Tuesday, April 27, 2021

American idols and idolatry #2

…There is a deeply embedded notion, a concept of humanity’s fallenness at the heart of the generation of idols.  As objective symbols, they have been carried by various tribes and peoples, as part of their legacy, whenever they were forced to move. Even the Tower of Babel was allegedly built by King Nimrod, as a counter-punch to god threat to flood the lands, on the premise that the tower’s height would outstrip the level of the waters….and when the people scattered, they took their idols with them.

Civilizations from the “Aztecs, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Sumerians, Norse, Celts and even American Indians all believed in their individual gods and deities and worshipped them, also by carving amulets and even statutes to honour them. They would make sacrifices in their god’s name in order to appease them in hopes of being blessed.”(from whatdoeshistorysay.blogspot.com)

The word idol comes from the Greek word eidolon meaning ‘appearance, reflection in water or in a mirror.’…Fashioning and then worshipping metal, stone, and wooden gods and trying desperately, unthinkingly to imbue feelings and sensory organs into the metal, stone and wood, pagans had/will become like the statues they created Christians were targeted and martyred by the Roman State because they pointed out the futility, folly and falsity of paganism with its mute, blind, deaf pieces of wood, stone and metal. ‘We become what we behold.’ (Willian Blake)” (Pagan Idols, by Sandra Sweeny Silver, in earlychurchhistory.org)

A twenty-first century perspective, however, need not and must not restrict idols to mere pieces of wood, stone or metal. And while for some, idols, images, and even saints were unacceptable and in some quarters purged in the Middle Ages, history/humanity has a way of re-cycling cultural icons, archetypes and representations for whatever is considered to be verging on the holy. Whether such exercises throughout history can be considered man’s method of assuaging shame and guilt, while worthy of much scholarship, is nevertheless less the focus of this moment. Whenever there has been a significant moment, like the printing press, or the industrial revolution, or more recently the digital age, humans, (including and perhaps even championed by the Americans) tend to elevate such “things” and/or processes to a status that has been and continues to rival a deity.

A twentieth century anthropologists, Lionel Tiger, in his fascinating work, The Manufacture of Evil, writes:

The old assertion about justice is that it not only be done but that it be seen to be done. This is the stuff of the great courtroom dramas. It fuels mystery stories and cowboy films with good guys and bad ones. The essence of the matter is that evil, once committed, has to be identified, its perpetrator uncovered, tried openly, judged and punished….(and) it is all highly satisfying emotionally. And why should it satisfy?...What we now regard as “emotional response” is not more nor less than an evolutionary memory. The reflection of countless similar events which have happened before and which have had impact on who we though was good, who bad, who desirable, who an outcast, who an outlaw, who an in-law. If, in the beginning (and really for the longest time), ethics and kinship were related, then all the emotionality associated with family courtships, reproductions, parenthood, and so on would also enter into calculations of a wider sort later on, even in those larger and more contemporary structures in which family and polity are separated. ….About the enemies of morality there is a deep emotional interest too, in the outlaw, either putatively provident such as Robin Hood, or gratuitously antisocial, such as the great murderous Jack the Rippers Sons of Sam, Boston Stranglers. It seems clear that their wide appeal taps an emotional system connected to those feeding all the love stories of the whole world…..Justice must not only be seen to be done but people will try to see it being done, even when they are not involved. With more information and a wiser eye, we can see it as in continuity with the past. Yet in how many law schools are courses given about the relationship between equity and emotion? Are lawyers trained to understand the phylogeny of probity? Are they provided any appropriate information about the possible role of justice in early formative hominid societies?...When the goddess holding the scales of justice sports her blindfold, is she suggesting more than that she seeks to be impartial? Like a child who covers his face and assumed he is not seen, is the goddess of justice (one of America’s prime idols, my insert) assuming that we can’s see her inner turmoil, her concern about death, her fear of favor, and even her passion for justice? If not this, what is the goddess of justice hiding or revealing wither blindfold? The obvious point is: she operates without fear or favor. But then to do this, does she feel that she must not feel? Compare her to the three monkeys who perform the charade of “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,” who must abandon three sensory modalities to avoid what is bad. Why does  the goddess of justice have to lose even one modality in order to confront what is good and fight what is bad? And are not the symbols of justice---the enormous steps and porticos of the Supreme Court Building in the United States, ….plainly meant to reveal the impersonality and size of the institution of justice, not its sense of intimacy, of connection and scale? Obviously government buildings are made to impress, and they are big particularly when they reflect the self-conscious pride of large communities. They are effective. That shiver of awe, that sense of one’s own almost unimportance in the presence of such a structure, clearly work through cognitive, almost visceral stimuli, which say, “ I am so small I am to see this as a system which operates without the confusions of private pettiness. I am as important as anybody else to this building and what it means—and as unimportant. When the judge sits up high and I stand down low and must say, ‘Yes your Honor.’ And “No your Honor,’ and look at the judge to affirm the honesty of my reply, this is how I felt when my parents said, ‘Now you look at me, you look me straight in the eye,’ when I had done something punishable.” There is perhaps deliberate confusion there between the almost hypnotic impersonality of buildings and rooms larger than all but mythical life, and the use of relatively primitive responses to authority. A confusion which may require a cadre of practitioners called lawyers who are themselves uninvolved in any but a finite and technical way. Perhaps lawyers should be able to remain physiologically, that is emotionally, unperturbed (other things being equal) by the processes of the court and the events of the law’s activity—surgeons of social pathology, with surgeons’ remove.(P. 45-46-47-48)

