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A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter... p.write@gmail.com

The World According to Trump

Looking to a Grim Future

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) The 2016 United States presidential election is different from any previous presidential political race. Few of the elements that make this election unique are, in and of themselves, completely new to US politics; taken together, though, they add up to an unprecedented political campaign.

            There have been candidates before Donald Trump who ran on an “America First” platform; indeed, the America First Committee formed in 1940 was a powerful pressure america firstgroup whose avowed purpose was to keep the US out of World War 2. Naturally, the group attracted Nazi supporters, including Hitler admirer Charles Lindbergh; The Trump campaign’s use of the slogan is a dogwhistle call to neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other race baiting groups. But Trump’s overt racism and in-your-face hatred of minorities was also foreshadowed by George Wallace’s segregationist presidential bid.

            The vitriolic hate speech that forms the backbone of Trump’s rallies is different only in degree from some earlier campaigns. That Trump regularly and unabashedly calls his opponents criminals, bigots, and traitors, that Trump leads his acolytes in chants of “lock her up!”, that Trump routinely encourages violence against peaceful protesters, are all behaviours that are simply quantum leaps more extreme than previous campaign outrages.

            Even Trump’s success in creating a political atmosphere in which his policies are utterly incomprehensible, his statements contradict themselves daily, and in which he is free to lie, to mislead, and to make and double down on outrageous and entirely false and easily disproven accusations, is merely taking old unethical political tactics to their extreme. Candidates have accused one another of a variety of unsavoury actions in previous campaigns, but it took the Trump candidacy before we would see the Barack-Obama-Hillary-Clinton-ISISRepublican nominee stating flatly that the incumbent president and the current Democratic nominee and former secretary of state were literally co-founders of ISIS. Not in any metaphorical or figurative sense or anything, Trump assured us; but literally and factually, actual founders of the radical Islamic terrorist organisation.

            Donald Trump with his “political outsider” pretense is degrading not only the way politics is done in the US, but he is debasing the entire social atmosphere of the nation, and to a lesser extent, the world. In the year that Trump has dominated the media with his ludicrous campaign, the culture of the United States has been demonstrably coarsened and human decency, trump-effecttolerance, courtesy, and critical thinking have receded to the point that they are all treated as the laughable conceits of the cowardly and the pretentious. The emergence of ignorance, hatred, and violent confrontation as virtues can be credited to the account of Donald Trump.

            On this Labour Day, as I am busy gathering my seven-year-old boy’s back-to-school stuff in preparation for Grade Two tomorrow, I am naturally inclined to look toward the future that he is going to face both this year, and over the course of his life. With two more months to go until we can be certain that the Donald Trump infection has been finally eradicated, that future is somewhat uncertain. But I know one thing for sure; the world in which JJ will grow to adulthood is darker, uglier, and more dangerous than it was, even eighteen months ago.

            When I was his age, there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments Joan_Baez_Bob_Dylanover the perceived chaos in the world as a result of the baby boom bubble coming into its own. Youth culture was emerging and the previous generation was afraid, was offended, but mostly was bewildered. The zeitgeist was indeed chaotic in the early Sixties. My generation was stretching its wings and flexing its muscles; we knew we wanted change although we weren’t sure what we wanted to change into. But whatever ideas we had about what the world ought to look like, we took it for granted that with cooperation, with dedication, and byhippy3 bringing our energy and commitment to bear, we could make it happen. We had great dreams and endless supplies of hope.

            Before that energy dissipated and our generation scattered and then succumbed to the “me” generation that followed, we managed to accomplish things that today would be considered hopeless tasks. By applying our will and energy, we managed to get civil rights legislation passed in the US, legal segregation was ended, Roe V. Wade made abortion legal, a Catholic president was elected, the Peace Corps was founded, we put humans on the moon, feminism became second nature to most people, environmental issues were raised and became part of the world’s discussion, we managed to turn the world against the Vietnam conflict and forced a president to pull American troops out, and far from least, we held a president’s feet to the fire and forced his resignation for having done politics in the traditional, unaccountable way.

Bookends

Time it was

And what a time it was

A time of innocence

A time of confidences

Long ago it must be

I have a photograph

Preserve your memories

They’re all that’s left you

Simon and Garfunkel

simon and garfunkel

            But I look around now and I see what my son is going to face and I worry for his future. My son is a remarkable person. Although he can be exhausting because of his ADHD, I’m convinced that I learn as much from him as he does from me. He’s wicked smart; in some things, like places he’s been and people he’s met, his memory is eidetic; he has an autism-related difficulty with language acquisition, preferring to use words in a way that make sense to him, rather than employ the socially agreed-upon syntax. But mostly I am struck daily by his very un-autistic sense of empathy and sensitivity to the feelings of others. He is always the first one to run and hug another child who is sad or afraid. He cries when he hears something sad, he is more likely to give his lunch or his toys to someone who needs or wants them, than to monopolise or hoard them as most kids his age do. But he is of a visible minority, being brown skinned; he has speech issues; he is hypersensitive both physically and emotionally; he is very vulnerable.

            He will almost certainly be the target of bullying as he grows up and goes to school. The world that he is now inhabiting is far more likely to treat him cruelly or harshly than it was when I was young, and he is far less equipped than I was to cope with those sharp corners and elbows. The world that Donald Trump exemplifies and encourages, is full of intolerance and hatred. It is a world where walking all overBleakFutureAhead_B our weaker fellow humans is encouraged and admired, where kindness and decency are disdained as weakness or cowardice. It is a world without genuine confidence in the future, or any real hope for improvement as the result of our actions. Idealism, that sense of right and wrong and the value of working to make the world better, simply isn’t a big part of the world at the moment. And it makes me want to weep for him. Since I became a father late in life – I’m sixty and he’s seven – I am increasingly aware that I won’t be around to cushion the slings and arrows of everyday fortune when he is an adult.

            Largely for that reason, I have chosen to spend his critical early elementary school years in a small village in rural Vancouver Island, where we know all our neighbours, where there is a community of artists, hippies, free thinkers, and back to the land people, as well as environmentalists, vegans, and traditional farmers. A place where we often keep our doors unlocked, where neighbours take care of one another and their children feel free to knock on one’s door if frightened, or tired or lost.

            But eventually, when he is better able to accept that not everyone in this world is prepared for a _donald-trump-insanelittle boy who will spontaneously hug a stranger in a queue at the general store because he likes her voice, he will have to take his place in the hate-filled, and intolerant world that we are creating by accepting Donald Trump and his ilk. By letting his viciousness, his narcissism, his pathological inability to distinguish fact from fiction, and his bigotry to slide without instant, unanimous and vocal condemnation, we are normalising it and allowing it to become part of the new world order.

            Where we stand right now, should Trump manage to get himself elected, the world will be a nightmarish dystopia, and one for which it is impossible to prepare because of Trump’s instability and refusal to prepare in any way for the position he wants. But even if, as seems likely, he is trounced and sent packing, his legacy will live on. The world is a palpably worse place for his having occupied so much of our attention. And before the pendulum swings back, as it inevitably will, the world that my son should be looking forward to being a part of is going to be unpleasant, inhospitable, and a bleak, cold place. For that I can never forgive Donald Trump and his supporters.

ENDITEM….

