Saturday, October 31, 2020

Will American "discernment" triumph over mascara?

 Public discourse is overflowing with political comparisons based an any one or more of innumerable “tape-measures” each of them approximating a continuum from one end of the spectrum to the other…Whether it is ideology, level of academic achievement, theology/religion, level of income, professional sector, postal code, gender, age demographic, purchasing habits, political party affiliation…our self-assessments range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

And inside each of the broad ‘categories’ there are sub-sets that, for example, divide the left-leaning democrats (liberals) from the centrist and from the right-leaning. Similarly, among even the broad category of “Christian” there are not only denominational titles but also “belief” leanings, in favour of a woman’s right to choose or opposed to abortion (except in cases of rape, incest or endangerment of the mother’s life). The collection and curation and interpretation of statistical data, based on highly sophisticated equations and algorithms is a surging commercial sector, on which the political class, the corporate and the philanthropic sectors have become enmeshed and co-dependent.

In the dark ages, the last half of the twentieth century, in high school English class, the concept of “who is your audience” for your writing was a favoured teaching/learning nugget. The person, or group, for whom words were scribbled mattered because ‘their’ language and receptivity would determine whether or not ‘your’ words made an impact. And it did not matter whether the desired impact came from an argument/essay/opinion or from a narrative, drama or poem. On the ‘writing’ continuum there was also this rubric: write what you know and care about most deeply. Authenticity, integrity, granularity, viscerality, the goal of ‘bringing the reader into the writing was the overriding principle. And the range from the language of the poet to that of the propagandist helped critics to discern, through comparisons, those writers they considered more effective than others.

Discernment, as to distinguish between highly nuanced guideposts, as different from wisdom, the difference between what is wise and what is not, is a matter inherent to the new student in each and every academic discipline. One example is m the difference between  bacteria and  virus. The former (bacteria) are single-celled, living organisms, with a cell wall and all the necessary ingredients to survive and reproduce whereas the latter (virus) are not considered to be living because they require a host cell to survive long-term and to reproduce. On the political level, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is known for his guiding principle that a politician campaigns in poetry and then governs in prose. The poetry connotes and sketches high ideals, creative images, inflated promises and visions that are designed to capture the imagination of the voters, while, in office, ‘the devil is in the details, most of which are insufferably boring, often conflicting with other substantive and compelling details, and frequently any resolution (compromise) satisfies no party. Blair’s aphorism, however, has the potential to disdain both linguistic camps, given that poets see themselves as anything but political, and those in positions of leadership almost refuse to divorce their work from the creative imagination.

All democratic societies, nevertheless, regard the fullest development of the individual citizen as one of the highest goals and accomplishments of its history and tradition. Such measures as voting turn-out are used, as well as individual family incomes, to assess the degree to which the society has achieved the full development of its people. And given that any leadership is dependent on the consent of those for whom it is responsible, the linkage between aspiring and incipient leader and ‘the people’ is constructed through language, in both words and images. The purpose of this messaging is to convey that elusive, inscrutable and essential bridge, trust, confidence and ultimately the marking of a ballot, individually and then to be counted collectively to ascertain the name(s) of the next government.

The argument here, then, is that the level of discernment of ‘the people’ (level of literacy, level of discernment of virus from bacteria, for example,) matters as much or more than the design of the candidates’ messages. That is the intellectual, emotional, cognitive and ethical capacity to discern, and then to acknowledge the bases on which that discernment was made, between statements grounded on generally agreed, verifiable and verified information and those statements, like helium-inflated balloons, float through the stratosphere without worrying about every having to land matters more than the presentation of the candidate.

However, in a culture (think U.S.A.), in which the individual reigns supreme, and the collective assessment, capacity, discernment, literacy, of ‘the people’ is given public attention only if and when some ‘study’ compares academic achievement levels of all the countries in the O.E.C.D. (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), the ‘performance’ (including the words, the tone, the gestures, the attire, the attitude) of the performer dominates the coverage. Morphing talking heads on television and in podcasts from political critics to theatrical critics, however, only exaggerates the vacuum in policy, in the rough and tumble of ideas, legitimately and historically struggling for the discernment of the voter. In 2008, a street-joke ran the gamut, following the appointment of Sarah Palin: “if you put mascara on a pig, it is still a pig!” Well, what happens when the whole “pig” is a tube of mascara, given that the triumph of ‘freedom-of-choice’ in the absurd extremis has effectively removed the need for, and the pursuit of mature, diligent, critical and essentially existential discernment of the people, for the people, and by the people.

In honour of a road trip along the Pacific coastal highway, the Canadian poet Earle Birney wrote a poem entitled: (a portion of which here is from One Muddy Hand, on quotes)

Billboards Build Freedom of Choice


Look See.


so billboards kin bill freedoms choice

between-yeah between billbores no


its yedoan hafta chose no more


say like trees and billbores lessa


wenna buncha trees is flatint out inta


yeah yegotit

youkin pick between well

hey! see! like dat!


or-watch wasdat comin’ up?



yeah hell youkin have damnear



see! or watchit!


yeah but look bud no chickenin out

because billbores build



buildbores to build more-

sure yougotta! yugotta have



Satire, of course, exaggerated, yes, in the very nature of satire….but also in the essential nature of satire, there is a profound grain of inescapable truth…and that truth is dark and deceptive and destructive.

And what is dark and destructive about it is that freedom of choice, far from being the consequence of some blaring billboard advertising slogans, can and will only emerge from the hours of reading, pondering, reflecting, debating and then determining the most “weedy” and even ‘hair-splitting’ choices, not merely between two crispies or crumpies cereal, or between a trump and a Biden, but more expansively, between a nation and a culture that sees each and everyone of its people equally, that regards each and every one equally and respectfully, that cherishes each and every one equally and that builds the promise of its future on the strengths, talents, insights, creative imaginations and ambitions of each and every one of its people.

And such discernment, obviously and unequivocally, demands a level of maturity, and even complexity, that cannot abide the rush of a rock-concert crowd’s adulation of a performer, or the seduction of that performer’s trickster sales pitch…After all, it is not rocket science to note that, if that tube of mascara could talk, it would scream from Birney’s billbores (not a typo) that the reductionism of freedom of choice cannot and will not pore the footings for the sustainable anything, least of all a nation determined to repair the erosive and corrosive destruction of the last four years, and determined to face itself and the world giving full accounting and taking  full responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its people (projected to reach half a million by mid January, 2021), the infections of nine million (also projected to reach double that number). A nation fully committed to re-engage with the complexities of NATO, the Paris Climate Accord, the Iranian Nuclear Accord, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court….cannot allow itself to be entangled in the lies, the innuendoes, the  deceptions and the distortions, not only of the science of the pandemic but of the delicate balance of power that has sustained a relatively landscape in geopolitics for over half a century….

Children, and even adolescents are captivated by the lyricism, and the reductionism of the slogan of freedom (of choice) and yet remain mesmerized and confused by the complexities of governing a sovereign nation. Escaping their notice and the attention of their most alert and focused intellects are many of the complexities of any nation. These include the nuances of Supreme Court decisions, the nuances of a Federal Reserve that sets interest rates in relationship to the vagaries of the market, the Homeland Security department that is charged with protecting the homeland from adversaries within and without, the FBI and the CIA, both agencies that must be fenced off from the political arm of government, as must the Department of Justice. As each of these agencies falls, willy-nilly, without a single effective manoeuvre to stop the tsunami of hollow-empty ago-driven narcissism of the current occupant of the Oval Office.

As an 88-year-old ex-pat now living in Montreal, and voting for the first time in her life put it, I have to do whatever I can to remove that man from the White House….and so too, hopefully, will the millions of men and women who have never voted before, and those who have previously voted for candidates from the Republican and other third parties, awaken to what has to be considered a tipping point election, in the history, not only of the U.S. but also of the whole world.

