Thursday, December 25, 2014

Reflections on an "empty public square" and lives of action as opposed to belief, attitude and motive

Christmas Day, 2014!
Carols heard from radio and television stations, while carols and readings comprise yet another "candlelight" Christmas Eve service in thousands of churches. Announcing the birth of the Christ Child in a manger in Bethlehem, City of David, has ignited composers, poets and scribes for centuries, bringing to the somewhat mystical birth an accretion of rich gifts, starlit skies, singing angels and star-struck shepherds. The event literally and metaphorically dazzles with the fantastic, long before Cecil B. De Mille ever landed in Hollywood.
It is as if history has haloed this miraculous birth with the most infectious and endearing theatrical images in order to approximate the hope and the joy and the miraculous as a spiritual, religious and cultural injection of those very ingredients into the lives of everyone ever after.
In a world now quite literally worshipping at the altar of money/business/greed/marketing gone global, of course the acquisition of consumer products, "given" to those we love is intended to symbolize our extension of hope, joy and peace into the lives of those whose lives touch ours.
Concentration on the physical, the purchasable, the concrete and the empirical, in short, has replaced what was once considered important, the degree to which one actually integrated the "new birth" into one's spiritual, emotional, ethical and moral and especially one's relational life.
Speaking recently to the 70th Anniversary of the Canadian Council of Churches, one of the longer-running ecumenical organizations in Canada, if not the west generally, Dr. Mary Jo Leddy noted, (as reported in the current Anglican Journal by Andre Forget) that the "public square has been emptied" and that today when one says what one believes, one is greeted with a shrug and a "yeah whatever".
A former member of the Sisters of Zion, a religious order dedicated to the spreading of the Jewish story especially of the holocaust to the Christian world, following the direction of Pope John XXIII, Leddy has been active in the reception and integration of refugees and immigrants into the Canadian culture, and has been instrumental in starting a small non-denominational community, New Way, in Vancouver. Her life has been a testament to "living the faith" especially that part of the faith that commits to the prisoner, the refugee, the victims of injustice and the victims of violence.
Belief and action have always been in tension, in the lives of religious disciples of all religious communities. Theory and praxis were the two words ascribed respectively to those notions in the seminaries and the schools training clergy. In those days, the two were never exclusive, but were dependent on each other. One's belief compelled one to act, in whatever situation one found oneself in, and one's actions compelled one to reflect on those actions, their impact and implications and then to further inform and develop and nurture one's belief.
The spiritual life, as we learned from the Jesuits, comprised a life of "action and reflection"....never one without the other, and certainly not one dedicated solely to heroic acts of rescue in specific demographics, which seems to the picture evolving in a world where only one's actions count, if Leddy's observation bears credence.
Good works, sanctioned by government "tax-exemption" qualification, in the formation of charitable trusts, have mushroomed in the last quarter century. Many of these "non-profits" have extended education, health care and even food and medical supplies to those too destitute to have access to their benefits in their own communities. Some have a religions and faith base, while others are exclusively secular. No one in his or her "right mind" would so much as criticize all the benefits to individual lives that these non-profits have and are continuing to bring. One of the more visible examples is the Clinton Global Initiative, started by former president  Bill Clinton, and now reaching the end of its first decade, brings business and government leaders together each year, to review the impacts of their last year's commitment, and to bring a new commitment to this year's "accounting". The media have naturally focused on its strengths, including the addition of daughter Chelsea, recently minted Oxford Doctorate in Health Care Administration, to the executive of her father's trust. The Clinton Global Initiative brings much of the American "can-do" to the table, along with the American dependence on the acquisition of private capital, as the new agent of social change, in the larger hope and promise that such efforts will also bring new converts to the capitalist system of government, although such a vision would not necessarily be inscribed in the foundations' mission statement.
When one is starving, or dying of some incurable disease, or being victimized by some violent war between parties over which one has no control, the ideology of one's "good Samaritan" is irrelevant, so long as the proffered "help" achieves its target and result. However, the beliefs of the "Samaritan" agents and agencies matter as much as the good works, if we are not to be facing another form of prosletyzing, evangelism, and even the potential of conversion of the recipients of these "gifts of compassion"
Reports continue to flow from many quarters that terror groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas,  ISIS, Al Qaeda and Al Shabbab, and others "use" the concept of "good works" for people whose lives have grown dependent on their "compassion" as weapons of dominance in order to gain support, confidentiality, and even recruits.
Furthermore, the west's history of "generosity" as part of the foreign aid to developing countries is being discouraged by some intimately acquainted and steeped in the dependence and the ennui such beneficence grows among the recipient communities.
It is apparent, from reports from too many quarters that "good works" which originated from sound and compassionate motives has been so perverted into a political, economic and even a military and propaganda weapon, where the lives of people in desperate need are concerned that the world could be in danger of losing clarity and thereby confidence in "good works" that serve both to help those in need, as well as to exonerate public institutions from their legitimate responsibilities.
If Leddy is also right that the public square has been "emptied" (interpreted here that there is no public conscience, and no public debate and discussion and no concurrence of what is the public good) and that only good acts can and do define one's legitimacy, without regard to the motives behind those good works, and without regard to the manipulation to which those good works are being used) then it is high time for all religious, political and thought leaders to re-enter the public square, and to create places and spaces and public support for those spaces and places in which the public square can and will be accommodated.