Licence to Hate

The Rise and Fall and Rebirth of Political Correctness

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) The first time I heard the phrase “political correctness” was some time back in the 70s, and it was used by my then agent to criticise a publisher’s rejection letter. She had submitted a manuscript of a mystery/thriller I had written, in which one of my more unsavoury characters, a debt collection agency owner, was named Lenny Stein. She faxed me a copy (faxes were new and high tech back then) of the rejection letter, as it was actually a personal note and not a form letter. The publisher, rejection-letter-socialin his rejection of one of the few substantial pieces of fiction I have ever written, was positive, if not actually effusive about my novel. He recommended a number of changes if I were to submit it elsewhere and explained frankly why he was turning it down and not asking me to resubmit it to him. He was offended, he explained, by my rampant antisemitism. That Lenny Stein was clearly intended to be an unscrupulous Jewish bill collector, was pure bigotry and intolerable to him.

Ironically, the character was actually deliberately based on an unscrupulous Jewish bill collector with a similar name. The character and his real life counterpart were similar, even in their physical descriptions, right down tpreppy waspo the perpetual dusting of dandruff on the shoulders of their cheap suits. (I wanted him to recognise himself despite the disclaimer). Nevertheless, the publisher was right; the character was clichéd and worked much better when I changed him to a very WASPish Upper Canada College preppy type, slumming in the debt recovery business. But it was my agent who was furious. She said in a very sarcastic tone that the submission had only been rejected as it was insufficiently “politically correct”.

The expression, “political correctness”, as a neologism of the latter half of the 20th Century became part of our everyday lexicon as a reaction to an historical period in which civil rights and racial, ethnic, and gender equality were finally becoming a reality against strong social pushback. By the late 60’s some of the most offensive epithets, slurs which had been commonly deployed in casual middle class discourse, had been suppressed and were recognised as trace hatehe hurtful expressions they always were. But ordinary people no longer felt free to use words like nigger, kike, spic, or broad any more. Civilised and courteous people eschewed language that was likely to offend; the now sidelined derogatory labels were only employed by die-hard bigots, and were used specifically because of their verboten nature when offense was the aim.

But like many other benign and even beneficial notions, the societal pressure to avoid giving offense became an exercise in playing gotcha! People began militantly dissecting the language of others in an attempt to find an expression, word, or phrase that carried the possibility of offending someone or some group. People without the tiniest bigoted bone in their bodies found themselves accused of being insensitive or even of willfully offending when they used a word they had no idea could be interpreted as racist. Someone who had routinely used the word “gypsy” metaphorically, or even simply to describe the people known for their caravans,colourful head scarfs, and fortune tellers, would find himself accused of unforgiveable racism. “Gypsy” was no longer politically correct; the proper descriptive term was now “Romany” people. My suspicion is that not a single Romany person had ever objected to being called a gypsy. As I recall, being a young boy in France in the late 50’s and early 60’s who loved to play with the children of the Romany people when they camped in the fields behind our house, they called themselves “gypsies” or its equivalent in the various languages they spoke.

There is no question that the PC impulse got out of hand, with people demanding the right to go politically correct fightingthrough life in a racially and culturally diverse society without ever being offended. At the height of the PC zeitgeist, I wrote emphatically against the restrictive nature of society’s impulse to stifle others’ freedom of expression. I remember moderating a discussion in which John Cleese (at the time still best known as a Python) very firmly held that he had the right to offend; that offending people was his job and was the job of all social critics and relevant comedians and always had been. I remember agreeing wholeheartedly with him. Political correctness, toward the end of the last century, found itself being disparaged and mocked.

People, while still trying to express themselves in ways that didn’t cause needless pain to others, began to refuse to tie themselves into knots simply to be politically correct. Referring to short people as being altitudinally challenged became the kind of joke critics of PC were making. The pendulum had swung far enough that simply referring to someone as being politically correct was the equivalent of saying they were unimaginative and feckless; that they were prissy prudes; simply put, they had a stick up their ass. clint_eastwood__by_cameron1395-d5spzncIn the current US election cycle, no less an icon than Clint Eastwood called those who reject Donald Trump’s in-your-face race baiting, “pussies” and urged us to “get over it”.

Arch liberal Bill Maher, called his ground-breaking political commentary/comedy show “Politically Incorrect” in an effort to re-humanise the parameters of permissible discussion. (As an aside, he was handed his walking papers for being, wait for it….politically incorrect when he said on his show that, to be realistic, one couldn’t honestly describe the suicide terrorists of 9/11 as being “cowards”. He was right, of course, but the PC police wanted his ass, and they got it.) So now it was the conservatives who were demanding political correctness while the progressives and liberals were rejecting it as stultifying and unreasonably restrictive.

The phrase was never employed in an approving manner; it has always carried some connotation of reflecting a sheep-like mindset, a knee-jerk deference to popular social trendiness. Until fairly recently it had seemed as though political correctness had completed its life cycle and was soon to be consigned to the dust bin of anachronistic language. In the last few years, however, the phrase has come roaring back into the vocabulary. The radicalised right wing has suddenly discovered that no one has had much respect for political correctness for years; that to describe someone as being politically correct is to suggest that their freedom of expression has been stolen from them, and that to abjure political correctness is to demonstrate courage and independence of thought.

Trump and PC           With Donald Trump leading the charge, the right, particularly the alt right, has embraced the disdain for PC and employs its rejection as protective colouration for the most appallingly vile public discourse the United States, and the world, has seen since the pre-civil rights era. They have discovered that all they have to do is preface a statement with the assertion that they refuse to be politically correct, and then they have somehow given themselves permission to speak hatred, racism, sexism, or any sort of disgusting bigotry. Where, not very long ago, even the worst example of a redneck racist hillbilly would have thought twice before using the word “nigger” in public, today, people are openly using it as a taunt and a verbal assault.

By implicitly claiming that the only reason people don’t use that and similar repugnant epithets is that they are slaves to PC; they seek to perpetuate the fiction that everyone has their kind of crude bigotry and intolerance bubbling just below the surface. They want everyone to think that only people of courage and honesty, that is people like them, have the integrity to reject political correctness and state the obvious.

So repulsive and so offensive is the licence they give themselves to speak hatred, that sometime soon, we will start to see a reaction to their hatred of and their disdain for political correctness. I believegood-manners- that PC will be reborn. It will have a different name, or no name at all, but the use of society’s surfeit of PC as an excuse to engage in hate speech and vicious, open bigotry will not continue to be acceptable in normal society. The idea of moderating one’s language in an effort to avoid unnecessary hurt will make a comeback as a reaction against the debasement of public discourse that is a direct result of Donald Trump’s emergence on the political landscape.

I just watched a video some Hillary Clinton hater posted on Facebook. Within the first 30 seconds of the ham-fisted clip, the narrator casually refers to Mrs. Clinton as, “that cunt.” By and large, in the comments, even those who don’t support her or her politics reacted negatively to that kind of offensive speech disguised as merely being politically incorrect. The coarsening of the public forums and the negative reaction to it from more enlightened souls is not a matter of political correctness or its rejection. That kind of political attack is simply too vulgar, to gratuitously hurtful, and too personally insulting to be taken seriously or accepted as anything more than ignorant logorrhea.free speech

Assuming, as we must, that Trump will be soundly defeated and Hillary Clinton will be the next US president, it seems likely that society will generally begin to reject the Trump style of rhetoric. There will be a period during which there will be incessant Trump style attacks on the president, but Trump himself will eventually get bored and leave, and his minions will disperse without him as a rallying point. In time it will once again become unacceptable to use racial or ethnic or sexual epithets; their casual employment in conversation will not much longer be seen as honest and brave. People who read, people who are able to think critically, people who have educated themselves will see through the smokescreen; decency, courtesy, and respect in all our dealings will once again be seen as virtues. All we have to do is send Trump and his knuckle dragging, mouth breathing band of bigots back down to the minors.

