Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Being 18 and a freshman in university....then (1960) and now (2018)

It is virtually impossible to imagine what it must be like to be eighteen today, for this septaguinarian. And yet, the stretch it takes is more than worth the time and effort. The differences between arriving at this age in 1960 and in 2018 are, at the same time, momentous and miniscule.

The obvious momentous differences focus on technology, the world wide web, the instant real time 24-7-365 news coverage from every corner of the globe. In 1960, we wrote letters home from college, or phoned occasionally but not too often, just to avoid the long-distance charges. We went to listen to Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker debate the relevance and danger of harbouring U.S. missiles on Canadian soil, while the American hands were on the trigger. The missiles, it was alleged, were to protect Canada from invasion through the Arctic by the dreaded Soviet Union. We had just acquired our first “credit card” booklet, a series of coupons we submitted to the British-American oil company if and when we bought gas for our vehicles.
We watched John F. Kennedy debate Richard Nixon, in the first televised political debate in history and could not help comment on the “dark shadows” crawling across Nixon’s face, with his “afternoon shadow” and his obvious need for a shave. Kennedy, on the other hand, looked actually  youthful, in his early forties, well quaffed and Churchillian in his delivery and McLuhanesque in his charismatic “cool”.

We visited our first radio station, after midnight, courtesy of the all-night host on CKSL Radio 1290 in London ( I think it was, and the disc-jockey’s on-air name was Stephens). The trip was organized by a freshman from Windsor named Bogle who, himself was a radio-fanatic, and his enthusiasm was catching. The “morning man” was a fellow named Bill Brady, whose friendly, cheerful chatter wakened us each morning before class at Western. (Incidentally, Brady later moved to a major station in Toronto, as his career found an even wider audience.) We took buses, dozens of them, to the frosh dance party at Port Stanley where Johnny Downs’ orchestra provided the dance music. We had “left home” from “small town Ontario” (dozens of those towns) to step into another world of a “city” and something called a university.

Most of us were the first in our family to enrol in “higher learning” and while we were proud and honoured to be there, we were also more than a little over-awed at the sheer dimension of the numbers, the alacrity of the movement of people, ideas, musical trends, fashion trends like dessert boots, cords, paisley shirts and crew cuts. I recall thinking I had found a real bargain when, in Simpson’s at the corner of Dundas and Richmond, I found a burgundy corduroy jacket for $11. Of course, the new “college jacket” in royal purple and white, with “WESTERN’ emblazoned on the back, and “63” on the arm held the top rung in the wardrobe, at least for this very green freshman.

It all sounds corny and folksy and quaint and quite embarrassing now; yet at the time, it seemed very important and exhilarating. We had never heard of karaoke, cell phones, laptops, facebook, twitter, Utube, or any of the dozens, or hundreds of platforms that populate the software’s access to the internet. Nothing, literally nothing, was “wireless”….even our phones were still connected to the wall, and we certainly did not have one in our cars.

Our movies and pop tunes were clustered in tightly conforming categories like westerns, romances, thrillers and the occasional horror. Songs were mostly by single artists, with Elvis and Pat Boone, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, The Everley Brothers, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney. And the lyrics were primarily simple love ditties, held together by an easily remembered melody, and a simple rhythm. A few larger orchestras like Les and Larry Elgart, Les Brown, Glen Miller, Billy Vaughan, and Ray Conniff were touring and entertaining a select campus formal dances. The Brothers Fours, the Lettermen, The Kingston Trio were giving voice to the folk tunes like Greensleeves, and their songs were recorded on the “new” 33rpm albums. Singles were still recorded on 78’s and a few made it onto what were dubbed “45’s. All of these were “plastic” and were easily scratched or broken.

North America had emerged from the darkness of the Second War, and had moved through what was primarily an decade of economic prosperity, simple expectations and dreams, quiet confidence and what felt like a secure hope, potentially threatened by events like the the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs debacle and Nikita Khrushchev’s banging his shoe on the podium at the U.N. the Korean War was a distant memory if at all, for Canadian college kids and there was no imminent military conflict on the horizon. Civil rights, Martin Luther King and Jimmy Hoffa of Teamsters fame were dominant in the “appointment” nightly newscast from the three American networks, and from the CBC with historic names like Larry Henderson, Earl Cameron.

It was a much “smaller” world in the sense that there were far fewer external stimuli and few less information pouring out of a plethora of “sources” that remained in the TV room, not in our hands or ear-buds.

This year, in less than a month, “freshmen” will pour into university cities and towns across Ontario, and the world. Eager to learn, much less “wet behind the ears” in terms of their consciousness of the chaos in the world, clutching their cell phones, backpacking their tablets and laptops, they will hang posters of their “favourite” icon on their dorm room walls, try to find faces and eyes to welcome and be welcomed by.
 They will scan campus maps for the names of buildings they have never heard of, looking for classrooms and labs they will frequent over the next four years. Women will have their eyes peeled for the latest “hunk” a new class of male undergrads some of whose names and characters will become familiar, many of whom will remain anonymous, as will these women. The men will gravitate to some watering hole new and unfamiliar to them, with brands both familiar and foreign.

The more assertive will exhibit exuberance for every single “frosh” activity, while the shy ones will slink into the back of most group settings hoping whatever they are asked to do will be comfortable, not too embarrassing and potentially enabling the development of new friendships.

And then there will be that first day in class, where names from around the world (very different from 1960) and faces from many cultures and ethnicities, and technologies of various brand names and colours will greet them. Their professors will be more casually attired than were our’s, and the details of their unique scholarship will be so diverse, based on research from so many more easily accessible sources, comparisons and foundational premises.

Student clubs, hobbies, sports and other activities will have an opportunity to ‘sign up’ new recruits, for radio stations, political clubs, chess, and debating societies, hiking and personal training groups (never even though of in 1960). And the subject of “food” and where to get it, how much it will cost, whether or not a meal-plan makes sense (not even on the horizon in 1960) and where the best fast food outlets are located in relation to campus.

