Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Perspective...the basis for action desperately needed

 Off the north shore of Newfoundland and Labrador lies a small island, Fogo island, about 25 kilometers long and 14 kilometers wide. The National Geographic describes Fogo Island in these words: “Fogo Island is not so much a place as a state of mind. W clap-board houses, sea-cliff footpaths, lush forest and warm hospitality set against a striking coastline.”* With a long maritime history, the largest offshore island of Newfoundland and Labrador is a gentle world of bright-coloured With the cod and herring fisheries depleted, islanders have taken to creative measures to enhance the sustainability of their community. Through the imaginative design of a Newfie architect, they have built a number of “residences” for artists to come and do their work, while also engaging with the community as a way to support both the artists and the community’s livelihood. These artists, both aspiring and mature, through applications from around the world, seek and are offered what amounts to a three-to-six-month opportunity to create. What a commendable, creative, imaginative and sustaining approach to both economic development and cultural sustainability! We could all learn from the Fogo Islanders. 

Considered by some to be one of the four corners of the earth by those who advocate for the “flat earth” society, Fogo offers a unique yet beautiful landscape, hiking trails some 3000 inhabitants with whom to interact, and an ethos bent and leaning toward creating. One of the advocates of the “flat earth” society, explaining the perspective of her group, on the Smithsonian’s “Canada: Over the Edge,” indicated that we do not see any evidence of a curve from where we are standing, anywhere on the planet, and the “flat earth” group emphasizes the importance of taking in and absorbing the surroundings immediately in front of us. Painters, artists, photographers, writers almost universally subscribe to the mantra “we create from what we know” and so it would appear that there is a high degree of coherence to the “flat earth’s” perspective and that of the artistic community. Peering into a microscope, too, by a scientific researcher in a lab, one observes, analyzes, interprets and learns from the immediate environment. Actors pay diligent and close attention to a script, authored by one whose authenticity springs from his/her connection to a place, to a culture, to an ethos. Similarly, musicians perform the scribblings of a manuscript that was birthed in a highly personal cocoon.

Politicians, too, have memorized and consistently the anthem, “all politics is local” as a core premise for their perspective of the body politic. The take polls, they employ artists to design and produce “messages” including advertisements, PSA’s, editorials and talking points that “address” the perceived needs and aspirations of their constituents. Millions of dollars are regularly raised and spent on matching the strengths of the candidate/party to the perceptions of the voters, as they have been discerned, dissected, curated, interpreted and massaged. NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) is another mantra of municipal politics, especially, for those considering planting a factory, or a sewage disposal plant or a landfill site anywhere within the borders of a municipality. Urban planning is a highly significant aspect of government, attempting to co-ordinate the perceptions of neighbourhoods with any proposed changes in such things as residential density, traffic flow, environmental protection and the desire of the community and the developer to grow and expand, the tax base and his profit, respectively.

Nevertheless, even with the finest attention to the detail of place, time and ethos, including public moods, attitudes and perceptions, in order for any piece of art, or public decision or scientific experiment to have lasting endurance, it has to speak to something eternal, universal, timeless and resonating with something that resonates with people everywhere, regardless of their connection to the original locus of the creation.

There is an enhanced value placed on the immediate, the local, the neighbourly, especially if and when the community is facing any threat. Scarcity, disease, natural disasters, including pandemics all bring about a heightened anxiety and recoiling of one’s safety, security and the boundaries of one’s capacity to relate to the rest of the world. Under threat, we all retreat, in a psychological sense, to our earliest default stance (how we first faced a serious threat) and sociologically, in a manner consistent with the perceived patterns of the community’s history. There is a sociological precept, for leadership, for example, that if one seeks to move a group “forward” to a specific goal, and one presents a vision of that goal that is “too far” ahead of the group’s capacity to envision their community’s capacity to embrace that vision, that community will rather regress than move forward. I once proposed to a group of grade eleven high school students that ‘we’ consider enacting and producing a musical, like for example, “Jesus Christ Superstar”, as an exercise in “growing” both the adolescents and their relation to their community, through fulfilment of their respective talent. “Oh! we couldn’t do that!” shouted one male. “We could only possibly consider a single scene from the play!” We all behave in ways that we consider congruent with the size and the dimensionality, including the depth, of our perception. And that perception arises from our conception of the universe, and the range of risks we are prepared to confront.

What poses as an interesting, provocative and relevant issue facing the people on the planet, might be expressed this way:

How do/can we embrace both our immediate environment/ethos/culture/place/time and our potential, as individuals and as community?

Balancing the past with the future, given the immediacy of the date, the time, the current saturation of immediately threatening date, on so many fronts, seems to be a stretch too far, just like the musical was a ‘stretch too far’ for that teenager. This is a season in which much public discourse, including prayer, political punditry, scientific experimentation and economic data all centre around the concept of hope. And yet, pursuing our conception of hope necessarily entails the cognitive, emotional, psychological, and spiritual embrace of tomorrow as just as, if not actually more, valued than yesterday. Hopelessness, it seems, is another way of expressing “locked-in” to a situation in which there is little or no prospect of change, improvement, or as the cliché has it, finding “light at the end of the tunnel”. Hopelessness is another way of expressing “No options” in a current state of mind. Stagnation, whether from a fiscal, a career, a growth, a developmental perspective is debilitating. And yet, most of our cultural, political, economic and even spiritual perspective is currently embraced in fear, doubt, uncertainty, anxiety and retrenchment.

This is not an argument favouring opening up the economies of North America to commerce, to schooling, to entertainment, to sports competitions. This is, in fact, not merely an economic argument, but rather a much broader nudge toward a culture in which we critically and clearly examine and discuss our penchant to cling to the existing reality, as if it were our security blanket. It is simply not! The cultural, religious and commercial shibboleths (expressed almost as a cardinal rule in business: “We hate unpredictability, uncertainty, change and we demand stability, permanence, security and predictability!”), while demonstrably useful, need not morph into idols. Worshipping at that altar, just like worshipping at the altar of emotional stoicism, is both self-sabotaging, and repressive of both family and community relationships and development.

The culture could well learn from those community initiatives in Fogo Island. For, while the artists may be painting or photographing or writing about their immediate landscape, (topographical, biographical, historical, biological and psychological), they are mining the deepest veins of their imagination, with the full-throated expression of their whole beings, in what can be considered one of the most courageous, defiant, even rebellious acts of “putting it all on the line” of potential public judgement of their most innate perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, values and even ideologies. And they are doing so in both the spirit of and the commitment to a lineage of prophetic voices whose novels, plays, symphonies, poems, dances, canvases and sculptures have lighted the human journey from the beginning. Native elders, too, while embracing the immediate resources of their environment, the trees, the vegetation, the fauna, and their traditions, have one of the most obvious and generous and highly valued cultures, from the perspective of linking the immediate to the eternal.

It is the political and the commercial landscape, from our perspective, that needs a nudge, or perhaps a veritable shove. And shove includes the mass media, dependent as it is on the same foundational precepts of the business community. While the digital data of GDP, GNP, DOW, NASDAC, are all significant; they are not the holy grail. Neither is the myopic and even narcissistic fixation on the roller-coaster of daily news headlines, (for ratings for the networks, and for electoral success for the political class), either necessary or health for the future of our local communities, nor for the protection of our health and our shared environment.

If we cannot, or will not permit ourselves, to see farther ahead than today or tomorrow, we have already surrendered our fate to those who so far have control of the levers of power which have brought us to today. We have to shift our shared cultural attitudes and perceptions of our social dissidents; they are not our enemies; they are our canaries in our own coalmine, offering a singing chorus of both danger and a warning to leave that dangerous situation. We have to change our attitudes and perceptions, and thereby our valuing of our artistic community; they are not our ne’er-do-well’s, but rather our visionaries and our prophets, our voices of hope and inspiration. And just when we are retrenching, in fact cocooning, we are risking pulling back on our capacity to stretch, to change, to adapt and to seed new ways of even doing our businesses.

We have to reconsider our enmeshment, not merely with digital technology, but with the dangers it poses for our own capacity to create, to imagine and to assess critically everything we read, everything we hear, and everything we are told is “important” by those whose voices dominate our airwaves.

Robert Frost reminds us: A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.

He also wrote lines that express, far better than this scribe, the meaning and purpose of, not only this piece, but also of our obligation to each other, and to the planet whose air, water and land we need to protect and to pass on in a clean and health condition:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.

And also from Frost we read:

There are two kinds of teachers: The kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.

