Sunday, May 27, 2018

Elites are not the source of new answers to our problems

Sometimes, and right now is one of those, it is quite a reach to connect the dots when trying to curate some of the themes marching across our consciousness.

In an essay in The Atlantic, Henry Kissinger worries about the potential impact of Artificial Intelligence on human relations, as well as on international relations, especially given the two pillars of memorization and mathematical calculus that underpin the technology. He worries particularly that this new technology, unlike previous technological revolutions, is in search of a philosophy. And yet, with respect, there are loud and repeating drum beats in the U.S. and elsewhere that point to the dangerous notion that everything, including Artificial Intelligence, is based on the capitalist pursuit of profit defined as sales, dividends, and the ultimate seduction of users of technology. It is not technology in search of a philosophy, as Kissinger would like to believe. It is rather the profit motive simply and unabashedly and unashamedly following the template of unfettered capitalism as motherlode.

In another section of the current edition of The Atlantic, Matthew Stewart depicts a revised version of the new aristocracy, the 9.9% just below the 0.1%, generated, protected and sustained by “cartels” in professions, as well as in elite universities which have newly defined their “eliteness” through increased numbers of rejections of applicants. Notwithstanding that comparative salaries of graduates ranges from a super-high for those graduating from the top 50 American universities, to a medium for graduates from less “aristocratic” universities, to a considerably lower number for the more plebeian institutions, the whole movement toward making the new 9.9% the new power block deploys such rules and regulations as limiting the professional purview and “competence” of dental hygienists, in order to preserve and sustain the higher incomes of their dentist bosses.

Another cartel, according to Stewart, is found in the American medical profession through multiple tactics, almost invisible from the general public and certainly from the fourth estate. These include restricting the numbers of immigrant applicants, the number of residencies, and the number of graduates from clinical training thereby sustaining the much higher incomes of American doctors, especially compared with the inferior outcomes among their patients, as compared with other advanced countries.

And then there was former British Prime Minister, appearing as a guest on the tenth anniversary of CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria, describing the need for the progressives to learn how to build bridges to the resentful, angry and uneducated populists, for example, who are trump’s electoral trust account. His highly analytical, nuanced and articulate analysis of the need to learn how to listen to, speak with and begin to embrace the ‘other side’ in and of itself, leaves that audience shaking their heads. So far removed from the street language, the guttural emotions, the simplistic answers to highly complicated problems, (for instance, the need to regulate, supervise and mediate global economic forces, and not let them dictate the terms of their own game) and the personal lens through which this quadrant views all things political, social and even intellectual is Blair’s point of view from the same sector whom he believes it is requisite to reach that, as a beginning dissertation, it fails to shine light into the minds, hearts and ambitions of those very people in public life who are attempting to do just what he counsels.

While acknowledging that the current political scene is dominated by “cultural issues,” and acknowledging that leaders like Clinton and Blair himself failed to grasp the needs, aspirations and hopes of the ‘other side’, Blair does draw a map for future leaders as to where their research and their language and their campaigns have to move. He identifies with the group who consider themselves ‘liberal’ on social issues, while also supporting private entrepreneurs, as a political model of neither the traditional right or left.

The fluid shifting of power blocks, responding to the massive dislocations of labour, wealth and tax laws rendering the rich even richer, accompanied by the rhythm of the tsunami of new technology including Artificial Intelligence, the #metoo and #TimesUp movements, religious tensions and the fundamental disconnect creating siloes for almost all groups and interests leaves most of us in a foggy conundrum. It is the penchant for the elites always and predictably to draw on their mantra, “we must have answers” even if and when they really do not have them, that sets these people apart from ordinary people.

The words, “I (we) do not have an easy, ready or pragmatic response to that dilemma!” are simply expunged from their world view. They make promises like “You can count on me!” as pacifiers, political placebo’s, and political crumbs from their self-appointed pedestals offered with a modicum of sincerity in the midst of their political campaigns, to people so desperate that they smile in gratitude for the comfort of the moment, knowing that it is as ethereal and ephemeral as a blink of an eye.

Political theory, political demographics, political data-mongering, mathematically manipulated by algorithms dedicated to the service of their authors, and then memorized as the latest “insight” or wisdom of the segment, and then served up to the financiers obsessed with their own aggrandizement, including their assuming the role of cheque-writer for the puppet political operatives, thereby enabling additional removal of restrictive regulations, or the guarantee that none will be enacted, can and will only leave us gasping for political, ideological, ethical and conflict-resolving oxygen, as the chasm between the have’s and the have-not’s continues to erode before our eyes.

The new aristocracy, including both the 0.1% and the 9.9%, with their iron-clad recruiting and supportive systems, linked to the new money, the new technology, and the old governance models of  co-dependent, narcissistic, money-grubbing political candidates whose discipline to “read” even the talking points of any piece of legislation, compromised by their reading the relevant opinion polls almost exclusively, and compromised also by their obsequious pursuit of cash to enable them to survive is a toxic mix of dominance. Ordinary people perhaps might be granted  a five-minute interview on a specific topic, provided they can articulate that issue in 100 words or less (no office staffer will read beyond that!) and, if needed, perhaps a ride to the polling station by those political operatives. Otherwise, the blind are effectively “leading” the blind; the political class is blinded by their own personal ambition; the rest of us are apparently blinded by our cell phones, tablets, or tv’s.

Secure in our respective complacencies, and our respective “ignorances” (and they are multiple and growing), we make a dissonant choir of disinterest, dispassion, disillusion and insouciance that threatens to enable the clarion call of a delusional strong man (ala trump) to seduce too many of us into believing his midway barker promises. Trouble with that picture is that we are not ambling through a midway looking for cheap thrills. We are not sidling up to a cotton candy confectioner to purchase another gut-full of pink sugar. We are not on a first date with an out-of-town girl from the farm, attempting to generate a few electric sparks, to ignite the spark of a new relationship, as if we were fifteen again.

Our churches have succumbed to the capitalist profit bait; our universities have fallen “in” on the same parade square; our public institutions, including our arts councils, our public scientific research centres, our unions, and our public health institutes have been partially if not fully fund-starved; our role models have morphed into sports and entertainment billionaires; the four most chosen career paths for the new aristocracy are finance, management consulting, medicine and law; the liberal arts, including the English, Philosophy and History departments have been succeeded in their recruitment successes by technological training and business skills.

