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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

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…

 

The Death Penalty Revisited

 

Judicial Killings

Pagun

On June 17, 2015, 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot and killed 9 people and injured one more. Among the dead were a senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney. After a brief manhunt, Dylann RoofRoof was arrested and confessed to the murders and stated that he had been trying to instigate a race war. Although support for the death penalty has been declining in the US, there has been little negative reaction to the state’s announcement that in this case, the death penalty would be sought.

There probably never was a defendant who more richly deserved the most severe penalty provided by law. The mass murderer was indicted under South Carolina’s hate crime provisions; Roof has shown absolutely no remorse and in fact he appears to be proud of his act. Roof is an unrepentant, arrogant, racist who took innocent lives for no reason beyond his all-consuming hatred for his victims and anyone else of colour.

The disparity between the number of executions of blacks v. whites and the possibility of executing an innocent person are the two most persuasive arguments for the abolition of the death sentence in the US; and they don’t apply here. Roof is the poster boy for the imposition of the ultimate sanction.

Nevertheless, I take the view that, even in the case of this repugnant piece of human filth, the death penalty is wrong, it shouldn’t be imposed on Dylann Roof, and ought to be abolished.

I chose this particular case to use in my discussion of the death penalty because I want to be perfectly clear: although I have used arguments like its ineffectiveness as a deterrent, as well as the racial DeathPenaltyEditorial2_0bias in its imposition, and the possibility of judicial error, these are not my fundamental objections to state sanctioned killing. If somehow those objections could be persuasively countered, I would still maintain that abolition of the death penalty is a moral requirement of any civilisation.

The ultimate penalty is reserved for cases in which there is the calculated and cold blooded taking of human life; the presumption here is that human life is the ultimate value, and respect for it is demanded and expected of every member of our society. I argue that it is hard to make that case when the state takes it upon itself to decide that one human life does not have ultimate value; in fact, it has no value at all, and can legally be taken by other human beings. To execute a murderer is to say at one and the same time that life is supremely valuable and that is not, as we reserve the right to end one if society deems it appropriate. The logic doesn’t work.

Of course, that logical argument can be parsed and debated ad infinitum and simple logical propositions are not particularly persuasive when we are dealing with an emotionally loaded issue like this one. The argument that I find the most persuasive when someone speaks for the abolition of capital punishment is that I do not want to be part of a society that makes it legal to take another human being’s life in a calculated, premeditated act of judicial killing. To support our right to kill with judicial approval diminishes me and coarsens the very fabric of what passes for civilisation. We have already agreed that the most heinous crime of all is cold-blooded, calculated, premeditated homicide; I can’t be part of that, even if I have the law on my side.

A society that condones brutality – and make no mistake, execution of a human being is brutality – and even imposes it is quite simply a society of brutes. And somehow even proponents of capital punishment are aware that the death penalty is obscene. If the deterrent argument worked or even if the retributive argument had any legs, we would have public, even televised executions. Surely if everyone actually watched the death of a convicted murderer, any deterrent effect would be multiplied. And, as to the retributive justice theory, if society is going to find some sense of Death Penalty has no place in 21st Centuryclosure or feel that some sort of scale of justice is balanced by the death for a death, surely that sense of justice would be enhanced by having justice done openly and without apology or shame. That isn’t the case, however. Executions are carried out furtively at the crack of dawn or in the dead of night in front of a few select witnesses. There seems to be a sense that, if the executions were public and open,   we would be demeaned by the spectacle; that sick, voyeuristic sadists would get their perverse jollies from seeing someone die. Of course, that is almost certainly true. The sight of a deliberate killing is coarse and ugly; coarse and ugly souls will love it. But if it is the right thing to do, why don’t we own up to it and stop dispensing justice behind a screen?

The short answer is: because we know it’s wrong and we prefer to do wrongs with a minimum of scrutiny. We know that public executions would bring out the real nutjobs who love to witness or participate in brutality; even when executions are done with minimal fanfare, the death groupies show up at the doors of prisons where they are to be carried out and cheer for the cruelty that is going on inside. Burn, baby, burn. Are spectacles like that indicative of refined feelings? Are those vicious brutality junkies the kind of people from whom any reasonably enlightened person would take moral guidance? Far from it; those are the very worst of our species and it is their moral judgements upon which we rely to execute people.