This “prod” is to take off the jacket of the false security of clinging to the immediate, the known, the traditional and the conventional, as if it were sacred; it is not! And to wander into the plethora of options that open up each and every time someone in our circle says, “How do we know we can’t do that, unless and until we try!

That is the perspective of Diane Hache in Yellowknife who, on noting the significant community need for a shelter for endangered women and children, (based on mounting evidence of abuse) took it upon herself to enlist the support of those local commercial entities whose rejected copper wire, still encased in insulation, was offered without cost. She, on her own, then began the arduous process of “skinning” the copper wire, (in lengths approximating 30 inches), piling it and selling it and turning the proceeds over the establishment of that needed shelter for women and children. CBC News’ Mark Winkler, reports on December 14, as follows: Diane Hache has processed 88,000 pounds of copper wire, donating $94K to women’s society….Working in an unheated tent in an industrial parking lot on the edge of the city, 65-year-old retiree…cuts through plastic insulation to reveal the treasure buried inside. The wire—88,000 pounds of it, so far…was donated by Hache’s former employer, Diavik Diamond Mine…She could seek the wire without stripping away the insulation, but that would only net her half as much money…”Everyone thought I was crazy, I admit. They said, Diane, it’s impossible. But impossible is just an opinion until you try.”

Not burdened either by “quail shot” or the cliché of hopelessness, or the fear of failure of that grade eleven kid, this woman incarnates, better than this piece, precisely what we all need to reflect and then act upon.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Embracing new hope and light for peace this holy season

 Amid the torrent of really sad news of martial law, fraudulent voting, epic cyberhacks, millions facing food scarcity job insecurity or actual loss, the proliferation of food banks, and an overweening endangerment from an uncontrollable virus mutating and then spreading 70% faster, how does anyone find evidence of the original promise of peace, hope, love, and light in all of the many layered metaphors and meanings of those cliché words? 

Hallmark movies are offering dozens of hours of “love-stories” of the romantic, nostalgic and eggnog variety, with festive lights, home baking, re-connections and new beginnings. And while they are soothing, like the warm fuzzies of casseroles, plum puddings, and family dinners, they are little more than formulaic tenderness, when we are all craving something more.

Our hope, this Christmas, is for relief from the threat of being impaled by an imperceptible virus, for the opportunity to visit, to chat and to get to know who we are in our fractured families, and how and if some of the brokenness of our lives might begin to heal. Forced separations and shut-downs, while necessary and prickly restrictions, are also promoting new ways of being together, new ways of seeing each other, and new ways of reaching out in empathy, compassion and hopefully tenderness and even forgiveness. Our hopes, this year especially, do not stop with the passing of the pandemic; they stretch further into a new cultural perspective that embraces a guaranteed annual income, a renewed public education system that itself stretches beyond STEM into an appetite for and an appreciation for the best of human creativity, the integration of the poetic imagination into our cooking, our crafting, our gifting and our communication. Our shared hopes extend further into a deep realization of our collective and sometimes unconscious detachment, coldness, separation and alienation of ‘the other’…without our having taken the time and the patience and the courage to open our hearts to the other’s pain. And through the lens of our own personal and communal (and national and international) sense of privilege, a penny that never really dropped previously, our shared hope embraces a new insight, a new possibility, and a new commitment to peel the scale of superiority off our eye, and especially off our hearts.

Governments are said never to reach an important decision until minutes or even seconds before a monumental deadline. Organizations, similarly find that only really red-line moments bring about significant shifts in values, perspectives, habits, and thereby cultures. Individuals, too, know that, when the night is the darkest, we wake up to the full truth of our situation, and the option of both amendment and tolerance of those things, ideas and persons and other cultures we previously disdained. Christmas 2020 brings with it the dark night of millions of infections and thousands of untimely deaths, through no fault of those individuals so impaled, and yet we all know that we cannot fail to take note of how profoundly and how inescapably we are ONE, regardless of our geography, our language, our religion or our culture. We previously knew, from having been subjected to the drum beat “we all share the air, water and land” on this fragile planet. Now every street, store, school, college, church, hospital and factory is literally or certainly potentially “infected” with an odorless, tasteless, invisible and yet vehement attacking virus that seeks to hook up to our respiratory system and to bring our immune system to heel. And while we humbly and gratefully thank those providing both direct care, and those providing needed supplies, including foot, water, sanitation, transportation, as well as intubations and therapeutics and more recently vaccinations, we also note s shift away from our previous frenetic, grabbing, impatient public interactions.

Out of sheer and indisputable basic human need, we have been forced into a new way of interacting with each other, albeit from behind masks. We not only ‘keep our distance’; we also carry a demeanour of more gentleness, more politeness, more patience and the obvious more ‘space’ in our encounters. And our hope is that, once having adjusted how we treat each other in public spaces, we might continue such sensitivity and sensibility long after this pandemic recedes. In this period of scarcity, anxiety, fear and a far more intimate and immediate realization of the unknown (in the next hour, or day or week, appointment, transaction, or even conversation), we find a new muscle that is exercised, and thereby brought to new life that resists being ignored after the pandemic.

Our hope, then, embraces a new way of being, as the lasting birthright of this holy season on the Christian and the Jewish calendars, not because those faith communities hold exclusive insights into the profound and deeply complex relationship between humans and their god. A new way of being, however, cannot be confined to the private personal encounters among people of the same office, school, community or even nation. A new tolerance, and a deeper consciousness of the uniqueness and the specialness of each person, has the potential to reach even into the bowels of what are commonly known as ‘the situation rooms’ of national and international politics, economics, and even military and cyber-security considerations.

Just this weekend, Senator Mitt Romney, appearing on State of the Union with Jake Tapper on CNN, when asked to comment about the latest reports of extensive cyber-hacking into multiple government and private corporation security systems. Many observers point to the Russian hackers, clearly connected to the Russian government, as agents of this latest breach of security. On the question of Putin, Romney said, “The president has a blind spot when it comes to Russia.” This morning, on Morning Joe on MSNBC, Mika Brezinski took issue with the gentility of Romney’s comment, based on what she considers multiple instances of giving Putin and Russia a pass by trump, indicating a much more serious issue than a mere “blind spot”. And while I concur with Brezinski’s more concerned take on the phrase, I also note that diplomatic language often defers to phrases similar to that used by Romney in the Tapper interview. Also on Moring Joe, Richard Haas, Chairmen of the Council on Foreign Relations, commented that it is important to discern between espionage and system control as the motive and the result of the wide-spread hacking. The former, apparently is more familiar, and differs only in the methods used by the hackers; the latter, system control, is a far more dangerous and potential lethal act, should whoever is benefitting from the hacking be able to, and then actually engage in the sabotage of significant national systems. And this hacking was apparently not restricted to one nation, but has been taking place in multiple locations.

In a highly complex universe, in which technology, on top of highly complex traditions of diplomacy, trade, and the raging of all of the levers of international power-politics, a phrase like the one Romney used “blind spot” tends to minimize the irresponsibility of one trump, in his failure to attend to the duties and responsibilities to which he committed following the election of 2016. We are not, all of us, going to become experts in the field of cyber-espionage, nor of international diplomacy, and perhaps even of the highly nuanced and often conflicting pin-ball guideposts of a legal constitution. However, in this festive, holy, hopeful and compassionate season of 2020, our hopes can and might legitimately embrace a commitment to our own truth-telling, as well as a growing “chia-pet” social commitment to holding our elected officials to the truth, as best they know it. Cowering under a euphemistic aphorism such as “blind spot” only demeans the graciousness to which Romney was aspiring. Enemies, chicanery, deception, betrayal, sabotage, including especially the capacity of self-sabotage, are all lurking viruses in the social, cultural consciousness, and especially in the collective unconscious.

And, in this season of new light and new birthing, although we tend toward more celebration than confession and penitential, we might, through our new hopes, embrace those moments in our recent past when we broke through that veil of propriety, superficial niceness, and political correctness, and shone the light of our authentic truth, albeit in the most kindly manner we could muster. New life and new light can and will only emerge from the darknesses to which we have become so familiar and even perhaps unrecognized. It is the new life that comes from the courage to acknowledge that we can, that we have, and that we can expand on our new mode of truth-telling, as a way of giving birth, not merely to a new year’s resolution, almost all of which come to naught in a brief few days or weeks.

Now that the universe has imposed a regime in which our basic survival needs have become so prominent that scales of pride and shame, once preventing many of us from seeking help, whether that help was food, or medicine, or friends or even a shelter, our hope this year can extend to embracing the opportunity of letting go of all of those pretenses that we formerly thought and believed were protecting us from being “exposed” to others who might not like us and might not accept us, if they knew our truth. There is a new day, and a new sunrise and new hope in the promise of risking our own truth, not only in our private and most intimate conversations, but in the rooms where big decisions are being considered.