No, Mr. Kissinger, the Artificial Intelligence cabal is not looking for a philosophy; no Mr. Blair, the neo-liberals have demonstrated their comfort with their own self-declared elitism; and as for Mr. Stewart, your piece linked with both Blair’s interview and Kissinger’s essay, offers only a strong kick in the pants to the 90% most of whom will be unlikely to discover your piece, built as it is on a summary and collaboration of multiple sources of statistical data, which taken together could be a wake-up call. 

Likely it will be tragically only another piece of articulate, intelligent and provocative reading for the 10% at the top.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Reflections on gender issues

In a period of history so fixated on misogyny, it seems more than a little appropriate to mention its opposite, misandry. Nobody seems to want to discuss the ways by which mostly women, but certainly too many men, defame, degrade, disdain, trivialize and trash males and all forms of masculinity.

The most obvious example of males demonstrating contempt for males is highly visible and even more audible in the Oval Office. Obama is, persistently and contemptuously portrayed by the current occupant as effete, weak, spineless, and even effeminate by a president so paranoid in his masculinity that he has set a course to undue everything that Obama accomplished on behalf of the American (and world’s) people. Hawks, like John Bolton, are also engaged in a dangerous display of neurotic masculinity, on behalf of America, through their overt and aggressive push for war with Iran including regime change, and potentially also with North Korea. Life-long military generals who actually know something about the ravages of war take a much more balanced and moderate and mature perspective.

Does trump think of what he is doing as misandry? Of course not! Yet, does trump think beyond the superficial impact on his personal ratings of anything he says or does? No!

Pervasive among red-neck males is another aspect of misandry: contempt, hatred and bigotry of the LGBTQ community, and especially of gay men. Red-necks really don’t give much thought to how they feel and think about whether females are lesbians, or which gender is claimed by transgenders. About homosexual men, however, red-necks consider them an affront to all forms and expressions of masculinity. (And before we go any further, let’s not confuse pedophilia with homosexuality. Pedophilia is dangerous and criminal! Last time I checked, being gay is not a crime in western countries, as it is in some African nations.)

There are other less obvious and less overt examples of misandry among red-neck sports talking heads. The preference for fighting in athletic competitions like hockey, football, baseball, basketball, as an incentive to crowd arousal, as opposed to skillful, balletic, choreographed, and disciplined play, is just another indication of the rub against the skilled players, who, by the way, as a group, do not suffer from a fragile masculinity, as perhaps the red-necks so.

There is a much more subtle and less obvious form of pandering to the violent among the news media, believing, (somewhat supported by the cultural evidence that conflict sells while compromise, collaboration and resolution does not generate high ratings), that real leaders have to be engaged in hard language and the growth of hard power if they are to be embraced a legitimate leaders. This stereotyping of hard power, elevating it, through such budget lines as the Pentagon that gobbles as much cash as all other departments combined, supported by the fixation with conflict, especially violent conflict, is another of the many distortions of healthy masculinity.

The universal disdain for anything emotional among many men, too, illustrates both a profound irony, and a tragic blindness. Naturally, in the execution of public debate and the strategizing around public policy, the factual evidence must hold a significantly higher priority than a person’s or a group’s emotional responses to the issue at hand. However, to deny the presence and impact of those emotions is to risk having them play an even more significant role than they would if they were acknowledged. None of us goes into any activity, including all professional activities like the court room, the operating room, the emergency room, the board room, the classroom, the sanctuary, the laboratory, and even the delivery truck, or the garbage truck, or the factory, without taking our emotional DNA, (linked to an agenda, whether conscious or not) with us.*

The masculine proclivity for public disdain of anything resembling human emotions in literature, film, television and, while a denial of our fragility in dealing effectively with those very emotions (especially as compared with our female partners, sisters, mothers, aunts and grandmothers), also renders us less open to learning both about their respective identities and their power, and about their subtlety and sophistication. Such a masculine umbrella over-riding the culture is a shameful indication of our deep and relenting inferiority, as passed on from our male ancestors, and effectively cripples, if not actually destroys, many relationships with our female partners. It says here that for men to learn to identify our emotions is neither feminizing nor weakening us; rather it is to enter into a world so complex and so turbulent and so awakening that our perception of ourselves, and our place in the universe can and will change dramatically, for the better.

Emotions do not have to be relegated to a functional factor in marketing (something men seem to want to do and to do rather well). And to participate inside our own emotions, and to regard them as just another facet of our identities that can be developed, grown, enriched and celebrated (in a positive manner), rather than waiting until they explode and sabotage our very lives, is a potential gift that many men will never accept, appreciate or engage.

We do not have to “work” at being different from our female partners; that is not something the universe (and especially women) have no trouble identifying. In fact working at it only demonstrates our unique and sad mis-perception and neurosis. Neither gender is “better” than the other; you will not find women today considering that they are, by definition, “less than” any man, and yet the world is replete with evidence that men consider ourselves much “less” and “less acceptable” than our female colleagues.

It is our very own responsibility to acknowledge that men and women, while different, are complimentary to each other, and not in some competition with the other gender. And while the emotional aspect of that responsibility might come more readily and easily to some women, there is the glaringly obvious that women collectively seem to be in an obsessive competition for wages, positions of responsibility and corporate and political power. So, it might be very difficult, if not impossible to parse the emotional from the political/corporate/pecuniary.

And, when we come to the off-hand, almost comedic, yet highly pejorative comments from women, the culture is flooded with them.

“All men are jerks!” comes quickly to mind, especially from women who have been painfully hurt by men.

“All men want is one thing,” is another of the proliferating stereotypes.

“No man listens to anything I say,” slides off the lips of women, especially among a group of women where there are no men to raise an eyebrow. And even if there were men present, it is unlikely that a single eyebrow would be raised, fearing the prospect of being labelled, misogynist.

“That dog has to be male; just look at the way he jumps around uncontrollably!” is another of the now-expected “jokes” that attempt to ridicule masculinity, however such ridicule might flow, both consciously and unconsciously from women.

