Friday, February 26, 2021

"You are the change you want to see!"

On a sunny mid-week morning in a crowded cafeteria in the former Widdifield Secondary School in northern Ontario back in the late sixties, the then leader of the Ontario New Democrats, Stephen Lewis, uttered a sentence about what was then happening to the education system in the province. The sentence, ‘that debates about education had been reduced to numbers of students (in a class) and to numbers of dollars being spent on the file’ continues to reverberate in my head.

A rifle-shot, perhaps on the surface considered a reductionism, nevertheless, carried an impact at least on this attendee.

Class size was a significant negotiating point for teachers’ federations in their search for contracts that would enable effective teaching and learning. Numbers of dollars in cost to the provincial budget were significant to the provincial “Treasurer” and the government, because that was a ‘target’ for the opposition and the public to focus on, as a minimal path to assess how important schools and teaching and learning was to the government.

Of course, there are and were other benchmark ‘numbers’ by which to evaluate a school’s performance, such as the number of grade thirteen graduates, and before that, the number of students awarded provincial bursaries for further education and the number of “Ontario Scholars” (graduates who achieved an average grade of 80%). Considered anything but a “drain” on the provincial budget, education back then was “booming” in terms of rising enrolments, teacher hires, new schools opening and new generations of students going off to university as well as to the then new community colleges.

Nevertheless, Lewis’s rifle shot highlighted something about how public discourse focuses on those empirical details, those benchmarks, and the potential implications of each depending on the perspective of the assessor(s). Public discourse depends on numbers, partly as a way to frame, (and to contain) the discussion, and also to be able to compare one jurisdiction with another. Provincial departmental examinations, another relic of the education system, were designed to provide objective evaluators from across the province, who had no knowledge about the name or location of the students’ papers they were grading. Objectivity, standardization, a level playing field…these were the objectives of the system. (Ironically, and paradoxically, one provincial examiner tells the story of a single essay from a grade thirteen student being passed between several examiners, (as a test case) that received grades ranging from A+ to F, casting considerable doubt on the depth of objectivity being achieved.)

There is so much more to the full assessment of a situation, including the process of education children, that escapes ‘inclusion’ in the numbers as measures of value. And, naturally, with the explosion of technology, we are now gathering numbers of postal codes, family incomes, racial and ethnic backgrounds, projected labour needs, literacy and numeracy rates and skill levels, and proceeding to collate and to curate, to compare and to apply both inductive and deductive approaches to the various gestalts of those numbers. So, on one level, we have many mountains of data on which to base our comparisons, assessments, and projected policy and curricular changes. Of course, curricular changes that creep from the desks and offices of the provincial bureaucrats/educationists, will quickly garner headlines especially if they attempt to ‘touch’ a hot-button’ social issue like sex education and rising numbers of LGBTQ students in the system. The intersection of such matters into the public debate seems to ignite passions like those that erupted yesterday in the corridors of the U.S. House of Representatives. One member, a mother of a transgender, installed a proud flag outside her office, only to be challenged by the QAnon-loyal representative from Georgia, who glued a sign outside her office reading “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE…Trust the Science!”

Debates and discussion of public education, vacillating between numbers and nuclear ‘epithets’, however, does not provide either a useful and creative process for adjusting social change (in both substance and speed) nor does it encourage moderate, thoughtful, and engaged parents and citizens to enter into such a ‘fray’. However, it would seem that such an oscillation (numbers to epithets) is a vernacular process that both epitomizes the ‘war-like’ culture and the paralysis that seems to have much of the political class ensnared. The media swims in pools of numerical data, especially around the pandemic, and the politicians try to navigate between mortality and hospitalization rates and vaccine production, distribution and injection rates, in a kind of public square Kabuki theatre, characterized more by showmanship than by content. Elaborate costumes and dramatic gestures, however, do not a coherent, functioning, creative and generative society and culture. Reductionisms, in numbers, dollars, quantity and demographic reach, while useful in attempting to put a frame around the worst health crisis in a century, and assert some public pressure on the ‘actors’ on the stage to address gaps in service and recovery, as well as honourable moments of “memory and honour” to the far too many deceased, put public attention on those aspects of our angst on which the public actors can and will focus.

The numbers of suicides, both successful and attempted, however, are down-played, given the perceived public danger/threat of the copy-cat syndrome. Similarly, family violence, hunger, and untreated illness, while garnering some public attention especially among “essential health and social workers,” are depicted in much smaller fonts (both literally and metaphorically). And while there is little room for the public actors to dispute numbers of cases, etc. there is a canyon of rhetorical ‘space’ in which to prevaricate, distort, dissemble, and outright lie, in order to perform the absolutely most base (and dysfunctional) attitude in many organizations, CYA (Cover Your Ass), or PYR (Pad Your Resume), or GPH (Generate Positive Headlines)….essentially self-serving words and actions that demonstrate how reductionistic our shared perceptions and attitudes are to our own well-being.

In the half-century since that address to the OSSTF (Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation), Stephen Lewis served the historic voice of the prophet, from the Old Testament. Whether they were ‘prophesying’ the end of an empire, the plagues of a people, an invasion of an enemy, the coming of the kingdom….voices of prophecy redound in that piece of holy writ. In a sense, Lewis was decrying the reductionism of public debate, over an issue central to the public consciousness, while the “file” remained relegated to the ‘family pages’ in the national dailies. Not only was the treatment of the anatomy, the chemistry, the sociology, the history and the philosophy of education reduced to numbers of students and dollars in the budget, but the whole public “value” of the role and purpose of education the province’s youth was considered analogous to entertainment, meal menus, theatre listings, horoscopes and the like. Pricking the consciousness of the culture, whetherd,- Lewis actually intended to or not, along with the pandemic’s devastating impact on the process of education children, and the accompanying rates of depression, anxiety and mental health issues, formerly closeted from public disclosure, has at least generated some minimal public discussion about both the importance of the educational process and system, and the need for legitimate public health measures if our culture is to retain both sustainability and vitality.

A similar case can and needs to be made about the cultural and historical uroborus* snake of the corporate and business world…the fixation on and addiction to numbers for all measurements of “issues” to be confronted, wrestled, untangled and potentially resolved. Now that public consciousness of ‘essential workers’ to provide food, mail, vaccines, hospital (and especially ICU) care and police and fire workers who provide protection and sanitation workers keeping our garbage collected, has been awakened, not only ought we all to share in a collective pain of shame, for having neglected and even decried millions of ‘servant’ workers, we are beginning to hear and see signs of an awakened consciousness among both citizens and the political class, for our negligence, our indifference, and our insouciance. Unfortunately, that same negligence, indifference and insouciance characterizes our collected attitude to the “planet” as if it were an inexhaustible reservoir of plenty, of food, water, beauty, clean air and the capacity to restore and renew itself, no matter how abusive (to the point of actual rape) we are, applies.

We are and have been gobbling up what we ‘deemed’ essential resources to fire our manufacturing plants, to fire our combustion engines, to fly our planes and our ships and buses, and to mine ‘precious’ minerals, both for commerce and for vanity, our own. Tragically and ironically, the planet has been just as, if not even more, taken for granted, abused, defaced, scoured, deforested, and even defecated in and on for centuries as our essential workers. Our for-profit business model, the core model for the operation of our public political debates, for the assessment and policy design of both our for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, relies on the same kind of reductionism that Lewis was so articulately debunking in the late 60’s. In 1989, Ed. Broadent proposed and secured unanimous consent in the House of Commons for a bill to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. How many acts of parliament have been dedicated to provide clean drinking water to First Nations communities…from all political parties, representing all points on the political continuum?

We are all complicit in our appetite for the simple, easily contained speeches, including the idealistic words of potentially lawful bills, based on a recitation of numbers. We are all, also complicit, in our swiss-cheese memory, as well as our flabby commitment to hold our public figures accountable, whether for the small details or for the humungous calamities. And our oscillation between indifference and the occasional peak of anger, rebelliousness and even public engagement, is one of those social, cultural and obviously political memes in our political history, on which our political class both depends and continues to foist on us as a “guaranteed” menu to ensure their own re-election.

