Sunday, August 2, 2020

A full-throated, Canadian loon's endorsement of Susan Rice for VP

It is reasonable to consider a Canadian’s endorsement of any candidate for the Vice-presidential ticket presumptuous. First, I have no voice and no citizenship in the choice. I have no history in the Democratic Party. I have no friends, business or professional associates in the party. I have no investments in the U.S. And, I have no credentials as an academic, a pollster, a political scientist, nor as an “expert” of any kind.

Nevertheless, none of these caveats seem sufficient to prevent my bashing into the prospect of a full-throated, uninhibited and unrestrained (if mute and literally emasculated) nomination of one Susan Rice, to be Biden’s pick for the number two spot on the presidential ticket.

Much time and ink has been dedicated to her extensive and professional service in the Obama administration, in several roles, primarily focused on national security and geopolitics. As former Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, puts it, “Susan Rice has a ‘black-belt’ in diplomacy.”

It is not only in diplomacy in which Ms Rice has a black-belt. She has an intellectual capacity that produced the best doctoral thesis at Oxford, not only for her own class, but for an extended period of modern history. It is not only that Ms Rice has a depth of understanding of how government works, and what those specific impediments to its fruitful functioning look like and need to be confronted. Ms Rice is the only candidate who brings a full portfolio of biographical chapters in international relations in comparison with each and all of the other potential names being considered.

Ironically, as Biden was chosen as Obama’s VP at least in part, because he offered several decades of Washington experience, knowledge and personal relationships to a relative neophyte senator at the time, supplementing Obama’s resume with what the media termed “gravitas” or in other words, trustworthiness, Biden’s choice of his own number two is being made when the world faces what amounts to a plethora of international issues, all of them crying for the leadership, mentorship and championship of the United States of America.

It is true that the immediate need of the Biden presidential campaign is to secure an unmolested, unprotested and unequivocal victory in the election in November, and that need demands a voice of substance, reason, and a degree of combativeness to counter the propaganda campaign of fantasy facts, untruths, conspiracy theories, foreign interference in the basic functioning of the electoral system, including the disinformation campaign in social media. So, to answer Congressman Clyburn’s plea for a choice with passion, and with the capacity to withstand the rigors of the undoubtedly viscious, politically violent and expectedly strategies and tactics for a mob-war, there are really three black female candidates who meet all of the immediate criteria: their names are Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, and Susan Rice. While Karen Bass comes with respectable political credentials, as former speaker of the California State Legislature in the time of the governorship of Swartzennegger, at 66, like Elizabeth Warren at 70, she does not offer the prospect of a new generation candidacy.

Given that Biden, if successful, will be the oldest person ever elected to the Oval Office, the mere fact of his age on his birth certificate says that there is a reasonable, if lamentable chance he might not be able to complete his term. And, given that Biden himself has committed to nominating a woman, and given that the preponderance of public (and certainly Democratic Party) opinion recognizes, respects and seeks to honour the significant and singular contribution of black women in the recent electoral successes of the party (2018, especially), the narrowing of the choice to Harris, Abrams and Rice brings us to the next aspect of our endorsement.

Stacey Abrams, a graduate in law from Yale, a Georgia legislator and leader of the party in that body, and more recently an avid organizer and activist in extending legitimate and threatened voting rights across both her state and the nation, offers a highly articulate, highly combative and highly credible candidate for the position of either Attorney General or Secretary of Education. It is through deepening the resources, the political and fiscal attention of the nation to the needs of both government departments, that voting rights, and the long-term view of levelling the playing field for black generations threatened by exclusion, isolation and perpetual poverty and racism can be advanced, And who better than Ms Abrams to take up the life-long commitment of former Congressman John Lewis?

As for Kamala Harris, another combative, articulate and experienced campaigned and former Attorney General of California, she seems highly qualified for the obviously desperately needed transformation of the Justice Department, now in shambles administratively and ethically, following the sycophancy of William Barr to the president and his gang. Certainly needed and resourceful as a surrogate campaigner, as are the other potential vice-presidential picks, Ms Harris’s talents should not be vaulted into the inner circle of the administration. Lawyers, while highly nuanced in their interpretations of law, and in the administration of the law, are different in both temperament and in training/education/formation than the training/education/formation of an international relations scholar.

Susan Rice is, without doubt or equivocation, an acknowledged scholar of international relations, with a perspective not only on the history of how the United States has been and potentially can and will be again, a “lighthouse” in the dark and windy storms of geopolitical hurricanes, tornadoes, and droughts and fires that currently threaten the stability of the international order.

It is not only that the international order is being threatened by the inappropriate, narcissistic and opportunistic decisions of the trump administration, so too is the very survival of the planet, including the very existence of millions of people now underfed, and the projected millions who face starvation in part as a consequence of the pandemic, and the inequality that plagues the gap between the have’s and the have-not’s among the world’s population.

New, vigorous, vibrant, and sustainable coalitions, treaties, banks, legal frameworks and security apparatuses are urgently needed and will continue to provide opportunities for the leadership of the United States, in a world in which the U.S. courage, creativity, boldness and depth of geopolitical experience and leadership have been missing at least since 2017. Repairing relationships of trust, rebuilding bridges of security and intelligence sharing, restoring the vitality of the United Nations and expanding and revamping the processes of the Security Council, will have to be undertaken by a leader of vision, experience, forbearance and courage. This leadership, given that the President himself will be intimately engaged in addressing the pressing and even the existential threats to American families, the economy, the health care system, the education system and the transformation of the justice system, can and will only come (from the perspective of August 2, 2020, some 90+ days prior to November 3) from a vice-presidential candidate of the stature, experience, temperament, stability and endurance of the former National Security Adviser.

Ms Rice is intimately familiar with the presidential daily brief (PDB) and has participated in its preparation. She is intimately familiar with many of the world leaders and their understudies, as well as with the relationship between the Congress and the administration’s initiatives in foreign relations. She knows intimately how and when to prepare and present a brief to the Foreign Relations Committees. She knows how and when to negotiate with a nation like Iran, with which nation the trump administration has abandoned the nuclear accord. She has proven her capacity, willingness and intrepid confidence to tell the president the truth even when that truth is rightfully deemed hard to hear, to absorb and to address.

Even in Canada, ordinary people are watching the daily misadventures of Washington, including their implications for our lives as citizens sharing a continent, an extensive unimpeded border, and a trade, health and political culture of co-operation going back centuries. And many Canadians share the perspective both that international relations, as a file whose global importance grows daily, is in “poverty” without the active, positive and supportive, as well as collaborative participation of the United States.

While no single individual can be expected to fill the vacuum both in Foggy Bottom (the home address of the emasculated State Department under Mike Pompeo, and trump) and in the corridors of power in capitals across the globe, Mr Biden can and is humbly encouraged, by these words, and by those of many others, to make a first step in restoring both sanity and hope to the world’s people, as well as to the people of the United States, by selecting Susan Rice as his Vice-presidential running mate.

At fifty-five, with the deep reservoir of talent, experience, an boundless circular file of “connections” going as far back as her childhood, when guests like Madeline Albright visited her family home, grand-daughter of slaves, whose parents rose through formal education and diligent ambition to positions of honour and serious contribution to their generation, Ms Rice is the most logical, the most seasoned, the most inspiring and the most transformative candidate for what we all hope will be the Biden administration.