There will be orientation sessions for lab students, for library and internet access, for security protocols (not even contemplated in 1960) and dorm expectations.
 And while all of this hubbub is going on, the search for time and place for sleep, for relaxation and ‘down time’ will impact some more than others. Text messages will be sent back home (never even dreamt possible in 1960) and with previous classmates (now at other universities and colleges) as well as new names and contacts for each private list will be added. Bank accounts, now portable and accessible from ATM’s (another new wrinkle) will be checked, and new pin numbers acquired and entered into both memories (personal and digital).

And all the while parents back home, now many of whom will already have had their own “freshman” year, and long since graduated, will be reflecting back on their own experiences, drawing on them if and when asked by their freshly scrubbed and launched kids, who only recently graduated from their local high school.

No bifocal look at being eighteen and entering first year of university (1960 and 2018) would be remotely adequate without reference to the upcoming legalization of marijuana in October this fall. In 1960, it was only upon a rare occasion that we might witness an inebriated freshman, sometimes at the occasional football game and infrequently, late at night, after a night of pub-crawling, when someone would stagger up the stairs into the exclusively men’s residence. Being away from home is always an invitation to step out from behind (under) parental supervision and close scrutiny. That was true in 1960, as it will be next month.

However, we were never accosted by drug dealers trying to hook us into trying non-prescription drugs. And we certainly were not exposed to an invitation, whether in person or from some advertising, to experiment with “pot” whether in liquid, candy or joint format. Not only are today’s frosh living in a world fraught with geo-political tensions, trade tariffs, nuclear proliferation, global warming and climate change, for which little if anything is being done to counter-act these threats, they are also living in a culture in which character assassination can be routine, with impunity, on social media, photos posted without consent, and the pressure to conform, and to fit in is inordinate.

It is not surprising to hear of, or even to know, a seventeen-or-something adolescent who sees the whole panorama as existentially flawed, purposeless, and thereby hopeless. Research from many U.S. campuses demonstrates that undergrads are experiencing depression and mental anxiety at an alarming rate. And although the situation in Canada is not as extreme, (so far as we know) frosh here will be asking many of the same questions, faced as they are by a cultural template that stresses, if not idolizes “transactional” relationships…..”what have you done for me lately?” Our class in 1960 were almost silent about the political issues of the day; today we all hope that, in addition to the high school students from Florida who have made gun control legislation their shared mission (after the mass shooting of their classmate), groups of university students from the developed world will summon the courage, the energy and the determination to speak out, in any of the many “forums” available to them. We need your strident and optimistic voices to penetrate the corridors of political power to save the planet, and the people….quite literally, from ourselves and our insouciance.

Wishing you a very happy 18th, and an exciting and challenging first year, Jane!

Monday, August 13, 2018

No, mr trump....we do not want space turned into another battlefield by your whim!!

Let Mike Do It!

Send Vice-president Mike Pence out to the microphone to tell the world that you intend to “birth” a new arm to the already bloated Pentagon, The Space Force, to be operational by 2020, presumably just in time for your re-election in January 2021.

As if you haven’t already done enough damage to planet earth, with your rescinding of Obama’s environmental protections, your lifting of the gas-guzzling limits on autos, “so drivers will buy more oil,” your arming any country in the market for American-made military materiel, and your total disregard for anything that looks like an institution dedicated to world peace, economic stability and collaborating on world problems.

And now you intend to declare space another potential battlefield where you and your perverted country (perverted by your leadership) can wage war on whomever has the inclination to take on America. Apparently, there are a few high ranking military leader in that very Pentagon willing to bring truth to power and resist your proposal. There are likely more than a few, and hopefully there will be more, members of Congress willing to refuse to pass the necessary legislation providing funding for such a proposal.

Let’s waste a few more words here, by proposing a different path on this issue: the future of Space.

Currently, there are devices from a number of different countries floating, flying spinning, and even treading atmosphere up there. Their respective “lives” vary, and their potential date for falling back to earth ranges into the foreseeable and perhaps non-foreseeable future. So, with those nations, and the several privately funded entrepreneurs who have already successfully fired rockets and supply ships to the space station, where research is currently being conducted by an international crew, why not pursue the obvious opportunity. Granted, such an opportunity is completely outside both your comfort zone and your intellectual capacity, but why not seek consensus among all the nations of the world to preserve space as a shared, non-violent, non-competitive and unarmed region for as long as the human imagination and the legal accords will embrace.

Peace, even if it were barely visible, except through special lenses, dramatically deploying the latest technology, would be an inspiration to all future leaders that, this generation of leaders could claim for their legacy. If we could postulate a peace accord for space, then, just possibly we might stretch our minds and hearts into such a proposal for this planet.

The heart of this argument is the centrality of the premise: that all “territory” must be a battlefield for which arms and the military establishment are the only or primary deterrence. Not only is this premise unbalanced, it is also unsupported by the evidence of history. While it is true that wars and civil conflicts have been a significant component of human history, it is also true that many counter proposals and steps have been theorized, researched, documented and implemented. It is also true that the United States has, if not the most conflict-centric history, certainly one of the histories more dependent on military conflict. The country was conceived in war, delivered in war, raised on war and has now come to the unenviable place where it has to face the reality that war is not a solution, given the experiences in Korea, Viet Nam and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The cultural and mind-set that military answers are optimal, or even predictable, has been exposed in the latest evidence around the cyber hacking of election systems in some 20 states during the 2016 federal elections in the U.S. Certainly, the United States has “enemies” in other nations attempting to undercut their superiority, their dominance of world diplomacy, their dominance of world trade parameters, issues and disputes, and their unilateral “me first” attitude under the current administration.

Exacerbating the risk, as trump is doing and will continue to do, may feed his argument about militarizing space; it does not, however, justify the proposition.
If one grows up with the notion that the whole world is “enemy” then one is imbued with a notion that is unsustainable, untethered to reality, and also disengaged from all other world view premises. Nature, for example, while engaging in conflict in order to survive, is highly sophisticated in its deployment of force. The falcon’s snatching of smaller animals or other birds, for example, is tethered to the notion of basic survival. And while we have to be conscious of protecting ourselves, and keeping a vigilant eye out for danger, our identity is much more complex and nuanced than one based primarily or exclusively on the notion of personal, economic, psychological, political and/or military defence.

