Friday, April 28, 2017

Pet peeves and blooming hope, compassion and empathy

There more we read, listen, reflect and observe, the more one has to wonder how we have survived thus far and whether what today looks like so much dramatic bluster will not lead inevitably to some miscalculation, some mis-communication, some deviant and aberrant behaviour, whether by a large political actor, or some mole somewhere.

Irritability, suspicion, cynicism, distrust and outright disbelief are everywhere. Just yesterday, while walking on a designated path, I moved two steps to my left, to cross over to my car, when I heard these words from a silent cyclist, “I could have fallen!” To which I replied, unceremoniously, “I did not hear you, you jerk!” There was no auditory signal of anything coming behind me, and there were no other sounds that would have prevented my hearing a bell, or even a small horn, or even a small voice, “passing on your left”.

Having lost sight of responsibilities, we revert nearly always to “rights” as if my walking interfered with the cyclist’s right to safety, without his having to play his part by signalling. It is hardly surprising that cyclists and motorists are in a conflict on city streets constructed for cars and only much later modified, but only slightly to avoid huge costs, to accommodate the two-wheelers. And my insignificant incident did not occur between opposing cultures, religions, languages or even nationalities. Imagine the potential for conflict when any combination of those factors is introduced. History, tradition, belief…these also play a part in our perceptions of the potential for conflict.
And we each have our “red-line” when walking through our normal day:

·      A customer who mis-represents the work of a colleague,
·      the receptionist or clerk who does not seem to “hear” the details of our message, and does not provide the comfort of repeating both our needs and his/her instructions so that ‘cleaning up’ whatever the fall-out might be,
·      a mechanic who snuffs off a client’s question about what was wrong with the car,
·      a colleague who makes a request to fetch mail and paper while on vacation having already made the similar request to another friend, without telling either party
·      a co-worker who defies modest and polite and respectful requests to not shout to another co-worker, preferring not to make the 20-foot walk, to ask the question quietly and in private
·      a supervisor who utters the words of reductionism: “everything that led up to this conversation is in the past, and has no bearing on our going forward”.

All petty peeves, yes?

And they also encapsulate an attitude of both the scribe and  the  culture. Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, expressed an incisive view, very hard to refute: people generally see what they want and hear what they want and expect. (Thanks to Julie Nesrallah, CBC Radio 2, "Tempo" host, this morning, on Harper Lee's birthdate)

In the light of that insight, your scribe could well be depicted as the “author” of his own negative perception, and the river of peeves that listed above.

 Just as this piece is being written, I meet a young recent university grad who announces that she will start, on Monday next, her new career… counselling, coaching, mentoring and treating elderly people with dementia, following a four-year course to prepare. My eyes welled, my heart skipped a beat and I congratulated her not only on the accomplishment of her graduation, but even more for her choice of vocation. A member of the new cohort of university graduates who have had the opportunity to study abroad (she in Sweden!), when asked, “What is the most important thing you learned in your preparation?” responded, without skipping a beat, or taking a breath, “Well, that everyone is different and we have to listen carefully, and treat each person in a manner that is appropriate to them!”

Her smile, her enthusiasm for both her accomplishments and her prospects and the modest yet unmistakeable courage and strength with which she is approaching the next chapter of her life made all the petty complaints, irritations, complications, unmet expectation and thwarted human encounters pale, dissipate and dissolve in hope, joy and wonderment. In whatever nursing home she works, the elderly will be the beneficiaries of her “presence” not merely her skills. And there is little if any doubt that their lives will be infused with a new light in the midst of their unique and sometimes frightening darkness.

With all the blather about the Korean peninsula, (and who can either ignore or dismiss the dangers?), the pounding executive orders just today overturning the Obama environmental ban on fossil fuel drilling in protected national parks and potentially off the coast of oceans, the “me-first” bullying sanctioned, lead and unleashed by the “leader of the free world” and the deception and chicanery coming out of too many political sewers (capitals) to mention, this young graduate’s person, life, education and determination put it all to shame.

As one who could need her professional insights in the not-too-distant future, I am more aware than she of the irascibility and the intransigence, and the depression and the fatalism of her prospective patients/clients. One can only hope that those in whose professional company she works will comprehend the magnitude of her responsibilities, and the support and compassion she warrants for the full length of her professional life.

It is little candles of hope, light, promise, optimism and courage that will be needed not only to care for the elderly suffering from dementia, but to inspire generations after her to continue to tilt the scales in favour of humanity, compassion, empathy, agape and understanding and away from the current reduction to numbers, dollars, actions and eviscerated reports and bylaws that crowd both the consciousness and the unconsciousness of millions.

It is almost impossibleafter only a few hours  to recall the encounter with the cyclist from that early morning walk….thankfully! I want to meet more graduates like this one and read and hear much less from the Oval Office and many other political operatives as well!

Don’t we all!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Raw, furious and this what we have become?

It is cliché to report that institutions are under a cloud of distrust, in a tilt so far from acceptable and legitimate criticism that the cloud seems to have infused itself into the spring of 2017. Is it just the institutions that have lost their lustre? Or perhaps has the bloom come off the personal ‘rose’ as well?

Our public, and much of our private, discourse is so ugly and contaminated with anger, bitterness, contempt, cynicism and suspicion of everyone and everything that it reminds of a health epidemic, for which we do not have a pill, or even a diagnostic instrument. Amorphous, ethereal, ephemeral, and invisible, without either scent or taste, this attitudinal cloud has to be both named and cleared if we are to move past it.

Oh but….you say….there are still acts of kindness and compassion on every street, in every town and city on the planet. Scientists are still diligently researching cures for major human illnesses; doctors are performing often miraculous measures to both save and to enhance human lives. Nurses, social workers, teachers, and clergy continue their relentless pursuit of raising up those in need of a ‘hand-up’. Police still provide a moderating influence on the body politic, while shopkeepers open their doors to sell their wares, more supplemented by art and artifacts from around the world than ever before in history. Millions of people fly around the world in such statistical safety and security that their car and truck peers can only envy.