And if this is not a time for both domestic and international transformation, in the multiple, complex and seemingly entangled and challenging array of issues facing the incoming administration, then given the last three-quarters of a century of my life, I do not know a time that qualifies for transformation.

Great crises are great opportunities, according to the old Chinese proverb. We all hope and pray that the presumptive presidential candidate of the Democratic Party seizes the opportunity offered by the gestalt of these many ‘gordion-knot type threats.

Choosing Susan Rice as his running mate offers the most hopeful, trustworthy, dependable and insightful, not to mention amenable, choice as Vice-president, on the Biden-Rice ticket for the Oval Office.


Friday, July 31, 2020

Reflections on "Unearned suffering is redemptive!"

Ever since I listened to clip of an interview of the now deceased Congressman John Robert Lewis by Fareed Zakaria, on Sunday, I have been mulling the statement that was one of the guiding principles and beacons of the life of the activist for racial justice: Unearned suffering is redemptive.

Searching in various places for how others have considered such a pungent, penetrating and provocative mantra, I found these words on the reformjudaism.org website, words written by W. Gunther Plaut*:

(Many Jews) ask: how could a benevolent God permit the Holocaust-the murder of six million innocent men, women, and children whose only offense was being Jewish? Where was divine help when God’s chosen people were being slaughtered? The biblical Book of Job is the most famous attempt in our tradition to wrestle with the issue. The hero of the prose poem suffers a personal ‘holocaust’: his family is wiped out, his wealth and health are taken from him, and he sits on the dung heap challenging God and his comforters to let him know why all this has happened to him. The answer he receives in the end does not tell him the reason—on the contrary, it teaches him that God cannot be questioned by humans. While Job accepts the divine reply, many moderns cannot and do not.

I believe that God’s possibilities of and caring are endless in space and in time. There is an essential mystery here that will always lie beyond my comprehensions. If I cannot fathom how a piece of silicone can perform its tasks, how much more reason do I have to stand in awe before the presence of the One who made the world and its resources and put them at our disposal….The God who suffered and wept with us during the Holocaust is my God. To say this is a statement of faith, and admittedly not grounded on scientific proof. But that does not make it any less real.

If there is any people who “know,” embody, incarnate and illustrate unearned suffering, it is the Jewish people…slavery in Egypt, plagues, targeted for millennia, incinerated by the Third Reich and even today, besieged by growing numbers of incidents of anti-Semitism. And yet, as a people, not only is their faith not shaken or evaporated, dissipated or eroded, it has not turned bitter. Never far from the consciousness of the Jewish tribe is their ‘exodus,’ their liberation from slavery in Egypt, a story that has become an integral component of the air they breathe in every generation. And while Jews are renowned for conceding that they cannot and do not “know the mind of God,” nevertheless, they are firm in their shared commitment to a homeland. If you have spent time in homelessness, feeling, for example, that you are living (either or both literally or metaphorically) out of your car, you might have a glimpse of how important having a home really is. And if you and I, or our families, had undergone the traumas in Auschwitz, Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and those stories had clung like mud to the shoes of our ancestors, and to the bones and the nerves of those who survived, we too would be among those not merely advocating for a homeland for our people, but, back immediately after the war, but perhaps even actively campaigning for such a homeland.

From the website, islam-today.co.uk/suffering, we read these words:

The novelist Somerset Maugham had trained as a doctor. In his autobiography, The Summing-Up, he confesses that, as a Christian, he had been taught the redemptive value of suffering. His experience in working in medical wards persuaded him that such a view was wrong. He saw how suffering stunted and impoverished people, mentally and physically. He did not perceive any spiritual elevation, and inner refinement or meaning brought on by much anguish and pain. That sad realisation partly led Maugham to lose his faith in a benevolent and loving God. ..There is a difference however, between voluntary and involuntary suffering. Maugham’s patients had not freely chosen to suffer. They had nor of their own free will embraced their pain as means to redemption. It came on them as a necessity imposed by physiological conditions over which they had not control. This is not the case with Jesus Christ. The teaching of the Christian Church is that suffering may have a redemptive quality, the supreme and normative example being, that of the sacrifice of the Cross. A supernatural event willed by God as indispensable to the salvation of humanity, to which Jesus freely submitted. Accordingly, article 31 in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer states that: ‘The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.’ And the Catholic Catechism affirms that it is ‘love to the end that confers on Christ’s sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation….

It is well-known how Islam denies the reality of the Crucifixion. Also, the Qur’an, Chapter al-Najim, verse 38, seems to say that no person can bear the sins fo burden of another. In that sense, Islam’s Holy Book rejects the whole Christian theological idea of Atonement. All Muslims appear at one about that. On the other hand, it is distinctive of the Shi’a tradition that it crucially focuses on the martyrdom of Imams like Ali, Hassan and Husayn. Here suffering takes on a more profound meaning and purpose. Husayn particularly is seen as victorious at Karbala despite undergoing a cruel and excruciating death at the hands of his unrighteous enemies.

John Robert Lewis is being hailed as a hero in his unwavering commitment to the freeing of African Americans from their deeply rooted second-class status, including the unearned suffering at being beaten by police batons after crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge, in a peaceful march for the right to vote. Unwavering too was Lewis’s commitment to non-violence and his exhortations to the next generations not only never to lose sight of the prize but also never to grow bitter.

In the Christian lexicon, redemption and salvation are tightly woven. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says this:

The idea of redemption is common to many religions, being based on the desire of man to be delivered from sin, suffering and death. Christianity claims that in it alone has it become a fact through the Incarnation and the Death of Christ. It is viewed by theologians under the double aspect of deliverance from sin and restoration of man and the world to communion with God.

Salvation, too is the ‘saving of human beings from sin and its consequences, which include death and separation from God by Christ’s death and resurrection. (Wikipedia)

The deep and inextricable link between the “sin” (as in ‘original sin’) and the fundamental nature of man, remains a chicken bone stuck in the craw of this scribe. It is not to deny our shared capacity for evil; rather it is to “frame” the definition of the human being in this epistemological, theological, spiritual, and especially ethical “cell”…that is so upsetting.

From matthewfox.org, referring to his book, Original Blessing,  we find this:

Fox believes that the teaching of original sin—which Jesus never heard of (no Jew has) has served empire builders very well but that original blessing—the awareness of the goodness of creation—must take precedence. The implications are profound for psychological as well as sociological and ecological transformation. Oppressed people everywhere will recognize the difference. Fox lays out the ancient but often neglected (and sometimes condemned) creation spiritual tradition in Original Blessing.

It would seem clearly evident, especially from yesterday’s funeral service in Ebenezeer Baptist Church in Atlanta, that the unearned suffering of the beatings, the arrests, the incarcerations and the original extreme poverty which characterize the life of John Robert Lewis had a profound impact on his body, mind, spirit and purpose. From rushing to hold the meagre house from losing its moorings in the wind, with the rest of his family (literally) to his invitation to join the civil rights campaigns of Dr. Martin Luther King, under the tutelage of James Morris Lawson in nonviolent civil disobedience, to his speech at the Lincoln Memorial and the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to his life-long commitment to find the best in everyone, John Lewis has been legitimately enshrined in the lexicon of American political, historical, and spiritual heroes.