Such a premise would, for example, militate against budgets for education, health care, social assistance, libraries, schools, colleges and services like transportation, communication and marketplace structures and systems. All of these “systems” have built into their design some from of mutuality, some formal and informal expression of their social value, their moral value, their economic value, and their sustainability, given the basic needs of the society. In fact, one of the central tensions in any democracy is how the various “goods” will be balanced without tilting too far in any one direction. Already increasing the military budget by from some $72 billion, when former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, argued for reductions in the Pentagon budget, is nothing short of morally, politically, ethically corrupt.

Ironically, this Space Force proposal comes at the moment in which the trump administration, with the support of the Republican Congress, has turned down a modest expenditure to “protect” the security, reliability and trustworthiness of the upcoming November election against cyber attacks already proven to be happening. This paradox is not merely laughable; it is also indefensible and demonstrates such extreme imbalance in the “thinking” of the White House that it merits investigation for incompetence, if not for failure to perform the duties to which the president was elected.

Sometimes, it is more appropriate to examine critically those things NOT DONE, as opposed to those things that ARE done. Failures of omission, while not nearly as visible, but certainly often more penetrating and hurtful, do not attract the same kind of critical intelligence. Ask the people of Puerto Rico! Their plight before and certainly after the latest hurricane was, is and will continue to be deplorable. Last week, the island government reported that the death toll from the hurricane is well over 1000, while official federal government reports have the total under 100. Do we think there might be some agencies and some personnel covering their backsides?

And then there is the failure to re-connect over 500 children with the parents, at the southern border, after the government separated them, “to deliver a message not to come to the U.S. Once again, prevention of the migrant tide would necessarily have to begin with foreign aid, social assistance, and intelligence in the elimination of violent gangs in Central America. Another failure by omission.

One of the first lessons an artist learns is that “light” on the canvas requires “negative” or dark areas in order to be a complete work. Similarly, in poetry and drama, in music and dance, focussing on the light, while essential for young people’s literature and theatre, leaves the canvas without a coherence. Artists deploy positive and negative space, in their work, as a way of creating the necessary tension that engages the characters who read/view/study and the characters within. Unfortunately, trump's universe has only his massive self, everything that cheer leads him in the shining light, and everything that opposes, quite literally trashed. And both the predictability and the downward spiral of this dynamic is dangerous for his administration and his country.

This president wants to build walls, built nuclear arsenals, block trade with tariffs, and then he complains when he sees NATO member “failing” to pay their fair share. When is he going to acknowledge the multiple, serious, and even potentially lethal failures of omission his administration is inflicting on the American nation, its democracy, its social institutions and its system of justice?

So long as he can, like some awkward illusionist, keep throwing “mirages” of his own imagination to feed his hollow and insatiable ego, perhaps he believes that his trickery will continue to deceive his base, long enough for him to be re-elected.

His Space Force, like other fantasies, is another force-feeding for his starved core, another display of bravado, exaggerated promises for the purpose of generating more fog, in the personal war he is “using” the office to wage for his own personal needs.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Are "we" enabling these unworthy leaders to prey upon us?

Did this “hard-ass” period of cultural history creep up on us, or did we naively pave the way for its slippery arrival? And while there is no absolute or indisputable answer, pondering the question may have some value. It may actually provide some clues about things we don’t spend a significant amount of time cogitating.

Example: our “silver bullet” approach to every ache and pain, to every social and political confrontation renders each of us both an implicit and an explicit target, as well as a “ready-fire-aim-think” shooter. We have weaponized our irritations, our insults, our affronts and our indecencies, and even our dis-courtesies. Being “pissed off” is no longer an exception to our day; it has become a “normal” occurrence because we have allowed it to become normalized. And in the process, we have assumed the mantel of the critical parent, in situations over which we have no parental interest, never mind duty or responsibility.

In terms of our looking after our health, we have devised, distributed, marketed and sold, and of course, bought a “thing” for whatever happens to be ailing us. Different kinds of headache, different kinds of skin rashes, different kinds of abdominal discomfort, different kind of foot pain and a variety of eye fatigues depending on the time spent peering into the new tech devices. In the latest DSM, we have morphed grief and loss into a psychiatric illness and while listing the symptoms we have also listed approaches to “treatment”.

Linked to the silver bullet, especially metaphorically, is our “nano-second” time frame for our concentration, for our need for a “high,” for need for a “thrill,” for a special effect and thereby generated a series of new “industries” like extreme sports, extreme movie adventures and thrillers, extreme “super-heroes,” and “stars” of all kinds who can populate our personal world creating the illusion that we are part of their lives, at least digitally.

Linked to this “nano-second” universe, we have ditched any hint of time for reflection, as if that were so boring that it belongs only to a generation long since buried. And we have replaced that “reflection” with action: e.g. how many times are we asked, during an appointment or a conversation in a business, “What plans do you have for the weekend?” This conversation was once considered a reasonable inquiry to and from friends, neighbours and even co-workers. Now, it has become part of the “paint-by-number” approach to customer/client relations, as if we might expect the person asking to give a rat’s ass what we had planned for the weekend. If we are not “doing” something, we are instantly bored, and likely verging on some mild form of anxiety, depression or worse.

Our chores are micro-managed into numbers of minutes, kilometers, kilograms, while our weather reports are now graphically displayed on our personal “radar” the laptop or tablet. Our nerves send us to our cell phones, (according to recent research in the UK) every twelve minutes, and the same report reveals a weekly time total on digital media of twelve hours. We also have a “prescription” from our employers about how to do every task in our job description, the primary purpose of such “oversight” being to minimize the insurance and legal bills to the accounting departments. Lists have become the “vernacular” of commerce, because if we do not “have” and adhere to a list, we are not being productive, or worse, we are not “easily” managed and supervised.

We have removed the expression of affect from the “professional” workplace, presumably on the assumption that emotion distracts from our capacity to work, to think clearly, to avoid entanglements and to prevent unwanted personnel problems like human relationships in the workplace. Another sanitary aspect of this approach is that it vacuums out any hint of anger, frustration, disagreement and disillusion, thereby assuring management that superficiality, efficiency and productivity reign supreme. And after all, what is business about if not time and money, and the obsessive pursuit of saving in both categories.

