustrations, disappointments and losses with a good friend could be a good place to begin. Finding and nurturing such a friend will obviously precede such “man talk”. Starting with the mind set that one is never alone, and that there are always other options than the one that jumps into mind, of pounding the “crap” out of someone who does not agree with or comply with an expressed wish, need or aspiration, could replace the instant “resort” to physical anger. Recognizing, too, that often the anger a man feels is not directed at another person but, perhaps unconsciously at himself, is another “reality check” to have with himself. Not becoming aware of the mis-directed nature of his anger, (at another rather than himself) can point him in the wrong direction. And of course, the consequents of such an act are just as indefensible as an act in which the target of the anger is precisely the one who has “made me so mad”.
At the base of violence too is the unmentioned and often unacknowledged self-loathing, lack of respect and self-acceptance that has already failed the man. Having experienced so little “approval” and “respect” and “affirmation” in his early life, there is a central core of self-talk, like a repeating audio loop that replays itself over and over in his head, “you are no good”… “you are nothing” … “you are just like you father, a no good”….. “you will never amount to anything”...or any of the other versions of this condemnation. The repercussions of such “jabs” especially those administered by an insensitive mother or father will be heard long after puberty has come and gone, and long after the offending parent is dead. Too often the mother is unconsciously giving vent to a contempt for men (misandry) the origins of which she has not even begun to unpack. The father, on the other hand, is often repeating a “brand” of parenting (hard nosed and hard assed) just like the kind of parenting he experienced from his father, or even his grandfather.
Clearly, anyone who thinks one’s complete biography is not essential to a comprehensive understanding of the violence evidenced by this, and other, reports is living in la-la-land. Furthermore, most public systems, including our medical system, our social service agencies like Family and Children’s Services, and our courts operate without a full reporting, study, reflection and ethical consideration of the biographical details of our patients, clients and our criminals. For various reasons, among them the prominence of budgetary restrictions, these professional agents are dealing with “collations” of numbers of types, diagnostic labels and deterministic, behaviouristic “treatments” meted out with impunity and without detailed and compassionate reflection by groups of professional peers. However, here as in so many other situations, band-aids of classical conditioning, behavioural therapy, medications, and incarcerations are not the principal answer, if we are really serious about how much violence is being experienced and reported. Short-term fixes, of the kind that can be easily parametered by budget allocations, staffing insurgencies (like the current infusion of support in Northern Saskatchewan where four girls under the age of fifteen have taken their lives in the last two weeks), and political headlines are not going to work.

And the conventional cultural meme of short-term heroic measures, to satisfy the short-term, narcissistic needs of the decision-makers, and not the needs of the perpetrators or the victims of family violence will continue to generate short-term headlines and self-congratulatory celebrations without actually making a dent in the size, the scope or the reduction of the problem. Academic theses too will concentrate on theories of sociology and of traditional family service therapy, much of it generated by documents like the DSM-5 (or is it 6 or 7?) or on the  traditional approaches of criminology, incarceration and segregation and “time to think” about the harm that “YOU” committed, and the injustice that YOU committed against these victims.

The life and importance of the original victim, (the perpetrator) however, will continue to be the missing “x” factor in the operational equation. His life story, and the normal quotient of respect and support and approval needed for a normal child and adolescent development will be missing from the myriad of interventions on behalf of the society. And the public will deem itself to have exercised its responsibility to those victims and those perpetrators, when in fact, the public purse will have perpetuated and even protracted the issue into the next centuries.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Shades of fascism haunt Trump's candidacy

Benito Mussolini, the founder of fascism, outlined three principles of a fascist philosophy:
1)    “Everything in the state”.. The Government is supreme and the country is all-encompassing, and all within it must conform to the ruling body, often a dictator.
2)    “Nothing outside the state”. The country must grow and the implied goal of any fascist nation is to rule the world, and have every human submit to the government.
3)    “Nothing against the state”.. Any type of questioning the government is not to be tolerated. If you do not see thing our way, you are wrong. If you do not agree with the government, you cannot be allowed to live and taint the minds of the rest of the good citizens.
The use of militarism was implied only as a means to accomplish one of the three above principles, mainly to keep the people and ret o the world in line. Fascist countries are known for their harmony and lack of internal strife. There are no conflicting parties or elections in fascist countries.      (From the Urban Dictionary)

Although there is no evidence that Trump is a fascist, there are more and more academics, with brains larger and much better trained than this scribe’s, who are warning of the arrival of fascism through the Trump campaign for the White House. Typically taking the “high road” and maintaining a perpetual smile, President Obama, on the other hand, is merely pointing out how he cannot, and he trusts the American people will not, take Trump seriously.