And then there is the “no raised voices” mandate in the new workplace, since, it is believed, and universally accepted that “raised voices” are a form of bullying, verging on assault. We are to comport in a many fitting to the most anal fourth-grade class, commanded by an insecure, neurotic and repressive female pedagogue. It was a great surprise, and an unforgettable moment in my young life, when, as a friend and neighbour passed by desk, in such a grade four class, I reached out and gave Roger a gentle, and eminently friendly poke in the shoulder, saying “Hi” only to be commanded to the front of the room, where two lashes of the strap were administered on each hand, along with a lifetime of ridiculous, unmerited and unjust embarrassment.
 This was only exacerbated when, returning the joke, Roger appeared in our yard, and asked, in front of my mother, “What did your mother say when she heard you got the strap?” Naturally, hearing of this for the first time, she dished out an unforgettable unjust bar-soap mouth-washing over the kitchen sink.

And yet, upon reflection, after decades of voluntary and involuntary review, counselling, therapy and journaling on my part, it was that mother’s contempt for her father, transferred to her husband and her children that so shaped my early perceptions. Dangerous, malicious, vindictive and passionately inflamed women, ranging from the sneaky and deceitful to the blatant and proud have found all attempts to listen, to empathize, to “enter the shoes” and to support women, both in minor and in major turbulence that have backfired.

Some women have found their need for absolute control, especially in public, and openly collaborative situations, so gripping that when words like “I feel parented”  at their imposed, enforced agenda on the group, shot through their bodies like a electric shock. They picked up their papers, exited, and then sought blind revenge through manipulation of other compliant females.

Some have even gone so far as to send cards reading, “You destroy my image of men!” as if to say that my “masculinity” is so upsetting because it does not conform with the stereotype. Others, after opening up and disclosing some important and personal feelings, and then realizing what they had done, were so anxious that they turned on me, as if I were the problem. They had never before been so ‘open’ with a male, found the experience simultaneously supportive and scary, and preferred the latter as their ultimate interpretation. It was not, I believe, that they feared public disclosure of their emotions through a breach of confidence, but that they had been put under a light with a male. And yet, that may well have been part of their discomfort.

Others have openly sought relationships, who, when those attempts went unreciprocated, then turned on me in a vindictive revengeful manner, as if to punish me for what I considered my honest and professional “No”. Other women whose desperation and fear and aloneness became evident only after months of a very different “presentation” of their personality, became so viscious that they even openly declared, “I want to destroy men, and have become very good at it!”

We all must refuse to be content with the headline stories of men abusing women, without also wondering about what has become known as the “back story”. My father endured decades of abuse silently for the most part, and also passive aggressively, given that he either feared his spouse, or considered himself “less” than the other, a position from which too many men begin their private understanding of their relationship with women.

Only if and when men drop their need to be heroic, and need to rescue, and begin to assert our legitimate needs and desires, in open, honest, non-manipulative ways might we expect to see some move toward levelling the playing field between the genders.  (Women too might consider their part in the patronizing rescuing dramas with “weak men” in their view, in which they become enmeshed!) Patronizing,  trashing, dominating or competing at the emotional level will only exacerbate the relations between the genders. And, acting upon belief and perceptions of stereotypes (especially ones based on the other’s neurosis, thereby ironically and paradoxically exhibiting our own), by both genders will render each mere stick-persons, or cardboard cut-outs of their humanity.

Only through a process of becoming emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, physically and spiritually healthy, whole, well and self-respecting will both confront our respective fears, traumas, broken relationships (and we all have them!) and begin to break down the walls of both misogyny and misandry that threaten to imprison millions around the world. And only if and when we “are” fully able and willing to accept, respect and honour ourselves, will we begin to accept, respect and honour the other gender. This open war between our “shadows” cannot end well.

*In fact, the sanitizing of the emotional realities, (and there are many!) from the workplace has done much to exacerbate the tensions there. In this instance, we have willy-nilly thrown the baby out with the bathwater. While not all comedic exchanges in the past among co-workers was free of gender bias against women, much of it was simply good fun. And its removal as the result of a kind of scorched-earth cultural complicity, as if we are all supposed to imitate lawyers before judges, has rendered much workplace conversation stuffed into the box of technical competence, and safety rules and regs. This depersonalizes and eviscerates all “humanity” from the workplace, as if it were both dangerous and enmeshing by definition. What a boom we have complicitly generated for the “employee assistance barons” and their clinically certified minions!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Right-wing evangelicals....the scourge of the Christian faith

It is the black and white picture of the universe that characterizes the world view of many right-wing conservatives. An abhorrence for subtlety, ambiguity, and all the grey’s of the palate, means that they can and do express views that shout clarity, certainty, and absolute rightness, without so much as a glance toward the many other positions between their position, the middle and the left.

The “right” also holds to a portrait of power as “top-down” emanating from a single source. Those who fall in line with their views, too, subscribe to a notion of party affiliation that smacks of fawning, except that they call it loyalty. End results, as in trump’s wall, or his throwing out the children of undocumented immigrants, or his “decisive” move of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem…..they all fall on the ears of his obsequious and fawning devotees like manna from the sky. “Power” to them, it seems, comes only in bombs that shake the universe, even if the shaking is dangerous, without contextual strategic planning, and without a collaborative process that undergirds both the “act” and the support for the act. Anything that even hints of a process, that involves the complexity of measured steps, carefully planned, carefully orchestrated among allies, and announced as the culmination of a complex set of conversations, debates, multiple options and a “best” among many potential decisions is anathema to their notion of how the world works.

Abortion is evil; war is good; profit is always good; the world is composed of enemies all of whom will take advantage if permitted; communism is from the Devil; Muslims are bad and dangerous; blacks are mostly lazy and uneducated (if not outright incapable of being educated!); the cops need more power and more weapons; the sentences need to longer and the punishments more demeaning; the future is out of control, unless we return to a more “stable” and “dependable” past where whites dominated….the left wants only a “nanny” state, with high taxes and lots of government bureaucracy; gays are obscene and psychologically unbalanced and should never be allowed in the classroom as teachers or permitted to adopt children; God’s word in the Bible is “holy writ” and Darwin’s theory of evolution is a denial of Genesis; capital punishment is the only “justice” for capital crimes; the opioid crisis is the work of  drug lords and gangs, supported by cartels from Mexico and Central America….The zealots of the evangelical fringe (now edging toward 30% in America) turn both a deaf ear and a blind eye to the moral turpitude that cascades from the Oval Office, so that they can champion the transformation of the judicial system into one controlled by far-right justices, especially at the Appeal Court level, (some 25 already confirmed, since trump was elected, while Obama was able to have only 8 confirmed by this time in his first term) most of whom will be serving for at least the next two decades if not longer.