ENDITEM…

 

A Post Trump America

The Hangover

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Describing what the world would look like during a hypothetical Donald Trump presidency has become something of a cottage industry, with pundits predicting everything from a glorious rebirth of a prosperous and powerful supernation to a post-apocalyptic wasteland. While my instincts are that the latter would probably be closer to reality than the former, I contend that a Trump post-apocalyptic-fantasy-245333presidency, barring something explosive occurring before November, will not happen, that cooler heads and reason will prevail and Trump will lose by a wide margin. That said, it would be worthwhile to look at what the US will look like after Trump has returned to his regular job of media whore and flimflam artist.

The Trump candidacy and campaign has introduced a new style of politics in the US. Trump, who injected himself into the national political scene on the strength of his name recognition and his self crafted image of a flamboyant billionaire real estate developer, parlayed his ignorance of everything political into an asset. Wafted in on the winds of dissatisfaction with the way government was working, his bellicosity with respect to the entrenched political forces resonated with those who don’t think deeply about politics, but embrace a visceral anger at the status quo. And in 2015, the status quo was pretty disgraceful.

The Republicans in Congress had just spent the president’s second term doing virtually nothing, except obstructing and filibustering every Democratic initiative, and doing their level best to deny obamagraphicObama any accomplishment. In their relentless crusade to destroy the presidency of Barack Obama, they ground government to a halt, and earned the title of least productive congress in US history, and the lowest approval ratings ever recorded. By the time Trump descended on his escalator to announce his candidacy as an outsider to politics as usual, syphilis had a higher approval rating than congress. To the surprise only of pundits and political insiders, his candidacy took off and he steam rolled his way through the primaries to become the presumptive nominee.

His pose as a straight-talking firebrand and hugely successful businessman appealed to those who bought the pose. But his pretence at straight talk, from the very beginning, was simply expressing thoughts that most people have been taught since childhood not to blurt out, and his dishonesty in business was not seen as a serious issue by his base. As his business record was exposed bit by bit, it became clear to everyone that Trump, in fact, was not what he advertised himself as being. The gradual uncovering of his nearly unmatched record of business failures didn’t perturb his base in the slightest; his fraudulent practices, including Trump University and his list of questionable bankruptcies, all seemed just fine to his true believers. Described like that, it would be something of a miracle that he managed to retain any following at all.

But what’s left out of that description is the true source of his appeal; what really sits well with his base has nothing to do with his business skills (or lack thereof); it has nothing to do with whether his net worth is anywhere near what he claims; they don’t care that he lies with breathtaking regularity and reverses himself so often that he seems to spin like a dervish. What matters to them is that he is belligerent and hostile; he is playing to a demographic that is angry and bewildered by what is basehappening in their country. His base is fuming that their previously unassailable position of white male privilege is now being assailed. They can’t understand, and simply won’t accept, that this is the first time in their history that being a white, working class man isn’t an automatic guarantee of respect and financial stability. Donald Trump’s open and unapologetic race-baiting is like a breath of fresh air to a demographic that desperately needs scapegoats for their declining fortunes.

People who are confronted with the reality that they and their peers are rapidly becoming a minority; people whose heads are exploding at the thought that Latinos, African Americans, Asians, and Muslims together are forming a majority and white Christian Anglo Saxons are making up a smaller and 2012-2013-Demographic-Pie-Chartsmaller wedge of the pie chart, are desperate for affirmation that their woes can be blamed on those groups. They are ecstatic to find a candidate who will openly attack the groups they used to dominate.

They are thrilled to find a candidate who routinely retweets white supremacist memes; who promises to expel millions of Mexicans; who promises a total and complete ban on Muslims entering the country; a candidate who refers to a black attendee at his rally as “my African American”, and never walks anything back, but rather, when challenged, doubles down on his bigotry – now, that’s their kind of guy. Trump has legitimised their racism. He has given bigots permission to express their hatred loud and proud, where before they felt compelled to speak more circumspectly or risk society’s stern disapproval. Now, all they have to do is say that they refuse to be politically correct, and they feel free to express their darkest, most loathsome and cruel thoughts. They believe that a refusal to be constrained by courtesy, or even the slightest shred of human decency, when those are described as “political correctness”, is courageous and honest. Given that permission to lash out at the groups they blame for their declining status and am-i-the-only-one-that-can-tell-the-difference-2460307fortunes, it is no surprise that their candidate can do no wrong. It is quite possibly literally true that Donald Trump could, as he has bragged, shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose a single vote. And if that person was Hispanic, black, LGBTQ, or, even better, Muslim, he would probably solidify his position.

That is the legacy that the Trump candidacy will leave after he goes back to his TV appearances, his cons, and his phony investment scams. The tone of public discourse has been coarsened and degraded; campaign hate rhetoric has few, if any, limits now. The belittling and personal insults, the utter lack of substance, and the surfeit of vicious animosity has become the new normal. Hatred is back and it’s back with a vengeance. It is probably not entirely coincidental that alongside the rise of Trump we have been seeing a horrifying spate of police shootings of unarmed black men. Nor is it coincidental that police in Dallas were targeted by an African American. We are seeing racism unbridled. Political correctness, far from being the evil that Trump and his followers claim they have risen above, was simply a societal consensus as to what ought not be said or done lest we hurt others. Now it is a dirty word along with tolerance, inclusion, equality, and restraint.

Coming soon to your neighbourhood!

Coming soon to your neighbourhood!

A post-Trump America will be more openly bigoted. It will have a lower standard of media and political conversation. The country will be more divided than at any time since the social revolution of the late 60’s. But this time it will be divided along religious and racial lines; we can expect to see more violence, we can expect to see an increase in the popularity and membership of hate groups like the KKK and Aryan Nations. Respect and courtesy are already becoming extinct.

Donald Trump has done very little for anyone he doesn’t see in the mirror; he has done nothing for his country before his candidacy. But he has done plenty since then: he has diminished it in the eyes of the civilised world and he has made it a much more callous, hostile, and dangerous place.

ENDITEM…

 

 

Offense: Seek and Ye Shall Find

Outrage Junkies

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) As we move toward the middle years of the 21st Century (I can’t believe I just wrote that in a non-fiction piece), more and more people are reacting against “political correctness”. The phrase first entered the lexicon in the 1980s and was used in an ironic way. It referred to the increasing inclination toward orthodoxy in avoiding offensiveness in speech and actions. If someone, for example, wrote an article in a mainstream publication criticising feminism, shouts of outrage would be heard from all quarters and those in support of the author’s views would wryly remark that the writer hadn’t been politically correct. The phrase was an implied criticism; it rebelled against a perceived rigidity of culturally approved norms of behaving, speaking, writing, and even thinking. To say that someone was being politically correct was to say that whatever the person was saying was not thought out, was not original, or was not honest; it was saying that only an adherence to orthodoxy was at work. And, equally, to accuse someone of political incorrectness was an implied compliment; it suggested that the person in question was more honest, was willing to speak Bill-Maher-Quotes-3courageously, and wasn’t intimidated by narrow minded opposition.

That ironic phrase, political correctness, was the battle cry of the intellectual renegade who wished to defy convention and speak from the heart; being politically incorrect, at that time, meant being unafraid of censure for going against society’s grain. That’s why Bill Maher used the phrase as the title of his first talk/comedy/political show. And as long as we’re speaking of irony, that show, entitled “Politically Incorrect” was cancelled for being just that.[1]

Political correctness came to mean any position held by someone who was being careful not to offend a group or individual. Political correctness was the recognition that words could hurt, that everyday language had the capacity for causing offense. As reasonable people strived to avoid offending, others began looking for the slightest deviation from PC and calling foul when they found it.