In coffee shops, in public businesses, and even on the street, the question, “What do you think of the American election?” is being voiced in all kinds of company. And, even for people living outside the United States, without the “vote” in the presidential election, the drama playing itself out on the television shows, on twitter, and in the tabloids, is generating both guffaws of incredible laughter and a shared collective tightening of both the eyes and the lips for many people.

Trump has the habit of pummelling, albeit verbally, every one and any one who criticizes him, his gutter tongue, his brazen misogyny, racism and insufferable arrogance. That kind of scene is and has been repeated for months, demonstrating for those still living under a rock the unqualified truth that this man is not fit to be the leader of the free world. However, there are accompanying signs of political attitudes and words and behaviour that are aided and abetted, if not actually originated, supported and funded by the Trump forces that endanger both democracy and the American political culture.

One example of the steroid-infested rhetoric that burps out of the media came yesterday from the Senior Senator from Arizona: John McCain. He told the world that there was no chance, absolutely no chance, that the Senate (presumably controlled by Republicans) would ever approve any appointment to the Supreme Court from a (presumed) President Hillary Clinton. This follows a theme expressed by the “Donald” himself when he declared that Hillary should be in jail, and that, if elected, he would ask his Attorney General to appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate her, with a view to sending her to jail.

Another irresponsible utterance from Trump concerns the “rigged election” and the command for his supporters to ‘oversee’ the polling stations to ensure that voter fraud is not rampant. Not only does this utterance completely disagree with the overwhelming evidence that there is very little voter fraud, it also undermines the confidence in the American political system at home and around the world. Furthermore, it suggests that should Trump lose the election, he will mount a serious campaign, urged on, funded and given voice and likely street protesters, to challenge the results of the election in any of the various theatres he could attempt to “purchase” and thereby to control.

Trump so positions himself in a “mode” that would position him, as president, as the embodiment of the “state” and thereby approximate the three postulates of Mussolini and thereby justify whatever actions the one-man omnipotent ruler might take.

·      Build a wall!
·      Keep all Muslims out, especially those from Syria and Iraq, (although the vetting process is considered the most rigorous and fool-proof in history…
·      Inflict a secret campaign against IRIS, since he “knows better than the Generals” how to fight the war against terror
·      Fix the problem of the lack of “law and order” in the streets, as if he has some superior, even Superman insight about how to reconcile two hundred years of racial tensions in his homeland
·      Fix the horrible problems of the Veterans Affairs Administration, once again as if by his mere command the world of entrenched and dysfunctional bureaucracy will suddenly and magically be transformed….
·      Make China stop manipulating its currency (by himself)
·      Gut NATO (by himself)
·      Bring jobs back to the United States (by his own actions)
·      Destroy ISIS (through his own control of the military, the intelligence and the Middle East)
These are not statements of policy; they are rather pronouncements of one who sees the state and his person as one, who proposes to rule as a solitary and superman ruler, given his persistent slandering of all individuals and groups who express opposition to him.

Why would Trump stoop to learn:
·      the nuances of the history of any file,
·      the parameters of any legislation,
·      the limits of the constitution, the commitments of any treaty,
·      the expectations of any ally or even the various and differing perceptions and positions of the various political interests at home and around the world,
·       the requirements of a planet bending under the weight of global warming and climate change…

when, in his own mind (the place of residence of the only universe that has any reality for that mind), he has no need, and no responsibility, and no respect for any idea, person, policy or option than whatever his mind dictates.