Critical thought, for the right, is translated as “dogma” whether it be political ideology, theology, race relations, immigration, gun control (guns make us all safer), or food stamps (only make people more lazy and dependent on the state).

There is literally no crack of light, to permit even a brief thought that negotiations with these people are possible. Even the Roman Catholic chaplain of the Congress, previously undeterred by a single complaint, is threatened with removal, (and replacement by a born-again evangelical) to appease that cadre of voters.

Attached to this “belief system” as if it were an integral and essential component, is the belief that “salvation” is a single act, occurring once and thereby relieving one of all sin, along with the corollary that others who do not subscribe to a single “apocalyptic” moment of “salvation” must be excluded from the faith community. Also grafted onto their position, are such things as curricula for children, who also have the requirement to be “born again” and, if not, then teachers must patronize them into compliance. Hell is no metaphor for these people; it is a real place, to which all who are not saved (by their definition) will be condemned to an eternal damnation. Clearly, the “saved” will be rewarded by an eternal life in a place called heaven where the streets are paved with gold and there is no strife or enmity.

The fact that all of this concoction, cocktail, or menagerie, is constructed on a footing of absolute paranoia, of course, has no place in their epistemology. Their’s is the most confident, assured and dependable of positions: just ask them and they will concur. Whether their leaders are in the pulpit, (far too many are), on church committees (even more seek such seats, as gatekeepers) or in the pews (writing cheques to advance their agenda), or even in the higher ecclesial offices of bishops, archdeacons or primates, they are a formidable force, loud, brash, bold, secure in their piety, (and the requisite judgements of all others who do not conform…which really means the rest of us).

And they are extremely venomous, dangerous, and lethal. It is not that they shoot people, and leave them dying in the street. That would be criminal and open to charges, trials and the potential of jail terms. No, here is where their deviousness can be found. They boast of their shared capacity and “power” to ingratiate themselves to church leaders, and then to take prominent seats on hiring and firing committees, and block those who are not sufficiently “spiritual” in their definition, or dismiss those same kind of clergy, if they have managed to be deployed prior to the arrival of these insurgents.

 There is a format for what evangelicals call “spiritual”. It entails rousing gospel music, testimonials of those recently “saved”, a kind of exuberance inflated by a kind of metaphoric helium that inflates many encounters, and a recruitment program to “bring in more converts” and to grow, grow, grow. Some of these congregations are regularly “speaking in tongues” and most are engaged in avid and heated prayer. And while there is a time for scripture reading, the interpretative sources are selected with the utmost care, in order to fall inside the parameters of this conservative, right-wing theology.

After all, for these people, their religion is much more than a pale imitation of their concept of a business model: it is the business model that serves as the blueprint of their organization. Of course, profits and dividends are counted as people in pews, and cash in the coffers, and the growth of those numbers demonstrates to those attending and to those in positions of supervision, too often, that this church is growing exponentially, to the benefit of the leadership, and presumably the benefit of those sitting in the pews.

Now whether or not such a religious operation qualifies as a path to an enriched spiritual experience is an open question. It has great difficulty in wrapping its group “arms” around the outcast, and in fact, puts up electrified gates keeping the outcasts out, for fear that they will contaminate the “community” and drive the upper-classes out, draining the church of the primary source(s) of financial support. Whether such an operation is even capable of entertaining cogent and penetrating  questions from young adolescents or young adults, or especially from newcomers who just might have had a painful encounter in another church, and have summoned the strength and the motivation to try again, seems doubtful. Yet, the capacity to provide quick, easily accessible and cogent “advice” to someone whose life has fallen into the ditch, seems, on the surface, to be evident in the extreme. Instant transformations, of the kind that are based on desperation, the need for an immediate “life-saver” to a drowning man, may well be within the purview of such a social ministry. And yet, the long-term personal spiritual growth, that depends on the inevitable confrontation with impenetrable spiritual questions, most of which, it we are to be really honest, leave us all in the face of outright and sacred mystery, might have to find a different locus and a very different intellectual and spiritual model.

Answers, it seems, especially, black and white, correct and absolutely indisputable answers, to questions of what does God want, and what is the purpose and meaning of my life, and how does a person who seeks God go about that search, and who are the most helpful mentors for such a pilgrimage…these are some of the more challenging questions always seeking answers even after preliminary responses emerge.

For nearly seventy years, I have been in direct or indirect conflict with the evangelical approach to the Christian faith, as a school boy, as a college undergrad, as a absentee, as a church volunteer, and as a practising clergy. Everywhere I have tried to worship, I have been confronted by the spectre of these “born-again’s” who have openly expressed their dismay at my incorrigibility, sought to pray for me, sought to remove me from their midst, painted me as the ‘anti-christ’, labelled me as a heretic, as a new-age sinner, as a heathen, and as one who refuses to submit to ecclesial authority.

As the vice(s) of narrow and exclusive superiority in religious matters among the so-called Christian world tighten and threaten to strangle the windpipe of a healthy, exploring and expansive and poetic search for ultimate reality, aiming deliberately to silence all such windpipes, (because only in silence can the most frightened be relieved of their fear) and the “right” voices threaten to take control of the word “Christian”, the liberals among us have to find new energy and new strategies and new approaches to engage in a relevant way with the millions of young people who, themselves, find absolutes much more attractive than the more challenging and creative ambiguities.