Predictably, political correctness came to be seen as a reflexive kowtowing to outrage junkies. This opened the door for truly hateful bigots and racists to preface their most virulent bigotry with the claim that they were not being cruelly offensive, they were simply refusing to be politically PC Santacorrect. By invoking the despised label of political correctness, crudely vicious demagogues like Ted Cruz and, most obviously, Donald Trump can pretend that expressing their vilest thoughts is heroic in its courageous refusal to be politically correct.

In just a few decades, the phrase has come full circle. When Donald Trump or any other fascist-leaning demagogue begins with the phrase, “I’m not going to be politically correct here…” we can be sure that something of stunning offensiveness is about to be said. Being politically incorrect has reverted to its earliest meaning, but this time without the irony. Being politically correct, insofar as it means couching our language and moderating our actions in such a way as to avoid giving offense, is now a good thing. Being politically incorrect has come to mean being a loathsome human being without consideration for others.

However, those who turned PC into a bad thing, from an ironic way of describing something essentially positive, are still out there and they never seem to rest. The outrage junkies are still lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce on anyone or anything that can be shown to cause offense. And the outrage junkies can find offense virtually anywhere.

I just had a pointless online discussion with a woman who had always seemed to me to be reasonably intelligent and rational. She posted a reaction to a news story that went something like this: A man was interviewed after having saved a drowning woman. When asked by the interviewer why he had risked his life to save a stranger, he had replied something to the effect that he realised that the stranger was someone’s mother, wife, or beloved and he couldn’t let her just die. Now my interlocutor was enraged by that man’s answer; she was offended, she said, by society’s inclination to value women only insofar as they are a wife, mother, or whatever, and not as individuals in their own right.

I had commented that I saw nothing wrong with what the man had said and pointed out that men who are killed are routinely referred to as husbands, fathers, and sons; usually characterised by their utility joseph heller quoteat providing for others. She and another woman who joined in insisted that the cases were completely different and that I was being “snarky” and told not to be such a “jerk”.

I put it out there…I don’t think I was wrong. At least I don’t think I was being a snarky jerk. I don’t even think I was being politically incorrect. But it does strike me that if someone finds that a man’s recognition that a woman in peril probably had a family and loved ones offensive, that person is looking for a reason to be offended. If a rather quotidian but heartwarming story of a life being saved by a stranger leaves you with outrage as the main takeaway, I would say that you’re an outrage junkie. And the existence and ubiquity of outrage junkies is the reason PC has become a justification for the most egregious hate speech. The fact that some people, claiming to speak for many others, can find offense in the most innocuous and well-meant comment gives people with hate in their hearts permission to stop even trying to avoid hurtful statements. And that’s where we are now.

If, while we castigate those who genuinely say hurtful things, whether it’s deliberate or simply tone deaf (Donald Trump and his taco on May 5 for example), we also seek to interpret their words in a charitable way, we ourselves will be less angry. When we spend our time and energy trying to find something about which we can claim outrage, we are sure to find it; we’ll look stupid and petty, we’ll justify people not worrying anymore about hurting feelings, and we’ll be a lot less happy than we could be. To be sure there are offensive things to decry, and they are everywhere and easy to find. But if we can’t really find one, instead of manufacturing one, why not be pleased that today was an offense-free day? That would be a good thing.

Bottom line? I’m sorry if this is politically incorrect, but lighten the fuck up.

 

keep-calm-and-lighten-up-4

 

 

[1] The show lost advertisers largely as a result of Mr. Maher’s having said that the 9/11 terrorists, having committed suicide along with their mass murders could not honestly be called “cowards” as president George W Bush had just done.

 

ENDITEM…

Stupid is as Stupid Does

A Civilisation in Decline

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Before the Orlando massacre forced everyone with an audience to respond to yet another American mass shooting, I had intended to write a column about the disturbing anti-intellectualism that is gathering momentum in the United States. The latest and worst American civilian mass shooting, though, has focused most social orlando shootingcommentators on issues of gun control, LGBT rights, domestic terrorism, Islamophobia, and law and order. Every one of those issues has once again been thrust into the forefront of our collective consciousness and each is every bit as unresolved as it was before Omar Mateen began squeezing the trigger on his assault rifle.

I believe that the anti-intellectual inclination that is daily growing stronger in the US has something to do with both the shooting itself and with the media’s helplessness in reacting to it. All we can expect now is the usual back and forth over gun legislation, the left calling for common-sense restrictions on weapons, the right, led by the NRA, screaming 2nd Amendment rights, and blah, blah, blah. Already, the hate-preachers of the Christian lunatic fringe are blaming the LGBT victims and assuring us that their slaughter was god’s punishment, and that the victims are now roasting in hell. Other dwellers on the right are demanding that more and more draconian measures be taken against Islamic refugees and any Muslims attempting to enter the country, notwithstanding the fact that the killer was actually born in New York. The reactions to this latest offense are a kind of Rorschach test of where one stands; the lesson one draws from the events in Orlando are a direct reflection of what one already believes socially and politically. And the lack of nuance, of analysis, and of actual thinking is indicative of the anti-intellectualism that I wanted to address.

The early 21st Century in North America is a period in history in which intelligence, thinking, analysing, applying stupidity2reasoned criticism are all looked at with suspicion and denigrated as elitist. It is an era in which expertise is ridiculed and treated as though it can be trumped by anyone with a strong enough opinion. At this time in history, reasoned argument has been replaced by the rote recitation of memes and personal insults. It has come to the point where science and wishful thinking are competing for acceptance, and science is losing because people simply can’t be bothered to make any effort to understand how it works. We are living in a time when the lowest common denominator is the acme of our aspirations; nobody wants to achieve great things any more because it involves effort.

In a society in which the notion of creationism, or its better dressed cousin “Intelligent Design”, vies to be taught on an equal scientific footing with actual science, one can be forgiven for thinking that the downhill slide to barbarianism has begun. When actual human beings accept the ludicrous proposition that we can unload billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with zero effect upon the planet, and at the same time reject the science of climate change, it has become evident that critical thinking has been replaced with magic; a sure sign of the degeneration of civilisation. scienceWhen conspiracy theories replace critical analysis, when feeling carries more weight than logical enquiry, we have crossed the threshold into the foyer of a new Dark Age. When you have a presidential candidate, in the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in the country’s history, suggest that the incumbent president is sympathetic to terrorists, and that is treated as having equivalent validity to any evidence to the contrary of the ludicrous claim, it is fair to say that reason has left the building.

In the mid 18th Century, a time now known as “The Enlightenment”, the zeitgeist was the polar opposite. That was a time during which ordinary people met and discussed philosophy; wrote and read treatises on the improvement of society; shared an interest in the remarkable advances in the sciences, and did their level best to understand how things worked, and how to employ them for the benefit of mankind. The greatest minds in history would get together regularly in salons, in taverns, in university lounges and lecture halls, to exchange ideas and to learn through discussion. In Paris, David philosophesHume, Denis Diderot, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire might all be in the same room at the same time, each learning from and contributing to the knowledge of the others; not shouting one another down and belittling different views. An encyclopedia, which would be an attempt to collate and summarise the entire totality of western knowledge was underway. In America, the Founding Fathers were writing the Federalist Papers and Jefferson was writing the first drafts of the Constitution of the United States. The difference between then and now couldn’t be starker.