And this year, we have multiple examples of voices previously undetected, unheard and un-respected that have brought new light and new hope to many of the plights facing the people on the planet. Whether they are young people, or ordinary people doing extraordinary things with very little, they are the lights of new life and new hope, from whom we can all garner courage, confidence, clarity and opportunity.

While sitting with friends and family, we might consider telling those life stories that have been locked away in the vaults of our personal, secret memory. And when that process begins, like a small creek peeking out of a rock outcropping, others, too, can and will be stimulated to bring to engage in the process. Our truth is, after all, all we have, and our attempt to protect ourselves from the dangers of being known, and then potentially being dismissed, has only given way to chasms of speculation, spasms of politically correct repressions and worse, to historic chapters of deception, subterfuge, sabotage, and the inevitable armouring of individuals, families…and the inordinate cost of security systems that, no matter how monstrous and sleek and costly, nevertheless, have the inherent risk of operating like swiss cheese. We simply cannot either know or plug all of the potential holes in our armour, on the international stage, nor at our family kitchen tables. And our health, in the short and medium and long term depends on our fundamental acceptance of our warts and the warts and gaps of others in our circles.

And the sooner those warts are transformed into celebrations, rather than shameful inadequacies, the sooner we can and will embrace the fulfilment of those hopes we previously considered beyond reach.

It is our foreclosure on what we might actually bring about, if we re-consider what it is we really want and need and then summon the courage and the imagination to bring those truths into the light of day that impedes the new 2020 lighting of that Star in the East, at Bethlehem. There is a Christ-child within, and that spirit will only thrive on the whole truth! And we have it within us to summon that truth and light!

Friday, December 18, 2020

Assertively and Unapologetically Resisting Rand's Objectivism

It may be a lingering thought, feeling, perception that I inherited from George Woodcock, Canadian Literary Critic, who once observed, in detecting a long-held Canadian search for ‘the Canadian Identity’ that Canadians do not assert what and who we are so much as we assert who and what we are not. 

Seemingly analogous to the Irish method of delivering “directions” to a lost wayfarer, “You don’t go down the road to the right, nor the one to the left, but rather straight ahead at the forks!” There is an ironic profundity in searching for, and in identifying and then selecting which path(s), especially if and when there are several available, you should NOT take. As Canadians ensconced on the North American continent, ‘in bed’ with the behemoth, The United States of America, it is inevitable and inescapable for us to think and imagine ourselves ‘in relation’ to our southern neighbours. And while we boast proudly on the world stage that we are the northern partner in the longest undefended, peaceful national border with another country in the world, inside our borders we are intensely un-American. We abolished capital punishment in 1978, removed suicide from the criminal code around the same time (without media fanfare), and under Pierre Trudeau as Prime Minister, learned equivocally ‘the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation’ while other states debated mostly the demerits of same-sex relationships. We are proud of our national universal health care system, which although overwhelmed with too much need in search of too few resources, nevertheless, has become a bedrock of our county’s perception and value of the ‘brothers’ keeper’ notion of the Good Samaritan. Our police and law enforcement, while armed, rarely use those weapons, and we have never dipped into the ‘three-strikes-you’re-out’ policy on illicit drug use, as the U.S. did in the mid-nineties. We have no private-for-profit prisons, and feel very comfortable with both a for-profit rail (CPR) and national broadcast system(s) (CTV and Global) and a government owned and operated CBC and a government owned and operated rail system (CNR). According to the Canadian Legal Resource Centre, “it would appear that the USA incarcerates 6 times more citizens that Canada. The risk of re-offending also appears to eb twice the rate in the USA than in Canada.”

Our record on race relations, between English and French, as well as between both English and French and indigenous, is certainly not spectacular, or even one of which we can be proud. Separatism, spawned by the FLQ in the seventies, revealed and opened further crevices of superiority/inferiority as many “English-operated” corporations moved their headquarters from Montreal to Toronto and other English-speaking jurisdictions. And with respect to the country’s colonial past, there are still multiple First Nations’ communities without adequate clean water, necessary health care, and access to quality education and opportunities for decent work and incomes. It is only our feigned superiority (unjustified) that continues to permit and to tolerate too many Canadians who consider our nation more ‘compassionate and empathic’ and thus also more ethical on this file, than are the Americans, in their history and legacy of accepting, welcoming and ennobling Americans of brown and black and Asian and indigenous backgrounds.

Another significant difference between our two nations is this: We Canadians clearly do not cringe or resort to the primal scream when we hear the word ‘socialism’ as is the current cultural meme in the U.S. Not only was ‘rugged individualism” championed by president Teddy Roosevelt; it was also made nearly sacred by former Russian emigrant, Any Rand, whose works continue to find readers on both sides of the 49th parallel. In Canada, however, her objectivist ‘philosophy’ has not garnered nearly as significant a foothold as it has in the U.S. And now with the first, and as far as we know, only devotee to Ayn Rand to be president of the U.S., about to exit the Oval Office, having cherry-picked apparently only the most insidious ‘cherries’ from the Ayn Rand tree of selfishness, we are and have been ‘treated’ to one of the more ironic and paradoxical confluences of mutual enmeshment in history: so-called Christian evangelism (and presumed altruism) and trumpist narcissism.

In a 2017 piece in, Jonathan Freedland writes, linking both sides of the Atlantic in devotion to Rand: So the devotion of Toryboys in both their UK and US incarnations, is not new. But Rand’s philosophy of rugged uncompromising individualism—on contempt for both the state and the lazy, conformist world of the corporate boardroom—now has a follower in the White House. What is more, there is a new legion of devotees, one whose influence over our daily lives dwarfs that of most politicians. They are the titans of tech….Objectivism, she called it, distilled by her as the belief that ‘man exists fort his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice other to himself’….an avowed atheist, she was dismissive of any knowledge that was not rooted in what you could see in front of your eyes. She had no patienbce for ‘instinct’ or ‘intuition’..or any form of ‘just knowing’….Perhaps her most significant early follower was Alan Greenspan, later to serve as chairman of the US Federal Reserve for 19 years. …Greenspan in the link between the original Rand cult and what we might think of as the second age of Rand: the Thatcher-Reagan years, when the laissez-faire, free-market philosophy went from the crankish obsession of rightwing economists to the governing credo of Anglo-American capitalism….the third age of Rans came with the financial crash and the presidency of Barack Obama that followed. Spooked by the fear that Obama was bent on expanding the state, the Tea Party and others returned to the old-time religion of rolling back government. As Rand biographer Jennifer Burns told Quartz: ‘In moments of liberal dominance, people turn to her because they see Atlas Shrugged as a prophecy as to what’s going to happen if the government is given too much power.’…(O)ne of the success stories of the 2012 presidential campaign was a bid for the Republican nomination by theo ultra-libertartian and Rand-admiring Texas congressman Ron Paul, father of Senator Rand Paul…Paul offered a radical downsizing of the federal government. Like Ayn Rand, he believed the state’s role should be limited to providing an army, a police force, a court system—and not much else. But Rand presented a problem for US Republicans otherwise keen to embrace her legacy. She was a devout atheist, withering in her disdain for the nonobjectivist mysticism of religion.. Yet inside the Republican party,. Whose with libertarian leanings have only been able to make headway by riding pillion with social conservatives and specifically, white evangelical Christians….Paul Ryan, named as Mitt Romney’s running mate, (another Ayn Rand devotee) played down the Rand influence, preferring to say his philosophy was inspired by St. Thomas Aquinas…(former) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson named Atlas Shrugged as his favourite book…CIA director Mike Pompeo…says Atlas Shrugged ‘really had an impact on me….So why does Trump claim to be inspired by Any Rand? The answer, surely, is that Rand lionises the alpha male capitalist entrepreneur, the man of action who towers over the little people and the pettifogging bureaucrats—and gets things done. As Jennifer Burns puts it: ‘For a long time, she (Any Rand) has been beloved by disruptors, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, people who see themselves as shaping the future, taking risky bets, moving out in front of everyone else, relying on their own instincts, intuition and knowledge and going against the grain….(the new wave of Randians) are the princes of Silicon Valley, the masters of the start-up…driven by their own genius to remake the world and damn the consequences….Steve Jobs is said by his Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, to have regarded Atlas Shrugged as one of his ‘guides in life’….No wonder the tech companies don’t mind destroying, say, the taxi business or the traditional news media. Such concerns are beneath the young, powerful men at the top: even to listen to such concerns would be to betray the singularity of their own pure vision. It would be to break Rand’s golden rule, by which the visionary must never sacrifice himself to others….(Rand’s) is an ideology that denounces altruism, elevates individualism into a faith and gives a spurious moral licence to raw selfishness. That it is having a moment no is no shock. Such an ideology will find a ready audience for as long as there are human beings who feel the rush of greed and the lure of unchecked power, longing to succumb to both without guilt. Which is to say: for ever.

