Tuesday, December 6, 2016

We need more "piercing the comfort of professional intercourse by boorish expressions of doubt" (Saul)

The citizen’s job is to be rude- to pierce the comfort of professional intercourse by boorish expressions of doubt. (John Ralston Saul)

If this space has a purpose, Saul has expressed it. Boorish expressions of doubt to piece the comfort of professional discourse is about as high a purpose as one can imagine for fully engaged citizenship.

After all, professional discourse is, by definition, polite, slanted in favour of the speaker and the organization/government/corporation/public service agency represented by the speaker, incomplete by design, and allegedly “expert” so that even in its writing, the assumption is that only the “inside” circle of those in the know “will get it”. Professional speak, known in classical times as rhetoric, has been the primary skill of the legal profession, the political operatives, the public relations gurus, and even sadly, too often, the televangelist, or the one behind a real podium/pulpit.

Reporters in daily newspapers are exposed to some classroom time to help them unravel the circumlocutions of professional speak, as a filter for their readers. Insurance brokers are expected to untangle the legalese of policies, including all of the myriad of exceptions when coverage does not apply, and most often this requisite exchange never takes place. Why would the agent want to expose the loopholes in the policy in front of the client who has about to sign the cheque for the annual premiums, for the next three or four decades. Similarly,  financial “planners” (another fancy word for stock, bond and mutual fund salesmen and women) eagerly and sometimes patiently await their client’s agreement to a “specially designed program of investments, depending on the relative degree of risk with which the client is comfortable. Neither the insurance nor the investment sales person, however, would even consider a “boorish” expression of doubt about the value of their products or service.

Doctors engage in professional speak every day with every patient and colleague, in the former instances, attempting to diagnose a specific complaint, in the latter making arrangements for collaborative work in clinical teams. Will they, or do they, dare to express their own personal “boorish” doubts about the professional speak of their hospital administration? Hardly! Did they dare to complain about their university deans whose compliance with hours on duty would exhaust an Olympian, and would be deemed “unprofessional” by the long-haul truckers, even though lives are at risk in both “professional” expectations.

Politicians, and their civil-(serf)-servants however, run the risk of so “enhancing” their professional “speak” as to  render much of it either  incomprehensible or unbelievable. Balancing the protection of the environment with the growth of the economy, for example, is a phrase that collected hours of air time and gallons of black ink in the last federal election, as the kind of “soothing” professional speak that demonstrated the “balanced” approach of the speaker(s). Details, however, were either omitted deliberately or unavailable from a lack of planning. The public, in our innocence/ignorance/slumber/insouciance/disinterest however, would never demand such details (so goes the thinking of the backroom election planners).

Throwing money at a political “headache” is a favourite “cure” of most politicians, almost as effective as throwing a bottle of Aleve pills at an incurable rheumatoid arthritic joint. It brings a moment of “relief” in the latter instance, and in the former buys the politician a little time (relief) from the protesters who demand much more and never really achieve their goals. A recent decision by the Army Corp of Engineers at Standing Rock in North Dakota to refuse permits for the construction of the final stage of the pipeline under a valuable source of water is, while extremely welcome, really only a momentary pause in the battle to block the final construction. Trump’s eyes are already focused threateningly on the decision to refuse permits; undoubtedly, he will find a way to make the project happen.

“Boorish expressions of doubt” comprise the lot of the citizen who, by nature and definition, does not have a research staff, a secretarial/data entry/writing staff, a public relations consultant, and a bull-pen full of lawyers, when compared with the “professional speak and speakers”. While this appears to be a distinct disadvantage, there is a silver lining in the David/Goliath story as explained by Malcolm Gladwell. Whereas Goliath had prepared for a hand-to-hand combat, and wore heavy impenetrable armour, David, on the other hand, with his sling, focused on a more distant conflict, out of reach of the giant of power. We all know the outcome of that archetypal conflict. Well, citizens will forever be the David when uttering “boorish expressions of doubt” in the face of  professional speak, an appropriate metaphor for Goliath.

The real question is how to recruit an army of citizens so committed and so energetic to engage in throwing “boorish expressions of doubt” when they hear, read, see or encounter professional speak. We teach our children that joining the “professionals” is a career goal to be emulated. We do not teach our children that being a concerned and active “citizen” is just as worthy a personal and professional goal, although there is no “income” or social status in being an engaged citizen. In fact, there is a reasonable likelihood that taking a public position on issues facing the neighbourhood, town city, province or nation will bring a predictable and likely internecine push-back that could get ugly.

Nevertheless, leaving the gathering and assimilation and promulgation of public information and debate about policy to the “professionals” will serve the perceived needs and desires of those very professionals and the public debate will be so empty of the kind of “boorish expression of doubt” that can and often does provide needed leaven to the professional, sterile, sanitized and “establishment” generated and driven arguments.