If civilisation survives for much longer, historians will point with contempt at countries that death penalty countriescontinued to impose the death penalty after pretty much every developed country abolished it. Historically, the United States clung to slavery long after the civilised world had grown beyond the trade in human beings. It’s not too late for the US to get on the right side of history with respect to capital punishment. Wouldn’t it be nice for the US to occupy the moral high ground for a change?

ENDITEM…

Why the US Needs This Gong Show

A Two Party System

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) The problem with a two party system is that there are only two parties.

political-polarization-us-politics

 

A body politic that has only a choice between two parties is necessarily wildly contorted as a general election looms. Bifurcating something as complex as political and social ideology is an attempt to simplify something of nearly infinite nuance into three or four broad statements. The end result of that process of applying binary thinking is homogeneity on the one hand and chaos and self-destruction on the other. And that’s what we’re seeing as we grab our popcorn and watch in fascinated amusement the political train wreck that passes for a general election in the United States.

The first thing that needs to be noted is that, with a two party or binary system, in a free market capitalist country, polarisation must necessarily take place. Because of the cutthroat competitiveness that capitalism breeds, people of opposing political views face each other down and duke it out until one view is left standing and the other is left bleeding in the arena. gladiatior18fightingThere is no possibility of arriving at a consensus when politics are as polarised as they are in the US at this writing; there will be no dialectical process of thesis meeting antithesis to produce a synthesis. In this kind of politics, synthesis would be seen by all participants as capitulation and selling out. The US congress of the last eight years, the entire stretch of the Obama presidency, has demonstrated that better than any theoretical application of political theory could do.

As we have seen, the degree of polarity that has developed in United States politics has led lawmakers to the point where party loyalty takes precedence over loyalty to their oaths of office or even loyalty to their country. This is an inevitable result of the fiercely fought battles to control the narrative of one party in that two-party system. As a result of having fought so ferociously to stake out positions on the far right, the traditional territory of the Republicans, any backsliding toward the middle was simply not tolerated by the party. And with the right wing views so entrenched in their rhetoric and faceofftheir doctrine, it became it sign of weakness even to grant their president the simple courtesies due to him by virtue of the office he held.

The acknowledged mission of the Republicans came to be to deny the president any victory or accomplishment at all and to achieve this noble aim by simple obstructionism. Most of the time they simply did nothing; the rest of the time, at every opportunity, they threatened or attempted to shut down the government completely. So intent on undermining Obama’s presidency were they, that they were willing to destroy their country’s economy, its sense of self worth, and its standing in the world. Even if people were to die (another inevitability of shutting down air traffic control, police departments, the military, etc.) as a result of their actions, well that would be worth it not to compromise and work with the other party or, god forbid, the president. What they didn’t see, and what is only becoming clear to them now, is that in the process they destroyed their party.

What went wrong for the Republicans was the advent of the Tea Party faction within their caucus. The Tea Partiers, by their sudden election of a cohort of far right freshman congressmen and senators, persuaded the rest of the party that they could appeal to their base and more of the general public by pushing the envelope of their dogma farther and farther to the right. Soon Republican senators and congressmen were falling all over themselves to showcase their bona fides by refusing to consider compromise in their debates over legislation, even going to the extent of signing Grover Norquist’s “never raise taxes” pledge and cutting every social program in sight. These government employees were determined, as Norquist said, to shrink the government down until it was small enough to drown in a bathtub. The pledge itself being a betrayal of their oaths of office, wherein they had pledged that their country was to come first in all considerations, became a symbol of how narrow the Republican entrance gate had become.

The Republican Party had long stood for a few ideals: smaller government (not no government), free enterprise capitalism, states rights. But now, to be a good Republican, you have to deny anthropogenic climate change, oppose civil rights for the LBGT community, demand that planned Parenthood be defunded, support the intrusion of evangelical Christianity into government, profess that life begins at the moment of conception, deny that evolution is a scientific reality, be in favour of voter suppression, despise immigrants, and a whole laundry list of more and more bizarre dogma. The Republicans, in their struggle to elbow their way to the most extreme right of the party hadn’t considered the fact that by its very nature, an extreme position excludes many people. So while the real hard core Republicans gamely continued to participate in the rightward migration, occasionally they’d lose one of their own; one who had just a bit more sense than to follow the herd.