Now, what if, just supposing, those 74 million voters for trump were even exposed to such a dominating, eviscerating and life-destroying thought process, predicated on the jungle-version of the survival of the fittest, and based on an inordinate and tragic seizure of her father’s business in Soviet Russia as her worst nightmare, and then transplanted into the Hollywood movie business, the Valhalla of her dreams? What if, just perchance, those 74 million have already been seduced by the wildest tentacles of Rand’s selfishness, including the pursuit of greed and power without guilt, and also without responsibility, and that is the prospect facing the Biden administration in January? Amid all of the crises designed and imposed by the trump cabal and left hanging like a thunder-cloud over the immediate and medium-term future, Biden’s honourable and worthy vision, and even attempts to enact an American vision that include and embraces even the most minimal expression of altruism, (like universal health care, access to quality education, a clean environment, and the desperately needed millions of jobs) can easily and feasibly be seen through a lens (and gavel) held sacred by McConnell, Graham, Rand Paul, and others and potentially doomed to atrophy in the political wasteland seeded by people like Ayn Rand.

And it is not only the specific “idolatries” to which Rand submits, and then promulgates onto her unsuspecting ‘sycophants,’ it is also the attitudes, and the careening arrogance, hubris and elimination of all responsibility for the ‘road-kill’ that is left in the wake of the Rand tidal wave that so obviates a civilization. Business plans, necessarily, have to paint pictures of short-and-medium-term goals and strategies to achieve stability, profitability and sustainability. However, those plans, and the people designing and executing those plans, will last longer, in personal terms, as well as in business survival terms, through an approach that blends the pursuit of profit with an authentic care and responsibility for both those in their employ, and in their communities. Profit and social conscience, including altruism are not antithetical. And the social conscious/altruism factor in the equation can no longer be merely tokenism, a one-off, a grand theatrical gesture. It must be a sustained, committed, honourable and humble acknowledgment of real need. It must never patronize, and never objectify those in need. It must also listen to the authentic depiction of need that carries dignity and respect, if and when it is met. It must recognize that a social conscience/altruism is not merely a passing fad to glue a halo around the corporate brand, or logo or advertisement. And it must never ‘use’ and then ‘toss’ off a single person.

The crisis posed, not only by trump, but also by the millions of objectivist devotees and insurgents, cannot and will not be mediated only by the power and levers of government. In Canada, talk and policies and budgets that include support in the short and medium term for individuals, families and businesses, depend on the continuing critical scrutiny of each of us. Golf courses that pocket millions of COVID relief for their investors do not grow confidence in the best intentions of any government. Neither do corporations that grab public relief, while ignoring basic safety and security and health standards for long-term care facilities. We are living through a period when the “who” of our person, our neighbourhood, town and village, and our corporation or business enterprise will be determined by our commitment to a balanced, equitable, sustainable and yes, profitable, vision. Our people are not our pawns in our personal chess game, subservient to our personal/business goals. Our communities are not merely the ‘bank accounts’ from which we seek to vacuum dollars for our goods or our services. And, the patients in our hospitals, long-term care facilities, and the students in our classrooms are not merely digits on our spread-sheets, detailing our projected revenues, profits, graduations and tuition fees.

Indeed, the perspectives of our institutions must never be squeezed into an equation that would fit into the Rand formula for success. Universities, colleges and school systems, for example, have to think, vision and operate on parameters that stretch beyond “career-skills” (STEM) and extend into the imponderables, for every student, for each generation. It is indeed the mysticism and the pondering of all of those wonderful mysteries that provides each of us, and through us, our culture and civilization with its most valuable and indispensable asset: its capacity and commitment to dream. And that dream is not exclusive to those making the highest profits. It is directly dependent on the reservoir of prophets on whose imagination we all depend.

As Canadians might say, "This (objectivism from Any Rand) is not who we are or who we want to be!"

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Resisting dogmatic tyrannies...a rebellious path

 (Men) need myths, and idols to endure the fact that man is all by himself, that there is no authority which gives meaning to life except man himself. Man repressed the irrational passions of destructiveness, hate, envy, revenge; he worships power, money, the sovereign state, the nation; while he pays lip service to the teachings of the great spiritual leaders of the human race, those of Buddha, the prophets, Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed—he has transformed these teachings into a jungle of superstition and idol-worship… ( Erich Fromm…from brain pickings, quoted in blog yesterday, entitled Tyrants, gods and US…) 

It is not a stretch to bring historic, and foundational thinkers in western culture into a “frame” that renders such thinkers and their writing as tyrannical. One of the best examples, writ large in the history and theology of the Christian church, is Augustine. That any single writer could, would and does continue to have such a stranglehold on the mind-set, the teachings and the traditions of the Christian church and the culture it has spawned, is nothing short of tyrannical, despotic and categorically, inhuman, not to mention inhumane. Is Augustine’s belief evil? That is the question!

In our first-year class in theology at Huron College, we were assigned this topic for an essay in Christian Ethics: “Augustine and the problem of Evil”. Like busy Canadian beavers eager to comply with what we considered the purpose and the design of the assignment, we all burrowed into books that were translations of the original Latin of this ‘giant’ in church history. Narrowly focused and task-committed, I proceeded using a premise that Augustine was “good” for the faith, and thereby his teachings must fit into the conventional teachings of the church. Attempting to relate the ancient teachings to the contemporary world, I argued, somewhat unsuccessfully, obviously superficially and without an adequate array of quotes from the original text, I proferred the notion that Augustine could have written the ’12-step’ program, depicting one ‘fallen’ from grace yet still redeemable through grace.

Sent back by the Dean, then also the Ethics instructor, to re-write with the requisite supporting quotations needed for a graduate-degree paper, I complied and was given a passing grade. However, in the ensuing thirty-two years, the influence of Augustine on the Christian church and the millions of people whose lives have been seriously, and preponderantly negatively influenced by his herculean impact, has haunted my life, my prayers, my reflections and reading and finds me re-reading Augustine’s thoughts, this time with a view to attempt to join those in a chorus of dissent.

That evil is parasitic on the good, the corruption or rejection of the good, that there is something called the just war, based on just authority and cause, the right intention and only as a last resort, all of this from Augustine, fails to meet the bar that all war is evil. Call that an absolute, and therefore totally unacceptable premise for any faith position, if you like. Philosophers, it seems, defer from absolutes, writing often in contortions to bring opposites into alignment…(e.g. Jesus is both holy/divine, and also human in Nicene Creed). The notion that Adam and Eve were not punished for having sexual relations, but for the hubristic act of disobedience of eating the forbidden fruit, and thereby ‘sentenced’ all of humanity to a punishment that dictates ‘we have lost our natural ability of self-determination (the control of our natural sexual urges) which ability can be restored only by divine grace through the sacrifice of Christ, again from Augustine, may have had relevance and cogency when it was originally penned, by a man with a hyperactive sexual appetite prior to his conversion to Christianity, not only begs scepticism but also rejection. Fitting tightly into Augustine’s notion that since The Fall, humankind is nothing but a “lump of sin” that God might justly have damned as a whole but from which he has chosen to save some individuals and to transform them into vessels of mercy. From Augustine we we find another highly contentious, yet deeply revered as sacred, uncontestable, yet inherent to the Christian doctrine and congruent with the mind of God is this notion: that original sin is closely associated with sexual concupiscence. Augustine uses the word “akratic” to describe the human condition characterized by weakness of will that leads to actions against one’s better judgement.

Rather than politely and demurely positing that notion of the possible agreement with the 12-step program, (which on reflection may or may not be appropriate) I might rather have written: Augustine is a theological, spiritual, ethical and destructive agent of the human life and spirit, in the name of God. Of course, such a premise would have resulted in my eviction from any seminary program operated by the Christian church. Nevertheless, it represents the core of my personal beliefs and convictions, as I approach the end of my time on the planet.

Just because Augustine struggled with what he came to consider an inordinate testosterone drive, and then, after his conversion, condemned his previous existence, seems to indicate that his divorce from Manicheanism (the treatise of his early life) was only partial. His attempt to posit evil as a corruption of the good, like so many of the dogmatic positions of the church, in its pursuit of unity, expansion, purity, and the elimination of what was considered ‘evil’ (too contentious to be embraced) has justified so many brutal, lethal, unjustified and unconscionable acts in the name of God as to be exhaustive in number and beyond comprehension in degree.