There is also the factor that the “professional media” ignores “boorish expressions of doubt” as being “less professional” and therefore less credible and less worthy of being included in sound bytes or video clips. If you think “status” (read professional) does not really matter in our culture, you are smoking something that is rendering you deaf and blind to reality. Nowhere is ‘status’ more important, more valued and more sought after (including paid handsome sums) than on the public and private media. Imagine a headline in a major daily, with a circulation in the millions, that reads, “Local contractor says costs estimates for new fire hall twice as high as necessary”. First, there is a flurry of instant and sceptical questions that jump to the forefront of the reader’s mind:

·      Is he vying for the contract?
·      Has he even looked at, let alone examined, the details of the tender?
·      Does he have a history in this community that proves his reliability, credibility and ethical trustworthiness?
·      Who does he know who might be feeding him confidential information?
·      Who does he think he is to challenge the tendering process that has been followed by our councillors?
·      Who are his friends and political allies that we could ask to find out what makes this guy worth listening to?
·      Why did he not put a bid in when the tenders were issued, and prove the worth of his contention?
·      What is this headline doing to the reputation of our town? (This is especially true in smaller centres where local dailies consider their role the “business and cultural promotion of their town or city.)

Being willing to risk one’s personal reputation, especially if one has a professional practice in the community, is not a risk worth taking for many of the same people who could offer the best and most effective “doubt” about the decisions made by elected or appointed officials, some of whom clearly have a private agenda in the conduct of public business.

In Canada, especially, the word “rude” carries a heap of negative connotative freight. “Rude” evokes those without an education, without a degree or two on their resume, without a house in the right part of town, without a family whose reputational “skirts” are so clean that their words could never be considered “boorish” or whose attitudes could never be considered sceptical.

Decades ago, English poet, W. H. Auden wrote a piece about what we today would consider the antithesis of the engaged and active citizen willing and able to venture into offering “boorish expressions of doubt” about the public issues of the day.
The poem, while dated, nevertheless, expresses attitudes and perceptions that many consider “worthy” of the most honourable citizen. It offers what amounts to an obituary to the nameless, and reduced to a number, unknown citizen. Fitting into the predictable trends, for war when there was war, for peace when there was peace, these are a couple of the hallmarks of the archetype.

Unknown citizens will not be among those offering boorish expressions of doubt about public decisions made by professional politicians.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

In search of the yin/yang of reality?

 There was a time, not so long ago, when a phrase like democratic oligarchy would have been considered oxymoronic. Now, it is being used as a conversation item by a political science professor from Columbia, on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS, in her articulation of the political winds currently blowing in Europe and North America.

In the same conversation, New York Times columnist, Tom Friedman, in ‘selling’ his latest book, Thanks for being late, articulates three dominant trends that are  sweeping the globe: globalization, immigration and the environment, all of which he says are converging in a combined force with which leaders and the people will have to deal in the near and medium future.

And then there is the spike in the availability and deployment of digital media, a prime generator of highly spiked information that is blatantly and hubristically untrue.
One media analyst puts it this way: Twitter is the headline generator of the new media, a domain so far fully resourced and even captured by Trump with social media the megaphone of these tweets.

This weekend, both Italy and Austria will be holding votes, the former to reduce the number of legislators, allegedly making it more feasible for the Italian leader to pass legislation, the latter potentially electing the first ‘far right’ leader in Europe, with others waiting impatiently in the wings for their own opportunity within the next year. Great Britain has already voted to exit the European Union, Brexit being the expression of mostly rural voters, those feeling most anxious, if not downright frightened by mass immigration, the loss of jobs and the deaf rule by “professionals” in London, where the vote was strongly in favour of “remaining” in the European Union. Nigel Farage, one of the leaders of the Brexit movement has said that the European Union is about to break apart, partly because countries can no longer determine the value of their own currency, being so tightly tied to the Euro, as a currency for the many countries in Europe.

Clearly, Trump’s campaign was fueled by much of the same octane, a contempt for the professionals by the left-behind. A union worker, a lifetime Democrat, just told the world, on CNN’s Reliable Sources, that it was union workers who created the power of the Democratic Party, and ‘she ignored us by not hearing or listening to us’. ("She" is a direct reference to Hillary Clinton!

The yin and yang concept in Chinese philosophy seems so foreign to both the news coverage of politics and especially the manipulation of the dark and light forces by Trump in his every utterance. Even George W. Bush publicly declared, “I do not do nuance!” almost as a signature of hubris. However, the American conventional perspective on reality, that there are “good guys” and “bad guys” is not only antithetical to a full and robust debate about public policy but counter to truth and reality.
The yin and yang in Chinese philosophy describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. Many tangible dualities (such as light and dark, fire and water, expanding and contracting) are thought of as physical manifestations of the duality symbolized by yin and yang. This duality lies at the origins of many branches of classical Chinese science and philosophy, as well as being a primary guideline of traditional Chinese medicine,[1] and a central principle of different forms of Chinese martial arts and exercise, such as baguazhang, taijiquan (t'ai chi), and qigong (Chi Kung), as well as appearing in the pages of the I Ching.
Duality is found in many belief systems, but Yin and Yang are parts of a Oneness that is also equated with the Tao. A term has been coined dualistic-monism or dialectical monism. Yin and yang can be thought of as complementary (rather than opposing) forces that interact to form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts.[2]Everything has both yin and yang aspects, (for instance shadow cannot exist without light). Either of the two major aspects may manifest more strongly in a particular object, depending on the criterion of the observation. The yin yang (i.e. taijitu symbol) shows a balance between two opposites with a portion of the opposite element in each section.
In Taoist metaphysics, distinctions between good and bad, along with other dichotomous moral judgments, are perceptual, not real; so, the duality of yin and yang is an indivisible whole. In the ethics of Confucianism on the other hand, most notably in the philosophy of Dong Zhongshu (c. 2nd century BC), a moral dimension is attached to the idea of yin and yang.[3] Wikipedia)