Environmental protections erased with the stroke of a pen along with civil servant protections from dismissal; executive leadership positions morphed into “acting secretariats” reliant on the whim of a psychotic chief executive; promises of coverage for pre-existing health conditions, while pursuing with blood-haste, a petition to the Supreme Court to eviscerate those very conditions and the individual mandate from the Affordable Care Act; the caging of children separated from their parents as a deliberate deterrent to other potential migrants; the illicit relationships with foreign dictators, the denial of responsibility for prevention of the ravages of COVID-19;….these are not reducible to a billboard slogan, nor are they compatible with a nation conscious of the street violence of police brutality that screams of systemic racism, nor with a budget that awards tax breaks to the top 1% while ignoring the plight of hundreds of thousands of business owners/operators who have had to shutter their operations as a consequence of the pandemic, without federal aid; nor are the literally dozens of overt actions by Republican governors and legislatures to disable access to voting…

As Noam Chomsky, in the latest edition of The New Yorker so succinctly and so starkly puts it, Donald Trump is the Worst Criminal in History…

And to those words, also not amenable to a billbore, we humbly and silently utter, “Thank God for Noam Chomsky!”

And to the great hockey hero, Bobby Orr, (from my home town!) who just this week took out a full-page advertisement in the New Hampshire Union Leader, endorsing the president, I can only shake my head in shame, that such a decision would corrode what previously was a platinum reputation for both hockey and what most considered honourable.

Discernment depends on much more than instant gratification, although much of the U.S. economy has come to depend on such manipulation. Sadly!

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Striving, relentlessly, for the day when the power of love overrules the love of power (thanks to Gandhi)

The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace. (Mahatma Gandhi)

Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment. (Mahatma Gandhi)

In our last essay, we advocated for a pursuit of meaning, never to be sacrificed for sheer, mere, power.

Of course, such an idea begs so many questions, explications and inferences that it must not be left hanging from the tree of confusion, ambiguity or a need for mastery.

Internal power, the capacity to look inward, through the mirror of consciousness, memory, disciplined inquiry and criticism, and then to bring into the world the essence of one’s identity, whatever maxim, or gesture, word or action that epitomizes the who and the what of our being needs to share, provides a relevant, realistic and reachable foil for what the world talks about as “power” in the determination of the life of a culture. Extrinsic power in relation to the “outer world” is expressed in deeds, achievements, awards, titles, certificates and legacies, recognized and presented, by representatives in that “public square”. Of course, both internal power and extrinsic power intersect in each and every exchange, whether private (in diaries, interior monologues, soliloquies, prayers, confessions, autobiographies and canvases, manuscripts, photo art museums, etc.) or in acts and words offered to an audience.

In our individual lives, we all know that we resist a full accounting of our shame, our embarrassments, our failures, and our self-inflicted sabotages. Getting a full appreciation and acceptance of the wholeness of who we are, ushering in a degree of self-respect and authenticity, nevertheless, depends directly and indirectly on such a full mirrored accounting. Secrets buried deep in the caverns of memory continue to haunt us, to the extent that their pulses are blocked from consciousness. Released, like those gold nuggets panned for by goldrush miners, those same secrets have the potential to untie the threads of bound nerves of shame, tight muscles and tendons of unworthiness, and to open pages of journals (literal and metaphorical) previous encased in dust and mouse droppings in the attic of our mind.

While obvious, and thereby considered trite, this recipe does not unfold into a mixing bowl like those gourmet recipes we all treasure. In fact, its unrelenting truth is one of its more effective safe-guards, keeping many of us jogging away from the challenge, or even resisting when others peek behind the veil of our public mask and telling us more about ourselves than we were ready to acknowledge. Paradoxically, our resistance to mining our own nuggets leaves us more vulnerable to the seduction of extrinsic power, status, money and reputation. While not based on empirical sociological research, anecdotal narratives including personal experience suggest that many of us who avoid critical self-introspection are the very ones who seek public applause, acclaim, and the extrinsic rewards of power over others.

If belief in the subtle and nuanced image of how unworthy, incompetent, immature, awkward, unintelligent, unlikeable holds sway over more uplifting adjectives describing our identity, (and all of us have zillions of moments when we were derided by others, many of whom we respected) then we will undoubtedly seek and find opportunities to exercise power through groups, teams, clubs, families, classrooms and workplaces. And for most of those opportunities, we will be rewarded also in a manner that comports with the “classical conditioning” that pervades the marketplace of both ideas and commerce, including political commerce, academic commerce, medical commerce and legal/accounting commerce. In short, we study, we work, we learn, we plan and we develop in a culture that endorses and practices extrinsic rewards for acceptable behaviour and especially for what it considers exceptional behaviour.

Those rewards/awards are all designed and administered by those in charge, who themselves have been steeped in that same culture, and who sincerely believe that in passing it on, they are serving the “best interests” of the community as a whole.
Another irony, however, is that this extrinsic classical conditioning is or at least can often be a trap, seizing and holding tight to its best examples from youth up to and including retirement from high-ranking and highly respectable positions of honour, achievement and respect in the community. In North America, however, there are far too many stories of individuals who, in what has come to be known colloquially as a mid-life crisis, ‘crash and burn’ or change careers, leave marriages, over-consume, over-gamble, or pass through what can only be termed a turning point of some considerable import.

“Is that all there is” (Peggy Lee’s pop hit) sums up the emotion of the experience. Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman incarnates the archetype from the mid-century play, Death of a Salesman. Not all biographies, however, default in such a dramatic manner. Some are so well integrated into the requirements of the ‘system’ that they continue unperturbed, insofar as ‘we’ the public can see, far into retirement without any perceivable tragic eruptions or changes in their midlife.

Churches, clergy, chaplains, psychologists and psychiatrists, spiritual directors and more recently social workers have been traditionally ‘appointed’ and thus sought out as resources for those seeking guidance in and through a mid-life challenge. This cadre of professionals, however, continue on the suburbs of our professional communities, given that seeking their support continues to be regarded as a profound indication of some kind of personal, emotional, psychic and thereby social and professional weakness, (or to be less polite: illness, sickness, abnormal-ness, and unreliability). Only recently, have employers in some sectors, come to consider the emotional/psychic state of their workers as significant, in fact integral to the quality and reliability of their performance. Some have turned this “function” over to Employee Assistance Programs, (EAP’s) in an oblique manner so as not to ‘invade’ the privacy of the individual, and so as to offer a buffer of “protection” for both public relations and insurance purposes, while the volume and pace of work increases and wages and salaries remain constant or decline.

In the public arena, including the file of worker ‘rights’ and workplace safety and security, we now have some rather limp laws to which workers can refer, through legal counsel, in the event of an unlawful dismissal, or perhaps in cases where employers were negligent in protecting workers. As part of the ‘social net’ embedded in legislation, legislators, lawyers, politicians, corporate executives and the occasional social activist debate both public and privately their ideas, and by inference their beliefs and perceptions of how others ought to be regarded and treated by their deliberations.

Here is the nexus where the private “character” of public leaders intersects with the publicly acknowledged and demonstrated needs of individuals require address. How power has been perceived and delivered in the lives of those public figures will have a significant, if less visible and far less investigated, impact on the manner in which these men and women form their agendas, undergird their arguments and relate to others who are themselves committed to the climb up the public ladder of power.

Competition between and among individual and groups (political parties, churches, social service agencies, corporations) and the people in leadership is both predictable and inevitable. Whether such competition is considered a ‘zero-sum’ game, (in which if I win, you lose, OR if you win, I lose) or a shared pursuit of a common agenda through which all parties ‘win’ is a direct function of how power is to be deployed.