After all, the questions, and the pondering of the questions, even without final answers, give those who choose a path that energizes further reflection, further engagement and further (and deeper) exploration of the deepest mysteries still awaiting and welcoming our encounter. Ultimate reality, after all, is a little difficult to enclose in some fear-induced mental, intellectual, political ideological box.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Calling on America's "better angels" to flesh out the true American "soul"

A brief report in the Dispatches section of the latest The Atlantic paints a picture of the deep internet, where one can find porn photography of digital bodies, with superimposed movie actresses heads, making the distinction between the “fake” and what is “real” almost imperceptible. The goal of the developers of this technology is to “democratize” it to the extent that anyone, with only two or three clicks can wreak vengeance on anyone they wish, simply by inserting their visage over such disgusting activity.

We already live in a universe in which the chief executive of the United States is blatantly and melodramatically profiting from his own superimposing the “fake” news designation on giant, historic and reputable news outlets. With the cataract of digital developments, current and imminent, most of us will be literally unable to establish a “set of facts” on which to build some relatively reasonable, and agreeable perception of reality. Nothing, including the most outlandish of both denials and of promises, will be out of line. Just this morning, a few Republican members of Congress, asked if they believed their president had lied, replied, “The president exaggerates, and does not speak the way I do; but I would be more concerned if we were not “getting things done”. Co-dependence and the enmeshment it requires and imposes turns normal people into functional echoes of the presidential universe, not merely velcroing each of them to his power and influence, while emasculating their own independent voice.

The National Institutes of Health has just embarked on a mission to gather the DNA, along with other personal biographic details of the lives of millions of Americans, with a view to studying the aggregate and the individual profiles of human identities, hoping to develop enhanced measures to combat human illnesses. Congress is reported to have passed a law encircling the data collected with protective caveats that are designed to prevent the leaking and the illicit use of the highly sensitive data. Now, dear reader, ask yourself if you would be willing to  submit your personal data, including your DNA, to the National Institutes of Health, given the sieve-like deluges of data from various sources resulting from hackers, and technological break-downs? According to the report, filed on PBS last night by Lenny Bernstein, a reporter at the Washington Post, all data is never supposed to be used even by police and law enforcement in the prosecution of any crime. Does that caveat meet your minimal expectations of personal security and freedom from invasion by forces that neither you nor I can or would trust?

This morning, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Jon Meacham’s new book, The Search for the Soul of America, provided the opportunity for the author to articulate his thesis, that, based on a deep awareness of American history, the current epoch is less depressing and soul-destroying than many believe. As he put it, we have been ‘here’ before and have summoned our better angels to move the country to a higher and a better place each time. And while none of us would question either Meacham’s research or his interpretative conclusions, and while everyone needs a large dose of historical perspective in the middle of this tsunami of lies and braggadocio, there is something different about the current situation, with threats we have never had to confront before.

Let’s make a short list:

·        Global warming and climate change with deniers in power
·        The rampant revolution in digital technology, much of it in the hands of insidious, cruel and vindictive persons and agencies
·        3 men owning more of the American economy than 50% of the people (Bazos, Buffett, Gates)
·        CEO incomes running a hundreds of percentage points above the factory floor worker
·        Insurgent rogue nations with nuclear weapons
·        An anaesthetized House of Representatives and Senate
·        More guns per capita and household than at any time in America history
·        Volcanic eruptions of violence by law enforcement agents
·        A surge of fear bordering on hysteria about immigrants
·        Poverty rates that threaten health and life of many

While this is hardly an exhaustive list, it does tend to put a cloud over Meacham’s rainbow.

And yet, we all know that much of the best in humanity’s creativity has erupted from the most egregious personal, communal and national conditions. Individuals, like Polish soldiers, risked their lives, from inside Auchwitz, in order to try to liberate Jewish prisoners from the death camp. Beethoven wrote some of his most treasured scores while facing deafness, loneliness and poverty.  Renoir painted much of his portfolio under considerable physical and emotional pain….Rescuers, ion the eye of many natural disasters, as well as human-inflicted tragedies lifted the spirits of many victims and potential victims, while risking considerable danger to themselves. Heroism, on both on the scale of a battalion, as well as from an individual, punctuates all of human history, and Meacham may well be counting on its emergence from the American slough of despair if the current depression and fear give way to positive action.

In the American lexicon of “better angels” there are names never to be forgotten, of men and women who have sprouted through the darkness and the most threatening clouds of depression, war, disease, poverty and racism. Eleanor Roosevelt, King, Bobby Kennedy, and even some of the barons of former wealth whose philanthropy established some of the best universities, hospitals, boys and girls clubs, and even some legislators worked long and hard to embolden workers, and to expand the right to vote, and to underwrite scientific and scholarly research in all fields. Legal minds, among the best in the world, have dedicated themselves to the project of a “better and more perfect union” and their memory and their role-modelling continue like stars in a part of the sky not yet completely darkened by despair. Shriver’s Peace Corps, the American Red Cross, American Foreign Aid, and the legendary Marshall Plan point dramatically and altruistically, as well as honourably and even in an exemplary manner to the core of “better angels” from which the country can draw inspiration, courage, creativity and compassion, as well as hope.

In fact, it does seem that humans have to be pushed into a corner before they become sufficiently exercised, motivated and determined to resist. And clearly, trump and his gang are doing everything they can (whether deliberately or not) to generate a massive push-back.

From another perspective, however, there is the notion of a nation mired between two extreme perceptions, as if they have become so familiar with simplifying most situations into a “good-bad” dichotomy. The retreat from the complexity of reality, into a binary world view, however, can be characterized as a reduction that both masks the nuances and enables many to take themselves off the “hook” of taking responsibility. Whether they believe they are powerless to effect change, or whether they prefer to let things slide into the sewer as a titillating and predictable (and expected)  salatious freek show of the kind that generates profit for tabloids, and for the underworld, the result is the same: a kind of passive aggression that would make most domestic displays of the trait look like a tea party.

We do not have to look far to find the kind of paralysis I am speaking of: just cast a brief glance at the United States Congress, that body that was designed to rein in autocrats and wannabe tyrants in the Oval Office. Aiding and abetting  the construct of a binary universe is a national media that turns almost all political stories into a competition between the good guy(s) and the bad guy(s)…depending on the political persuasion of the owners and the journalists. Digging an historic trench with an unshakeable tradition of and commitment to only two political parties, further heightens the profile of a “two-sided” narrative, literally and metaphorically rendering anything different too “marginal” (radical, underfunded, out in left field, dangerous, stupid, led by a fool or a nobody, too costly in dollars and/or jobs/military action, or any of a number of rationalizations).