But meanwhile, registered Republicans were questioning whether the party of Lincoln represented their views any more. The Republican tent had been reduced to the point where nobody was left under its shelter except fanatics and political opportunists making a calculated strategic move. While there continues to exist an enormous Republican base, many are questioning whether they can in good conscience continue to go full Republican.

So, in the 2016 Republican primaries, Donald Trump came along and mobilised that contingent of the Republican base that supports all the narrow minded, mean spirited social dogma of the extreme right. He couldn’t care less about policy, foreign or domestic; he’s only interested in appealing to the hard kernel of deeply angry hard core Republicans that want to drive the vicious social agenda of the very worst of what’s left of the Republican party. And despite Ted Cruz and a rather shambolic collection of party stalwarts trying to play spoiler, Trump got them all signed up and swiped the nomination from anyone with the slightest hint of moderation in their views. Having shrunk their tent down to a size where it only covers this group of rabid fanatics, we are poised to see the GOP under Trump get slaughtered at the general and the rest of the party fracture and possibly splinter into third party startups. As long as Trump is the candidate there are millions of Americans who have never voted anything but Republican, but cannot countenance a Trump victory; they will stay home because they would rather sandpaper the insides of their eyelids than vote for Hillary Clinton.

Now, a third party is not at all a bad idea. Even better would be several more parties. If people are feeling as politically alienated as they seem to be, the reason for that alienation is obvious. The two party candidates at 2016’s general election will have the highest disapproval rating of any presidential candidates in history. Trump is hated because he embraces hatred and is gambling that there is enough hatred out there to carry him on a wave of odium and loathing to the White House. Hillary Clinton is disliked by fewer people but with some intensity for a number of reasons from her support of the Wall Street bailouts to the whisper campaign regarding the cellphone non-story. Nevertheless, no voter who agrees with the Democratic stance of providing a social safety net, progressive taxation, organised labour, and broad civil rights could ever vote for Trump, leaving abstention or Hillary as the only options.

A third party and even more than that would help the US avoid the angst of the limited choice they face and quite probably the circus that these primaries have become. If there were more parties, there would be no need for the internecine knife fight that’s destroying the only party on the right; there would be some place for Hillary-hating liberal elites to call home. There is nothing in the US constitution that requires a two party system; the constitution never even mentions parties. Even more importantly, the very structure of the United States government as determined by its constitution presumes that those seeking political office have the country itself as their primary loyalty. The two party system demands that pols adhere to their party above all, there being no alternative other than a complete reversal of all views previously held.

New-Years-EveSo here’s to the fragmentation and ultimate shattering of the GOP; Since a Republican candidate can’t possibly win 2016, with any intelligent foresight some additional parties might be formed out of the scattered pieces of the old party. If that were to come to pass, in the fullness of time we would see congress representing a kaleidoscope of different views and interests, the power of the lobbies would be seriously diminished, compromise would be a daily fact of life and not an act of apostasy to be punished by burning at the stake, voters would be far more engaged, and there would be a sense that finding genuine representation in congress wouldn’t be the far-fetched fantasy of a cockeyed optimist.

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.

IMG_0078

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.
IMG_0069
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.

…enditem…

Meditating

The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully. (Samuel Johnson).

PAGUN

Content Warning

VANCOUVER ISLAND CANADA – All the indications are that my cancer surgery wasn’t successful. In the first place, there was more of it: the tumour wasn’t confined to the prostate itself; the seminal vesicles which (used to) be behind it were cancerous as well, as was some of the surrounding tissue. My doctor, who is young –almost Doogie Howser young – except VERY highly thought of and extremely good, and far better looking, did what he could. He took everything out that might be compromised or even at threat.

In a perfect world that would have resulted in my next PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) blood test showing a value of zero as there ought to be nothing the produce that particular antigen.thinker

Three months after the surgery (and 2 months after the sacred day of my catheter removal) such, unfortunately was not to be to the case. My blood test showed a PSA level of .15 Two days later it was at .16. Worrisome, but .2 is considered a definitive diagnosis of recurrence.

One month later my PSA tested out at .31

Cancer. Or as the sanitary language of medical euphemisms would have it….BCR. Biochemical Recurrence.