There are so many layers to Tiger’s incisive and cogent observation and questions. The size, shape and distance from the pathology of humans to the “edifice” (idol) of the justice system, and the rendering of the criminal to a ‘child’ or even an infant, is the one most prominent and relevant here. Infantilizing of mature, intelligent, self-respecting adults, whether in court, or in church, or in the academe, or as movie-goers, or as factory workers when looking at the CEO’s office, stipend, perks, and apparent untouchability, symbolizes an embedded structure, form and attitude of nothing short of colonization, within the nation. And while the public debates are all aimed at the specific minorities (blacks, browns, Asians, indigenous) whose rights, dignity, health care, education, and basic human respect have been trampelled for centuries, by primarily white men, the basic structure of the preservation of the idols worshipped by those originally in power is so insidious, and yet so imperceptible, that literally no formal or informal discussion takes place on that level.

Another aspect of the idols of colonization is that proverbial “ladder” of tenure, seniority, proving one’s self, demonstrating to those at the top that they, all 'newcomers' are both willing and able to accept, tolerate, withstand, undergo, stomach whatever nefarious, despicable, insulting, demeaning and deplorable conditions that the institution/organization/power structure imposes by absolute right. The idol of a structure, thereby, is reinforced, embedded and sustained by those who consider themselves charged with the responsibility of "tradition" and "normality and convention, and, of course, the public 'good'. Of course, athletes and the occasional ‘star’ actor will emerge like an underground spring to the top of the public adulation ladder, only, in far too many cases, to slip into oblivion too soon. Nevertheless, the culture of an imprinted, anthropologically discernible, indelible and unchallenged image of the “idol” of success continues to pervade the culture. Like all magnets with polarities, there are also filings (ordinary people) whose magnetic poles are contrary to the polarity designed to attract the ‘best and the brightest’ who will never comply with that magnetic force, and, to a large extent, those will be the ones deemed “undesireable”.

Idols, and the supporting casts of centuries of hierarchically motivated, compliant, ‘clones’ that perpetuate their near sacred status and value, threaten the civic health and well-being as much or more than the current pandemic. And in some cases, the sacred and the secular have become fused in the public vernacular. One such example is the American persistent habit of calling the “vote” sacred. Of course, the phrase is meant metaphorically, in that the vote is not directly applicable to worship of any deity. However, even to call it sacred, especially when the right to its access, and the doubt and scepticism that has been cast by the former president on the voting system, comes relatively easily, if not even glibly, as a way to counter his betrayal of the democratic process. However, the public ideal of the complete separation of church and state, falls into the trash heap when the advocates of the “right to life” demand that government intervene to render abortion criminal, illegal and inaccessible. And the pursuit of that ideal, to those fanatically opposed to abortion, is analogous to the pursuit of an idol. There is a quality of worship there, presumably carried over from the religious mandate of their agenda. The ‘sacred’ halls of Congress,* too, is another example of idolatry, evoked superfluously, immediately following an insurrection on its buildings and the political class. There may even have been prayers of consecration said inside the buildings, by some ordained clergy, at one time. Nevertheless, the dogma of strict separation of church and state echoes as hollow, in such a moment. And the argument of grief, shock and discombobulation, normal at a time of extreme loss, especially perpetrated by ‘insiders’ (Americans on their own government) permits a degree of grace to those attempting to capture the nation’s anger, sadness, tragedy and hopelessness.

Ironically, however, there is legitimacy to the notion that the very linguistic, historic, cultural and even anthropological foundations of the nation, in which the escape from the idolatry of escaping the rule by the ‘divine right of kings’ (another obvious idolatry) has led, tragically to an assumption of a depth and degree of idolatry far less contained, far less visible, far less overt and conscious, and thereby far more insidious. 

In fact, when any state has subsumed the secular and the sacred, as idols and idolatry inevitable do, the secular effectively replaces the sacred. After all, the rewards of the secular are far more immediate than the ‘rewards of the sacred; they are also far more visible and visceral, and they are far more easily and readily symbolized when the image-makers for the advertising agencies and the clients they represent are furiously engaged 24-7-365 in the pursuit of even more seductive messages that reinforce the fundamental idols and the idolatry in which every school boy and girl has been inculcated. Even the idol of the perfect female body, a construction and a design of a sub-set of white men colonizers, based both on the guaranteed pursuit of attracting others in its deployment and the guaranteed profits from such design and propagation, can and should be considered another prominent American idol, in the cultural archives.

There will never be a culture devoid of idols, so long as humanity survives. There can be, however, a far more healthy version of a culture, far less infatuated and perhaps even seduced by the notion of its unconscious dependence on idols and the erosion in both national values and in human respectability that inevitably flows from such dependence. Those charged with the goal of sustaining the relevance of the sacred, in all ecclesial bodies, can be painted, legitimately, with a brush that, on one hand depicts their having overplayed their hand in making most sexual relationships evil, and on the other hand in having pandered to the stylistic demands of an obsessive-compulsive secular culture for immediate entertainment as a surrogate for worship. The latter pandering comes as a direct consequence of the inevitable influence of wealth to fund better cathedrals (another form of social and cultural idol elevating their clergy to the top of another ladder), and more religious idols.