Now, the very notion of specialised knowledge is treated with cynical contempt; expertise is suspect because it isn’t understood. But rather than try to understand it, the usual reaction is to dismiss it as elitist bafflegab and replace its conclusions with comfortable “common sense” or gut feelings. A loudly shouted appeal to the basest of instincts is considered more authentic than a quietly stated rational argument. Only in this reason-rejecting atmosphere could a demagogue like Donald Trump be cheered for calling for a ban on Muslim immigration as a response to a mass shooting by an American citizen. Only in this rationality-eschewing era could Donald Trump collect a following of dimwits, hillbilliesmarginalised crackpots, angry ignorant social outcasts, and paranoid racists into a coalition of the damaged and rejected. They are stupid and they are ignorant. But frighteningly, they are proud of it.

In lockstep with stupidity and ignorance, of course, march their close relatives: hatred and bigotry. Not being capable of serious thought makes it easy to accept simple minded hostility toward those who appear to be different. And from that, the inclination to acting on racism is a short hop. In just the last year, that inclination to act on racist impulses has become acceptable to a greater and greater number of Americans.

Where, once upon a time, people of profound intellects like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were respected and heeded, now people like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump are celebrated. Duck Dynasty philosophy is respected and its idiot proponents celebrated. They are celebrated precisely for their ignorance; their lack of knowledge is trumpeted as an indication of their authenticity. Intelligence doesn’t count for anything; being like the lowest form of human life; that’s what counts. The degeneration of America is occurring in front of us, and we are all circling the drain along with wisdom, class, intelligence, reason, and human decency.

Unless this election suddenly turns around and sees a landslide victory for the forces fighting back against Donald Trump, we may well be looking at the end of an era of optimism, of positive intellectual growth. Instead we will be seeing the dawn of a period in which our society’s proudest accomplishments are dismantled and the barbarians at the gates will enter and occupy the centres of power. A long, dark, grim winter may well be about to begin.

ENDITEM…

Bagging and Tagging on a Sunday Morning

And the beat goes on…

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Fifty dead and counting. More than that number wounded. It’s all becoming horrifyingly familiar. The latest mass shooting in America, this time in Orlando, Florida is also one of the worst; as I write this, corpses are being bagged and tagged while wounded survivors are being transported and treated in hospitals around the city of Disney World. This time the venue was a nightclub with a largely gay clientele and reports are coming in that the incident was triggered by the sight of two gay men kissing. The shooter, however, was a second generation Afghani-American, so depend on this being put down as an act of Islamic terrorism.

There are so many infuriating aspects to this gruesome and tragic bloodletting that it’s difficult to know where to start, even though I should be able to write this piece on autopilot from so much experience with this kind of story; it is cold dead handsafter all, not exactly a quotidian event, but certainly not as rare as earthquake or tsunami stories.

Let’s start with my anger at the fatuous Republican senators whose first instincts were to get in front of a microphone and burnish their Christian credentials by proclaiming the need to pray for the victims, their families, for the police officers, first responders, and everybody else in sight, on the scene, or within earshot. Every high level GOP official from Orrin Hatch to Mitch McConnell, all of whom have called for prayer, seem to have forgotten that they all took blood_on_their_handsthousands upon thousands of dollars (Orrin Hatch: $97,848.00 from the NRA, Mitch McConnell: $922,000.00 from the NRA) in donations from gun lobbyists and then voted not to ban people on the FBI’s watch list from buying firearms. The shooter was on that list.

Of course they’ll now have to wait until the authorities have sifted through the remains and determined who among them was gay and which were straight so they can decide who gets posthumous prayer and who will be eulogised by preachers who will tell us that they now burn in hell eternally for their “choice”. They also seem to forget that they have spent the last decade or more demonising LGBT people and deliberately and cynically inciting hatred of LGBT people in the name of the very god they want us now to pray to. One has to wonder just how genuinely upset those hypocrites are simply because someone just did what they have been saying ought to have been done all along.

This brutal act of Grand Guignol violence is the natural result of a society that preaches hatred and intolerance and at the same time worships the possession and deployment of automatic weapons. Mix virtually unlimited access to firearms with constantly reinforced hatred, add religious justification and moral encouragement of violence from the country’s gay_rights_stickerleadership candidates and you have a pretty gnarly cocktail. Who can pretend to be surprised when the inevitable happens?

Already Fox News has blamed this outrage on Obama; apparently by his politically correct refusal to demonise all Islam he has permitted this act of terrorism, even actively sponsored it. Never mind that there is no indication that this was an act of terrorism at all; never mind that their politicians’ ownership by the NRA permitted this citizen to purchase the murder weapons openly; never mind that the shooter was legally entitled to carry a concealed weapon into that nightclub; never mind that their encouragement of employing violence as a response to any discomfort was taken seriously; Obama wasn’t sufficiently bigoted…that’s the real problem.

Already the voices are ringing out to Hillary and to Bernie. Watch over the next few days as the right wing media will try to crucify them for “politicising” this tragedy. They will be asked to comment on the events, and, like any rational person, they will poinprayert to the need for radical changes to gun legislation; that will be shouted down as cynical political posturing; they will be shouted down and told that now is not the time for politics. Now is the time for prayer. A single more useless exercise could not even be imagined than prayer without concrete action. Nevertheless, concrete action is going to be criticised as politicisation while empty and hypocritical prayer will be seen as suitable. Others, myself included, will raise our voices and ask, if now is not the time for the politicisation of gun violence in America, when is it? The only time anyone even talks about it is in the wake of another slaughter.

This column is a short one simply because everything that can be said about this shooting has been said before; there is almost nothing new except the details. Another day, another angry gun-toting American shoots into a crowd. Not to be political about it or anything, but I guess that’s just the American way. Let us pray.

ENDITEM…

 

Speaking What’s on His Mind

Political Correctness: Where it Comes From and Why it is So Despised

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Since the Trump ascendancy only started in earnest some six months ago, reliable statistics aren’t yet available, but I think simple observation will tell us that there has been a coarsening of rhetoric regarding race relations in North America and a corresponding increase in hate America greatcrimes and violence committed out of racially motivated hostility. The tone and content of Donald Trump’s campaign has been breathtakingly, unapologetically, hostile to pretty much any group that isn’t white, male, and poorly educated. Hell, let’s not be politically correct here. That last bit should read: “ignorant white trash rednecks”.

The list of groups at which Trump has hurled abuse, or has simply demeaned by his casual bigotry, is virtually endless but includes (without being restricted to) blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, women, the poor, the handicapped, immigrants, veterans, and the Chinese. The individuals who have made his contempt list is even more extensive and includes pretty hate speechmuch anyone who has not expressed full throated adulation. Politics has always been a punishing scramble for votes and for power; it has frequently been ruthless, and occasionally really down in-the-dirt vicious. But in modern American history, there has never been a less admirable or more contemptible political campaign, or candidate, or political base. Notable for its open bigotry, the Trump campaign manages to find ways to explore new frontiers in hatred in every 24-hour news cycle. Trump’s astonishingly in-your-face bellicosity has attracted so much media attention that the value of the coverage has been estimated to be in the billions of dollars.

Donald Trump’s devoted followers, when asked what on earth they see in such a human being, usually respond with some variation on the theme of: “He tells it like it is”. And Trump has frequently said things like, “I don’t have time for political correctness” or “Okay, I’m not going to be politically correct, here”. That disdain for political correctness has been one of the things that his followers love about him. And that disdain is effective because people from either side of the political spectrum have been somewhat contemptuous of the PC rules for a long time now.hate

So what exactly is political correctness and how did it become a meme and, recently, a political football?

At one time, say thirty of forty years ago, the phrase was used ironically as a short way of referring to speech or actions that were intended to express an adherence to what society generally accepted as appropriate and non-offensive. As the word “negro”, for instance, made some people uncomfortable, the word “black” came to replace it in respectful conversation; later still, “African American” became the preferred way of referring respectfully to those who had been called “coloured” and far more insulting epithets. To call someone a negro wasn’t like using the “N word”, but it came to be heard as carrying Trump mockingsome unpleasant baggage; it had become politically correct to use the preferred nomenclature. So at first, political correctness was just an effort to avoid hurting feelings and to remove hate speech and even casual bigotry from daily discourse.

