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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

A Free Press…

is a right; reading it critically is a duty…

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) One thing that we have learned from the bizarre 2016 United States presidential elections is that the media is simply no longer equipped to perform its function as an impartial, objective reporter, and analyst of important events. And in the only thing I have ever or am ever likely to agree with Donald Trump, the media have done an execrable job covering this election thus far.

There are two salient reasons the coverage of the candidates and their campaigns has been so dismal; the first one is an endemic problem with US media and has existed for a long time: news has to be profitable.

Walter Cronkite reporting breaking news: the Kennedy assassination.

Walter Cronkite reporting breaking news: the Kennedy assassination.

At one time, within my lifetime, the news departments of TV networks were expected to be a net expense; nobody expected them to be profit centres. News desks were occupied by actual journalists and anchors had proven their journalistic chops before they became talking heads. Walter Cronkite, before he became the most trusted man in the country anchoring CBS Evening News, had been a print journalist who had done everything from sports reporting to flying on B17 bomber missions over Europe during WWII.

The “Big Three”, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings anchored their respective networks’ evening news from the ‘eighties through to the 2000s, all having started and subsequently retired within

At that point it was a question. Later, it became obvious: profits.

At that point it was a question. Later, it became obvious: profits.

a year of one another. All three were highly respected actual journalists with training, experience, and talent. But it was toward the second decade of their reign as the trusted triumvirate of television journalism that television journalism began to die. Palpably and incrementally, news began to be replaced by entertainment.

Whereas I can remember a time when network news broadcasts were uninterrupted by commercials, the network executives started to ask themselves why, in an hour that attracted among the most viewers of their entire lineup, they had no revenue-generating ad spots. They argued with their news department journalists that the additional revenue from selling advertising in between news stories would offset the cost of new overseas bureaus, newer and better technology, and higher salaries. Seduced, but in reality not having much choice, the network news departments capitulated and, almost instantly, became seen as profit centres rather than the pro-bono public services they had always been.

All kinds of things changed, from the network studios in New York, all down the line to the regional affiliates. The news departments tenaciously, and increasingly desperately, tried to maintain their journalistic integrity. First, and most obviously, the anchors themselves, and all the other on-air talent began to be selected primarily for their telegenic qualities; journalism experience was unimportant, it

NEW YORK - JULY 7:  Actor Will Ferrell aka Ron Burgundy participates in Q&A after a special screening of the film "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" at the Museum of Television and Radio July 7, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

was rationalised, for someone simply to read from a teleprompter. Anchors now were expected to fit neatly into a marketer’s bland, blow-dried conception of a trustworthy television newsman; Ron Burgundy and Ted Baxter were born. And if the public was to believe that the weather reporters were actually meteorologists, one would have to believe that among the pre-requisites for meteorology courses were big tits and a propensity for wearing tight dresses and five inch spikes.

But it wasn’t just the on-air personalities that morphed from journalists into vapid eye candy. Now that the news had started to generate revenue, the suits upstairs couldn’t leave it alone; having found money in a hitherto untapped source, their new mission was to maximise the take. So, in a shameless scramble for ratings, the news weathergirlitself changed. The affiliates and the networks demeaned themselves by running with stories that had no real significance or impact on viewers’ lives but had shock value. If it bleeds, it leads, became the mantra. Any story with violence or carnage was guaranteed a few minutes, while less viscerally appealing real news was barely mentioned. And, of course, anything that could be strip mined for prurience will be covered. If a school board decided to stop teaching cursive writing and concentrate on keyboard skills instead, that would be a story that is of some importance and relevance to a large number of viewers. If, on the same day, a local mall was holding a lingerie fashion show, there wouldn’t even be a discussion as to where to send the camera crew.

With television journalism at such a low ebb, it is no surprise that coverage of the elections this year is so inept. But there is a second element that contributes to the appallingly unprofessional media coverage.

In the absence of any serious coverage by the major networks, alternative media have sprung up like mushrooms after an autumn rain. Given that anyone can have access to the Internet and potentially reach an audience even greater than any of the networks could twenty years ago, anyone with a WiFi hate-pressconnection can report and comment on the news. There is no tradition of responsible reporting or providing balance or fairness to what is posted on the ‘Net. It’s the wild west out here in the cyberworld. There are some highly partisan but nevertheless reliable outlets run by actual journalists but there are also hate-spewing, attack sites. And they form the majority.

As a consequence, the television news media find themselves trying very hard to appear like seasoned, professional journalists. They strive for an appearance of neutrality and an absence of bias. Unfortunately, they are still playing by rules and conventions that prevailed at a time when the behaviour of a candidate like Donald Trump would have been unthinkable. Virtually every one of the mainstream news media have fallen into the trap of treating Trump as though he is a serious candidate.