Carl Jung’s insight includes an important example of the yin/yang concept through such a concept as androgyny, in which a portion of masculinity and femininity are in each gender. However, we are bombarded by voices claiming their truth is the ONLY truth, and their opponents are espousing evil concepts…and the same is true in reverse.
So, whether political ideology is a subject (both theory and practice) on which yin/yang is appropriately applied, as are physical properties of light/dark, fire/water, expanding/contracting might for some be an open question. For our purposes, let’s make at least one attempt to see if there is a fit.

Propaganda is a style of language which seems to reflect a propensity to twist truth and reality to something fitting the ego, the ideology (if there is one) and the motive and will to power of those whose existence depends on the receptivity of its nuggets conveyed in ads, political campaign speeches, and reportage. And, overlaying the current political situation, whether focused on North America or the wider world, is a growing, dark and threatening cloud of propaganda and an enhanced mattress of digital information on the demographics and their various “marketing niches”, thereby enabling propagandists to target misinformation to specific audiences to manipulate their votes, as well as their purchasing preferences.

What we would today consider “kindergarten” propaganda fills Orwell’s 1984, in which “War is Peace” is only one glaring example. Yet, Orwell was writing at a very different time, when the totalitarian spectre of political control was already rising on the political horizon in Great Britain and the world. There was no internet, and no marketing sophistication, and no globalization, and no corporate financial dominance in political campaigns, no 24-7-365 news coverage and reporting and no social media when Orwell put pen to paper. (How seemingly archaic!)

Nevertheless, rather than human attitudes, perceptions and requirements of discernment between fact and fiction, between propaganda and information, between political argument and emotional massaging, developing to a much more clear, honest and magnified level given the tools now at our universal disposal, the reverse is happening, based on the kind and degree of fear, contempt, hatred bigotry and exclusion of “the other” whomever that group might be to the various publics.
Rather than Oceania being first an ally and then a war enemy (from 1884), everyone, including every group that is not “like” me, is the instant enemy, for anyone seeking public office. This nugget (whether it is considered a piece of ‘inside’ information for marketing or for political campaigns) can be and has been and will continue to be “played” on by everyone seeking public office, and every marketing and political consultant in the future. So, for the purposes of “messaging,” instant enemies need daily underlining, repetition, headlines, twitter feeds, and especially those generated by presidential candidates. 
Social media, an information “organ” that depends for its very existence on hatred, on gossip, on conflict, and on character assassination loves a voice/talking head/persona who takes on his/her enemies with a vengeance, acting like the latest iteration of John Wayne in the latest ‘western’ cowboy movie. Power “heroes” or “super-heroes” are so in demand by a populace feeling so deeply and profoundly disempowered, given their projections of strength (rather than owning their own opportunities to take responsibility for their own lives, in the face of reality) onto those promising to deliver “answers” to their perceived problems as to have virtually paved the freeway for reality television practitioners/propagandists/authoritarians/presidential candidates.

However, as the object of projections from people who believe they have been eunuched by forces beyond their control, such “digital heroes” consider themselves compelled to feed those deep neuroses that underlie those projections, generating a tickertape parade of one-dimensional, exaggerated, simplistic, reductionistic and clearly unachieveable “tweets” and speeches, and policy statements designed for the specific purpose of propagandizing/manipulating their audience, especially those already committed to the cause of the candidate speaking. Such was/is/will always be the modus operandi of Trump.
Build the wall, block Muslims, de-fang all trade treaties, character assassinate Mexicans, Muslims, insult blacks with “what the hell have you got to lose?” defame and insult women with vulgar womanizing while pretending to be the ‘strongest supporter of women”…..this is just some of the bologna in the sandwiches served by the Trump-fast-food machine…and they were gobbled by a starved and voracious appetite among the hinterland.

Even millions of women, expected to vote for the first female candidate for the White House, voted for Trump, because they did not “like” or ‘trust’ Ms Clinton. And so the potential for cultural androgyny, that was implicit in the election of Ms Clinton, given the history of over two hundreds years of male occupants of the Oval Office, was lost. Her “basket of deplorables” comment was an unforgiveable mis-step that significantly contributed to her defeat.

However, when will it be feasible, and possible and demonstrated in fact by both political leaders and the media fraternity that there is a deep and profound danger to a perception of the universe that is:…

·      black/white, winner/loser, truth/lies,
·      in which yin denies the existence of yang,
·      in which hyper-masculinity defies androgyny,
·      in which propaganda drowns the slightest sliver of the light of truth,
·      in which foreign powers (Russia, for instance) conduct cyber-invasions to inflict itself on “democratic” elections,
·      in which global warming and climate change deniers win the presidential election, and
·      in which immediate narcissistic needs are able to eradicated epic threats to human existence?

