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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

What If…

 

The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made On

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA) In my last column I proposed an answer to the question of what exactly is motivating Donald Trump to run for the presidency of the United States. I deliberately left out one of the possible answers to that question because it is not at all impossible that it is the correct one, and if it is, the repercussions would be almost unthinkable.

As Trump himself might put it, “Lots of people are saying…” that Trump is, quite simply, an old school fascist with ambitions to place himself at the head of the most powerful country in human history and rule it and, by extension, the world with an iron hand. The notion isn’t as far fetched as one might hope. His campaign so far appears to have been modeled (at least insofar as it has had any conscious planning) on the paths of the 20th Centuries two best known populist fascist demagogues. Both Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini appealed to the fears and hatreds of their electorates. The were rabid populists who identified other, inferior races as both the cause of their countries’ problems and as the biggest threat to the nation. They painted dismal pictures of the conditions of their countries and offered themselves as the only solution to those problems.

They were both strongmen who were quite prepared to whip their followers into a frenzy and then turn them loose to do violence to their opponents and to the minorities they had designated as scapegoats. They both demanded loyalty and basked in the adulation of the massed crowds. They both were clinical narcissists and were convinced that they were superior to ordinary people and were destined for historical greatness. They both managed to parlay their fanatical minority support into political power and then took control of their governments and systematically eliminated any opposition until they were the unquestioned seat of all political power; they made themselves dictators.

Adolph on lies

Sounds very familiar

Significantly, from the perspective of decades later and a better understanding of the mechanics of the usurpation of political power, when we watch old newsreel films of the two fascist dictators, they are comical in a morbid kind of way. Hitler, foaming at the mouth and contorting his face and body in passionate paroxysms while in full rhetorical flight would be laugh-out-loud hilarious if we didn’t know what followed from those hate rallies. Mussolini, in his comic opera persona Il Duce, lapped up the cheers and chanting of the crowds below while he puffed out his chest and preened and postured. If we weren’t Benito_Mussolini_in_Yugoslavia_croppedfamiliar with mid 20th Century history, he too would be a source of mirth. Charlie Chaplin satirised both demagogues in his brilliant and hilarious The Great Dictator. So transparently buffoonish were those two populist fascist leaders that a good many reasonable people couldn’t really take them seriously at first; when they realised that they had succeeded in their power grabs, it was too late.

Trump is clearly cut from the same cloth. He talks the same law and order game; he paints a false but horrifying picture of the nation’s condition; he tells his loser followers that they are not to blame for their failure to thrive; he points to “others” as the real cause of the problems he exaggerates; he offers himself as the only solution to the problems he inflates; he encourages his followers to commit violent acts against anyone who doesn’t chant his name with sufficient fervour. He doesn’t offer policy specifics. He simply persuades his followers that what is needed is his strong hand on the tiller of the ship of state, and someone like him with the courage to face up to reality and eschew the lily-livered weak kneed, politically correct failures who have reduced the nation to its current deplorable state. He is every bit as narcissistic as the Fuhrer and Il Duce and, like them, his favoured interaction with the people is at extravagantly organised and choreographed rallies where he can bask in the worship of the faithful.the-great-dictator-1940-wallpapers-9

But Donald Trump is not a carbon copy of the two European fascists. He differs in a way that might be very significant. He is lazy and he is not very smart.

He is virtually a savant when it comes to media manipulation. In fact, that may well be his only real talent. He has been demonstrated to be a particularly lousy business man; his multiple bankruptcies and the level of debt that he has been shown to be carrying all testify to that. His ignorance of anything donald-trump-face-outside of his short-fingered immediate reach, from history and geography to economics and constitutional law is breathtaking. His refusal to bone up on subjects that are indispensable to a head of state is a clear testament to his laziness. In fact, it has been widely reported that, while he was desperately searching for a politician willing to tank his own career by accepting the vice-presidential nod, he tried to sell some prospects on the job by promising them complete control over domestic and foreign affairs, leaving him to be a figurehead doing little more than taking credit for successes and addressing the rallies that he thrives on.

Whether that was the deal he cut with his VP ticket partner, Mike Spence, isn’t clear, but it does seem likely. And that’s why Trump as a strong man leader with anything approaching a mandate in November would be such a nightmare. Trump, for all his bluster, is a weak man. He is a bully and his wealth has always insulated him from any consequences; but his inability to absorb criticism, his instinct to lash out at any perceived slight, and his tissue paper thin skin demonstrate his fundamental fragility. As long as his ego is fed, he would be easily manipulated by someone stronger, smarter, and willing to work behind the scenes. Dick Cheney’s control of American domestic and foreign policy while George Dubya vacationed at his ranch for over 850 days of his presidency demonstrates that such an arrangement wouldn’t even be unique in presidential history.