We know and integrate more information about healthy living habits, raising the age of death in many countries, and openly and aggressively search for racial and gender equality more deliberately than previously in history.

So, what could be compelling this open and draining boil in the culture?

In solely anecdotal terms,  (deemed neither useful nor reliable for social, political and thought leaders) we read, hear and engage in stories about the depravity and the desperation and the seemingly completely insensitive, inhumane, and unbelievable acts by humans against other human beings. Guards in Ontario’s provincial prisons use solitary confinement excessively as a “discipline” for recalcitrant inmates. Speculators so inject the residential real estate market that “housing” has to be publicly asserted as the purpose of a residence, not mere speculation. Major news corporations spend 90% of their air time on the machinations of the most absurd political utterances, and then tuck in a three-minute piece to close about an armless young boy who, after years of rejection on the basketball court, finally joins a school team and pot the winning basket. It is almost as if such stories (On the Road with Tom Hartman, CBS) while commendable, are meant to serve as a sedative to calm the anxiety from the previous 25 minutes. Drug companies buy air-time on national broadcasts to warn the public about the dangerous side-effects of their latest “miracle” pill, cream, drink or injection. Abandoned babies are found dead near an urban church. Alabama mounts an intense “killing” campaign for death row inmates, ‘because the drug they use is about to lose its “best-before” date, while opponents attempt to push back with court injunctions. We know the people who read and comment on the public news better than we know our next-door neighbours. We measure our daily work output in terms of revenue, units produced and cost-cutting suggestions while we remain on-guard for another shoe to drop when we screw up (not if, because we inevitably will screw up!).

We absorb a steady diet of self-congratulations, or self-acquitting rationalizations from our public leaders, without a single instance of acknowledged responsibility, accepted culpability, regret and/or remorse. It is a non-nourishing information flow “engineered” to starve our normal human instincts of both ordinariness and unity, merely to serve the narcissistic needs of survival by the politicians. Insults, even when layered with BS, are still insults! Don’t they get it? And we keep drinking their distorted ‘stories’!

Public policy debates, bereft of the heft of credible information, fall prey to ideological pandering, wanton deception and headline-grabbing tweets, as mature adulthood gives way to a public mentality of pre-adolescence, complete with a heavy and persistent dose of bullying, blaming and deriding…all with the impunity that attends animal-preying by adults on children around the world.

Sounds more than a little “preachey” doesn’t it?
Well, perhaps anger that is directed to a social and cultural dynamic in which we are all participants, has little choice but to sound “preachey”….
And of course “preachey” is counter-productive and counter intuitive given the level of receptivity, respect and engagement we are experiencing.

Let’s start with retail…where customers, in employee training sessions of decades ago, were “always right” and that training today has slid smoothly and silently into the trash-bin. If you know or can find a retail worker who actually operates on that premise, tell him/her how much you really appreciate the respect, the extra effort and the way s/he ‘does business’. Customers too often find something wrong with the service, the product, the price or all three and those working in customer service deserve a medal for their restraint and their repression of the things they really want to say.

 Just today, I encountered a jovial satiric and ironic person who blurted, “You have to stop 'p------' people off!”
To which I replied, “I did not know that I was doing that!”
“Well, I sure know how to 'p---' people off; in fact I could teach you lessons on how to do it!” came his rebuttal.
“Sure, I could enroll in the KM Finishing School and get some tips!” I laughed as he walked away.
Proud of his reputation for annoying others, this man seems to fit  “hand-in-glove” with the current culture.

As another acquaintance put it, all forms of civility, respect, gratitude and gracefulness seem to have been evaporated out of the heart of the culture. Ironically, at least for Canadians, as the number of fisticuffs in professional hockey has dropped, the frequency of harsh-speak and bitter-tongues has spiked.

Are we suffering from an epidemic of narcissism in a world of significantly diminished expectations of the “material” kind? Or have we reached our “fill” of the latest gadget, fashion and entertainment piece, filling our psychic “guts” with trash and then are we attempting to emulate the raw furiousness we see everywhere around us?

It is not only shame and remorse, regret and civility that have atrophied. It is a sense of shared responsibility for each other, (outside of extremis), for the planet, and for the future of our grandchildren that seems to haunt the cubicles and the retail establishments, including the restaurants at the lower and medium end of the “food chain” if you will pardon the pun.

Children who “bad-mouthed” their parents were rare in the recent past; today they are more frequent, and, in some quarters, similar attitudes take the busses to our schools. Flippancy, paper-thin arrogance as a mask for insecurity may be the phenomenon I am attempting to describe. There is a sauciness and a nastiness in the air that seems to have found both an ear and a mouthpiece in the Oval Office.

Yet, underneath this sauciness and flippancy, sarcasm and venom there is a raging spirit of hate, whether directed to women, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Jews, or anyone who might be different from the majority. The recent rise of populism, (how ironic is that name, given the exclusivity of its mouth-pieces) is really a political cover for contempt for the former establishment, in another loud and hollow shout from what we used to call the “peanut gallery”….given its vacuity.

It is not that the establishments have really failed us; it is more like the fact that change has overtaken everything, without a concomitant level of regulation, restraint and control by the state, and raw, furious and unleashed individualism of the jungle mentality has reared its ugly and angry voice and the hair on its neck.

It is as if there is unleashed a case of human “rabies” for which we do not have either an antidote or a repressant. The human species might be so frightened and so desperate that whether consciously or unconsciously, we  seem to be grabbing everything as if time is running out.

Sad, and unlikely to be tamped down soon.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Reflections on the practice of agape in a world struggling for human connection

Let’s spend a few moments looking at boundaries: not the kind that define the geography of nations (although they may be referenced) but the kind that keep good people from doing the work that rightfully rests at the feet of another.