It is not to expect each citizen in a democracy to become ‘expert’ in all of the government files. Not even the elected official can or should even try for that benchmark. Nor is it necessary for the media to use their air time and digital/paper space to provide all the details of each and every potentially explosive story. However, it is past time for both the political class and the reporting/editorializing professionals to make significant changes to their perceptions of our (the people’s) capacity to read ‘into’ the headline, to have an active appetite for the whole truth, including those stories, (far beyond the personal indiscretions of highly placed individuals) that offer insight into how our province, town, city, nation is not merely operating, but actually serving. And the who is being served also needs to shift from the “political class” to a much wider and far more educated bell curve that is both bored and discriminating of the cliché, the repetitive archetype (hard work, innocent victim, over-budget, under-planned) like the fast-food menus, never really nourish, but offer instant superficial gratification.

And then there is the inevitable cultural “whaling” about how we are all “going to hell in a hand-basket’ when that process is one over which we each, both individually and collectively, share responsibility.

As an astute young businessman commented recently, when envisioning how the business community (including each executive and entrepreneur) might re-invision his/her own operation, “You are the change you want to see!”

That message is a minimal move to making operative, fully incarnated and potentially planet-saving, the responsibility not only for assuring the bottom line of the enterprise, but for accomplishing that goal, while respecting the planet, the workers and the community engaged in each enterprise, and hopefully, eventually, the message will drift, like a welcome balloon of needed oxygen, creativity, courage and vision to the political class, and even to the executive board rooms. Some in those elevated suites, like Ford, Volvo, have grasped the significance of taking their carbon footprint seriously. We can only hope that taking the health of the planet seriously will also include taking the well-being of each person employed in every enterprise on the planet, will accompany that trajectory. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Some Lenten Reflections, 2021

There has been a process, both internal and external, going on in and throughout the several pieces that have been recorded in this space over the decade of its existence. One of the most recent read-out’s came from a close friend, actually an usher at a wedding in 1965, who, upon surfing the site, commented, ‘you have been saying the same thing from the beginning to the end’…My first ‘take’ on his observation, was, ‘gulp’ and then, the reflexive ‘yes’ and then a protracted period of reflection as to how the ‘single sentence’ that seemed to sum these pages might be formed. What have I been trying to say, if there actually is a core utterance, from the beginning.

There have been tips of the hat to several others whose insights have prompted some entries. And there have been repeated ‘bows’ to a few, like James Hillman, Martin Buber, Lionel Tiger, Karen Armstrong, David Brooks, Tom Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, and others.

Nevertheless, while wandering among the flowers, the birdsong, the morning dew and the grey clouds of the views of others, without actually a conscious focus on his work, the underlying thought, belief, perception, attitude and even basic theology, has originated in the work of Jurgen Moltmann. Now nearly 90, a former conscript to the Nazi regime, a prisoner in Scotland, and a professor of theology at Tubingen, Germany, Moltmann wrote a book that grabbed me in the throat, when I first read it, and continues to express far more eloquently, and definitely more scholarly, and, for me, prophetically, about the nature of the Christian faith.

Impatient, confused, somewhat overwhelmed by events, statements, incidents and memories, and always ‘moving’ as if to stop and to remain calm was antithetical to safety, security, and trust, I somewhat unconsciously rendered myself an automaton, volunteering, exploring, attempting to accomplish what I had absolutely no training, formation or mentoring in the skills necessary. I threw my name into a hat for the student council at the university residence, and then into another hat to represent my graduating year on students’ council, decorated homecoming floats, helped to ‘stage a campus formal, joined a fraternity…all of it in a frenetic race to demonstrate that I had some worth, although the drumbeat of the inverse of that never left pounding in my head and, more importantly in my heart. Having separated from the bigotry of anti-Roman Catholicism, and having wandered in search of a faith community in and through the scholarship and the charisma of various homilists, and seemingly wandered even farther from the discipline of rigor and concentration needed for undergraduate success, I buried myself in action.

Over the years, I continued to search for something/one/place/the indefinable that would become present, perhaps more clear, or not, commonly spoken and written of as God. Something kept saying, there was a lot more to this life than the chores, responsibilities, the duties and the applause that had often ensued from the performances. It was Moltmann’s book, the Future of Creation, that really said what I either wanted or perhaps needed to read, to consider, to reflect upon and now, many decades later, to share.

Perhaps some of the previous guides in this journey included Wordsworth and Keats who looked in the ‘life of things’ as if there really is a deep and indestructible unity between and among all things. All literature, all music, all artistic expression taken together as a gestalt, seemed to say something akin to the vision of those romantic poets. Not only are we not alone, but we are far from comprehending, and even appreciating even some of the seemingly simplest of realities. Not only are there many layers to language; there are also many layers to our individual and our shared perceptions. Awe, and the humility that dances with awe, were always part of my conception of the universe. And that awe shoved against the boundaries of definitions that claimed cognitive and intellectual validity. Time, too, seemed outside the boundaries of the clock, the calendar, and the centuries, and even the rock and plant and animal histories.

And then, Moltmann’s line, based on an integration of the eschaton as an integral component of the imagination: “Creation is then not a factum, but a fieri. (Not simply a frozen fact, but a becoming, an unfolding, as a still open creative process of realtiy. (p.119, The Future of Creation)

Another cogent and penetrating quote from Moltmann:

Having called creation in the beginning a system open for time and potentiality, we can understand sin and slavery as the self-closing of open systems against their own time and their own potentialities. (reference: W. Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God, in Moltmann, op. cit. p122) (Moltmann continues) If a person closes himself against his potentialities, then he is fixing himself on his present reality and trying to uphold what is present, and to maintain the present against possible changes. By doing this he turns into homo incurvatus in se. (turned inward on oneself). If a human society settles down as a closed system, seeking to be self-sufficient, then something similar happens: a society of this kind will project its own present into the future and will merely repeat the form it has already acquired. For this society the future ceases to offer scope for possible change; and in this way the society also surrenders its freedom. A society of this kind becomes societas incurvatus in se. Natural history demonstrates from other living things as well that closing up against the future, self-immunization against change, and the breaking off of communication with other living things leads to self-destruction and death….We can therefore call salvation in history the divine opening of ‘closed systems’….Closed systems bar themselves against suffering and self-transformation. They grow rigid and condemn themselves to death. The opening of closed systems and the breaking down of their isolation and immunization will have to come about through their acceptance of suffering. But the only living beings that are capable of doing this are the ones which display a high degree of vulnerability and capacity for change. They are not merely alive; they can make other things live as well. Moltmann, op. cit. pp.122-123)…

Moltmann again: When we pas from atomic structures to more complex systems, we discover greater openness to time and a growing wealth of potentiality. With the evolution of more complex systems the indefinability of behaviour grows, because possibilities increase. The human person and man’s social systems are the most complex systems that we know. They show the highest degree of time and the future. Every realization of potentiality through open systems creates new openness for potentiality; it is by no means the case that potentiality is merely realized and that the future is transformed into the past. Consequently it is impossible to imagine the kingdom of glory (which perfects the process of creation through the indwelling of God) as a system that has finally been brough to a close, i.e. a closed system. We must conceive of it as the openness of all finite life systems for infinity. This of course, means among other things that the being of God must no longer be thought of as the highest reality of all realized potentialities, but as the transcendent making-possible of all possible realities.

Quoting the Bucharest Consultation of the World Council of Churches on ‘Science and Technology for Human Development, held in June 1974, Moltmann includes this passage:

Independence, in the sense of liberation from oppression of others is a requirement of justice. But independence in the sense of isolation from the human community is neither possible nor just.  We-human persons- need each other within the community of mankind. We-the creation- need God, our Creator., and Recreator. Mankind faces the urgent task of devising social mechanisms and political structures that encourage genuine interdependence, in order to replace mechanisms and structures that sustain domination and subservience. (Moltmann, op. cit. p. 130)

The intersection of current reality with what is known to theologians as ‘transcendence’ (immanence v transcendence), for Christians is often said to be directly emanating from the humanity/deity of Christ. Man/God in one, succinctly attempts to bring the attention of the reader, listener, reflector, praying one, into a bifocal vision, in order to preserve and to protect one of the cardinal tenets of the faith.

However, the human capacity, and indeed the willingness to stretch one’s consciousness, one’s imagination, and one’s belief system, and thereby the foundational precepts upon which one actually lives one’s daily existence, into the infinite, open, perhaps even beyond belief seems constricted by/in/through a detailed, intense focus on immediate reality. A fully authentic and also fully open system, or situation, in which all humans, with and through God, share not only interdependence and justice, both also ‘new life’ is, in the language (and the cultural perception and convention) beyond hope and beyond achievement, and thereby, in a world addicted to the acquisition of real value in this moment (grades, trophies, sales, profits, votes, houses, cars, yachts, and all symbols of power and status) relegated to the “mystics” and the “poets” and those who chose a life of ‘no consequence’ or perhaps even more sinister, of dangerous and threatening value.