But where it gets really frightening is not the concern that Mike Spence would really be running the show during a Trump presidency. Spence is a far right conservative who ticks all the boxes: anti LGBTQ; pro-life; trickle down believer; climate change denier; etc. etc. If given any genuine power, his impact could set the United States back decades and his Supreme Court nominations would be hair-raising. Nevertheless, the real fear of some eminence grise employing Machiavellian tactics behind the scenes of a Trump regime has more to do with Vladimir Putin and the crush that Trump has on him.

bromance-between-trump-and-putin

Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his admiration for Putin and has regularly expressed a desire to get closer to the Russian dictator. Given Trump’s aversion to doing the actual work of governing, given his intellectual vacuity, and given his vulnerability to ego-stroking, he would be an absolutely perfect candidate for manipulation by the right person. And that person, were Trump to be elected, could very well be Vladimir Putin.

We are very fortunate that, as things stand, Trump is unlikely as hell to be elected. The foregoing doomsday scenario has very little chance of playing out. But think about it. If anybody thinks that not voting for Hillary Clinton is a good idea, consider the possibility. Then try to sleep at night.

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…

 

Death Throes

The death of an ideology

Pagun

 

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA –

                       “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”                                                                                                                              (Winston Churchill, from a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947)

 

A less eloquent and witty way of expressing the same notion would be simply to point out that democracy is probably humanity’s greatest achievement in its billion-year climb from the primordial ooze. Nevertheless, it seems as though there is an inclination among some people here in the West to throw that magnificent achievement away with both hands as fast as they can. To see that dynamic in action, all one has to do is subscribe to a news forum, read the letters to the editors of newspapers, or simply click on the Comments section following articles in most news portals on the Internet.

 

There is a growing propensity for intolerance of divergent points of view that is manifested as cyberbullying, digital shouting down of others, and the gang flaming of anyone who expresses a viewpoint that differs, let alone contradicts, another poster’s. This inclination is most evident on the easy-to-access sites like Yahoo News forums, suggesting that the most vocal flamers are not inclined to take the extra thought and effort required to access more sophisticated forums. Interestingly, an admittedly non-scientific survey I have undertaken clearly indicates that the most vicious of the cyberbullies come from the right of the political spectrum; hardly surprising, given the proliferation of scientific studies that show the average intelligence of conservatives to be  less than that of professed liberals.

 

What I find curious and somewhat frightening is that the conservative perspective today seems to be fundamentally anti-democratic. If we take the US Republican Party to be reflective of the current Western conservative political ideology, we can see that there is an almost religious conviction that their political views are so absolutely correct that bypassing or subverting the democratic process to impose their policies is an acceptable course of action. For them, the institution of policies supporting their ideology is of a higher priority than the preservation of democracy…the very system that permits them to express their ideas.

 

Among the courses of action employed by the conservative movement in the US has been the systematic enactment of self-admittedly restrictive voter suppression laws. One by one, the red states are passing laws that are intended to suppress that segment of the demographic that is most likely to vote Democratic in any election. The strategy is clear: if their ideology doesn’t please a citizen, eliminate the right to vote for a candidate who supports a different one. Along with their disdain for liberal ideas comes a disdain for democracy itself. So confident are the conservatives of the superiority of their ideas, they would not permit any opposition if they had their way.

 

But perhaps every bit as disturbing is the polarisation that is taking place in the real world, the world away from the halls of legislation.

 

While I acknowledge that this a general and not a universal observation, it seems that the grassroots conservatives have started to entertain a suspicion that they are wrong, that their ideology is flawed, and that their politics are obsolete and are reacting by circling the wagons to defend their entrenched views. In fact, they want to stifle rational discussion because they simply don’t want to consider or discuss alternative viewpoints since – at some level – they know that they could not prevail in a rational debate of policy and political philosophy. They know unconsciously that the conservative mantra of “If it was good enough for Grandpa, it’s good enough for kids today” is fundamentally flawed; it wasn’t really good enough for Grandpa…that’s why it needs to change.