Along with his sanitization, and sacralising of efficiency, objectivity, productivity and “calm” goes the reduction or even elimination of the need for middle managers to have to deal with complex and ambiguous and multi-layered situations. That premise also reduces and even eliminates the need to train those managers (used to be leaders) in the complexity of human relations, thereby rendering the whole process one of mere numbers, without faces, personalities or characters.

Five and six second loops garner millions of views on U-tube; animals have become spokes-“persons” (referring agents) for products or services, generating a lucrative business for operators dependent on maximizing those u-tube “views” and “likes”. Stars are also born of a U-tube upload of a single piece of music, or a single video of some unique and captivating mini-loop. And even a single tweet now has the impact of generating a volcanic diplomatic upheaval, witness the Saudi-Canadian uproar over “the immediate release” phrase interfering in the internal affairs of the Saudi’s.

The short-term, instant gratification mind-set also has serious implications for the planet. If each of us grabs whatever we can, moment by moment, without a thought or care about the long-term impact of our individual actions, how can we expect the profit-driven behemoth corporations to give a “fig” about how they are poisoning the atmosphere, the land and the oceans and lakes? After all, they are merely operating in the same manner, with the same modus operandi, as individuals fixated on self-interest.

And when these micro-managing, nano-second-parametered, narcissism-generated actions are aggregated, we have what we have, a angry, immature, self-gratifying, tyrannical monster “leading” the way in endorsing, nurturing, modelling and signalling his approbation of this manner of being….applied to what used to be the most admired nation on the planet.

Hammering away at how we got here does little, if anything, to map a path out of the swamp of our own making. It does, however, paint a picture of some of the most obvious, most simple and most clear evidence of a culture that has replaced “the social good” for “what I want now”!

A recent conversation about a grievance expressed by the forty-fifty generation about the public pension of a retired teacher demonstrates some of my meaning. Time was when those planning public schools, hospitals, libraries, and civil service bureaucracies deemed it both reasonable and foresighted to build into the benefit package a reasonable pension plan, to which both employer and employee would contribute. Even large companies adopted the strategy, as a way of expressing confidence in, appreciation for, and honour in their workers. It was, agreed, at a time after the Second War, when productivity was trending upwards, disposable income was rising, the housing market was growing and hope and optimism were in the air.

And out of the perspective of that optimism and hope came a number of long-range, lift-all-boats, “brother’s-keeper” notions that said unequivocally that “we are all in this together”….Social cohesion, stability, trust and mutual interdependence were hallmarks of the period of history in which many of us grew up. Sharing, collaboration, mutual support and balancing disparate needs were some of the light-houses guiding the ship of state through the night and the inevitable storms.

Contrary to many, that was not a “nanny state” but rather a considerate, compassionate and caring state, whose leaders accepted a fair share of social responsibility, for their workers, and for the culture generally. And when things changed, and economic forecasts became less predictable and less secure, then those with power and money jumped on the bandwagon to argue that such “largesse” was no longer “affordable”. 

Labour unions, which had waged long battles for fair wages, safe workplaces, week-end breaks from the job, health benefits and company pensions, all of them reasonable, affordable and within the range of “feasible” and moderate, began to be gutted by new regulations and rules.. that have so withered the vine of labour membership, even the word “union” is now a blasphemy to most.

A return to such times is neither likely nor necessary. However, the current income disparity, levels of poverty, economic divide that taken together confront towns and cities, provinces and states, nations and even the world community is neither sustainable nor desireable. Roads destroy private vehicles, as well as those purchased by public dollars; patients rest in corridors in urban and rural hospitals; nursing staffs are depleted, as are long-term care facility’s staffs, schools are in disrepair, public confidence in both private corporations and in public institutions has flat-lined and the income gap between rich and poor (whose numbers grow exponentially everywhere) widens by the hour, right before our eyes.

Have we gone blind to our own reality?

Or, are we so conscious of how desperate our situation is that we have lost hope in our ability and power to make the changes needed?

“A buck-a-beer” may be a good slogan for a cynical politician like Doug Ford, newly elected premier of Ontario, along with a 10-cent lowering in the price of a litre of gas. Neither qualify as steps in the direction of long-term, sustainable and responsible governance. In fact, both are analogous to the “bread and circuses” offered by the Roman Senate to the masses, after they had surrendered to the lowest common denominator of the society: entertainment at the cheapest cost possible. The only purpose served by such simplistic political “tricks” is to seduce the voting public into supporting this government, because he knows us and cares for us…right now!!!
And right now all we are interested in because who knows what the future holds!

Enabling simple-minded, goal-focused and egocentric politicians to develop policy around such simple “objectives” in a short-sighted manner makes us all responsible for what kind of menu we are offered. We have already established cash as the prime requisite for political campaigns, and as policy emerges from the vortex of the forces of reductionism, we are all victim to that vortex, in which creation we have all participated.

This is not an argument against social programs, real social programs, that will help those in need, like affordable rental housing, pharmacare, dentacare, and pre-natal orientation. Cheaper gas and cheaper beer really do not qualify as legitimate social programs, especially as reasonable people seek to save the planet.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Arne Duncan: bringing truth about U.S. education out of the closet

The former Secretary of Education in the Obama administration, Arne Duncan has written a new book in which he exposes three basic “lies” (that’s his word) that confound the American education system.

Lie number 1: Americans care about education.
Lie number 2: Americans care about teachers.
Lie number 3: Americans care about children.

Having lived in that country for some four years in the late 90’s, I could not agree more with the former secretary.  Buying things for kids as is the American penchant or perhaps addiction, is not a sign of caring, but rather a sign of guilt for not really knowing or caring about their children. In this male-dominated culture, kids like wives are more like trophies on the mantel of the male husband-father in the household. If and when the kid scores a touchdown, wins a medal at State wrestling championships, or receives a scholarship from a “reputable” university, then fathers will broadcast their pride in their offspring to the “world” of their associates.