Even goodness, compassion, helping out, rescuing and supporting or enabling all have limits; yet these limits are very difficult to both learn and practice. Much of the pastoral work of the practitioners of ministry in the Christian church, at least over the last couple of decades, has focused on “agape” love, charity, the love of God for man and man for God, ad by extension, also Christ for man and man for Christ. Following parables like the “Good Samaritan,” people in pews, (and also in pulpits and albs!) set about taking “care” of their “friends” in the pews, in the hospital beds, in the nursing homes and in the prison cells. The “Samaritan” who found the Jew taken for dead in the ditch, after others including the priest had passed by, and provided refuge and rest is the model for this “care”. It is not incidental to the story that Samaritans and Jews hated each other, so the act of charity by the Samaritan suggest “going beyond” the cultural norms to help someone who is destitute.

“Going beyond” the cultural norms is also reinforced by the life and ministry of Jesus, friend to tax collectors, prostitutes, the outcast, the blind, the leper and the sinner. “Go and sin no more” is a phrase that recognizes both reality of events and the hope for tomorrow. And so, in an empirical and extrinsic culture where success is measured in numbers,  both of people and dollars, among other observable, touchable and empirically verified data, if one makes a considerable sacrifice to “visit” the shut-ins of whatever variety, one is demonstrably a good person.

 Epitomizing such agape love, Jean Vanier, son of the late Governor General and Madame Vanier of Canada, established L’Arche, homes for the mentally challenged in several locations. Sister (and now Saint) Mother Theresa dedicated her life to the lepers on the streets of India. Saint Francis, Saint Benedict, too, dedicated their lives to poverty, chastity, and service to mankind, in the name of the Christian God/Christ as have popes and archbishops and bishops for centuries. Hospitals, in many countries, founded and operated by “sisters of charity” have provided care and new health to millions, also in the name of Christ. And there is no reason either to dispute or to denigrate these examples of dedication and charity.

Ironically, it is from Saint Benedict, that I learned the spiritual maxim, “One is not to do the work of another”….a red flag for people who believe the world needs an unlimited injection of agape love. And here is where the tension occurs between the desire and even the need to “care” for another who seeks help and/or who obviously needs help and the boundary to that “care”.

Benedict also teaches that friars must not deny themselves legitimate needs and even desires, since to do so would only result in extravagance when unleashed and bitterness and resentment when denied. Healthy, balanced living that includes rest, reflection, prayer, and work of a physical nature comprise what Benedict considers a sustainable path to not only physical health but also spiritual health. And for each mendicant to care for his person is also expected, although the “brothers” are supportive.

There are a number of paradoxes to the dynamic of offering and receiving care. For starters, the masculine dictum that to ask for help is a “weakness” is, in a word, a myth. It takes considerable fortitude and courage to realize and to accept that whatever one is facing seems too heavy and unmanageable to be sustained in isolation. So, one of the first “givens” (if not requirements) of care is that is it both sought and desired. Another paradox is that the one who receives care is the one who benefits most; that too is a myth. It is the one who offers care, in the appropriate manner, in the appropriate degree, tone and place, who receives much more than the needy one. So there are a number of questions that emerge from these differences between what is considered “true” and what is in fact the reality of the interaction between care-giver and client/patient/friend.

The Clinical Pastoral Education Units have been designed to “thaw” out middle-aged people who offer themselves for work in ministry. And while there are texts and research scholarship that ground the discipline, pastoral care’s primary premise is the opposite to the medical model of “fixing whatever is not working”…Pastoral care, on the other hand, seeks to find “whatever is working already” for the person, and nurture that growth. Teaching strategies that rely on penetrating reflections of the words, and the body language of each encounter of care-giver and client (called verbatims) demand that the practitioner come face to face with his/her personal issues, fears, anxieties and power/control needs. The agenda of the patient/client is, and must remain, paramount, and the insertion of the (usually unconscious) needs, agenda of the care-giver have to be acknowledged and then quieted, for another time.

As care-giver, one can expect to be in contact with another whose life begs questions and attitudes that are less than easily accepted. Also, as care-giver, one can expect that whomever the client reminds him of has to be confronted, privately, and then set aside, so that, to the degree possible, the person as s/he presents is the only one in the room, with the care-giver. Similarly, the attitudes and emotions of the care-given also have to be “contained” for release and reflection in a different time and place, probably under supervision. So, for the purpose of the “care” the client’s words, questions, answers, anxieties, fears and even hopes provide the agenda, under the gentle and supportive guided reflection of the care-giver.

Clearly, in the complex of the I-and Thou of Buber’s theology, (where God is present) each person “shows up” as completely and unabridged and unaffected and authentically as is feasible. And in this context, as the client hears his own words, often repeated for emphasis and the opportunity to hear their full meaning (not only denotation but also connotation, not only the facts but also the affect) sometimes the path forward becomes clear, as if it emerges from the fog in the forest. Sometimes, the impact of those words is so strong that it brings the speaker to tears and a needed time-out. Other times, the words reflect and echo such deep-seated anger, or fear or desperation that again finding additional expression seems appropriate.

Whatever the emotional chords that are struck through a mutual encounter of trust, openness, vulnerability of both the care-giver and the client and the full presence f both, if these moments, like the moment in a music concert when the person in the audience and the orchestra or soloist, and the composer ‘come together’ in a moment of synergy, there is no control over and no predicting the results. Most times, such conversations are more restrained, somewhat more polite and predictable and only later when the encounter is being unpacked does something like clarity or motivation or new insight bubble up.

Most lay people, however, still welcome opportunities to “visit” those who are shut in, hospitalized, or incarcerated, as expressions of support and hope. And, there is a critical issue that accompanies such kindness and generosity. That is the “everything will  be fine” syndrome, when, because the visitor wishes to bring some good news, whether or not that good news is supported by the situation or not. Here is the moment when the needs of the care-giving visitor trump the needs of the patient/client. The wish to convey hope, however, can easily be compromised, and the visit turned into just another polite and superficial encounter, from which neither party really experiences the other.