And many of the rules for such deployment depend on the culture within the decision-making body. And that culture itself, will rise from both the ashes and the bricks of those who preceded the current actors. Some of those rules will be overt and stated, while others will be covert, hidden and only ‘sprung’ on those considered opponents who threaten the power of those who consider themselves to be in charge.

It is in this ‘colliseum-of-conflict’ where the rubber of individual humans’ ambition, articulation, reputation, and character meets the road of the same traits of those opposed to whatever one side is proposing. Many historic conflicts were brief and lethal; others were more protracted but none less lethal. Court rooms evolved as a moderation of both techniques and outcomes of human conflict, themselves increasingly dependent on the culmination and summation of their own precedents.

Underlying all human conflict, and the intersection of opposing human interests and ambitions and goals, are tools like words, traditions, patterns of thought, foundational thinking and philosophy, religious belief, and evolved and still evolving definitions of concepts and arguments, evidential theories and practices and the collection and curating of information.

So too, underneath all public arguments lie the self-concepts of the participants, the adherence to a common footing of truth, as well as a commonly accepted pattern of process, including the mutual civility of the participants, as well as an agreed recognition that given the honour and respect of the process and of the ‘friend opposite’ all parties to the debate will accept and respect the decision of those charged with making it.

None of this is rocket-science, and no Philadelphia lawyer is needed to discern the obvious and minimal requirements of a civil engagement for the purposes of building and enhancing a wider and deeper seam in the granite edifice of public trust, confidence, reliability and deferral.

Whether that public trust and confidence has been entrusted to any of a number of public institutions, or directly into the elected or appointed roles and responsibilities of individuals or panels, it is the “bank-vault” that we are consider our shared bank account, to be held in reserve, respectfully, by those who temporarily, and tentatively hold the reins and the keys to that vault, while they hold public office.

And whether we want to consider the heritage and tradition and custom and laws and even the spider and cob-webs that have gathered among the archives as well as the biographies and the signatures of those whose name grace the laws, and the law cases and judgements, all of it taken together is the inheritance from our forebears through us to our children.

And if and when that trust, both in the content and the processes “we” have had entrusted to our generation, is torpedoed, bombed, and even more dangerously secretly and blindly subverted, right before our eyes, then we can all see that our “inheritance” has been removed. We are then legitimately left with our mouths agape, our hearts broken, and our minds stripped of all of the intrinsic and extrinsic guardrails, buoys, radar screens, and moral and ethical benchmarks our parents and grandparents believed were worthy of upholding and defending.

And, not only are we faced with the prospect that not only the basic requirements of a civilized community are being torn down, but the prospect of a universal human agape (love) of which Gandhi speaks so eloquently, and which the world needs more than ever, fades into oblivion like the Arctic ice floes.

We are all crippled in our capacity to love when we are constricted by our fear exacerbated and enhanced by the tyranny and trend-line to fascism we are witnessing. And, yet, it can be considered an act of universal (agape) love to “Say to th(is) darkness, we beg to differ!” (With thanks to Mary Jo Leddy, for her spiritual biography entitled, “Say to the Darkness, we beg to differ”)


Editor’s Note:

I include here some pithy quotes on power, from a variety of human sources, for your reflection:

Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts…perhaps the fear of a loss of power. (John Steinbeck)

It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. (Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear)

When it comes to controlling human beings there is no better instrument than lies. Because, you see, humans live by beliefs. And beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts. (Michael Ende)

The object of terrorism is terrorism. The object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture. The object or murder is murder. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me? (George Orwell, 1984)

For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit. (Noam Chomsky, Imperial Ambitions, Conversations of the Post 9/11 World)

Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. (Paulo Freire)

Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning and purpose to our lives. (Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection)

The strategic adversary is fascism....the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us. (Michel Foucault)

Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself. (Elie Wiesel)


When one with honeyed words but evil mind

Persuades the mob, great woes befall the state. (Euripides, Orestes)

Asking for help with shame says: You have the power over me.

Asking with condescension says: I have the power over you.

But asking for help with gratitude says: We have the power to help each other.

                                                  (Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking)

Power is not revealed by striking hard or often but by striking true. (Honore de Balzac)

Whoever has experienced the power and the unrestrained ability to humiliate another human being automatically loses his own sensations. Tyranny is a habit, it has its own organic life, it develops finally into a disease. The habit can kill and coarsen the very best man or woman to the level of a beast. Blood and power intoxicate…the return of the human dignity, repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible. (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead) 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

We will not give up meaning for power

 Modernity is a deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power. (Yuval Noah Harari*)

Borrowing from, a book summary: Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari

the Israeli historian lists three “religious narratives” (also spread by liberalism). Even to call them “religious narratives” implies a contextual basis that many ‘moderns’ would reject.

However, the first is ethical judgements that dictate what is right and what is wrong (e.g. murder is wrong).

The second  are what Harari calls, “factual statements” that use religious text, history of scientific perspective to create a fact, such as ‘God said, thou shalt not kill’…These statements are not always an objective fact, but rather offer a perspective ‘framed’ as a fact. (e.g. life starts at conception)

The third threat, according to Harari, consists of guidelines, which are statements that combine ethical judgements and factual statements to guide followers in a particulate direction (e.g. Christians should be pro-life)

Harari also notes that recent scientific studies expose flaws in liberalism’s  ‘factual’ statement through research calling in to question the two key liberal concepts: free will and individualism.

The electrochemical processes in the brain are subconscious, meaning humans have no control over the neural system, that creates thought or action. When external stimuli cause a reaction in the brain, the human body will naturally respond to the electrical and chemical interactions.  For example, you don’t choose to get angry. Anger emerges naturally due to the body’s response to external stimulation. These reactions can be either deterministic or random, but they’re never ‘free’.

As for individualism, researchers have discovered that human behavior has nothing to do with a singular unique voice that leads them toward their true goals. Rather human thought is dictated by the interactions between the two hemispheres of the brain, which create two versions of the human experience—the experiencing self and the narrating self.

Segregating the “experiencing self,’ from the narrating self, is another in the nuanced, and highly provocative thought-cognition-cultural insights that display one of the more challenging as well as widely deployed notions of contemporary clife: that the person and the global, that the spiritual and the political, that the scientific and the theological are, far from their original Aristotelian segregation, much more impactful and unified and thereby in need of new research, and new theories and new structures in order to better link our human reality with our capacity and willingness to cope.

To see human complexity not through the lens of stereotypical cultural images, myths and metaphors, including those foundational to religion of any faith, risks one of the deeply embedded energies and initiatives of history: finding blame, ascribing fault and human choice, on the one hand, while also seeing human beings as created in the image of God in need of forgiveness.

The notion of a human deity, however, even poised and painted as a conceptual, metaphysical transformative creature, however, risks another of the plausible pit-falls, exaggerated, persistent and unshakeable hubris.

If we are faced, as Harari notes in the quote introducing this piece, with a contract that requires our sacrificing meaning for power, we are clearly not prepared, educated, enculturated, or even convinced that such a contract is our predetermined fate. Is Harari, on the other hand, possibly being ironic? Is he proposing that our research into our minds, including our electrical-chemical stimuli and responses, a process that could actually endanger our pursuit of that old Viktor Frankl chestnut: ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ and the eradication/removal/disavowal/trashing of the notion of human responsibility for meaning and purpose, as well as the corollary that certain forces might become (or are) existential threats?