Political correctness was a good thing. By adhering to political correctness, one could be fairly certain that one wouldn’t inadvertently use a word or phrase that would cause offense; the near universality of political correctness was eliminating hurtful speech from the media, from normal conversation; it caused people to consider the impact of their words on others. You don’t hear normal people calling women “broads”, or Italians “wops” in conversation or the media any more, and that is a good thing. The hope and expectation has been that as goes the language, so goes people’s thinking. If we were to eliminate the use of epithets entirely from the vocabulary through simple attrition, one could reasonably expect that new generations wouldn’t carry the sense of apartness and otherness from people with different religions, skin tones, or accents that those hurtful words emphasise.

Of course, in time, the pendulum swung and political correctness came to be a socially authoritarian bludgeon to use as a “gotcha” if anyone slipped and used a word that hadn’t been deemed acceptable. People were accused of political incorrectness if they addressed or referred to women as “ladies”, or if one said “Merry Christmas” in a situation of diversity of beliefs. Political correctness came to mean blind adherence to a dogmatic liberalism in speech and action; even liberals became annoyed trump racistwith political correctness pushed to an extreme. They don’t come any more liberal than Bill Maher, and he titled his talk show “Politically Incorrect” and set out to demonstrate the aptness of the name.

But now Donald Trump has seized upon a justification for his overt expressions of racism and other forms of unabashed bigotry. He simply blurts out whatever hateful, cruel stereotype pops into his vicious and disturbed mind and tells his people that he refuses to be politically correct. They eat it up, because, at this point in history, PC is virtually universally seen as needlessly confining. Trump has succeeded in this way to remove any inhibitions regarding hate speech and persuading his followers that their inherent hatred of minorities and “others” of all types can and should be expressed freely, even jubilantly, under the excuse of possessing sufficient integrity as not to be politically correct.

Already American society is regressing to a time when it was socially acceptable to call fellow citizens by racial or ethnic epithets that most people thought had undergone mass extinction. Casual bigotry has returned to everyday speech and to political discourse. Trump refers to Senator Elizabeth Warren who has some Native American ancestry as “Pocahontas”; when told by a Native American journalist that she found it offensive, Trump said: “Oh really? I’m sorry. Anyway, about Pocahontas….”

make america hate again  The Klan and other hate groups have begun to be more overtly outspoken than they have been in recent years; in their newly acceptable outspoken viciousness, they are testing the limits of society’s intolerance. When David Duke, a Trump supporter and former Klan leader was speaking at a rally, he repeatedly referred to President Obama as “Sambo”. Even Fox, a year ago, would have edited that; now Fox doesn’t even remark on it in their report. By claiming that they are simply courageously disdaining political correctness, bigots are implying that they are saying what everybody feels but are to cowardly to say out loud. They are well on their way to making racially and ethnically motivated hatred mainstream. And they have been given permission and their marching orders from the Republican candidate for the presidency of the Untied States of America.

Yes, Mr. Trump, let’s make America great again, shall we?

ENDITEM…

 

Quiet…Idiots at Work

The Thought Stops Here

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) The current state of North American society has pundits and critics reviving interest in a 2006 film by Mike Judge called Idiocracy. It postulates a dystopian future USA of some idiocracy500 years hence in which anti-intellectualism has become universal, as the result of the average IQ in American society having dropped by what appears to be double digits because of the disproportionate rate at which the less intellectually gifted reproduce. The movie wasn’t great although it has developed a solid cult following; its premise, however, was great, if a little scary.

A quick look around and simple observation will tell you that it seems true that there is an inverse relationship between intelligence and the number of children produced. Even if you happen to be among those who don’t believe that evolution is real, you would have to admit that, even just mathematically, that a society in which the intelligent produce few offspring and the less bright produce more, there will be a downward trend in the overall or average IQ as long as intelligence is genetically transmitted. With that in mind, simply look at who is bringing large numbers of children into the world.

Certainly those who think contraception is wrong are more likely to become pregnant than those who practice birth control. And those who absolutely reject abortion as an option are certainly more likely to devolution GOPbring a pregnancy to term and give birth to a child. And there is an inverse correlation between level of education and number of natural children in a family. So while rural, poorly educated (Trump loves them!) members of society are out there breeding as fast they ever did, the “intellectual elite” are more and more opting for few, if any, children, or like me, adopting. Now, of course these are generalities, trends; there are millions of exceptions to this general inclination. But that’s all that is needed for evolution to do its work. As the trend continues, natural or artificial selection will see to it that the trend selected for – in this case, stupidity – will come to dominate the gene pool. This, of course speeds up the process, and, in time (8/10 of an IQ point per generation), the stupid gene becomes the norm. Voila! Idiocracy.

When looking at the US presidential campaign, the makers of the movie are undoubtedly regretting that they placed the story so far in the future; a few hours of watching the coverage will convince normal people that the dystopian (or possibly utopian for some people) future has arrived. It has become apparent only now because until very recently, intelligence and knowledge were respected. Beginning asimovwith the advent of the Tea Party movement and reaching its nadir with the Donald Trump campaign, the rejection of intelligence, critical thinking, expert knowledge, science, and the finer arts has become virtually universal. What this suggests is that the evolutionary trend toward stupidity has been underway for some time; it has been underground, however. Until recently, the truly stupid had not been convinced that their gut feelings and instincts on questions of scientific fact were as or more valid than those of an expert in the field.

Now, their ignorance is being validated by one of their own. Now they have been given permission to come out of the closet, raise their voices, and form a political movement that threatens to take over the country. The political movement that is led by Trump is not flourishing because more people are more stupid than last year; those people have always been among us. It’s just that until recently, they didn’t see their own ignorance and stupidity as being a point of pride.

Trump has demonstrated to his followers that he can triumph in spite of, perhaps even because of his near total absence of understanding or knowledge of the very things that we expect our leaders to be world-class at. Trump explains to reporters that he doesn’t know much about foreign policy but give him a few hours and he could become fully proficient at wielding presidential power in its service. He says he is his own best advisor on most subjects because he has such a good brain. He disdains any real expert fact v beliefknowledge or even real thinking on any subject of importance. Gut feeling and common sense, he assures us is what he has in abundance and what will make him the greatest president ever.

All of this is like a breath of finely scented fresh spring air to his less-than-genius base. All of their lives they have refrained from learning anything that presented a challenge; they have never chosen to look deeply into any hard subject. But nevertheless, they are convinced that if they were to apply themselves for a little bit, they’d be every bit as smart and knowledgeable as those damn liberal intellectual elitists. It’s easy; they just choose not to do it. With this as a foundation for their belief system, it’s easy to see why they think that there is actually a controversy regarding some scientific facts with which they take issue.

Their self-regard tells them that their instinctive rejection of anthropogenic climate change has as much validity as that of every rational climate scientist in the world; they feel free to reject the science because the scientists are just a bunch of phonies whose intellectual accomplishments they could match if they were to bothered to put in a few hours of effort. Ditto with evolution, except that they have put the effort into reading the first chapter of Genesis, so in this case they are as knowledgeable as the experts; more so, in fact, because the “experts”, by and large, have less knowledge of Genesis.