And it is that last word, dictates, the spectre of a single person having the absolute power, in a nation that has a long and honoured history of seeking to ‘perfect’ a democratic union, that so enflames both Trump’s supporters and his many opponents.
And when the issue of this male’s relations with women, with humility, with grace and dignity, with listening, with collaboration and with the exciting and humbling experience of learning is poured into the pot of his candidacy for the most powerful political office in the world, then there is no surprise that the people around the world are made even more anxious than they might have been prior to his vacuous emulation of some mythic Hercules, or Achilles….

Trump’s Achilles’ heel cannot be defined by his “heel”… it is his whole person that betrays him, his proposals and potentially the country he is pretending to lead.

And whether he wins or loses the election on November 8, the world is not finished with his incarnation of the empty and loud megaphone of the Barnum and Bailey circus. Trump is both the hawker and the freak-show inside the American tent, in a land so currently bi-polarized between the elevation of his “promises” and the desperation of the people who drink his kool-aid that it will take consistent and creative and compassionate empathy to heels its gaping psychic troubles. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Reflections on McLuhan's picture of "our age of anxiety"

Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today's job with yesterday's tools and yesterday's concepts. (Marshall McLuhan)

Although he has been deceased for decades (he died in 1980), there continues to be much truth in McLuhan’s insight. Positing his “the medium is the message” ironic twist to a previous truth (the content was the message) McLuhan awakened both anxiety and amazement than most Canadian intellectual giants. Radio and film, as 'hot' media, focusing on a single sense, and spoon-feeding the audience, as compared with comic books, a cool medium, in their engaging of the audience, formed a template created by the media 'guru' that has been at the centre of his work for decades. 
 Beginning with a new kind of literacy, the kind that “read” images, as compared with words, McLuhan pioneered a fresh approach to the education fraternity, in an attempt to help students adjust to a world barely known to their teachers. We grew up with “hard copy” books, poems, short stories, plays and newsprint. There were movies, but they had barely begun to be considered part of the corpus of “world literature”. They were still thought of more as “entertainment.”

 It was in 1969 that I bought my first 8 mm camera, (a Vivitar), enrolled in a “history of film” course, and attempted to produce and direct a highly amateurish movie version of George Orwell’s prophetic novel, 1984 in a grade twelve “tech” class of eighteen-year-old male students. Such courses were rare entries in university calendars, and the instructor came from Vancouver as a summer lecturer. There were some fifty films included in the syllabus of that course, including Citizen Cane, and The Triumph of the Will, the propaganda piece on the Fuehrer, by Leni Reifenstahl. 
Such “technical” aspects as camera angles, lighting, sound effects including the musical score, lens types (gauze, wide angle, close-up), film speed that examined the frames per second, (the larger the number the slower the pace of the film, and vice versa), and “transitional edits” were among the features we learned to look for, and take our baby steps in trying to appreciate their meaning, purpose and impact. There was a sense of adventure in exploring a medium that depended on the viewer’s capacity and openness to assimilate the montage of images that flowed past the eye, the mind, the psyche and the heart.

Having been a radio ‘nut’ in my youth, and experiencing my first exposure to television in the Spring of the year I left for university (1959), I had a much more attentive “ear” to radio sounds and popular music than I did to cameras and photo images. I cannot remember if there was even one course in film studies at the university during my undergrad years. (I doubt it!)

So, the transition, and transformation that happens when a culture’s focus moves from books and paper, radio and the telephone to television and photographic images, as the staple of both entertainment and learning experiences, while not nearly as dramatic as the current cultural transformation from television and typewriters and hot lead print to digital images, and the technological hardware and software that drive them. Nevertheless, it was the wave that the North American culture rode in the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century.

Remember the first televised presidential debate took place in the campaign between Kennedy and Nixon in the 1960 race for the White House. There have been presidential historians who have speculated that F.D.R., confined to his wheel chair would have had considerable difficulty being elected once let alone three times, if he had had to use television rather than radio to campaign. So just imagine the gulf that has been crossed since that first televised debate, to the twitter universe, facebook, snapchat and all of the other myriad of platforms available throughout the world today.
McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ would have to be completely re-thought today. 

And if we were to take a first look, very superficially, we would be somewhat chagrined that the medium of twitter/facebook etc. might be the message, and not the minimal and often seriously impaired ‘verbal” content of those platforms. Of course, it will take another generation or two to fully comprehend and fully appreciate the potential of these digital media, although their ubiquitous use now is being used as one of the defining features of a nation’s notion of individual freedoms and rights. So in that sense, the access to the new media is part of the message of political freedom, and thereby citizen opportunity.