We cannot afford to make our own decisions about the motives and the purposes behind acts of generosity in regions where the level of education and discernment are so low as to be literally non-existent, and we cannot afford to let others, no matter their political ideology or motives, to seduce innocents with good works, as a mask for broader and less integrous and inauthentic goals, whether those goals  be for their own "aggrandisement" or the aggrandizement of their political agenda.
Interviewing an adult male, whose life was changed forever following the shooting death of his mother by a drunken German soldier in Dordrecht, Holland, whose father then had to turn to an orphanage to feed and shelter both him and his  brother, I learned that the religious demands of his "good shepherd" were incidental and virtually ignored, in order that these two boys could eat and sleep in safety, during the Second World War.
We need to be cautious in our inordinate praise for charity, and to be especially discerning as to the motives of those behind the acts of compassion, especially in a world in which all acts have  become ideological, politically motivated and potentially highly dangerous, especially to those unable to discern the motives of their good Samaritans.
In a culture seduced by the physical, the empirical and the monetary value of all things, those less observable, intangible and ethereal matters such as attitude, motive, belief and ideology matter even more than they might have in a  world less dangerous and less intoxicated by the acquisition and the dissemination of money, even when garbed in a syringe and a vaccine, or when garbed in a bowl of cereal and a glass of milk.
And the public square, in which the nuances of all public actions, including those of non-profits and those of governments and corporations can and will be scrutinized, examined and debated, provides one levening laboratory for such processes, integral to the preservation of the lives of innocent victims.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Shifting the balance from the individual to the collective, without apology

Headlines tell a small part of the story of the world's shifting tides. Daily weather reports also tell the most immediate impact of shifting tides of climate.
Underneath headlines documenting the water-cooler talk, however, are tectonic cultural plates that rarely shift, and if and when they actually do move, the world trembles.
Yesterday, for example, under a temporarily lifted but normally strictly enforced rule, Israeli citizens were permitted to visit Bethlehem, under permission granted by the Israeli government, to a travel company headed by two women, one a Jew the other a Muslim. They magnetized some friendly stares from the Muslim residents of that city, and participated in a shared meal in a Muslim home as part of their pre-arranged visit. This is merely a grain of highlighted sand on a beach of otherwise quite dim grains in the history of Israel-Palestine conflict. At this holy season, however, it provides the kind of ratings fodder for the news industry that is so desperately desired throughout the year.
It was President Obama who pointed directly to the "job" of the fourth estate, in his press conferences yesterday, to tell the story of all of the problems and the screw-ups and the dangers facing their audiences, while progress on so many fronts remains behind the news, underneath the news, obscured by the news, and even obliterated by the news.
For a brief period in another life, I was asked to do a small segment on radio entitled, The Good News Report, into which I inserted all the warm "fuzzies" in the community I could find. None of those stories, however, would ever have been the subject of a political debate, let alone the topic of an election for office on any level, municipal, provincial or national.
Polite conversation, we have all learned in our formation as respectable citizens, excludes conversation about religion and politics, two topics almost guaranteed to divide whatever participants engage in their unpacking.
However, and this is where the rubber meets the road, none of our topics of "polite conversation" can or ever will really exclude either religion or politics, in spite of our best efforts to preserve the polite component in our conversations.
For example, we can and do talk about individual liberty and freedom, achievements of whatever dimension and design, without actually referring to the bedrock of our world view that puts the individual above the society in our consideration of our priorities.
The collective, the society, and the community, however, will as it always has, have a significant impact on our framing of the "individual" value we place on so much of our conversation, and our attitudes and even our beliefs. Conversely, of course, the individual will also have a significant impact on the development of the collective, the society, and the community.
It is, however, our tainting of the concept of the collective, ( as a slippery slope to communism, or unionism or even totalitarianism and "mobism") that renders our perceptions and our conversations somewhat skewed in favour of the triumph of the individual as a human value. Somewhere in our collective conscious, however, is the notion of "team" a smaller version of the community, one in which one can and does participate, on the premise of both growing one's person while never losing oneself in the processes and the demands of the group.
On the basis of how  the "team" operates, including and excluding individuals  based on many dynamic factors like perceived personality quirks, previously established links within the group, cultural habits of the group, espoused goals of the group and the degree to which the group is and has successfully accomplished those goals (almost always moving goal posts as needs and aspirations shift), one learns to "fit" into the larger activities of the whole group. Finding and celebrating the talents, experience and expertise of the individual is one of the time-honoured themes of all successful groups, teams, and micro-communities. Actions that require the participation of a number of "members" will bring people together to achieve what have become common goals, within the larger framework of the group's stated purpose.
How the group accomplishes the healthy balance of group aspirations and group achievements on the one hand, while developing the leadership qualities of individual members is essential to avoiding the danger of both chaos and tyranny within the organization. And all organizations sail an unchartered and unpredictable course between the rocks of osteoporosis and chaos and the whirlpool of tyranny by an individual or a small group of insider-gate-keepers.
Leadership, the sine qua non of all groups, is one ingredient that has two levels of application: the individual who is manifesting those qualities considered enhancing of the groups' purpose, and the level of acceptance/rejection of those in "leadership" within the perceptions of the members of the group. Leadership is a function of both one's capacity to envision a shared future for the group linked to  the necessary prescription for how the group might consenually accomplish that future. Objectives, with strategies and tactics dedicated to the achievement of those objectives, are mixed in some cocktail that includes the "mysterious" ingredient of something the Greeks called "charisma" or the more pedestrian description "magnetism" or perhaps "likeability" or even "star" quality....always elusive from the known methods of quantifying those qualities that make one a leader.