So if I’m going to have any chance of living long enough to see my wife graduate from culinary school (where she is at the top of her class) or my four year-old graduate from elementary school, I’ve got to figure out some way that I can undergo a minimum of six weeks of radiotherapy in another city. And then survive the chemotherapy I might have to do for the rest of my earthly days. Thank goodness for the focus that immanent death brings or the logistics would be impossible to manage.

But as the logistics of treatment have to be among the least interesting subjects I could imagine…this post will be more of a meditation on life and death.

It probably doesn’t mean very much to most people, but the very fact that you were even born is probably the most astonishing coincidence you are even capable of imagining. Here’s what I mean.

Your dadLet’s face it. Your Dad whacked off. If he’s around to own up to it, he might even admit that he did it a lot. But the fact that your father was around to whack off during the last few decades of all the decades of human occupation of this planet by beings with the human genome is flat out amazing. Now his whacking off isn’t amazing; it’s anything but. But think for a moment how many spermatozoa that particular male in that particular generation wasted; on his palm, the ceiling, sheets, socks, watermelons, or beloved pets. Trillions would Human_semen_in_handsbe a conservative estimate. YOU could have been any one of those. But you weren’t…you were the lucky one. And it gets even more unlikely that you won the sweepstakes. Somehow he met your mother…the possessor of the rest of the genetic material that will ultimately define you.

Then came all the social miracles that led to them having sex in a manner that permitted conception; whether it was rape, consensual, a prophylactic failure or anything beyond wishful thinking, somehow millions and millions of spermatozoa found themselves in your mother’s vagina heading for that month’s egg in a greatly expanded but microscopic scene from It’s a Mad. itsamadworld-completeMad, Mad, Mad World. And one of those obsessed fortune hunters, Phil Silvers or Mickey Rooney perhaps; maybe Buddy Hackett, got there first and breached the citadel, slamming the door after him.

And then came nine months of sheer luck. Most pregnancies are not even noticed and end spontaneously, many are aborted or end in miscarriage; yours was one of the unimaginably unlikely few that ended in a birth. You defied all the odds and made it to that wretched state we call “life”.

Like ‘em or loath ‘em, you’ve got to look in awe at your fellow humans (and yourself) with something akin to awe just for being here. They can be stupid, venal, brutal, tiresome, or mohandas_gandhivicsecretthey can be Albert Schweitzer rolled up in Ghandi and Einstein with the sexual appeal of a collage of Victoria Secret models crossbred with Rita Hayworth, and their individual characteristics would be only microscopically more amazing than the simple fact of their sheer existence. That’s life.

And then there’s death.

death

That, we don’t know shit about; except that in a few unsubstantiated cases, once the threshold’s been crossed, there ain’t no comin’ back. Hamlet was wrong in the first part of his big soliloquy: “To be or not to be?” Really short term thinking, for the Great Dane. NOT to be is where we’ll all end up. He had it right, though, when later he referred to “The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”. And we are all travellers with a one way ticket to that bourn.

twain censorship

THIS IMAGE WAS SPECIFICALLY CHOSEN FOR ALL OF YOU WHO GOT UPSET AT THE PICTURE OF MY DICK

Mark Twain occasionally spoke of death. (There was very little he didn’t occasionally speak of. More than writing, that’s what he did for a living.) Although his correction of mistaken news reports of his death (actually, it was his brother who was very ill, but alive in London at the time) he is often misquoted. What he actually wrote: ‘The report of my death was an exaggeration’ was every bit as witty. He was somewhat more philosophical but no less witty when he also said “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Twain was making an implicitly atheistic observation. The one quip dismissed the nonsense of the promised Christian afterlife, either the glory and eternal boredom of sitting at the right hand of god, the greatest underachiever and mass murderer the universe has ever spawned, or the sick theories concerning the conditions of eternal damnation. And speaking as one who can’t lower (despite years of trying) his intellectual standards to accept one jot, let alone a tittle, of the religious dogma force-fed to him by a succession of nuns, priests, and other bullies, anything resembling an afterlife holds no fear whatsoever…for much the same reason as expressed by Mark Twain.

That, of course says nothing about the other religions and their versions of the afterlife; but that means nothing either. Not one of their “theories” has the slightest evidence to support its contentions and there is no reason whatsoever for accepting their bald statements as anything more than delusion and wishful thinking. No, the truth is, the truth has to be that death is exactly like the other billions upon billions of years we spent NOT being alive. Oblivion. Nada. Niente. Rien. Kosong. And that is not to be feared.