For those of us who spent decades at the front of English classes, we are deeply saddened at the near total loss of the capacity to spell, and to read beyond the literal and the denotative level of language, not to mention the almost complete abandonment of the “cursive” ability to write one’s own name for school children. It they want to learn how to ‘write’ (cursive) they enrol in something called “calligraphy” as an “art” option since it is no longer an integral part of the “regular” (compulsory) curriculum.

Although legibility is less problematic, a feature that removes considerable anxiety from the practice of drug dispensaries, doctors’ writing being almost beyond readable, the montage of both letters and imogees and photos both still and streaming is generating what could easily be considered a completely new way of communicating.

Such communication also separates the millennials from their parents and their grandparents, since the latter generations would be able to “translate” only fragments of the message. “Rap” too, another melange of sound, rhythm, emotion, body language and political rhetoric, represents another “new language” in our contemporary culture. (One has to wonder how much time people preparing to enter the law enforcement profession spend learning how to read, listen to and interpret/translate “rap”!)
Have you noticed too the use of repetition, (to our ears, ad nauseum) in many of the popular tunes played on commercial radio, on ITunes, Utube and the other music platforms? A single phrase repeated up to twenty times in the space of thirty seconds hardly qualifies as a serious and creative use of music composition.

Yet, a tweet should not be the primary tool of communication for a presidential candidate either! So much for nuance, subtlety, the mastery of complicated files and the intellectual timbre that was historically considered a minimal requirement for serious contention for high public office. They are all relegated to the museum in the current political climate.

And it is not only adjusting to the new languages of the digital technology that brings McLuhan to mind. It is also the growing gap between the current laws and conventional cultural expectations of ordinary citizens in a world in which such massive shifts of capital, labour, intelligence and the environment have almost completely rendered political and legal and professional organizations out of touch and out of step with the responsibilities they are charged with fulfilling. The more suction and storage capacity we develop and deploy to manage information, including metadata, the larger grows the gap between those in charge of both the collection, storage and interpretation, not to mention the dissemination of that information. Body cameras, security cameras on the street corners of many cities, thumb prints and iris images as marks of one’s identity as just the tip of the iceberg of the gap in both content awareness and power differentials between ordinary people and the “establishment” whose access to the secrets entombed in those many vaults, on those many hard drives is unfettered, compared with the “public” access, awareness and inclusion in the new circle of “knowing”.

This gap between those who “know” and those who will never “know” even what they do not know, inevitably generates a deficit of trust, seemingly even a hollow cave empty of trust, and thereby of confidence among ordinary people. There is a case to be made that this gap between those “inside” and those “outside” the circle of the public discourse, normally considered to be filled with a set of agreed pieces of information, as well as a conventional method of making sense of the patterns of that date, is one of the serious impediments between those in the various institutional “establishments” and the people who send them there, whether by vote or indirectly by appointment through the normal channels of the elected representatives.

Everyone knows and agrees that the pace of new technological developments has already outpaced our human capacity to absorb, to assimilate and to adjust to a purposeful and a meaningful relationship between our lives and the new technology. All of us are playing catch-up and will be for the rest of our lives. Even though our children and grandchildren have and will continue to spend far more time in front of their “screens” doing all of the various things they can do (and this list is growing daily) than we will, they will experience a kind of scepticism about the gap between their perception and comprehension of the world and our’s. The normal gap between individual perceptions and world views is not under consideration here. It is the cultural gap, the conception of the universe that comes from the capacity to “talk” and to “see” anyone anywhere in real time, through the technology of the chip, along with all of the other “transactions” that are possible in all of the other spheres of human existence, that comprises a generational separation that could rival the shift from agriculture to industrial cultures.

Another shift in both perception and conception of the world is the shift to a nano-second as the normal unit of time, compared with a former university lecture “hour” of fifty minutes, a laboratory session of two hours. Meals are often punctuated by cell phone or tablet messages, thereby rendering the family dinner table vulnerable to a new way of being in the same room. “Presence” can no longer be considered in the manner of only a few decades, a time period of being with another, that frequently knew no limits, or at least rather loose time limits.