The question of an historic lens that attempts, through a ‘bifocal’ perspective to integrate the individual human with the needs, perspectives, aspirations and dreams of the whole of humanity, poses a different set of both observations and questions. While we are deeply committed to the legitimate probing penetration into the human electro-chemical-mechanical-neurological-anatomical-circulatory-anatomical aspects of research into the human “person,” we are also deeply indebted to those scholars in human spirituality, human intellectual and imaginative “faith” perspectives and their unique, cogent and also penetrating and transformative assessments of their empirically grounded colleagues’ findings.

For example, when the law faculty of Queen’s University decides to remove the name Sir John A. Macdonald as its “titular head” because of the first prime minister’s association with residential schools, and the inference that he held racist views, one is prompted to inquire, “Is this decision in the best interests of those aspiring legal-beagles, whose life and professional careers will need to address, assess and integrate the divergencies of interpretations of evidence from multiple witnesses, interpretations, scholarships and historical perspectives?” And when viewed from that perspective, the answer has to be unequivocally “No!” Another example of “cleaning up” the blindnesses and the allegedly inappropriate judgements of history, including the honouring of former leaders, in a scorched-earth approach that demands “zero tolerance” of imperfection, renders those so fully engaged in this process of hygenic sterilization of our culture as the leading battalion in a headlong and inevitably tragic pursuit of perfection.

Regardless of the empirical findings of our brain researchers, and the implications of those findings, we are and likely will be for the foreseeable future, engaged in a process that seeks to discern, to compare, to reflect and to in turn educate young minds in a social, political and ethical/spiritual context that carries and accepts the burden of our own imperfections perhaps in a manner that is less debilitating that previous generations have found it to be. Lifting the burden of perfectionism, without a blind pursuit of purity, regards the continuing pursuit of the best minds in all fields of intellectual, spiritual, ethical, metaphysical and even future studies.

The goal of lifting the burden of perfectionism from individual lives, as well as from the corporate life of the collective unconscious, is a highly ambitious aspiration that will leave some despondent in anxiety and fear of failure. It could also embolden others to commit to researching the various sociological, spiritual, ethical, legal and medical/psychiatric aspects of the human condition in a way that begins to transcend the fences that currently carry electrical (and potentially radioactive) currents of power among those engaged in the research process, and those attempting to interpret its meanings for the rest of us.

Power, as a goal of purpose, however, is not a sustainable goal for the human being. We are not mere instruments of agency, whether of our own design or for the purposes of fulfilling the requirements of another. Our existence, far from being reducible to any single act, word, expression or achievement, continues as a moment of meaning, with or without any observable, measureable, accountable and thereby ethical purpose. We have a meaning and purpose simply in and through our existence. And that meaning and purpose, while it may not be clearly identified or defined, nevertheless, constitutes a base line of both thought and action from which to consider, perceive and value each other inhabitant of the planet.

If we are to begin to assign archetypes of one god, to the seemingly superhuman and surreal discoveries made by humans, in their pursuit of the most cutting edge discoveries, even as speculation, then we are at risk of sacrificing the most generative and life-giving feature of our humanity, our incompleteness, our vulnerability, our unknowing, our fallibility and our imperfections and our mortality.

Sacrificing meaning for power is precisely a prescription for our own doom. Meaning is amorphous; meaning is evolving, meaning is flowing, and meaning is elusive…and thereby, like the “East” from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness… Extrinsic motivation has been researched and deployed for centuries, as the means by which both people and civilizations evolve, develop, mature and ‘rise’ dependent on the various notions of improvement at various periods of history. And we simply devour stories about our accomplishments, our military victories, our medical break-throughs, our scientific and technological discoveries. Even this week, there is new evidence of the potential of water on the moon, conceivably in quantities sufficient to sustain a human group or community. And while we concur and endorse such explorations, we have to hold our feet to the “fire” of the competing epistemologies, theologies, ethical and moral ambiguities, ideologies and especially turf-wars that constrict each and every human enterprise.

Our addictive commitments to our successes, married to our equally compulsive denial of our failures, as individuals, as families, and as nations and as a human global enterprise is not a gordion knot whose disentanglement is even part of the most idealistic visionary’s range. Burrowing deeper into the “weeds” and the soil under those weeds in science, while exciting, invigorating, and potentially even hopeful of new visions at the level of human interactions, will take eons to be translated, transposed and applied to the human condition, given the obvious, yet willfully denied proliferation of saboteurs, from within each and every political party, each and even religious congregation, each and every office and corporation not to mention each and every application for those revered grants for the very research Harari applauds.

I recently expressed the words of a patient of Parkinson’s disease, “I am much more that Parkinson’s!” were those words. And as an analogy, this patient speaks for each and every one of us. Regardless of whichever ‘specialist’ is assessing our person and our condition and our circumstance, even in the middle of a pandemic and potentially a life-threatening illness. We can no more identify as an agent of any specific exercise of power, even including the exercise of our own narrowly perceived intentions, ambitions, goals, objectives or ideals. We are not even reducible to a list of “values” given the range of definitions, connotations, interpretations and applications of those political “placebo’s”.

We have just witnessed the confirmation and swearing-in of Madame Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court of the United States, through a historically tragic 52-48 vote, the least bi-partisan vote for a nominee in U.S. history. Power, in its raw and unilateral, totalitarian and totally indefensible form and application, has “succeeded” in fulfilling the designed purpose of the executive and the Senators to ‘stack the court system’ with right-wing justices. Why, in god’s name, would anyone agree to let his or her name go forward for such an appointment, except under the misguided pursuit of a shared agenda of politically and legally beheading  of such laws as Roe v Wade and the Affordable Care Act, not to mention the abhorrent restrictions in voting rights, civil and gender rights, and the prevention of more a more narrow restriction of gun rights?

The obvious reason/motivation for such an appointment, starting with the political narcissism of the president’s re-election based on the sycophantic subservience of his cult, to the similar politically motivated re-election of men like McConnell, Graham, Crus, Cornyn, et al…and then the personal ambition of the nominee herself, a member of the People of Praise, a right-wing Roman Catholic sect whose dedication to the literal dominance of the husband and the subservience of the wife echoes a literal and dysfunctional application of scripture to the families of today.

The obviously debased motivations, intentions, ethics and morality of this process, top-to-bottom is evidence of the individual and the political surrender of anything supportive of the body politic, the public interest, the long-term healing of the nation to the personal ambition of those people who are the most insecure, the most neurotic, the most co-dependent and most insidiously-motivated, in the name and service of something/someone they call God, as to be an incarnated lie.

It is not mere hypocrisy that is on display; it is the outright blatant disregard for all “others” in the pursuit of power that leaves many if not most of us, gapingly appalled.

*Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli public intellectual, historian and professor int eh Department of History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is the author of the popular science best sellers, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Monday, October 19, 2020

The symbiosis of mob and mobster

 The media’s sarcastic ridicule of trump’s “herd mentality” as a substitute to “herd immunity” while reasonable and somewhat responsible, on the surface, nevertheless warrants a much closer look.

A radiologist who focuses almost exclusively on brain scans, Dr. Atlas (how paradoxical can this ‘thing’ get?), as the presidential adviser on COVID-19 is not merely a joke, it is an outright devilish and deliberate work of evil. Dr. Birx is today reported to have requested his removal from the COVID Task Force, or at least whatever is left of that body. However, on the political front, trump’s culture, mind-set and personal unconscious lexicon is both rooted in, and still erupting in phrases and words that, far from expressing a slipped-tongue, disclose a much more deep and insidious truth. The current occupant of the Oval Office is a self-designed, self-tutored, and imitative, degenerative plagiarist “mob” figure, dependent on feeding the insatiable appetite of a clearly despised and disdained mass of cultists, over whose surging tide of fearful, and hateful vengeance for their perceived ‘villains’ (Clinton, Obama, Biden, et al). And the more he feeds this venomous bile into those open vacuums of adulatory sycophancy, the more raucous and hollow are the crowd-sourced cries “Lock her/him up!”