It would be both quixotic and foolish to attempt to trace a cause-effect link between the unearned suffering in Lewis’s life, and his spiritual maturity. Suffice it to say, not only has he “become a sermon” (in the words of Rev. Warnock at his funeral), but he has transcended the bounds of not merely civility, and visionary political judgement and activism, but even the bounds of what comprises revolution.

As Rev.Warnock ironically put it, it is not that John Lewis is on the side of history, but rather history is on the side of John Lewis, although it clearly was not when he began his life of “good trouble”. And, he made good trouble in the fight, not only for racial equality, but also for gender equality, worker rights, immigration rights, senior rights and also the right of the poor to a life of dignity and respect.

Beyond the logic of political strategy, tactics, theory and specific lobbying, Lewis incarnated an identity, (and from all reports that identity was as completely and totally authentic as it is possible for any human being to attain) that confronted his opponents with respect, dignity, non-violence and a degree of overt and demonstrable commitment that, after his eight decades, found the deputies saluting  from the same constabulary who previously beat him and his activist colleagues.

Raised in a home in which support, love, encouragement, and blessing (in all of the various manifestations of that notion) abounded, and was shared among and between his parents and his siblings, John Lewis was moved by a radio address by Dr. King, and nurtured as a rookie in the circle of King’s activist cohorts.

The very antithesis of wealth, social status, hob-nobbing with the “rich” and the politically and culturally elite, John Lewis’s biography and his person are and will continue to light the darkness of political chicanery, deceit, dissembling, pursuit of personal glory, and the insatiable pursuit of political legacy, through offering himself as a humble servant.

So completely in contrast to the ‘stereotype of the “politician” the scheming, narcissistic, opportunistic sinister villain in contemporary history, John Lewis benefitted from the silent, and even unconscious comparison with what is conventionally considered the ‘norm’.

There are millions of people whose “unearned suffering” portrays and depicts a very different biography. Domestic violence has robbed too many children of their innocence, given that their experience of false and hollow accusations, and unearned suffering of physical, emotional and psychological abuse inside the home, twisted their early view of the nature of the world. If there did not seem to be allies inside the home, how could there possibly be allies and supporters outside the home. Nevertheless, it would be almost impossible even for those millions who are and have been abused by their families and their communities not to take heart, comfort and even inspiration from learning the details of the life of John Lewis. As openly acknowledged ‘hero’ to Barack Obama, who signed the Inauguration Program “This is for you!” to John Lewis, none of those listening, watching, reflecting on the biography, including the many legislative successes, could or would come away from this past week wondering if s/he has a role to play in the human (globally) pursuit of human rights, human dignity, human access to affordable food, health care, and basic necessities like water, clean air and personal safety and security.

The Jewish community has a movement named Tikkun Olam, “heal the world”…and the notion of the community which is central to the Jewish theology, spirituality and sheer survival, continues to remain a distant and often only vaguely perceived and conceived notion to the Christian community in which the individual is the object of God’s, and the world’s attention.

It is not only in pursuit of a healthy environment that we all need to start from the place of seeing ourselves and the rest of the world, as individuals and as communities, as bearing the marks and the potential of the divine. Preventing  unearned suffering, as a means to ensuring public safety and security, has not been nearly as effective a “stance” for the body politic, as a ‘stance’ that originates in the seed of tolerance, hope, acceptance, and even love, first for one’s own being and then for the others in one’s circle, including even those considered sinister. It is only coming from our own insecurity, inadequacy, previously applied judgements (also the projections of the fears and anxieties of those others) that we start too many of our conversations, observations, perceptions and evaluations from a negative point of view. Cynicism is not exclusive to the current occupant of the oval office, although he depends on it for his political survival. Indifference, too, is not exclusive to those Republican sycophants who defend his abuses of others and especially of the truth.

Hope, optimism, courage, and a maturity that focuses on the “prize” that defines each individual’s and each group’s highest ideals are just some of the more obvious and yet required ingredients of a life well lived. And John Robert Lewis has been a high-profile gift to inspire, motivate, mentor and guide others in pursuit of what he termed “the beloved community”…..and isn’t belonging to a beloved community the goal of each of us?

 

*Rabbi  W. Gunther Plaut was senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto and the editor and principal author of The Torah—a Modern Commentary. Rabbi Plaut passed away on February 9, 2012.


Friday, July 24, 2020

How do we assess, mitigate and relieve blindness among the powerful?


In our last entry, the embedded and inter-dependent, if not actually co-dependent, relationship between conspiracy theories and authoritarianism was our focus. It seems that each of these issues, often treated as separate and independent and mutually exclusive, have to be considered at least as overlapping, if not dangerous through the manipulation of information by those seeking to govern illicitly, if not actually illegally.

On the other hand, it is incumbent on each of us to see where our language, and the principles and definitions and implications it embodies, requires our taking time  to pause and reflect on what our conventional language considers aberrant behaviour as opposed to normal behaviour. We are hearing more and more about the incidence of mental health issues and drug and alcohol dependence issues being linked to poverty, hopelessness and the spike in violent crime in many U.S. cities.

And yet, some of the glaring underlying reasons/causes/seeds of not only poverty but also alcohol and drug dependence as well as undiagnosed or even misdiagnosed mental health issues are too often considered as normal business and/or political activity.

Parsing root causes, just as we discovered in our brief exploration of the “causation” issue around whether trump’s delinquent deportment in his handling of COVID-19 rises to the level of criminal negligence, is frequently, if not always, left to the academics who research the potential/real/theoretical/statistical relationship between two variables. For decades, deconstruction, the process of separating variables, causes, investigations, health diagnoses and legal arrests, charges and convictions in a manner that has embedded within itself, the seeds of its own limitations, if not actual demise.

EXAMPLE:

When we use words like “disability” in normal discourse, we are implicitly signing on to a concept of “inferiority” and attaching that inferiority to those with some physical or mental difference when compared (usually silently and likely unconsciously) with others who do not demonstrate similar differences. Even an apparently innocent comment like, “We think there are mental problems there!” a comment I recently heard about a prominent, enthusiastic and highly creative member of a community, exposes a deeply seeded perception of “difference” without even pretending to question the validity of the lay assessment, or the context of that individual’s life. This kind of “applied disability” continues out from a private social conversation into how we think of social and political needs, needs assessments and the appropriate manner and methods to address those deficiencies. The speaker of the above statement, along with others who have the same attitude, might, for example, “take a wide birth” of either or both detachment/acquiescence when encountering this person.

Conventional culture, it seems, clings to what it considers the white line in the middle of the road, when observing, assessing and then reacting to the behaviour, attitudes, language and especially the beliefs and ideology of those who appear different. And the intensity of that clinging rises and falls in part as a variable of the background of the observer/perceiver/assessor/interactor. If one is raised in a home where “law-and-order” tend to overshadow a laissez-faire attitude of relative relaxed expectations and rules, one’s early attitudes, perceptions and assessments of others who exhibit similar/different attitudes will likely reflect this early childhood development. Differences not only tolerated but celebrated inside families are more likely to generate tolerance and celebration of originality, creativity, spontaneity and surprise when members of such families enter the wider world. The inverse seems also valid.