Like the first lesson in downhill skiing, learning to stop in a snow-plow position, without the benefit of either skis or hill as lesson props, the care-giver has to learn, and it can only come through repeated practice (yet there is no intellectual quotient required), to enter fully into the thoughts, words, feelings and body language of the client and simultaneously to set aside the personal feelings, thoughts, and any agenda items that might be front-of-mind when the conversation begins.

Searching for some experience that is comparable, one thinks of the dancer who throws her/her whole person into the movements conjured, choreographed and rehearsed with the music. An artist, too, in sports “talk” leaves his whole person, heart, mind and spirit, on the canvas, through the composition, the medium, the original scene and it impact on him/her.

In a time when detachment, production, skill development and acquisition and the pathways that facilitate such accomplishments tend to prevail, it is still both true and within the scope of the masculine (as well as the feminine) experience to be able to learn the nuances of one’s emotions, to find and apply appropriate words, phrases, metaphors and similes for such expression and to mirror such dynamics in one’s close friends, if and when invited.

This may well be a time when such personal encounters are needed and potentially rewarding.

For it is not only the patient/client who is gifted by such an encounter. The care-giver, too, for all of the restraint, and the apparent sacrifice of his/her personal agenda, not only learns who this other person is, where s/he comes from in the sense of a brief sketch of the biography, and also, but also grows in the capacity to stretch “into the other’s shoes” in a meaningful way.

Native culture is filled with the phrase, “walk a mile in his mocassins” if you really want to get to know who he is. Approximating such a shared walk, from a perspective of care, agape love, in healthy respect and support, listening, really listening so deeply and so intently that even the emotions being expressed are recognized, named and shared not only brings two people together, it also grows both.

The argument that men don’t talk, and that their hard-wiring is not conducive to such an encounter is more a reflection of both inexperience, and the fear of not-getting-it-right. We can and will always “talk” if at all, in our own individual manner, including our unique vocabulary, our unique perspective and our unique biographies. None of these are, or need to be, in competition with a woman’s shared encounter of care.
We are much more private, and much more guarded than women, whose traditional ‘circle’ has no equivalent in masculine culture and experience.

The male caveat notwithstanding, the process of agape care giving is one of the more rewarding and challenging processes to come along. It is also a process open to and appropriate for clergy, health care workers, lawyers, doctors, dentists, morticians, physiotherapists, nurses, teachers, social workers, police, paramedics, railway, ship and  bus operators and all workers in the human resource departments. Whether or not political practitioners, financial services professionals, engineers and chemists would consider dipping their toes in these waters is a matter for them to decide.

Whether the professional schools would ever consider inserting this discipline into their curricula is a matter of mere conjecture at this point. 

Whether or not learning these skills would significantly enhance both the performance and the professional relationships of these professionals is not in question. The answer is an unequivocal affirmative.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Climate change and safe healthy work space are linked...and the same attitudes apply

Here we go again!

The climate absolutists like Bill McKibben ( have doubled down on political leaders like Justin Trudeau for not abandoning fossil fuels by leaving all remaining carbon in the ground, halting the tar sands project and all fracking and drilling projects that search for new oil and gas reserves. Premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley, too, is another target of the perfectionists, two of whom she has hired to work from inside her government on the issue. McKibben first lauded Obama when he blocked the Keystone pipeline, and then dubbed him a climate enemy when he permitted drilling and fracking.

Talk about an oscillation of epic proportions.

Of course, the people of North America want to breathe fresh clean air and drink fresh clean water, and plant seeds in uncontaminated soil. We also need to work to feed our families, to shelter them and to launch them into productive work with dignity. The transition from fossil fuels to clean energy projects, including solar panels on our homes, wind-generated electricity, bio-fueled and electric vehicles, while proceeding with both government subsidies and corporate research and production, takes time. And there is a growing impatience among global warming and climate change scientists and advocates that Paris emission limits will not be reached without more substantial and more urgent political action, especially from leaders in the developed world.

The argument at, even if Canada were to halt all fossil fuel production today the result to the global climate would represent a mere 4% of the current emissions, and therefore only a small fraction of the “problem” in its entirety, misses the point of being a highly visible symbol for the world. Leadership on this issue, like so many previous and current issues,( secondary smoke in workplaces, scent in workplaces, synthetic beads in body wash, workplace and cyber-bullying to name a few, have polarized individuals, families, organizations and government legislators.

Zero tolerance, a policy that has emerged in several quarters, promoted by the purists, the perfectionists and the absolutists, has given those who consider themselves “victim” of any of several “injustices” and has spread to include so many “issues” on the public agenda that the world seems overwhelmed with the demand for and the need for immediate change. Slow, incremental change, on several of these files is, for those who suffer under the cloud of the “perpetrators” is not acceptable.

And there are legitimate reasons for that truth on a number of these files. Child abuse, sexual abuse, instances in which individuals’ health is compromised….these are so obvious, blatant and demanding of immediate change. And one of the instruments of social change is punitive.

Punishing the offenders, as a social and legal and moral protection of victims, is a clear and obvious path to reform, at least in those specific cases.But it is not the only or the preferred path to resolving the situations. Any process premised on punishment (sanctions, penalties and sidelining offenders) demands clear and unequivocal evidence of culpability, and justice system that is ‘up to date’ and so efficient and effective that it sifts out suspect evidence, probes the many sources for all the evidence available, and prosecutes with fairness and objectivity.

And here is where the rubber meets the road, as the proverbial cliché puts it.

Objectivity, if one is either a victim or a perpetrator, is invariably a function of perception and especially the perception of “rights”. If your smoke offends my right to access clean air, then my right to clean air must trump your right to smoke in our shared space. If your scent makes me sick, then my right to clean air that does not make me sick trumps your right to wear whatever scent you choose. Yet, the contest of rights is too often pitted as an “us” against them, with the new victims having to bear the burden of both proof and the resistance to change, while the resistors to change continue to cling to the right to wear whatever they wish too often with impunity.