 

The result is that they wrap themselves in a faux patriotic mantle and cyberscream at anyone they suspect of not cleaving to extreme right wing dogma and call them “libertards”. They commonly refer to the US president as “Obammy”, and start from the position that all those who make a comment that sounds like it came from the left of Mussolini are effete communist homosexual welfare recipients. It’s not enough to disagree with a distinctly centrist president, he must be accused of treason; they must call for his impeachment or even a good old-fashioned lynching. The fact is that, despite two decisive wins in two consecutive general elections, the vocal conservative faction doesn’t see the American president as legitimate; he wasn’t their choice, so the democratic choice doesn’t count. Democracy, for today’s conservative, is something to which lip service ought to be paid if, and only if, they agree with the majority.

 

The conservative movement in its current incarnation is mortally wounded; its soft underbelly has been exposed and it has torn itself apart with its inherent hatred and mean-spiritedness. But, as a wounded animal, it is most dangerous just before it rolls over and dies. It lashes out at everything and its venom is undiminished in its lethality. But like a wounded venomous reptile, it needs to be killed once and for all; once it is finally and certainly dead, the rest of us can get on once again with pushing the democratic principles to their limits and work toward the betterment of mankind…something that conservatives see as insignificant compared to the betterment of themselves as individuals.

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The Further Adventures of Snake Plisskin

The Cave

Pagun

 VANCOUVER ISLAND CANADA – In TheRepublic, Plato recounts a dialogue between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon, that has become known as the Allegory of the Cave. The allegory is crucial to Plato’s philosophy as it outlines the basic metaphor from which the seminal theory of the Platonic forms is drawn. It is also critical because it explains the underpinnings of Socrates’ understanding of the baffling (to Socrates, at any rate) statement of the Oracle of Delphi that the wisest of mortals was, in fact, Socrates. Socrates spent the better part of his career as a philosopher trying to disprove the Oracle’s declaration because, in his own judgment, he was utterly ignorant; he knew that he knew nothing. 

Briefly, the story that forms the allegory goes like this: Imagine prisoners who have been kept chained in a cave their entire lives. They face the wall of the cave and all they can see are the shadows cast on the cave’s wall by objects that pass behind them and in front of a fire. They come to believe that the shadows they see are, in fact, the whole of reality. Socrates then compares a philosopher to a prisoner who breaks out of his confinement and sees the world beyond the cave, and experiences the wonder and vastness of the world. 

This, Socrates eventually concludes in Apology when he explains his life to the people of Athens before he is put to death, is what the oracle meant when she said that he was the wisest mortal; that he, unlike the prisoners, was aware that he knew nothing. 

This came to mind recently when I was asked to chair and moderate a discussion on Canada’s military’s role nationally and internationally. The subject of the discussion is irrelevant, but what is relevant is that I when did this little gig, it was an increasingly rare venture outside of the cave. 

For months now, I have been living inside that cave Plato described. My work consists of caring for a small boy who spends three mornings a week at preschool and the rest of the time under my direct observation. During that time, I write and read and research as much as I can, and other than the occasional speaking engagement, a brief conversation with a neighbour or delivery person forms my entire interaction with society; genuine conversation begins and ends with my wife…and Internet forums. Yolanda is at work (she is employed by a charitable organisation) for the bulk of the day, so I have recently spent more time than is entirely healthy exchanging thoughts and ideas with other denizens of the ‘Net. This, I felt, was useful because it would keep me in touch with the world, help me stay abreast of social trends, and maintain a finger on the pulse of the world of which I still assumed I was a part. 

My assumption was wrong. I was not staying in touch; I was retreating into the cave and chaining myself up with the other prisoners. I was not seeing the world anymore; I was watching the flickering shadows on the cave’s wall and mistaking them for reality. I was actually losing touch with what defines us as a civilised society. Stepping back, I start to get a glimmer of how people in constant communication with thousands of people all over the world and with total access to news, as it happens anywhere on the planet, can be utterly alienated. I even start to get a sense of how that isolation and alienation can breed and nurture damaged people like Adam Lanza. I get that sense because so many of the keyboard warriors that spend their days lurking behind fictional registered personas are clearly disturbed and, being utterly unfettered by society’s direct disapprobation of truly offensive behaviour, feel free to express ideas and thoughts that ought to have them committed to at least thirty days of court ordered psychiatric observation.

 

When I was a university teacher; when I worked in newspaper, magazine, or even business offices; when I hung out in hotel bars with colleagues; when I routinely attended conferences and conventions; I had ample…perhaps even too ample….opportunity to exchange views, to explore ideas, to determine how others saw things. There was open, social, and informed discussion of news, of politics, religion, education, business, society in general; I was outside of the cave and I was seeing and participating in the wonder and vastness of the world. 