The Chinese yin/yang conception of reality, even as it applies to the campaign promises of political candidates, and as it applies to the national education goals and the programs that undergird them, and as it applies to the growing disenchantment of co-operation and collaboration of various enlightened leaders around the world. Binary conceptions of the universe, just like bi-lateral trade treaties, “making ME/US great again” (at the expense of the other) is a rabbit hole in our understanding of ourselves, our neighbours, our towns and cities, our states and provinces, and our nations.
Now it is time for those who have the many and varied bully pulpits to enhance their concept of their role and purpose to include, at both the highest decision-making levels, as well as in the kindergarten and pre-school class rooms, the important, even essential concept that yin/yang is not a communistic, nationalistic, historic or demographic concept.

And its time in the history of human kind has long ago come. When will we wake up to its gifts?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A culture of cameo artists?

Maybe it is the media’s obsessive compulsive magnetic enmeshment with every Trumptweet…

Maybe it is the scientific and medical fields’ attraction to the microbiology of pathogens….

Maybe it is the ticker to which the eyes of Wall Street and Fleet Street and King Street and all other financial markets area glued….

Maybe it is the insatiable compulsion humans have for each and every sound on their smart phones, or emails….

Maybe it is the attention paid to headlines, without  regard to the details of the story that comprises much of the public discourse…

Maybe it is the stream-of-consciousness parade of merely headlines, without sentence structure, without narrative, without context and without the need for any of these in Trump’s vacuous mind….

Whatever IT is, we seem to be far more fixated, if not addicted to the micro-world, and ready and willing to accept a detached version of each impulse, almost as if our outer world, the world of sensations, conversations, relationships and even our understanding of the universe is no longer premised on our perceived need for a deeper, more complex and more challenging perspective on all issues in our lives.

We seem quite ready, willing and able to accept a “dogmatic” and reductionistic sound byte as sufficient for our capacity to manage our lives. Do we have cancer or not? Do we like spinach or not? Is Putin another czar or not? Is Trump another Napoleon or not? Is the future clouded in apocalyptic fires or not? Will OPEC limit production or not? Will we be buried or cremated? Will this pill fix my pain? Does she love me or not? Is he capable of being loyal or not? Is the marriage subject to sexual abuse or not? Is there a God, or not? Is the Islamic threat existential or not? Is the female boss more enlightened than all those men or not? Is this probiotic more effective than that probiotic? Will this MRI tell me what is wrong? Are we really victims of weak leadership in the out-sourcing of industrial jobs? Is China waging a cyber war against the west, right under our noses or not?

Maybe it is not Trump’s bombast, and his “weaponized testosterone” campaigning style that is the agent of our deep and profound dis-ease. Could it be that we have slipped into a mode of both communicating and thinking, of perceiving and forming attitudes that renders us both vulnerable to and cynically disposed to whatever the latest “drug” of the moment happens to be? Could it be that the spiking of deaths from drug overdoses in many countries and cities around the globe is another of the symptoms of a culture that no longer “hangs together” the way a novel or a concerto, or a symphony, or an epic poem once did. Could it be that our interactivity with the immediate, at such an intense level, giving the ‘instant’ a kind of gravitas it once did not deserve, in our compulsive grasping for adrenalin, that we have sabotaged those very human qualities that once commanded a more reflective perspective? Was the perspective of our ancestors a perspective that sought out and celebrated the nuanced relationships of men and events, that pondered the more subjective and unconscious and more long-term truths and realities without being so driven by the moment?

Literate cultures, given an in-depth understanding of both history and literature, might have rejected Trump’s sloganeering, his vacuity, his transactional greed, his manipulation of the masses, the media and the political establishment. Is that the pipe dream of a romantic idealist of the liberal studies department? Is the demise of context and the removable of critical investigative reportage, simply because no one will read it, and therefore no advertiser will support its publication, underlying the recent Alt-right political movements that,  based on bigotry, fear and a vacuity of history?

Are we participating in a cultural tsunami that, without a single shot or bomb or missile being fired, has the potential to wipe out our collective memory, our collective consciousness, and our conception of a collective future. Has this tsunami foreclosed on an intellectually framed world vision that includes a significant look back into our history, and the history of major civilizations, and a look forward not only to how are we going to survive but also what kind of future are we prepared to stand up and become proactive to leave to our grandchildren?

We have collectively watched over the demise of hundreds of Liberal Arts faculties in North American universities, as we permitted our higher education institutions to morph into little more than “trade schools”. We are witnessing a wipe-out of the shared skill of spelling, grammar, and an interest in  complexities, and in their place, without ever adequately replacing those given foundational stones for a culture that can understand itself, others much smarter than we are, and that can critically evaluate the propositions being put forward by hucksters like Trump.

And he is not the only huckster: there must be a school for hucksters, charlatans, shill ‘artists’ and those willing and able to deceive using whatever tricks are at their disposal. (Just today, Princess Cruise Lines was fined $40 MILLION for secretly pumping waste from its ships through a hidden pipe for decades! The hidden pipe made it possible for their ships to escape failure on legitimate environmental tests! Anyone ese wondering if the executives at Princess are clones of the executives at Volkswagen?)