So, a narrow, strict, attitude especially one founded on a black-white dichotomy or either/or will accompany, perhaps even inconspicuously and unconsciously, the child morphing into an adult. Feeding this kind of black-white, either/or dichotomy every hour of every day is the mass media. Issues are described as “good” or “bad” and people too fall into the same linguistic (if not intellectual, cultural, political and even ethical) dichotomy. Life is good, death, bad. Rich is good, poor is bad. Educated is good, illiterate is bad. Degrees are good, their absence is bad. Trophies are good, losers are bad. Doctors are good, quacks are bad. “Nice” is good, angry (sad, dour, hopeless, despondent, despairing, frightened and frightening) are bad. Smile is good, frown is bad. Good news is good, bad news is bad….Except that bad news is feeding an obviously insatiable appetite for the tragedies of others not to mention seeding the journalism’s training and the corporate appetite for advertising revenue dependent on ratings. The German language even has a word for it:

SHADENFREUDE: pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. (According to worldwidewords.org, the English equivalent word is: epicaricacy.) Incidentally, the emotion is displayed more in children than in adults.

And here is where the intersection of what is considered normal behaviour can easily and quickly cross a line into something the conventional culture considers ‘disturbed.’ A normal degree of shadenfreude is acceptable while an abnormal degree is verging on mental illness and a display of it could and likely would cause others to shy away from such an attitude.

Consider this scenario:

If you, dear reader, were attending a social gathering in which a tale was being told of the “fall” of an individual, (financial, moral, ethical, political, firing) depending on the manner of the narrator’s enriched delivery and detail, would you remain to listen and then join in the ‘tut’ tut’ ‘shame’ ‘shame’ conversation that ensued?
Would you inquire into the narrator’s knowledge of the context?
Would you withhold judgement on the ‘victim’ until you had opportunity to learn more details of the background, context and source of the “allegations”?
Would you join in echoing the common epithet, “You can’t trust anyone these days!”?
Would you pause to reflect on why it is that you and so many others are so wrapped up in stories like this?
Would you even ask questions to the narrator about the story?
Would you walk away thinking, “I do not want to engage in this story, but I also do not want anyone here to think that I consider myself “better” than them!”?
Notice also the frequency of these stories, as well as the frequency of words of derision, even words depicting a disorder, especially when compared with the public discussion and acknowledgement of our shared shadenfreude. In seven decades, I have not a single memory of hearing that word used even once in a  public or private discussion.

So, individuals are easy and available targets for our bullets of attack, whether they come from some scripture, or from an appropriated sense of “decorum” and decency, and even unnamed anxiety or suspicion.

It is such an easy and available slide from targeting others, in a valiant if vain attempt to achieve some modicum of what we mistakenly consider self-respect (never really attained at the expense of another), to turn our psychic weapons on public figures. Their (and our) imperfections are not only legion, but magnified through the multiple lenses of various mass and social media. And the “license” we apparently grant to totally unreliable “witnesses” or critics, now that everyone is one, has contributed to the considerable devaluation of those voices whose seasoning, learning, experience and integrity has been demonstrated for decades. This dynamic is one upon which people like trump and his sycophants have seized.

Mary Trump’s recent expose of her uncle’s background and character defects, given its rocketing sales figures, has generated considerable interest in what many would call an ‘insider’s’ perspective. At the same time, her uncle’s triumphal championing of his own “exceptionality” in everything he says and does, and his refusal even to notice and certainly not make mention of the many “defects” in both character and performance of the corporate world’s leaders, illustrates a blind-spot of denial, deception and distortion that refuses to become a “belled-cat” similar to those “mental defects” noted in many of our colleagues.

If and when a behemoth like Amazon, that facilitator of legions of entrepreneurs, start—up’s and the accompanying new designs, new programs, new innovations becomes the focus of many of those same previous “clients” for having watched their intellectual property be replicated by other corporate actors, without their knowledge or permission, and the new and “fake” replicas generate a flush of customer complaints for faulty workmanship, missing parts, it is only to be expected that original sales success is followed by serious and rapid decline.

While law suits are currently underway against companies like Amazon, and once again the little entrepreneur is having to take action to protect what is legitimately and legally his/her private intellectual property, the conventional conversation runs along lines like, “This is just the norm for business!” We watch this happen every day when the big guys gobble the little guys “because they can” and do. We have normalized behaviour that would not be tolerated in our neighbourhoods, by those who legislate and who execute many of our corporate institutions. And yet, we continue to speak and write about the “income gap” between the have’s and the have-not’s.

It is not only an income gap, but a language, a value a perception and an integrity gap. And we are all complicit in its creation, and perpetuation.  This is not an argument to begin to assign monikers of mental illness to corporations or to political leaders. This is not an argument to dissuade reporters and analysts from their digging into the files and the phone calls and the emails of prominent people. However, it is an argument to shine light on what amounts to an unsustainable differential in the power of choice, the opportunity to self-regulate and to take responsibility for one’s life, without the needed levers of health, education, work with dignity, adequate food and primarily the possibility of seeing a horizon in which those necessities are not “over the mountain’ but immediately attainable.

Statistics recently released about the proportions of primarily men encountering law enforcement in both Canada and the U.S. show a high proportion of those individuals of black or brown or indigenous ethnicity, many of them also showing signs of mental illness and/or alcohol and/or drug dependency. It does not take a rocket scientist to deduce that much of this “pain” from an individual and a family perspective is the direct result of conditions extant in a culture in which those with power and wealth have already turned a blind eye to those they simply choose not to see. Arguments advocating for an enlightened agenda of social assistance, and better access to both physical and mental health professionals, as well as improved school buildings and lower teacher-student ratios will clearly call on deaf ears, to those already blind by their own decisions to invoke blindness, denial and the kind of political plausibility of innocence and purity that they believe, falsely, accompanies their chosen blindness.

Is their condition capable of fitting into a schadenfreude file? Hardly.
Is their condition capable of fitting into a “criminal negligence” accusation, charge and trial? Hardly.
Is their condition capable of fitting into a folder of “too costly” and thereby not included in recent, current and foreseeable budgetary considerations? Hardly.
Is their condition capable of fitting into an ideological strait-jacket that adheres religiously to the “nanny state” definition of political, social and ethical evil? Hardly.
Is their condition capable of fitting into a mental health diagnosis that would render it and them eligible for health care? Hardly.
Is their condition appropriate to require spiritual guidance, clergy assessment and counselling? Hardly.
Is their condition one needing additional formal training and education in order to enlighten them on their own chosen blindness? Hardly.
Is their condition one that can be assigned to the trash-bin of gender politics, in order to maintain male dominance of the culture and the governing of that culture? Hardly.
Is their condition one that might benefit from an appointment with an ophthalmologist in the desired hope that vision might be restored? Hardly.

Well, then, what do we do with those in power whose eyes are turned, or blind, whose ears are deaf and whose minds are closed to the urgent, potentially existential threat, not only to millions of individual lives and families, but also to the very structure and stability of the state?

You ask, “Is this a uniquely American problem and issue? Or does it apply to other so-called developed countries?

And my answer rests on the obvious attitudes to care and compassion, as compared with and in competition with attitudes of profit, and disregard for the welfare of the whole, the welfare of the body politic. And each country holds its own spot on the continuum between care at one end and insouciance at the other. And while these diagnoses apply to individuals’ lives, illustrating one’s capacity and choice to care, the attitude of the body politic can only be evaluated in the light of the summation and the culmination of the whole of these individual/family attitudes.

So, when you hear, “We are all in this together!” the words are for more than political or medical rhetoric. They have an existential relevance!