For me, death, especially if it comes soon, is to be regretted. I have a four your old boy I love to distraction, and oblivion will rob me of the opportunity to see him grow; to graduate from school; to have his first girl or boyfriend; to marry and have a family and be successful. Moreover it will rob him of a father; a father’s support and guidance and love. I won’t be aware of this while its happening, of course, but as I shuffle off this mortal coil, you can be sure that it is those thoughts that will be the source of any tears I shed.

But before I leave this meditation having definitively concluded that oblivion, blessed nothingness, is the inevitable end of life, I should point out where my doubts lie. I have had a classic “near death experience”.

On a canoe trip, when I was about fourteen years old, I was turned over and caught in some rather treacherous rapids. Being a strong swimmer, I was at no time afraid. I even recall enjoying the underwater ride, looking through the surface and at the dim and filtered sunlight above as I followed the river at breakneck speed. Eventually I felt myself in need of a breath and calmly turned and swam steadily toward the surface. A little surprised, but not frightened to find that my efforts to climb to the surface produced absolutely no upward progression, I redoubled my efforts. Still nothing. I recall making one effort after another and continuing to find myself pulled inexorably downstream, several feet below the river’s surface. Oddly, I felt no fear at any time. Nevertheless, there came a definitive moment. I realised all at once that I was not going to survive. I knew, I knew with certainty that reaching the surface and life was no longer possible. With a more profound conviction than normal life is capable of providing, I knew and accepted that my life as I knew it was over. And I was right.

It was at the moment of acceptance of what appeared to be inevitable, that life as I knew it ended and I began my short-lived journey into another realm. I experienced all the characteristics of a near death experience; I left my body and could see my former shell sweeping downstream, I began to dissociate from common reality; I felt my second or astral body hurtling upwards; I saw the intense light and was just about to enter it. But this is the important aspect: it was the most joyful, peaceful, total happiness I can even imagine. The bliss included an absolute sense of certainty and anticipation of what was to come and that what was to come was good, positive beyond any possibility of description. Thus when my (physical) feet hit a rock and I stood up and inhaled earth’s atmosphere my first reaction was: “SHIT!” For several moments I experienced a wrenching, profound sense of unbearable loss. Friends tell me they held me up but had the sense that I was actually trying to dive back into the river. Then the fear hit. I realised how close I had come to dying and suffered the usual shock; in a few hours I was back to normal. But that other realm never left me…it’s still there and it’s always with me.light

I have experienced that precise sense of otherworldliness, certainty, joy, and anticipation at other times at a somewhat more diluted level; this has almost always been under the influence of hallucinogens. Part of me insists that there’s something to this, and that there is a realm beyond this one, and that realm is characterised by spiritual beauty and joy.

BUT

That is anecdotal evidence. Others have experienced it and described it similarly. Still anecdotal. I have unquestionably experienced it and I can testify to it. Still anecdotal.

So let me leave this meditation at this….I will die. So will you. But I see my inevitable death as a rest, a dreamless sleep in which nothing happens. It is not specifically a good thing unless it relieves suffering. But it cannot be described as bad for the person who is dead.

On the other hand, there is the off chance that the anecdotal evidence is accurate (and I lean toward my anecdotal experience rather than that of others, only because I trust my memory of the experience more than other’s memories and then their descriptions). In which case: JACKPOT! Off chance, but who knows? Either way….no harm.

But before I go, let me offer the following: If there is such a thing as infinity, and we can expect to confront infinity when we die, let us remember that a working definition of infinity is “that amount of time during which everything that can possibly happen will happen”.

That means that in what will seem like the blink of an eye, you will be born as Casanova, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, or Mick Jagger. It’s just a question of a near infinite number of atoms randomly achieving that configuration. And in an infinite span of time that’s inevitably going to happen. With my luck I’ll be born as Stuart Sutcliffe.

….enditem…

2 Samuel 1:27

Back to the drawing board?

Pagun

As I write this, the government of the United States of America is still shut down as the result of the Republican Party doing an end run around democracy and trying to force the President and the Senate to repeal, to defund, or to delay indefinitely a law that has been passed both by the house of Representatives and the Senate, was signed into law by the President, and was upheld by the Supreme Court. They brought bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act forty times and were defeated each time. Clearly, therefore, according to Republican doctrine, the system isn’t working.

