Saturday, May 27, 2017

Petitioning for the under class....a giant natural source of creative energy and wisdom

Born in a small town, and raised in a lower middle-class home, I was acutely conscious of the fact that we did not have a car, when all of our neighbours owned a fairly up-to-date model. I was also conscious of the high cost of dental repairs following a hockey accident that sheered two front teeth. People of the “upper class” (layers, doctors, engineers, accountants, dentists) were readily identified, as were their less than modest homes. Their kids were also a little ‘different’ without necessarily being deliberately condescending; some were, in fact, quite friendly with us but seemed a little more familiar with the kids from more affluent homes. Summer tourists, from the United States, primarily New York and Pennsylvania, were owners of cottages that dotted the shoreline and islands of the adjacent great lake. Carrying their groceries to their cars, I invariably found a large and costly vehicle whose trunk simply swallowed the grocery order.

Prior to summer jobs, like the rest of the “town kids” I was a regular at the town dock on a Thursday afternoon when the cruise ships from Duluth visited, and those on board threw pennies and nickels on the dock, imitating a peanut toss. Of course, we innocently chased the scooting coins, as a kind of tribal ritual, without thinking about the gap in wealth between the tourists and the town kids.

Playing the piano for special events held by local service clubs offered an adolescent peek into the world of those upper class couples whose wardrobes highlighted the latest fashions. Appreciation for the few moments of entertainment was never scarce, yet I was also acutely conscious that these people knew me as a kind of “performer” not as a whole person. Age, status and wealth differences, while never completely alienating, were always part of the ethos, without attributing a deliberate snobbery or overt condescension to any of the hosts.

On the local golf course, again a haven for the town’s affluent, I carried a refurbished set of wooden-shafted golf clubs courtesy of my father’s careful handiwork, complete with ‘elastoplast’ wrapped grips. Caddying for the local doctors and optomitrist, I also watched a kind of professionalism and skilled execution that those of us who “learned by simply playing the game” never really mastered. We searched for lost balls in the swamp along the fourth fairway, among the mosqitoes, so that we did not have to buy the needed balls. These are not complaints; rather they are merely a description of the path that was offered, different from both the path travelled by the kids from wealthy families, and also a little different from the path of the kids from the “east” side of the river that flowed through the middle of town. That river existed as an unspoken boundary between the ‘town kids’ and the ‘harbour’ kids, whose elementary school experience at Victory School reflected an ethos whose character was even more acutely conscious of the gap between their families and the upper crust families.

Some ‘harbour’ kids quite literally had and showed contempt for the ‘town kids’ whom they considered snobs; if only they knew how segregated were those of us on the town side of the river from those on Belvedere Hill. Wealth segregation was compounded by religious segregation, given a deep and wide divide between protestants and Roman Catholics. Ethnic diversity, while minimal outside of the WASP community, comprised a few Italians, a few Chinese and a very few French Canadians, with two rather large communities of First Nations one to the north and another just across the swing bridge on the island. It was really a kind of racist culture, without a wide band of skin colours. And we were, all of us in the WASP community, made even more segregated by the division between the evangelical and the more liberal christian churches. Evangelicals evangelized, even holding Sunday evening church services on the town dock, in a vain attempt to recruit converts. The more reserved United Church, Anglican and even Roman Catholic “brand of religion were restricted to their church suppers, Sunday Schools, and church picnics. Occasionally, one church would sponsor and perform a musical event like Handel’s Messiah. Ceremonies like Remembrance Day, the normal statutory holidays, and uniquely in our town, the 12th of July celebration of the Battle of the Boyne when the protestants defeated the Catholics. So, we endured the religious intolerance of Northern Ireland without the guns and bullets.
Acquaintances, rather than friends, were everywhere. Privacy, so the extent possible to sustain, was a value deeply ingrained in our psyches, especially the privacy of what was going on in our homes. The arena was one location where people from all over the town gathered to watch the local junior, juvenile or intermediate hockey teams played. Some years a few NHLers came to play a charity game against the locals, garnering a full house and a pot of cash for  worthy cause. We all knew who the “boot-leggers” were and where they lived. We also knew which of the lawyers were “prompt” and which were “very slow” in completing their files. We knew which doctors had a gentle bed-side manner and which were much more gruff.

This class, faith, wealth, and ethic consciousness, while born differently by each, was a kind of social wardrobe that came with us in all situations. And while I was honoured to know and be accepted by many, I never lost sight of my “rank” as it were.
We never spoke about our individual identities, nor did we openly criticize the identities or affiliations of others. We never uttered a public word of disdain about the ‘rich’ or the members of a different religion. We simply kept our own identities to ourselves. This “privacy” has the obvious benefit of avoiding and evading public controversy; it has the also obvious down side of embalming an individual’s opinions in a tomb-like existence. Business transactions, the lifeblood of the earnings and income of the retail sector, in which my father worked, and the encounters within the schools, library, hospitals and civil service were conducted with a veneer of detachment and small talk, mostly about the weather, with the possible enhancement of the local hockey scores. A teacher who asked a grade ten class if they considered this small town of 3500 ‘rural Ontario’ the students objected, preferring the small community of a mere 200 just north of town as the example of rural Ontario.

It was not only a personal choice to hold our personal stories ‘close to the chest’; it was also a community archetype to reject a ‘rural’ attribution, as if aspiring to urbanity. Visiting large cities as a vacation was a rare blip on the town radar screen. Hunting and fishing weeks and weekends, along with  minor hockey and the local curling rink bonspiels and local golf tournaments dotted the social calendar.

Social segregation, then, was a way of life; personal privacy preserved that segregation. It also preserved one’s identity from exposure to the rest of the world. (In my case, family violence and abuse were just ‘naturally’ in this ethos, kept within the four walls of the tiny brick salt box where we lived. Whether this “individual isolation” stemmed from an imported culture like Great Britain, or Ireland, or from a work-ethic that consumed all social demographics, was really  never discussed.

As one who bridled against the silence, asking questions without regard to their ‘political correctness’ (we had never heard those words), and who recoiled from the violent shouting matches within our home between our parents, I welcomed any breath of fresh air from outside the community. Men who had served in both first and second world wars were well known for their unwillingness to discuss even the most innocuous details of their experience publicly. They had served and had closed that chapter of their lives. Occasionally, a nurse would be reported to have left town with a different man from her husband, or an adolescent co-ed would leave town to have a child from an unmarried pregnancy. Occasionally too a wave of shock would flow through the town following a suicide by gas from a car engine or a gun shot, or a hanging, (all of them in my memory, men).