There is some evidence that books are not going to their grave anytime soon. (Just a hunch, many of those readers are above fifty, raised on some intensive reading courses in their now “antediluvian” education.)

W seem to have fragmented our attention span, our need for instant gratification (from working to achieve a goal as a reward for the hard work) to a collective and shared OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

Of course, intimately buried in this culture is the predictable frustration that all of our petty, micro and silly “desires” are not and will not be met.

There used to be a kind of attitude among athletic coaches that a game of basketball or hockey was a lot like life, and could teach the participants important life lessons. Well, there may still be some truth in the aphorism.  However, in a professional hockey game, for example, players take only 40-45 second shifts and their speed, the number of their shots on goal, the number of ‘hits’ and the number of goals and assists they accomplish in that very tiny window is recorded for posterity, as well as for future negotiations come contract renewal time.

Sadly, that picture is not applicable to one’s seven or eight or perhaps even nine decades on the planet. We simply cannot sustain the kind of pressure, scrutiny and obsessive need for detailed accomplishments from every ‘shift’ in our professional life or in our relationships. Demanding such accomplishments from others, too, will drive both parties in the absurd equation to madness.

And yet, there is a reasonable and credible argument to be made that that is precisely what we are doing, to ourselves, and to each other.

There is a theory about “cameo” art (painting) that allows the painter to have complete control of the work, given the miniature size of the project. Is this analogy representative of the kind of thinking, reporting, discussing, and more recently campaigning to which we have agreed to be subjected.  A culture of cameo artists, propagating more of their own kind, will generate a generation or two of young people who believe that in order to be “successful” and to fit into the world around them, they must become “cameo artists” like everyone else.

What would become of the visionaries in a world in which cameo artists and their clones in most if not all academic disciplines, professions, including the political class are running things?

Or course the obvious answer is that  metaphoric trains will run off many tracks, previously considered because as the Auditor General says, the military tragically missed judging the cost of maintaining our F-18’s, as well as the cost of keeping the fleet of submarines sipping through the oceans….There is a real price to the kind of culture that is becoming normalized and a fix, if there is to be one, is going to be increasingly problematic. Finding those who think that a balance between micro and macro thinking, planning, envisioning, imagining will be difficult if not impossible.

And while now repressive culture, even one worshipping at the altar of cameo’s, cannot and will not repress the poets, the eccentrics and the visionaries. However, their ilk will be more and more needed in the public arena, and the supply of their kind will be so depleted that we will continue to have to pay a huge price for what some call political correctness, and others call “covering your ass.”

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Appreciating Buscaglia's ironic insight

Only the weak are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong. (Leo Buscaglia)

While there some obvious irony in the statement, let’s examine it more closely.
Whenever we feel the instinct to hurt another, to seek revenge, to malign someone who has hurt us, at that moment, rather than being our strongest and best self, we have descended to our weakest, most neurotic and also most dangerous potential.

The daily news is saturated with acts of revenge, pay-back, critical back-stabbing, all of them stemming from the weakest and the worst aspect of those perpetrating them. Trump has just tweeted that protesters who burn the flag should lose their citizenship. We can expect an endless of similar tweets, sprinkled with the “look how wonderful I am” mandatory tweets from the president elect.

And, our case for the weakness of the man, as the perpetrator of much cruelty, is made.
For the past eight years, Republicans have denigrated and maligned and even obstructed Obama for being weak, spineless, and feckless, riding the wave of false pride, hobbling hubris, self-deception and truth defiance. And a significant segment of the population has bought their candy floss. All the while Republicans were bugling their bravado, Obama was, in pointed counterpoint, withdrawing from the Iraq war of George W. Bush, persisting in withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, negotiating with Iran to hold off their nuclear weapons development intentions, and helping to provide health care for those with “previous health conditions” that had blocked their coverage.

A strong president, as exemplified by Obama, is not only doing his job, with the best interests of the nation clearly on top of his mind, he is also offering a silent yet highly influential role model for the type of “strong” masculinity offered by his opponents.  When strength is defined and immortalized as “cruelty” as it has consistently been by Republicans on the right, our children are misguided, maliciously and with full intent by people who are in full command of their faculties, and therefore must accept responsibility for the long-term damage they have done and will continue to do, following their malignant stereotype.

It was Samantha Bee, on her show, Full Frontal, who called Trump a “vial of weaponized testosterone” as her pointed and pungent way of stick her thumb through the balloon of his pretension. From such a person, and from the cadre of sycophants he will surround himself with at the cabinet table and in the White house (if he even deigns to reside there), we can expect only more cruelty…targeting those he perceives as his “opponents”, while exempting his loyalists.

Refusing to divest himself, fully completely and legally, from all of his business interests, whether or not the law requires such divestment, is just another example of his “cruelty” to the American people, through insult, presumption and an arrogance that shouts, “If you don’t like it, sue me!” from the top of his also pretentious and presumptuous, arrogant and “weak” tower of greed.