And the windmills of our minds go round and round and round…. 

*Those insurrectionists, on January 6, 2021, paradoxically, uttered prayers to their God, as if to express a misguided belief that their deity was endorsing their evil. Has God not perhaps become an idol, for those terrorists? 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Can the Americans excise, or even acknowledge, the idol of idolatry?

Sometimes, a second look at a word, practice and theme in a very old culture can offer insight into some of the energetic vibrations today.

Almost extinct from contemporary vernacular is the word, idolatry….according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “In Judaism and Christianity, the worship of someone of something other than God, as though it were God. …Gross of overt, idolatry consists of explicit acts of reverence addressed to a person or an object—the sun, the king, an animal, a statue. This may exist alongside the acknowledgement of a supreme being: e.g. Israel worshipped the golden calf, at the foot of Mount Sinai, where it had encamped to receive the Law and the covenant on the one true God….A person becomes guilty of a more subtle idolatry, however, when, although overt acts of adoration are avoided, he attaches to a creature the confidence, loyalty, and devotion that properly belong only to the Creator. Thus, the nation is a good creature of God, but it is to be loved and served with an affection appropriate to it, not with the ultimate devotion that must be reserved for the Lord of all nations. Even true doctrine (e.g. true doctrine about idolatry) may become an idol if it fails to point beyond itself to God alone.” (from Britannica.com)

Without sliding into the theological ‘weeds’ about whether or not mediation between God and humans is or can be ascribed to, for example, the Virgin Mary, let us consider the slight, if not more explicit, notion that even the contemporary church could be faulted for, at least from the outside, elevating bishops and popes to a position evoking, if not actually incarnating idolatry. Prostrating oneself at the foot of a bishop, as a required act in the liturgy that ordains one to the priesthood, for example, is, by inference if not actually by expectation, an act of submission, (of course, symbolically to God, through the Bishop) that reverences the position at the top of the ecclesial hierarchy. From the website, desiringGod.org, John Piper, writes: “Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it is starting to feel like a right, and out delight is becoming a demand.”

Clearly, we live in a western, and especially a North American culture in which ‘right’s have become something very close to sacred. Have they become idols? And the pathway that has led much contemporary thought, reflection and discussion to that point is the interjection of “law” as the intersection of an individual’s safety, security and freedom, with the state’s need to oversee, monitor, sanction and exercise responsibility for what is deemed to be the “good of the whole”. And while there is a ready and accessible understanding of something that is “elevated” and while there are multiple examples of things and persons whom a culture holds in high esteem, even erecting statues to them, the convergence of the importance of the “law” and the much mor subtle and almost unconscious linking of  the law to what citizens consider sacred, is, in any society regardless of the demographics of a dominant religion.

It is now part of the daily news feed from the U.S. that includes the eulogies of Rev. Al Sharpton for too many slain black men, too often by white law enforcement officers, in which Rev. Sharpton, a half-century, disciplined, and dedicated soldier of the civil rights movement in the U.S., president of the National Action League, declares his ultimate goal to have legislation passed that will take a substantial bite out of the deeply embedded racial hatred that so strangles many of the hopes and dreams, not only of individuals and families, but also of the nation as a whole. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted by many southern states after the Civil War, including literary tests as a prerequisite to voting. The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019 establishes a targeted process for reviewing voting changes in jurisdictions nationwide, focused on measure that have been used to discriminate against voters. Also in 2019, a bill known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, passed the House of Representatives, (228-187) (waiting Senate approval). This bill would restore and strengthen parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, certain portions of which were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013; it would bring back the Voting Rights Act of 1965’s requirement that certain states pre=clear certain changes to their voting laws with the federal government.

Without in anyway denigrating the somewhat poetic and certainly passionate and even sacred commitment of Rev. Sharpton and his colleagues to racial equality, justice and fair treatment on the streets, and in the schools, churches and business and government institutions, to an outsider, albeit an interested one, it seems that this issue of racial equality and justice is, like a slippery gram of mercury sliding in and out of favour among both groups of citizens, political parties, and even the courts, with people like Rev. Sharpton, and before him Martin Luther King, Jessie Jackson, John Lewis, and many others, heroically chasing this talisman at the heart of the American culture, without much hope of wrestling it to ground.

It is not that such heroic initiatives, studies, the doctoral theses, political punditry and debates, including the passing of laws, are without value. It is certainly not without honour and conviction and commitment and humility and modesty on the part of civil rights activists and their leaders that the United States has been suffering from the cancer of racism for 400 years. Some 600,000 Americans were slain in the Civil War, and in 2019, for example, according to statistica.com, 6,446 black men were murder victims in the United States. Over the past several weeks, some 47 states have introduced legislation that would restrict access to voting to minority voters, (mainly black and brown), and the rampant abuse of the power of white law enforcement against black men has garnered headlines and a heightened consciousness around the world, even embarrassment, as viewed by the current president, Joe Biden, of the state of the American society.