University, then, in a much larger city, where kids from every corner of the province, and the occasional student from a different country, with professors ‘with accents’ from different countries (specifically France, England, and the United States) offered a smorgasbord of cultures and tonal colours that enriched the small town lack of diversity. However, that small town ignorance provided a base for mere interest and curiosity, and a more troublesome objectifying of those “others”. Naturally, unconscious of that kind of reductionism at the time, I am now quite ashamed of my own participation in encounters where I might have been enthusiastically engaging without ever following up on getting to know the ‘stranger’. My own habit of distancing another who is “different” is something of which I am not either proud or comfortable.

Teaching classes in which students of various cultural ethnicities, too, was an experience for which I am quite unabashedly ashamed, given that some of those students were removed from their indigenous homes, boarded in a white family and expected to meet ‘white’ standards of language and cultural experience. I was an integral part of that ‘experiment’ in racial management and deculturalization….essentially robbing these young people of their racial and cultural heritage. (Just this week, I learned that the Essex Board of Education has introduced a grade eleven English curriculum of exclusively First Nations Literature for all students as a mandatory course in English!) Late, but better late than never.

Like Mr. Roberts (the television personality)who  sought out the people who were ‘helping others’ I also liked to champion those who saw pain and offered their support, who saw injustice and risked alienation by protesting, and who imagined a different way of seeing and doing things and offered words of support, if not physical engagement. Making bridges between two warring parents, however, was the formative apprenticeship for this desire to build bridges.

However, an identity forged in a small, conservative, community in which personal privacy was protected as much as national security is today, is one that reaches out sparingly, warily and cautiously to engage in change-making. Often, too attempts in this direction come, while cautiously as I perceived it, also carried a flush of energy that often overwhelmed those into whose company I injected myself.

That’s probably why I so admired the Obama return to Chicago to do community development work, after graduating from Harvard Law. Conventional wisdom says that he did not have a real job as a community developer. Somehow, returning to Chicago to work with indigents and dispossessed, rather than choosing a platinum-plated law firm on Madisson or Fifth Avenue in new York, was not the “preferred” choice.

High society’s “preferred choices” tend to the Ferrari’s, the penthouses, the island vacations, the blooming even bursting stock portfolio, the 2.5 kids (or is it more like 1.7 now?) attending the vine-covered prep schools where the tuition ranges upward to $50K annually, and the summer camp fees hover around $5k/week. Serving like-minded high-end achievers, hosting them at dinner parties, vacationing with them, reading their books and listening to their “Ted” lectures, while balancing invitations to the “talk shows” and in the area of political issues and choices, tilting toward the corporate “ethic and ethos” not to mention the corporate “unfettered capitalism” free of even the most basic tax returns to Uncle Sam, hedging their bets on the “science” of global warming and climate change….these are markers of the “successful lifestyle” that demonstrates the American Dream writ large and lived in full.

A marketer’s dream demographic, the plastic cards possessed by this class are manoeuvred into purchases and investments that undergird the “reputation” that this lifestyle choice expects and perhaps even requires.

Of course, there are millions of small circles of influence emulating this “ideal”, sometimes rationalized on the premise that “our kids need the role models to follow (that we are offering). This morning, my wife and I walked through a section of the city previously unexplored. We passed wooden buildings, brick additions, paint peeling from the wood, the occasional aluminum or vinyl siding patch here and there, and the even more unique tendered front garden prefacing a tidy, trim and self-effacing respectability. “Old” city buildings house real people whose lives rarely make the daily newspapers waiting only for the obit pages. They neither know or care about the “ritzy” crowd who live in the gated communities on the shores of our lakes and rivers.
These ordinary folks are not suffering from the same “drivenness” that sits behind the wheel of most BMW’s, and behind the oak desks in most legal, accounting and corporate offices.  Type “A” personalities, while apparently essential to keep the engine of the economy running, and increasing both its speed and its torque. Yet, there is a clear downside to its demands.

Among those demands are a general personal cover-up of the deep and troubling pains and anxieties, unless addressed by prescriptions, including “retail therapy” and social events that continue to dot the “Life” sections of the dailies (and the requisite ads for the ‘exclusive’ tokens that bring friends, respectability and status).

This personal cover-up of course, is not restricted to the rich; it simply takes different ways of expressing itself depending on the neighbourhood. The people living in the bruised and broken and bent houses in the ‘old city’ are unlikely to visit a shrink, preferring to seek solace and comfort from their peers at work, in the coffee shop, in the pub or at the corner confectionary. Increasingly, fewer and fewer recognize their neighbours, unless and until a special effort or event provides a chance for introductions.

The masks of pride behind which we hide, are of measureably different thicknesses depending on the “class” to which we belong. The “beautifulpeople” like the Obama’s have a deep well of personal confidence that comes, in part, with repeated achievements like graduations from high school, eminent universities and even more eminent graduate schools. For many of those people in the ‘old city’ people like the Obama’s are ‘stars’ not unlike the sparks that glitter in the night in their being faintly observable, and out of reach.

Yet, the Obama’s were not always ‘stars’….their respective families of origin were very ordinary, making their life narrative even more compelling. This is not a pitch like the posters that once papered the walls of too many classrooms, “Learn to Earn,” that proposed to motivate adolescents to hit the books, in order to cash the cheques. It is rather an obvious reflection on the rarity of the Obamas’ life story. Too many times we hear parents expressing satisfaction “that the kid will be alright” now that s/he has been hired by a large corporation, or a legal or accounting firm.

Too often we neglect the downside of that accomplishment preferring to bask in the glory of “their” achievement as if it were ours. The question of how their life is unfolding from an emotional, psychological, spiritual and social perspective (exclusive of their income and status levels) is left unspoken and even, most likely, unconsidered.