However, challenging the very notion of what is valuable, powerful, at one and the same time hierarchical and authoritarian, existence that embraces the transcendent, is no longer represented by the historic hierarchy and the authoritarian patterns of rule. “It is represented by the sovereign irreplaceability of every individual. That is why in modern times religion is no longer understood as the hallowing of authority in church, state and society, but as the inner self-transcendence of every individual. As a result the democracy of free individuals, directly related to God without any mediation, becomes the new way of representing transcendence.  The divine crown no longer rests on the head of the ruler; it belongs to the constitution of the free. Transcendence can no longer be represented on earth ‘from above’; its 0only possible earthly representation is now the web of free relationships of free individuals. The relationship to God or to transcendence is no longer reflected in the relationship to hallowed authority; we find it in the free recognition of , and respect for, our neighbour, in whom transcendence is present. (p. 13)…and then

It is only if the conflicts which cause us to experience present reality as history are abolished that the future has anything to do with transcendence. It is only where, in history, these conflicts are transcended in the direction of their abolition or reconciliation that something of this qualitatively new future is to be found..(p. 15

And:  For a long time the Christian faith interpreted the transcendence it believed it had found in Christ metaphysically; later it understood transcendence existentially; today the important thing is that faith is present where the ‘boundary’ of transcendence is experienced in suffering and is transcended in active hope. The more faith interprets Christian transcendence eschatologically, the more it will understand the boundary of immanence historically and give itself up to the movement of transcending. But the more it interprets this eschatological* transcendence in Christian terms-that is- with its eyes on the crucified Jesus—the more it will become conscious that the qualitatively new future of God has allied itself with those who are dispossessed, denied and downtrodden at the present day; so that the future does not begin up at the spearheads of progress in a ‘progressive society,’ but down below, among society’s victims. It will have to link hope for the eschatological future with a  loving solidarity with the dispossessed. (p.17)

More than a guiding set of ethical principles, Moltmann has articulated a resounding, challenging, exacting, disciplined and ultimately infinitely hope-filled Christian theology, to which the contemporary church could well dedicate both study, prayer, discussion, and formal education, not only among seminarians, but especially among those laity seeking discipleship inside the sanctuary, the choir loft and the annual meetings of each parish. And such a theology if it were to become incarnate would reject the social conventions of “importance” of the wealthy, and the power of the hierarchy, including the capacity to regulate nature and morality, as if it were inside the mind of God.

Another beacon in Christian thought and practice as systematized by the Enlightenment, William Blake, has a few cogent nuggets to add to Moltmann:

“Blake has rebelled against the vision of the Enlightenment, which had attempted to systematize truth. He also rebelled against the God of Christianity, who had been used to alienate men and women from their humanity. This God had been made to promulgate unnatural laws to repress sexuality. Liberty, and spontaneous joy. Blake railed against the ‘fearful symmetry’ of this inhumane God in ‘The Tyger,’ seeking him as remote from the world in unutterably ‘distant deeps and skies’. Yet the wholly other God, Creator of the World, undergoes mutation in the poems. God himself has to fall into the world and die in the person of Jesus….Blake envisaged a ‘kenosis,’ a self-emptying in the Godhead, who falls from his solitary heaven and becomes incarnate in the world. There is no longer autonomous deity in a world of his own, who demands that men and women submit to an external heteronymous law. There is no human activity which is alien to God; even the sexuality repressed by the Church is manifest in the passion of Jesus himself. God has died voluntarily in Jesus and the transcendent alienating God is no more.” Karen Armstrong, A History of God, p.349-350)

Would the churches (without COVID-19) still be empty, struggling for tactics and strategies to “become more welcoming” need such approaches if it were do dive deeply into the death, resurrection and eschatology of the Moltmann heart and mind and the Blake vision?


*eschatology: the part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind. 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Are the alveoli in our lungs the new canaries in our planetary coal mine?

 This space continues to be focused on the various levels and methods, structural, physical, environmental, intellectual, and spiritual in which and by which there is a unity of everyone/thing/nature in the universe. Romantic poets were writing about a unity long before quantum physics was exploring the notion of atoms around a nucleus. Much of this space has urged the development of enabled international political structures, patterns, systems and especially a significant enhancement of the full United Nations orbit.

We have noted the biological inter-connectedness as well as the interdependence of all living flora and fauna on the many other systems that comprise our planet’s undergirding and sustaining flow of the energy on which we all depend. Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver, in an essay entitled
Humans and Nature: The Right Relationship, is quoted in an essay entitled Interdependence as a defining feature of all life, on, write this:

“The fundamental wealth on the earth, on which all else depends, is the ability to maintain life itself, which is made possible by the ability of green plants to convert sunlight into sugars. Plant-based sugars are wealth. They are used by the plants themselves and by virtually all other organisms top sustain themselves and to reproduce. Without this simple activity, all then manufactured capital, all the human capital, all the credit cards on the earth -the totality of these not only would be worthless, they would not exist. An economy in right relationship with real wealth is built on the simple fact that the integrity, resilience, and beauty of natural and social communities depends on the earth’s vibrant but finite life-supporting capacity.”

In a piece in The New Yorker, January 25, 2021, by Brooke Jarvis, entitled, The Air in Here, quotes pulmonologist Michael J. Stephen, (from his book, ‘Breath Taking: The Power, Fragility, and Future of Our Extraordinary Lungs: The atmosphere is a communal space and lungs are an extension of it…(Stephens writes): (The lung) is an organ alive with immunology and chemistry, one that does an extraordinary amount of work under extreme stress from the moment we enter this world.

Ms Jarvis also writes in the above noted piece:

We’re still learning all that air pollution can do to our bodies. It can cause not just lung diseases and impaired lung development …but also, indirectly, heart attacks and osteoporosis. For first responders who breathed in clouds of dusty air following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, m many of them without wearing protective masks, health problems often camp in three waves. First there were persistent coughs, and then, a few years later, asthma, sinus inflammation acid-reflux disease, C.O.P.D. and pneumonia. Finally came cancer, heart disease and stroke.

Another Jarvis quote:

We tend to think of a lung as a simple pump: one gas is pulled in, another is pushed out. In fact Stephens writes…With each of the roughly twenty thousand breaths we take in a day, air travels through convoluted passages that can stretch for fifteen hundred miles, to one of approximately five hundred million alveoli-tiny clustered sacs-that each of our lungs holds. Oxygen moves from the lungs to the blood-stream, as carbon dioxide flows back to the lungs. The Brain stem controls the balance, which must be just right….

Lungs are a paradox. They are so fragile that an accumulation of the tiniest scars can rob them of their elasticity and function, so delicate that one of the pioneers of pulmonology solved a long-standing mystery about a deadly neonatal lung disease in part by reading a book about the physics of soap bubbles. Yet, unlike our other internal organs, nestled away in side us, they are open, like a wound, to the outside world….Our lungs are both protection and portal, the nexus of our relationship with an environment that can heal us as well as harm us. In their deepest recesses, a wall as thin as a single cell is all that separates us from the world.

It is not only the timeliness of the Jarvis piece, given the global pandemic whose multiple variants are swooping across seemingly all continents, at a pace that far exceeds the capacity of scientists and laboratories to study and to design and produce vaccines that can and will reduce both the spread and the lethality of the virus. It is also timely given the “I can’t breath!” statement by George Floyd, while he was being suffocated under the knee of a law enforcement officer, a chant echoed across North America throughout the protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter. And while this month is deemed one to celebrate Black Lives, and the media is sprinkled with personal stories of highly courageous, creative and compelling black men and women, we are beginning to take more active note of the complicated inter-relationships in which we are all engaged: racism, air pollution, food production, food available, virus protection, health care, environmental protections….And amid the confluence of these many issues, we repeatedly hear the phrase, “we are all in this together” as if, by repeating it, we will all come to the place where we will all wear masks, where we will all social distance, where we will all welcome a safe and effective vaccine, where we will all take steps in our personal and private lives, to re-cycle, to compost, to purchase fewer plastic bags and packages, where we will all drive electric cars and where we will all surrender to the notion that this chant, “we are all in this together” really means something crucial for each person on the planet.