There is a highly politically incestuous relationship between this American president and his pubescent press of political/personal vassals. Both are hollow and empty vessels, attempting to satiate an appetite for attention deeply enmeshed in each other’s lives. And the parallel does not end there. Both will use whatever trick it takes to cling to the other: a MAGA hat here, a racist, sexist slur there, a fake promise of a wall here, a rush of thousands without masks or social distance in order to fawn over their ‘hero’..(Yesterday a clip from a trump rally with evangelicals showed a woman who actually uttered these words from her microphone: “The lord told me he was going to give the president a second term.”) A far better health care plan, promised for four years, without the slightest  intention to deliver, linked nefariously to a white supremacist/terror-inspired, conspiracy ‘mob’ itself claiming trump as hero to save the children threatened by the “deep state” of elites around the world, known as Q-Anon…while trump himself deflects by yelling almost screaming against something he calls antifah.

The false equivalencies, however, neither start nor stop with that deranged assessment. False equivalencies in Charlottesville, followed by another over Putin/Ukraine influence in the 2016 (and likely the 2020) elections, another in  Black Lives Matter and white supremacists with AR15 rifles in Kenosha WI, another in the fraud of mail-in ballots and absentee ballots, the false equivalency between the Mueller investigation and the Barr/Durham report, as well as another in the ‘Biden emails and the false claims of Hillary’s emails. And then there is the glaring cadre of mobsters that have been magnetized, like moths around a flickering light bulb, anxiously shivering in anticipation of a presidential ‘clap’ of one hand on a tweet, signifying empty, hollow and yet indelible and scarring endorsement on their reputation.

Borrowing from a respected text on Social Psychology,

Emory S. Bogardus, Fundamentals of Social Psychology, Chapter 22, Crowds and Mobs, accessed through Project*/1924_22 html at the Mead Project, Monday October 19, 2020)    

The masses that comprise the president’s crowds exhibit almost a complete list of what are known as traits and conditions of mobs. A loss of self-awareness, a loss of responsibility, almost complete anonymity, a pack mentality imbued with the impression of universality, pseudonomity (through hats and scarves but not masks in this case) are just some of the traits of crowds.

Bogardus calls crowds, “whirlpools of life” and “effervescent centres olf a common affective and social nature”. In trump’s case, the mob is highly homogenous: determined to secure his re-election. Bogardus also attests that in crowds, “feelings submerge reason,” rendering them “reversionary, with a natural tendency to revert to primitive methods.” He says they can be referred to as a ‘herd of cattle, a covey of birds, a shoal of fish, all with a shared response to danger signals. He asserts that a homogenous crowds must have a leader, demonstrate a “heightened suggestibility” where freedom of speech is ‘ill-tolerated, and both an incapacity to understand abstractions, an a high degree of egotism abound. (QAnon’s We Go One, We Go All)

What trump himself may not wish to hear is that, as Napolean knew, crowds are especially fickle. “Napoleon appreciated this point. ‘Your majesty,’ exclaimed an aid-de-camp on one occasion, ‘hear the crowds cheering for you.’ Without smiling, Napoleon replied, ‘They would cheer just as loudly if I were going to the guillotine.’ As would be expected, there is little to no stability to the feeling elements of a crowd, offering only a low-dependability grade. Bogardus writes:

‘(But) the charlatan and mountebank** are prone to manipulate people through crowd influence, whereas the cultured man confines himself to addressing assemblies.’ More of the co-dependent enmeshment is evident between the crowd and its ‘mountebank’ in that, as Bogardus tells us, ‘the crowd considers themselves ‘ingrates’ if they refuse to respond to a request from the leader.’

And then, devolving from ‘crowd’ to ‘gang’ (a word clearly applicable to the current series of masses gathering at the altar of Air Force One, almost in a kind of revival sanctuary under the sky, Bogardus tells his readers a ‘gang is a relatively permanent group, but one of such elemental and primitive traits that it resembles a temporary crowd. It’s subservience to a leader, its feeling bases, its use of ‘might’ as the means of determining right, its fickleness, its inconsistencies—all these are crowd characteristics. In addition, it is slippery because it is a primitive group trying to survive under the changed conditions of modern civilization. It must fight for its life, since it is a survival in part of outworn behaviour principles….When hard pressed the gang resorts to mob behavior. It becomes a brute with its back against a wall, gnashing its teeth, and resorting to any means whatsoever in its defense. It recognizes no moral or social standards or responsibility.

There is still more from Bogardus:

‘The mob is a participator crowd. It is not necessarily a group of ignorant or essentially wicked persons, but often is composed of ordinarily intelligent persons who for the time being have resigned their personal standards. The mob is a monster, possessing gigantic power which causes it to throb throughout its being. IT is a tornado, using its pent-up forces irresponsibly and ruthlessly. Mobs are groups that frantically rush toward or attempt to escape from an object or person. They are motivated by hate or fear. In the first case, the group rushes toward somebody; in the second, away from something.’

Could it be that the current mob of trump sycophants has tendencies in both directions: toward the man considered to be their hero, and away from those figures of hate, contempt and revenge: Clintons, Obama and Biden.

These insights of what are considered theory, however, have relevance and application not only to the events currently dominating our headlines. They have also found resonance in lives ostensibly destroyed, by, for example, right-wing religious groups who targeting a ‘sinner’ based on the biblical exhortations to ‘stone’ a long list of miscreants: socerers, Sabbath workers, rebellious children, gluttons and drunkards, kidnappers, blasphemers, idolators, adulterers, murderers.

And in the New Testament, there is the story of Stephen. Chosen with others to steward the gifts of the people for the poor, the story goes that he chastised those people calling them “people with hard hearts and stiff necks, who will not obey the words of God and his Spirit. As your fathers did, so you do, also. Your fathers killed the prophets whom God sent to them; and you have slain Jesus, the Righteous One! As they heard these things,, they became so angry against Stephen, that they gnashed on him with their teeth, like Wild beasts. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up toward heaven with his shining face; and he saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on God’s right hand, and he said, ‘I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!’ But they cried out with angry voices, and rushed upon him and dragged him out of the council-room, and outside the wall of the city. And there they threw stones upon him to kill him, while Stephen was kneeling down among the falling stones and praying: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit! Lord, lay not this sin up against them!’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep in death, the first to be slain for the gospel of Christ. (Book of Acts)

There is not even a hint here rendering trump analogous to Stephen! Rather, the analogy of the mob currently rushing to trump rallies to the mob who stoned Stephen is in the frenetic energy, the overpowering and almost inebriating influence of the mob sensing its own “inferiority, insecurity, impurity, and especially guilt. Such intense, magnified and unleashed feelings, characteristic of the hundreds if not thousands of lynchings in the U.S. lies in the bowels of the furnace of anger/adulation currently simmering on the tarmacs of American airports….and whether or not the fury that felled Stephen will find another one or more targets in contemporary America remains an open question.

Having watched various forms of re-enactments of the stoning of Stephen, especially among religious fanatics, and witnessing the current wave of religious fervour that clings to trump’s coat-tails, fully endorsed and succored by trump himself, most of us have to be asking ourselves, legitimately and reasonably, if the United States is not sliding into what some would call a theocracy.

Bill Barr, in his HBO monologue last night, poignantly skewered the dominance of 7 of 9 Supreme Court Justices, all of the Roman Catholic, (including the prospect of Barrett’s confirmation) while bemoaning the absence of Muslim justices, Jewish justices and justices espousing atheism and/or agnosticism. If, dear reader, you might pardon the pun, the “lynchpin” holding the forces of the mob together with the forces currently packing the Supreme Court is none other than the president of the United States.

