We are so enamoured of the scientific advances our species has accomplished, and to be sure, there are many. And many of those are extremely significant. Splitting the atom, fusion, nuclear medicine, antibiotics, micro-surgeries, even genetics, including the presence or absence of a gene that assists in the process of discarding brain material in adolescence that paves the way away from schizophrenia….these are just some of the wonders of our many highly sophisticated laboratories and their resident scholars and researchers. Many corporate entities vie for the opportunity to fund various experiments, in the hope that from such experiments and controlled testing will come products and processes upon which these corporations might build their futures through the development of market-ready applications. Universities, too, naturally and earnestly pursue such grants, in order to stay on the leading edge of the many curves that sustain and even enhance their reputation, thereby potentially magnetizing additional bequests from affluent benefactors. Professors are incentivized to research and publish papers in peer review publications, as an integral part of the competitive process both to maintain their tenure and to support the university’s ‘standards’ and academic reputation.
And all of this exemplary work is within the purview of empiricism. What is observable, and repeatable, and therefore measureable, calculated and replicated, in blind studies that include both experimental subjects and control subjects, is revered as the essence of the scientific method. Theories, too, are potentially recognized in some fields like history and philosophy and perhaps theology and religion, where a similar rigid empiricism is less easily accessed. Documents, audio and video records, personal interviews, diaries, letters and news reports are the grist for the scholars’ mill in these disciplines. Comparisons, language patterns and style, themes, and the study of the exercise of power in various modes and periods are some of the windows in these research projects.
However, with the headlong march to the sacralising of the marketplace, and the interactions therein, linked intimately to the technology that chases every ‘heartbeat’ of that circulation system, so much of our cultural landscape is replete with language, attitudes, beliefs and scientific experiments that advance our consciousness of the empirical evidence of all aspects of our individual and collective existence, or so it would appear, given the tidal wave of supporting evidence in both the public media and in the scholarly journals. Even research into human behaviour, most frequently assigned to the clinical, behavioural, adolescent, developmental, and criminal, pharmacological psychology departments, or perhaps to the macro work of sociologists, also deploying the scientific method in order to maintain credibility and reliability. Cultural historians, like John Ralston Saul, are rare and occupy rarified corners in the attics of academia, given their more abstract and general digging into the pages of history for their observations and conclusions.
Their observations, while relevant to a small segment of those whose affinity leads them to such writings as his and others of his ‘field’, do not receive nearly the attention nor the study by policy nerds, politicians and pundits. Additionally, the work of poets and philosophers, futurists and visionaries, even professors of religion like the recently minted husband of the star of Madame Secretary, is too often considered extraneous to public affairs, or even irrelevant to the cast of characters elected to provide “leadership” in the contemporary complex world.
We face so many serious and potentially existential threats today: including but not restricted to global warming/climate change, nuclear proliferation especially among rogue states like North Korea, and among terrorists like ISIS, Al-Nusra, Al-Shabbab, rising population figures that threaten to reach 10 billion people in this century, the scourge of non-prescription drugs (one American dies every day from heroine addiction!), the devious and nefarious activities of human beings both in the public arena and those less visible lurking in the darkest corners of our towns and cities, the increasingly rampant opportunism of corporations whose products are literally killing their innocent consumers every day (just today Honda recalled 5….yes 5 million cars worldwide, because of the faulty technology of their Takata airbags!), the spread of viruses like Zika both through insect infestation as well as human intercourse, and the growing spread of a migrant population fleeing the ravages of civil war, disease, hunger and the complete lack of opportunity for a decent life….and we merely make headlines of these dangers, ring our hands and continue in the blind hope that some miracle will save us from ourselves.