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Conspiracy theories and authoritarianism...a highly toxic cocktail


A convergence, in both time and substance, is raising the tide of the rushing political waters with the potential of resulting in a metaphoric flood of significant proportions.
On the one hand, there are more commentators shining a light on what they call “conspiracy theories” while at the same time, others are framing their analysis around the notion of “authoritarianism.” It seems that these two currents in political/cultural observation, diagnosis, analysis and potential path forward out of the wilderness are, not necessarily just single and isolated, but rather fused, and mutually interdependent, if not co-dependent. Just last evening, Fareed Zakaria hosted a ‘special’ on CNN dedicated to an expose of the roots, actors, and dangers of conspiracy theories from both a historical perspective as well as through a contemporary lens.

McCarthyism, the search for a communist in every office in the State Department, by a Republican Senator resulted, finally, in his censure by his own party for his relentless, and demonstratedly hollow campaign to rid the United States of communists. Conspiracy theories, so the documentary contends, continue to surround the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, by an allegedly ‘lone assassin,’ given the notion that many Americans believed back in 1963 and others still contend today, that a single person would not and could not carry out such a scheme against the president, with the aid and support of others.

It cannot come as a surprise to many that the highest feature on the list of categories on which the current candidate for re-election to the Oval Office seeks to campaign is selling the concept of “fake news”. If you will pardon the pun, the trump political campaign was conceived and delivered (birthed if you will) on the lie that former president Barack Obama was born in Kenya and not in Hawaii, as his birth certificate disclosed. Black, brilliant, the editor of the Harvard Law Review, and bearing the middle name “Hussein” shortly after the United States had become embroiled in a catastrophic war against Saddam Hussein, the former head of the Iraqi government, the very word, “Hussein” connoted visages of profound hatred, and contempt for what many considered a mortal enemy with his purported weapons of mass destruction, as well as a convenient launch pad for a campaign of political character assassination, delivered by trump against Obama, a campaign that continues to this day.

Thunderous megaphoned acolytes were then eager and willing to jump onto the lie, promulgating its venom into the homes and the coffee shops across the heartland of the U.S. Acolytes of trump like Alex Jones, a right-wing American radio host and prolific anti-government conspiracy theorist thrive in American political life, and not exclusively underground. Public declaring the mass shooting of elementary school children and teachers at Sandyhook a staged event allegedly to curtail Americans’ gun rights, Jones is considered by some to be one of, if not the most influential of the ‘sources’ the current president references, mostly by re-tweeting his vitriol. Jones also promulgates the theory that 9-11 was perpetrated by the U.S. government, that “Parkland FL high school student survivors were ‘crisis actors’ paid by the Democratic party and George Soros.” (From adl.org website, the anti-defamation league). 

The initial spark that resulted in an attempted attack to root out child molesters allegedly operating in the basement of a pizza parlour (referred to as Comet Ping Pong) as part of the Hillary Clinton’s alleged sinister mind, Jones’ words have resulted in prison sentences and violence. Banned from several social media platforms, Jones nevertheless continues to command a sizeable audience.

“Trump spent his holidays retweeting QAnon and Pizzagate accounts

The president is normalizing conspiracy theories that portray his political opponents as satanist pedophiles”
reads the headline on a Jan. 2, 2020 story in VOX by Aaron Ruper.
Ruper’s story continues:
In December 2015, Donald Trump  infamously appeared on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s Infowars show, praising his amazing reputation, and vowed that ‘I will never let you down.’….on December 27 alone, he (Trump) posted about 20 tweets from accounts that have promoted QAnon….
And it is on QAnon that Zakaria’s documentary focused.
What is QAnon?
The Atlantic, June 2020, in a riveting piece by Adrienne LaFrance, entitled Nothing can Stop what is coming carries this subtitle:
QAnon is a conspiracy theory with messianic overtones and dark predictions. It’s legions of followers are growing and it’s a harbinger of a world where facts are reality don’t matter. (p. 27)
Another highlight from the LaFrance piece: The destruction of the global cabal is imminent, Q prophecies. One of its favorite rallying cries is “enjoy the show—a reference to a coming apocalypse. (p. 32)
Lafrance details:

Many of the people most prone to believing conspiracy theories see themselves as victim-warriors fighting against corrupt and powerful forces. They share a hatred of mainstream elites. This helps to explain why cycles of populism and conspiracy thinking seem to rise and fall together. Conspiracy thinking is at once a cause and a consequence of what Richard Hofstader in 1964 famously described as ‘the paranoid style’ in American politics.  But do not make the mistake of thinking that conspiracy theories are scribbled only in the marginalia of American history. They color every major news event: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moon landing, 9/11. They have helped sustain consequential eruptions, such as McCarthyism in the 1950’s and anti-Semitism at any moment you choose. But QAnon is different. It may be propelled by paranoia and populism, but it is also propelled by religious faith. The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement. QAnon marries an appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained. (p. 37)

LaFrance continues:

In his classic 1957 book, The pursuit of the Millenium, the historian Norman Cohn examined the emergence of apocalyptic thinking over many centuries. He found one common condition: This way of thinking consistently emerged in regions where rapid social and economic change was taking place—and at periods of time when displays of spectacular wealth were highly visible but unavailable to most people. This was true in Europe during the Crusades in the 11th century, and during the Black Death in the 14th century, and in the Rhine Valley in the 16th century, and in William Miller’s* New York in the 19th century. It is true in America in the 21st century.

Not surprisingly, in the vortex of rivers of ink and choruses of talking heads concentrating on conspiracy theories, Anne Applebaum, a writer at The Atlantic, has published a new book, “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. In his review in the New York Times, Bill Keller writes, in the July 19, 2020 edition of the paper. (The book) “is concerned less with the aspiring autocrats and their compliant mobs than with the mentality of the courtiers who make a tyrant possible: ‘the writers, intellectuals, pamphleteers, bloggers, spin doctors, producers of television programs and creators of memes who can sell his image to the public. (The “clercs” to Applebaum).Applebaum believes the usual explanations for how authoritarians come to power—economic distress, fear of terrorism, the pressures of immigration—while important, do not fully explain the clercs…

A resident of Poland, Applebaum, notes that “the right-wing nativists of the Law and Justice Party (came) to power in 2015,  the country was prosperous, was not a migrant destination faced no terrorist threat. ‘Something else is going on right now, something that is affecting very different democracies, with very different economics and very different demographics, all over the world,’ she writes. (Keller, NYT, op. cit.)

Appearing on Morning Joe on MSNBC, Ms Applebaum notes the appeal of authoritarianism among a wide cross-section of people, including intellectuals, and is discussing possible reasons, includes, with prompting from Mike Barnicle, the desire to simplify in a highly complex and cluttered world of many messages.

Writing in the Guardian, July 9 2020, John Kampfner, in reviewing Applebaum’s book, writes:

History lesson number one: authoritarians need mass support, but as with 1930’s fascists, they also need the collaborations of people in high places. (Quoting Applebaum) ‘Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy…indeed if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.’
Conspiracy theories, the rise of populist, nativist, right-wing oligarchs, fueled by resentful men and women of both ability and presumed entitlement, combine in and through the vortex of social media, where, lacking appropriate government regulation and mature and reasonable self-governance, words that espouse any theory, even the most heinous and reason-defying conspiracy theory, coalesce into a highly toxic political propaganda conflict.