He has engineered a political cabal of sycophantic cabinet secretaries, most of them acting and not therefore requiring Senate confirmation, and also thereby subject to instant replacement should they cross the loyalty oath to the president, while enflaming the media as fake news, decrying honourable and trusted institutions of government along with many current and former individuals, and spewing chaos and melodrama as if these were instruments of the Roman gladiators in the Colesseum. So rapid and overwhelming is the wave of crises, personal, pandemic, political and economic, not to mention geo-political that trump boils in his radioactive cauldron of witches brew that the public is simply unable to remember even back a single week. Hence, loss of public memory has become a valuable intrinsic instrument in trump’s quiver.

In another recent piece in this space, the question of the somatizing  of personal emotions was the subject; today, the danger of unleashed, mob-fueled frenetic emotions willingly and somewhat innocently manipulated by a master-manipulator in the service of his personal narcissistic and uncontrollable insecurities sounds a fire alarm of epic proportions.

The proportions are not of this scribe’s doing; they are the work of a single two-headed monster, one a mob, the other a mobster.

And many of us are still wondering who/what will “bell this radioactive cat”?

*The Mead Project, c/o Dr. Lloyd Gordon Ward, 44 Charles Street West, Apt. 4501, Toronto Ontario, M4Y1R8

**Mountebank: a person who deceives others, especially in order to trick them out of their money, a charlatan

Friday, October 16, 2020

Reflections on somatizing our emotions...

Editor's Note: N.B.

(The writer does not write as a doctor, and is without medical training. My formal training is exclusively in chaplaincy, pastoral counselling and teaching of Literature. This piece comes from personal experience, professional experience, private research and reflection.) 

Much of this space has attempted to point out how we deny, avoid, dissemble, or merely withdraw from tension within and/or with others. Another, highly impactful attitude that millions, it seems, suffer from, is described in ‘street language’  as 'hiding our feelings’ …..None of us want to show weakness, or what we think and believe others will consider weakness; none of us wishes to get hurt, a notion based on previous experiences in which our emotions were manipulated by other; all of us have something described as a ‘lack of confidence’ at least in certain areas of our lives.

While this dynamic is often discussed at the water-cooler, sometimes in a counsellor’s office, infrequently in a clergy’s office, and increasingly in a family doctor’s office. We might find a rash, or a protracted head or stomach ache, or some other physical symptom which seems to have no direct and observable ‘cause’ like a fall, or an accidental cut, or a specific incident that impacted our body.

Some four decades-plus ago, I experienced a dramatic loss of weight, (24 pounds in 2 weeks) and experienced considerable fatigue. Our family physician quickly referred me to an Internal Medicine specialist, who, upon diagnosing a hyper-active thyroid, admitted me to the ICU. After treatment for three months by propylthiouracil, a treatment but not a cure, I was then referred to a radiologist  who administered 9 millicuries of I 131, Radioactive iodine. While in hospital, I was ushered into medical rounds, and asked a question that has echoed in my memory ever since: “Did you experience a trauma approximately six months ago ,that might have triggered this onset?”

Immediately, I responded in the affirmative, recalling an especially dramatic phone call from a troubled mother, some of whose in-laws were levelling ‘mental illness’ judgements on her. “You think I am crazy just like the rest of them think, don’t you?” She bellowed into my ear, late in a spring afternoon, as I listened in my study, some one hundred miles distant. “No, I do not!” I repeated several times, each time growing louder, over her protests, “but I do think you need help!”

Even as recently as the seventies, anything smacking of mental illness was like a social, political, ethical and moral sentence of alienation, ostracisim, abandonment by family and friends and potential endangerment of continuous employment. Now nearly a half-century on, anything smacking of psychosomatic illness is considered in the dismissive and contemptuous phrase even medical doctors deployed, “it’s all in your head,” given that medical school had taught them that a considerable proportion of their patients would make office appointments based on a psychosomatic ‘illness’.

Nevertheless, adhering to the pace of the observable formation of glaciers (prior to global warming and climate change), medical research has conducted considerable research into what is now being termed the ‘somatizing of emotions’ an involuntary process whereby the experiencing of strong emotions, that cannot or must not be displayed for any of a variety of reasons, beliefs, perceptions and attitudes, are “expressed” or displayed by some perceivable rash, pain, muscle contraction, in the body. Note the word, “involuntary” as a highly significant, yet too often ignored or denied component of the process commonly known as “hiding our feelings”.

Was my onset of hyperthyroidism a somatizing of a blocked emotion of frustration, anger, hopelessness, and concrete resistance to my protests that my mother was not “crazy” but needed help? “Crazy” had been a word bandied about on the street, and in casual conversation, as part of the innocent and ignorant character assessment of a local person who could more legitimately have been dubbed eccentric. In Canada, for sure, and also in other countries, we do not take kindly to eccentricity, and we tend to take a wide berth around people who dressed, spoke and/or acted in ways we did not understand, appreciate or seek to discover. Such a culture was and still is obviously and tragically reinforced by religious institutions and religious ‘passivity’ as well as the silence of religious retreats linked to a denial of especially desired tastes like chocolate, (withheld during Lent, for example). Emotional disclosure has been rendered antithetical to religious discipline, silent prayer, sanctuarial decorum, and sacristy-enforced propriety, only to be underlined by the frigid, detached expression of especially highly intellectual interpretations of scripture from the pulpit. This equation may have melted a little, yet much more slowly than the melting of the glaciers in the Arctic and Antarctic.

As western “Christian” culture has been and continues to be dominated, perhaps slightly less overtly in the last decade, by men and the male psyche, the gates that can unlock emotions within western men are welded shut, through centuries of disavowal, denial and relegating those human emotions to the “file” entitled, “woman”. As part of their legitimate initiatives to enter the workplace, at all levels, women have, understandably adopted what they perceive as attitudes, expressions  and behaviours that imitate those in power, the men. In domestic situations, too, women, wives, and mothers, have repeatedly found that any attempt to peel some of the hoar frost from their husbands’ and fathers’ and especially grandfathers’ emotional vaults has only irritated that ‘beast’ and too often provoked ever further withdrawal.

While my mother displayed unimpeded release of her emotions, her husband withdrew into passive aggressive patterns. His sisters, like most females in the mid-twentieth century, withheld their emotions, except those of care and compassion, especially of their brothers. It is plausible to infer that, had my mother been prepared to smother her emotions, thereby denying her identity and her needs, she would have been characterized by more “repressed” family members as ‘normal’ and therefore much more tolerable, predictable, and less volcanic.

It is not only among the ecclesial community that raw emotion is frowned on, there is a long tradition of what has been variously termed “professional” and “objective” performance in the medical and legal professions. How practitioners in both fields “feel” about their clients and their respective circumstance, including obvious causes of readily preventable illnesses, or criminal or civil behaviour that is difficult to explain and/or justify, matters as little as those practitioners can manage to “detach”. And certainly, it is a rare legal appointment or a medical consult that witnesses a disclosure of the emotions of the professional practitioner.

In the academic field, too, how teachers “feel” about the respective traits, attitudes, wardrobe, and even language (inside conventional boundaries) of their students is expected to be deleted from their performance in class, in the gym and on the playing field. So too are they expected to both monitor and sanction the “unwarranted” display of emotions, particularly those that might endanger, or more recently, emotionally hurt another student. Humour, if appropriate, is naturally tolerated and appreciated; anger, intense frustration, however, are regarded as signals to be watched, and open weeping is often considered as cause for pastoral comforting intervention.