Leadership development, too, includes the predictable training in thinking outside the  box, in seeing into the future those pictures that one imagines could become the next chapter in any group's growth and development. It also includes those historic and cultural givens that, once again, are too often premised on the lens that champions the individual over the "group" as the west's contribution to the pursuit of political, economic, social and even philosophic "freedom" from the restriction imposed by the collective, the state, the organization. The question of whether or not creativity, the exercise and discipline of the imagination, is and can be "taught" as opposed to whether it is innate within each individual will be left to another time. Suffice it here to say that while we "champion" the individual in most normal and conventional discourse in North America, and denigrate much of the value of the collective, the union, the state and all organizations that purport to represent the whole, (knowing and acknowledging that no representation of the whole can adequately represent each individual within that whole) we also have relegated the whole to many microcosms, almost as if the melting pot has morphed into what has historically been considered the mosaic, a defining archetype of Canada as compared with the United States.
However, the "melting pot" theory of historic development that brings all individuals into a common purpose and identity, while necessary and even highly significant in the early stages of development in a nation's youth, is quite counter-intuitive to the later historic development which is based solely on the economic "achievements" of that nation. Melting pot also emphasizes a common history, a common legal system, a common language and currency, a common set of ideals and perhaps, at least in the case of the United States, a common religion, albeit exhibited by different colours of the same pallet, Christianity. Keeping that religion out of the structures of the state has been one of the defining characteristics of the United States' legal framework, once again demonstrating the high bar (perhaps even unrealistically high) the early settlers set for their ancestors.
However, at the core of that "religion" (blending all expressions of Christianity into one, for this moment), lies the question of salvation, the ultimate gift promised to those who "believe" in the interpretation of the words of scripture. And in a culture in which the individual is "king" and "queen" in the sense of the social, political and cultural applications of those words, salvation would inevitably become a personal achievement (gift, blessing, reward or promise) depending on the degree of one's acceptance of the rigours of discipleship to Jesus Christ Resurrected.  The United States is a culture dominated by the archetype of action, production of goods and services, including their sale and distribution, development of agents of action like the military, and all social programs as agents of both the government and the culture of "action" including the essential ingredient of competitive norms for ascertaining the success of those actions, both public and private. In this culture, one's actions in demonstrating one's faith in the rigours of individual discipleship to God and to Jesus the Christ, obscure the Lutheran concept of "salvation by grace" (and that not of one's self, but from God) and leave the field to those espousing actions, and the larger the action (including the larger the monetary contributions) the greater the social, political and even religious acceptance and elevation by the respective community. Also obliterated in this culture in which both the individual itself and personal "action" (as expression of one's faith commitment) have become sacralised, is the notion that salvation itself includes a "collective" aspect, and that the salvation of the individual is intimately and inextricably embedded in the salvation of the whole.
The social, political and cultural credo of a country whose literature in replete with stories of individual heroes, including the exposition of the definition of  individual accomplishments, either through measureable achievements warranting public acclaim, or through enduring impossible odds warranting public adulation, would eventually become linked to one's spiritual life and the success of that enterprise. God's apparent endorsement of the political ideology of one's country, however, is a very dangerous political dictum.
First, such a perception reduces the God component in the equation by overwhelming that component by human will and human cultural credos. Secondly, such a perception also reduces, or worse eliminates, the need for one to grow and develop a faith component that includes all the human community, not merely those who attend the same church, or live in the same community, or speak the same language, or eat the same "permitted and sanctioned" foods or celebrate the same holy days.
Turning swords into ploughshares, while historically and culturally appropriate to the time in which those those words were first written, might have applications to the much more sophisticated and deadly "swords" we have at our disposal, and ploughshares might have applications to concessions to both soft power and even the laying down of arms, as acts of both political ideology and more importantly, expressions of any faith worthy of the name, faith.,
And we can no longer close our individual and our collective eyes and ears to the facts that we now idolize the individual at the expense of the wider community, the neighbour, the town, the province, the nation and the world. And while there are some benefits (in the short run) to such a cultural practice, there are even greater dangers to continuing down that very steep hill. Digital technology has, for example, greatly exaggerated the perception of the importance of the individual, especially as it applies to "recording wrong-doing" for the purpose of prosecution. Only the success or failure of the giant corporations, linked peripherally to the score being recorded of entrepreneurial ventures, occupy the landscape of our social and political discourse. Occasionally, we add to the mix the tragedy of some individual mis-adventure, some tragedy or some despicable act, as if to remind ourselves of our own righteousness.
And then, we like lemmings spend at least one news cycle on the disaster of a tsunami, or a nuclear meltdown, or a military bombing, or a terrorist beheading....without according a similar concentration to the underlying, shared and universal conditions that led to such headlines. Tokenism, in our personal attention span, like instant gratification in our pursuit of consumer "needs," tarnish and even  rust out our best and shared intentions.
The cleric/poet John Donne reminds us of his respect for individual human beings, as well as his contempt for the mass of society.
It is time for human history to reflect upon, and to plan activities that grow an enhanced awareness of our common and shared humanity, including our strong preference for sharing, for equality, for opportunity and for ennobling each other, as the better angels of our identity. And while we can continue to debate the relative merits of one political ideology over another, we must not permit such  debates to erode the shores of our tenuous appreciation  of the values and the blessings of our collective needs and aspirations, here and in whatever world there might be hereafter.
"We are in this together" is not merely a political slogan for a particular campaign or issue; it is an inexorable fact of human existence, denial of which will do much to push all of us toward a shared and potentially swamping fate, in a future whose seeds have already been planted in the gardens of our collective and our individuals minds and hearts.
