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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 goodreads.com 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!

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