Happiness, and deep and profound authentic human connections do not either know or respect investment portfolios, bank accounts, brand  names on vehicles, sneakers, shirts or even jewellery. No beating the drums to the contrary will change that truth. No amount of advertising, political campaigning, or intellectual dominance will erase that deeply engrained truth in the soils and the tombstones and the museums of all of the religious, cultural, political and spiritual cultures from antiquity to the present.
Our continuing failure to close the gaps between the ‘have’s and the ‘have-nots’ and our apparent insouciance about the need to make the effort, preferring instead to grab whatever we can individually, and for our families. Our ‘little people’ without a voice, without political status, and without the kind of pedigree that rarely experience the kind of acceptance among the elite all have a wealth of profound experience and wisdom that is currently being excluded from our public debates, that is untapped creative energy that our public institutions require to sustain their effectiveness.

And yet, and yet….more and more evidence continues to mount that exposes our denial of our shared individual and collective responsibility for our eroding social, political economic and historical institutions. The current American administration will only accelerate the process of atrophy.

Only the public’s accessing and shouting from a well of courage and compassion for the nature of the devolution of a public agenda, not just nice words and sunny ways, will begin to restore any authentic confidence that we can and will overcome our current hubris, myopia and preferred privacy. I was raised on it, suffered immeasurably from it, and continue to resist it with all the energy  I can command.

Do you care to join my little ‘voice in the wilderness’?

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The U.S. needs a 'doctor of the soul'*

There is something about breathing the air this spring that feels different from most other springs. There seem to be forces at work that have perhaps not been working or, if they have, they have been working under the radar screen of most people. The Pope’s gift to trump of a book detailing the science of global warming and climate change, followed by trump’s “promise” to read it, is a case in point.

Similarly, the Pope’s advocacy for the poor, is precisely the opposite of the path chosen by the new U.S. president. He proposes to cut $800 Billion from Medicare, and $190 Billion from Food Stamps targeted at the poor, so that he can pass the “savings” along in a massive tax break for the rich, while increasing the pentagon budget by some  $54 Billion. What does he propose to “do” with the hungry poor?... Impose a Draft and put them in the army? Or would he rather have the weapons manufacturing sector hire them to fill the $350 billion order over the next decade in arms purchased by the Saudi’s earlier this week?

Calling his meeting with the Pope “an honour” is far shorter than listening to and integrating some of the Pope’s message into his plans. In fact, it sounds like just another ‘sop’ to that portion of his base who might be Catholic and nothing more.
So what if the stock market is riding high and rising; so what if the unemployment numbers are the lowest they have been since 2008, when Obama was elected. So what if the rhetoric coming out of the administration is filled with “making America great again”. So what if Netanyahu is a friend of trump. So what if Abbas agreed to meet him, along with some 50 leaders of Muslim majority countries. Those very leaders could have done much more to block and impede the terrorist threat over the last two or three decades. What makes anyone think they are going to start now?

The fact is the world, including increasing numbers of elected Republicans simply do not, can not trust this man. Anne Applebaum, columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a column on May 16 in which she quoted 50  senior Republican national security experts to the effect that trump is unfit for the presidency.
Here are some of their words:

In our experience, a President must be willing to listen to his advisers an department heads; must encourage consideration of conflicting views, and must acknowledge errors and learn from them. A President must be disciplined, control his emotions and act only after reflection and careful deliberation. A President must maintain cordial relationships with leaders of countries of different backgrounds and much have their respect and trust. In our judgement, Mr. Trump has none of these critical qualities. He is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood. He does not encourage conflicting views. He lacks self-control and acts impetuously. He cannot tolerate personal criticism. He has alarmed our closest allies with his erratic behaviour. All of thee are dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander-in-Chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Not enough voters were paying attention when these words were published back in August of 2016.

The ensuing months have, however, delivered more than these words forecast. They have poisoned the atmosphere on both domestic and international fronts. Rather, the man elected president has committed the act of the poisoning. And his determination to continue to poison the water of political debate, with the cocktail bearing his name (as does everything he touches) continues to shred the American reputation around the world.

It is time to shift the “framing” of this presidential term from words like “different” and “unpredictable” and “unconventional” and “impulsive” to words like “anarchist” and “saboteur” and “political terrorist” and “public enemy”. Whether the empirical evidence rises to the level of an impeachment case against the president (and respectable political observers seriously doubt it will, given the Republican majority in both House and Senate), the public discussion has to mine words and perceptions that paint the picture of the body politic that would inevitably arouse a so-far-dormant public, after the few protests and marches shortly after the November election.
Yet, it is not only the White House that is in peril. The country is also so divided that many are wondering publicly if the chasm can or ever will be bridged. Let’s spend a few minutes looking at the national political estrangement, divorce, some might even say rupture.

The Boston Tea Party championed the refrain, “No taxation without representation!” Effectively, a similar chorus is just as applicable and relevant today, only instead of the British as overlords, this time it is Americans who have taken over the government for themselves and their friends. Only instead of an increased tax burden, this time the destitute will lose their health care, their food stamps as well as having lost their jobs and security and in many cases their homes already.

Can a rebellion erupt from a loss of what many consider a human right, rather than an imposed tax? Have we evolved to the point where the deprivation of those supports that define a healthy self-respecting culture and society can and will push the ordinary people into the streets, our of the town-hall meetings and the shouting matches (or just last night the body slams and broken glasses of The Guardian Reporter in Montana, at the hands of a congressional candidate whose election is today)?

It is as if the country has fallen on its ski hill, with one leg left uphill while the other points to the bottom, leaving a massive rupture, for which there is no  political medication or surgery. The biological analogy, however, depends on the “trunk” holding even if the legs are splayed out in the snow and ice. It seems that the “trunk” of public consciousness and body of agreed facts has so atrophied that the patient suffers from much more than a physical (political) rupture. From this side of the 49th parallel, it seems the body politic suffers from starvation of those essential ingredients that give it both substance and purpose: the truth. And without the kind of truth that preserves the “basics” like snow-plowing first before attempting to descend the mountain, like shifting weight from one foot to the other in orderly balance, like keeping the eyes on a common goal (safely reaching the bottom of the mountain), and listening to the mentors and the instructors, the weather forecasts and the hill crew for unexpected conditions, there is no way to avoid the kind of contra-positioning of one-leg up the hill and the other shooting down, and the inevitable paralysis that ensues.
Where are the ski-patrol crew whose assistance and toboggan are essential to bring this massive cadaver down the mountain. Where are the cameras and the television crews who chase after fires, car crashes and fights between politicians and reporters? Isn’t this splayed political body lying like a beached whale worthy of coverage? Or is the coverage simply too graphic for ratings, given that everyone has enough culpability and responsibility for the crash, and would merely seek cover and denial?