Balancing the needs, aspirations and beliefs of both the individual and the collective is not merely an ethereal dream; it is a component of our best angels exposed and energized.
And our shared deployment of vengeance and punishment can and eventually will give way to a more balanced pursuit of celebrating our unique gifts, and supporting the pursuit of that goal, as a shifting of the tectonic plates of our shared geographic and cultural globe.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Public needs versus private pursuit of status, influence and money

It has often been said that the legal profession, including the police, the courts and the process of conducting trials is a very blunt instrument that fails both in the gathering of evidence and in the prosecution of wrong-doing. Missed files, overlooked pieces of evidence, misquoted witnesses, gaps in both communication and understanding between departments in the same office, and laws that either exaggerate or restrict police powers to do their jobs....these are all part of the problem.
More and more we hear of broken window tactics that concentrate police attention on the "little things" that are wrong in a community, in the strongly held belief that such focus will derail larger criminal actions.
Another way of perceiving such an approach is to allege that policing has eroded to the point that one small-town entrepreneur called "Mickey-Mouse" policing, whereby the big stuff is sacrificed to the petty crimes, for a variety of reasons. Partly, superior officers demand that their "supervisees" produce a quota of offences in whatever section of the law they are required to enforce. Partly, too the public relations aspect of keeping public discontent from undermining trust and confidence in the law enforcement apparatus forces law enforcement to scurry around chasing the petty actions of bored young men thereby leaving little time, energy and resources for the "big fish" many of whom go untouched.
And then there is the question of the training and the culture of the law enforcement agents themselves, much of it traditionally built on a military model, in which a top-down hierarchy rules. And many of the traditions of that organizational structure are weak if not counter-intuitive to the changes that have ridden into town on the screens of cell phones, tablets and the internet. Historically, public perceptions of 'new people in town' were so prominent and so strong that even a new horse on which the 'new-guy' rode was both noticed and suspected before many acts were committed.
Today, the whole world is 'the new guy in town' given the access to and the ubiquitous deployment of digital devices, and the capacity to raid those devices (hacking has become so prevalent that the public institutions lag behind the tactics and strategies of those determined to undermine whomever and whatever target they select). Collaborators in criminal activity, in various criminal stings, are reported to be located in multiple cities, all of them linked to each other, for example, in the gathering, storing and dissemination of pornographic images of young children. Gangs have gone viral. And "gangs" now connotes a much more complex and far-reaching concept than those individuals who reside in the same neighbourhood, while those renditions of the word continue to operate.
While digital technology may have, and indeed it has, expanded the capacity of individuals to observe and to report and to comment on events at home and around the world, it has also enabled those who seek to hurt others to commit their offences in what could be called near anonymity. We all know that public institutions, even within the same agencies, merit the allegations of failing to communicate with their counterparts in their own organizations. Sharing of information, made so easy and accessible, continues to plague the operations of most organizations, in a climate in which information is increasingly seen as power and the instinct to protect one's little morcel of "influence" blocks the sharing of that information/influence even with those who need that intelligence in order to operate effectively.
We have witnessed a significant and slippery slide to the construction of silos of information, status, influence and the perception of power, as people both individually and collectively strive to protect their turf, in the widely held belief, warranted by the exposure of multiple public examples, that their unit may be swept away at any moment in an organizational move that is geared to cut costs, preserve the budget and the careers of those in charge at the expense of those on the bottom rungs of the org, chart. Just as universities are being dubbed the purveyors of "status" through their granting of degrees, layered by their tuition costs, their historic reputations and their own 'brand' status in the minds of students and parents (as the online emporium of digital courses grows exponentially and at a much lower cost, if at all), so too in the marketplace has the marketing of 'status' brands become the hallmark of western culture that divides all cities and towns on an hourly basis between those who have and those who have much less.
Degrees as status, bank accounts and retirement accounts as status depending on their size, cars and homes marked by their brand names, on their hoods or their street and neighbourhood names, occupations that fill corner offices based on the competitions that demonstrate winners and losers in the productivity/smooze/networking games inside and outside the office....these are all signs that we have fallen into the black hole that can only ensnare the most ideologically pure and the most needy of extrinsic affirmation. I once worked for a television executive who told his hundred-plus staff that the motivation for his life and work was "applause". And when I heard those words spill from his lips, I say bolt upright in my chair, wondering how significant that observation was for so many of the people I knew, not only in that specific organization, but in other situations.
Hierarchies of status, power, influence and importance, like fame, is about as authentic and sustainable as a climate infected by billions of tonnes of toxic chemicals all of them spewing from the stacks of those very corporations whose capacity to pay for their license to pollute exempts them from prosecution and from changing their polluting habits. Buying justice, either individually or collectively, through political influence, has rendered the justice system a victim of the money, status and influence of white collar players all of them colluding to support the maintenance of each others' power. Those who have no power, no money, no status and no influence are the detritus that has become the defining signature of our time.
Whether at home or in the most remote corners of the most poor nations, those without power, status, influence (with money as a measuring unit of their lack of power, status and influence) experience the most abuse, the most injustice, the most imprisonment, the most attention from the law enforcement agencies, and the most public contempt. We have veered in our public culture toward making individuals and groups the objects both of adulation and adolescent envy and also of adolescent gossip, derision, contempt and even hate. We project both our highest expectations and aspirations on those we consider "successful" (those who have money, status, power and influence) and also our deepest fears and anxieties on those same individuals and groups. We also project our strongest fears and anxieties on those who are deemed to be "losers" (those without money, status, power and influence).