Has anyone given any thought to a process of studying human attitudes/behaviours/beliefs/cultures with the same kind of intensity, funding, respectability and urgency with which we seem so ready to study the physical universe? Poets, since humans began to sing and to share their songs and their stories, have been pointing penetrating eyes, minds, hearts and intuitions at and through the most impenetrable clouds of cognition and epistemology. However, their words and their thoughts and their sentiments are relegated to the sideboard of the “kitchen” where traditionally only mothers and daughters have spent any length of time. Robert Frost was, thankfully invited to “present” his poem commemorating the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, as have a list of laureates following him. However, remembered from that cold January day in 1961 are the words of the new president “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask rather what you can do for your country!” Exemplary rhetoric, to be sure, memorable undoubtedly and worthy of repetition. However, the public consciousness today needs, indeed craves, the penetrating insights of the most challenging writers, thinkers, poets, philosophers, eccentrics, and artists, and as history demonstrates, merely a miniscule segment of any modern culture keeps track of such insights. And clearly the contemporary media is both disinterested and tone deaf on the matters of the poet’s art. Occasionally, the presentation of arts awards like the Giller Prize for Canadian writing offer a tuxedo-gowned ballroom and the appropriate cast of elite characters to grace the ambience of “the artists” whose work is being heralded. Nevertheless, such “platinum” ostentation, while paying public homage to the writers and their latest work, does little to make the more nuanced and complicated insights of a Margaret Atwood or a Michael Ondaatje, or previously a Pratt or a Northrop Frye to a public starved of the intellectual and the emotional, nourishment that can and does emerge from the pages of a vibrant and risk-taking imagination.
I once heard a retired mid-to-low-level bureaucrat from the city of Toronto judge those then offering courses in entrepreneurship, sarcastically wondering how former civic employees could possibly have anything valid and relevant to offer aspiring and incipient entrepreneurs. It is not only young entrepreneurs who suffer the boredom of instruction from those with little or no imagination and even less courage and muscle for risk-taking. There is a universe of young minds in most Canadian schools, colleges and universities who suffer the indignity of having to listen to instructors whose range of imagination and experience is so bounded by their fear of not fitting in, and their dependence on the security of their tenure and their public reputations, that they serve their clients only those morsels of cognition that fit the curricular demands of their provincial overlords, themselves terrified of reaching too far “outside the lines” that circumscribe something commonly known as ‘political correctness’.
Little wonder, the world suffers from both intellectual brain obstruction and rigor-mortis of the imagination. We have bound ourselves in such tiny and tightly bound boxes of acceptable thought, behaviour, belief and activities (save and except the emerging “extreme” activities of the daredevils of the physical universe) that we have become slaves of political correctness and intellectual conventionality.
There is a kind of classical conditioning that pervades the academic theatre, the corporate theatre, the political theatre, the religious theatre and the street theatre. Through an embedded process of framing problems as outside of human beings, like diseases that invade the human body, and then proposing methods and means of ‘attacking’ those problems, we have come to accept the conventional wisdom that those parameters are the extent of our intellectual and our imaginative capacity. It is our wallowing in a mind-set of extrinsics while avoiding/denying our intimate connection both to the roots of many of our problems and thereby to the resolutions of many of those problems that limits the access to and the expression of our integrity, and that closed door precludes more effective and collaborative and immediate resolutions.
Human greed, human insolence, human insouciance, human pride, human negligence, human self-loathing, human narcissism, human lies, human neuroticism…..these are just some of the many “elements” in a table of human realities, just like the various elements depicted in the “table of elements” in the chemical universe that we tend to overlook and to minimize and to distort in our portrayal of too many issues facing the whole of humanity. In short, human complicity, not necessarily criminal complicity, (there are elaborate criminal codes that provide sanctions and processes to attempt to control criminal behaviour in most developed countries), is the essential component of too many of our many issues.
We design too many of our “solutions” upon faulty and self-sabotaging foundations:
To wit: health care systems that are based on the remuneration of our doctors through a calculation dependent on the number of visits with patients, and not on the quality of those visits, the outcomes of those visits, and the health of the patients who do not need those visits.
To wit: a tax system that fosters and enhances the wealth and the status and the political power of those with either inherited or “earned” wealth, when we know that wealth is not a measure of the “value” of the contribution of those people to the goal of improving the health of our civilization.
To wit: a labour code that favours the employer whose “investment” contribution to the enterprise is valued much more highly than the “worker” efforts that sustain that enterprise.
To wit: an education system that purports to champion ingenuity, creativity and risk-taking while deploying both teachers and a political culture that demand no mistakes, and that all mistakes be minimized to protect the public “reputation” of both the leaders of that system and the organization itself. A neurotic education system will, by definition, generate students who find and pursue the most risk-free paths to further education and career advancement. In addition, the education system also fosters a culture that mimics the corporate pursuit of individual profit, status and political influence, based on some limiting definition of “expertise” in ever-narrowing fields of inquiry.