Another implication of the idolatry contemporary culture displays in its worship of the new technology is the sound of the suction of millions of people from the pews, the choir lofts, the organs and the pulpits on thousands of churches. Accompanying this suction is the silence that fills the collection plates in those same sanctuaries, and the ca-ching of the real estate deals completing the sales of those historic pieces of architecture from the churches to the new land-developers.

While there is greatly enhanced opportunity for everyone to apprentice their “photo” skills and talent, and thereby the visual literacy of the next generations will inevitably be significantly better than was/is our’s, the kind of potential human connection, community if you like, seems to be threatened, at least in the physical sense. How can anyone be fully present to a face-to-face conversation when those encounters are constantly interrupted by the invasion of some too often vacuous message on a digital device? The short answer is, “You can’t!”

While it is truism of the capitalist world that “they require stability” and “constancy” and a sense of what are the rules, people too rely on some semblance of normalcy, stability, constancy and predictability. These qualities rely to a considerable extent on getting to know ourselves, on getting to know and experience a few others, both family and friends, and on spending time “with” others. Flitting like gnats from text to text and twitter to twitter, from utube song to utube song, and from email to email, (although the latter take at least a few minutes to “write”) is hardly the stuff of community, connection, relationship-building and feeling an integral part of something that is outside of and bigger than one’s self.

A basketball team, a swimming team, a hockey team….they are all worthy activities, and kids need them still. It is the time away from ‘scheduled’ time, away from competing for marks, competing for part-time jobs, competing for championships,,,just hanging out together than could be one of the prices of our new technology whose size and significance we will not begin to know until another few decades of digitization have stamped their feet on our psyches.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A modest proposal to shift governance from reactivity to proactive prevention

There is something wrong with this picture!

Every-time a whistle-blower cries foul, the corporation, government agency, or other employer, or offending party cries foul even more loudly. A “disgruntled employee” or a “troublemaker” or “his work record was tarnished by several negative reports” (so this latest outburst is merely revenge!)…or whatever counter-claim seems to fit the need of the loud and well financed power.

And, in the political campaign, the “fact-checkers,” literally thousands of little beavers are busily digging into archives, video tapes, digital newspapers, and transcripts of specific facts, in order to demonstrate the “soothsayer” who uttered the outrageous statements is shown to be distorting, misrepresenting or actually lying…on a one-by-one, case-by-case basis.

Similarly, when a corporation’s product is demonstrated to be faulty, just by a single consumer, even one who has been injured by, in, or as a result of using, that product, the producer of the product cries foul, begging coverage by the “legal requirements” under which the product has been produced.

Case-by-case basis….single incidents….these by themselves rarely gather the kind of attention that would accompany the “canary in the coal mine” impact of noxious gases for underground workers, although even there, the “big boys” refuse to accept responsibility, accountability and liability and many lives have been sacrificed to that institutional denials, and omissions.

Power, through dollars, through political influence, through the purchase of expensive legal teams, and through the skillful and highly paid public relations “experts” nearly always swamps the voice that cries foul. The tobacco industry pushed back for decade, perhaps even longer that their produce could not be proven to cause cancer, even when they knew there was incontrovertible evidence that it did, and does and will continue to. Occasionally, a company will have to pay reparations, apologize and try to “move forward” that “magic” phrase by which all tragedies are supposed to be shoved into the vault of history.

A single clergy suicide, too, will never provoke the kind of critical self-examination among church authorities that would seek to and determine to uncover the culture in which such an event occurred. The “responsibility” will always rest exclusively on the perpetrator/victim, when we all know that the context, culture and ambience contributed.

 There is a genuine clashing of gears in this model. If we are conditioned (as we are) to render first reports of trouble as nothing to worry about, something to be ignored, denied, and snow-plowed into the ditch of public opinion, simply because of a cultural “convention” and perception, we participate in the potential of a really serious and potentially endemic issue going unattended at our peril. The model also encourages the “big boys” to adopt that old mantra, “It is better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission” for an act or a series of actions that are known to be harmful. Knowing they area creating a potential problem, they are already engaged in the process of preparing their “damage control” public relations campaign to minimize the damage.