Obama’s strength is on full display around the world, in capitals of both friends and enemies, following the “weak” cruelty and violence of his predecessor, another Republican of the born-again persuasion of Christian fundamentalists. As one writer in the latest edition of The Atlantic puts it, Obama is leaving, for the most part, a “clean desk,” for his successor. And that clean desk offers considerable scope, unfortunately for Trump to make an even bigger mess than Dubya. Even Obama’s refusal to wage open warfare on Assad, following the emergence of clear and incontrovertible of Assad’s deployment of chemical weapons on his own people, while considered inexcusable and indefensible by Republican critics, prevented the United States from becoming fully enmeshed in another war in the Middle East. And while Putin rushed into the crack of a vacuum in Damascus, Obama nevertheless demonstrated restraint, as well as hope and diligence in continuing to negotiate a highly complicated peace process in that balkanized country, headed by an unmitigated dictator.

My role model for strength married to kindness, compassion and the hope that invariably accompanies all of those acts, is my father, of whom I have written elsewhere in this space. Refusing to utter a malicious word against another human being, no matter the provocation, and withdrawing rather than engaging in a turbulent and energy-depleting conflict with those whose actions and attitudes were unacceptable to him eventually cost him his half-century-plus career. When he was expected to collect full payment for an invoice to a quarter-century customer who never failed to pay his accounts, on receipt of the goods purchased was the final straw. My father, silently and inconspicuously without telling another soul, walked to the company corporate office, placed his keys to the building and all of its compartments on the counter where customers did their business, put on his coat and walked away after  nearly sixty years of loyal, committed and honourable service. Of course, there was an immediate invitation to join other hardware operations in the town, after such a professional career.

The cruelty of the weak has been on display too often while witnessing the political processes on both Canada and the United States, where transactional relationships based on ‘what have you done for me lately’ incarcerate the participants in leg-irons of voting expectations, funding assistance, network enhancement, and public endorsements which too often slip into the oblivion of lost memory by those no longer interested in the relationship.

When the Governor of North Dakota tells the protesters to leave their encampment blocking the development of another fossil fuel pipeline, we are witnessing another act by another weak person who is either unwilling or unable or both to engage the protesters with a view to honouring their land, their water and their dignity.
And this scenario is only one of hundreds we are going to witness and perhaps even experience over the next decade as the battle to protect our shared environment literally and metaphorically “heats up.” Strength, as embodied in dollars in investment accounts by oil giants, and their investors (of whom Trump is one in North Dakota), can only see a depletion of their investment dollars through the failure to construct more and more pipelines for more and more fossil fuels for more and more contamination of our shared oxygen. This is not strength, and it exerts the only kind of cruel pressure on the short-term protesters and the long-term health and well being of each of us, not to mention the inordinate pressure fossil fuels put on the health care budget.

Even in the announcement of a former orthopedic surgeon as the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, a man determined to tear up the Affordable Care Act with health savings accounts and vouchers both of which we pad the insurance company profits. Eliminating people with pre-existing conditions will only line the pockets of both insurance companies and hospital corporations while eliminating the prospect of universal health care, on a single payer basis. Here again, weakness generates cruelty, when compared with the strength of people like Bernie Sanders whose compassion and kindness is clear in his advocacy for a single payer health care system, along with free college tuition for all deserving and committed students.

No differently in human interactions than in the way government conducts its business, gentleness comes only from the strong. Just today, the Canadian Auditor General issued a scathing report on the modus operandi of several government departments, notably the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. One of the pithy observations in the report recommends that bureaucrats focus on providing effective programs for their clients, rather than waiting for another litigation to force program enhancement. At the root of his critique is an attitude prevalent among governments of all political stripes to  greater or lesser degree: that recipients of government largesse will always and inevitably abuse that largesse and make the bureaucrats embarrassed when the abuse is disclosed by some news report(er). Tight-assed political correctness as a governing principle demonstrates weakness on the part of the government itself and especially on the part of those ministers and bureaucrats executing the program.  This bogus argument that people must be self-reliant and absolutely independent, while currying favour with the right wing conservative ideologues, flies in the face of human lives and their various trajectories, many of which turn “south” through no fault of the victims.

Governments, for example, in their oversight of health care, have to know and take into account the statistical reality that well over 75% of all costs on the system are attributable to those in the last decade of their life. That truth is unlikely to alter with a change in geography or climate, throughout the various regions of Canada. Budgeting for such a “strain” on the system, as a given rather than some exorbitant and inexcusable demographic drain, can only result from a perspective of strength and kindness. It will never flow from a bureaucracy that is so fixated on each of the personal careers in middle and upper management and the reduction in spending on which those career advancements are premised, a premise that from the perspective of the public good and the public interest is short-sighted and weak, and also cruel.

Similarly, middle ranking bureaucrats in the health care system who impose their “accountability” instruments like the old scientific management icons formerly known as “time clocks” in order to have more control, without regard to the various exigencies that confront health care workers at all levels every day, as another way to “save money” (and thereby enhance their professional reputations and likelihood of career advancement) are out of touch with contemporary theories of enlightened management as well as the strength to admit and envision a workplace culture that begins with trust that employees will do more than they are asked, (they always have when they respected and trusted the employer knew them as people and behaved in a respectful and trusting manner toward them!) and will do it with a sincere smile. This show of “strength” is counter-intuitive to human relations, to enlightened management theories and practice and will only increase pressure on the “bottom line” supposedly the holy grail for middle and upper managers.