It is both trite and tragic to note that laws, in and through their composition, political debate and in their prosecution in the courts, have not resolved the fundamental hatred that has infested the American body politic. Whether it has also infected the American soul, is open to legitimate and vigorous debate. An observer from another planet or country could, upon visiting the United States for the first time, observe with reasonable justification and legitimacy, that, having dedicated, perhaps even come to the place of idolizing “LAWS,” as a “nation of laws” and expected those laws to eradicate all the stain of racial animus, hate, bigotry, fear and what is an inordinate need for power over, that such devotion, adoration, and even approximate worship of those laws, is a path no longer worthy of a self-respecting, self-honouring, and self-proclaiming society and culture.

There are so many layers to the elevation of the military to the status of an idol, both as an establishment and as a self-sustaining religion that merit unpacking. Start with the national belief of the “special” status of the nation itself and its people, and the long-standing sacralizing of the military establishment, (depicted only as defence, yet belying that notion by inserting itself into multiple conflicts. Then there is the elevation of multiple heroic figures in so many fields of endeavour, beginning with the elevation of military service, and elevating to even higher heights of what some might consider idolatry, the sacrifice of those 600,000 in the civil war, and the hundreds of thousands in both world wars, the Korean War, the Afghan and Iraq wars, and the whole military establishment, in both social and culture uniforms, medals, national budgets that far outstrip the risk and the danger to the homeland, only misperceived and misrepresented as an existential threat to the nation. The rationale behind this national myth has taken root in the culture perhaps in order to provide political justification for decisions by legislators most of whom have an insatiable appetite for the bases, the military academies, the military equipment manufacturers, available through the earmarks that have been barnacled to annual budgets for generations.

Enhancing, and thereby embedded in the culture of pre-eminence, itself an American idol, self-defined in the first instance because it was the Americans who threw off the British monarchy under the battle cry, “No Taxation without representation”….and maintained and enhanced through all of the many, albeit worthy and recognized and trumpeted by the American political, cultural and even emotional mind-set, that eventually became corrupted by the very supremacy it believed it had achieved. You see, it is not only individuals who have supreme power that can be and are corrupted by that power; it is also nations themselves, that, with the steroid-based encouragement, rhetoric, pork-barrelling, and an entertainment that continually casts up on the nation’s screens, heroes of the wild west, including the anti-heroes, both of whom, in various demographics, have their hero-worshippers. Even Al Capone, the celebrated gangster, has his American hero-worshippers, all of whom presumably recognize the sinister, devious and dark activities of his way of living.

Having however generated a culture that not only thrives on, but has an insatiable need for the epic, whose proportions attach themselves to individuals, especially men, schooled in the annals of Greek and Roman History, supplemented by those of British and French heroism, it is no accident that “everything is (and has to be) bigger in Texas, the epitome of American idolatry. Not only as an aside, but it is not co-incidental that the Dallas Cowboys are rendered “America’s team” in the vernacular of
American sport. Being the best, knowing one is a member of the cast of the best nation in the world, and whether consciously or not, growing and developing in a culture that imbues its young with those expectations, as the dreams of each and every parent, is, without doubt, inculcating the very young with pressures, expectations, dreams and a predictable anxiety, insecurity and insufficiency in far more young people than sociologists have yet to document. The American way, rather than prevent such a cultural entrapment, is, ironically, to generate the largest and most expensive and also most tragic (in terms of human loss and deprivation) incarceration system for all those men and women whose lives could not and did not live up to such unrealistic fantasies.

And, to corroborate that approach, by hiding all of those “lesser” human beings behind bars, thousands for merely a pittance of a crime, is only more evidence of the idolatry of the perfect image that has and continues to grip the American psyche in a national self-sabotage from which the only path out of the conundrum, is to have a public, long-lasting, full-throated, and authentic historic period of catharsis, a cleansing of the hubris, the idolatry, that has gripped too many generations, permitting only a small percentage to rise to the top, only then to be so epically celebrated as to render even those men and women into mere Hollywood papier-mache figures….heroic in the eyes of the nations’ adolescents, and in many cases, hollowed out by the inordinate pressures of that idolatry.

Rev. Sharpton noted that there were air fresheners in the vehicle of Daunte Wright’s car, when he was shot, and that Sharpton and the lawyers and the supporting cast of hundreds had come to Minnesota to “freshen” the air from the stench of racism that prevails. On that note, the congregation applauded, as they did when he derided the law enforcement officers who arrested George Floyd, for having an outdated sticker on his vehicle. Calling for justice, new laws, a reformed law enforcement culture, training, staffing, accountable and transparent, in a nation in which the truth has already been sacrificed to the ravages of a cultural, wealth, educational, and opportunity divide that divide itself is so dependent on a culture that has created it, seems, from this vantage point, to be like John The Baptist, quoting from the Book of Isaiah, expressing a highly unpopular idea, a voice crying in the wilderness, (in John’s case, exhorting the people to prepare the way of the Lord). Today, a voice crying in the wilderness is a voice telling people about the dangers in an important situation or the truth about it, but nobody is paying any attention.