And this model also stems, at least theoretically, from a religious model of sin and forgiveness, a model that, if warranted, and originally applied to relations between man and God, and between one human and another, is not appropriate in the larger public sphere. In a private relationship, in which two are engaged, there is ‘full frontal” (borrowing from Samantha Bee) confrontation, push back and checks on one’s attitudes, behaviours and words. Such a direct engagement is not available in the public arena, where the “fourth estate” is the public servant attempting to serve as public advocate, in the face of unethical behaviour by the political class and the mega-corporations, including the universities, the churches, the hospitals the military and the government, including the individual actors in these theatres.

Malfeasance among the political class, the corporations and the public institutions is rarely accidental, and yet it confronts us like a new enemy, an enemy with which the political class is incestuously embedded. We cannot afford to have the institutions setting the standards of expected ethical behaviour for our children, without the energized, vocal and committed and persistent public cry for better governance of the “powerful”.  They are now so large, so rich and so powerful (as they are also the source of retirement funds for millions, who desperately need the stock values to continue to rise) that both their innocence and their “legal status” as individual human beings can no longer be tolerated.

Governments themselves, are not the benchmark of ethical standards either, given their primary purpose of retaining their own power. Their access to public funds, and to the levers of power on how to spend those dollars, discreet from those funds raised on behalf of a specific political party, is now so influential, and their impunity from both disclosure and thereby from accountability (in four years a lot of damage to public policy can and too often does occur behind closed doors, as it has in Canada under Harper), that we have to re-think how we are governed. (And proportional representation will not solve this conundrum!)

Habeus corpus, that venerated legal maxim of “innocent until proven guilty” must be preserved, for individuals and for corporations. However, it is the “oversight” issue that needs to be strengthened by both legislation and public funding. The power of the public purse has to be equal to, if not superior to the fiscal vaults of the millions of corporations whose wealth and political influence far exceeds that of many legitimate governments. We not only have to rescind “citizens united” that opened the gates of political campaigns to private and corporate dollars. We also need to accept the fact that only public money can be used for political campaigns, thereby levelling the playing field for all candidates (who would receive an equal amount of public funds, and by limited to another amount of private donations). It is time to cut the billionaires and the millionaires of out the exclusive ‘right’ to seek public office and/or to drive the political agenda of the nation with their cheques.

It is also time to overhaul the way we think about public oversight, public prosecution, public capacity to hold witnesses accountable, as if they were appearing in a court of law. We need far more oversight, not only of the intelligence community, but also of the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry, the military manufacturing industry, the “water” industry ( companies like Nestle must be prohibited from raping the natural resource of drinking water, and profiting from its sale). And we need the journalism schools and the law schools to design a joint curriculum in which graduates will be able to ask the tough questions, knowing the parameters of the law.

 It is not enough to protect democracy, now that is has raged out of control before our eyes, and with our silent complicity, that we have a fourth estate attempting to keep the conversation balanced in terms of air time and column inches for competing interests, and to keep the “facts” straight, although those boundaries are necessary. We need a public voice long before the political class even receives its first vote. We need to fund the public broadcasters like the CBC and PBS, and the private media outlets have to be first encouraged and then mandated to hire, retain and support investigative reporters in major fields like national security, environment, public health, natural resources, and fiscal management. (The Office of Budget Management (U.S.) and the Auditor General (in Canada) and a single Ethics Commissioner (in some municipal, provincial and national governments) are no longer adequate to protect the “public interest.” It is not a presumption of guilt that drives these observations and proposals. It is the new reality of how personal, government and corporate privacy is being hacked, and how we have access to public information that was never available in the public arena when the “oversight” function was created.

The notion of “prevention” as opposed to the notion of “criminal or ethic charges” after the fact has to drive the shift in “governance.” Although there is no “sex appeal” in the pubic policy and practice of “prevention” of issues, it is a highly valued way of thinking and governing. For example,just today two Northern Saskatchewan communities are reeling over the death by suicide of three young girls under the age of fifteen. Rushing in psychologists, after the fact, and sending others of the twenty who are deemed to be “at risk” to large cities for ‘help’ is such a pathetic example of how cleaning up messes after they occur only betrays our shared complicity in failing to take the necessary steps to “PREVENT” such despair.