Gentleness, as a guiding perspective, is neither weak nor ineffectual. Ironically, for those “black-and-white” minds who impose such systems, compassion and gentleness not only demonstrate strength, but also produce more of the kind of healing in patients, and helping in health care workers.

A similar perspective applies to the law enforcement apparatus. Weakness generates cruelty in the law enforcement business, especially when and where prisons are operated as private for-profit businesses. Hard-edged, hard-assed wardens and guards are, acting under orders from above, much more interested in dominating control of their inmates than in rehabilitation, restoration and re-entry back into society. The premise of this culture is overt strength, masking the fear and weakness of the system that the public will enlarge and expand their objection to prisoners’ living in luxury and costing the public purse more than their lives are worth.

Cruelty, in this instance, comprises legitimized revenge and an indication of strength, when the gentle approach of rehabilitation would prove to be both less costly (generating less profit for the corporations that operate the institutions) and stronger in terms of providing the talents, skills and income to families and through income taxes to the state and nation.

Policing itself, is taking notice of the advantages of something they call “community policing” whereby instead of first looking for offenders, including opportunities to lay charges, police are getting to know their communities, building trust among their people and thereby reducing the need for hard power, growing statistics of crime. Once again, gentleness is a sign of strength, whereas cruelty and disempowerment demonstrate weakness, in the form of fear of loss of control.

Even in the ways in which professionals of all types treat their clients: gentleness demonstrates the strength of the practitioner, not weakness, where cruelty exhibits weakness.

If only at the geopolitical level these clear ironies that strength is demonstrated in gentleness and weakness in cruelty could be lessons learned by those practicing diplomacy….if that trajectory could ever become enshrined in at least a few graduate schools of international relations and diplomacy, then perhaps, such a shift in what is considered normal might offer the prospect of arms reduction, the curtailing if not the closing of arms factories, and the sale of such products as symbols of national pride.

Only if and when ordinary people begin to concur with the Buscaglia insight will those agents of political, military, legal, medical, instructional and spiritual influence shift their focus, and turn this deeply ensconced ship of conventional mis-wisdom.

Turning the world on its ear, while readily considered quixotic, is nevertheless a proposition worthy of serious reflection.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Volunteering, a first step toward citizen activism...a growing need

“There is a gap somehow between empathy and activism. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of soul force, something that emanates from a deep truth inside of us and empower us to act. Once you identify your inner genius, will be able to take action, whether it’s writing a check or digging a well.” (Sue Monk Claire, author of The Secret Life of Bees)

Let’s look at both the why of that gap between activism and empathy, and perhaps a few thoughts on closing it. Never in our lifetime has there been a more urgent need for activists, not only in new philanthropic foundations for the developing world, but in the so-called developed world. It is here where having it so good for so long engenders apathy and indifference and expectations unwarranted by the direction and the speed of threatening change….political, environmental, economic, and national security/personal freedom and human rights.

Voting percentages ranging from 35-40% in most “democratic” elections at local provincial and national votes is a black cheque for all politicians to ignore that silent and absent majority knowing they will be unlikely to object to whatever steps those politicians take. “My vote doesn’t count” is a facile and lame excuse for indifference. “It doesn’t matter who wins, they are all corrupt,” is another “automatic negative thought” that exposes a pathetic level of ignorance and powerlessness that can only be confronted through a conscious, pro-active dedicated ambition to learn more, to question more, to engage more fully in the conversations at the water cooler, in the coffee shop, at the local hockey game, or even on those hunting and fishing excursions.

Empathy, the capacity and willingness to identify with the pain of another, however, is seemingly inexhaustible, coming to the fore whenever a tragedy occurs. Empathy also takes so many different forms that it would take a library stack of volumes to name and describe them all. Humans, being hardwired as social creatures, seem to have a permanent soft core of identification with another’s individual pain suffered through a death, an accident, a fire, a life-threatening illness, a divorce or even emotional or physical trauma. Yet somehow, there is no political ideology attached to helping a neighbour, simply an act of kindness. There is also no expectation of the requirement of membership in some political party, including the noxious expectation to raise money, to expose oneself to a political campaign, to associate with others who would never make it onto our personal list of “friends”, nor to submit to a party policy platform. We also conceive, design, execute and deliver our unique empathic response to the suffering person or family.

Foodbanks, various ‘missions’ for the homeless and the destitute, literacy programs for those who cannot read and write….while a step up from a neighbour to a helping hand for those we do not know, are still causes that evoke empathic responses, mostly of a “token” or minimal sort, like dropping off some groceries after a shopping trip, or dropping off some extra’s at Christmas or Thanksgiving. And the demonstrated need for such facilities continues to grow exponentially, given the cutbacks in social programs and the rising numbers of families attempting to survive on more than one minimum-wage jobs.

“Ride for”…..projects, too, to collect funds for research or for a specific project, along with golf tournaments for a ‘cause’ or hockey games for a similar cause, or service club donations/membership, all of them worthy and appropriate, are nevertheless exempt from a deep and profound “soul force” in most cases, that offers a level of commitment and passion (in fact one’s identity) that could qualify as activism.