No longer boundaried by national jurisdictional lines, and no longer exclusive to either the rich or the poor, and paradoxically and ironically dependent upon and inflaming the resentments of many people of various demographics, autocrats riding into power on the force of evangelical apocalyptic beliefs embedded in nuclear, if blind, commitments and emotion might well prove to be a political virus with which many democratic governments are ill-prepared, if not completely unprepared to cope.

When Michael Flynn publicly takes the oath to something highly suspiciously linked to the QAnon conspiracy, and trump not so secretly appears to be enamoured by the potential of the influence of such a conspiracy movement, and when so-called Republican sycophants persistently demonstrate an ideological and almost religious fervor of support for an oligarch like trump, what are the rest of us to think?

Memories of evangelical, pontifical, absolutist religious bigotry spewed from the pulpit in a church in my home town, fueled by a similar kind of obsequiousness of new-found converts, easily interpreted as sycophants to the personage of the homilist and his pursuit of numbers of converts. In this marketing/evangelizing campaign these mostly men then scurried to find holy writ to enable, support and inflame their converted spirits and their commitment to recruit new converts. It was then, as it is now with trump, an evangelism founded on judgement of those who did not and would not drink the kool-aid of conversion. And for a while, the movement filled both pews and coffers while underscoring a religious bigotry against Roman Catholics and a homophobic bigotry. Even more than a half-century later, I have learned that that church has never tolerated the gay community, as either laity or clergy.

Deeper memories abound of an absolutist matriarch whose religion was laced with righteous superiority over those less fortunate, those unemployed, those suffering from drug and alcohol dependencies, and those, including within the family, who might be suffering some illness who were classified as ‘cry-babies’ by this domineering and highly skilled nurse. Introduced to both an evangelical racist and a domineering matriarch early, I have remained distanced from and skeptical of any and all voices that resounded with the absolute conviction of their own superiority, whether based on a distorted version, interpretation and exegesis of Christianity, or a conspiracy theory of the Second Coming and the fear of the final judgement.

Undergirding both conspiracy theories and the highly radioactive language that transports them into the hearts and minds of people of all minds, spirits and psyches, lies deep and profound fear, anxiety and the overwhelming need to find something to cling to. And for those needs, there will always be both people needing such sycophancy, and followers who need the support and encouragement of highly committed masses of others. It is this toxic and threatening inter-dependency of neuroses/psychoses that might need a collaborative initiative to release its grip on millions.

 *William Miller was a Baptist preacher in rural New York in 1831 who predicted that the Second Coming of Jesus was imminent, settling on a date: October 22, 1844. The Millerites became the Adventists, who in turn became the Seventh-day Adventists who now have a worldwide membership of more than 20 million. (LaFrance, p. 38)


Friday, July 17, 2020

Words, their definitions depending on context...is this part of the divide?


Our western culture is increasingly dependent on the word of experts as the world itself spirals into universes never before imagined, except perhaps by science-fiction visionaries. For us ordinary, even modestly educated mortals, we are swimming daily between the whirlpools of new information about threats from the virus, from cyber-crime, from rising temperatures and significant climatic change, not to mention new discoveries in science (e.g. the “breath-tester” from Finland that can detect COVid-19 in three seconds) and the so-called “rocks” of established principles of moral and ethical interaction between and among humans,  individually and in groups.

The cataract of new data produced by COVID-19, and the implications for our health, (Is it mutating? Does it leave permanent damage to liver, lungs, brain? Is it more damaging to elderly and those with “pre-mobidities,”? a new word in the vocabulary of this scribe, Can and will we really flatten the curve?) relentlessly flow from our screens, and from the mouths of various voices considered leaders  in science or in political life. It is not only the apparently conflict between the scientists and the politicians over when, how quickly, whether, how to open the economy and the schools that we face. It is also an internal conflict over where to put our trust in this or that voice, whether the voice has academic credentials or political power.

Decades ago, when we spoke of literacy, we tended to mean one’s capacity to read words, including the capacity to draw inferences, to discern between denotative meanings and connotative meanings of words, to detect evidences, patterns, to listen to the verbal and the physical gestures of those characters in our novels, our plays, and in our biographies. Then we began to add “visual” literacy, the capacity to watch images appearing in real time (often recorded) on television screens. We read the thoughts of thinkers like Marshall McLuhan who discerned a difference between hot and cool media. “Hot media engages one’s senses completely and demands little interaction because it spoon-feeds the content. Radio and film were included in this category, while TV, phone conversations and comic books were considered ‘cool’ engaging several senses less completely and requiring considerable interaction and participation by the audience. From SocialMediaToday.com, we read, in a piece by Lief Larson, entitled ‘Hot’ and ‘Cool’ Social Media, April 7, 2012, these words:
Early this week my industry co9llegaue Scott Litman, CEO of media company Magnet 360, announced a directional change for his firm. Magnet360 will now focus on social business as a social enterprise agency. In the press release he said, ‘Our clients-executive leaders-are recognizing that social is the next big thing that will transform the way we do business and engage with customers and other audiences. Everyone’s trying to figure out how social media will impact businesses, so it’s great to see firms rising to the challenge of helping clients make sens of social. McLuhan recognized each medium as an extension of a particular human faculty with the ‘media of communication’ simply the amplification of a particular human sense. ‘The wheel is an extension of the foot. The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin, said McLuhan. So what exactly does that make social media?....(On how McLuhan’s hot/cool relates to social media) we agreed ..that social media has franchised the message.

Naturally, every enterprise, (for profit, for votes, not-for-profit and even religious) deploys both human and fiscal resources in a valiant effort to “gain” “connections” and thereby supporters and thereby some form of transaction. It might be an outright purchase, or a membership, or a subscription or an investment or a donation. And numbers dominate! Volume, frequency, intensity and cash-flow from these “connections” drive many of the ancillary decisions of each organization. Likes beget likes, and “dislikes” beget other dislikes, the intensity  and duration of which might even morph into a social media “event”. Instant crowds, go-fund-me pages and even social movements are being engendered, or perhaps more accurately ‘engineered’ by and with the new media.

Literacy, today, has to include how to use, and how to respond, and how to manipulate and how to ‘succeed’ in whatever project that captures a commitment, not to mention the etiquette and the judgement to express disinformation, defamation of others, and even words that incite violence and terror. Protecting security has naturally become one of the more prominent and lagging legislative interactions, given that public debate too often follows nefarious acts like hacking, and manipulating the accounts of both high-profile persons and highly secretive agencies like science laboratories intent on formulating a vaccine for COVID-19, for example.

Not to get lost in the swamp of technology, discerning the difference in relevance and significance of, for example, a personal and private opinion and an expert opinion, comes to mind from a chapter in parenting. Standing at the nursing station of the local hospital, just having visited a very ill three-year-old daughter, posting a temperature of 105F along with severe ear aches, I was asked by the attending nurse to sign a permission for the ENT (Ear, Nose, Throat) surgeon to perform a bilateral myringotomy AND a mastoid removal the next morning. This was my first introduction to the prospect of a mastoidectomy, a word that frankly frightened me, although I did not have a precise picture of what it meant in detail. Surprised, I at first resisted signing, only to be prompted by the nurse, “Would you like to speak to the doctor?” “Yes, I would,” I replied. He listened to my hypothetical, “Could we wait at least until her temp drops a few degrees before operating?” Without pausing for a breath, he replied, “There is something you are not aware of, and that is the danger of meningitis!” To which I responded, in shock and fear, “You’re right! I will sign to give permission!”