In a culture that has elevated power, money, social status and superiority, including supremacy and supremacists, even to the street status of tolerable, it is time to take down the idol of idolatry that has infused itself into the very heart, mind and soul of the American nation. Air fresheners, and “tagging” the law enforcement culture in Minnesota as racist, (while the Attorney General has announced a complete and critical review of the policies and practices of the law enforcement establishment of that state) are like batting locusts from the savannahs in Africa, with a single hand.

It is the culture of idolatry, the multiple, various, demographic, and even ethnocentric idolatries, that have become embedded, like a national tumor, right in the heart of the nation that demands removal. And, there are no laboratories, and no sanctuaries, and no academes, and no courts that have either the power or the consciousness needed for that cartharsis.

It will have to be left to the poets, the playwrights, the composers, the novelists to depict the American national demise, in order for the nation to come to its senses, to moderate its expectations, and to bring its national feet back to the ground on which all of those battles, and street gang fights, and those insidious power-tripping murders of the innocents have been enacted.

And, even then, will anybody be paying attention? 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Silence from the masses is not consent to the abuse of power by the "1%"

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a prophetic insight in these words:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.

But the line dividing good from evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

Universality, however, is neither a justification for the torrent of evil acts flooding the screens and the front pages, nor it is an explanation. It is merely an acute, and searingly accurate truth! Unlike physics, through which and in which highly intelligent researchers continue to probe its depths, evil and both its opposite and its many corollaries continue, almost like a vacuum, to draw into its orbit, psychological, theological, criminal, medical, legal and sociological scholars, readers and engaged persons from every culture. No matter how much money, nor how many doctoral theses, are thrown at, or birthed from, the study of evil, we continue to struggle as if, somehow, those demons that have plagued humans from the beginning are alive and well, and feasting on the current crop of human psyches, souls, bodies and nations.

Myannmar, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine (as Russian troops engage in a build-up on the eastern border), labour unions fighting their own members (OPSEU in Ontario), Canadian Green party executives undermining the new leadership of Annamie Paul, a proud black Jewish woman of laudable accomplishments and values, police violence against arguably innocent black men in too many American cities, while a court case against one passes to the jury in Minneapolis…Whether the situation poses a single person (or a team of two) attempting to arrest another single person, or a military attempting a coup to overturn a democracy, or a proxy war between two intransigent enemies (Iran and Saudi Arabia, in Yemen), or a school-yard bully bludgeoning the frail psyche of an adolescent peer, too many situations are sucking the life force out of tribes, families, cities, and political and cultural leaders.

From a distance, some are able and ever so willing to hide behind the anonymity of a militia, or of an internet, or of a ‘systemic racism’ diagnosis that infects all institutions levelling their hate for the “other” as either normal or an act or attitude for which no one needs to accept responsibility. With the demise of “shame” as a cultural value, (even among despicable men like Congressman Gaetz, former president trump, and even “respectable” men like Senators McConnell, Graham, Cruz and Hawley), how can we not come to accept (not tolerate) but accept that others, like power-hungry dictators, highly neurotic despots, or even macho boys and men will find psychological and perhaps even ethical cover for acts of hate, many of them never before even contemplated. We are left with a social, political and cultural (as well as economic, cyber, and even military) playing field, in which ever formally designated referees no longer appear to warrant or to maintain the respect of their “players”.

It may seem to some a miniscule, insignificant and innocuous notation that referees have become ghost-like. And yet, the United Nations, the WHO, the ILO, even NATO, and EOCD, as well as the International Criminal Court, all seem to lack either the jurisdictional and legal framework to exert muscle in the discharge of their responsibility. And weren’t such institutions established as agreed upon and consented to “international referees” in order to attempt what appears to be a quixotic Sysiphean* charge to level the playing field, making it more fair, more just, more trust-worthy and thereby more reliable and sustainable. And as the moral injunction of the Sisyphus story contends, that we must never give up, no matter what circumstances beset our path, there continue to be those who subscribe to a commitment and a conviction that “we can do better” both as human beings and as towns, cities, health departments, hospitals, provinces/states, and even nations.

There is another aspect to the notion of detachment (in addition to both physical distance, and digital distance, and the separation from the enemy of a general directing battle-field manoeuvres from a clinical, perhaps sub-terranean bunker, or an officer carrying out those orders from another desk, in front of a laptop). And that is the distance, the separation, and perhaps even the alienation of our private personal existence from the notion of a god, or the notion of a higher set of ideals, ethical principles, moral expectations, and the expectations of a community, even one in which we work or reside. Rules, laws, and the enforcement of those boundaries, are the prime vehicle for the embodiment of those expectations, boundaries, conformities, and compliances. And while there is a little-expressed notion that no unjust law needs compliance, there is a far more potent implication in the separation from those who have “written” or passed, or “enforce” those laws, from the individuals, or groups, or nations upon whom or which those laws apply. History is replete with the stories of people “under” rules finding their voice, their support, their courage and their means to confront the perceived injustice of those laws/rules, and especially the manner in and through which those laws/rules have been administered, adjudicated, interpreted. These protests have in many cases resulted in amendments, over-turnings, trimming, or even re-interpretations depending on the persuasive impact of the compound evidence on those in positions to effect change.