As the agent, self appointed, purposed with the goal of theorizing, speculating, and then authoritatively deciding about what constitutes evil, among and between humans, individually and collectively, (enabled by many other pieces of prophetic writing such as the Decalogue, and original legal scholars among the Greeks, the Jews, the Romans, and the Arabs), the church has honoured Augustine’s contribution at the expense of others.

In this space, the words of Lionel Tiger, from his book, The Manufacture of Evil, have been quoted frequently. His purpose of linking morality to biology, the prime source of much of twentieth and twenty-first-century scientific investigation, bypasses Augustine’s focus on hubris, disobedience, rather than the sexual relationship between Adam and Eve. Much of contemporary western culture has, similarly, adopted the view that “sex” outside church-directed and sanctioned parameters is evil, and punishable in some manner that enforces the tenet. However, given that even within the church itself, the proposition that ‘sex-outside-marriage-between-a-man-and-a-woman” is evil, is unsustainable, insupportable, ungovernable, and even illegitimate, this formerly concrete wall of morality is crumbling, long past its due date.

What constitutes “nature” and whether or not that composition is within what can and ought to be considered as holy, godly, ethic and moral, is a cornerstone of arguments within the church, as hence also in the secular culture. Managing the human capacity for rebellion, for hubris, for disobedience, both within the church and the culture generally, has occupied thinkers, scholars, and legal and political operatives since the beginning. However, based on the Augustinian precepts of human humility, obedience, and what he considered our tendency to stray from our “goodness” western (and so-called Christian) culture has found itself twisting in the wind to implement sanctions, punishments, wars and political campaigns all based on the notion that the ‘wild’ of nature demands taming, controlling and submission.

Except, that is, when it comes to war!

How is it that the disobedience, after sexual relations in the Garden, is considered sinful, and that sexual concupiscence is conjoined with this original sin, yet war (and all of the attendant requisites like bombs, chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, cyber-invasions etc.) can ever be justified? The starting point “a lump of sin” as a foundation on which to conceive, birth and develop a human being, is fraught with sabotage. The akartic weakness as even a tentative diagnosis for actions that are not in one’s best interests, offers the prelude of rationalization that, without the intervention of God, renders one emasculated. The enmeshment of individuals into a tent whose dogmatic walls, while merely the canvas of human speculation, have taken on the rigidity of ecclesial perfection, protocols, hierarchical enforcement and political genuflection, robs those individuals of the active, searching, intuitive and even speculative energy of their whole beings. The result can only be a repetitive arthritic even coagulated congealing of not only the pathway to a relationship with God, but a life that incarnates the full flowering of the spirit of that life.

There is an inescapable and, to the human mind, cognition and intellect, an indecipherable mystery to the energy that redounds throughout the universe. Some of that is depicted as climate/weather, some of it is depicted as biological/anatomical/physiological, some of it is depicted as social/educational/supportive/protective and some of it is depicted as imaginative/creative/poetic/dramatic/theatrical. And then there is the monumental conundrum of the human proclivity and seemingly desperate search for power…in whatever form seems most appropriate for each of us.

As beings seeking to honour our identity, our spirit, our intellect and our place in the universe, it seems only ‘natural’ to bring questions, speculations, searchings, inquiries, and doubts to the table, not only as individuals and families, but as institutions. Our doubts, after all, are far more instructive, and life-giving than our certitudes. In fact, our certainties, whether they are religious, cultural, political or ethical serve to constrict our potential. The predominance of pain, especially the pain inflicted by others, that has been revealed to emerge from previously inflicted and suffered pain, also imposed by others, seems to point to our coming to conscious awareness, not only that the original pain needs our attention (not out of pity but out of courage and hope), in order not only to accept and receive its new insights, but also to let go of its constricting shackles, so that we do not continue to feed that negative flow of social, political and moral sludge. Deferring to silence, avoidance, denial and the inevitable numbness that accompanies the ‘strong-upper-lip’ stoicism of many of our Christian teachings (highly alpha-man-based, and misogynistic) is a personal path that leads to emotional and spiritual cryogenics.

The institutional responsibility for acceding to the teachings of any man, including Augustine, and to perpetuating teachings that fail to acknowledge the divinity within each human is not only clear to many, while seemingly denied by most ecclesial hierarchies.

Do I submit to a theology that elevates war as justified, regardless of whether it is considered just, based on proper authority, with a right cause and intention and only as a last resort? NO!

Do I subscribe to a theology that relegates all of human to a “lump of sin” following The Fall?NO!

DO I subscribe to a theology that separates humans from the animal and excommunicates, ostracises, banishes and even murders to preserve and protect some purity of dogma? No!

Do I subscribe to a spirituality, endorsed by any church, that has become a special flavour of morality, and that ceased being fun, in the widest definition and meaning of that word? NO!

Do I subscribe to the ecclesial genuflection to the rich and the powerful, both as requisite funding sources and as social role models for our children? NO!

Do I vehemently push back against all ecclesial, dogmatic, theological and ethical principles that elevate one person over another in any culture, regardless of the role played in that culture? YES! 

Do I vehemently reject any diplomatic posturing that argues for a “just war” and the spending of public monies to enhance the capability of engaging in such war? YES!

Do I belong to any religious, ecclesial community? NO! and likely will not ever.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Tyrants, gods and US...we really are 'IN' this together

 I would like to tell you a brief story about a conversation I had, many lives ago, with a female clergy of the United Church of Canada. The prompting issue was a rambling question in my mind about whether or not to remain in the “clergy stream” in the Anglican church or consider switching to the United Church. The woman was then a supervisor of mine at the Toronto Institute of Human Relations, a non-denominational, non-profit counselling-training institute. She knew about my family of origin, including a history of child abuse, a history her own biography shared. 

We were, if you like, ‘coming from a similar, if different, place. And it was her reflection that has stuck over the ensuing decades. “John, one of the primary differences between the two institutions is that, in an episcopate, one always knows where the power resides and from where the decisions come. In our church, on the other hand, based as it is on the extensive reliance on committees, one is never sure where the power resides and who is taking responsibility for the decisions made. As abused, we might have a need to know and to identify the power locus. I would recommend you stay where you are.”

The story evokes a moment of new insight for me, coming as it did originally, from a trusted, reflective, detached, professional source. She had nothing to gain or lose in her honest response. She cared not a whit whether I stayed in the ‘Anglican’ path or switched to United. Underlying her response, although not identified or discussed at the time, could have been some experience of hers that provoked her response. The mere fact that she ‘identified’ with my experience however, that moment of indelible imprinting on our memory, underlined the experience as unforgettable for me.

I recount that story as a way of opening the door to my own reflection on one aspect of the current political ethos, primarily in the U.S. but also in other nations, where the enmeshment of a large segment of the population with what can only be regarded as a tyrant begs many questions. Why do ordinary, so-called normal people, of all backgrounds, educations, careers, social and political status, religious affiliations and ethnicities “fall” into the orbit/ambit/sway/arms/charisma of a magnetic person/leader?

Having observed, and reported on highly intelligent, highly articulate, and obviously courageous political operatives, none of whom sought or required obsequiousness, sycophancy, a cult of popularity or even adulation from their electorate, and also having sat in pews in front of at least one clergy so obsessed with his own “religiosity/piety/sanctimony” and his lure of ordinary men into his

‘ken’, I have pondered this question for decades. Clearly, there is no single answer, no ideological, psychological, spiritual or ethical explanation for the dynamic of the human search for power.

History has taken note of a long list of powerful (mostly) men, whose feats and falls comprise much of the western narrative. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, (September, 2004), Michael Maccoby writes:

(I)n 30 years of experience as a psychoanalyst, anthropologist, and management consultant, I have found that followers are as powerfully driven to follow as leaders are to lead. Followers’ motivations fall into two categories—rational and irrational. The rational ones are conscious and therefore well known. They have to do with our hopes of gaining money, status power, or entry into a meaningful enterprise by following a great leader—and our fears that we will miss out if we don’t. More influential, much of the time, are the irrational motivations that lie outside the realm of our awareness and, therefore beyond our ability to control them. For the most part, these motivations arise from the powerful images and emotions in our unconscious that we project onto our relationships with leaders. (

Whether we ‘project’ our highest aspirations or our deepest fears and anxieties onto a leader, many of these projections emerge from our early lives. A father that could never be satisfied or pleased, a mother who continually berated a child, or worse, they all leave deep emotional markings of which we become familiar only if and when the “wound” is once again ‘triggered’ by some person, event, statement or picture that ‘brings the unconscious memory/experience back to consciousness.