To wit: a religious system that champions literalism, racism, sexism, bigotry, and the size of individual and corporate financial contributions, as well as infighting over dogma, the purity of ethical rigidity especially in our definition of the beginning of life, the depravity of the murderer, the championing of the incarceration system as our best “control” device when dealing with criminal behaviour, and not rehabilitation. Paying lip-service to forgiveness, tokenism in the extension of a helping hand to those in desperate circumstances, regardless of the history of those circumstances, giant investment accounts, and the elevation of a kind of corporate status similar to that of the corporate culture belie the potential for service and ministry so essential in a world divided into have’s and have-not’s.
To wit: a belated and swiss-cheese assault on global warming and climate change that focuses on the kind of billions needed to clean the environments of the developing world when the real culprits for decades have been the corporate controllers in the developed countries and measuring the reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and not in humans whose lives have significantly changed to comport with the requirements of leaving our grandchildren clean air, water and land for their survival.
To wit: a massive “defensive” arsenal of nuclear weapons in too many countries, including those countries verging on their own failure, and terrorist groups avaricious in their pursuit of the acquisition of such weapons, when we all know that the first deployment of any of these weapons would signal a devastating and unpredictable result, the limits of which no one is prepared to contemplate. In addition, the conventional mentality of all “great powers” is to significantly grow their military arsenals annually, while the numbers of starving and homeless in those countries, not to mention the infusion of hundreds of thousands of migrants into many developed countries, grows exponentially.
To wit: a corporate marketing strategy, supported by the “job creation” mantra that rains down on unsuspecting, naïve and trusting consumers faulty products under faulty warranties at exaggerated profits, as the “growth of the economy” and supplements this self-sabotaging premise with deals like the TransPacificPartnership that advance the agenda of the corporate moguls, now ‘siamesed’ with the government of countries like China where the boundary between company and government is so blurred as to be imperceptible.
To wit: a pharmaceutical industry that purports to “heal” the sick, while inflicting “regulated and endorsed” drugs without appropriate controls and trials, for the real purpose of generating exorbitant profits for their investors, exemplified by one former “financial services worker” who ballooned the price of one drug some 5000 times upon the takeover of a company owning the product, and then refused to testify, pleading the “Fifth” in Congress, and while exiting, called the members “imbeciles”.
To wit: a credit card and banking system (can you hear the howls of protest from both sectors in protest of their linkage as one?) that purports to “serve” clients with loans and mortgages at interest rates that generate billions in quarterly profits, as a signal that the “banking system” in both healthy and secure, and then, in a minimal emergency, “finds” ways to re-arrange the portfolio of loans and accounts to seem eminently fair and kind.
To wit: a conventional language of advertising and news reporting that so embraces the euphemism and the gentile cover for the most outrageous behaviour of the very companies and executive suites whose occupants are the owners of those media outlets, dependent on the ratings/investment/dividend equations for their success…in effect provide cover for the “deception” and the “lying” and the sophisticated and elevated distancing of the political class from the full realities of their responsibilities.
To wit: a gerrymandered and financed election system that so supports the re-election of well over 90% of incumbents (in the United States) and so embraces “name brand” candidates with fiscal resources to afford to become political candidates, that reinforces the status quo, at the expense of overhaul in the very premises that point the system in the direction of the wealthy and the powerful, all of which portends its own demise, so based on faulty, if cosmetically satisfying water-cooler conversations and media coverage.
To wit: a food production, distribution and marketing system that purports to keep us healthy while piling on pounds and cardiac arrests with tonnes of sodium and sugar, “for good taste,” thereby intimately and almost reverentially supporting the deception implicit in its very survival as an industry. Just today, we learn that the new kale salad at McDonalds has more calories and sodium that a double Big Mac.
It was Scott Peck who uncovered the denial of all occupants of offices in the Pentagon for responsibility for the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam conflict; today, Peck would be hard pressed to find even the lowest occupant of the occupational ladder willing to take responsibility for the most minimal of conscious errors, protesting, as a matter of convenience and of denial, any wrongdoing or even any evidence that would link the wrongdoing to his/her name. The state of denial is so prevalent, and grows more rapidly than the Zika virus, and we have not, and are not seemingly interested in developing a strategy for alerting ourselves to our own complicity in our self-sabotage, and thereafter for a concerted, collaborative and adventurous series of strategies and tactics that work toward the kind of integrity, courage and commitment to our very survival, for which our grandchildren plead.
And those pleas go unheard and unanswered at their and our own peril.