Oh, I forgot, this masculine body politic is paranoid at being seen as needing help, as having crashed because he would not listen to all the warning signs, and all the normal instructions, and all the normal forecasts on conditions. HE has to show everybody that, without all the prompts and the guidance and the coaching, he knows best!
So the question now is, “Is it finally time for this body politic to come to its senses, to open its ears and eyes, to take full stock of the damage it has done to its skiing career and to climb down off the mountain of its massive (and hollow) ego both in shame and in acceptance of its responsibility for having sabotage itself?

Is there a medic for the political soul, as in Frankl’s “doctor of the soul,” to help this body politic refocus with a determination to find a healthy, sustainable national purpose? That “medic” is not Robert Mueller; his task is to help diagnose some of the disease that resulted in the “splayed body” on the mountain, before the vultures descend. It is not the current leader, nor his administration, having been the latest impetus for the fall. It is not the Supreme Court, because the evidence transcends the legal parameters. It is not Dr. Phil, for his sphere of competence stretches to human relationships, without the complexity of attenuating circumstances It is not former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, for the rescue demands much more than fiscal and monetary balance and an interest rate policy to curb inflation or to stimulate growth.

In fact, there is a case to be made that, because so much of our respected and respectable public thought and analysis is so balkanized, and our specialists are so expert in their silo’s, and our shared grasp and comprehension of the totality of our existence, that we have lost sight of an integrated world view, including the body politic’s “wholeness” and “integrity” and “definition and purpose” enabling the ultimate parsing of the wholeness into disconnected and unrelated component parts. Seeing ourselves in this mirror, of course, reduces each of us to merely our component parts, the sum of which are far too “complicated” and thereby so troublesome that we have stopped searching for our unique, individual identity, as well as our national identity.

Now that Humpty-Dumpty has fallen off the wall (mountain) we all have a significant stake in putting “him” back together again. None of us can find either the right “expert” or “guru” or a large enough corps of experts to put this body back together. So, because we really are all in this mess together, we have to step up and protest first, and then re-calibrate and re-calculate and re-purpose our national institutions, this time with people whose careers can and will take a back seat to the national interest.

*(Pardon the mixed metaphors, please!)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

interview with terror recruit

what is it about the notion of
                  radical terror
that first begged your
was it the thrill promised
             of heroism and
an afterlife with multiple
or perhaps the protection and
           comfort of a gang of
like-minded Muslims
              who are determined to
reek havoc in western towns and cities
       convicted that western morals
are hollow and our women too
unprotected, without cover
               and male accompaniment?
your commitment to sharia is the
         most radical assault on western
judeo-christian history, tradition and
your elimination of infidels, really a
         total ethnic cleansing of all non-muslims
 is a captivating,
                     quixotic nightmare
 your various cells are
           wired to implode in
self-sabotage whether you
      choose to become a
suicide bomber or not…
                your creed and
actions are designed to seduce
            the most ready for
seduction….the cowards, the
bullies, the manipulators, and
             those imams those wings
float on the same toxic perversion
      of what was once a faith
of science, enlightenment, math
                and vision…..
replaced now with web-based, home-made
          bombs of nuts, bolts, nails
and an inferno of self-hate
              projected onto
innocent, perhaps naïve and
         vulnerable children
in Nigeria, Manchester, Mosul
             and Kabul….
there is no allah listening to
         or hearing your hollow
pleas of vacuous and phony
they are merely sticks pounding  
                   on the rocks of empty caves….signifying nihilism and death

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

inmate interview

has anyone ever asked
              the men in prison cells
to trace their path ‘inside’ and the
          ‘allies’ that made them
do it?
was one ‘ally’ a self-loathing
             dad or mom?
was another a victim-friend
              you wanted to rescue?
or was it just the thrill of
                 the moment
and the chance to give your thumb
to the world, the cops, the social
        worker or even a rival
was there a target on your
were you ever bullied for being
were you loved too much or
               too little or just
ignored and left alone?
was your fuse short from
            birth or did it grow
slowly nurtured by the ice
                 on your block?
were reading, writing and
             math always
a struggle
or were the ‘rules’ just
            stupid and too strict
for your impatience and your
       tongue and punch?
were your feelings crushed
     by indifference or
by rejection?
was your spirit the enemy
of your family and friends?
was your’s a scarcity of
               food, privacy,
fitting in, or acceptance?
if you could choose a thing that pictures
            who you thought you were
would it be a wasp, a mosquito,
          a soldier, a general, a
hunter dog or a house cat or_______?
 do these questions make you
              want to punch a wall?
what do you tell your young brother 
                     to do or to avoid?

Monday, May 22, 2017

"I alone can now save the world" just ask me!

He can wrap kings and imams, rabbis and popes around his travels, as if they were robes in his wardrobe. He can promise “hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans” generated by the $350 BILLION arms contract over ten years with the Saudi regime. He can “pray” at the Western Wall, and genuflect before cameras upon arriving in Israel, and then add another genuflection, no doubt, upon meeting the Holy Father.

He can even surmise that, as his presidency cries out in agony as investigations grab it by the throat, he alone will bring peace to the Middle East, lead the extermination of Islamic terrorists, and rejuvenate the economies of both the Middle East and the United States. Now imposing his massive (and hollow) ego on the world’s media as the sole saviour of problems that have so far eluded hundreds of dedicated minds, the U.S. president is like a mannequin programmed to walk ponderously, speak cavernously from the teleprompter and repeatedly wrap his suit jacket from blowing in the wind to expose his considerable girth.

Nevertheless, at base, he is following one of the oldest and most fatigued maxims of American political life: war is the best engine to rev up the economy, solve all problems and sustain American dominance and hegemony. Its corollary, that arms production and sale, and subsequent deployment is one of the principal hallmarks of the American identity.

To finish each and every sentence with a gun, a bullet, a missile, a bomb and a fighter jet and then ride off into the horizon preening on the wings of wall-to-wall reports of “presidential leadership” is a wonderful kind of drug with which to medicate the pain of the reality being exported as high moral value. It may also be a dose of political methamphetamine to kill the pain of those circling sheriffs like Robert Mueller and various elected committees pursuing his acolytes and sycophants.