Donald Trump and his progenitors in the Tea Party have given these people permission to be ignorant; to be vocally stupid; to reject those who actually are experts or knowledgeable. Tell any of them that someone is going to speak on a subject in which he or she is an expert and their response will be cynical chuckling. “Expert” means a spokesperson for the liberal intellectual elite, an amorphous group made up of everyone who knows anything beyond what their bible or their gut tells them. For the first time in modern history intelligence is suspect and knowledge is a handicap. Permission has been given to be and stay uninformed and ignorant.

In lockstep with this anti-intellectual migration is another frightening result of Tea Party/Trump PC-Cartoon-FT-659x505populism…overt bigotry. Disdaining any expression of tolerance, inclusiveness, or recognition of the rights of others as “political correctness” has given their supporters licence to vocalise hatred, racism, and bigotry. By calling a decision not to say hateful things succumbing to political correctness, they are suggesting that those hateful things are on everybody’s mind but others are afraid to “tell it like it is”. They, the brave followers however, have the moral courage to speak the truth. Bigotry thus becomes an admirable quality and those who are not bigoted become liars and cowards for suppressing their real underlying hatreds. Their bête noir, political correctness, is not seen as a cultural inclination to suppress hatred and cruelty and to reject it when it is expressed. Political correctness has become a hypocritical pretense of not espousing the truth out of some weak-kneed, panty-waist fear of honest and truthful expression.

Permission has been given to be everything that Western culture has rejected as contemptible and beneath us, and to begin tearing down the edifice of civilisation that has been painstakingly built over the centuries. It wasn’t long ago that we had respect and admiration for those who actually worked at being better intellectually, technically, aesthetically, and morally. The expression “it ain’t rocket science” when indicating that a proposition or a task is simple indicates that people generally saw that expertise was both hard to acquire and worthwhile to achieve. Now, thanks to the movement toward Idiocracy, anyone who has an opinion is an expert, while the genuine expert is dismissed as a dupe or con artist. Now someone who supports equality of treatment, tolerance of opposing views, or a belief in human decency is considered to be a hypocrite spouting political correctness while racists and religious and secular bigots are to be applauded for their honesty and frankness.

Mark Twain

This is the way the world, led by the United States of America, is heading. It is frightening and it is appalling. But the big question is whether it is inevitable. Has the balance tipped irreversibly toward idiocy? Or is this a particularly vicious and abrupt swing of the pendulum that, in time, will reverse itself? The shifting demographics due to birthrates suggests that the latter is mere wishful thinking.

ENDITEM…

Incarceration Nation

I Fought the Law and the Law Won.

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) For some obscure reason, the tropical paradise of the independent Republic of the Seychelles, a nation and archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean to the east of Kenya and north of Madagascar, has the highest rate of incarceration per capita in the world. Of course everyone knows that the United States of America holds the silver medal, incarcerating more than 700 people per chaingang100,000. An exact figure is hard to come by because of the disorganisation and enormity of the prison-industrial complex. There are many levels of government and private lock-ups in the system, with little or no coordination among them, and each having its own reporting system. But suffice it to say that, if you are American, you are likely to know someone who has a family member who is a long or short-term guest of the city, county, state, or federal government, or a private contractor.

Although various hypotheses have been offered for this quirk of American society, nothing persuasive has emerged, beyond the obvious fact that a failed “war on drugs” is a contributing factor.  Theorists have asked what the Seychelles and the USA have in common that could explain their anomalous numbers, but the differences between the tiny island nation and the enormous and powerful US are so vast that there is no basis for comparison. Other attempts have been made to explain the anomaly by looking at Canada, usually a fruitful exercise as the countries are culturally and geographically so similar. No luck there, however. The US has some 10 times the rate of incarceration of that of its northern neighbour.

This clearly out of control inclination to lock people up at such a frantic pace brings up some very fundamental questions regarding crime and punishment. Without getting too Dostoyevsky on ourselves, it is worth asking some meta questions. Let’s go beyond whether incarceration is a suitable punishment for non-violent offenders. Let’s go beyond whether longer sentences are more just. Let’s even go beyond whether incarceration is the best form of response to the conviction of a criminal. Let’s get right down to the very bottom and ask: Why do we punish people at all?

The usual answer to the question of why we punish is that punishment is a deterrent to crime. Knowing that one runs the risk of punishment, one is less likely to commit a crime, goes the theory; increase the penalty and you increase the deterrent effect. That straightforward calculation is usually sufficient to satisfy most of us. So whenever we see an increase in crime or a sudden wave of particular penitentiarytypes of criminal activity, the cry goes forth: Increase the sentences! Too bad it simply doesn’t work in real life the way it does on paper. A simple indication that the reasoning may be flawed is that the US imposes far greater punishments (in terms of length of incarceration) for similar crimes than does Canada and yet their crime rate is also much higher. It appears as though there is some deterrence attached to incarceration, but the direct relationship of deterrence to crime is not linear and it reaches a point of diminishing returns.

At this point it is usual to bring out the anecdotes concerning the British predilection for hanging even petty criminals in the 18th and early 19th Centuries, where pickpockets worked the crowds at the hanging of pickpockets. Needless to say, The United Kingdom and every other western developed Nation has long since abolished capital punishment while we wait for the United States of America to join the lethalinjectioncommunity of developed countries. The main practical reason for the abolition is the obvious fact that even the most severe penalty of all has failed to deter even minor crimes. That the abolition of the death penalty was also sought in most jurisdictions on moral and ethical grounds would probably not have much effect on the current US Congress.

That severe penalties are not statistically deterrents to crime has been demonstrated time and again has not led to any serious overhaul of the US criminal justice system. America is fond of the death penalty, even though it doesn’t do what supposedly justifies its existence. Longer and longer sentences under increasingly brutal conditions clearly hasn’t done the job either; the incarceration rate keeps increasing. The cynical (and probably accurate) observation here would be that the private prison lobby is working the halls of government and the golf courses of Virginia assiduously to keep the conviction and sentencing rates high and those efforts keep a large number of US citizens behind bars.

So is the prison industry entirely to blame for the lopsided numbers of citizens in stir? Well probably not, although they can certainly take some of the credit. The rest of the answer though, lies elsewhere.

Among the other answers to the question of why we punish at all is the original justification for incarceration in North America. And that is that the punishment is supposed to teach criminals the error of their ways and turn them into law-abiding productive citizens. The government/private enterprise that locks people up is called the department of corrections. The notion here is that, like spanking a jailcellchild, the state will correct misbehaviour. The places in which prisoners are locked up for increasingly lengthy terms are called penitentiaries. These places were ostensibly designed with intention of creating an atmosphere in which a criminal could reflect upon his sins and become penitent. After a suitable stretch with little to do but contemplate his sins and, presumably, pray for forgiveness, the prisoner may be declared rehabilitated and prepared to re-enter society, a chastened and reformed citizen.

The truth however is quite different. If we were to look honestly at any argument for longer sentences for crimes, we would be hard pressed to find a senator or congressman framing the argument as a need for additional time to reflect and repent. Whenever we see a rise in crime and the knee-jerk response of demands that more people be locked up and for longer periods of time, how often does the notion of reflection, or of penitence, or even rehabilitation come up?

No, the truth is that we punish people because we want to hurt people out of vengeance for what they have done to us as a society and specifically to any victims of their crimes. This is known as retributive justice and it is the easiest to understand and describe but it is by far the hardest to justify. Simply put we see retribution as a way of balancing the scales; we don’t want someone harming us without seeing them harmed in some way in return. That has been a fundamental aspect of codified justice systems since the first comprehensive, written code, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, was enacted in Mesopotamia in about 1754 BCE.