There is something very hollow about the chant, “We are all in this together!”  On one hand, there are millions of people, in too many countries, who do not wish to be part of an establishment majority. There is a disdain for the political voices and actors whose seek a kind of unity, especially in the face of both violence and openly weaponized attitudes and language. Homegrown terrorism, fertilized by the lies of an ex-president in the U.S. and by similar lies in other right-wing autocratic regimes like those in Brazil, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, North Korea and Moscow, along with the rise in authoritarianism, and the concomitant decline of international co-operation, the direct competition between the private, for-profit sector and the public sector funded by ordinary people who pay their taxes, (while mega-corporations pay little to none), the competition for vaccines between and among nations, even with COFAX, potentially relegating poverty-stricken nations to the end of the line, and the potential for a rapidly mutating virus to continue to outstrip both vaccines and public compliance with protection and prevention measures….these are just some of the competing forces, still not fully contended with, either by elected officials or certainly by many ordinary citizens who (wrongly and detestably) consider compliance to be an invasion of their personal freedom.

There is clear evidence, for example, of a hierarchy of funding of public health issues. Ms Jarvis points out:

Lung cancer is by far the deadliest cancer in America, but other cancers receive significantly more funding. Even death from traditional killers such as heart disease and cancer are largely in decline, in the United States. Mortality from respiratory diseases is rising. (And this was true before we lost hundreds of thousands of Americans to COVID-19 which kills most of its victims through acute respiratory failure.) Cases of asthma increase every year, and, globally, so do cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is associated with smoking but also afflicts, people who have never smoked. Lung cancer, too, is becoming more common among non-smokers: in the United States, someone is diagnosed roughly every two and a half minutes. Worldwide, respiratory problems are the second most common cause of death, and the No. 1 killer of children under five.

Whether we are reading about rising temperatures, spikes in forest fires and draughts, the rapid extinction of hundreds of thousands of species, both animal and plant, the rising clouds of carbon dioxide from China and India, or the biology and fragility of the human lung, we are living at a time when we are being flooded with relevant, cogent, and disturbing information that demands urgent and immediate action. And while there are new words coming from the mouths of people like John Kerry, the U.S. President’s envoy on global climate change, and shifts in U.S. policy around such projects as the Keystone pipeline, and while major auto producers are finally getting on board through announced commitments to electric vehicles, the convergence of the exhaustion and depression and anxiety over COVID-19, and the shuttering of thousands of businesses, the staggered opening and closing of public and secondary schools, and the intermittent access to needed internet access, as well as a deficit in number of families and children without the technology to facilitate in-home learning many continue either hopeless or apathetic about positive change.

The apparent and proven insouciance among world leaders to commit jointly to a globally evident and planetary threatening scourge, and the mounting evidence of serious cyber invasions of multiple systems, including the water system near Tampa Florida, on the weekend of the Superbowl. Reports indicate that hackers injected excessive amounts of tar into the public drinking water. The international political climate and culture clearly foreshadows a threatening collision between the forces of greed and narcissism (the gas and oil companies, the financial services sector, the corruption of autocrats, the complicity of too many elected officials clinging to their own personal political power) with the complex dangers from the speed, complexity and penetrability of new technologies, and the apparent unwillingness of world leaders to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’.

The mid-twentieth century American tragedy, Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller saw Willy Loman utter words repeated here several times, “The woods are burning!” Never, in all the many years during which I attempted to introduce that play to senior high school students did I ever envision a global situation that saw the Amazon Rain Forest on fire, the redwood forests in California burning millions of acres, homes, and people’s lives, the rising number of hurricanes, tropical storms, and the multiple health crises, along with COVID-19, that have been plaguing individual and family lives for decades, without a significant public response to counter the threat of our own human self-sabotage.

Could our lungs be another of the many needed canaries in the growing coal mine that we are about to call the planet?

Please don’t hold your breath!

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Buber's injunction to drop down to the 'mud and filth'

One of the central images, archetypes, in western culture, is the story of the Good Samaritan. Hated by and hating also Jews, the Samaritan is considered, by both conventional biblical interpretation, and by extension, conventional cultural perceptions, the “good guy” in the narrative, and the Jew, taken for granted as dead, in the ditch, is the rescuer. He purportedly lifts the Jew from the ditch, finds a room for him, pays for the room, and goes on his way. And all this happens after the priest and the Levite have passed by without so much as a glance or a helping hand.

While the is much merit to the bridging of the gap between Jew and Samaritan, and historic value in the gzillion acts of kindness that have been both performed and received, through a transcending of traditional barriers to mutually respectful relationships, and the lifting up of people in need by those who can, there is another perspective on this story, that, if brought to consciousness, and then lifted to a different and higher bar could have an even greater impact on the world than the original version has had.

And that view is encapsulated in Buber’s seemingly innocuous quote from yesterday’s blog: If you want to raise a man from mud and filth, do not think it is enough to stay on top and reach a helping hand down to him. You must go all the way down yourself, down into the mud and filth. Then take hold of him with strong hands and pull him and you out into the light….

The seemingly radical-‘ness’ of this insight is in the submission, first, to the state of the plight of the individual in the ‘mud and filth’ and then to ‘enter’ into that space, physically, metaphorically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, before putting out a hand to then pull both rescuer and rescued up to the light.

Historically, the world can be perceptually, cognitively, statistically, politically and in every other conceivable dimension, between those in the ‘mud and filth’ and those ‘up’ on the ‘high ground’ peering ‘down’ into that ‘mud and filth’. And, from a sociological, political, and even cultural perspective, those ‘up’ are now deemed ‘have’s’ while those in the ‘mud and filth’ are deemed ‘have-not’s’.

The categorization, for the purposes of academic study, has some merit, in that it attempts to ‘investigate’ segments of populations, and then compare those populations from a variety of perspectives. Does a specific culture and historical and geographic region ‘treat’ those in the ‘mud and filth’ better or worse than another period or region? Does the size of that segment of the population rise or fall dependent upon and/or resulting from certain steps in an agenda adopted by a regime? Demographics, stratification, and the concomitant contextual colourations, both positive and negative, have been built into the cake of all human cultures and civilizations, as it were, just like those stratifications based on skin colour, relationship to god or Gods, or gods and the rituals, demons and spirits that have accompanied those various differences.

Power, whether measured by physical strength, fiscal resources, academic achievements, spiritual and religious piety, or scientific investigations and potential ‘cures and/or healings’ has been a prominent part of the gold that is both burned into and painted onto the ‘ring’ that attests to the most, and the most relevant power in the kingdom, at any moment in time.

Implicit in the assumption of power, status, influence, and the degree to which that power is sustained and sustainable, of course, is also the relationship of those ‘with’ power to those ‘without’ power.

And implicit to power and those holding it has been the ‘right’ or the ‘freedom’ to decide how far to reach down into the ‘mud and filth’ in order to help those permanently assigned to or resigned to that state. The decision even as to whether it is worth their while to consider whether or not there is any obligation, duty, responsibility or ‘benefit’ to such reaching down is also reserved to, by and for those with power and influence. The social, political and cultural notion that ‘this is how things work’ as an accepted, concrete, immutable fact both of history and of the nature of human beings, however, could well merit re-visiting. This current epoch, especially, could benefit from a profound reconsideration of the meaning and the impact of that conventional norm.

Occasionally, we will hear of an individual, like Mother Theresa, for example, who chooses to live among lepers, as a model of deep, profound and exemplary faith. And there have been others, throughout history whose lives have been ‘dedicated’ to climbing down into the ‘mud and filth’ in order to become one (atonement) with those in need. Another historic aspect of this “divide” between those ‘up’ and those ‘down’ is, from the beginning and continues throughout history, is that those ‘down’ have grown a deep and seemingly permanent resentment, detachment and hopelessness about the potential for those ‘above’ both to reach out a hand, and even more profoundly, to consider the option of ‘coming down’ into the ‘mud and filth’.

Political parties, in the west, trumpet those policies and practices that mete out dollars in and through programs to “alleviate” the suffering of those, whose votes they need in order to retain power and, in possible, to enhance their own ‘power position’. Barnacled to those policies and the cheques that drop into mailboxes, is an implicit attitude that can legitimately be considered, and is so deemed, as patronizing, condescending, marginalizing and even colonizing of those in the ‘mud and filth’. Of course, those designing and voting for such policies and programs either do not consider that aspect of their ‘honourable’ work, or if they acknowledge its darker features, choose to phrase their approach, ‘we are not letting the perfect impede the good and we are doing good’ in this approach.