Our public institutions, too, have become enmeshed in this charade of the lemmings' pursuit of influence and power, as individuals concentrate more and more on their own status, without regard for the conditions necessary to sustain this headlong stampede to status. In this unfolding drama, those in uniform with power over others without uniforms, are more likely to abuse their power and influence, considering both their own vulnerability to their 'higher-ups' who make demands that are designed to sustain their own power and the eruption and exposure of their own shadows in a world that reeks of denial of the unconscious while swatting its every whimper as if it were the plague that exceeds Ebola in its virulence and our capacity to develop antidotes to its impulsive bursts.
We are becoming what could and has been readily and frequently anticipated...a culture of frightened narcissists who are increasingly developing a parallel distrust of others and especially of public institutions. And included in our distrust of public institutions is our distrust of those law enforcement agencies we have designed and deployed for our own protection. However, in a society and culture in which every individual is on his own, or believes he is without support and without status and influence, and lacks even the hope or the potential of acquiring status, influence, and power (coming from basic needs like an education, employment with dignity, access to quality health care, and an opportunity to live in some secure neighbourhood that is not threatened either by criminal elements or public abuse of power) all of the basic instincts including human fear of both failure and the loss of what little crumbs of power and status and influence we might currently cling to come rushing onto the shared playing field that constitutes our towns and cities and neighbourhoods.
And now, the West Side story of gang versus gang on the streets of New York, is reconstituted to form a war of those with power against those without power. In Canada, First Nations people are no longer willing to gather up the crumbs of discarded food from the tables of those in power and feed them to their children. And they are growing increasingly rambunctious in their insistence on changing the power structure of their national culture. In the United States, blacks especially, but also including other minorities, are marching in the streets, to demand what they perceive as a modicum of justice for their people, in the face of a spate of public decisions that they perceive as the abuse of influence by those intent on preserving their own power, status and influence.
In Lima Peru, United Nations-sponsored talks on global warming and climate change witnessed underdeveloped countries demanding financial assistance to join the club of non-polluters from the rich nations whose industrial and government establishments have chucked the vast majority of toxic gases into the atmosphere for decades, and who now demand their indigent international colleagues pay for their own measures to stop carbon pollution.
We are witnessing a global explosion of voices, including violence, from those who consider themselves dispossessed, underemployed, or even unemployed, underfed, under-educated, lacking in access to medical care, and who are experiencing enhanced torture and violence without the protection that all civilized people everywhere deserve and require in order to survive and to grow their families. And with the means to watch and listen to others of similar (if qualitatively different) abuses of power, from different abusers, the perceived strength and validity of the arguments being expressed in the streets of America this weekend, for a justice that is colour blind, rather than a false and unsustainable justice that is colour-coded and colour targeted will only grow and threaten even more of the public institutions.
And the decisions of those institutions, like the most recent U.S. Senate funding bill that removes the requirement for healthy food from school cafeterias, because children are not eating the vegetables and fruits that had replaced the sugar and salt-infested processed foods, thereby eliminating jobs for many cafeteria workers, will come under increased public scrutiny, as we attempt to wean a public addicted to sugar and salt off their own cardiac and cancer death sentences, and focus their attention on the more healthy foods, including visionary and healthy laws and law enforcements and collective initiatives that seek to serve and protect all people everywhere from the rampant dangers of both the immediate threats to survival and the longer-term global threats to international peace and security. It is the erosion of the public confidence in public institutions, including governments and law enforcement agencies, and public and private corporations, and the perception that ordinary people can do little if anything to stop this erosion, that is creating a climate of both distrust and public agitation that will grow exponentially as the wave of acquiring a public voice in and from the collective replaces the screaming ambition of individuals to acquire power, influence, status and money that lies at the heart of the current cultural model.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Torture and complex cover-up as manifestations of profound fear

It is, we all suspected from the start, now abundantly clear that the United States Central Intelligence Agency committed acts of torture following the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan that killed some 3000 innocent Americans. Listening to George Tenet, then Director of the CIA explain it to Scott Pelley of CBS' 60 Minutes, shortly after the 9/11 attack, one gets the distinct impression that Tenet's decisions, at least those on which he signed off, were taken amid a flood of rumours about nuclear weapons about to be unleashed in New York, about terrorists hidden throughout the city, and inside a theatre of chaos and fear that obviously engulfed both the agency and the nation, immediately following the onslaught of jet liners morphed into bombs, on a scale never before witnessed, and certainly never witnessed on American soil.
Whether President Obama is completely accurate in his concession that 'when America makes mistakes, we own up to them' is becoming a little suspect, given statements like the one from the Polish leader who granted the Americans permission to conduct interrogation on Polish soil, without knowing the full extent of what would take place, including the torture that everyone knows contravenes international law and the laws of war, even if the U.S. considered itself to be under attack, and thereby engaged in a war. Torture, in itself, is reprehensible, but failing to inform your host, chosen to keep the information away from the American press and people, of what you are about to do, is even more reprehensible.
Reports that the CIA agents were "making it up" as they went along in their pursuit of  the finer details of the degree of danger faced by the United States and its people, people whom the CIA is charged with "protecting" also compound the initial report from the U.S. Senate, much of which has been rebutted by the current Director of the CIA, John Brennan. Not only will the actions of some of its agents generate more recruits for the ISIS terror movement; those actions will also bring into question the relationship between the U.S. and its allies in the gobal effort to stamp out Islamic terrorism, and the dangers it now poses for the world, especially countries like the United States and her allies, including Great Britain.