It does not take a ‘philadelphia lawyer’ to discern that conditions in all First Nations communities are so desperate that it should surprise no one that young people would see no hope and consider suicide as their only option to end the pain.

There is an old adage about children falling into a rushing river, with hordes of people pulling them out, below the falls into which they slipped. Many of us have asked, repeatedly, why are more people (and resources) not dedicated to preventing them from falling in in the first place. And this shift in the archetype of governance, prevention and proactivity, including the institutional muscle that would make such proactivity authentic, is so glaringly needed, in order to bring about a geopolitical shift in modus operandi about the global issues that are going unanswered, unattended and threatening to swallow us all.

It is no longer enough for any government to focus primarily on the “budget” issues of their term in power. They must be held accountable, and seen to be holding themselves accountable through a vigorous and invasive media coverage on all the important files supported and enhanced by institutional “oversight” paid for, legislated for and sustained by the kind of political action to which no respectable party can turn a deaf ear.

Not only is “prevention” and proactivity in the governance of the governing necessary. It is also a time when the public needs more and not less information about the global patterns, forces, both good and evil, that are emerging in the various world capitals, and hinterlands. Consequently, private and public media outlets must expand, and not contract their teams of foreign correspondents. This is especially true when the issues we are facing increasingly do not respect national boundaries. When we learn that Britain is now leaving the European Union, and then learn that Italy is on the brink of bankruptcy and potentially leaving the EU, and Scotland has announced a second referendum on leaving Great Britain, we all need to know the implications of these moves, not only for the countries involved, and for the EU, but also for the world community.

Climate change, for example, and the global warming that coms with it, generated by the activities of human beings, is not reducible to a single storm, drought, fire, or hurricane or tornado. However, cumulatively, there is little doubt among those with both brains and research banks far larger than mine that we are quickly moving into the danger zone on the multiple impacts of this phenomenon.

Similarly, corporate malfeasance can no longer be considered on a case-by-case basis if the cumulative impact is going to be assessed. It costs billions in individual corporate losses, both in production and distribution costs, as well as in insurance costs and in the cost of departing investors when a company produces a faulty product, as well as in the loss of the reputation of the country in which the factory or service is generated, a loss for which the whole country will eventually pay, and pay dearly.
Fact checking too, as is so clearly obvious in the current presidential campaign, can no longer be documented on a case-by-case basis, for the simply reason that such a method permits and even fosters a collective memory lapse, as well as a kind of inferred impunity on the part of the liar, thereby exacerbating the situation.

Leadership, in a culture of political chaos and change, requires new ways of thinking, new ways of conceiving the situations we face. No longer will the band-aids of public relations after the facts have imploded, after the globe’s climate has so impaled the planet, after the governments have pushed their “envelop” (as all practitioners of power can and will do, increasingly the longer they have that power), after the teens have terminated their lives, after the children of Flint have been so permanently damaged intellectually, physically, emotionally through their consumption of lead-poisoned water.#

Having descended to the public gutter on so many fronts, with public officials demonstrating their own bravado in insulting the public with both lies and then denials, with overspending in inappropriate projects, with inflicting abusive power on innocent people, and with distorting the real dangers with impunity…it is time to reflect, individually and collectively, in all countries about how power is being abused, not only on the innocent children whose parents are charged with child abuse, but with public policies and actions that aggressively seek to prevent all abuses of power in each and every community.

It is no longer acceptable for public leaders to cover their asses,  and announce headline-grabbing stories, while, behind the curtain of public knowledge and awareness, many serious issues remain unaddressed, and those same political leaders continue to retain power simply through the cash support of their ideological benefactors.

Ideology is no longer an adequate identifier for political aspirations. Survival of both the political systems, including the democratic institutions, and the planet are now on the horizon of all thinking, sentient and increasingly rebellious people. We deserve and demand better!

#  A Michigan resident reminded me this week that hundreds of towns and cities across North America that have used and continue to use lead pipes for their water supply, without replacing them with safe pipes, so in his view millions of others are also in danger of water poisoning in the same way as those living in Flint.