Nevertheless, one is prompted to ask, what kind of policy and approach would result if and when a political party, leader, group were to “enter” fully and completely into the space, the mind-set, the implicit and explicit roughness of those in the ‘mud and the filth’ and then imagine, conceptualize and actually design and write approaches that would incarnate that fully-realized experience?

We do not, as privileged, mostly white, highly educated, above-average affluent men and women whose lives have spanned the last half of the twentieth century, and the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the depth of the plight of the Jews rounded up, herded onto trains, and then gassed in concentration camps, in spite of the many worthy efforts of their ancestors to continue to bring their stories to light. We do not, as white privileged, educated, modestly affluent mostly men, fully appreciate how our attitudes and beliefs in the relevant definitions of masculinity have impacted those great-grandmothers and grandmothers, wives, sisters, daughters over the last century-plus. We do not, as white, healthy, educated, affluent men and women, most of us brought up in something called a Christian home and church, have any more than a superficial, and often dismissed conception of the depth of the pain our approach to indigenous tribes, all of whom preceded us on the North American continent, has had and continues to have, on the health, education, access to opportunity and weight of hopelessness that we have, unconsciously and perhaps ever innocently, imposed on those indigenous peoples and their descendants.

We also have little to no consciousness of the feelings of both explicit and implicit racism that we continue to struggle to maintain, for the simple reason that ‘that is how things are supposed to be’ when that “supposed to be” concept is our own design and imposition.

Recently, I read a comic’s depiction of the last century-plus has evolved, primarily, as he put it, through nothing other than mansplaining. The informal definition of that new word is ‘the explanation of something by a man, typically to a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.’

If men have been writing the philosophy, the theology, the scientific papers, the academic standards and processes, most of the literature, and the political philosophy from the beginning, there has been little attention paid to the Buber notion of ‘climbing down’ into the ‘mud and filth’ in order to fully comprehend and to identify, and to resolve to confront all of the plight of those doomed to such conditions. And as a corollary to that blindness, hubris, innocence, denial and resistance, there is also much about “reality’ that we have refused to acknowledge, that can only be discovered and potentially learned from those conditioned by the ‘mud and filth’.

And to relegate those people to ‘a problem, a nuisance, and a blight on an otherwise proud, accomplished, resilient, brass, gold and glass symbolic architecture, or another gilded age “achievement” or a tech-wave of superiority or a medical miracle of any of the many procedures and pharmaceuticals is merely to perpetuate a cultural, societal, personal and sabotage.

Buber’s profound, if highly idealistic, yet worthy injunction to all of us, while rarely applied, offers an inexhaustible reservoir of experience not only for the artists among us, or for the philosophers, or the theologians, or the political class. If and when we encounter another in the ‘mud and filth’ and we are in a position to ‘drop down’ to the ‘mud and filth’ we will invariably and inevitably discover, mostly to our shock and surprise, both a deeper experience of our own human spirit of empathy and agape, but even more importantly, the gift of insight of what really matters.

There is no time or energy in the‘mud and filth’ for idle wondering about what to do next, or how to interpret whether or not someone ‘likes’ us or not, or whether to eat out or order in, or whether to tout a specific faith as “right” and all others as “evil”…

James Hillman’s injunction for each of us ‘to get down’ into the earth of our own existence can and will be enabled and enhanced by this Buber injunction, which exceeds the boundaries and beliefs of all faiths.

 "Tikkun Olam," Hebrew words typically translated as 'repair the world' or 'mend the world' or 'heal the world' can and will be more fully and effectively accomplished, or even aspired to, if we really listen, digest, absorb and apply Buber's insight.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Reflections on soul/conscience/truth/conviction in this moment

Martin Buber, a prolific Jewish writer, thinker and believer once wrote:

If you want to raise a man from mud and filth, do not think it is enough to stay on top and reach a helping hand down to him. You must go all the way down yourself, down into the mud and filth. Then take hold of him with strong hands and pull him and out into the light….

And Buber also wrote these words:

Question: We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. How can I do this if my neighbor has wronged me?

Answer: You must understand these words rightly. Love you neighbor as something which you yourself are. For all souls are one. Each is a spark from then original soul, and this soul is inherent in all the members of your body. It may come to pass that your hand will make a mistake and strike you. But would you then take a stick and chastise your hand because it lacked understanding, and so increase your pain? It is the same if your neighbor, who is of one soul with your, wrongs you because of his lack of understanding. If you punish him, you only hurt yourself.

Question: But if I see a man who is wicked before God, how can I love him?

Answer: Don’t you know that the primordial soul came out of the essence of God, and that every human soul is a part of God? And will you have no mercy on man, when you see that one of his holy sparks has been lost in a maze and is almost stifled?

Dr. Anil Kuman Sinha* wrote these words about soul:

A soul is Divine energy, a little piece of God within you. Your inner identity, your raison d’etre. The soul is the self, the I that inhabits the body and acts through it. Without the soul, the body is like a light bulb without electricity, a computer without the software, a space suit with no astronaut inside. With the introduction of the soul, the body acquires life, sight and hearing, thought and speech, intelligence and emotions, will and desire, personality and identity.

*Dr. Sinha, former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation in India, holds a post-graduate degree in psychology and an MPhil in strategic studies, and is an alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He also attended the National Defence College, India (Wikipedia)

Both Matthew and Mark’s gospels carry similar words about losing one’s soul:

Matthew 16:26: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

Mark 8: 36: For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

James Joyce, Irish writer: Each lost soul will be a hell unto itself, the boundless fire raging in it’s very vitals.

Minnie Maddern Fiske on actors: The Actor who lets the dust accumulate on his Ibsen, his Shakespeare, and his Bible, but pores greedily over every little column of theatrical news, is a lost soul.

Charles M Shulz: The rain washed away my pitcher’s mound. I’m a lost soul. I’m like a politician out of office, or a sailor without an ocrea or a  boy without a girl.

C.S.Lewis: The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words; ‘Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.’# There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery.

# Benjamin Ramm, in BBC, April 19, 2017 writes in a piece entitled: Why you should re-read Paradise Lost, writes: “By contrast (with Milton’s God), Satan has a dark charisma (‘he pleased the ear’) and a revolutionary demand for self-determination. His speech is peppered with the language of democratic governance (‘free choice’, ‘full consent,’ ‘the popular vote)—and he famously declares, ‘Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven’. Satan rejects God’s ‘splendid vassalage’, seeking to live: ‘Free, and to none accountable, preferring Hard liberty before the easy yoke of servile Pomp…Famously, William Blake, who contested the very idea of the Fall, remarked that ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’

Why all of these quotes about losing one’s soul? Why is the North American continent faced with the dilemma, pouring over our television screens, depicting the litany of evidence that, to any normal jury, would spell ‘conviction’ and ‘barred from holding public office forever’ and yet, watches the speculation that enough Republican Senators will likely vote to acquit? Charged with inciting an insurrection against the Capitol, the ex-president has such a ‘hold’ over the mostly men in the Republican caucus in the Senate, as well as over a considerable number of Republican Congressmen and women, that the talking heads are left, as are the rest of us, scratching our own heads, seized with the picture that only something as mysterious and sinister as a tragically evil man, and certainly not the inherent evil of all of the Republicans who will vote to acquit, is responsible for the actions leading up to, including and subsequent to January 6th, 2021.

There is a truth to the notion that humans try to explain unfathomable mysteries with myths, images, poems, archetypes, gods, goddesses, and evil monsters. It is as if, living in a universe in which the absolutely inexplicable takes shape and form, not only in horror films, or in terrorist acts, or in the dark and dank allies of broken towns and cities, and on the fence posts of Nebraska farm fields, (Matthew Sheppard) or, spewing from the larynx of an ex-president for many more than four years, somehow transfixes us. We become like that frozen, paralyzed and terrorized deer, caught in the headlights on a sub-arctic February freeway after midnight. And, on the edge of what we perceive as a potentially existentially dangerous cliff, if not personally then certainly as a voice for what we have come to know as democracy (dependent on the trust of voters, their tabulators, and the reporting and recording of those votes), we are bereft of understanding. Nothing in our cognition, or in our shared view of how the world works, can begin to integrate and to assimilate this horrendous tragedy into our tolerable world view. Murder, mayhem, stabbings, shootings, attempted lynchings, well over a hundred serious injuries to protective officers of both the city of Washington and the Capitol itself, not to mention the sheer vandalism of the mob, allegedly incited by a single man (with compliant and sycophantic acolytes, think Cruz, Graham, Hawley) are not compatible with a view of the world for the moderately educated, moderately informed, and even moderately moral and ethical vision of individual human beings. And yet, it was human beings who acted! And it was a human being who incited their actions! And it was human beings who had, for more than four years, not merely tolerated the ranting lies of the ex-president, but hubristically rode his coat-tails into power, and into mostly large trust accounts floated by thousands if not millions of sycophantic donors.