In recent years the DSM-5 has come to regard what previously was considered ‘normal’ and natural grief as a condition needing professional treatment. Whether that treatment involves pharmaceuticals, or ‘talk therapy’ depends on the practitioner and the respective needs and wishes of the client/patient.

Nevertheless, given the long history of medical assessment, diagnosis, and treatment at the physical level of humans’ lives, and the lagging interest and research attention to the vagaries of the emotional, spiritual aspects of being human, there continues in North America to be a primary focus by medical practitioners on the physical symptoms, measuring them, comparing, photographing them, and naming their nuanced and often highly complex characteristics with other similar but different symptoms.

One example of this tradition appears in the evolution of the treatment of Parkinson’s in which research between neurologists and psychiatry have shown evidence of enhanced living among patients who are offered both pharmaceuticals and cognitive behavioural therapy. As one patient recently commented, “I am much more than Parkinson’s!” in a legitimate push-back to being categorized as a specimen of the disease, in the eyes of the doctors.

Given the highly intimate and complex relationship between our minds and our bodies, and the flow of highly nuanced information of chemical, biological, neurological and thereby emotional content into the various organs, including the skin, and according to considerable evolving research, into and through the auto-immune system, we (all of us, including our medical practitioners and researchers) are faced with growing evidence of what is termed somatization of our emotions, or under a previously popular rubric, psycho-somatic illness.

Hiding our feelings, whatever our conscious and unconscious motivation for the concealment, can have a serious impact on our relationships, as well as on our personal health, including a rise in the risk of death. Communication that needs the free, and yet respectful, flow of authentic emotions can be disrupted and dissipated if emotions are kept under wraps. Those emotions can build up, often without are even being aware of the mounting pressure. Naturally, strains will show up within relationships in which honest and authentic emotions are withheld and research indicates that the potential for heart attack, stroke and even death rises under such pressure.

There are also multiple other implications from the somatization of our emotions, including skin irritations of various kinds, lupus, fibromyalgia, depression, alcohol dependency, sleep disorders, and potentially even thoughts of suicide. Given the complexity of this field of both study and experience, our genetic identity can also play a significant role, as can our experiences in our family of origin, as well as the culture in which we were raised.

For example, how a culture considers, and participates in (or refuses) in any kind of conflict, (fight-flight-freeze reflex) is another of the relative aspects of any individual’s potential for somaticizing of his or her emotions.

Studies have been conducted that disclose the relative numerical incidence as well as the severity of somatic illness among men and women. And depending on the circle in which we all circulate, there can be a wide range of options as to how individuals ‘inside the circle’ do or do not express their authentic emotions first to themselves and to the others.

Having witnesses literally dozens of women undergoing what were clearly agreed to be emotional blocking, and the impacts on their health, and also having walked near or immediately after male suicides, I have to guess that some of the individual pain all of these men and women were experiencing overlapped some kind of emotional obstruction.

Having spent a quarter century in English classrooms, where I observed generally that young women were both more open and more willing to share their “feelings” about the literature under consideration, and young men were resistant, shy and even indifferent to such self-disclosure, I nevertheless, along with a battalion of other English instructors, persisted in pursuit of dialogue, as well as reflective review in assignments like movie and book reviews, as well as attempts to foster a disciplined critique of the various qualities of a memorable poem, play, novel or short story.

While we can all recognize the fallacy that loqaciousness is not always indicative of integrity (think trump) and in fact can be deployed as a means to manipulate others, thereby eroding any potential respect for self-critical reflection and disclosure (especially among men), there is nevertheless a deep and predictably long-lasting pool of people whose lives are currently being impinged by their/our willing/unconscious engagement in a process of self-effacement.

That is not a medical term; nor is it a theological or ethical term. In fact, self-effacement as a method of political correctness (and personal concealment) is often considered a sign of modesty, maturity, respectability and trustworthiness. There are times when it is clearly appropriate to withhold deep and poignant emotions, especially in a public venue. And there are other times when such “public” repression carried over into family and intimate situations is a risk not only to the health of the “repressor” but also to the health of the relationship(s).

A question looms for each of us, especially during a period of extreme turbulence, danger, risk and unpredictability…Can we each begin the process of identifying if and when we are repressing how we feel, (even from ourselves in our self-talk) and then tentatively walk into the beach of beginning to trust that someone will be open to actively and sensitively and confidentially listening and actually hearing our deepest fears, hopes, dreams, and anxieties. We might just be surprised to discover that our “friend” has had, or is having, similar emotional experiences, and welcomes the opportunity to release his/her own pent-up feelings.

This experience/exercise/journey has no ideology, no specific faith or religion, no ethnic boundary and no class fences. Nevertheless, our courage to begin to explore this vast and intricate and intimate complexity of our whole human identity, beyond the empirical, the physical, holds an authentic promise and reward that is memorable, personal and life-giving. It also holds the promise of a shift in our we take care of ourselves, enhancing our perception of our own courage, our capacity for risk and our creative imagination to see ourselves as normal, natural and even more worthy of self-respect and dignity, from within.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

We can't prevent what we refuse to predict..and obsessively deny

 I recall a pungent response from Graeme Gibson, in a Q/A with senior high school students when asked if he endorsed “dissecting” a poem, as was/is? the custom in English classes: “You have to murder in order to dissect,” he calmly answered.

I was reminded of Gibson’s pithy retort when I read this quote from                       K. M. Mac Aulay (author of Black Anna):

“You can’t prevent what you can’t predict.”

Reconnoitering in a world seemingly at a tipping point on so many issues, however, tends to bring their collective impact into a kind of gestalt. We spend billions on trying to ameliorate, calm and even minimize our fears, while we also spend billions on something we call “carpe diem” (“pluck the flower of this day) in an oscillation of tension without formal sound, a vacillation without formal acknowledgement, a pin-ball bouncing without the flashing lights and razzle-dazzle percussions.

In one ear we hear words of warning of impeding disaster on the COVID-19 file, as numbers of cases and deaths climb, of other disasters like global warming and climate change, business disruptions and closings, unemployment and hunger rising exponentially, of cyber attacks on both public and private servers by amateur and criminally professional hackers, of nuclear capability enhancement in North Korea and Iran, (not to mention the U.S. Russia and China), of more predictable pandemics coming,  and of permanently damaged young minds and spirits from having to go through this wind tunnel of a year, and even the ‘score’ of years in this century.

Simultaneously, in our other ear we hear the drum beat of opportunity, promise, challenge and ‘pots of gold’ at the end of many rainbows. Never before have so many been educated to this level; never before have so many people been lifted out of poverty; never before have so many global diseases been curtailed or even eliminated; never before have so many philanthropics operated in developing countries; fewer open conflicts have happened in the last decade that previously; never have so many agents co-operated in the pursuit and production of safe and effective treatments and vaccines for the pandemic.

Those high-octane headlines find similar warnings and rainbows in more local and regionalized public discourse: never has political rhetoric been so mean-spirited, divisive and contemptuous; never has there been so much collaboration among various jurisdictions ( in Canada) to confront COVID-19; never have food banks been so besieged by new hungry and hopeless families; never have there been more millionaires and billionaires; there must be a financial assistance package for displaced workers and shuttered businesses and for struggling municipalities and public services; “let them go bankrupt” comes from those on the other side.

Advocacy groups, including even those seemingly dedicated to social and political upheaval, metaphorically represent the tip of the spear on the left and the right. And, daily and even sometimes hourly outbursts of tweets jar those longer-term perceptions and the developed (and evolving) attitudes towards each person, tweet, headline or even cyber attack.

The flowing now has issues and processes that together comprise a weather pattern of a political culture and ethos. And increasing attention paid to the “weeds” of the “process” currently under consideration by the media, by CNN, by social media vacuums millions of eyes and thumbs into the cataract of public ‘opinion’. Swimming in this white water of public consciousness are political and media talking heads, some of whom have some of our respect while others lag far behind for each of us.