An insightful piece in The Guardian yesterday, opens the door to questions of collusion between Great Britain and the United States in the process of "acquiring intelligence" for the purpose of protecting the United States and her allies from further harm. Here is a brief quote from that piece, by
Owen Jones:
Injustice that is not fully exposed cannot be properly challenged; and when injustice is not properly challenged, it is doomed to repeat itself. That is why Britain’s full complicity in the CIA’s systematic torture of prisoners must not be allowed to remain a state secret. The extent of the catastrophe of the so-called “war on terror” launched 13 years ago is becoming ever clearer: invasions that have proved disasters in terms of lives lost and treasure wasted; torture and other endemic human rights abuses; attacks on civil liberties; and jihadism more powerful and violent than ever. How can a catastrophe on such a scale have ended with a total failure to hold those responsible to account?
Those hoping for truth here so far have little grounds for optimism: not only has Britain’s role been redacted from the Senate intelligence committee report, but also the parliamentary intelligence and security committee’s proposed inquiry already looks like a whitewash in the making. A source from the committee has been quoted arguing that “our role is to hold the intelligence services to account, not politicians”. This is an alarming logic. In a democracy, the buck must surely stop with elected politicians. Do our secret services have democratic oversight or not? It would be a travesty if the likes of Tony Blair, Jack Straw and David Miliband were not fully and openly questioned about what exactly they knew. (Britain’s complicity in CIA torture is a crime that will only create more jihadis, by Owen Jones, The Guardian, December 11, 2014)
If Mr. Jones is seeking the justice that can only come from the open and full questioning of people like Tony Blair and Jack Straw (then Secretary of Foreign Affairs in the Blair government), as he no doubt is, premised on his opening statement that injustice not fully exposed cannot be properly challenged, then why is no one in the United States calling for the open and comprehensive and under oath questioning of people like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who has called the Senate report "hooey" put it mildly?
If the CIA itself did not fully disclose all of the activities it conducted, including the most heinous and criminal of its actions, to the Bush administration, then that piece of information needs to be fully disclosed. If it did disclose everything to the elected officials of government and those officials sanctioned and signed off on that disclosure, then that piece of information needs to be fully disclosed.
Of course, there is a danger to national security, from the process that would be involved in full disclosure. That is the precise reason behind the request from Great Britain, and presumably other countries, that their participation in the interrogation process that crossed all legitimate lines be redacted from all public reports. However, hiding behind redactions, for the purpose of saving the lives of individual "secret agents" is a far different motive than hiding behind redactions that are really an attempt to protect public officials from their rightful responsibility in a healthy democracy. Also the methods used to pry information loose from reluctant witnesses is far different from the details of the information so gathered. The details of the methods, it would seem, ought to be subject to public disclosure and public scrutiny, and potentially public censure and sanction.
Of course, what I am saying is open to legitimate public debate, but the public has a right to know how national security is being compromised by the decisions and the actions of its elected and appointed officials.
And, while national security depends on the diligent and relentless acquisition of secret information from sources that most people would consider "unsavoury" to put it mildly, the trust and respect in which the agencies gathering that information depend is linked intimately to the public officials elected and/or appointed in a fully functioning healthy democracy. When the work of any public body reaches beyond the purview of public scrutiny, especially as to the methods employed to compel witnesses to disclose information, if not the specific nature of the information gathered, then democracy has failed both the agencies charged with gathering the information and the electorate whose votes are still the sine qua non of the democracy that undergirds all government actions.
In totalitarian countries, the gathering of intelligence is not bound to or respective of the need for public disclosure, public scrutiny, public accountability and public censure if and when needed.
Increasingly, obfuscation, including the deliberate hiding behind that infamous phrase, "the fog of war," double-talk, shouted talking points that diffuse the potentially contentious situation for public officials has become the service offered by professional public relations private companies which have signed lucrative contracts with political parties, individual politicians and even governments and government agencies.
And the risk, in addition to the serious risk to international respect and moral authority of nations engaged in the murky and slimy business of intelligence gathering and the erosion of trust of the international community from countries that have been deceived in their participation in such programs, is that democracy itself is eroded. The public loses trust and confidence that the public officials, both elected and appointed, and the agencies they work for and lead. And when that occurs, as it has certainly happened in the case of the CIA use of torture (demonstrating a manifest level of fear in the leaders of those organizations and the governments to which they report) there is a need to disclose not only the specific acts of torture that were used, but also the other governments and government officials who were either lied to or deliberately deceived in order to conduct the torture in the first place.
As the assaying goes, it is not the crime itself that is wrong; it is the cover-up of the crime that makes the offence even more heinous.
Obama risks his own credibility by endorsing a report that is both selective and prosecutorial in its approach and fails to public acknowledge the specific countries who were misled or lied to in order to acquire the facilities where torture could take place, in order to accomplish an even more epic cover-up from the American people.
When the leadership of any organization is frightened to the degree that Tenet and his agency appear to have been and perhaps the whole administration as well, then the terrorists have inflicted more damage than that inflicted by the four jetliners that morphed into bombs on that fatal day in September, 2001. And the moral wounds to the reputation of the United States for that incarnation of fear in policy and actions will be far more difficult to eradicate than all the grief experienced by the many families and friends of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
When fear of that magnitude seeps into the crevices of the unconscious of both the national leaders and the fabric of the nation, it is always virtually impossible to wash its traces away. And the implications of that fear could be echoing in the halls of government as well as the streets of the nation for decades, both in its overt impulse and in the over-compensation that it generates as part of the denial of its impact.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Driven by extrinsic motivations, we sow the seeds of our own demise

"I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" Those were the last words of a black man gang-bullied by four New York city cops, for allegedly selling cigarettes illegally. He was, according to pathology reports, killed by a stranglehold to his neck, another allegedly illegal act. His name was Eric Garner.