That three-year-old will be 50 next month and I will never forget that moment when a parent’s innocence/ignorance was legitimately ‘trumped’ by an expert’s intervention.
Later, however, in another conversation about the same daughter, between her mother and that same doctor, when the question of potential allergies was raised along with a request for a referral to an allergist, that same ENT surgeon blurted, “We treat ears here!”

Of course, we sought that referral from the family doctor, to Sick Kids, and learned that multiple allergies were indeed impacting that girl’s health. Specific and nuanced preparation of a serum for her condition by a highly trained and  professional allergist provided considerable relief for years.

Navigating between the expert opinions of only one medical doctor is just one of the many navigations needed as we all try to find a healthy, affordable, minimal-risk path with minimal “side-effects” in our health care plans. We are also engaged in a similar manner in our pursuit of appropriate investment plans, our academic journeys, our political choices, and certainly in our pursuit of a spiritual life. And, given our highly “activist” and “individualist” culture, in which responsibility rests almost exclusively on the shoulders of each person, for the choices s/he makes, we are living in a period of commercial, transactional, action-driven and purchase-rewarded encounters, whether we are planning a wedding, a family, a career, or a retreat. We have morphed from individual human beings, in the eyes of the culture, into a digit to be seduced, and converted to some choice. The North American economy, for example, is reported to be driven by consumer choices to the tune of some 75%.

And that means that, in the current pandemic we are facing innumerable business failures, personal financial failures, family break-downs, impacted educational opportunities for millions, not to mention the shared implications of food shortages, work shortages, and environmental impacts for some considerable time into the future. Naturally, governments charged with “protecting” people and businesses including schools and colleges, social service agencies and health care facilities and personnel are and will continue to struggle to find the appropriate formulae to address these multiple challenges. Individuals too will be searching for creative ways to contribute, to earn, to learn and to emerge from the fog of this pandemic into a new normal.

It is not incidental to note, at such a time when all the markings of the threats are detailed and broadcast hourly, to pause to reflect on one of the prevailing premises on which our culture operates. We pay very close attention to the observable actions of others, or governments and their leaders, of things we purchase, and of the technology by which we interact. So important is the physical and the observable and the measureable, and thereby the symptoms needing to be addressed, (through medical intervention, legal intervention, fiscal intervention, and even executive intervention) that generally we pay much less attention to the “omissions” we face every day, given that those omissions are less easily observed, documented, collated and curated than are the commissions, those overt acts or words, or bills, or whatever signs and symptoms we perceive through our senses.

The omissions, however, merit much more attention than we generally give them. For example, we a quick to notice and react to a parent who is physically and/or emotionally abusing a child. We also are quick to note and react to a partner who inflicts physical and/or emotional and/or sexual abuse on his (95% statistically female) partner. We are also quick to note a driver who is exceeding the speed limit. On the other hand, we fail to pay a similar degree of attention to a parent who says little, and who is virtually if not literally absent from the parenting scene. That silence, for example, could be having a significant impact (positively and/or negatively) on the child. Similarly, in an marriage/union, the acts of one partner cannot be detached from the omissions, regardless of whatever form they might take, of the other partner.

Let’s look at a couple of examples: a mother physically and emotionally abuses a child, while the father fails to intervene. Which parent is more culpable, the mother for the observable welts on the body of the child, or the father for his failure (refusal/fear) to intervene? A teacher administers punishment to a student, for an action that clearly does not merit that punishment while the principal remains  uninvolved in the punishment and its implications. Which is more culpable of professional misconduct, the teacher, or the principal? A company hires an individual to perform a “job” the description of which, while detailed and replete with sanctions if and when specific duties are not performed or standards met, without providing adequate training, orientation and support in the execution of that appointment. In the event that either an infraction or an omission occurs or even a general inability to fulfil the job description given the undue pressures of the situation, pressures that were never detailed in a reasonable and professional orientation and training period. Who is more worthy of censure, the employee or the company for failing to provide reasonable orientation?

Now let’s move to a more pressing and immediate situation. In the United States, the number of COVID-19 cases rises exponentially daily, as do the number of hospitalizations. While death statistics rise more slowly, there are still some 140,000 deaths already recorded and the number could reach 200,000 before fall this year. Failure to take appropriate actions, at a time when those actions would have clearly impacted the spread and the fatalities from the disease, on the part of the occupant of the Oval Office, has been spoken of as a serious political and ethical and moral failure. It is not, however, likely to be considered a form of criminal negligence.
Why?

The answer from the Albert Brick Professor in Law at George Washington University, a professor of criminal law, Paul Butler, is “because ‘causation’ would be difficult to prove.” And to us non-legal-buttheads, when we are already convinced that the president’s failure to act, not only in the original instance, but on a daily basis, contributes directly to the mounting death tally from COVID-19, this use of the word “causation” seems especially archaic, perhaps even other-worldly, and certainly out of touch with our practical version of and application of the concept of “cause”.

However, upon opening even the first few paragraphs of any introduction to “causation” as a legal concept, we are met with some interesting evidence. From the lawteacher.net, we find: Factual causation (in criminal law) requires proof that the defendant’s conduct was a necessary condition of the consequence, established by proving that the consequence would not have occurred but for the defendant’s conduct.
 And from Lawshelf.com these words:

The terms, mens rea, the intent of a person behind committing a crime and actus reus, the action a person takes to perform a crime, are apparently both required for a behaviour to be considered a criminal offense. The Model Penal Code proposes four different levels of mens rea: purpose (same as intent), knowledge, recklessness and negligence. …A person acts negligently if they should have been aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a certain consequence would result from their actions. Although the level of risk  is the same for both recklessness and negligence, the difference between the two is that with recklessness, the actor must be aware of the risk involved with his/her actions, whereas, for negligence, the actor is not aware of the risks but should have known what those risks were.

So, it is not only the cultural theme of concentrating on the “empirical” in our thought, conversation and interactions. The legal definitions, along with such other “designations” and “definitions” relevant to specific academic disciplines, also impact our lives, whether we are aware of them or not. Calculating the implications of meningitis as related to an ear infection was “outside my pay-grade; so too, apparently, is the potential for a criminal action for negligence on the part of the chief executive in not taking steps to forestall the tsunami of death and long-term health damage by this pandemic.

(With sincere thanks to Paul Butler, for his response to an email inquiry!)

Monday, July 13, 2020

Are Christians capable of loving their neighbour?


As the contemporary conversations focus on the day’s headlines, yesterday’s stock prices, and tomorrow’s weather, one of the notions missing from the conversation is how western culture considers time. Naturally, time, in the abstract is not merely measured in decades, probable life expectancy, or even by birth and death dates. One of the ways different cultures have conceived, perceived and taught about time is to consider it cyclical, rather than linear.

The Christian notion of linearity, beginning in the garden and poetically ending in the eternal city (see Northrup Frye’s The Great Code) as a typology for the pilgrimage of humans, while bearing some fruit, also contains significant detractions.

The fruitful portion of this ‘tree’ is that it offers a relatively easily apprehended notion of some beginning long ago, a specific calendar in which each of us breathes, and ultimately some form of eternity, about which we can and do know little. However, there are also some potentially burdensome aspects to this version of time, especially given how the Christian church has freighted the beginning and the end both with the spectre of judgement. Lifting the veil of judgement, whether from the concept of time or from the founding principles of the institutional church, seems an imponderable if impossible prospect.