It is, however, not an effective ruse to distract world opinion that has firmed up into a conviction that the narcissist now, at this moment, meeting with Netanyahu and shortly to meet with Abbas, is a dangerous, vacuous and self-serving puppet of profit, servant of the 1% and high priest of none of the major world religions but rather of bigotry, racism, sexism and deception.

Verbs like “Drive out” the terrorists, as if a single-minded militarized act of violence will not directly recruit more terrorists, without even mentioning how they came to be radicalized, or where they might go if and when they were driven out demonstrate an emptiness of thought, vision and the capacity to “partner”.

It takes two to “partner,” and pouring cash even into a terrorist de-radicalizing messaging machine in Saudi, and into a de-funding-the-terrorists organization, in addition to the military behemoth promised, even taken together, are no assurance that the Saudi’s will deconstruct their “education” machine that purports to sow venomous seeds in Islamic youth around the world. The majority of Muslims, now numbering some 1.6 billion, do not live in the Middle East; they are scattered throughout the world. And, thumbing his nose so flagrantly at the Shiite Iranians, the historic enemy of the Sunni Saudis, and publicly shaming them for their sponsorship of terror in many region, is likely to enflame and enrage the hardline Iranians, in spite of the re-election of a moderate leader.

Also missing from the trump chest-thumping parade is the obvious calculation of the Russian response to the American “arming” the Saudis, as an open defiance of the Russian ally, Iran.

Silver bullet proposals to highly complex messes may work, when needing to “fire” those no longer subservient to the personal ambitions of the master. They are not even modestly appropriate to resolve such conflicts as currently taking place in Yemen, or in Syria, or in Iraq, or Afghanistan. And, as a history of massive military infusions of military might including nuclear weapons to Israel has demonstrated, another massive military infusion into Saudi Arabia will not lead to peace in the Middle East. In fact, they serve a single and less-than-honourable purpose: the inflation of the reputation of the master leader. And those weapons will also embolden the Saudis to ramp up their military efforts in Yemen, and potentially thereby embolden the Iranians to respond with increased ferocity.

There is no evidence to dispute the historic truth that war solves nothing, leaves many persons dead, dismembered, and societies in ruin. If trump were to ramp up training and deployment of a band of negotiators, peace-keepers, humanitarian assistance and foreign aid, as well as military hospitals and health-care workers to war theatres, at the level of his military addiction and salesmanship, the world, while shocked might come to view his presidency with a degree of calm and confidence that has long since dissipated into ether.

Even the messaging machine, an important intervention to attempt to combat the propaganda machine of the terrorists, while valid, and long overdue, given the American failure to mount this counter-terrorist initiative, will take time to mount and even longer to measure its effectiveness.

There is a kind of immediate urgency to the presidential trip that suggests a desperate need to both escape the mess he has made for himself in Washington and to generate more favourable media coverage. Behind the trip, there is also a glaring lack of substantive thought, reflection and long-term planning, almost as if the act of world leadership is more analogous to the construction of another elaborate and sumptuous hotel, for the purpose of vacuuming cash from the world’s wealthy. It exposes a superficiality, a self-addiction and a manipulation of the world’s most complex and intransigent exigencies into a personal political agenda that reeks of the desperate need to survive.

Chris Hedges writes of the “death of the American empire” in his most recent column ( arguing that even the removal of trump will not remediate the long list of abuses facing the American people. Hedges American perspective comes from a long history of reporting, researching and reflecting on the decline of empires from the Roman to the American. As a concerned neighbouring observer, his view deserves much more thought, reflection and public comment from the American people who have the levers of power to bring about the kind of changes they need.

We will continue to observer, listen, reflect and opine on what we see on our screens.

 The whole world can no longer put our head in the sand, given the current swirling vortex that encircles Washington.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Words in different contexts....literature vs. life

“I don’t care whom I offend; I do care whom I hurt.” (Barbara Gowdy, Macleans, May 2017)

Speaking as a writer, whose imagination takes her into scenes, scenarios and narratives, sometimes with ‘outlandish’ characters, that stretch both her’s and her readers’ imaginations to their limit, this quote makes eminently good sense. In literature, the mouse really can ‘eat’ the elephant, giving the writer an unlimited universe of pictures, brushes, colours and even canvas-sizes to reach the reader.

It is the required and expected ‘suspension of disbelief’ that ‘covers’ the author’s license to rage and to explore and to infuse, in Gowdy’s case mostly the novel, with two-headed, multi-legged characters engaged in rampant coitus, for example, and garners a slice of readers that might otherwise never find these books. Readers are served a menu of people, plots and scenes that are almost expected to stretch them beyond their comfort zones, for purposes known first to their authors, and perhaps, after considerable reflection, then potentially by those who make it to the end of the fiction.

George Orwell, and Margaret Atwood are two prominent examples of writers whose work, (thinking specifically of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, respectively) ‘kick’ their readers to imagine different dystopias with tales that can and do leave only a foul taste in the readers’ “mouth”. The test of literature of this dystopic variety is not how outrageous are the characters, or the situations or the scenes, but rather whether or not it brings the reader to the place where s/he is willing to ‘suspend his/her disbelief and let the ‘story’ do whatever it must to the reader’s sensibilities.

As Orwell famously reminds us, all literature is political; so however the imagination and the courage of the writer converge to create the narrative and however that narrative impacts the reader is a unique and individual “interface” that stimulates impulses in the reader and generates feedback loops for the writer that together comprise a special kind of connection and relationship. And for a writer to be “afraid to offend” the reader is to restrict that writer to a position from which no risk is possible. Literature is for the writer, as Margaret Atwood reminded this scribe, decades ago,  “a leap off the cliff”…into a beyond that neither the writer, nor, of course eventually the reader can know or even understand prior to its unfolding. (The pieces in this space, for the most part, are not based on a “jumping off  the cliff” by the scribe, merely a nudging into a space of testing the toes of the imagination and the political consciousness into the waters of public engagement. Essentially, this space serves as an apprenticeship for a neophyte scribe whose whole life is another form of apprenticeship. Not caring whom I offend, as a guide-post for the writing of these pieces, would be unthinkable.