Maccoby continues:

At its best, transference if the emotional glue that binds people to a leader. Employees in the grip of positive transference see their leader as better than she really is—smarter, nicer, more charismatic. They tend to give that person the benefit fo the doubt and take on more risk at her request than they otherwise would….But without a strong grounding in reality, leaders can very easily become undone by their followers’ positive transferential projections. At the extreme, such followers will create a myth that bears no relation to fact….The transference dynamic is most likely to get out of control, during periods of organizational stress. In such situations, followers tend to be more dominated by irrational feelings—in particular the need for praise and protection from all-powerful parents. (, op. cit.)

Supplementing what can be categorized as a psychoanalytical perspective, originating from Freud, there is also another more recent perspective from Erich Fromm, a German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist, humanistic philosopher and democratic socialist. A German Jew who fled the Nazi regime and settled in the U.S., Fromm ‘criticized Freud’s dualistic thinking, the struggles between two poles, as narrow and limiting.’ (Wikipedia). Nevertheless, Fromm himself deploys an ‘either-or’ concept in his diagnosis of freedom as a “‘diamagnetic force’—by one pole, it compels us to escape to it, which Fromm calls positive freedom; by the other, it drives us to escape from it, a manifestation of negative freedom. While modern civilization has liberated human beings in a number of practical ways and has furnished us with various positive freedoms, its psychological impacts has given rise to an epidemic of negative freedom. (Maria Popova,

Popova elicits Fromm’s words from Escape from Freedom:

Modern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man…..and this in a forward written half a century after publication of the book:

Modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton….The crucial difficulty with which we are confronted lies in the fact that the development of man’s (including both genders) intellectual capacities has far outstripped the development of his emotions. Man’s brain lives in the twentieth century; the heart of most men lives still in the Stone Age. The majority of men have not yet acquired the maturity to be independent, to be rational, to be objective. They need myths, and idols to endure the fact that man is all by himself, that there is no authority which gives meaning to life except man himself. Man repressed the irrational passions of destructiveness, hate, envy, revenge; he worships power, money, the sovereign state, the nation; while he pays lip service to the teachings of the great spiritual leaders of the human race, those of Buddha, the prophets, Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed—he has transformed these teachings into a jungle of superstition and idol-worship…

To feel completely alone and isolated leads to mental disintegration just as physical starvation leads to death. This relatedness to others is not identical with physical contact. An individual may be alone in a physical sense for many years and yet he may be related to ideas, values or at least social patterns that give him a feeling of communion and ‘belonging. On the other hand, he may live among people and yet be overcome with an utter feeling of isolation, the outcome of which, if it transcends a certain limit, is the state of insanity which schizophrenic disturbances represent. This lack of relatedness to values, symbols, patterns, we may call moral aloneness and state that moral aloneness is a intolerable as the physical aloneness, or rather than physical aloneness becomes unbearable only if it implies also moral aloneness….Religion and nationalism, as well as any custom and any belief however absurd and degrading, if it only connects the individual with others are refuges from what man most dreads: isolation.

While much ink has been spilled on the question of how the digital technology, while appearing to ‘connect’ us to each other, everywhere and all the time, has disclosed a a deep and persistent consciousness of isolation, prior to, yet certainly exaggerated and inflated by, this pandemic.

Projection/transference, compounded by severe isolation could well be cornerstones of our current wave of insurgent crowds fawning over the image of a ‘hero’, whether that hero is a human being (as in political leader suctioned to, and seduced by a false narrative, and also suctioning and seducing his ‘cult’ to that same false narrative) or a form of deity. And here we have to wade into the waters of theology and the comparison between a ‘personal god’ or an impersonal god.

Karen Armstrong, in her brilliant work, A History of God, The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Random House, New York, 1993, posits the dilemma this way:

The problem of predestination and free will…indicates a central difficulty in the idea of a personal God. An impersonal God, such as Brahman (Hindu) can more easily be said to exist beyond ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ which are regarded as masks of the inscrutable divinity. But a God who is in some mysterious way a person and who takes an active part in human history lays himself open to criticism. It is all too easy to make this ‘God’ a larger-than-life tyrant of judge and make ‘him’ fulfill our expectations. We can turn ‘God’ into a Republican or a socialist, a racist or a revolutionary according to our personal views. The danger of this has led some to see a personal God as an unreligious idea, because it simply embeds us in our own prejudice and makes our human ideas absolute. (p. 164)

Religious fundamentalism depends on a personal god, whether or not those espousing such a faith are fully conscious of their choice and their participation in that choice. And most clerics who themselves rely on the continuing dedication of their parish are unlikely to confront such a faith given that its exposure could have a serious emotional impact on the ‘believer’. The convergence of both religious fundamentalism and political tyranny and dictatorships, is a potentially explosive, especially if undiagnosed and acknowledged, cannister of political and cultural conflict.

Those charged with the responsibility to preserve social and political peace, likely unaware of the complexities and implications of both psychology and religion, are left virtually disarmed in their efforts to evolve policies and practices that take into account the depth of despair (too often diagnosed as hunger, poverty, disease and hopelessness) which includes something called loneliness and isolation that seems to fail to be identified as real, authentic and thereby demanding attention.

So long as we cling to a sociological, demographic and statistical depiction of the cultural imperatives to which we must attend, we will continue to fail to address the most basic and most insidious of our personal, social, political and spiritual needs. Even the mere discovery and potential treatment of transference, while necessary, will not attend to the deeper historical vein of alienation, isolation, separation and aloneness.

And while individuals each have a responsibility to attend to a portion of this isolation, the society, the collective, the public square must neither ignore nor deny its collective responsibility. Throwing money at isolation, however, as we do to most of our “problems” is no solution. Band-aids, as social policy, are merely stop-gap, impermanent fixes that merely ameliorate the situation, until the next election.

We not only share a common human biology, ecosphere, and globalism; we also share a common and inescapable human spirituality which demands nurture.

Are we ready even to acknowledge our need?

Friday, December 11, 2020

Where is the poetry?

 We are drowning in a tidal wave of lethal numbers. They are lethal in that they take account of the thousands of human beings whose lives have been cut short by a mysterious, imperceptible, undetectable, ubiquitous, senseless, odorless, tasteless virus. This submicroscopic infectious agent that replicates only inside the cells of a living organism has become the most powerful, inhuman and inhumane force on the planet raging through the bodies of millions. It is completely ignorant of the colour of one’s skin, the religion of one’s faith, the ideology of one’s homeland, the economic or educational or political status and title of one’s achievements. Kings, dictators, princes, priests, shamans, electricians, doctors, lawyers, street cleaners, sanitary workers, sewage plant workers, professors and poets are all targets of its potency.

Drowning may actually be a metaphor that is altogether too swift; perhaps suffocating slowly is more appropriate as our eyes glaze and our ears close protecting us from the enormity of it all. Every so often, perhaps once a day, we permit a particularly frightening and tragic comparison or personal/familial story to cross the boundary of our awareness. Nurses, doctors, respiratory technicians drive to work in tears, return home to shower in their own tears, bent seemingly permanently by the weight of death interminably declaring its fatal blow to patients cut-off from loved ones, leaving the final parting to be shared by care-givers.

We count the fatalities; we compare the numbers for age groups, racial groupings, geographic regions, and of course, for level of compliance with preventive steps. We debate the comparisons of political decisions, those endorsing social compliance with prevention to those endorsing market freedoms, as if each were ethically equivalent. The false equivalence, however, is lost on too many.

Our social and political and scientific vocabularies are replete with what are commonly called “reasonable” statements, based largely on the “responsible group’s” assimilation and assessment of the latest trends in cases, and their impact on human and facility resources. Vaccines to be released for public injection must pass specific clinical hurdles, hopefully free of political interference, and then must be submitted to rigorous storage and transit criteria, prior to the needle piercing the skin on the shoulder of those deemed ‘first in line’…also determined by an oversight body assessing greatest need and most significant impact.

Those considered “essential services” (often previously ignored or taken for granted, outside of health care workers) suffer some of the highest rates of infection, for example in meat-packing plants, the transportation sector, the public service sector. And those living in poverty, often without access to adequate health care, confront not only the direct threat of infection, but also the additional burden of having their children attempting to acquire an education, too often at home and without access to either the hardware or the broadband to make that process work.