The basic structure of governance that leaves education to the states as a purview, of course, makes national standards, including curricula, teacher certification and supervision, and the physical condition of the plants themselves, extremely uneven, unbalanced, and spotty. Who puts his or her name forward for election to the boards of education is relatively unimportant compared with “county commissioner” or judge, (elected in each county, not appointed as in Canada). The budgets of school boards, therefore, get barely a glance from the state legislatures, unless and until the buildings’ roof leaks, or someone falls on a broken concrete step. Insurance claims prove instrumental in shining the public spotlight on deteriorating schools, and even then, there is no public outcry worthy of the deplorable situation.

Teachers salaries, along with the meagre degree of respect and status they occupy in the community, are deplorable, and show little sign of changing so long as the public continues to wage heated battles over wedge issues like a woman’s right to choose whether or not to abort with her doctor, or whether gun control legislation is warranted. 
Buried in the political flatulence of such hot-button issues, fueled by religious and public organizations like the NRA  respectively, the local issues of schools barely finds space in local dailies, or on television screens, unless and until a mass shooting kills dozens of the “innocent” children and their teachers. (Can you believe there have been 154 school mass shootings in the United States in the last year?)

And of course, the president’s preference to “arm” the teachers epitomizes, at the highest level, a vacuity of insight, knowledge, concern and compassion for the safety and security of school personnel and their students. By himself, the president demonstrates Duncan’s case that the nation cares not a whit about their kids or their schools.

When Duncan was asked on MSNBC on Monday, if, during his tenure as Secretary, he found examples of schools that were different from the norm, and he slid past the question with “there are a few exceptions”.

Duncan’s book hits bookstores at a time when the current Secretary Betsy Devos, almost single-handedly is gutting the public school system by throwing billions of public dollars into charter schools. Parents, too, are opting for a home-schooling model that will further desecrate the potentially vibrant school population of a complete range of academic abilities, interests and aspirations. The very fact that Devos has been charged with such a mandate also proves conclusively the administration’s short-sighted, and potentially devastating approach to putting the public school system into mothballs. And the fact that there is little if any public concern about this secretive and dangerous policy and approach is further proof that trump’s antics provide a fog of cover to such creeping erosion, and that the public is otherwise engaged or, more specifically disengaged from the school process in their respective child’s life.

Ghettoizing schools, is a requisite first step in their ultimate demise. It has a racist dimension, and class dimension and is based on a fundamentally flawed philosophy of the role of the state in the growth and nurture of the body politic’s culture. (Culture here includes all of the many features that comprise a society’s health and well-being, not merely “haute couture” of classical music, dance, art and the like.)

Duncan was the longest serving Secretary of Education in the nation’s history. Could it be possible that he could be the second last Secretary. If Devos succeeds in her scorched earth approach to public schools, there will be no need even for a federal department of Education, something that right-wing demagogues have been advocating for some years now.

And if we think the American culture is slipping into the trash-heap of history, the final nail in the coffin of the public school system will seal the fate of all that is honourable, worthy of emulation and worthy of sustaining the democracy that birthed America over two hundred years ago.

Would 16,000 Saudi grads from Canadian universities not signal greater change at home than this tweet?

If I were a registrar at a Canadian university this morning, I would be calculating the drop in revenues (some $15 billion in total to all) to my institution from the Saudi Arabian decision to withdraw all 16,000 Saudi students currently enrolled in Canadian universities and enrol them in either British or American schools. These students are enrolled with the support of Saudi scholarships and those dollars will no longer be flowing into the Canadian university coffers.

International students pay a significantly higher tuition (4 times higher) than do Canadian students. And after I had made those preliminary calculations, I would be wondering how to approach the Foreign Affairs department in Ottawa, to ascertain their “read” on the likely outcome of this spat.

It seems that a tweet, (who knew that tweets were now the currency of diplomacy?) asking for the “immediate release” of human rights activists by the Saudi’s so offended the Saudi government (Canada is interfering in the internal affairs of our country) that they have withdrawn their ambassador from Ottawa and frozen all trade and commercial transactions with the Canadian government. Whether or not the sale/purchase of those light armored vehicles from Canada to the Saudi’s will be consummated is an open question this morning.

According to the National Post, the young Saudi prince “has already started a war with Yemen, isolated Qatar, and picked fights with Sweden and Germany when those countries questioned his country’s commitment to human rights.” The point being that the Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland might have known that a spat like this one was imminent if Canada “intervened” in the Saudi reputation on human rights.

Already announced by the Saudi’s is the sale of a portion of the massive oil company owned by that state, dangling business opportunities for countries like Canada in the sale of fossil fuel equipment and expertise, all of which could now be in jeopardy. Given the already instability injected into the world trade picture by the American president, Canada once saw the opportunity to diversify our trade, in part, by increased trade with Saudi Arabia. That prospect today seems a little doubtful, if not off the table.

The complex interwoven relationship, heretofore, between trade and human rights, has often resulted in countries like Canada that pride themselves in our human rights record (excepting the nation’s history with indigenous peoples) holding back on public criticism of the human rights record of their trading partners, for example, like China. Is that previous stance now outdated by the recent surge of “retaliatory” moves like this current one from the Saudi’s? Is the former “world order” on trade now being undercut by repressive regimes’ feeling emboldened to strike back if and when challenged? Could this new abrasive approach, (even confrontational) be partially a consequence of the arrival on the world stage of the U.S. president, apparently a sycophantic friend of the Saudi’s, who recently sold a considerable supply of military equipment to them over the next decade? Was that sale, for example, another of trump’s multilayered chicanery tactics to stick his thumb in the eye of Iran, the opponent of Saudi Arabia specifically in Yemen? Is it too much of a stretch to wonder out loud if the Saudi’s are not playing into (if not actually playing the hand of) trump’s deviousness? Could NAFTA negotiations be one of the ‘hidden’ impacts of this Saudi move, even though no one, including the officials in Foreign Affairs, will likely be able to prove any connection?

And will the universities in Canada, in whose financial liquidity the federal government has a direct role, petition Ottawa to replace the funds removed by this extraction of Saudi students currently enrolled in Canadian universities?

The Saudi’s are complaining that they are making progress towards women’s equality, with their “right to drive” shift in the last few weeks. They resent any public scorn of their right as a nation to make the kind of changes at the pace of their own choosing and clearly women’s rights rank much higher in North America than they do in the Middle East, at least in some countries.