These resistors, for example, seem unaware that the pollution that is causing thousands of people in cities in China to wear masks to filter the pollution and to help prevent their becoming ill is now clouding the air in North America, while the chemicals that are being inserted into man of our consumer products, without full disclosure because the corporates which produce the new chemicals do not have to disclose (just as the frackers did not have to disclose the chemicals in their “fracking” water), and the argument about global warming and climate change, under Trump, has suffered a severe regression back almost to square one.

That blocking and dismissal of the science has empowered those aardvaaks who resist change, in all quarters and on all files, including but not restricted to fossil fuels, smoke, scents, beads and the many other instances where human capacity to live in a healthy mode is threatened by lead on children’s toys from China for example.
Regulation, standards and the enforcement of those standards, will be considered an impediment to “freedom” rather than the more appropriate and accurate consideration, as a provider of real and lasting “freedom”. Of course those who despise all government will likely never come around to a tolerant, mutually responsible and flexible attitude that makes a new and different kind of “room” for everyone. This new reality applies not only to our private homes, where, hopefully no baby will have to grow and develop in a home filled with cigarette, pipe, cigar or marijuana smoke, no worker will have to visit the emergency room because  he or she became ill from a dirty ventilation system or from one of the millions of chemical additives that make us “sexy” and perfumed from a cosmetic, a hairspray, a laundry sheet, a body lotion, or even a very high-end body wash or soap. It also applies to the shop floor where odors of various chemicals tars, oils, gases, and motors waft through the open space, and with luck out the up-dated ventilation system.

It also applies to the more business-oriented office spaces, where two or more people share a cubicle, and where, should one be impacted negatively by scents whose chemical composition and body-wearer are both unknown, and have to resort to the infirmary (if there even is one) or be taken home to recover, not only rising the cost of doing business, but also raising the cost of a single-payer health care system. There is no more evident situation in which the phrase “we are all in this together” than the situation in which one person’s long-worn and life-long-preferred perfume, deodorant, shampoo, or even cologne makes another quite literally incapacitated.

And for the burden, nor only of proof of the incapacity to rest with the sick person is for the culture of the workplace to take a similar position as Trump has on global warming and climate change….it is China’s hoax (merely substitute the name of the ill person, and you will get the picture). If we are unable and also unwilling to make the necessary adjustments to our attitudes, and the actions that flow from them on something like penetrating chemical scents, how we will ever be able and willing to make the much more dramatic and much more essential changes in our lifestyles to keep the world’s temperature from rising less than 2 degrees Celsius.

Those now suffering from lung pollution, like the Chinese people wearing those face masks on our television sets, not one or two times every year, but more like two or three times every month, including those now seen walking to  work in North American cities wearing similar masks, or those who have for years silently taken antihistamines just to be able to keep working, knowing full well that their employer is not yet sufficiently enlightened to  new shared human environment.

Forest fires, floods, mudslides, draughts, and rapidly oscillating temperatures are not the only signs that human actions are taking a toll on the air we breathe. We are, as human beings, being challenged to come to a new level of both awareness and of co-operation if we are to prepare a planet in which human life can and will not merely survive but thrive. And for some, that starts with the home and the office.

Now, with respect to the oscillation over the termination of the search and production of fossil fuels and the mounting of clean, green energy as the alternative to replace them and thereby reduce emissions, some compromise is both necessary and feasible. A formal commitment to a date by which Canada, the United States, China, India, Russia, The European Union and the African sub-continent will assure the people of the world that we will have no more need for fossil fuels, or for carbon-emitting fuels of any kind would go a long way to assuaging the anxiety of people like Bill McKibben….and also this scribe. And that date has to be closer than the 2050 date currently being thrown around, as if only with such a lame-duck approach, will the current crop of politicians escape the full responsibility for implementation.
Bill McKibben and the environmental purists are not either crazy or irrelevant. In fact, their plea is for each of us,  in our own little corner of the world, to wake up, and to transform our personal world view from the now outdated and dangerous “me-first silo” to a much more workable and visionary “we-really-do-take-each-other seriously” and drop the isolation, the denial and the blame-game from our approach to each situation we encounter.

Is it too much to ask?

Only for those whose heads are too buried deeply in the sands for them to begin to perceive the whole picture, and their part in it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Recruiting dissidents....again!

It is too easy to get caught up in the details (as in the “weeds”)….the rising carbon emissions, the gutting of the EPA, the bombing of Afghanistan, the missile strike in Syria, the privatizing of public schools, the release of mining permits in national parks, the return to coal-fired electric generation, the call to Erdogan congratulating him prematurely on becoming another world dictator (“I have a big property in Istanbul” as the excuse and rationalization for the call)…

Even the details of a health care bill that endorse the pharma and insurance industries, the wimpish FDA that does not conduct clinical trials in order to prevent “side-effects” of new drugs aimed at ailments never even heard about a couple of decades ago…the 54% increase in the Pentagon budget proposal, the failure to appoint several hundreds senior and middle-rank public servants to government departments or the conflation of three North Korean dictators into one….these are merely zits on a face, cranium and brain that is eroding with a cancerous tumor to which the American people, (and who knows how many others from other countries?) have become so enmeshed that our survival is now in jeopardy.

‘Profit trumps people’ seems such a glib and easily dismissed aphorism. I recall being told several times, when I made lame attempts at poetry, “It reads like a drop of water sliding down a windshield!” And the danger is that this slogan will, like that water drop, slide into the ditch of our collective unconscious.

And yet, it merits a lengthy pause for reflection.