And in a somewhat similar manner to the "hands-up, don't shoot" refrain that provided the rhythm section to the protests in Ferguson Missouri, following the decision of the Grand Jury not to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown, the New York (plus most other major cities') protests followed the decision by law enforcement not to indict the officer who put the chokehold on Garner that ended his life.
First there is a dramatic incident between police and black men, resulting in the death of the black man. Then there is a series of spontaneous and sometimes violent responses from the black community, joined invariably by whites and others, crying out for justice. Then there is a predictable period of 'investigation' and contemplation by the authorities, as to whether or not to proceed with charges against law enforcement. And then, when that 'expectation' fails to be met, in the laying of charges that would and could only be resolved through a formal court proceeding, the same people who were outraged by the initial killing are even more outraged by the second decision not to prosecute. Some would call this a second victimization.
It is somewhat analogous to the physics of a car crash in which the initial impact is severe, but the whiplash following the initial impact is the real killer. And the mass protesters can be seen as suffering from the whiplash of the second chapter in this social, political and cultural drama under the theatre lights reading "Race" in the American theatre.
Seen from the perspective that American "life" is organized around the motif of the theatre, all the actors are now 'in the picture' especially with the smart phones in millions of hands shooting all public events, especially those involving conflict. All the actors are also engaged in the writing of the script that is being enacted spontaneously on the streets of many of the major cities across the country. And the drama's roots, its language, and instruments are historically based while somewhat chaotic and unpredictable in their outcomes.
Just last night, while sitting on the floor of the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, at half-time in the Toronto Raptors' game with the Cleveland Cavaliers (and LeBron James) former NBA greats, Charles Barkley and Irving (Magic) Johnson were being interview by Rod Black. It was Barkley who articulated the irony of his invitation to Toronto to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela as part of the Raptors' tribute to the African leader at the very time when the cities in the U.S. are witnessing these mass protests. He wondered out loud if the United States has or could find a leader who could incarnate the Mandela rejection of violence against his jailors, after twenty-seven years of imprisonment under apartheid.
The media reports now include the words "Law enforcement is broken in this country!" "Black lives matter" is written on placards carried by many in the streets. The White House holds "talks" with law enforcement about how to bridge the divide between the police and the black community. Advocates of the "broken window" theory of law enforcement, ( in which the small criminal acts are addressed forcefully in the belief that larger criminal acts will be thwarted, as espoused by then mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani in the 1990's) have resurfaced, this time with a far different public response. While major crimes declined under the theory in the 90's, this time, the police over-reactions are fueling massive public backlash.
If a black man is not safe walking down the street of a major city, or even a smaller city like Ferguson, because the police who are charged with public safety and protection start from the premise that that black man is "dangerous" and a threat to the very public safety they are there to ensure, and if that premise is engrained into the psyche of police officers, under the guise of "duty," then those police officers have become more of a threat to the public safety than the black man they arrest, gang-bully, and finally shoot and kill. And if the ensuing investigation and reflection of the evidence by those charged with the decision to prosecute the police officers rejects further legal action including charges and a court hearing, then the whole of the law enforcement apparatus becomes suspect in the minds and the hearts and the psyches of those who believe that justice is no longer available to their community.
Having spent several hours in front of the class of aspiring police cadets, in a private career college in Canada, attempting to instill a sense of open-mindedness, restraint from charging into already inflamed circumstances with an already held bias, along with an urgent sense of duty to find an offender, without fully appreciating the complications of the situation, and quite literally failing in my obvious objective, I am painfully cognizant of the divide that is marching through the streets in the U.S. I also spent several months working as an "alien" in a predominantly white community in the U.S. 'outback' where racism ran rampant, especially anti-black and anti-Latino racism, and I can feel the ostracism and the alienation of the black community, without  being black myself. (Of course, my experience is not nearly so searing as that of the Brown family and the Garner family, and the hundreds of other black families from which one of their own has been ripped by the abuse of power by white police officers.)
Police cadets aspire to exercise power; from my perspective that is a very powerful motive for their enlisting in their chosen career. There is a uniform, a weapon, a unique head dress, and a hierarchy of authority that has underpinned the culture of law enforcement for centuries. There is also the allure of heroism and the seduction of honour and duty in the many public relations gestures that accompany the role of law enforcement. Along with those 'percs', come the entertainment icons of police drama in both television and movies, in which the "wild west" is re-enacted in the streets and the ghettos of every town and city in the country. Linked to the "sheriff" archetype who keeps the town safe, is the almost cult-like quality of public respect and even awe for the danger in which law enforcement officers operate on a daily basis. Their families never know when they will get that dreaded call, either in person or on their phone, that their loved one is "down" from the wanton act of violence perpetrated by a person whose life has been turned over to the punishment of police officers and the "establishment" in whatever manner they can pursue. And examples of killed police officers by unrepentant killers abound both in Canada and the United States.