A tweet from Senator Lindsey Graham: “I think most Republicans found the presentation by the House Managers offensive and absurd” (9:48 pm, Feb. 10, 2021) was answered both brilliantly and succinctly by former CIA Director John Brennan in his own tweet: These are the words of a man with no conscience, not integrity, & not interest in doing the right thing. Lindsey Graham & other Senators who hold this view are unworthy of public trust. History will judge them as it should-political cowards who betrayed their oath of office. (From Bess Levin, Lindsey Graham: “Democrats Should Be Ashamed of Themselves for So Thoroughly Incriminating Trump,” Vanity Fair, February 11, 2021, 2:58 PM)

On the national and the world stage, the world is witnessing and participating in what amounts to a Greek Tragedy of epic proportions. The Collins dictionary ( defines Greek Tragedy this way: a play in which the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal. Depending on one’s perspective, the only ingredient missing in the American drama is a “person of outstanding personal qualities”. And it is this missing element that makes the tragedy even more contemptuous: there can and will be not pathos, the emotion of pity and fear evoked in the international audience, for the fall of the ‘great man’. Just as divorce provides no “funeral” equivalent, (although some have actually written and conducted liturgical poetry and prose to substitute) thereby leaving many feeling empty, hollow and exhausted without a formal closure, this political drama will inevitably leave millions feeling empty, hollow and exhausted, and more importantly potentially experiencing a deep erosion of their trust in the very processes, personnel and protections that are enshrined in the constitution.

Often described as a “frail” entitity, democracy does in fact require the constant vigilance of an engaged, informed and articulate electorate. And while at least the first of those three attributes exist in the American political culture, the last two are clearly incomplete. Information that is framed to portray one ideology as superior and “correct” and another ideology (and its purveyors) as inferior, incorrect and untrustworthy, fulfils the Orwell criterion that all literature is political. The current political culture also gives inordinate evidence to the notion that the truth has been shredded, and the residue continues, like the pandemic, to infiltrate the coffee shops, the pubs, the news rooms, and the television studios. True facts, versus alternative facts…that dichotomy lies at the heart of this impeachment trial. Those who may agree with the “facts” of the case, that the ex-president did indeed incite an insurrection at the capitol on January 6th, and yet continue to argue against its constitutionality, and then drag in irrelevancies like Democrat Senator Leahy’s assuming the Chair (he is after all President Pro tempore of the Senate and Chief Justice Roberts has declined to preside), and then vote to acquit, thereby aborting the vote on disbarment from office, will find their names in the history books, and potentially in the electoral refuse bins, after votes have been counted.

It is, however, their individual capacity to ‘sleep nights’ and to ‘look their constituents straight in the eye’ and to ‘tell their kids and grandkids their shame’ at their failure to convict that will inevitably haunt them to their graves. And, in a nation bound both by laws and what proud Christians would sing is a profoundly Christian nation, one is left wondering if the ethical and moral principles of any faith community would embrace the hollowness, the emptiness and the sheer hubris and narcissism of their abandonment of principle, oath, and conscience.

Ghandi, the renowned Indian non-violent mystic once commented, “A ‘NO’ uttered from deepest conviction is better than a ‘YES’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble. Men and women of deep conviction are not only in great demand today; there is a glaring deficit of their numbers, especially among Republican Senators about to make the decision of their political lives. Their ‘yes’ to acquit is so blatantly, irreverently and irrationally, and blindly in service of a motive to please, or to avoid trouble however each of them might define that trouble. It is a short-term, personalizing of the issue, in the face of a national and potentially an international tragedy.

The long-term trustworthiness of the United States’ word, and the people selected to represent that ‘word’ can and will only be shaken, if not eroded, by a Senate decision to acquit. It is not only the evidence that clearly convicts; the hearts and the minds, and hopefully the souls of the individual Senators, even if they are in harmony with conviction, and then vote to acquit, demonstrate that the ‘show’ is more important than the substance.

Like the bishop who aborted a mission of pursuing the spiritual growth of every parishioner, selling out to the corporate vision of a 10% increase in people and a 15% increase in revenue, as his view of the Christian mission of the diocese, their souls will illustrate their inherent hollowness. And their consciences will also continue to atrophy as they add this mis-step to their legacy.

And it is not only the specific vote to acquit, and the implications for democracy, and for international world order that is at stake. Think, just for a moment about the reverberations among those too young to cast a vote today. They will be taught that the Senate of their nation was unwilling, and unable to vote to convict when even among other Republicans like former Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, 'If inciting to insurrection isn't an impeachable offense, 'then I don't really know what is.'  (Josephine Harvey, HuffPost, January 10, 2021, Chris Christie: If Inciting Insurrection Isn't Impeachable, 'I don't know What Is')

Neither does the rest of the world!

Monday, February 8, 2021

Political inaction is no longer an option

It was one of the many cogent observations, following the 9/11 terrorist attack on the U.S. that the reverberations of the multiple incidents and the nearly 3000 deaths would continue long after the grieving and the anger. Not only were two wars incited by the attacks, travel restrictions were introduced, a Homeland Security monster, and a transformation of how each of us perceives and relates to the world.

It is this latter concept, the injection and embedding of what now seems a permanent psychological, if not also physical, biological, cognitive and even spiritual anxiety, that began in the early months and years of this 21st century, and has been significantly exacerbated with the now year-long onset of a global pandemic. In the middle of the first decade, there also fell from the sky-scrapers on Wall Street, an economic downturn that can be traced to a resilient reservoir of greed, credit derivatives, bankruptcies generating multiple bail-outs.

Recently, public health figures have documented a spike in depressions, suicides, marriage failures, job losses, business closures, food shortages, and also remarkable stories of home schooling by parents with neither the training nor the experience to accomplish this task. Individual biographies of single mothers, struggling with part-time or no employment, home schooling, food shortages, and a residue of both resentment and anxiety, depression and even hopelessness can and will surprise no one who has been paying attention to the daily narrative. Add to the list of immediate and pressing needs, in nearly a half-million families, in the U.S. the deaths of a family member from COVID-19, many, if not most, of those deaths preventable if the former administration had not adopted a narcissistic, and highly cavalier attitude to the exigencies of what could and should have been a national public health program on steroids.

Commentary on the prevalence and the profundity of the social and mental health earthquake in which the world is trying to cope, may seem so redundant, if it were not for the facts that stare people who are engaged in the face:

·       That COVAX, the international group allegedly purposed with providing vaccines to underdeveloped countries and their people, when that program will meet only 20% of the estimated need

·       That the wealthy nations seem to have joined a competitive race to acquire and then distribute and inject millions of vaccinations into the arms of THEIR OWN people, as quickly as possible, in order to address the urgency of the political moment,

·       That the truth of the matter, without a global elimination of the virus, and its continually growing number of variants, in every country, county, city, town, village and hamlet on the planet (mission not a single one!) the rest of the world will continue to be subject to surges of the pandemic, and the need for additional, alternative and highly effective vaccines, as the mutations will continue.

·       That the pharmaceutical companies, given a developed nations’ mind-set favouring the capitalist model, have both been given and have taken the “upper hand” in when and how they will develop their unique vaccines, the prescriptive modalities of their administration, their storage, and their relative effectiveness. Just today, the Astra-Zeneca vaccine has been pulled from administration in South Africa, for the reason that it is not sufficiently effective against the variant that has emerged in that country.

·       That national governments have been scattered, non-collaborative in their approach to the original production of vaccines, (Operation Warp Speed was an exclusively American trump-warped program excluding all other nations) and that there is still no conjoined, collaborative, unified and effective arrangement, under the auspices of the WHO, to assure equal and universal acquisition, distribution, funding and storage of vaccines, a measure that will only impale the efforts of each nation and region, thereby assuring the continuing spread and mutation of the virus.