Is Freeland on solid ground in her vigorous advocacy of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia? Perhaps, yet I wonder if she might have had leverage to curtail or actually to cancel that sale of light armoured vehicles to the Saudi’s, if she wanted to make a statement about how this government is going to behave on the world stage. That might not have had the direct “in-your-face” quality of the latest tweet, but would have staked out a Canadian position that we are not in the business of supporting increased military war in the Middle East, even through the sale and eventual deployment of our vehicles. And that, in itself, would have indirectly made a statement that she and all of Canada knows would be welcomed by the majority of Canadian women, and women around the world.

Diplomacy, if and when it becomes little more than a few angry tweets, devolves into the kind of world trump seems more than capable and desirous of generating, Tweeting, therefore, is a means of communicating that our nation ought to be avoiding at all cost. To enter that fray is to prop up the trump model of engagement on the world stage.

Can Canadians hope that whoever “penned” that tweet is disciplined inside the Foreign Affairs department? Doubtful. Can Canadians expect that Freeland, who has served in an exemplary manner as our representative on the world stage since 2015, will soften her approach to the Saudi’s, and re-integrate the Saudi ambassador into the diplomatic community in Ottawa, and reverse the removal of those 16,000 Saudi students from Canadian universities. After all, their very presence in those institutions, followed by their return to their homeland following graduation, is another inevitable if glacial step in the transformation of the Saudi culture, and indeed of the culture of the Middle East. That observation is hardly “rocket science” and surely it is not outside the purview of the Foreign Affairs minister.

One tweet, even one so offensive to the Saudi’s, ought not to be a pivotal turning point in a relationship that could with increased discretion, diplomacy and mutual respect be mutually beneficial for many decades.

Reports later in the day indicate Minister Freeland is “sticking to her position” on the tweet, while the U.S. and the EU are both seeking further clarification from Saudi Arabia. The Canadian Minister of Finance tells the world, We are standing up for what we believe in!” standing firmly behind Freeland. The Europeans tell us that the Saudi’s will not longer accept shipments of Canadian wheat, deepening the ditch, or perhaps hole, that this dispute is fostering.

We all expect that the Prime Minister will endorse Freeland and Morneau’s position on this one, given his commitment to the cause of feminism here and around the world. It seems, however, that feminism is an extremely worthy public issue warranting the persistent and consistent support of all developed countries. Yet, one wonders if this spat has the potential to set back the Saudi’s commitment to full and equal rights for the women living in their kingdom. If that turns out to be part of the fallout, then the Canadian government will have sabotaged the very cause to which they are so deeply and authentically committed.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Failure of governments reaches far beyond trump....and the public interest is threatened

Reports from Great Britain this week indicate that Brits check their cell phones once every twelve minutes, and that on average, they spend some twenty-four hours on social media each week.

For some those figures may be little more than another obvious and boring piece of data. For others, like this scribe, they are nothing short of astounding, when we put them up against the notion, also in the report that, although we are more digitally connected, we are also more lonely than we ever were. Can anyone really be surprised by these cultural smoke signals?

There is a profound difference between actually speaking face-to-face with another and texting them, or “visiting” on Facebook or twitter. And reports indicate that many are coming to this realization and are opting out of both digital platforms. Designed as a for-profit business, how could anyone, including especially their designers, not recognize that from the get-go, they would both be manipulative. Generating an audience on behalf of advertisers, the source of their revenue, they are like mini-billboards, on which anyone and everyone can put their mark. Even that anachronism, the telephone had (and still has) the advantage of at least being able to listen to the voice on the other end. Sighs, pauses, pitch and volume of the voice, (and the obvious downside of listening when the other person sloops soup in you ear!)

Elevating gossip to the social “status” that it is now embedded in the sands of time, for any and all to witness, to supplement, to excoriate and to deride but never to delete is, perhaps, a triumph of the marriage of technology and for-profit capitalism. It is certainly not a supplement or a complement to the social, mental, intellectual or physical health and well-being of their users. There was literally no “orientation” from the producers; there was no training in how the technology might be helpful, without being detrimental. There were no “clinical trials” as there could and should have been.

And there still has been little if any leadership from governments to offset the negative impact of this massive, even revolutionary, incursion into the fabric of the culture of the world.  Because “business” comes up with some new “thing” does not mean that the governments do not have to make both preparations for and cautions against those things. Drones, for example, are another of the “things” that business (and the military) have “fired” into the global economy, without adequate gate-keeping on their initial entry, parameters on their use, and sanctions for endangerment of the public including passing private and commercial airplanes.

The “marketplace” presents dangers and threats different from and perhaps even more dangerous than “weed” but because we have a history of “prohibitions” on alcohol and a history of ginormous health bills resulting from smoking cigarettes, governance is more “ready” (not necessarily able) to take precautionary steps prior to the launch of the public sale of marijuana. Not only our history, but also the prospect of truck loads of tax cash available to governments pave the path for governments to intervene, to educate, to prepare and to “study”….especially from the perspective of potential revenue.

Government arguments that rationalize the “sitting on the sidelines” approach to whatever the private sector puts into the market likely include the “right” of commercial ventures to function without undue government oversight, regulation and barriers. So far has the political culture moved in favour of corporate for-profit freedom that the playing field has become a literal and metaphoric “wild west”….virtually lawless!

And the public interest, naturally, is flipped off as “mere bureaucratic anality”. At the same time that the private sector has been elevated to the status of a cultural idol, the public sector has been relegated to a nuisance, a vacuum of public funds, an impediment to social and economic “progress”.

In America, even the specifications for “building” a 3-D printer version of a handgun or rifle are considered nothing more than “free speech,” that catch-all phrase that gives license to behaviour (even public speech) that ranks as hate, character assassination and another tipping of the scales in the direction of anarchy.

(Critics, do not try to push back by insinuating that permitting digital technology to enter the marketplace leads to anarchy. That is not what is being said here.) What is being asserted is that the demise of the importance of the “public interest” in general has many perhaps unforeseen and potentially dangerous and threatening implications. What is also being said is that government has to become much more foresighted, developing its own “intelligence” not only for the purposes of ‘national security’ in the traditional sense of reconnaissance on potential military enemies, but also in a very news sense that the patents applied for by private corporate enterprises may have (and undoubtedly do have) serious and not always positive implications on public health and well being.