With that sentiment, at least, most people would agree; the system isn’t working. Of course, the system isn’t working because the people who complain about the government the most stridently are the very ones responsible for its failure. The more radical members of the Republican Party – those who dictate party policy – are on record as despising the very notion of government and wanting to put an end to it; in this effort they are on the road to success. Oh, it’s not thought out, the ramifications haven’t been considered, the collateral damage hasn’t been taken into account…but that doesn’t get in the way of their determination to subvert anything that the democratic process can bring the citizens of the greatest democratic experiment in the history of the world. So the system is failing because those who decry the very existence of the system in the first place have infiltrated the system and sabotaged it from within.

At this point, whether the shutdown continues or not, whether the Republicans are successful in causing the wealthiest country in the history of the world to renege on its debt or whether default is once again avoided, win or lose, the system has imploded and the noble experiment has to be seen as a failure. The United States as a democratic nation is simply not viable.

To see why this is the case, one has to look back at the beginnings of the great experiment; we have to look at what the Founding Fathers, the drafters of the US Constitution were thinking when they designed the protocols for this experiment.

foundingfathers1

In the first place, all of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence and, later on, The Constitution of the United States of America were liberal intellectuals. That historical fact is lost upon the anti-liberal and anti-intellectual modern conservatives, but then they’ve never let facts interfere with a favourite theory. Secondly, that liberal intellectualism led them to believe in the fundamental reasonableness and decency of human beings; in that belief, they were apparently misguided. And it was that belief that led them to design a system of government tailored to human beings who were flawed, self-interested, and to some degree venal, but fundamentally rational.

The constitution was designed with series of basic presumptions in play. Among those presumptions were that both the people to be governed and their elected representative would be people of goodwill, patriotic, and intelligent; that they would be willing to cooperate in their own self-interest, and to compromise when necessary in the interests of the society they were forging. However, it seems that when conservatives accuse liberals of being starry-eyed and naïve, they might be on to something. Today’s conservatives have demonstrated that the basic presumptions upon which the United States of America were founded were overly optimistic in their assessment of the people for whom they were creating a new nation.

Those basic presumptions were critical to the form and type of government the framers of the constitution opted for. While democratic governance can take a variety of forms, the framers chose to work with a republican system and to eschew a parliamentary system, largely because of their basic presumptions regarding the nobility of their people.

A parliamentary system works from the presumption of intransigent, hardline partisanship among those vying for public office. It allows for many different parties, each with an inflexible point of view and demands that they form short or longer term alliances, coalitions, and voting blocks. These shifting loyalties enable a parliament composed of recalcitrant and uncompromising ideologues to enact legislation that represents the wishes and needs of a wide variety of people in a very pluralistic society.

blue and redIn contrast, a republican two-party system presumes a degree of collegiality, and loyalty to the nation above parties. Although the notion of a two-party structure isn’t specifically mentioned in the United States Constitution, the system is created in such a fashion as to work best when everyone is in agreement with the fundamental aims and goals of the country, but there is a bifurcation of desired approaches to achieving them. But if those presumptions are off the mark, the system rapidly becomes unworkable. If, for example, one of the two parties takes the position that government itself is an evil to be eradicated, then the government cannot work. Even if one of those parties, as is the case at this point in US history, is manipulated by a minority internal faction that holds those views, the system will fail. And it has failed.

In a parliamentary system, the right’s polarised and inflexible position could have been accommodated. The Tea Party faction would have splintered off and formed its own party and won a number of seats; the right wing whack jobs would have parliamentary representation, and might even hold the balance of power. But the nation would persevere.

The United States, however, has, in all probability, failed. The country has most likely been mortally wounded.

It is difficult indeed to see how the United States of America can survive. It’s not likely to go Not with a bangsupernova and explode in a bright, destructive ball of fire; it will go with a long, slow, whimper. The world and the world’s economy will not allow a small group of American hillbillies to hold them hostage every time they want some concession in Congress. The Tea Party strategy of threatening to tank the entire world’s economy will not be tolerated indefinitely by international power and wealth brokers who quite simply couldn’t care less about Ted Cruz’s uneducated constituents’ wishes. The last time the US came this close to a default, the nation’s credit rating took a hit. It will again. That alone is going to cause untold damage to the precarious economy.