If the country’s political, cultural, academic, ideological cornerstone is the for-profit corporation, and all of the public actors, thinkers, speakers and political leadership worship at some variation of that “idol” then everything and everyone are subject to its iron-clad demands, requirements, expectations and discipline. Swept aside in such a “climate” are things like “side effects” of drugs that could result in death while disabling bowel dysfunction, medications that generate thoughts and acts of suicide while clearing the skin from blemish, micro-beads that wash human bodies while they kill the fish in the downstream of public effluent, chemicals that make us smell sexy, chemicals that “preserve” our food (simply to enhance the profits of both producers and wholesalers and retailers, a digital technology, including the deep internet, now out of control of its designers, and public access to the ‘public internet’ over which legislation is so lagging in both time and enforcement, that it provide an instructive model for our purposes.

The demand for new and improved “everything” in every industry, for the purpose of generating profit and investor dividends, both within the research departments and the sales departments of all corporations, including tragically the multi-billion-profit driven chartered banks, extends to the politicians whose careers are so “siamesed” (or less politely, incestuously embedded) to the tax privileges, the lobbyists and the economic and fiscal cycles that are driven by the indices measuring stock and bond prices and trading rates.

Underlying the premise of this capitalist wildfire (whether operated with decreasing regulation and control in western countries, or with oligarchic dictatorships) is an unleashed “Thanatos” whose ultimate outcome is either  a slow or a more dramatic death. And whether that death is epitomized by single individuals who shoot others at random and then post their “exploit” on facebook, only to finally shoot themselves after a police chase,  or the civil wars in Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Nigeria, Mali, Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, or the assassination of any residue of truth and factual evidence, replaced by the most convenient and self-exonerating flippancy, including the denial of verified and credible evidence gathered and compiled and peer-reviewed by the academic community, or the kind of evidence that obliterates responsibility for public disclosure of tax returns, or for the avowed “deconstruction of the administrative state” making way for malignant autocracy, or for metaphorically opening the gates of the zoo and letting all the caged animals loose on the population, in the latest version of Darwin’s survival of the fittest….

We are now living in a period of history when public regulation and control, of the kind that legal systems, and measured bureaucracies and educational institutions and churches and banks and even the military, and in some distant and foggy past, even corporations considered a needed balance to the dangers of human greed, opportunism, narcissism, selfishness, racism, religious superiority and the wanton abuse of power. We have now let the “abuse of power” free from the constraints of regulation, tradition, law, the truth, and common sense and evidence of its release can be witnessed on every continent, while the specific expressions may vary.

In Russia, we learn of suddenly wealthy oligarchs squirrelling their stash of cash in bank accounts around the world, while “respectable” billionaires in the west do the same, while  the drug, arms, oil and tech industries operate so far out of touch, (and the control) of normal laws, perhaps because the laws are no longer relevant and the legislators are too resistant to make the necessary changes, or because law-enforcement too is profiting from these “under-the-table” profits...

There is a respectable veneer of professionalism attempt to ‘cover’ the political class, all of whose members know intimately that if they were to defy the corporate, capitalist ‘gods’ their political careers would be toast.

It is not only shame, and the abuse of power, and the truth that have been laid to rest: so too has the kind of public scrutiny, activism and dissent that motivated people like the owner/operators of the Warsaw Zoo in WWII who secretly harboured several endangered Jews from the clutches of the Fuhrer in their basement.

We are not likely to get warnings like the bombs that were dropped on their home, today, the weapons of power having morphed into the cyber variety and so stealth has also become the arm of those in power. They can and do know more about their naïve and innocent and mostly trusting “subjects” the populace. And they can and will manipulate both what they know and how they sell such information for their own purposes.

Only when all of the horses have left the barn will there be any acknowledgement of the “failures” of both commission and omission that plague the world, and by then there will have been so much irreversible damage done that the balance so honoured by the Greeks when they proposed democracy for the world will have found its resting place in the mounds of garbage through which those left will have to search for food.
Of course, this sounds apocalyptic, and ominous!

Is there really anyone who truly can look this scribe in the eye and say that s/he knows things are moving in a different and opposite direction?

More importantly how many are willing to pay the price of full-throated, fully committed and sacrificial dissent so that such a scenario is not the bequest we leave for our grandchildren?  And make no mistake, the price of dissent is very high!

Whenever we make the conscious choice to say that what is going on under the umbrella of society, and conventional political economic culture is unacceptable, w choice to stand out, to stand virtually and literally ALONE and that is precisely what is needed in the western world and it is needed now!

Are you up for the challenge? Or do you still think the world is heading in the “right direction?”  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

In Memoriam for a friend, Tom

Watching death notices, while making one’s way through the sunset years, can be both sad and sometimes, when prompted to recall the good memories, profoundly gratifying. Warm memories of connection, support and good humour kindle the heart and the soul.

It is with sadness and gratitude that I learned today of the death of a friend, in his 86th year. Tom’s unforgettable smile not only gleamed from his friendly face, it seemed to come from the depths of his being. A skeptic might dismiss his affability as required by his vocation as a life insurance salesman. They would be wrong; he cannot be reduced to such an insult. Honourable and kind, deeply spiritual and endowed with an unshakeable social justice conscience, Tom’s obituary directs donations to (….typical of Tom’s life-long staying in touch with events both in his community and around the world, and today focused on the millions displaced in that war-torn country.

I have a unique connection with Tom; his wife Shelagh and I share a similar health condition, and we have spoken about the symptoms and treatment in ways that do not often come along. Tom and I did some business together, in another life, and more recently, I was honoured to be a guest for dinner in his home, where I was welcomed and where our friendship was renewed. The dinner invitation came, somewhat unexpectedly, after several years of being apart, while I took a different path. However, from my perspective, there was no gap in the relationship and the conversation resumed from where it left off two decades prior, another gift of Tom and Shelagh. These are not and never have been “fair-weather-friends”…

It was at this memorable dinner when I learned that, way back in the late seventies, while in that ‘other’ life, without my knowledge,Tom had put my name forward as a potential candidate for the provincial election that was held in 1977. I did not taken up the invitation, which came to me from a very different source with Tom, of course taking a back-seat to any public notice and the shift that his support could have had on our friendship. Back then, I had a somewhat more public profile, and, while I did not then, and still do not today, share Tom’s confidence that I could or would have succeeded in being elected, the surprise and the warmth of his endorsement is one of the more memorable highlights of my life.