A cyclical notion of time, highly attuned to the yin and yang, the former the passive negative force and the latter the positive force. Detectable in seasons, and linking all things to all other things, these two opposites complement each other, with neither being superior to the other. The yin/yang concept is of a duality forming a whole. Rather than starting with that pervasive “judgement” Taoism starts by teaching a truth. “The Tao” is indefinable and this makes learning about Taoism difficult to grasp. According to the personaltao.com website,

“Taoism should be understood as being; a system of belief, attitudes, and practices set towards the service and living to a person’s nature. The path of understanding Taoism is simply accepting oneself. This leads to inner peace. Live life and discover who you are. Your nature is ever changing and is always the same…Taoism teaches a person to flow with life. Taoism is following your breath to find peace. Taoism is opening up a smile to enable possibility… (Some guidelines (without being prescriptive on how to live) are included)
·        With care, I aid those who are extended expressions of my nature
·        Be true to me
·        Connect to the world as I want to be treated
·        Connect to those outside my nature with decisive action
·        To those unwilling to accept me for my true nature, no action is required: just silently let them be themselves as I remain myself
·        I own nothing; I am merely a passing custodian of items outside of my nature
Some other notes: Taoism has no plans. Taoism is based on following your gut feelings and trusting your instincts…It is the pause in a breath…that each step of living becomes visible for your larger life to improve and follow upon. Smile, when needing to pick a possible next step. To smile is to open possibilities. Breathe when needing a break. Since to breath is to be at one with yourself. Alternate between the two, and your path will become free and clear for an entire lifetime of wonder to explore.”

From the website wrex2009.wordpress.com, we read these words:

Time (in Taoism) consists simply of events of Nature that originate from the eternal Tao, a nothingness that is fullness because it is unlimited, unbounded, unnamed. Time is the movement of Tao in nature, following the law of acting by not acting, and the law of reversion, where opposites complement and complete each other in one whole and where the end is also the beginning…
(From the bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/Taoism/ataglance/glance.shtml) Tao ‘is the ultimate creative principle of the universe,’ however, the Tao is not God and is not worshipped.

From the Alan Watts work, The Myths of Polarity, The Two Hands of God, we read:
(But) the Indian view of time is cyclical. If birth implies death, death implies rebirth, and likewise the destruction of the world implies its recreation. The Western images are thus essentially tragic. Nature is a fall and its goal is death. There is no necessity for anything to happen beyond the end; only divine grace, operating outside the sphere of necessity, can redeem and restore the world. But the Indian imagery makes the world-drama a comedy—a sport of lila—in which all endings are the implicit promise of beginnings. Yet comedy must always depend on surprise. The burst of laughter is our expression of relief upon discovering that some threatened doom was an illusion—that ‘death was but the good King’s jest.’ ( Watts, op. cit. p. 78-9

Events, comedy, two opposing yet balancing forces, cyclical time….these notions are foreign to the ‘christian’ mind-set. For many Christians, life is a battle, both internal and personal, as well as for the heart and mind of the rest of the people of the world, between God’s will and man’s will. And only through the abandonment of one’s will (and in that notion include one’s hubris, arrogance, pride, and self-righteousness) and the submission to the will of God does one become elegible for eternal salvation, and that by and through the grace of God, not by the “purity” of the individual.

Comparing the ‘eastern’ (Chinese and Indian) notions of time, events, decisions and choices to the Christian ‘universe’ seems to disclose not only significant differences, but also portends to an potentially irreconcilable conflict, depending on the capacity of both education and political systems to navigate, among and between the east and the west.

The question of what is becoming increasingly evident, the spectre of absolutism with regards to language, perception and attitudes, at the one-on-one face-to-face level, as well as on the stage of public debate, looms over each issue, as what can only be seen and interpreted as a defensive (exaggerated and even neurotic) posture of far too many. Moderation, self-acceptance, tolerance of the “grey” and of course, the potential for compromise seem to have “left the building” (echoing the old Elvis aphorism!).
Pitting good versus evil, in the micro-interpretation of each and every tweet, headline, rebuttal, op-ed, depending on the authenticity of the ‘source’ is a sure path to what is essentially a dialogue of the deaf. Shouting “foul” along with epithets like ‘nazi,’ ‘fascist,’ ‘antifah,’ essentially piles onto the dungheap of dumbness.

Zombies we are not! And we must not allow ourselves to slide into the Zombie effigy!
A recent piece extolling the shift from consideration as God’s “chosen” on the ReformJudaism.org website, caught my eye, and provoked a significant pause to reflect. Witnessing Jews’ reconsidering their historic appropriation of the “chosen of God’ as the world’s best and only religion, and their move to a much more appropriate one among many kind of equality, one can only wonder and ask, Are Christians also capable of a similar shift in both thought and belief?

In six decades inside the Christian community, I witnessed and experienced some of the most profound and inexcusable treatment of individuals by people deeply entrenched in a belief that they had been chosen by God, through their own conversion, and were not merely extolling the virtues and blessings of their relationship to God, but were energetically engaged in the prosletyzing of that form of faith among those they considered heathens. Too many times I found myself in their cross-hairs! Too many times, when I merely asked questions, I was found to be heretical by those so nervous in their faith that they resorted to the same kind of “cancelling” that is parading itself across the north American continent.

From a kindergartener’s perspective on Taoism and Hinduism, it appears that Christians have much to learn about other ways of seeing the world, and the place of humans in it. So much so, in fact, that the hands and the feet and the head and the pen and ink of the Christian church are covered in the blood of institutions like slavery, homophobia, racism, and the most heinous, and yet the most difficult to prosecute, the perspective of ultimate “superiority”…

I heard Attorney General Barr use the word “righteous” in describing the prosecution of Roger Stone, (in opposition to the view of his boss) and was repulsed at his use of the word “righteous”. Having lied in his Senate confirmation, having distorted the Mueller report, having served as the personal attorney of the occupant of the Oval Office, and recording his faith perspective as a Roman Catholic, there is a degree of both hypocrisy and infamy that accompanies every utterance from the throne in the Department of Justice. How “righteous,” for example, is the path chosen by the Attorney General, as his boss continues to dismantle the institutional state?

We all feel constrained by the ever-present virus and the implications that we are all susceptible to its terror. We also feel empathic for those who have already fallen victim to its invasion. And we feel angry and powerless knowing that human consciousness is capable of both apprehending and applying more than a single lens when approaching the public interest. If that is no longer true, what has happened to the applicable definition of democracy, the notion that all people, from all perspectives, faiths, notions of time and purpose, as well as place in the universe have a relevant and needed voice in the determination of our shared path.

Exclusion, cancelling, and shouting down all opposition, is a sure sign that no authentic faith has taken hold among those obsessively engaged in the exclusion, cancelling, shouting and defaming the other.

Even the basic notion of treating the other as one would wish to be treated, so simple and so universally relevant to all forms of faith community, has been lost or forgotten in the fog of a war of personalities, ego’s, and the clashing cymbals of impetuous pre-teen school-yard fights. We are, many of us not by choice, are being served a menu of political dialogue that would not pass even as “fast-food” from a political nutrition point of view.

Staying home, in order to avoid contamination, however, will only give more space, and more microphones to those whose righteousness has already proven itself to be tragic, verging on disaster.