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Friday, August 12, 2022

Moving from bromides to responsibility?

 Yesterday I listened as an apparently well-known television actor uttered the words that he said captured the essence of his many addresses to graduates from high schools and colleges: carpe diem. (“Seize the day!”)

Very noble, very Roman, and also, somewhat sadly, very North American.

“Youth is a wonderful thing. It is a shame it has to be wasted on the children” is a quote generally attributed to George Bernard Shaw and it has some useful and cogent guardrails for those giving commencement addresses to the youth.

There is a kind of flaccid and obvious ring to the carpe diem moniker. It has become so cliché, and while bearing a kernel of truth, nevertheless, ultimately falls far short of inspiring and challenging young minds. Indeed, it could be said that those defaulting to that theme invariably and inevitably fall victim to the co-dependent trap. Of course, the young graduates (now even as young as three or four in kindergarten) are over-flowing with relief, anticipation, expectation and an impatience to get the formal ceremonies over with and get on with the parties. Over the last couple of decades, the call to empowerment for women has been  another of the preferred themes selected by commencement speakers. Another in more military institutions has been the call to duty to serve the national interests of the respective country. Of course, ‘making a living’ and ‘chasing the brass ring’ has also resounded in the business schools, and over a more than half-century, that venue has also heard a chorus of enlightened management and leadership.

One of the more enlightened, courageous and creative leader on the modern world stage currently (since 2017) is Prime Minister of New Zealand. Jacinda Ardern called on graduates in Harvard’s Class of 2022 to pursue “genuine debate and dialogue” in order to protect democracy. (She) told graduates to ‘treat difference with empathy and kindness-those values that exist in the space between difference and division. We are richer for our difference, and poorer for our division. Through genuine debate and dialogue, through rebuilding trust in information and one another, through empathy- let us reclaim the space in between….(Warning against the role of disinformation, she went on “The time has come for social media companies and other online providers to recognize their power and to act on it. The issues we navigate as a society will only intensify. The disinformation will only increase. The pull into the comfort of our tribes will be magnified. But we have it within us to ensure that this doesn’t mean that we will fracture. (Pointing to the deadly terrorist attacks at two mosques in Christ Church New Zealand in 2019 she said)..We have the forums for online providers and social media companies to work on these issues alongside civil society and governments. Let’s start with transparency in how algorithmic processes work and the outcomes they deliver. But let’s finish with a shared approach to responsible algorithms-because the time has come. (from thecrimson.com May 26, 2022)

And while there are flecks of the carpe diem theme in her address, there are challenging and hopefully motivating connections between the kind of education and culture to which the grads have been exposed and with which they have been imbued and the wider world. She mined some of the more cogent warning signs that threaten to derail civilized debate around the world.

And, “in the Senior English Address titled ‘The Caged Bird Sings’, the first popularly elected Black male student body president in the history of the college-spoke about how the resilience of his enslaved ancestors encouraged him to speak out for those less advantaged. ‘We must see ourselves in those who are caged, (Noah A. Harris, 22) said. We must use our talents to help them, but most of all, we must be proximate enough to hear the tune of their song.

Before the spurning and the guffawing from the peanut-gallery on the right, incensed that Harvard would be the model chosen for this piece, let’s give credit where it is due. These addresses, both, in their specificity, and in their motivation from the speaker and then transmitted to their audience, are pieces not merely of sound rhetoric and scholarship; they are also ‘spot-on’ in their diagnosis of two of the most challenging mountains this graduating class, and all of us, currently face. And while the news media is focussed on the floods, the draughts, the fires, the mass shootings and killings, the war in Ukraine, and the Chinese war-games in the Taiwan Strait, and the threatened assassination of John Bolton and others by Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and the growing dangers of pandemic viruses…the graduation ceremony is and once again has been demonstrated to be, another opportunity to lay down markers of truth, reality and hurdles on which graduates, their parents and families, and the wider world might consider.

And it is the shared consideration, not only of the import of these remarks on the political and economic and academic leaders in our society, but on the bus drivers, the nurses, the civil servants and the teachers among us, that, by itself, has the potential to shape the construction of the social highway out of the hell demise (on so many levels) and into the potential of a shared consumption, recycling, re-using and re-creating, not only of the consumables we devour but more importantly the values, attitudes, perceptions and interactions we share both with biological humans and with our avatars from the algorithms.