The human spirit, witnessed in applause at 7 p.m., for example, in New York for health care workers on the frontline, in the early stages of the pandemic, and for hundreds at Dairy Queen’s paying it forward by purchasing meals for those behind them in line, and for unexpected acts of charity that share a smile, a friendly greeting or even an occasional conversation from behind masks, with complete strangers, now liberated by anonymity and the shared threat, to speak, often while in one of the many lines separated by six-foot-floor-stickers.

One pundit observed, insightfully, that across North America where formerly public institutions like churches were once able and willing to challenge false utterances often by irresponsible spokespersons, that leavening is no longer available, in the flood of lies to which narcissistic opportunists have taken to skew public opinion and confidence in basic facts. Offering “rugged individualism” and the liberty of personal choice, as if it were a holy rite, when actually social compliance with protective and preventive measures are far closer to qualifying as sacred, and life-preserving, these charlatans (including and highlighting the current occupant of the Oval Office, and many of his sycophantic state governors, Senators, and legislators) not only poison the public consciousness, and its unconscious, but have spawned a spate of hate-filled, spurious, truth-denying websites as propaganda machines, infectious of the public mind.

And while exaggeration of fears lies at the core of the motive and method of the propagandists, the conventional thought leaders, the social activists, the opinion-writers, themselves attached to a public, for profit organization dependent on revenues, ratings and share-holder underwriting, submit highly researched, sophisticated prose in their analysis of ‘where we are’ at any given moment.

While it may seem incongruous at first, the observation and assessment this scribe made during and subsequently to a fifteen-year stint in ministry on both side of the 49th parallel, especially about the public’s receptivity to, familiarity with, and delight in language that can only be termed “poetic” or “imaginative” or “emotive” or “dramatic” or “visionary” was and remains depressing. The strength of the imagination, expressed in poetic language, is especially relevant when the crisis is at its peak. And just at this moment, there is a gaping desert of poetic imagination and language coming from the talking heads and the political and scientific leaders.

The level of language on social media, now so sparing, so literal and so uninspiring is only one element in the diagnosis of the mental attitudes and the emotional depth of contemporary North American culture. Quick transactional interactions, a nicety offered, or an act of revenge enacted, to achieve a specific and targeted goal, may offer some slick moments of humour on a sit-com, but they also engender a homogenization of what is considered ‘normal’ in how people relate to each other. Obviously, the coarseness of the language and the attitudes of the trump presidency (and the chorus of sycophants) further erodes the expectation of not only decency, but the lifting of eyes, ears, imaginations and aspirations from the gutter minimal to a more lofty height. As John F. Kennedy proclaimed, poetically, in announcing his “moon-shot” project, “We do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.” It was JFK, too, upon accepting the democratic nomination for the presidency in July 1960, injected a note of poetry that continues to reverberate even six decades later, in a totally different, but equally challenging moment:

But I think the American people expect more from us that cries of indignation and attack. The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high—to permit the customary passion of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future. As Winston Churchill said on taking office some twenty years ago: if we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future. Today our concern must be with that future. For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do. (

Even such a minimalist image as “lighting a candle” in comparison with ‘cursing the darkness’ offers a rhetorical shift in perception that today would fall like melodies of hope from the screens and the microphones of public figures. The willingness to face the depths of authentic emotion, the essence of poetry, is never to be regarded as dainty lace on the doilies of the upper class. It cannot be reduced and thereby dismissed as the effete language of the elite, especially at a time when elites are under fire for their arrogance, their insufferable insensitivity and their alleged lack of empathy and compassion.

Leonardo da Vinci is reported to have left us this epithet about the value and meaning of poetry:

“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”

Robert Frost writes: A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.

Kahlil Gibran: Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky,

We fell them down and turn them into paper

That we may record our emptiness.

On another note, we read this from T.S Eliot:

Do I dare disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a

Minutes will reverse.

W.H. Auden: Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.

Novalis: Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poetry is the eternal graffiti written in the heart of        everyone.

Emily Dickinson:

I’m nobody! Who are You?

Are you nobody too?

Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!

They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!

How public like a frog

To tell your name the livelong day

To an admiring bog!

Rappers do it! Songsters do it! Even reporters do it occasionally!

And yet, if that graffiti that is written in each of our hearts were to be given the light and air of daylight, it would find the one(s) who are the most courageous among us eager and willing to explore that deeply personal and authentic tunnel of meaning. We are all living with a lump in our throat, a sense of wrong, a homelessness, a homesickness, and, if the truth be told, we are all nobodies not because we are worthless, but because we are precisely the inverse. It is in our surrender to the unavoidable, inescapable, inevitable and even perverse truth that all of our ‘reasonableness’ and all of our dedication to reason, to objectivity, and to detachment, we each know, in our heart of hearts, that we are alone, that we are subject to the whims and the winds of the universe, and that, in the face of all of that uncertainty, we also know that at the bottom of the mine, when our world has completely collapsed, there is something stronger than our worst fears, more immutable than our most debilitating expectations, that, while it may not leave us unscarred or unwounded, will continue to sustain us in that plight.

We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that will guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future…

And it will take a commitment from each of us to light our own candle, to encourage our friends, families and neighbours to light their own candle (many not even convinced that they have (or are) a candle to light. We see so few candles being lit in the hopes and aspirations of our current crop of political leaders, so deeply engrossed in the minutiae of process, including the necessary process of methods of delivery and injection of a vaccine are they. Yet, even they, perhaps especially they, need both time and discipline to light their own candle of hope and new life.

Dependent on the adulation of their people, political leaders could pause to reflect on the old cliché that imitation is the greatest form of flattery…And by offering candles of hope, poetic images of new ideas, and even the deepest fears wrapped in language everyone ‘gets’, they would find both attention and support. There is no intrinsic separation of poetry from effective leadership. There is no shame in telling hard truths in images that everyone uses (perhaps unconsciously) in the poetry of the kitchen table, the market, the court and emergency rooms, and hopefully the sanctuary.

Personification, like metaphor and simile, convey what Frye termed the “unity” of human experience, slightly different from the language of practical sense, daily routine and responsibilities. Addressing even abstractions in anxiety, can serve as a clarifying and thereby freeing experience, not by offering solutions, but merely by bringing each of us into the “picture”…As Paul Simon, the “poet-laureat” of the last century wrote in Sounds of Silence:

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Sill remains

Within the sound of silence


In restless dreams I walked alone

Narrow streets of cobblestone

‘Neath the halo of a street lamp

I turned my collar to the cold and damp

When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light

That split the night

And touched the sound of silence


And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

People writing songs that voices never share

And no one dared

Disturb the sound of silence.


“Fools’, said I, “You do not know

Silence like a cancer grows

Hear my words that I might teach you

Take my arms that I might reach you”

But my words, like silent raindrops fell

And echoed

In the wells of silence


And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made

And the sign flashed out its warning

In the words that it was forming

And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are

Written on the subway walls

And tenement halls”

And whispered in the sound of silence.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Reflections on immune systems: biological and geopolitical

In his provocative book, Blessed Unrest, How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World, (Penguin, New York, 2007), Paul Hawken includes a quote from Gerald Callahan’s book, Faith, Madness, and Spontaneous Human Combustion,* as a lead into the chapter entitled, Immunity:

“Our immune system, and only our immune system, prevents us from becoming everyone else all at once. We are who we are only because we defend ourselves every moment of every day. And who we are is everything. We are pieces of others. Portraits painted somewhere between our brains and thymuses. We are the dirt we’ve eaten and the sons we’ve sung. We are the light of the stars and darknesses old beyond imagining. We are at once spontaneous fires and sacred water. We are faith and forgiveness. We are our own deaths and we are the eternal thoughts of others.” (Hawken, op. cit. p. 139)

Hawken, himself, then writes these words about the core of immunity:

“At the core of immunity is a miracle of recovery and restoration, for there are times when our immune system is taken down. Stress, chemicals, infections, lack of sleep, and poor diets can overwhelm the immune system and send it into a tailspin. When that happens, old diseases can resurface while protection from new ones breaks down. Pathogens burgeon and seem to hold sway, and a moment comes when death lurks at the threshold. At that point, given the odds and circumstances, something extraordinary can happen that really shouldn’t: the immunological descent slows and halts, our life hangs in the balance and we begin to heal as if stumbling upon Ariadne’s thread#, a comeback that rivals the climax of a Hollywood plot. How the disoriented and muddles immune system reverses course and recovers is not well understood; some would say it is a mystery.”