Activists are so impassioned about either the injustice  they vehemently oppose or (the other side of the same coin) the justice of their actions to reverse an injustice that they demonstrate a level of commitment and dedication to their chosen issue that others would and do consider “intense,” or even exaggerated, or perhaps unbalanced and misguided. Let’s look at the current Standing Rock “activists” who are camping out in North Dakota, protesting the proposed pipeline. While the Army Corps of Engineers have issued a closing order for the encampment, these people are prepared to challenge even that government edict. Could violence erupt if and when the ACE move in? Of course! Would such violence be justified? That depends on your perspective….if you agree with the protesters, then probably. If you are either luke-warm or undecided, or more likely uninformed about the specific details of the reasons behind the protest, then you would likely consider violence to be unjustified.

And here is where the ‘rubber meets the road’ as it were. Activists are prepared to confront the “authorities” if and when their activism is threatened. Sister Helen Prejean, for one, has conducted a protracted and highly visible campaign against capital punishment, through her commitment to men sentenced to the death penalty. Her book “Dead Man Walking” prompted a movie of the same title, and while there are those who disagree with her, and probably have threatened her in a variety of ways, at 76 she remains active, and not only active in this cause, but serving as a model for aspiring activists.

There is a danger that postulating such a role model could prompt others to turn away from considering activism, given the high ideals and expectations of the Sister’s commitment. Visiting prisons, like visiting hospitals, is always going to provoke anxieties about how prisoners got to where they are, and how to help them. Hospital visits, too, evoke feelings of both angst and the promise of some tiny hint of sunlight poking into the corner of a patient’s perhaps lonely existence.

And then, after the conscience and the heart have been wakened and the potential way for each person to begin to consider a pathway into activity of visiting, or perhaps teaching, or perhaps joining an advocacy group has been considered, investigated and reflected upon, one’s own life often takes a turn that requires a new focus of time and energy. Nevertheless, the tiny voice, “I think I can” will not be silenced, if the urging is real and the intuition and feeling about the visions of taking action (don’t we all envision most new steps today?) seem to feel “right. And so, in spite of all the reasons to question taking action, we make a phone call, or well do a google search, or we pick up a book or a pamphlet to add some nurture to what up to now has been a mere flicker in the eye of our imagination.

And then, we pause and withdraw because some seemingly pressing issue takes our attention in another direction again. But that still small voice can still be heard whispering in our inner ear, “I still think I can.”

And the persistence of that little voice, linked to our basic sense of justice and even empathy, especially considering the short and long-term implications of both taking action and of remaining on the sidelines, continues to haunt our walks and our prayers and our imagination.
And then….

Because we have already made a first phone call, that person inexplicably calls, or emails about a meeting, or an event, to which s/he issues an invitation. And now what are we going to do? We have been “outed” from our secret vision of becoming a participant to a challenge to take another active step.

Again we beg for time. And we continue to question if this is something we really do want to commit to. We now see the additional meetings and the additional expectations even though our action will all be voluntary. We know that once ‘engaged’ there will be additional invites and challenges and opportunities and time and energy will be required, and is our life not already busy enough?

And so the gap between empathy and activism remains wide, and our individual opportunity to begin to close it ever so slight is still on hold.

Perhaps it is the search for the “right” cause that keeps us at bay from jumping into action. Another lame excuse: just take a first step of action on behalf of a single cause and you will be amazed at the feelings that arise within. The sense of both excitement and engagement along with the conversations with people you did not know even existed and the new information that justifies the validity of the cause will ennoble you and hook you at least for the moment.

And then….as the cause’s needs become more clear and more desperate, your commitment will only grow and your resistance will dissipate.

And, should you be wondering about what to do….the whole community is a smorgasbord of opportunities just waiting for your unique perspective and your talents and your time and energy.

Environmental protection is under threat now that Trump is going to Washington.

Prisons, especially the private, for-profit need to be opposed in the face of elevated rates of incarceration.

Police departments use citizen volunteers for many roles that would not be covered without their assistance.

Palliative care, for those in the last stages of their life, is a huge and very worthy volunteer opportunity.

Volunteer rescue groups can always use another committed trainee, who can eventually play a full role when people get lost.

Choirs always need musical voices and musical temperaments to round out their various sections.

Church schools, and school athletic teams always need instructors and coaches.

The Blind need to have books read and recorded so they can “read” them orally.

Foodbanks and shelters need human resources desperately, as the need for their services spikes.

Immigrants need volunteers to drive them to doctor appointments, language classes, and social gatherings, not to mention bureaucratic appointments.

And then there are the social service agencies and hospitals all crying out for additional human resource help, from volunteers.

Volunteering can and often is the first step towards full activism fighting for a cause you believe in. And, if it is the more moderate and less risky, then for those who like to enter ‘at the beach’ and not off the high diving board, it can be a way to get started.
And we have not mentioned a political party!

So, let the light of opportunity shine in your mind’s eye for you to seek and to find a new challenge to offer your mind and your spirit to a cause of your choosing. Let the light into the most private and most secret corners of your psyche….and may it lead you to join a corps of dedicated, committed, personable, ambitious and authentic professionals making the world a better place for all of us who, with you, will develop and generate even more light shining into the psychic darkness that surrounds the planet.

Your soul force is waiting for you to take it dancing in a cause with a ‘beat’ that fits you and your life.