And the reason is simply that any shift in consciousness that will be sustained will more likely come from a reason-based, nuanced and subtle wakening, not from the radical, sensational and outrageous jolt of high-voltage electricity through the wires of character, plot or setting. That last sentence, on a re-reading, sounds a little absolute, arbitrary and worthy of contention. The obvious counter argument would come from the drowned little boy, on the beach of the Greek Island that brought a loud hue and cry over the Syrian/African refugee catastrophe that focused the world’s attention on the tragedy.

And yet, as the primary responsibility of the journalist/camera crew, such extreme headlines, especially accompanied with graphic photos, this kind of story grabs the reader/viewer by the throat and generates a spike in human indignation. And that spike lasts for a two or three day period known as the “legs” of the story. The news media depends on the audience sustaining interest in a story as the index for their depth and length of coverage, and the editors depend on this “legs” calculation for their positioning of the story: front, middle, back or perhaps editorial page location, and small, medium or large font headline.

On the other hand, perhaps in a similar but extended period, a writer of fiction watches the ‘popularity’ of the novel (play) through sales, reviews, book-signings, and rankings in various book lists, most prominent in North America being the New York Times Book List (for fiction and non-fiction).

This scribe has grown somewhat cynical about the trend in reading appreciation among the ordinary working ‘stiff’. Tweets, and instant seemingly guttural blurts on Facebook and social media, would potentially portend a shortening of the attention span of the population, a growing impatience with nuance, a growing desire and potential dependence on photo evidence and the concomitant required visual “literacy”. The conclusion that extended pieces that attempt to peel the onion on an issue might be part of a push-back on those energies would seem reasonable and somewhat cheeky in such a culture.

Hot-buttons generate headlines and perhaps advertising revenue. Yet, for every hot-button piece, there is a different, and more complex back-story that depends on a more reflective and a more nuanced inspection of the citizen responsibility for the headline. Portraying slums in Victorian England, at the time, was a risky and courageous writing experiment. Dickens demonstrated then a degree of courage and empathy that today we see in writers like Chris Hedges in his non-fiction work from the outcasts in America.

Without jumping “off the cliff” the readers in this space are asked to reflect on their own views on the issues sketched here, however briefly and superficially. And each of these pieces is written with the full knowledge and consciousness that the Viet Nam war was influenced and eventually terminated, not through the impact of “opinion pieces”, but as a result of the constant pounding of real-time photos from the war front on the television screens in American living and recreation rooms.

However, this scribe is not “on the front lines” of  political or military, or corporate or religious wars; the perspective available is merely one of the ordinary citizen, from a distance, dependent on the public coverage, reflective of the various incidents, quotes, or the implications of connecting some dots less likely to be connected by the media dependent on ratings and ad revenue. Fortunately, the web offers a considerably enhanced menu from which to select stimuli for reflection.

And as one less interested in being shocked by the sensational whether in war, space, or even in political debate, I find the exploration of the impact of public events and people on the cultural attitudes and emotions to be a theme worthy of excavating. This “inner horizon” whether considered to be spiritual, intellectual, historic, cultural or even philosophic, is a conscious exploration.

On the other hand, however, on the level of social behaviour, the Gowdy quote is not applicable to everyday life and the multiple encounters we all have with others. In those many cases, if and when we “offend” we also “hurt” the other. And the rising tide of unconsciousness of this social lubricant is quite unsettling and disturbing. Call this scribe “old-fashioned” but “offensive” attitudes, actions, words and incidents continue to erupt in too many days for too many people.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

No reason to confuse or conflate "chaos theory" with the U.S. administration

Chaos Theory is a contradiction of predicting the behaviour of “inherently unpredictable” systems. It is a mathematical toolkit that allows us to extract beautifully ordered structures from a sea of chaos-a window into the complex working of such diverse natural systems as the beating of the human heart and the trajectories of asteroids.
At the centre of Chaos Theory is the fascinating idea that order and chaos are not always diametrically opposed. Chaotic systems are an intimate mix of the two: from the outside they display unpredictable and chaotic behaviour, but expose the inner workings and you discover a perfectly deterministic set of equations ticking like clockwork.
Some systems flip this premise around, with orderly effects emerging out of turbulent and chaotic causes. (from

Clearly, if and when applied to natural phenomena, like heart beats and asteroids, outside of human control (except with the occasional intervention of technology) there is much to discover and to learn about how appearances can be and are deceiving, that much more complex and beautiful and even awe-inspiring things are going on than was at first believed. “Seeing through a glass darkly” is a mantra that can be used for much of human “cognition” and for most of human exploration of epistemology, how and what we know. From a religious perspective, we are cautioned that we see only very little, and somehow somewhere, in a spiritual transformational moment, we will see things differently.

Developing equations that attempt to grasp what has previously been  beyond human understanding, essentially at the forefront of the universe as we know/knew it, is a realm open to very few. And their attempts to reach the rest of us are frequently, if not always, impeded by many restrictions on both our capacity to understand and our openness to the most radically new.

In our continuing search for new frontiers in physics, astrophysics, quantum physics and even metaphysics, we seek not only new information but also new constructs to capture and to explain the new information and those new insights about that data. And yet, such seemingly ethereal and ephemeral voyages into what are new frontiers, while exciting and worthy of our collective support through research grants and scholarships, also pose a potential for our capacity to comprehend and to apply the new insights.

The word “chaos” is now the descriptive choice of many if not most critics, observers and analysts of the current American administration. Nothing, not protocol, tradition or even legal boundaries, is as before the inauguration. And, in our conventional manner of seeing this world of the presidency, of course all attributions of responsibility for this “chaos” point to the man in the Oval Office.

No presidential campaign will ever be the same again, as compared with the two hundred years of historical evidence, so the argument goes
No White House staff has even been so heavily tipped in favour of nepotism.

No president has ever dis-avowed the conventions about bribery, and taken the presidency to its unfettered limits…to declare what was classified, non-classified, to declare the president can have no conflicts of interest, to declare a blatant intent to deconstruct the administrative state, to denigrate and to trash the hard-won civil rights of minorities, nor to restrict fleeing refugees and immigrants on whose integration the republic’s highest reputation rests. Words like bully, anarchist, dictator, racist, sexist, rogue, charlatan, liar, and even sociopath are used to paint a picture of the person who currently holds the nuclear codes in his possession.

Really all of those monikers, and the narratives that support their use are our collective unabashed attempt to grasp whatever the new reality might be now, and might be coming down the pipe in the near, medium and long-term future, as a consequence of the election of this person. We are individually and collectively frightened, anxious, scared out of our wits, to the point that, yesterday, for example, the DOW dropped 300 points, as only one of the indicators of our shared fear.