Meacham’s prescription from history of a return of the better angels of American history, even if it has truth and validity to justify its assertion, has to be seen as modest at best. Martin Luther King’s freedom marches, incarcerations, loyalist beatings, and the unleashed angry dogs, although all of that took great courage, conviction and faith in the hope for change, based on what Meacham would toda8y call America’s better angels, fell far short of generating a modicum of equality. Voting rights were extended somewhat, and yet today have begun to fall under the spell of Republican restrictions of various sorts that make it much more difficult for blacks and poor people to cast their vote. Similarly, in the mid-twentieth century, courageous labour leaders risked their lives while generating real social change in the workplace, through fair(er) wages, benefits, pensions and hours. Again, Meacham would point to America’s better angels in his depiction of this progressive movement. And, yet, much of that enhancement of the conditions under which ordinary men and women were expected to work, has fallen into disrepair, if not actual entombment, with the overt destruction of the labour movement. Similarly, from the1970’s through to the end of the Obama presidency, there was a general and growing consciousness about the need for the “greening of America” as well as the rest of the planet. America’s better angels were soaring on the wings of public support and identification with the growing consciousness that we are, were and continue to pollute our own atmosphere with toxic gases, dirty industrial effluent and excessive garbage that overflowed thousands of land-fill sites. There were then naysayers, but there was light at the end of the tunnel on the issue, and the consciousness seeped over into other areas of American life. That whole movement, although now undergirded by even more indisputable scientific evidence, and hundreds if not thousands of additional respected and professional voices joining the choir of taking action to sustain the environment for our children and grandchildren, is atrophying under the “dead” weight of capitalists who demand fewer regulations in order to increase their profits and their dividends, and the even “deader” rigor mortis of a compliant Congress.

There is an underlying deep and profound irony in the abandonment of the “better angels” archetype by the very group one might expect to embrace, and even to exhort their colleagues to embrace the American “better angels”. That group is the evangelical “Christians” who, for the most part, have joined the trump conflagration, believing that they have found their secular “saviour”. No theatrical gestures with his family Bible, given to him by his mother, will ever penetrate the scepticism of this scribe that trump can or will save the nation from its darker angels. In fact, there is considerable evidence that he is one of those very same dark angels, wretching and shouting in anguish on the television screens, twisting in the agony of his own secrets, while evangelicals wrap him in shrouds of their brand of the sacred. How pitiable and how tragic!

So, while Meacham is a honourable, dignified and respected historian, writer and recent outstanding eulogist for Betty Ford, his “better angels” thesis will be tested severely by the short-term narcissism and head-strong intransigence of many of the 1% who increasingly call the shots in America and in too many other countries.

And the 1% is not identical to, or in any way compatible with the “better angels” in any country, and certainly not in America.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Reflections on "Strong men" (Part 2)

These “strong men” can only hold power because they have manipulated others, the facts, the agents who distribute the information and generally painted a picture in which the masses either believe or believe they are powerless to change.

The emasculation of the masses did not start with trump. Nor will it be over on his demise. The emasculation of the masses began with the notion that “father knows best”….back in the dark ages when some chief and tribe both believed that they had discovered the shortest path to “reconciled power” within the tribe. And even then, specific traditions limited the purview of those “chiefs”….And  there was also the notion of a God, the Pope, and the ignorance of the masses, enshrined in the notion that ordinary people could not be trusted to “read” the Bible correctly. Only the “educated elite” in the Vatican were so enlightened as to be able to with promulgate the real “truth” of God’s word. And since we absolutely abhor uncertainty, chaos, and the complexities of ambiguities, we prefer the “order” imposed by a single voice.

Noel Coward notes: It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.
T.S. Eliot reminds us: people cannot tolerate too much truth.*

Of course, truth-telling is a reliable approach to being marginalized in any organization, family, or government, especially truth telling that exposes the abuse of power by others. Having held secrets deeply hidden in my heart and mind, forhalf a century, believing that to expose the truth would embarrass those who “parented” my sister and me. I now recognize the futility and the failed responsibility of my silence because the pattern spilled over into my own marriage. Meagre attempts to open the Pandora’s Box of the real truth of what was going on inside what was then 104 Gibson not only were fruitless, but actually back-fired with even more violence, now triggered by whispered disclosure by letter to distant family members.

Whistle-blowers, we all know, are despised by those in power. They represent if not the greatest, then certainly one of the most virulent threats to anyone in power who is abusing that power. Legislation to “protect” whistle-blowers, too, is so ineffective that it is virtually useless. Any negative public disclosure of the failings of an organization, or specifically a leader (one of those strong men) is so abhorrent, especially when one considers the fragility of the character and the ego’s of such men. Rage, unfettered rage and revenge are the immediate reactions of “strong men” to the disclosure of their longest, best-kept and most heinous secrets. Even secrets that would not impact negatively the personal reputation of a discloser, but perhaps the honour and public reputation of a family, have to be sealed from public light, in a repression of the truth that can and does compromise the secret-bearer as well as the family or organization.

Mental and emotional health, deeply and inextricably linked even enmeshed with the freedom and openness to receive and to honour the full truth, especially when it is hard to digest, is compromised through the rigorous silence that some of us impose on our family history. “Black” Uncle Tom, the drunk, who is never spoken of by family rule and tradition, is an example. The unwed teen who had to leave home to have her baby is just another of the many “secrets” that haunt the streets and the coffee shops of many towns and cities. The family, or organization, too, is compromised by the repression of its “darkest” secrets, given the notion that only the truth can and will ‘set everyone free’. To live under a cloud, without either acknowledging or opening up and confronting the secrets, is to render much of what goes on there as a form of play acting.

The church, too, has its own “secrets”…like the many kangaroo courts that have been summoned, to discipline someone who is challenging the status quo. While it is no secret that the ecclesial body has adopted both the administrative hierarchical top-down structure of organization and the deployment of power, such a structure puts the few at the top, including the top honcho on a kind of pedestal, a target really, for the critics to focus their attacks. And having declared itself the “keeper of the morality” of the culture, (either officially or unconsciously) the church has embraced the notion of defining sin, and then taken to manufacturing both inadequate processes and even more suspect decisions as ‘punishment’ or exclusion as its way of living out a theology of “forgiveness”.