Even philanthropy, that mantra to which corporate marketing gurus now cling, in an insatiable obsession to garner and glue themselves to public support (specific to their market demographic), has been commandeered by the corporate sector, without regard to whether or not they are actually making significant contributions to “worthy causes”. For example, promising to contribute a single penny for every purchase made by card holders to the cause of “breast cancer research” is obviously merely a veneer of integrity and authenticity and reeks of self-serving narcissism by the then offending American Express, before they were exposed for their chicanery. The documentary Pink Ribbons Inc. exposes the corporate deception including Avon, for their duplicitous championing of their “walks” for research into breast cancer research while including carcinogens in the products they offer for sale. From both the perspective of putting a friendly cozy “pink” colour on an ugly, debilitating and deadly disease, and from the perspective of misleading their sincere “walkers” “runners” “bikers” and all other “doers” for the cause, corporates need to come under increased oversight by government.

Also, the accounting of the millions of dollars, including whether or not research projects are duplicating others, repeating the failures already known, and networking the requisite information for the establishment of a public confidence in the whole process of public activism for this (and other) causes seems to be a reasonable expectation of governments.

Digital technology, corporate malfeasance, corporate threats to public health in such areas as the inclusion of “plastic” beads in products used by households on a daily basis, military intelligence that is gobbled up by the private sector without government oversight….these are just some of the gaps in public information and public security that impact health budgets, workplace costs and social and cultural ethos.

When (not if any longer) the pursuit of profit trumps the protection of the public interest, in all of the many aspects, features and facets of that phrase, and the public plays the “dumb” role of the innocent participant, without the needed protections of the government, relying on, and thereby defaulting to the corporate culture to take their responsibilities seriously, the public is endangered. And that endangerment is so imperceptible and so “innocuous” and so “out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind” then danger lurks right under our noses.

And the impunity of the governments, including their clear path to re-election without so much as a public discussion of the dangers and the responsibility of those perpetrating those dangers being uncovered, continues.

It is not only that trump is overturning the traditional roles and institutions of government that is unsettling. The very culture that permits and enables him and the private sector effectively to subvert the public responsibility of governments is much larger and less visible and therefore even more dangerous than the person of trump himself. His erratic and dissembling tweets, while disturbing and indicative of a turbulence of mind, are merely a mirage of verbal fog, giving “cover” to behaviour by his government and by failures of omission by all governments at the expense of public interest and well being, for which all elected officials have taken oaths to protect.

Make not mistake: this is a war of attitudes, values and complete power take-over. And just as on the literal battlefield, the first casuality is truth, so too, the truth that protects ordinary people from the assaults perpetrated by the private sector are to be surveyed just as vigorously as those perpetrated by foreign enemies.

In fact, a former FBI representative, recently appearing on MSNBC, says he is less worried about the threats to democracy posed by Russian invasion of American social media than he is about the home-grown, much more sophisticated, and more narrowly targeted social media invasion by Qoron, and such agents who are now on public display at trump rallies.

Has the ‘deep state’ become more dangerous than any of us could imagine before we even knew of its existence?

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Viktor Orban: your "Christian liberalism" is not Christian...

Viktor Orban, leader of Hungary, calls his white supremacist, soil-and-blood ultra- nationalism, “Christian democracy” as opposed to what he detests, “liberal democracy”. Some have called Orban’s approach “illiberal democracy” and Steve Bannon, the alt-right guru who has set up shop ion Brussels, calls Orban, “trump before trump”.

Building walls to keep out immigrants including refugees, asylum-seekers on Hungary’s borders, while holding his hand out for Euro’s from the EU, and trumpeting the U.S. president for “keeping his promises,” Orban is one of a growing number of right-wing political voices determined to quite literally extinguish the “elites” who have held power since 1968.

Globalism, open borders, foreign aid, international trade deals and a thawing of the arms race, all of the aspects of world “order” many have grown up with, undoubtedly have left unsolved issues, open wounds and an income gap and environmental threats. However, turtling, or more seriously, ostriching out of full collaborative and co-operative participation in seeking and finding solutions to mounting world problems, especially in the name of “Christian” values, poses a threat for the Christian church itself.

In every church (Christian by name and theology) on the planet, there has always been a divide between those who interpreted scripture and the relationship between God and humans in a literal, legal, judgemental, closed and restrictive manner from those who adopted a more “liberal” poetic, symbolic, tolerant, forgiving and “unknowing” posture. And that division has deep and lasting implications for individual families, parishes, and the wider ecclesial institution. For starters, the “gate-keeper” archetype is much more evident and active in the former than in the latter category. Money is also much more tightly managed, even squirreled into oblivion from public knowledge in the former than in the latter. Evangelism, as in “marketing” and “spreading the word” is a much higher priority in the former than in the latter group of churches. And then there is the all-important interpretation of scripture that illustrates a chasm-wide division that few if any can bridge.

Underlying these two approaches (neither is exclusive, and there are elements of each in all parishes) is the question of how each manages fear, anxiety, panic and even personal and organizational neurosis and psychosis. Also, implicit in all of these discussions (often over-heating into hot-button debates and open conflict) is the nature of God, as authority figure (read King), or healer, or teacher or mentor/friend. As you might already have inferred, what might be called the “tight-assed” church veers toward the “authority” of God, whereas the ‘liberal’ ones tend more to the companion, healer, teacher mentor God. And if and when the “faith” intersects with the “politics” of the region or the nation, one can, with some confidence, trace back to the kind of theology one espouses as, at least in part, the influence playing out in a political posture or ideology.

There is a kind of psychological comfort in knowing and following “what God wants” in terms of rules, laws, punishments and the reward of eternal life and salvation that comes more readily to those who follow the “conservative” brand of Christianity. For those who feel more comfortable in the “liberal” fold, there are more questions, more ambiguities, more uncertainties, and obviously more pursuit of discussion and debate and an openness to new insights and even transformations.