Trumpeting loyalty as the prized trait of the team, is another ruse designed to keep everyone, inside the administration, and outside, unbalanced, jittery, suspicious, and thereby much more easily controlled (especially for those in the inner circle).

Poetry and art depend upon a degree of latent or sometimes more overt tension in their composition, as a window on a new perception of reality. However, this tension, in order to be artful, needs to be both comprehensible and able to be assimilated into what we already know about the universe we already inhabit. Some artists take greater liberties with the conventions in which they create resulting in abstract art, multiple verse forms, a merging of ballet and gymnastics (Le Circle du Soleil, for example), and composers have for centuries stretched the boundaries of their various forms, sonata, concerto, tone poem, minuet, and also injected new instruments into their manuscripts and thereby into the performances of their work.

And while the world,( listener, observer, critic and student) all have their perceptions enhanced through the experience of what to the untrained eye/ear/sensibility might seem like chaos or non-sense, we keep paying attention in the relatively reasonable conviction that there must be some kind of “awe” awaiting our discovery.

As a species, however, we are remarkably resistant to changes in our perceptions especially of the “stability and security blankets” we have constructed as our way of generation predictable paths so we don’t have to re-invent the wheel, as it were.

This scribe does not anticipate the possibility that anyone will find something beautiful, remarkable or even positively memorable and awe-inspiring when the tomb of the trump presidency is opened several centuries hence. In fact, if anything, archeologists are more likely to find records that point to the most pathetic chapter in human history of a self-pitying victim, abused and decried by ‘the establishment, the media and the conventions of history and law’.

And anyone who thinks that the trump/bannon/brietbart/white supremacy vision of a new world bears any resemblance or connection to the chaos theory that draws the mathematical geniuses among us to work far into the night in search of the golden threads of beauty and meaning that have so far evaded human intellectual discovery.

If anything, their’s is such a regressive and dark trip into another version of Dante’s Inferno, and to think that Bannon once delivered a key-note address at the invitation of the Vatican! Does this speak volumes about The Holy See or about the darkest caves so far left unexplored by the most venal criminal minds?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Reflections on management/leadership in a hierarchical culture

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has come under fire this week from both a panel investigating sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace, and from the Auditor General whose report documents the glaring omission that the force neglected to implement fully the mental health program it “adopted”  three years ago. This “omission” is not based on forgetfulness, but rather a conscious and willful refusal to fund and to staff the program, moving those trained and experienced in “policing” into management/leadership of the “health” programs, resulting in a serious mis-match of skills, training, experience and the responsibilities of the position.

This incongruency of promoting an individual with one kind of experience and training to fill a position that requires, even demands, completely different skills, training and experience pervades much of our culture. Doctors are put in charge of hospital departments without an hour of formal training in either leadership or management, both of which subjects in the academe have been under clouds of derision for decades, as unworthy of the designation of an academic discipline in comparison with physics, chemistry, trigonometry, philosophy, biology and engineering. If you think snobbery is confined to ‘gated communities’ and does not operate in academia, you haven’t been awake for a couple of centuries.

Even “leadership” in one military university is maligned and replaced with “the psychology of leadership” in such a mis-directed and inappropriate decision that cripples both the institution and the people needed to fill ranks in leadership following graduation. It would be a mere assumption (very dangerous) that whoever is responsible for such a decision considers empirical analysis on which most doctoral programs depend would be more likely to be funded and conducted on “psychology” than on “leadership/management”. These are too often considered “soft skills” and not worthy of the kind of attention and respect that engineers and scientists, mathematicians and philosophers are afforded.

Ignorance ( in the “ignosco”, “I do not know” sense) is no longer tolerable in a complex and increasingly challenging economic, political and cultural ethos. Nor is the “religion” that only a doctor can manage a department in a hospital, nor a police office lead a health department in the RCMP, nor an accountant by definition, provide appropriate leadership in a complex corporation. Roles, as defined by formal training, on the premise that only those people would be “acceptable” to “order” and to “direct” personnel working in that segment of the organization. Similarly, history, mathematics and physical education graduates do not  necessarily offer the most optimum background for leadership in high schools.

We have made idols of “specialists” and denigrated “generalists” for too long. We have also made “liberal arts” the slums of the academic community and under this umbrella we have put management and leadership and the so-called soft skills. For a long time, psychology itself operated under a similar cloud, resulting, according to some, like James Hillman, in overcompensation by the professional community in both research and practice. Even the out-sourcing of Employee Assistance Programs by most large corporations, to another corporation, rather than hiring trained professionals in social sciences, liberal arts, counselling and “soft skills” is just another sell-out of the “human” side of the enterprises, too often based on a rationalization that confidentiality will more likely be maintained.

The occasional exception to this general development, like the CEO who hired a former priest as his right-hand-assistant, only demonstrates the irregularity of the practice and the social deviance it connotes. With the rise of acknowledged human discombobulation, discomfort and anxiety, people with general experience, including some serious tectonic shifts that disturbed their ‘comfort zone’ (people who have been around the block and taken major blows to their integrity, and to their stability and survived) would be far more ready and able to discern the competing and often malignant energies that underpin too many of our organizations, corporations, schools and universities and colleges.

And that brings us to another meme: the search of and pursuit of leadership positions by many whose need for power and control motivate them to perform in ways that they know will attract the attention of their superiors, either because they are “dependable” or “reliable” or because they are “predictable” and “boring”….at least according to all appearances. Often such behaviours also demonstrate a degree of obsequiousness and sycophancy that trophies the supervisor while masking the ambition of the sycophant.

 Of course, there are exceptions to this pattern, but those currently in “power” in positions of leadership are under no mandate to avoid falling into such traps in their appointments. Ambition, as a single or primary factor for promotion, is not necessarily the most appropriate qualification, especially when linked to the academic background prominent in the organization.

So in addition to the academic hierarchy of disciplines, and the hierarchy of ambition and a potential veneer of loyalty, we dig a little deeper into the most venal aspect of most of our organizations, a word that is now being used to describe the RCMP as a “para-military” organization.