Add into this already dangerous cocktail of influences the issue of the relations between the majority race and the minorities whose lives and communities those primarily white police officers are contracted to protect. In Canada, for the most part, the minority has been First Nations, while in the United States that minority has been primarily black. And accompanying that ingredient is the history of the influences that have shaped the officers' perceptions of minorities that has formed the crock-pot of his cultural 'education' and formation, too often a perception and a belief that whatever the minority, it has not lived up to the standards of the majority.
And when the divide between the majority and the minority is sanctioned and legitimized through the training and the official "enlistment" into the shrine of the police academy and culture, the forces that meet in the streets are obviously and inevitably explosive. And we have not even noted the growing divide between the levels of education and the employment and  wage levels of majority and minority communities, all of which directly and indirectly contribute to the canyon of mistrust and the imbalance of power in the majority and minority communities. And then there are the social and domestic differences, including the proportion of single-parent families, between the black and white communities.
Alienation, and the feeling that one needs some kind of protection in an unfriendly world, often lead to the formation of small groups of young men whose lives can become so entwined that they literally enter into "gang" relationships linked too often to illicit activities. And of course, underpinning all of these cultural and economic influences are the stereotypes that abound in the entertainment models of the clash between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" that are played incessantly on a flood of television channels.
Integrating minority police officers into police recruiting efforts, and then deploying those minority officers in their own communities is a useful step toward accommodation. However, it is merely a bandaid in the needed transformation in race relations. Ultimately, authority is and can only be exercised in a climate of deep, profound and sustained trust between those in power and those over whom that power is to be exercised. And that trust is not garnered from the uniforms of power, nor from the laws enacted to be enforced on the streets. It is not garnered from the high-tech equipment necessary to compete with the criminal element. Nor is it garnered from the capacity to keep precise notes on every case, available whenever the police officer is called to testify. Trust is only garnered and sustained through the reduction of fear, both on the part of the public and also on the part of the public law enforcement agents and their collective agencies. And fear is only reduced, if not ever eliminated, through a conscious campaign that includes formal and informal education, exposure and integration of all ethnicities within the law enforcement agencies and outside those agencies to the towns and the cities in which they operate. Integration of classrooms, clubs, volunteer groups, and even families themselves, will go a long way to alleviate some of the basic distrust that continues to undermine efforts to resolve differences between the authorities and their respective publics.
Those in authority also have to learn the principle that their legitimacy depends almost exclusively on their own fair-minded exercise of their responsibilities, and less on the protests or adorations of their opponents and worshippers respectively. Respect, in the end, is less extrinsically dependent on the words and actions of "others" than on the intrinsically and authentically ingrained practice of those innate standards of ethical principles that transcend culture, race, religion and ethnicity.
We all know the right thing to do, in almost all circumstances. And if we are even slightly confused, we can always inquire from a colleague or even a professional resource, about the unique and often grey areas of concern in the situation. And yet, and this is especially true among men, we need not fear the false dishonour that too often accompanies the search for clarity sought  by those attempting to resolve an ethical conflict in their mind. Asking for direction, prior to taking impulsive and often dangerous actions, just to protect our "machismo" (or our masculinity, or our power over others) may seem ridiculous to one who is facing a perceived "threat" with nanoseconds to respond. However, a habit of asking for another opinion, asking for directions, asking for help is not yet an established model of doing life or business in a world in which competition is the driving force. And it is clearly not ingrained in the practice and procedure manual for police officers. Nor is the painful process of becoming intimate with one's own cultural and racial biases, and thereby attempting to reduce their unconscious impact, especially when the adrenalin is flowing through the veins.
Human activity, and the "good life" that such activity attempts to attain, is not based on the exclusive operation of "public" and external influences and resources in a manner akin to the application of medical procedures for the elimination or reduction of specific tumors. It has at least as much, if not more, to do with the internal reinforcement within each individual, of a level of awareness that appreciates who s/he is, where s/he comes from, how s/he has been wounded and injured in the course of the decades already passed, and how s/he has or has not begun the painful process of integrating those dark memories and experiences into a consciousness that is prepared to accept both weakness (not as failure or a sign of incompetence) and strength (not as superiority or a sign of power over).
It is our individual weakness and woundedness that makes the social and collaborative engine operate in its most healthy manner. And it is our cultural denial of this principle that ensnares too many of our public actions and perceptions and attitudes, in the false belief that acquiring symbols of power (wealth, status, authority) makes us successful while asking for help, taking a moment to reflect on our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of the "hooded black man" even for a nanosecond, before we take the revolver out of the holster, that makes us human.
And, when we reach for the automatic weapon, in our own automatic response, we not only endanger the other human being, we also endanger the highest principles of our social contract and the most revered and intimate values of our person (when separated from those extrinsic uniforms of power)....and those values include a grasp of the many instruments that support the healthy reduction of conflict, and the healthy levelling of the playing field for all that ironically reduce the need for excessive public responses to petty and predictable actions by those who would be included and not dispossessed, in a world in which all are not only permitted but actively encouraged to participate, at their best level.
And when we stop and reflect on the world of "winners" and "losers" that undergirds many of our public discussions, including those discussions in the most ornate parlours and faculty lounges in the nations, and reflect on our unconscious collaboration in that Manichean world view, (in which we always place ourselves in the 'winners' or wannabee-winners circle) and those whose lives do not either emulate ours or measure up to our expectations, without stopping to reflect on how hollow and meaningless those expectations are, especially when they are imposed without acceptance and compliance on whomever we can impose them on, we actively participate in constructing an unsustainable social, political and economic culture. And we sow the seeds of our own demise, just as we are doing so impetuously and impulsively and narcissistically with our wanton and very conscious carbon pollution of our shared water, land and air.