·       That the world was warned at least five years ago of the impending certainty of a pandemic, without taking specific, collaborative, and preventive steps to forestall, and/or to minimize, and to limit the scope and the severity of the pandemic.

·       That the failure of the world leaders to take joint, substantive, preventive and then collaborative action in designing a strategy, and the necessary tactics, in both public health and ecological prevention measures, is a foreshadowing of the extremely limited, and thereby further anxiety and depression-inducing reality that the world is not prepared for the already extant impacts of global warming and climate change

·       That the separation and the segregation of the public and the private capitalist sectors of the governments of the developed world, especially in regard to confronting the impact of both the pandemic and climate change, render the world’s population victim to a degree and ubiquity of self-serving narcissism in both camps, to which neither the pandemic nor climate change will be subdued or even managed effectively

·       That the world continues to experiences the largest spike in refugees, migrants, and displaced persons from a variety of nefarious and preventable circumstances, each and all of them compounding the already stretched shared capacity and structures or world governance,

·       That world leaders continue to bicker over what are deemed to be serious conflicts among and between various enemies, while the condition of both the world’s population and the globe’s planetary ecosystems continue to suffer from what can only be considered political negligence, political indifference, insouciance, parochialism, provincialism, and an adamantine refusal to surrender a single iota of what they call sovereignty, for the greater good of humanity

·       That the diplomatic establishment clings to the model, and the modalities of national sovereignty if and when another country, or its diplomats, dare to question the practices around ethnic cleansing, detention camps, the poisoning of political opponents, the state murder of journalists, the public documentation of corruption by state officials, in another country. And this “hands-off” approach is not only stultifying and negating any potential amendment to the abuses in human rights that continue to abound, but also sustains a political “soil” and climate that will continue to favour and to protect the persons, the agenda and the greed and corruption of those already steeped in those projects.

·       That the world’s international bodies, such as they are, need to be seriously and creatively transformed urgently, while the debates in national political discourse barely cast a glance in the direction of international co-operation, collaboration, and the surrender of sovereignty, those ingredients that we all know and affirm are and will continue to be required for the pandemic to be brought to its heels and the earth’s climate to stabilize

·       That the world’s care and ranking of the care of seniors, especially in facilities owned and operated by for-profit corporations, demonstrate a degree of indifference to those in care, and also to those providing care, that can only leave most of the rest of us appalled, yet powerless to affect the kind of substantive changes that all families require, expect and deserve.

·       That the long-standing indifference of the American Republican Senators to the urgent human needs, including the needs of public education, public affordable health care, and now access to necessary nutrition, while providing trillions of dollars of tax breaks to the uber-affluent, demonstrate an example, not one that the world would benefit from emulating but one that will serve to exacerbate the growing and persistent human casualties, all of whom will wash up on the shores of the Emergency Rooms, the ICU’s, the police wrap-sheets, the drug offences, and the morgues, already filled to overflowing with victims of the pandemic.

To assess the political negligence that we see in too many governmental establishments as merely short-sightedness, however is analogous to assessing the pain of a lethal tumor as nothing more than a muscle strain. Failure to meet the basic requirements of the job of an elected official in an allegedly democratic state, while not punishable legally, nevertheless, qualifies as negligence. And for an already exhausted, anxious, depressed and dispossessed electorate, however, the job of mounting a substantive public protest, organized, funded, legally guided, co-ordinated and sustained, in such times, when it is desperately needed, seems beyond reasonable expectations.

As the world’s people face the inevitable compounding crises of the pandemic, the rise of global temperatures, in a global political theatre whose ethos and culture are dominated by private interests, dependent on and insisting on profiting from each and every public initiative, even those so desperately and immediately needed, where the short-term goals of elected officials trump the pursuit, in any avid, vigorous and effective manner, those clearly evidence long-term goals and objectives shared by every person on the planet, the hopelessness can and will only continue to fester, compounding itself, and exponentially rising, like a tide of its own making.

And yet, we can all see its inevitability, the forecasts are indisputable, the schools are only barely functioning for a generation of kids whose lives will be forever negatively impacted, through the carelessness of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

It is to these last two groups that this scribe belongs.]

And so long as there are keys to tap, and light to see to tap them, and fingers mobile enough to continue to tap them, I will continue to emit my private pray for some kind of recognition, not merely among individuals, but in families, schools, churches, businesses, universities and colleges and governments at all levels, that we can no longer tinker and tweek our situation. Those approaches were minimally useful, perhaps, in the past, except when the duration and breadth of the emergency (like the First and Second Wars) compelled immediate and sustained action. Today, however, the urgency is different: we are not facing tanks, bombs and missiles coming out of the sky. We are facing micro-virus cells swimming through the air we breath, contaminating our respiratory systems, while we are also breathing increasingly poisonous air, and depleting fresh drinking water resources. Just as importantly, however, we are being fed lies, and prevaracations, distortions and cancerous propaganda for which we have no vaccines nor antibodies, nor therapeutics.

Our complicity in our own sabotage, especially among the cultists, seems both unfathomable and suffocating. When grown, professionally trained men and women agree to become subservient to lies and personality cults, and their answer to question of fact, is to declare, “we have an alternative set of facts” then we all know that it is not only a single voice that is spewing poison. We have armies, in all countries, who are committed to their own set of alternative facts, and those “facts” do not include or even begin to tolerate a body of facts that are based in empirical science, common sense, and some degree of fairness for all.

Unless and until the tide of public discourse and political agendas turns away from being slave to the political class, to being the servant of the public good, and their actions individually and taken cumulatively, shift to embrace the legitimate needs of ordinary people in all countries, we will all continue to suffer more anxiety, depression, hopelessness and fear than is bearable. And that, of course, if precisely the state of the world that these insurrectionist cultists are driving us to. Only then will their campaign of fear and terror will be considered successful. So those of us who, never before, wrote a letter to the editor, or a letter to our elected representatives, or who never hosted a political discussion or open house, or who never before signed up for a political campaign….we all must now consider how and when to sign up…it is no longer a question of IF we will do it. WE HAVE NO OTHER OPTION! 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

The elephant in the public square

From Todd Schoepflin’s blog on Everyday Sociology March 4, 2011, reviewing Eviatar Zerubavel’s, The Elephant in the Room, Silence and Denial in Everyday Life:

Silence and Denial in Everyday Life is the subtitle of a powerfully insightful book, The Elephant in the Room by sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel. I came across this gem a few years ago and it has since become one of my favorite books.

Surely you’ve heard the phrase “elephant in the room,” which refers to something obvious that is being ignored. It can be a problem or controversial issue that is overlooked for a variety of reasons, including embarrassment, shame, fear, or because the subject is taboo. As Zerubavel explains, silence is a practical way of avoiding painful or controversial issues, and so we might “look the other way” instead of confronting a problem or discussing a delicate matter.

But why else do people remain silent in the face of controversial issues? According to Zerubavel, one answer is norms about remaining silent or ignoring information. For example, think about sayings in our culture about keeping quiet like “Bite your tongue,” “Button your lip,” and “Silence is golden.”

Other sayings that tell us we shouldn’t seek out information: “Ignorance is bliss,” “What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” “Look the other way,” “Turn a blind eye.” There are also common expressions to discourage us from getting involved in matters that supposedly don’t involve us, like “Don’t rock the boat” and “Mind your own business.”

In a very powerful point, Zerubavel reminds us that silence, in some cases, is consent. If we don’t say anything, we essentially condone improper behavior and the person responsible for it might view his or her actions as acceptable. He gives the example of a woman who pretends not to notice that her husband is molesting their daughter. As he says, her silence enables the abuse because it conveys approval. Zerubavel uses the phrase “conspiracy of silence” to describe this type of situation.

Silence prevents us from confronting (and consequently solving) problems and controversial issues. Breaking a conspiracy of silence can start with an acknowledgment that an issue (an “elephant”) is present and will not go away by itself. This is why, as the author explains, breaking silence can be a moral act.

In the beginning of the book, he provides a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” A quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. is appropriate because he exemplifies the importance of not keeping quiet in the face of inequality and injustice. Indeed, civil rights leaders usually don’t look the other way and they actually do rock the boat.