As an indelible mark on a timeline of a life, this moment has often resurfaced in reflections on what life might have been like, had I taken the path that endorsement would have put me on. Even those thoughts have altered my perceptions of the political headlines that continue to emerge from both Toronto and Ottawa. The man who did get that nomination, Michael Bolan, served in the provincial legislature for a brief period before becoming a judge. Although he too is deceased, and sadly missed, we spoke together about his time in politics, and his memories were not the most gratifying. I seem to recall his clear perception of the “theatre” of the public debates, the pre-rehearsal of those debates prior to their actual presentation and the lack of spontaneity, originality and authentic debate that clouded his view of the time he served.

Another of the facets of Tom’s life that we shared was his firm and unshakeable support for ecumenism. A Catholic by birth and commitment, Tom nevertheless represented the most tolerant and welcoming attitude to those of all faith communities. And I discovered this upon meeting him shortly after an editorial supporting the Vatican aired, and he took the occasion to discuss it with me.

Sometimes, even when the other person is totally unaware, that person presents a ‘light’ along the way, especially when the road seems most dark. It was in such a time that his and Shelagh’s invitation to dinner arrived, shortly after I arrived back in town after a considerable absence. There seemed, at least from this perspective, that Tom’s light shone into the dark corners of many lives, whether he was informed or consciously aware of his gift.

It takes a very special combination of integrity, authenticity, good humour, vision and indisputable trust that comprises some of the most powerful of human “lights” that cross our paths often when we least expect to have such an encounter. An English teacher in grade twelve, a twentieth-century literature scholar who taught four of the English courses I took as an undergrad, a small-town lawyer who welcomed me into his practice, a retired entrepreneur who saw something in a vision I presented, a criminal lawyer who both challenged and supported me, and a few very special students whose ‘light’ whether intellectual, emotional, social or spiritual lit up my path. It is among these mentors, coaches, friends and colleagues that I am honoured to include Tom.

It may seem somewhat cliché to say that Tom’s person radiated light, confidence and a gentle and tender kindness that is so often passed by as a sign of mature masculinity. However, this cliché fits, because like most others, it is simply true. If I remember right, he is a son of Prince Edward Island, and if so, the island and the world have lost a honoured son.

I thank God and Shelagh for sharing him with me, and for offering the kind of  genuine acceptance and support, and offer my small token of remembrance and condolences to Shelagh and his considerable family. May you join the chorus of angels and sing with them forever, Tom.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Reflections on American HEGEMONY

Hegemony, as defined by Merriam Webster, is:
1preponderant influence or authority over others :  domination battled for hegemony in Asia
2:  the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group

Let’s examine the history and tradition in the United States to take “dominance and authority over others, including social, cultural ideological and economic influence” for granted, and even as a national RIGHT.

What we are witnessing in Washington, from the current American administration cannot be disconnected from the long-running stance of the American government(s) for dominance in geopolitical affairs. The most powerful arsenal, not only in history, but in relative comparison with all of the state and non-state actors combined, is merely the tip of the iceberg of both the American “strength” and paradoxically, also its extreme vulnerability.
More about the vulnerability aspect later.

First, let’s look at the United States “need” to be considered the world’s single super-power and how that need has played out through the use of the United Nations as an instrument of American policy, as for example, through the design of the National Security Strategy, immediately following the 9-11 attack on Manhattan, through the too-clever-by-half hiding or avoiding the intimate support of Israel’s nuclear arsenal in Security Council resolutions, while demanding non-proliferation from all others, save and except the “original five”. The campaign for American values, as embedded in capitalism, profit-centred manufacturing, labour-as-raw-material, environment-as-collateral-damage, and the complete manipulation of the modern press (also embedded in the for-profit-first-and-people-last cultural, psychological and even ideological cornerstone) sold as “family values,” have given rise not only to the latest Trump administration, but more significantly, to the almost “Gibraltar-like” edifice of the definition of America, both at home and abroad.
If and when America interests, as seen by the “establishment” do not concur with those of the international community, as represented by the United Nations, including the Security Council with its five-member Veto, then the United States has no qualms, regrets or even a sense that it has to explain its “superior position”. In fact, since the beginning of the United Nations, no country has deployed the Veto more than the United States.

Since 9-11, especially, with the advent of both the 'preemptive' and the ‘preventive’ military attack, again morphed from the ‘defensive stance’ used previously as justification for military action, the United States has moved significantly in the direction of self-justification of any military action deemed by the administration, with or without supporting, documented evidence that would garner the kind of public support that accompanied the American declaration of war in 1941 following Pearl Harbour.
Public support, however, is also merely another minor pawn in the overarching national design of American foreign policy, manipulated by the sycophant media, drinking the administration kool aid, “in the interest of national security.”

National Security, that phrase so expedient in the aftermath of 9-11, to justify the injection of billions into another “security” apparatus, linked to the underlying national paranoia that inevitably comes with a perceived national identity of dominance. After all, hard power, the identity of the bully, is very costly, whether for the drug lord in his coterie of “protectors” or for the national reputation. Ironically, national identity, seems paradoxically missing from the political rhetoric at the micro-district voting debate about individual identity (gender, race, religion) when the national identity is so intrusive into all of the language and the attitudes expressed by that language at the state (national, official) level.