Timing a revisit to the human immune system, in the midst of a pandemic that specifically attacks our immune system, when we have few therapeutics and as yet fewer vaccines, seems like another quixotic and irresponsible gesture. Another potentially specious inference that the immune system might have even the most remote connection to an epistemological crisis, only begs questions about the cognitive competence of this scribe.

One of the most difficult of tensions to sustain, (especially in our consciousness) is the highly stable and secure connection of biology to cognition. When we are thinking philosophically, about abstractions, the ephemeral, the spiritual and the intellectual we are often not connecting the dots to/with the complexities and nuances of our biology. We are engaging in what has come to be known as the objective exercise of analysing, theorizing, experimenting, tabulating, curating, interpreting and then repeating the process attempting to disprove something called the null hypothesis…that a proposed correlation between two forces does NOT exist, for example.


Our attempts to curtail the spread of COVID-19 naturally involve the generation, or search for, or the implanting of antibodies that will fight the potentially lethal virus. The sunrise of at least two vaccines currently seeking approval in the U.S. and eventually in Canada (Pfizer’s and Moderna’s) comes glimmering through the cloud layer in which we have all been struggling for the last nine months at least. There are other research pilgrims deeply engrossed in the pursuit of additional vaccines, (Russia’s Sputnik-V, for example, and Johnson & Johnson’s) and their safe arrival, along with effective clinical trials, can only add to the reservoir not only of rescuing vials, but also of enhanced hope, trust, confidence and relief.


In our public debates, including the many highly provocative and cogent pieces of editorial/theoretical/economic/social/cultural thought, too, we have adopted primarily an objective perspective. We argue and dissect numbers; we parse specific causes; we detail both the potential and the limits of specific legal directions in our aggressive attempts to assign blame, and to lift public contempt from public servants, including elected officials. Our geopolitics, our political philosophies and perspectives, our affiliations and traditions, while not necessarily articulated in each and every discussion, nevertheless, impinge each of our engagements over both what is in need of amendment, and what is working.


Our perceived (and therefore projected) capacity to work together in pursuit of a resolution of this pandemic, while limited, shows at least that some are willing to collaborate, and to share therapeutics and vaccines with those who can least afford them, yet whose compliance is clearly needed, regardless of their geographic location. However, there is a cogent passage in Hawken’s book that points to a reality that one strains to discover in the public discourse about how to address the pandemic and any other serious and potential existential threat. Drawing the analogy between the human body’s immune system and the complicated collection and collaboration of individuals and organizations determined to protest and rescue the planet seems to be Hawken’s plea. Here are his words:


History demonstrates all to eloquently that no ideology has ever amounted to more than a palliative for any dire condition. The immune system is the most complex system in the body, just as the body is the most complex organism on earth, and the most complicated assembly of organisms in human civilization….The movement, for its part, is the most complex coalition of human organizations the world has ever seen. The incongruity of anarchists, billionaires funders, street clowns, scientists, youthful activists, indigenous and native people, diplomats, computer geeks, writers, strategists, peasants and students all working toward common goals is a testament to human impulses that are unstoppable and eternal….This is the promise of the movement: that the margins link up, that we discover through our actions and shared concerns that we are a global family…The ability to respond to the endless injustices and hurts endured by the earth and its people requires concerted action and hinges in part on understanding both our function and potential as individuals and where we fit into a larger whole. Antigens dot the surface of our body’s cells like lapel pins that proudly proclaim, “It’s me, don’t hurt me, I am you.” Viruses and invasive diseases have their own antigens that warn the body that a “not me” has arrived. Millions of different kinds of antigens tag the different microorganisms and cells that find their way into the body, especially detrimental ones. With almost perfect symmetry, millions of different antibodies, proteins that can lock on to antigens as neatly as a key to a hasp, neutralize these invaders while simultaneously signaling for help. This is the beginning of the immune response, the ability of the body to maintain the self, to be a human rather than a petri dish for opportunistic microorganisms. The hundreds of thousands of organizations that make up the movement are social antibodies attaching themselves to pathologies of power. Many will fail, for at present it is often a highly imperfect and sometimes clumsy movement. If can flail, overreach, and flounder; it has much to learn about how to work together, but it is what the earth is producing to protect itself.

For much of medical history, the immune system and brain were considered two completely separate entities. Over the past two decades, science has mapped the many interactions between the two, demonstrating that each affects the other, right down to what we are thinking.  Gerald Callahan, associate professor of immunology at Colorado State University, has upper the ante, stating what may be obvious from an evolutionary view:

the brain is part of the immune system. (Callahan, op. cit. p.63) The immune system predates the brain by a good billion years. While the immune system responds to microscopic threats, the brain defends against risk that is too big for our natural immunity to handle. ‘The mind is for bears, coral snakes, sharks, snapping turtles, wife beaters, and Buicks,’ explains Callahan. The immune system addresses organisms that have been around for billions of years: the brain confronts relatively newer dangers. (Hawken, op. cit. p. 163-164)     


To extend Hawken’s metaphor a little further, while we are all aware that our body’s immune system functions pretty much autonomously, dependent on our taking care of our body’s and our mind’s and our heart’s and our spirit’s health and well being. There is, however, an authentic and pressing question as to whether the “immune system” of the choir of nations, the intricate, fragile, and almost invisible complex of the movement (for both social justice and environmental security) will continue to forge similar and inextricable ‘nerve links,’ ‘ligament and muscle, brain and emotional links’ as a global people remains.

Hawken counsels: To come together we must know our place in a biological and cultural sense, and reclaim our role as engaged agents of our continued existence. Our minds were made to defend our selves, born of an immune system that brought us to this stage in our development and evolution. We are surfeited with metaphors of war, such that when we hear the word defense, we think attack, but the defense of the world can truly be accomplished only by cooperation and compassion. Science now knows that while still in diapers, virtually all children exhibit altruistic behavior. Concern for the well-being of others is bread in the bone, endemic and hardwired. We became human by working together and helping one another. According to immunologist Gerald Callahan, faith and love are literally buried in our genes and lymphocytes, and what it takes to arrest of descent into chaos is one person after another remembering who and where they really are. Hawken, op. cit. p. 165)

Living in the cloud not merely of uncertainty, but outright denial of the truth, especially with respect to:

§  the legitimacy of the American election,

§  the fatality and lethality that is the current occupant of the Oval Office,

§  the seeding and breeding of incestuous media outlets that seem determined to spread the trump virus (Newsmax and OAN, Prager university for starters) the willing, facile and sycophantic submission of the 74 million

§  the brain-and-body anesthetizing of the Republican party, especially those elected to both Senate and House of Representatives

§  the tsunami of cash currently reported to exceed $200 Million, for whatever devious, nefarious and destructive purpose trump might devise

§  the politicizing of all aspects of COVID-19

§  the de-facto sabotage of the legitimate operation of government by trump acolytes, including blocking Biden’s team from legitimate acquisition of needed national security data

§  a global scene of refugees, starvation, geopolitical conflict, nuclear tensions, abandonment of the Open Skies treaty, the insurgency of cyber crime and the national and global economic impact of COVID

It would be reasonable for sceptics and cynics to dispute much, if not most, of what Hawken and Callahan are proposing. For others, including this scribe, the analogy of the biological immune system to the social, political, scientific, philanthropic, and philosophic/ethical “movement” that currently sizzles like high-intensity electricity through the veins and the arteries, the minds and the hearts, as well as the trust accounts of too many people and individuals to be either ignored or defamed.

Life, including both the capacity and the profound desire, indeed absolute need, for each of us to grow our conscious awareness of who we are, where we are in the universe, the nature of this moment, and the potential (for both high-wire fall and even higher flight) for grasping the reins of opportunity, offers each of us a most epic opportunity. That opportunity will melt like the wings of Icarus if we exaggerate our false hopes, as a way of abdicating our shared responsibility. What comes to mind, however inappropriate it might seem to some, given that it was uttered by a prospective assassin in a Shakespearean tragedy. Uttered by Brutus, immediately prior to his complicit participation in the murder of Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures                                    (Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3, 281-224)

It is not the death of a single man whose fate lies in the balance, in our time. It is the survival of the planet, and the civilized complex systems by and through which we might both envision and erect a new morning of hope, aspiration and a future for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. Hawken and Callahan are only two of the requisite prophets’ voices whose guiding stars we need to lock onto, through the enhanced capacity of our personal and our collective telescopes.


*Gerald N. Callahan, Faith, Madness, and Spontaneous Human Combustion: What Immunology can Teach us about Self-Perception (New York: St. Martin’s, 2002) p. 227

#Ariadne’s thread refers to the string she gave Theseus to escape the labyrinth. Ariadne’s thread is now anything that guides you out of a difficult situation.