Famous for its “eye for an eye” legislation, what people often don’t understand is that Hammurabi wasn’t demanding severe punishment for a transgression; on the contrary, he was demanding that his people, when seeking retributive justice, take no more vengeance than he prescribed. Since that Babylonian code made no distinction in terms of punishment between an eye having been lost through the negligence or accident of another on the one hand and the loss of an eye as the result of a deliberate act on the other, it is clear that deterrence wasn’t the justification for the penalty. Hammurabi included the retributive aspects of his code for the specific reason of restricting the level of retribution his subjects were allowed to take; he knew that, left to their own devices, people are inclined to hit back much harder than they were hit in the first place.

And this, we can see, is the reason behind the anomalously vast prison population in the United States. Exodus 21:24 and Mathew 5:38 both reference the “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” notions of retribution. And in Mathew, the quote is mentioned specifically so that it can be rejected and replaced with “turn the other cheek”. Nevertheless, the United States, being a crypto-theocracy that more and Gandhi quotemore overtly carries out policy according to an evangelical Christian interpretation of cherry picked portions of the bible, embraces that sense of retribution in its culture. But increasingly, they interpret the “eye for an eye” injunction as meaning “no less than an eye for an eye” despite the historical fact that even 4,000 years ago, justice demanded no more than an eye for an eye.

A radical overhaul of the criminal justice system of the US is long overdue. The rationale for incarceration, the balance between the severity of a crime and the length of the sentence, and the justification for meting out harsh penalties for victimless and non-violent crimes all need to be thoroughly examined. But truth be told, the climate of hostility, hatred, and violence in the United States at the moment is hardly conducive to such an endeavour.

ENDITEM…

 

 

Pass it on….

And I think to myself….
Pagun

We live in a shitty world because, by and large, we make it shitty; so shitty, in fact, that the Pagun Principle (The Pagun Principle: 90% of everything is crap) is probably wide-eyed optimistic naiveté. That’s reflected in the only aphorism to which I can claim original authorship; a companion piece to the Pagun Principle. Write this down: “A cynic is only what an idealist calls a realist”. That having been said, this realist would like to look at some of the things that fall into that scarce and endangered 10% excluded by the Principle.

As my more devoted readers will already know, I am currently fighting a recurrence of the cancer that we had hoped had been surgically eliminated last fall. After months of chemo, I have now started my course of 33 radiation treatments. These treatments are only available in Victoria, British Columbia’s capital city. That happens to be about 250 kilometres away at the southernmost end of Vancouver Island, about a three-hour drive if the traffic is good. There is a lodge in which I could stay for the entire six and a half weeks this treatment is expected to take but, because of my responsibilities as JJ’s primary caregiver, it isn’t an option for me.

So far, one will have undoubtedly noted, the Pagun Principle is holding up; the foregoing all falls into the crap category.

IMG_0075

JJ…One lady called him `The Spirit of Joy`.

So let’s look at the ten percent that’s left. I get an up-close and personal view of that every day; for all of the crap, the side effects…the pain, the weakness, the nausea, the exhaustion, the inability to work, the anxiety over failing to provide for my family, the depression, the declining overall health from enforced sedentary living, the uncertainty…for all of that, there are nevertheless some truly uplifting elements associated with this adventure I’m embarked upon. The medical infrastructure, despite the current government’s crusade to hamstring and undermine it, is at times breathtakingly compassionate, efficient, and patient-centred. And it’s more than simply our universal healthcare; it’s the non-governmental, grassroots input from the community that often astonishes a realist like me.

A typical day for me starts at about 5.30 am. I get up and make breakfast for me, Yolanda and JJ. Shower and then send Yolanda off to VIU for her last few classes, and then get JJ ready for the day`s jaunt to Victoria. Pack up his backpack with toys, snacks and books. Sometime after 6, the Wheels for Wellness van arrives to pick us up. Wheels for Wellness is charitable organisation that was formed for the specific purpose of IMG_0059providing transportation to and from medical appointments. The society uses volunteer drivers to pick up patients all over Vancouver Island and take them to Victoria for kidney dialysis, their ophthalmologists for injections for macular degeneration, or in my case, the most common appointment, cancer radiation treatments. There are no means tests, there are no questions asked; if one calls their hotline, arrangements are made and the van is dispatched. Most people require transportation for a weekly trip to stay in the Cancer Society`s lodge for Monday to Friday treatments and a trip home for the weekend; for others, it`s a one-time return trip for a single treatment; for some, like me and the dialysis patients, it`s a daily round trip. Although envelopes are provided for donations, the service is free and no requests are ever made. The volunteer drivers are retirees from all walks of life who donate their time, their compassion, and their patience for absolutely no financial compensation. Without exception, the drivers are kind, decent, friendly, and self-effacing; they make the patients feel as though they are special and very welcome guests.

The road trip from up-island to Victoria is pleasant, even (or perhaps especially) with five or six people with serious illnesses. The people in the van are as wildly eclectic a mix as are the drivers although, just as the drivers all have their kindness in common, the passengers all share the fact of their ill health. Nevertheless, contrary to my expectations, the conversation very rarely centres on cancer or the other diseases for which the patients are being treated.

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A quick game of Simon Says before I get nuked

The BC Cancer Centre itself ought to be a model for similar places everywhere. It is bright, sunny and peaceful. It is, oddly enough, a cheerful place with conversation pits scattered throughout the building and volunteers everywhere; some carrying out specific tasks and others seemingly unassigned and simply stopping by to offer to fetch, carry, provide a magazine, or just chat. Some volunteers push tea and coffee trolleys around and give out hot drinks and offer candies from a bowl. Others are walking around with volunteer therapeutic dogs; their function is simply to bring the dogs to patients and permit some canine-human interaction. JJ has his particular favourite – Bosun, a very gentle Golden Lab.
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The radiation technicians are, without exception, kind, friendly and sensitive to the patients. They ensure that nobody has to wait more than a few minutes for their treatments and provide full information as to what is happening and what to expect. Their sensitivity and kindness is demonstrated every day by their treatment of JJ. They are all charmed rather than annoyed by a very energetic five-year-old who has just spent more than three hours confined in a car. They bring him into the treatment room and let him watch from behind the radiation screen; they even let him operate the controls that align the bed and the nuclear radiation apparatus; when I`m done and getting up, there are high fives all around and one of the technicians has developed a habit of giving him a sticker each day.

The one thing regarding all of these extraordinary people – volunteers and employees alike – that really stands out in my mind is how happy they all are. Far from being withdrawn, sullen, or depressed as the result of working in an environment that exists for the specific purpose of treating people with an often fatal disease for which we have treatments but still haven`t a real cure, they will candidly acknowledge that they derive as great rewards from their efforts as do the patients. The Cancer Centre is the most cheerful place I know.

So, in this attempt to make life just a little less shitty, it seems to me that we might have tripped over a piece of the puzzle. Just watching the genuine joy that exudes from pretty much everyone at the Cancer Centre makes it evident that there is a tangible correlation between doing acts of kindness for others and personal contentment. Of course correlation isn`t necessarily causation; I`m perfectly willing to concede that performing acts of kindness doesn`t necessarily make that person happy; it could be that happy people are more inclined to act kindly. We could be committing the fallacy of confusing cause and effect.

There is, however, a way to find out.Be kind by Plato

Of course it would be unrealistic to suggest that everyone ought to dedicate as many hours and as much compassion as displayed by the many volunteers I encounter every day. Nevertheless, I can offer this suggestion: run a little experiment. Random acts of kindness. Try consciously to seek out opportunities to perform small acts of generosity for one day. Wave someone ahead of you in traffic. Smile at a stranger. Help someone with their groceries. Then try it for a week. What the hell. Make it a way of life.

At the very least others will be a little happier; and there`s nothing wrong with that.

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