The river that runs sometimes underground, sometimes emerging to our conscious awareness, that continues to energize the tension between those in power and those over whom those in power attempt to rule, is one overflowing with the too-often-unacknowledged insecurity of those in power. Slaves built pyramids to their rulers, in ancient times. Asian slaves built railroads in Canada. Black slaves built the economy, not to mention also the White House, of the United States. Racially repugnant Jews (to the Third Reich) were sacrificial lambs to the empty ego of the Fuhrer, as were hundreds of thousands of both allies and enemies of that same Fuhrer. The capacity and the willingness to acknowledge fear and insecurity by those perched, nervously and temporarily, and certainly transitorily on the top of political, military, ecclesial, or institutional pyramids of power and influence is one of the most under-reported, under-documented, and under-researched features of the civilized nations of the world. And in the developing world, those models of denied and dismissed neurosis among leaders, serves only to embolden others perhaps new to the game of governing.

And then there is the notion of “repugnancy” of some individuals and/or groups to every human being. Whether stemming from early life experiences of family, community, school, or workplaces, many of these “repugnancies” are deeply embedded in the cultural psyche of both individuals and groups who consider such denigration necessary to their safety, security, and even prosperity.

What is it that makes another “repugnant” anyway? Start with those incidental off-hand comments from a parent or a teacher, doctor, preacher, that show contempt for some individual (e.g. an alcoholic, an unwed mother, a poor student, a co-worker who does not understand or accept the rule of a boss, the son or daughter of an ‘irresponsible’ parent….the list is endless) Moral, social, perhaps even intellectual, and certainly fiscal “superiority” lies inside each of these off-hand remarks….and that superiority, itself, is another indication of insecurity. To be sure, the superiority is cloked in a mask of “encouragement” or of “motivation” of the other. ‘I was just trying to bring out the best in him/her, when I criticized and put him/her down.’ “What are you going to be when you grow up?” is a question that, depending on the speaker and his/her relationship to the young person, can be an invitation to explore options, or perhaps a scornfully interpreted, ‘s/he thinks I am not growing up fast enough’. Power, like acceptance, tolerance, respect, dignity, has a way of slipping almost imperceptibly across the table of a café, between friends or colleagues. And, like an elixir, the gold pursued by prospectors in the Klondike, any opportunity to “feel” power, in whatever form it happens to take at the moment, (better student, better athlete, better sex-object, better social status, better family heritage, better religious affiliation, better moral code, even something as basic as “better-looking” and/or its opposite, ‘fat, ugly, blind, awkward, or worse, handicapped, or disadvantaged,) draws millions of every ethnicity, religion, geography and education onward, outward and into a discipline to pursue one’s own image of one’s own assumption of power.

After all, only with power, it seems, comes a degree of respect, especially from those who, themselves, have already perched themselves near the top of the social totem pole. Power, at the most basic level, begets power, and the pursuit of power. And the pursuit of that power is the perceived “drug” that has a permanent hold on the hearts and minds of those who currently hold it, irrespective of the locus of their power and influence.

The other side of power, its capacity and certainty to corrupt, is a rare nugget of consciousness, and certainly of conscience, among the contemporary political class. Having to ‘put on a face to meet the faces that we meet’ (to borrow from T.S. Eliot) is not merely a way to ‘dress for the occasion’. It has become a defining principle of most people in positions of leadership, given the compound high expectation of perfection on their shoulders, and the equally potent risk of a single, even minor, mistake…failure, ‘excommunication’ not necessarily from the church, but certainly from the office, and inevitably also from the social connections of the office. We are living in a culture in which the appearance of perfection, especially from individuals in high office, is considered the sine quo non. Nothing less is acceptable. And we have developed a full quiver of arrows with which to ‘slay’ those leaders at the moment ‘we’ (whoever comprises the effective, potent and ambitious, and perhaps even vengeful “we”) deem it necessary.

Unwilling as we are to look at our own responsibility, including our imperfections, and our capacity to ‘screw-up’ even given the best of intentions, and also our shared unwillingness (or incapacity) to tolerate, to forgive, and to attempt to reconcile, even with those who have profoundly failed us, whether they are family members, or public servants who have failed to live up to the letter of whatever code operates in their workspace. Litigious, dismissive, filled with hubris, unwilling to share responsibility even when the situation clearly requires a much more complex and comprehensive analysis than one that effectively “terminates” an available target, we risk having our own “penchant for revenge” turned on us without notice, and certainly with impunity.

Elevating power and influence to a miniscule class of people, in every theatre, only exacerbates and grows the number of individuals who ‘serve’ (and suffer) under that kind of structural mandate. And, just as in income disparity, with the top 1% having a disproportionate amount of a nation’s wealth, (and influence), so too the number of dispossessed, (without power and influence) grows.

Can it not also be obvious to that 1% that the other 99% will not accept the perceived and actual powerlessness that is being imposed, often imperceptibly and surreptitiously, through shifts in the expectations of those at the bottom of the social pyramid imposed by those at the top.

And that kind of abuse of power cuts across gender, race, ethnicity, age and income levels, with impunity, so long as we at the bottom remain silent.