So, within the structure of that culture, it has felt obliged to place a veil, or perhaps a reredos, on the vaults of its many secrets. Pursuing a culture in which it expects people to place ultimate confidence and trust, as does the military, the medical profession, the legal profession, as well as most governments and bureaucracies, only enhances the potential for accumulating secrets, which in themselves, might not be all that serious, nevertheless places those in charge in a position of having to choose between looking the other way, or taking action that is “decisive” and “strong”. Overlooking, or preferring to ignore the basic truth of nature that both change and imperfection are “baked into the cake” of everything human, we have entrapped leadership, as well as our perception of what passes for acceptable and trustworthy and integrous, in a vice so narrow and so inflexible, as to seriously impair the effective, open and honest dynamic of civility, mutual respect and the potential of readily accessible reformation.

Capital punishment, for example, is demonstrated not to provide a deterrent for others, and yet, in our unbridled and voracious appetite for revenge, some 38 American states have re-instituted it in the last decade. Similarly, “war” on opiods, or illicit street drugs, manifests a wanton disregard for the conditions in which people are living, that lead them to medicate their inordinate psychic, emotional and even physical pain. It does, however, underly, enhance and reproduce a culture so bound up by its own fear of failure that it falls victim to that very fear, (just another of the many secrets that we refuse to deal with honestly, openly and moderately).

Another secret that we refuse to discuss is our dependence on hard power, as the panacea for protecting us from potential “invasion” by a foreign power. It is a mere shibboleth that no one wins in any military conflict, and yet, the American budget for the Pentagon consumes by far the largest percentage of the national budget, while people starve, live on the streets, or have to choose between needed medications and food or rent. Keeping others in power, under such specious foundations, only exaggerates a culture of both denial and self-sabotage.

The denial of human agency in global warming and climate change, too, is a glaring reality that threatens the survival of the planet and all of us. And while there are voices crying in the wilderness, and voices taking some steps to confront our own dependence on fossil fuel, for example, as one of the more significant contributors to CO2 emissions, we are both slow and reluctant to be honest and open in our public policy to address the danger. Of course, there are arguments, in the short term for the preservation of jobs, incomes and family stability. However, creative approaches to this and many other public issues, tend to struggle under the weight of opposition from those seeking to preserve their personal, and their temporary and fleeting grasp of the brass ring.

Leaders like trump and putin are using the public’s attraction, even obsession, with stories of trite and tawdry human sex and private money “dirt”, as distractions from the truths that such leaders are carving out the very foundations of a healthy society and political culture. They are also depending on our being overwhelmed with the sheer volume and weight of stories that our memories will be drowning in “stuff” and we will either forget or ignore their nefarious obsession with their own power.

Deceit shows itself, and we can hear this story in every coffee shop and bus stop, and waiting room, in how we have participated in and permitted a culture of refusal (denial of) to accept responsibility, linked to the demolition of the notion of shame. To hear someone acknowledge “this is on me” today is so jarring to our ears that we actually wonder if there might be a loose “screw” inside the head of such a person. Employers too cover their obsession with greed and profit in the mascara of crumbs of classical conditioning rewards, while denying they are increasing the workload of every worker, without once bringing those workers into the planning and discussion of the very changes those workers will be expected to carry out.

The notion of corporate team, and the circle organizational model, once considered a healthy way to build a workplace culture of respect has been replaced by a regression return to scientific management enabled by the proliferation of digital technology that can and does measure every piece of work by the nano-second. Obvious such measurement feeds the insatiable appetite for “data” from managers, who then seek ways to wring out more work for less cost from all of the departments in his/her responsibility.

Having secured the virtual etherizing of all labour unions, and the voices of the workers, in a seemingly compulsive and obsessive march toward “entrepreneurship” and the engine the drives the economy, the establishment has gutted pensions, benefits and worker protections and replaced all of the safety net with contract positions that have no security, no benefits and no RESPECT! Even bringing in “interns” with the promise of a glowing “line” in your resume, is another deceit, playing to the exclusive advantage of the power structure. And yet, in order to even glimpse a potential hire in the future, young grads are compelled to play this game of corporate deceit.

Affairs, by the president, are now disregarded  as to whether they are acceptable in the public arena and replaced by the details over silence payments in the public media’s coverage of current events. And even then, those stories are buried in the  obfuscations of the administration’s talking heads, simply because even they have no idea where the truth lies. Such is the drama of deceit that is playing out before our eyes, under the cloud of a mere headline “fake news” attributed to formerly legitimate news outlets.

We are enmeshed in a culture of deceit, the foundations of which are rooted in fear of disclosure, fear of rejection and fear of abandonment shared by every single person. However, it is the people in positions of responsibility who have abrogated the design and delivery of the public messages to their own specific, unique and narcissistic purposes, deceiving even themselves, because there is no way they can or will remember what lies they have previously told, when, where, to whom or with what consequences.

As for me and my own family, I deeply and profoundly regret and am sorry for my own participation in a culture of silence, repression, and fear of rejection. I enabled such a culture to ensnare others in the perception, which easily becomes belief, that the truth would be too “hard” for others to handle. A veneer of “protection” can and does only mask authentic and viable connections between people, and while I was attempting to remove the masks from public figures, I was perpetuating my own mask, at the time, probably mostly unconsciously; now, not so much!

It would do all of us well to spend some time reflecting on the “secrets” we are currently hiding, in fear of disclosure from the very people we love and who love us. And such reflection might well ask questions like, “How am I sabotaging this relationship, and my own person, by burying these often deep and painful truths under a sand hill of silence, distortion or outright denial.

Such deceit, notwithstanding the warnings from some heavyweight thinkers, can and will continue to entrap us and so clip our wings from undergirding our full potential as to deprive us individually, our families and our workplaces and nations of one of the more powerful and under-accessed and under-utilized human resources. And we do not need huge rigs or monumental environmental disasters to mine this energy.