Falling headlong into the melee, however, by both those elected and those charged with reporting and analysing and interpreting, offers opportunity for ordinary people to latch onto whichever headline, opinion, stupidity, or calamitous “event” and whether consciously or not, package that stimulus (insult, outrage, affirmation) into the cognitive archive of our personal storage vault. Currently, the Democratic Senators are swimming (underwater on their prospects for derailing Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court) against the current in a valiant effort to solicit phone calls and emails to Republican Senators to withdraw/recuse/vote “No” on the nomination. And for many, both in the political class as well as in the media, the process has become the primary issue.

“How” something is done, or being done, or proposed to be accomplished has replaced a former concentration on what is being done/proposed. Relying on the majority of Republican Senators to confirm the nomination, McConnell knows that his legacy is intimately and eternally linked to his boast of ‘filling the judicial system’ with ‘right wing’ conservative justices at all levels. For his part, trump too is relying on a similar “accomplishment” both for re-election and for a triumphal legacy.

The voting process, itself, has become another of the many issues being weaponized, just like the rhetoric, the sycophancy, the push-back from centre-left Democrats. Removing ballot boxes from twelve to one, in each county, as the Governor of Texas has done (with now court support), along with emboldened restrictions of voting hours, timing of ballot reception, identification of voters, and even the question of whether mail-in ballots are legitimate are all like those tin roofs and neon signs that blow through towns and villages during recent hurricanes, flying through the political ether and ethos, in what has become a recurring, repeating, throbbing heart-beat of crises, much of it engineered, like those Wonky chocolate bars, by the trump’s fantasy and whim.

Unlike Wonka, however, trump is injecting his own venomous and toxic, unproven and untested, yet gullibly showered with glib adulation by his cult, “cure” for what he perceives as the American threat, if Joe Biden is elected.

Sugar-coated as his venom surely is, there are still some 40% of the American people who rush each time he holds a public, non-masked, non-socially-distanced super-spreader, to fill the tarmac, where Airforce One too often (and in complete disrespect for both tradition and respectfully practice) serves as backdrop to his Reifenstahl-inspired and Fuehrer-like narcissisistic hollow promises and self-congratulatory hymns.

Embodying the “entertainment” dictum and dogma of Barnum and Bailey, The Smithsonian magazine trumpets:

 “We are enraptured by scoundrels. They showcase our passion for ingenuity and resourcefulness. Rules don’t matter in a culture that constantly reinvents itself. In the world of flimflam, con artists are American prototypes who exemplify the land of opportunity, . Aren’t we all searching for the trickster Wizard at the end of the yellow brick road?...In an interview with The New York Times, costume designer Michael Wilkinson said, ‘We wanted the actors to use their  costumes as part of their hustle. They dress as the person they aspire to be.’…In the mid-19th century, the con artist was featured in Herman Melville’s last published book,  The Confidence Man: His Masquerade. Set in a riverboat travelling  down the Mississippi River, the 1857n novel tells the tale of what happens when the Devil, dressed in disguise, boards the vessel to conduct the business of evil. Melville wrote this book because he was outrages at the way America was allowing capitalism to nurture a culture of greed. The Confidence-Man is a complicated diatribe, but New York Times critic Peter G. Davis phrased it succinctly in a 1982 magazine article stating that the book was a ‘microcosm of America’s melting pot…a loosely knot collection of fables’ in which the title character uses his guile to dupe each passenger on the riverboat. In each instance, the Confidence Man/Devil works a con against the nineteenth century American Dream of optimism, truth, altruism and trust.’…Mark Twain, too, took up the art of the con. Like Melville, he used Mississippi riverboats to stage the antics of his flimflam men…One of the greatest (con men), P. T. Barnum was the real deal. According to a 1973 biography, Barnum was the pioneering impresario of ‘humbug’ who helped invent mass entertainment; his mantra was to exploit the public’s desire to be flimflammed. From the 1840’s to the 1870’s, he organized popular New York museums that showcased ‘industrious fleas, automatons,, jugglers, ventriloquists, living statuary tableaux, gypsies, albinos, fat boys, giants, dwarfs, rope dancers…He wrote that the art of the ‘humbug’ was to put on ‘glittering appearances…novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.’ Novelty and ingenuity were essential to his commercial success, his biography said, and if his ‘puffing was more persistent, (his0flags more patriotic’ It wasn’t because of fewer scruples, but more ingenuity. The glitter and noise created outside his museum drew crowds. Once inside they could be entertained fort hours by his displays, but they had to pay to get in—no one got something for nothing.

Fitzgeralds’ The Great Gatsby, the Broadway sensation, Show Boat, and Gone with the Wind, all enhanced the ‘confidence man’ archetype, as was the 1973 Robert Redford’s The Sting, set in the Depression of 1936. Of course, Madisson Avenue’s over-riding industry, advertising and message-management, have adopted and refined many of the confidence-man, flim-flam. So, while statistical research, data collection and opinion polls flood our press-release-saturated media, roiling underneath the public discourse is the heart-beat, and the obsessive-compulsive neurosis/psychosis of a culture always on the edge of its own self-doubt, anxiety and fear that it will never be OK.

Dressing the cover-up, confidence-man, flim-flam heroic imitator of Barnum in an Oval Office suit, with ‘patriotic’ red-flag tie riding below his belt, and then sending him out to ‘perform as the chief executive of the American political, economic, military, and human welfare history and constitutional system, however, is like my kindergarten daughter dressing herself and her friends in their fantasy costumes, with stage props, on a Saturday afternoon, for their (and their parents’) entertainment, except that we could laugh and applaud at their imaginative creativity.

In this current political pandemic, we are left to social-distance, masked and sanitized, for our own and for the health of our neighbours, and then to ponder how it is/was/will be that the flim-flam actually holds the power and influence of the previously and historically most significant public office on the globe…and more importantly how all those forces that consider this situation intolerable and unsustainable, not to mention unethical, amoral, and (racist, misogynistic, homophobic, bigoted and despotic) might be brought into a voting majority that cannot and will not be overturned by either the Electoral College or the Supreme Court. And finally, the United States, and by extension, the rest of the world can bury the tolerance and adulation of the flim-flam, confidence man, from holding public office in Washington and in the several other national capitals where this toxic venomous archetype has spread.

We might even be able and willing to discern that process, as a political weapon, agenda, purpose and legacy is, like those flim-flam costumes and seductions of the confidence-man huckster, little more than mascara that will not only never disguise a pig, but can tragically divert attention and concentration from the urgent public needs and divide a people so deeply and potentially permanently that crisis management becomes not the “abnormal” but the norm.

What will the media do then, when they wake up to the contributions they have so monumentally contributed to engendering, in rendering not only honest, intellectual, and even ideational and dispassionate, yet trust-worthy debate and political discussion to the trash-heap of North American political record? Will they fall even further into the gutter they have helped to engineer, thereby overtaking the prophetic and visionary role of the poets, prophets, film-makers and both utopian and dystopian writers?

Questions like the imposition of what is so clearly and unabashedly self-serving, agenda-based, ACA-demolishing, Roe-v Wade removal, gun-rights upholding, and civil and voting rights dismantling an appointment by this occupant of the Oval office are effectively rendered mute, emasculated and irrelevant. And who are the agents of this deafening silence? The wannabe flim-flam, ironically confidence-men, Republican Senators, a choir engaged in adulation of their Barnum-replica,  now not operating museums of freakish specimens in New York, himself having become a freakish specimen in the White House.

Who says history is not stuffed with ironic (and too often pathetic and tragic) imitation?