As long as the United States is as unreliable a credit risk as, say, Argentina, it will have the credit rating of a nation that cannot be trusted to pay its debts; its financial instruments, T Bills and US futures, will need to pay out huge interest to attract investors. The US dollar will not remain the world’s reserve currency much longer. Already financial markets all over the world are considering alternatives; this latest little adventure will increase that trickle away from the greenback to a torrent.

So, folks, you heard it here first. You are looking at the first days of the rest of the life of the USA RIPUnited States of America. By the time my four-year-old son JJ is my age, the fact that the United States was once the greatest, wealthiest, and most powerful nation in the world will be a fact only of interest to historians. They’ve had a good run of two and a half centuries, with most of the last one as a superpower and the last 2 decades as the only superpower. But ultimately, the experiment failed. And it failed because a small group of demagogues simply didn’t understand how to play nice with other kids.

…enditem…

Reality Games

Peeking behind the doors

Pagun

 

The Doors of Perception

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – Over the years I’ve developed a hypothesis that suggests that when a complex question is asked and when, despite its constant analysis, its intense investigation, and its constant consideration by intelligent people, no real answer presents itself…the question itself is probably what’s at fault.

Douglas Adams hilariously made a similar point when he had the greatest computer ever developed in the universe analyse, compute,  and come up with the ultimate answer to the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. You know…the big one…the meaning of life. The computer’s answer after millennia of analysis was obvious. Forty two. You see, the question had not been formed in such a way as to elicit a coherent answer. Once the question was clear, the answer would be forthcoming in comparably short order. (Of course, Bob Dylan had already reasonably formulated the question years earlier: How many roads must a man walk down? But that’s another story).

One of the most baffling and contentious issues with which one, in his or her more philosophical and internally analytic moments, must grapple is the question of perception and consciousness. This struggle raises other important and ancillary issues, including their persistence, genesis, and value. Assuming that Socrates’ observation was correct (usually a safe assumption) that an unexamined life isn’t worth living, it’s perhaps worth it to take time occasionally to examine those issues. It’s worth looking at just what we mean when we blithely toss out words like consciousness, perception, personality, or self.

We all live in our own box that keeps our “selves” isolated from other similar selves. We can do some rudimentary communication…we are able to send and receive simple, although not particularly clear or articulate, messages from one box to another; sometimes they are even vaguely understood and even replied to. We congratulate ourselves on this and call it communication; some of us even make a living trying to do that with increasing degrees of clarity and understanding. As “communicators” we delude ourselves into believing that there exists a real possibility of sharing the deepest and most complex and profound thoughts that occur within one of those isolated cranial boxes. Our understanding of others, or our explanation of ourselves to others, is a pale shadow, analogous to Plato’s Analogy of the Cave, of the depth and complexity of the actual thought processes that we are attempting to communicate.

The key is that inside each of those boxes dwells something that we describe as a personality or a self. But more significantly, each one of us in our little box is under the impression that we have a fairly clear understanding of the world our physical beings – our boxes – inhabit. We know what we see and hear. As human beings, that makes up the bulk of our understanding of the physical makeup of the world. We also smell, touch, and taste; these senses combine with our primary ones of sight and hearing to create what we take to be a relatively accurate representation of the universe, or at least our section of it.

 

This much we know. Much of what comes we also know. But much is the beginning of speculation on the subject of individuality, personality, self, perception, and consciousness. I expect this introspection as well as a degree of extrospection to last a lifetime. So I will start at this point and ask some questions having to do with our understanding of the physical makeup of the universe, as understood through the senses upon which we rely for our understanding of the physical realm we inhabit. 

We know, for example, that although we instinctively feel that our eyesight gives us a realistic picture of that which is before our eyes, we actually only see within a limited range of light frequencies known as the visible spectrum. Other frequencies that are simply beyond the abilities of our evolved light detection organs, our eyes, to perceive, range as far as low level infrared (perceivable as heat), beyond high frequency radio waves, imperceptible to our eyes. We are only sensually aware of a small percentage of the information that surrounds us and describes the world in ways to which we are entirely oblivious. 