Perhaps, if we all were to find the words, the courage and the sensitivity to express our full truth, those shibboleths about not being able to withstand too much truth would fade into the mists of myth and history. And, perhaps ‘strong men’ could climb down from their vulnerable pedestals, acknowledge their fragility, and permit and enable the free-flow of human creativity, energy and real power to take responsibility for our shared lives.

Now there’s a reformation waiting to be “birthed”!

*I have been confronted directly and personally in private by a now deceased bishop anxious that the people in the church were unable and unwilling to tolerate too much honesty and truth, in conversation about prospective entrance into active ministry. I was so shocked and appalled that decades later, the scene of the conversation remains vivid, coloured, scented and clouded with the appalling self-protective bubble in which he had encased himself and his ecclesial leadership.

Another bishop, attempting to rationalize the approach taken following a church tragedy, applauded the model, spirit and leadership of Winston Churchill, as precisely what was needed, rather than the obvious choice of grief counselling. “Strong men” have embedded their image deeply even into the culture deployed in flawed and futile pastoral care.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Can we mount a global campaign to rid the world of "strong men" leaders?

Time magazine’s cover is displaying what Time calls the era of the “strong man”…a montage of photos of allegedly political leaders who have adopted the mantle of the “strong man”….putin, trump, erdogan, kim jung un, sisi, duterte, and even xi jinping (having just arranged a life appointment as Secretary of the Communist Party) and a couple of others who, taken together, along with the multiple sex offenders, terrorists, spineless ‘moderate’ leaders of the male gender demonstrate what is most objectionable, heinous and repulsive about the current menu of masculinities, grabbing the headlines.

Not satisfied with circumscribed, constitutional, historic, moderated and mediated power, determined to inflict even a violent, dictatorial and exclusionary imprint on their moment in history, these men are so tarnishing the long-term reputation of masculinity, (as if it needed more pummelling!) without a concerted, conscientious, thoughtful, and collaborative push-back from the mainstream of moderate, reasonable, respectable and even attempting to be honourable men.  Commentary on the exploits of these men, for the most part, demonstrates their abuse of power, certainly not their exemplary deployment of it. They imprison or otherwise ‘wipe-out’ dissent; they manipulate the information concerning their rule; they take for granted that their power is too restricted by norms previously considered essential to their people; they consider their career ambitions, legacies and ‘triumphs’ more significant than the welfare of their people; and they dominate their own “news outlets” as if some movie magnate(s) had taken over their domains in the production of some “heroic” super-man hero movie….

Far removed from the days of the Lee Iacoca’s, the Jack Welsh’s, when corporate governance included as an important agenda item, the support of the community in which their companies operated, it is not only the visages on the Time cover who are abusing their power. For too long, at a much lower echelon, and much less visible to the public, corporate boards and CEO’s, supported by their government pawns, have been vacuuming into their own executive field of play, the ruthless, and unobstructed pursuit of both profit and thereby dividends for investors, at the expense of committed and contracted pensions, wages, environmental and health and safety protections not to mention the viable and effective existence of labour unions which have become virtually dead.

We are witnessing an oligarchic take-over, globally, that is clearly dedicated to its own narrow narcissistic and greedy goals, without caring a ‘fig’ for the long-term health of the planet, the long-term resolution of serious and ever-morphing conflict, the strength and viability of international institutions like the UN, the WHO, the ILO, the International Criminal Court, the IMF, and then World Bank. Rape and pillage of natural resources, for immediate profit and dividends, surgical removal of regulations that would impede the unfettered pursuit of corporate profit by their puppet legislators (of so many nations and languages and ethnicities and geographies) and the dropping of a few “crumbs” of pennies in tax breaks, for example, just to keep the “dogs” of starving, un-and-under-employed, desperate and mostly hopeless people at bay.

They build up “their” military bastion, both because they can and because they never know when they might need it to retain power. They demand “loyalty” which really means a sell-out of any principles of decency, leaving only sycophants willing to assume positions of responsibility, even if their tenures will be short-lived.
It is not just the cover story that appals. It is the ‘back-story’ that infuriates ordinary people around the world. We all know that instant global communication has permeated the borders of almost all countries, (with some blatant and dangerously controlled exceptions using Canadian technology to repress internet access to their people). We also know that global markets have unleashed the lowest common denominator of corporate greed, narcissism and the unfettered and unaccountable movement and hiding of cash under the guidance of the most costly accounting and legal firms.

Oligarchs, armed with a coterie of “loyal” protectors, body-guards, lawyers, accountants and legislative pawns, walking on mountains of secretly-stashed cash, striding the corridors of their own media slaves (dependent on the ratings their “heroes” generate and the advertising dollars that ensue), dismissing negative voices as if they were mere packaging on their latest Big Mac, (a record number of jounralists, 262, have been jailed this year!), seducing more weak and gullible sycophants to replace those already carelessly thrown under the bush, denying even the merest appearance of indecency, lawlessness, and deceit.

And the story goes even deeper: these thugs in public life, striding their respective stages like self-declared super-heroes, give cover, and even role modelling to millions of young men, most of them desperate for a moment in the limelight, barely being able to distinguish fame from infamy. In a star-drugged culture, supported, aided and abetted to the social media, we are at risk of sabotaging many of our best men, who no longer seek public office, given the sacrifices required in time, resources and reputation, and of so tainting the overall reputation of men generally, that we are all at greater risk.

And because most of the “strong men” champion free enterprise, for-profit at the expense of the planet’s rising temperatures, raging fires and floods and the displacement of millions through both military conflicts and starvation, poverty, disease and infant malnutrition and the impacts of those conditions on every  newborn in the developing world. Taken together, these men represent a plethora of political parties, all of them veering far right, nationalistic, catering to their own “sub-oligarchs,’ wanting walls to keep out the most desperate, and more and more power, money and influence for themselves.

In such a climate, we need far more Macrons, Trudeaus, Merkels and articulate moderates everywhere. And yet, will the moderates be strong enough to bring serious reflective approach to world affairs, given the obstreporous intransigence of these tyrants? It is legitimate to fear that many will not see behind the headlines or this cover on Time, to tease out the black holes of vacuity, narcissism and empty ego’s that threaten the health, sanity and well-being of millions with impunity.