The Greek word “metanoia” (transformation) for example, is generally considered by the conservative group to be a one-time conversion to the faith, whereas for liberals, metanoia tends to be a life-long process that can and often does occur possibly daily or even hourly. Naturally, a greater immediacy and certainty attends the conservative practitioners’ practice of the faith than emerges from observing the liberals who risk ponderous debates, clouds of uncertainty, and long periods of unknowing, a state of mind familiar to many mystics and monks.

These two approaches have very diverse implications for those who are “outside” the faith, considered “unsaved” by the conservatives, or even “dangerous” to some. (Steve Bannon, himself, delivered a speech at the Vatican not that long ago, in which he argued that the world and especially the Christian segment of the world faced a global threat to its survival.) Make no mistake, the bannons, trumps, orbans and others consider their mission to save the Christian world from heathens, or from other faith insurgencies.

And when the world faces multiple threats, and a steep curve in the scale of cultural anxiety, fear, apprehension and deep and profound uncertainty, there is often a measureable spike in support for God-given answers that offer comfort and the feeling of security that one is able to hang on to something trust-worthy and stable and clear and certain. And politicians eager to ride such waves offer a panacea or placebo of simplistic answers to very complicated issues and problems.

Walls, for example, provide concrete evidence that “something is being done” to keep out people who might threaten already scarce jobs, or put pressure on already budget-strapped hospitals and schools, or “change the culture” of the country by  painting it a different colour than the historic “white” it “always” has been  (at least in the west). However, walls do nothing to address the deep and intransigent issues that fuel war, poverty, terrorism, and pandemics all of which are roots of the mass migration those walls were designed to impede. And underlying this conflict, is a concept important to one’s world view, and to one’s theology: the notion of whether we are living in plenty or in scarcity.

Sharing our bounty, is a very different attitude from “preserving what little we have”! And here is the point where the “rubber” of faith meets the road of individual human choice. If one’s faith does not enhance one’s world view, and one’s universe, one’s sense of gratitude, one’s joy in altruism, and one’s hope for the future, then what kind of faith is it? This is a very finite planet, and we all share its land, water air and promise. And, the moment when (not if) each of us comes to the point where we celebrate our blessings, our plenty, and our good fortune, then we will be ready to share all of it with those in need. And this “sharing” need not be in a patronizing manner, by which we take pity of those less fortunate.

One of the most difficult perspectives to integrate into a theology is the perspective that “my” relationship with God is not something “You” need. There is an implicit and explicit superiority in telling another, “You need this?” especially when one’s theology is concerned. Patronizing, dominating and belittling prospetyzing has, is and will continue to plague the world. And here is another of those “rubber/road” moments.

Faith, unlike a new pair do shoes, or a new graduate degree, or a new baby, or a new spouse, is a far more intrinsic and private and personal dimension to one’s life. (Words always seem inadequate when attempting to provide even a mediocre explication of this “faith” experience, thought, belief, and attitude. Regardless of the specific faith, or even the more specific denomination of sect of any faith, a belief in an ultimate “force” (God) in the universe that is a source of light (in all of the plethora of meanings of that concept) and that even a tiny “ray” of that divine light is within each human being as a notion that begins to open the “door” to the invitation to explore what that might mean for each person.

Never to be reduced to a mere “talent” or “skill” or a “gift” even one of prophecy, intuition, creative imagination, the light might be shared through any of a number of paths of shared experience. And surely, empathy, compassion, hope and courage beyond what our natural limits would energize accompany this faith dimension. With faith I am a different person that I am without faith. And if I lose “sight” of that, I can slide easily and quickly into a darkness of my own making.

Now, let’s get back to how one’s purported faith can and does restrict one’s limits on what is feasible, ethical, affordable, and justified. If one has the perception that one’s town is being ‘taken over’ by a large number of people of a different colour, religion, language and ethnicity. If one can see how a future in which massive numbers of people will be displaced, become refugees, immigrants and asylum-seekers, (given the current science around climate change and global warming), one could easily be tempted to want to ward off such an influx, for the simple reason that one’s livelihood could be threatened, food could become scarce and public services would be extended beyond the breaking point. Who is going to “pay” for that debacle?

On a faith journey, there is no map to answer the never-ending series of unanswered questions prior to the events one encounters along the way. And yet, that concept, holding one’s apprehension and anxiety and fear at bay, in order to approach tomorrow with an attitude of promise, hope and gentle grace for one’s self and others, seems to be more “likely” inside a faith perspective that from the world’s perspective. And it really need not matter whether one’s faith is rooted in any specific faith; each of the world’s faiths has some version of what I am trying to articulate, however inadequate my attempt.

So, it seems that a white supremacy, nationalistic, enclosed, and intellectually and emotionally “armed camp” is incompatible with a faith that holds there is a divine light in every person. And for that reason, among many others, it is incongruent, and unacceptable to attach the word “Christian” to the political ambitions of Viktor Orban or any of the other voices rising in crescendo as the new choir of the alt-right.
To think that the world is so sleepy, or so enmeshed in our private micro-lives, or so forgetful of how this perversion of Christian theology has so besmirched our history books, our trenches, our cities and our cemeteries is to risk the kind of thoughtful faith-based push-back that denies it is a child of the elite, or the Harvard clique, or even of Wall Street.

We each have a significant opportunity to adopt a faith stance that is tolerant of diversity, receptive to dialogue with others who have suffered and have not had our good fortune to be recipients of a graduate education, open to the challenges to our “way of life” if we are to move into the world that can and will sustain the lives of those currently alive and the offspring of each of us.

And we must not fall into the ‘trap’ of sectarianism, that people like Orban are setting for us, pitting Protestant versus Catholic, or Jew against Muslim, or atheist very evangelical Christian, or rich versus poor, or north versus south, or east versus west, or American versus European, African versus Asian. Our humanity, including our respective faith choices, can be a shared lens through which to vision and pursue a shared future, rather than repeating the multiple crusades, wars, be-headings, excommunications and prison sentences that have been so deeply entrenched in the history of man’s search for God.

Call this “pollyana” thinking if you must. Yet, my response is to ask at this point in our civilization, “Do we have a viable and sustainable option if we are going to continue to share this planet and this universe?”

orban, trump, bannon and their ilk do not offer any assurance that their preferred option is viable.