Silence, in this case, is not consent; nor is silence bigotry, or hate. The survival of the 99% is at stake…and our silence serves only to incarnate our complicity! 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Let's quit putting band-aids on social cancers

Can we finally try something different from a ‘medical-legal’ model of social intervention in our approach to race relations? Symptom attack, through such proposals as background checks, elimination of assault rifles, defunding or re-prioritizing the funding of police forces, hiring more law enforcement officers that are representative of the community in which they work, better training in how to de-escalate tense conflict situations….these are all worthy steps; yet even taken together they will not do more than slightly change the direction of the spike in racially motivated assaults, deaths, murders and protests.

We are living in a world in which the economic system, nationally and globally, serves those with money, power and political influence. It does not serve ordinary people, and actually operates in a counter-intuitive manner to supporting the very most endangered populations on every continent. Several decades ago, Canadian biologist, environmentalist and public educator and thought leader, David Suzuki, told anyone who was listening that the economic system should be the servant of the people, not the other way round. That cornerstone piece of both logic and social and ethical political policy seems not to have filtered its way into the brains, the consciences and the heart-minds of those in power, whether they are in government or the corporate or the academic/think-tank sectors. To be sure, to tip that pyramid of granite “tradition” and accepted convention on its ear is a task no government seems prepared to consider. After all, those in power are put there and sustained there by others who, themselves, consider their ‘right’ to be rewarded for their support a “given” not to be tampered with. And those in office, in too many places, are so silently and covertly in some cases, dependent on those “flush” donors that they know their hold on power relies on their defiance of any attempt to shave even a sliver of influence from their benefactors.

It is not, however, only the economic system, designed and operated for the benefit of the top 1%, that plays a role in generating strata in any society. Within the power elite, there are other markers, symbols, of power and influence, to which that top 1% believes it is entitled, that segregate them from the ‘others’ many of whom they tolerate publicly in order to continue to operate the levers of power and influence, while at the same time, secretly (possibly even to themselves) they harbour negative sentiments to people who ‘still have to learn to pick themselves up by their bootstraps’ or who belong to a ‘perverse’ religious group, or whose ethnic and cultural history does not conform with that of those in power, or who speak a language that is different from that of the power elite, or who are newcomers into the ‘fiefdom’ of the power structure….and thereby merit excruciating and scrupulous scepticism, cynicism, doubt, and even fear. Of course, the public attitudes, behaviours and transactional engagements of most provide a persistent, reliable and impenetrable camouflage of “respectability” and “decency” and “tolerance” for those for whom contempt or at least insouciant detachment in the operative modus operandi. Our conventional vernacular rarely speaks of a ‘modus operandi’ in reference to the way individuals comport themselves; the phrase is reserved primarily for the ‘establishment’ and the social scientists, and the political operatives both theorists and elected officials. Cars, clubs, social and athletic activities, travel, dining establishments, fashion ‘names’ on wardrobes of male and/or female attire, theatre, even church memberships, as a complementing counterpoint to “power” and the status, privilege and ‘right’ (sometimes inherited, sometimes purchased, sometimes rewarded through awards and acts of public notice and value, sometimes built through the deeply ingrained and programmed steps and patterns to “success”).

And what is horrific, despicable, dishonourable and even contemptible is that, in order for such a ‘demographic’ of elitism, regardless of the arena in which it functions, there is another layer of varying sycophants who aspire to the top, or who believe, quite reasonably and correctly, that their best way to operate whether it is in middle management, or whether it is on the factory floor, or even in the public or private school classroom, is to ‘shut your mouth’ and ‘do your job’ without uttering so much as a disagreement about decisions, including policy decisions or worse, personnel decisions, that are taken by those ‘in charge’. The system finds clones of those who have gone before, those whom those in power consider worthy of ‘annointing’ with some form of stamp of approval, whom they will then ‘invite’ into their psychic and political and perhaps even religious ‘inner sanctum’ as if such an invitation were the very approval many were actually seeking, desiring or perhaps needing.

The assumptions made by those in power, no matter what the organization, or the political jurisdiction, from the local fall fair, to the local music festival, to the local diocese, to the local school, to the local school board, to the local council, to the provincial/state legislature, or even the national government….these ‘rules’ apply. Some would, and do, argue that learning the ‘rules’ is the best way to advancement; after all, their argument goes, the only way this ‘organization’ has come into being, and continued to succeed, was by having people loyal to the way we do things, so that success was the mother and father of future success. 

And one of the pillars of the consciousness, (and likely even the consciences) of the ‘people in power’ is that change is an enemy, or at least a risky element to the smooth, predictable and thereby reliable and responsible functioning of this “thing” whatever the thing is. Naturally then, someone who has a different idea, or a different linguistic accent, or a different skin colour, or a different faith, or a different biography, lineage, heritage, (especially one who is considered to have ‘no lineage or heritage’ and thus does not come from an “established family” is considered an outsider, from the very first instance of the entry of such a person into that ‘thing’.

These layers of perceptions, attitudes, and even beliefs are seeded very early in each and every community, likely as a predictable global pattern. And while commonalty of diet, of language, of activities, of beliefs and of dominant archetypes, serves a legitimate purpose in unifying groups, the feasibility of becoming fossilized, armoured, and even worse weaponizing these ‘commonalities’ can and often does serve as a barrier between groups and between individuals. Fear of the other with whom we are not familiar is a constant tree that grows in each and every forest of people around the globe.