Aldous Huxley described the mind in its everyday state as acting as a “reducing valve”; among its primary functions is to diminish and restrict the volume of information and detail of the world our brains would have to analyse from moment to moment. We have evolved to require a miniscule portion of all the information that is out there in the physical universe; evolution’s function is to ensure the propagation of any given gene and, by extension, the species to which that gene belongs. The result is that much of the functionality of our brains, and their emergent entities, our minds, are presented for analysis and consideration only with that data which is necessary for survival and competition with others of our species. In fact, even our limited senses provide our brains with many times more information than is necessary for those evolutionary purposes; Huxley’s reducing valve works hard to prevent information beyond that which is necessary for life from reaching any cognitive part of our brain and therefore, in our daily lives, cannot really be said to be present in our minds.

To put it succinctly, as Shakespeare did in Hamlet….

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

What we grasp is the merest tip of the iceberg of the reality we inhabit. In fact, what we take to be reality is merely an analogue….the way our brain arranges what it takes in so that it can be dealt with.

 

SPACETIME

So when we ask “What is the nature of reality?” “What is the meaning of life?” or “Is there an afterlife?” it appears that we are basing the questions on far, far too little experience of the phenomena of which we desire information.

The second question, the one regarding the meaning of life is, I’m afraid meaningless….just as Douglas Adams satirically pointed out. For linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the question would be no more than gibberish. The nature of reality is an area we are constantly studying and developing mathematical models to answer. Whether the universe is constituted in such a way as to be amenable to a mathematical description is very doubtful, but we expand our understanding incrementally each time a new and successful model is developed.

But the third question, the question of an afterlife is already pretty well answered. Time is our way of ordering our view of the universe (space/time) as Einstein postulated. Most theoretical physicists agree that the notion of linear time – birth, life, death – is illusory. That time doesn’t flow or pass. Time is the universe of space time occupies the eternal “now” just as space and all that it contains is the eternal “all”.

This concept is where science meets mysticism, but it is interesting to note that most mystic traditions from that of the Hopi Indians to Zen Buddhism express this notion in a variety of ways. It can never be explained in clear human language; language requires a linear view of time to be meaningful; nevertheless mystics, ascetics, serious experimenters with hallucinogens and theoretical physicists have all glimpsed the ineffable unity of space and time. It cannot be expressed in any human language (hence the apparent riddles that typify Zen philosophy), but it can be glimpsed through different means. Rational logic in the form of mathematics can give an academic stance from which to experience the eternal “now” theoretically. Changes in brain chemistry as the result of asceticism, meditation or the short cut of hallucinogenic substances can give a sense of the grandeur, the wonder and the utter indescribable difference of the deeper eternal reality that underlies our everyday sense of the world.

I am going to have two bouts of surgery within the next month or two. One, I have dealt with frequently in the past; shoulder work. This time they are going to replace my much travelled left shoulder join with a custom built model that should outlast the planet. The second is a little dodgier. It’s going to be an attempt to remove a cancerous tumour. That one could kill me on the table, it could prove ineffective, leaving me to shuffle off this mortal coil when I get up, or it could be entirely successful in catching every cancerous little cell in the vicinity.

In any case, I have chosen to examine my understanding of the unity of space/time and the eternal “now” through whatever is the most effective means for me. I (as those of you who know me are aware, am no ascetic. I hate to eat dinner without a martini…starvation and self-flagellation ain’t my style). Mathematics? I can barely calculate a 15% tip, so I give 20%.

No, It’s going to be hallucinogens. I have a doctor who will accompany me during any high-dose expeditions I take and be on hand with a jolt of Thorazine should it be needed. A cold beer other wise. All I need to do is nail down a supply of trustworthy and stable LSD 25 and start the explorations.

Should this work out as I expect it might, I have a written will that will include that at the point where I will not recover and that dying is inevitable, I am to be injected with 1000 micrograms of LSD and after an hour, life support is to be terminated. I believe that I will enter the eternal“now” having been prepared for the transition and will, in fact, have some experience with it beforehand.

Death is an illusion…like life

That’s my current plan, but first I need to find some reliable source of the drug. I am in touch with The Albert Hoffman Foundation….the foundation created by the Swiss scientist who first synthesised LSD25 and is dedicated to the type of research I am interested in …research into the capabilities of the drug to aid the human mind to transcend the everyday reality we live in. I will see whether they are willing to help. Failing that, I will find my own source and track my experiences.

THE ETERNAL NOW

Another great adventure and one I am looking forward to with great anticipation and some excitement.

 

I welcome your input. And acid if you know where to get the genuine article!

 

 

…enditem…

 

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