There has been a stampede, for well over four decades, into the “wealth-pools” of the financial services sector, headed by many of the graduates of schools like Harvard, Yale and other Ivy League schools. And that stampede’s reverberations are still being heard and felt along the veins and the capillaries and the arteries in the towns and cities of the heartland. Holding an extrinsic brass ring, proverbially and theatrically imaged as a ‘pot of gold’ as the highest rung on the social, political and societal ladder of success, a la a Horatio Alger, author of young adult novels about impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security and comfort through good works, as seen in the ‘rags-to-riches’ stories and aided in the development of the Gilded Age, is no longer either appropriate nor tolerable.

The pursuit and the acquisition of personal wealth, as the core value of capitalism, has so morphed into a surrogate theology, that it can be said to have been fed an overdose of a cultural drug that emulated thalidomide. “Prescribed to many pregnant women in order to relieve pregnancy nausea, the drug caused irreversible damages to the fetus and thousand of children were born with severe congenital malformations. Many of them did not survive more than a few days after they were born.” (from thalidomide.ca, the website of the Thalidomide Victims of Canada)

Easing personal and societal pain, through some extrinsic, prescribed formula, whether of the chemical or the economic variety, is, nevertheless, is the life-blood of those opportunists who seek ‘instant gratification’ regardless of whom that gratification might impact or how. The energy that is required to over-see, to monitor, to inspect, and to devise and impose and then enforce regulations and controls on the production of all experimental ideas, including those from the chemists lab and also those from the investors vaults and boardrooms, all of them designed to inject steroids into the profit-motive, in both the shortest and the least expensive manner, is far less sexy and exciting than the inventor’s legends of small town garages. And, in the current political climate, those regulations, controls and guardrails that exist to protect us from the unfettered capitalism are too often considered to be restriction of personal freedom, and then inflated into historic cadences of a kind of autocracy and tyranny with which the world is all too familiar.

When we step back to examine the equation that pits

‘instant gratification’ plus release of physical/emotional pain plus available cash…we too often get a kind of seduction that we have seen from the tobacco industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and certainly the political establishment that relies on the cheques from those sectors. Inject into such an economy, the epic arsenal of the RNA, also funded by the right, and then produce theatre that is so addicted both to the audience’s appetite for sex, violence and instant heroism (really metaphors for the orgiastic), and then, without actually performing the excision and removal of the spine of those recipients of the political donations, to be replaced by the slick, cash-paved, propaganda-flooded highway to retaining power, and we have what we now face, a self-immolating democracy.

And, while forest fires of historic proportions are motivating leaders like the Governor of California, where the existential threat is in his and his constituents faces every moment of every day, such attitude and actions based on exigency have not filtered through the veil of denial, avoidance, prevarication, and irresponsibility in Washington, at least among Republican in the trump cult.

And those attitudes, conspiratorial addictions and dependencies, like the early pain of pregnant mothers, is fed the thalidomide of trump lies, trump delusions, and trump sycophants. It may feel like an easy, accessible and effective topical pain pill; however, it is far more toxic and dangerous than that pain-relieving pill in the 1960’s.

It is the need for relief from that pain, similar to the need for the elimination of the menstrual cycle (another marketing opportunity for pharma) and also similar to the perverted, distorted arguments for ‘stand your ground’ killings, and banned books that attempt to paint a real and honest picture of the nation’s slavery, racism and its implications (Critical Race Theory*).

Those exhortations to debate and dialogue from the Prime Minister of New Zealand, and delivered to the 2022 graduating class at Harvard are notes for the social, political, economic, environmental and ethical debate in which we are all currently engaged. Authentic debate and dialogue depends, by definition on the concurrence of individuals about the current reality, the facts we all face, and then also embraces a plethora of workable and necessary steps to bring us back from the brink of our own demise.

And from Noah A. Harris, ‘we must see ourselves as those caged’….if we are ever to come to a place, in our own minds, first, and then in our circles, and then into the wider global theatre in which we all breath, and from which we drink our water and from the ground and sea of which we forage our food…ultimately to take responsibility for our own lives and for the lives of our grandchildren.

Are we really listening?

 * Critical Race Theory is a cross disciplinary intellectual and social movement of civil-rights scholars and activists who seek to examine the intersection of race, society and law in the United States and to challenge mainstream American liberal approaches to racial justice. (Wikipedia)

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