Of course, there are initiatives to begin to bridge some of the chasms of belief and attitude, many of which struggle for meaningful and sustainable evidence of success. One example is the World Council of Churches, head officed in Switzerland, with some 350 member churches representing more than half a billion Christians around the world. Obviously, Jews and Muslims and Atheists, even agnostics are not engaged in formal membership. Ideals of peace and justice, from a Christian perspective, are undoubtedly worthy aspirations. However, for example, the Roman Catholic Church is not a member, although it sends delegates as observers. So, even among the Christian community, the church that considers itself the primary expression of the Christian faith is not a member. There is no intent to denigrate either the Roman Catholic church or the WCC here; however, we are merely attempting to parse some of the many variables that contribute to the assignment, both formal and informal, both open and secret, of “insider” (and welcome) and “outsider” (unwelcome) to both people and organizations even those with the highest of aspirations.

In fact, there is a legitimate and tragic case to be made that the church, irrespective of denomination or even faith dogma, aspiring essentially to be a voice for harmony and peace among and between human beings, paradoxically, too often serves as a toxic, malignant and offensive device within communities, between communities, and certainly between various factions of belief in a deity. Rarely, if ever, does this fundamental paradoxical reality and truth get mentioned in public discussion of issues that divide communities. Whether the church itself, in all of its many faces and iterations, denominations and sects, dogmas and traditions, is an agent of division and conflict, per se, can be argued vehemently on both sides. Suffice it to say that its influence cannot be ignored, denied, or dismissed, if and when a society and a culture is attempting to confront blatant acts of hate, whether or not they are motivated by race, religion, ethnicity or economic status. . Secret societies like the Masonic Order, too, while attempting their own version of the Christian faith, while they may serve some immediate social need, nevertheless serve as a divisive, yet almost invisible, force in how a culture conducts itself. For example, stories abound in Ontario history of how only “Lodge” members or family members of members were even considered for summer employment on public ventures like railroads, given that ‘insiders’ were (and are?) determined to preserve their ‘inside’ status.

Human development, however, while not exclusively a religious matter, is another aspect of the conflict in our contemporary culture. We are inculcated into the pursuit of various symbols of achievement, most of them based on competition of some sort from a very early age. Whether in sports, music, art, theatre, science, math or debate, we have instituted a culture in which competition is considered essential, and winning is the culmination of each competition. For many young people, not winning is in a word, unacceptable. Many of the attitudes, approaches, theories and practices of the highest performing practitioners in any field, are easily and often too readily emulated among children far too young to be expected to adapt to such rigour. Parents, too, share in the seemingly obsessive-compulsive need for their children to succeed. Just read the accounts of parents in the United States who have turned their whole family lives over to the pursuit of their child’s athletic success, including high-cost trainers, moving across the country to work with such trainers, and the highly publicized pursuit of each type A parent’s child’s acceptance into a ‘platinum’ university. (How many of those type A parents have worked toward the ‘trophy’ of a type A child?

Social stratification, based on whatever cluster of variables, depending on the culture, the community, the predominant faith, has existed from the beginning of recorded history, as has the pursuit of ‘success’ in any of its multiple forms and faces. Inarguably, that theme of human history has provided both positive and negative results, depending on the role of the winners and the losers in the recording of events. However, the down side of history, the side that has been the experience of by far the majority of the populations, has suffered from under-exposure in the archives, in the academe, in the account books, and in the study and appreciation of the impact on voiceless human beings of whatever power ‘trip’ whatever ‘establishment figure or group imposed.

Giving voice to the voiceless, therefore, goes way beyond listening to the minority in a moment in time, or even in the cliché of a several century pattern. Calling racism against blacks, for example, a legacy of some 400 hundred years of American history, while true, tends to gloss over the many ways in which that history has been ignored, perverted, or even justified by those, including many so-called Christians, for centuries.

When I listen to a retired law enforcement officer, this morning on MSNBC, exhort all listeners to examine critically our attitudes to race, and to power, as a way to begin to transform a country besieged by hate, by contempt, by fear and ignorance, honourable, yes, but somewhat inconsequential.

Having worked in schools, and in churches, and in journalism, I have not only witnessed contempt among professing Christians for others of their faith, I have experienced such contempt personally. And, to be sure, given my own capacity for seeing through the motives of others, I have expressed considerable disagreement, even defiance, of those who, for example, considered it their ‘right’ (likely in their mind, God-given) to decide for others how things were to operate, or who, for another example, deliberately morphed the church into a pale imitation of the for-profit corporate model.

So long as we continue to accept, to tolerate and to acquiesce in the face of the ubiquitous competitive, for-profit, transactional, zero-sum way to conduct public, religious educational and social affairs/business, we will continue to ensnare our culture in a self-sabotaging structure whose roots cannot and will not be burned out, unless and until we acknowledge our deep enmeshment in the very structures and processes that enable racism sexism, ageism, and the over-powering of the voiceless.

Maybe it is too much to hope that the churches themselves, might take stock of their own complicity in engendering hate, injustice, bigotry and violence. Even the old axiom, ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ had its roots in the Christian church, as did solitary confinement in prison originate from the Quaker religious movement.

Sad…and tragic!