But inside the cave, seeing nothing but the flickering shadows on the computer screen, we can become deluded into believing that we are experiencing, even participating, in the real world; we’re not. We can participate fully and robustly in news discussion forums and we can contribute to dedicated chat rooms, even serious minded ones, but if we think that is anything more than a pale analogue of full, genuine human interaction we are as deluded as the chained prisoners who believe that shadows are the whole of reality. 

I suspect that is largely because of the anonymity that the Internet can offer. In the real world; in the cocktail bar and the coffee room and the faculty lounge, society imposes a degree of accountability on people for what they say, how they say it, and to whom they say it. That is entirely missing on the Web. Certainly the virtual world is developing its own protocols and rules of acceptable social behaviour; nevertheless, the Internet, compared to human society as an historical reality, is very young. It has the social strictures of a daycare centre without any supervision. 

The result of this is a kind of Lord of the Flies existence in the cyberworld.  It has broken up into factions and there are pockets of refinement, decency, and intelligent discussion. These are hard to find, however, and they are generally either moderated, which slows down and inhibits the free flow conversation or they require one to jump through hoops to register and this tends to encourage groupthink and its resulting reinforcement of preconceptions. By and large, the easy-to-use news forums are inhabited by the scrapings of the barrel`s bottom. There are thoughtful, intelligent users, but they tend to get shouted down, ganged up on, bullied, and derided by the keyboard warriors for whom calling people names passes for an exchange of ideas. If the people who dominate these forums had – in the real world – the courage and bellicosity they affect online, the outside world would be reminiscent of Manhattan in John Carpenter`s Escape from New York. 

These general consumption forums (Yahoo News forums are perhaps the most obvious example) are trolled by ignorant, illiterate buffoons who love to trash any post that doesn`t express a political viewpoint to the right of Genghis Khan. The most prolific posters are passionate subscribers to every crackpot conspiracy theory; they are racist; they are astonishingly ignorant of history, science, and current events that aren`t reported by Fox “News”; the height of their wit is to refer to the US president as “O`Bammy”; they take it as an established fact that he is a Muslim communist Kenyan who conned all the “liberidiots”, as they refer to anyone who sees things differently from, say, Adolph Hitler. 

Because I, and anyone for whom I hold any real respect, don’t take cheap shots and hide behind anonymity, I make it possible, even fairly easy for people on forums I frequent to identify me. It helps me avoid the temptation to sink to the level of the common denominator and it maintains a faint shadow of the kind of constraint imposed by normal societal interaction. But given the level of ignorance and pugnacity of those posters, combined with my inclination toward hardcore liberalism, perhaps that is a mistake. 

I have had a thoughtful interlocutor call my four-year-old son JJ a “nigger”; I have had the same lowlife refer to my wife Yolanda as a “nigger whore”. This for no other reason than that he disagreed with my views on gun control and  took the time to look me up online, research me and discover that my wife and child are insufficiently white to suit him. 

It shames me to say that this scum is a Canadian. I have been similarly disparaged by people from other countries, but this one affected me because since we have been in Canada, my family has never, not once, been subjected to overt racism. But without societal constraint, this filth gets an airing and, worse, gets equal or greater play than those who abhor bigotry. It becomes seen by the dwellers of the Internet cave as a legitimate and widespread viewpoint. 

So, when I recently stepped into the real world for a gig that involved listening to average people’s views and guiding a discussion of them, I dreaded the prospect and was concerned that they couldn’t pay me enough to have to listen to the garbage to which I would undoubtedly be subjected. And that was my surprise. The average people at the discussion were reasonably well informed; they were respectful; they listened and disagreed without derision. Some were smarter than others, and some had views that I couldn’t possibly share, but they were expressed rationally, if passionately. I was outside of the Cave. 

The real world is a better place in some ways than the virtual world, because people have to live together. As long as it means only that one doesn’t gratuitously ridicule others or deliberately hurt people, political correctness apparently has its place. Society imposes a requirement that we don’t callously and deliberately abuse one another, because we can’t simply step away from our keyboard to avoid the repercussions. 

People aren’t as stupid and venal as one would believe if one were to make an analysis based solely on what one could glean from the Internet. Outside of the cave there is a world of people of all sorts, there is wisdom, there is kindness, there is courtesy. The bad things are certainly there as well, but unlike inside the cave, or Carpenter’s New York, they don’t predominate. 

I have to get out more.

 

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