And society is better off for many a leader having challenged the status quo. We can’t forget the fact that disrupting the existing order is a key ingredient in facilitating social change. The quote is so powerful because it implies that it’s not enough to not be a bad person. The so-called “good people” who don’t say or do anything about cruel behavior or longstanding social problems can be thought of as tacitly condoning the misdeeds of others and accepting the consequences of unsolved problems. (By Todd Schoepflin)

How does one match up this invigorating and historically challenging ethic with the ethic of “compliance” with authority, especially in top-down, hierarchical organizations like the military, the quasi-military, and the plethora or organizations that imitate and emulate both the structure and the order of the military, especially the church.

This question lies at the heart of the dilemma many face when they enter an ecclesial organization, first as a student, then an intern and then deacon and priest. Authority of what has been called the magisterium (the church hierarchy, including the bishop(s), archbishop(s), primates and even the papacy. The question can be framed also in a manner that challenges the degree of compliance, and even collusion (whether conscious or not) between the ecclesial body and the culture in which it attempts to function. And Being ‘nice’ is one of the cardinal guides for how the family and education systems inculcate children into their world. Polite, kind, generous, funny, playful, and smart are guideposts for children in all western cultures, while their more specific application may differ marginally depending on the traditions of the community. Argumentative, challenging, impatient, rude, mouthy, and even bitter are words that tend to, if not guarantee a young person’s alienation, isolation, and bullying and separation. In fact, too many young boys who were giving evidence of any of those traits in schools were prescribed Ritalin as the system’s way of ‘calming’ (read controlling) those boys.

Even at a base level, a culture in the classroom and the school itself, created by and for females, stressing control, patience, physical stillness, reading, writing and answering questions respectfully is both physically and emotionally challenging for many young boys. Trouble is a culture of professional calm defined what passed as professional competence. And anything (act or child) that did not easily and readily fit into that pattern was “treated” as ‘abnormal’…when the biology and the psychology of many of those young boys who were considered “difficult” were both quite normal, for their gender and age. Parents, too, have difficulty if and when their children question how the parenting process is being conducted. There is a dramatic shift between the strategies and tactics parents use with the baby, and the pre-schooler, and the methods considered appropriate for those turbulent hormone-overflowing adolescents.

The question, however, of the issues (conflicts, disagreements, tensions) between parents, can easily, quickly and quietly slip into a pattern of avoidance or even denial, especially if one or other of those parents consider the ‘pay-back’ from detailing a complaint is potentially too risky for them to raise it. Getting along, after all, was one of the prime ‘beacons’ of living in a neighbourhood, of passing in school, of being selected for the minor hockey or soccer team, and even of benefiting from the “praise” and acceptance of those same parents. And then, the pattern of one’s own parents is deeply imprinted on the consciousness (and even the unconscious) of each of us, without our even being aware of that process. So, for boys, if our father was calm and non-argumentative, (and we did not know either the evidence or the name passive-aggressive) we invariably considered such behaviour both acceptable and even honourable in our own marriages. So, we too became, unconsciously often, passive aggressive, if we encountered a situation with which we did not concur. If our mothers were contentious, on the other hand, we were more likely to exhibit our father’s pattern, if we encountered similar contentiousness from our spouse. The original family patterns find their way into the next generation’s families, and often need adjustment, or even overhaul.

Family relations are obviously framed differently than differences of opinion about matters that do not directly impact a relationship, in terms of required behaviour. Confronting a class-mate’s opinion about a historic event, for example, will inevitably ‘distinguish’ the confronter as ‘rough-edged’ by his teachers and could even isolate that person from his peers, except for those who find such challenges exciting, motivating and opening the door to participation. For contemporary adolescents, the opportunity to fire off scurrilous innuendo in secret about the character of others through social media, is counter-intuitive to the whole process of open, honest, respectful and potentially resolving dialogue. The unfettered process affords a kind of impunity that is clearly not warranted, needs change even to the point of elimination. And yet, by whom or by which legislative body, and with or without the compliance of the big tech behemoths?

The legal profession has designed, inculcated and practiced a protocol, for use in professional court proceedings, that permit and enable and encourage and rely on the objective presentation of opposing evidence and opinion between litigants in the case(s). Judges are steeped in this process, and both monitor and shape its unfolding to their taste and reputation. However, such formality, what would readily be deemed ‘rigid’ and ‘strict’ and ‘cold’ and rehearsed, and thereby ultimately controlled would find a rare family kitchen or dining room table conversation. Historically, too, the subject of rhetoric, integral to legal and political discourse (at least in history) helped to shape the exchange of differing views, while preserving the dignity, the honour and the integrity of the opposing side.

These elevated norms, however, are not easily adopted, nor readily appropriate for water-cooler conversation. And, rather than expressing oneself, for example, over the back fence with neighbours, about the military coup in Myanmar, for example, most neighbours will engage in topics like the temperature, the snow storm, and, occasionally last nights Maple Leaf hockey game. Those are safe topics that are almost guaranteed not to offend. Avoiding alienation, isolation, and the gossip that inevitably rises from encounters that are ‘too much’ for normality (however the other defines it) are stronger than a motive of engagement in the exchange of views, even if they might be different. And that language of practical sense (Frye) pertains and prevails in our consumer lives, our lives as patients in our doctors’ offices, at the mechanic shop when our car needs work, and at the town hall when we pay our taxes. Nothing contentious is raised, unless and until the issue is considered so significant that it cannot be avoided.

Bring that gestalt into the sanctuary, for example, not specifically to the pulpit where a level of decorum and formality is both expected and, for the most part, practiced but into the pews. If there were an instrument analogous to a Geiger-counter, that could detect, and then record, and then play back the incidence of gossip among those seated weekly in church pews (regardless of denomination), the inventor of such an instrument would either be rich or bankrupt…depending on whether those engaged in the centuries-long invective could retain their anonymity or not. There is a ubiquitous and inexhaustible reservoir of human energy that seems to find a welcome if not magnetic receptor/expressor in people whose lives are somehow dependent on their spiritual experience on Sunday morning. That energy is seeded and impelled by an over-weening need (?), desire (?), compulsion (?) to tattle, and to criticize, and to shame others, the details of whose lives too often become ‘public’ at least to those compulsively engaged in mining such details.

This deeply culturally embedded dynamic, naturally attracts some, while it also repels others. And the latter group tend to become “mute” in and when such gossip is being bandied about. This pattern applies primarily to the minutiae of individual lives, and while it has the potential of empathy and compassion when legitimate illness or even death impacts a church family, it also has the equally potent and negative impact on clergy, and on the lives of those considered “heathen” or ‘sinful’ or ‘evil’ and these categories are themselves determined individually, often reliant on the stereotypes of the social culture. Sexuality, alcohol dependence, financial strife, job loss, divorce, and for decades, gayness were typically targeted issues, and the faces and persons of deviance served as the diet for an over-needy appetite for derision.

And then, on the subject of how a town is dealing with a rise in adolescent suicide, drug dependence, school-drop-outs, racism sexism, ageism, and all of the many faces of both superiority and inferiority, (colonialism and the abuse of power), or how the province or state is policing minorities, or how the nation is tending toward fascism, oligarchy, nihilism, the church community is for the most part, silent. The power of its voice, it seems, has been gagged by the willful negligence of both its leaders and its parishioners. The honour, respectability, dignity and even truth that has the potential to impact the lives of both parishioners (through detailed, and open conflict resolution) both between hierarchy and clergy, and between and among parishioners themselves, is too often left to the private one-on-one sessions, in which the power of one over the other reigns, without appeal, or even re-consideration.

The culture, including the political landscape, is thereby robbed of the very moderate and needed voices of those who seek reconciliation, resolution and the amelioration of conflict, (except for the fanatically and compulsively motivated anti-abortion activists, and more recently the equally rabid gun-rights activists). The competing polarities of “political correctness” and excessive and potentially anarchic excesses are likely to continue to play themselves out, so long as the moderate, intelligent, modest, and penetratingly relevant voices of those who pursue their own spiritual pilgrimage (in all faith communities) without engaging in the life of the body politic.

The binary, either or, just like the Manichean black/white, is not a pattern of language that can or will lead a culture to the more nebulous, and more nuanced and more insightful fine print of how we might come together for the greater consideration of the public good. And, the millions of missing voices, all of them balanced, insightful, sensitive and mature, will find the public arena distasteful so long as the extremes are screaming or mute.