Providing arms to political leaders then taken as friendly to the U.S. interests, as expressed again in national dominance, national security, national need for resources like fossil fuels, supported by a munitions manufacturing sector of the economy (and also supported by the NRA, the testosterone-infused gun lobby) sets the table for those same weapons, when abandoned by American fighters on the battlefields, to then be used to ‘bite the ass’ of another influx of American personnel, when those leaders turn against their former benefactor. Satellite states, (those whose national security is propped up by the sale of arms from the United States) have had their support of the United States “bought” by those sales, another example of the nationally condoned opportunism that renders all private and national profit as “exemplary” and in the “national interest”. There is a “deal” with a profit at both ends, in the national and corporate account books, and in the political influence log books when American “allies” offer both supporting votes when needed and supporting Public Relations when required.

Another example of American ‘hegemony’ takes the stage in Davos each year when the “economic wizards” and the “movers and shakers” meet to eat, drink and pontificate about their undiluted success, measured in the number of billionaires, the growth of GDP’s, the size of the investment accounts and the obvious spike in sales of Masserati’s. This meeting, and the many of its kind, does not hear, and does not even acknowledge the dramatic drift between the have’s and the have-not’s that has accompanied the rise in globalization in trade and investment. American hegemony once again, has another chorus of private-sector choristers loudly proclaiming the success of their definition of globalization, that is the globalization for investors.

After all, it is certainly not the globalization of “workers” that is being celebrated in Davos, given that the profit-motive that governs all capital and capitalist corporations (which serve their investor-masters) requires the search for and the attainment of the lowest labour costs on the planet, with the least labour protections (costs), and the least environmental protection (costs). There is something called the World Social Forum*, that has met at the same time, in a different location as the Davos platinum dining salon.

While the pundits excoriate the Koch brothers for their unimpeded financial largesse in support of a right-wing political agenda, (also in support of American unfettered capitalism) made legal by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, they are merely the “face” of an otherwise mostly hidden cadre of financial supporters of the capitalism mantra, commonly called the greatest economic and political system ever devised.

In pursuit of American “ideals” the U.S. administration has also incorporated the legal right to detain without cause, to interrogate and to torture, a “right” abandoned by the Obama administration and revived by the Trump gang. 

Essentially declaring not only the United Nations and Security Council to be instruments of the American administration(s), the nation’s laws too have become an instrument of American corporate dominance, through the prominent and unabashed deployment of redistricting (jerrymandering) that makes nearly 90% of all Republican candidates for office re-elected in every election. It is not incidental that Obama has dedicated much of the next chapter of his life to challenging the hegemony of the elite within the nation.

·     White racial superiority,
·     corporate immunity from many social justice issues in addition to fair labour practices (unions now representing less than 10% of a workforce as compared with a near half in the middle of the twentieth century),
·     the refusal to adopt restrictions on the purchase, ownership and use of assault weapons,
·     the resistance to corporate off-shoring profits to tax havens enabled with tax loopholes that make the practice “legal”,
·     the U.S. refusal to sign on to other International bodies like the International Criminal Court at the Hague,
·     the history of propping up puppet dictators while decrying “illegal” interventions by other nations, and the military incursions into “threatening” nations (Cuba, El Salvador, and more recently Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria) under ‘trumped-up’ evidence of danger to ‘our national security’
·     the resistance to tax support for green and renewable energy projects while fossil fuel corporations have consistently bought up technical innovations that would have provided clean air emissions from automobiles as early as the mid-twentieth century
·     enforcing a heath care system that caters to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries at the expense of a single-payer system that would provide access to every American
·     championing military exploits as national celebrations of the cherished and honourable “sacrifice” of millions of wounded and killed veterans, while denying appropriate and accessible health care to those returning from illegitimate combat
·     exporting and exploiting an entertainment culture that disseminates and inculcates in world youth, as well as American youth, the notion that everything American embodies “success” and “wealth” and “power” and the most to be admired of world cultures, while shutting the doors of America’s compassionate embrace of refugees and migrants even as young as early teens who are trying to escape lives of danger, threats to their lives, and hopelessness
·     parading the world’s high seas looking for drug shipments to interdict and arrest those trading in illicit drugs only to serve an insatiable American drug appetite that bespeaks an angry, disconsolate and dispossessed cadre of mostly young men who have dropped out of school, cannot find work and engage in the street trafficking of those same drugs that were not confiscated on the seas

These are just some of the ways in which the American hegemony operates, grows and shows no sign of either remorse or regret and clearly no sign of abating, especially when the latest national success story incarnates the worst of American hegemonic “values” and has been elected by those whose anger and fear that the U.S. was not acting like the bully it is supposed to be, and had better return to that bullying supremacy.

Ambition, greed, profit, unilateralism, militarism and a history of impunity in the pursuit of such American “values” while championing the Christian faith as the model to emulate in its spiritual and ethical journey…this is a divide from which the only recourse is the rejection of the denial that sustains the hegemony that is both America’s perceived strength and its authentic failure.

*World Social Forum is an annual meeting of civil society organizations, first held in Brazil, which offers a self-conscious effort to develop an alternative future through the championing of counter-hegemonic globalization. Some[who?] consider the World Social Forum to be a physical manifestation of global civil society, as it brings together non governmental organizations, advocacy campaigns as well as formal and informal social movements seeking international solidarity. The World Social Forum prefers to define itself as "an opened space – plural, diverse, non-governmental and non-partisan – that stimulates the decentralized debate, reflection, proposals building, experiences exchange and alliances among movements and organizations engaged in concrete actions towards a more solidarity, democratic and fair world....a permanent space and process to build alternatives to neoliberalism."[1] It is held by members of the alter-globalization movement (also referred to as the global justice movement) who come together to coordinate global campaigns, share and refine organizing strategies, and inform each other about movements from around the world and their particular issues. The World Social Forum is explicit about not being a representative of all of those who attend and thus does not publish any formal statements on behalf of participants.[2] It tends to meet in January at the same time as its "great capitalist rival", the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. This date is consciously picked to promote their alternative answers to world economic problems in opposition to the World Economic Forum. (From Wikipedia)