This model is so ubiquitous and so nefarious, when we all know that top-down decisions are both self-serving to the decision-maker and counter-intuitive to the higher needs and aspiration of the organization, that it needs to be disbanded, both formally, as in a death liturgy, and informally, in a celebration of a new spirit of organizational evolution. Based on the need for instant and for clarity on the battle-field, and perhaps in the operating room of the hospitals, the model is totally inadequate for most organizational decision-making. Humans do not need a life-or-death exigency to raise their level of motivation; and organizations that depend on crisis management as the primary modus operandi will lurch from crisis (designed and imposed) to crisis. Such a methodology may strike the superiors as laudable, because the decision-makers can operate under pressure, and everyone seems to buy the theology that pressure reduces costs and increases profits. This is also a myth that needs exploding.

Running our organizations on an operating premise of crisis, immediacy and the conscious or unconscious rejection of long and medium-term planning and execution is a guarantee of self-sabotage. We cannot afford to build organizational decisions on the career-advancement plans of those in positions of leadership and responsibility. Personal career enhancement has to be relegated to a secondary purpose and goal of organizational decision-making, lest we sacrifice everything in the organization to opportunism, self-promotion, and tribalism or the most horrific kind. People in positions of leadership and responsibility have to be demonstrably willing and able to accept and absorb “truth-to-power” reporting from their supervisees, and they also have to be able to demonstrate they are able and willing to challenge their most loyal workers if and when necessary. Personal “cabals” no matter how small (even 2 is too large) need to be challenged as a matter of course, not as the exception to the general evidence.

And that brings up another question: the monitoring and reporting of the effectiveness and the efficiencies of each department in the organization. The RCMP, according to these reports has lost the capacity to self-monitor, and the recommendations are that the government must step in, as objective and dispassionate monitor and critic. This would generate some extremely uncomfortable situations for those in positions of responsibility who have left much unchanged, unchallenged and free of needed discipline. It would also change the culture of the organization from one lacking in transparency (who is really going to rat on his/her boss?) to one of enhanced transparency.

Bringing our organizations out of the closet of political secrecy and the chicanery that too often accompanies the secrecy, infusing a strong dose of general, common sense leaven, replacing the pyramid structures of authority with circles of consensus (in which everyone in each department buys into the decision thereby demonstrating a shared responsibility for execution as well as a sharing of the rewards from enhanced performance) and levelling the hierarchy of academic and professional values with which we imbue individuals (scientists and doctors simply should not and cannot meet the inordinate expectations of rectitude, or prophecy or intelligence weighing them down) and providing authentic open doors to all employees to go at least two or three levels above their immediate supervisors for both counsel and complaint….these are just some of the ultra-utopian, yet eminently pragmatic changes too many organizations would benefit from.

And the benefit to the millions of individuals working under current conditions that are less than respectful, supportive and mature would be immeasureable. And, all the empirical evidence we have gathered demonstrates unequivocally, that respected and supported and trusted workers all do better and more work than any one us would do in circumstances in which we are merely cogs in another’s machine.

In general, the workplace culture in North America is based on two fundamental and incorrect principles:
·      first that workers want to do only the bare minimum at their workplace and
take unwarranted advantage of their employer and
·      second, that workers are basically a “cost” rather than an investment or a potential profit centre.

These are part of the bogey-man mind-set that besets too many corporations and public agencies. Of course, budget managers can see the obvious potential in reducing costs by deploying technology where once humans did the same work. And while that is true, the extension of the tech-no-promise to the remaining humans, cutting their health benefits, and their support mechanism, in a new world in which human relationships are under assault from so many quarters. (No this is not a bleeding-heart liberal crying foul for every dissident worker in North America!)

Let’s look at the fact that union membership has fallen dramatically as the corporate, private-enterprise mentality gained prominence. The removal of worker negotiators has significantly tipped the workplace playing field in favour of the employer, and against the worker. Contract employment, without benefits, without seniority, without security and in many cases with minimal training, not to mention a flat minimum wage for decades, and a significant unemployed segment (going down slightly recently) leaves employers digging workers from a larger pool without concern about their future with the company.

At the same time, employers report that the sign too many “work employment records” for those who choose to dip their toes in the new job only to leave after a very short time. So both workers and employers are getting, and in too many cases, deserving a bad name.

To say there are numerous signs of workplace dysfunction is to state the obvious. However, there is a convergence of many forces, all of them measured by their cost or their cost-saving, without giving due attention to some very different principles:

Workers, at least those worth keeping and training, sincerely want to do a good job, to establish earned reputations for quality work, for dependability, for professional conduct and for a demonstrated desire to learn and to grow into new responsibilities as they continue to work. Even that premise is far more healthy for an organization than its inverse, given that all workers want a healthy environment in which to make a living and their performance will inevitably and invariably reflect the working conditions.

Workers also are not either stupid or uninterested in the fortunes of their company. They can see ways to do things that might cost less, or that might reduce risk, or that might integrate two sections enhancing collaboration and perhaps productivity, as well as team-building (although that will never measure up to productivity and profit will it?)

Workers are also seriously interested in a workplace culture in which they can fully participate, meaning, where their voice can and will be heard, trusted, believed and honoured. The paramilitary environment clearly, has not been, and is unlikely ever to be able to foster such working communications and the challenges for leaders such an environment brings. Leaders can and will only grow when they are challenged, and not when they rule with the proverbial iron fist. And for leaders to be willing to operate in a culture in which their decisions can and will be challenged, both formally and informally, in a process that goes far beyond to traditional “suggestion box” a relic of the 1980’s. Such a process must be open to an receptive to the worker’s right and opportunity  to dispute even section leader decisions, with an appeal process that does not and can not seek punishment, revenge or retaliation for such “impudence”….as it was once termed.

Enlightened leaders do not fear criticism, challenges and even a process that brings their important decisions into the light of an objective panel of both workers and leaders. Motivated workers, interested in their own careers as well as the future viability and success of their organization will respond, providing the open processes are designed and administered by honourable professionals without prejudice, without paranoia and without cynicism and suspicion.

It is the “hierarchy thing” that we have to start to dismantle: in our organizational design, in our hiring policies and practices, in our academic institutions, and in the kind of organizational models on which we build our enterprises.

And those changes will only follow a few generations of enlightened education, cultural transformation, and confronted prejudice and bigotry. It is not only in racism and sexism, ageism and ethnicity where prejudice and bigotry operate.

They are also intimate components in every organization on the continent.