The press, in an effort to demonstrate their even-handedness, press Hillary Clinton on the tired, and long since laid to rest email story. Despite having been investigated for years by 9 different panels and agencies, from rabidly partisan Congressional panels to the FBI, and exonerated each time, Matt Lauer

Matt Lauer: Journalist

Matt Lauer: Journalist

shamed real journalists by wasting her time and ours, apparently thinking he’d turn up something everybody else missed. He then compounded his incompetence by letting Donald Trump slide when he repeated lie after fact-checked lie.

Trump throws around racial, sexual, and ethnic epithets with abandon; he has made prejudice and bigotry the principal pillar of his candidacy. But when Hillary accurately refers to half of his followers as “a basket of deplorables”, she is vilified for being divisive. And the press, to demonstrate their absence of bias, reports the two candidates’ remarks as though they are somehow comparable in their offensiveness. They deliberately create false equivalencies, because to apply the same rules of comportment to both candidates would result in such breathtakingly lopsided reporting, with Trump taking the worst of it, that it might seem as though he was being persecuted when, in fact, he would only be experiencing the same level of scrutiny and reportage any candidate should expect.

But given the lack of journalistic experience or training, one can expect little more from the mainstream media. The non-mainstream media is even worse, of course, but the heavily right-leaning press is largely a self caricature and no one expects high quality journalism.fox-news At least when one watches Fox News, one knows that what is being broadcast is straightforward Republican Party talking points and right wing dogma.

So, where should people, who want to know the facts and who expect journalists to have some integrity, turn for their news? There is no single source of news that can be relied upon for clear, unvarnished, fact based journalism. There are even very few news analysis and commentary sources that can be relied upon to tell the truth, even as they criticise a candidate or party. All that can be done is to read as many different sources as possible. Nevertheless, I provide the following tips for deciding whether a news outlet is worth following.

Your suspicions of unprofessionalism ought to be raised if:

  1. The copy in the reports or columns is in need of proofreading. Typos can occasionally be missed in the best publications, but if a piece is riddled with misspellings or grammar and usage blunders, the writer and/or editor are not professional.
  2. In place of rational argumentation, the writer relies on distortions of a person’s name to make a point. Expressions like “Killary” or “Obammy” are a tipoff that you’re reading something from someone who has all kinds of attitude but no knowledge of journalism or even argumentation.
  3. You are repeatedly fooled by clickbait headlines. How many times do you have to click on a header that says something like, “Trump surrogate reduces interviewer to incoherence” only to find that an interviewer stumbled over a word and nothing much else happened?
  4. A purported news story is structured so that you have to read to the very end of several thousand words to find the salient fact that induced you to read the piece. A professional news writer will have made a habit of writing in the pyramid style: the lede (journalism jargon) will contain the Who, What, Where, and When of the piece, and the Why will be filled in as you read the next sentences. If any of those Ws are only to be found deep in the content, the writer is not a journalist.

Try using those notions as hermeneutics and I’m sure that you’ll find yourself less outraged at the garbage that you have to sort through to get to some approximation of the truth. You’ll never get all the way there, but by discriminating among the multitude of choices available, you’ll have a better basis for judgment. And if the 2016 US presidential election is in desperate need of anything, it’s just that: judgment.

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…

 

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Post-democratic Society

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) A somewhat schizophrenic attitude toward the concept and practice of democracy in America is becoming more noticeable in this, the summer of Trump. In the most bizarre presidential election campaign in living memory, the fundamental assumption of US politics and civil society – that the nation is essentially a democratic one – is up for discussion. We see one group of US citizens espousing the view that the United States is the most democratic and free nation that has ever existed, and that this aspect of American exceptionalism needs to be defended from interlopers. But average votercuriously, that same group also seems to hold that the country is riddled with corruption, that its political leaders are bought and paid for, and that what’s needed is a shakeup that would involve drastically curtailing the very freedoms that they insist make America exceptional. If asserting both positions simultaneously isn’t schizophrenic, at the very least it involves tolerating a high degree of cognitive dissonance.

However, the conflicting perspectives held by any rational citizen of a western industrialised country tend to gloss over even deeper problems with some fundamental assumptions. In play today is the assertion that (taking the United States as the most graphic example) we are now living in a post-democratic historical period. And if one were to look at it realistically rather than emotionally, democracy, as an ideal form of government, in which the people are sovereign and in which the elected legislators represent the desires, interests, and viewpoints of the citizenry, simply does not exist now, if it ever did.

winston-churchill-democrasy            The United States cannot truly be described any more as having a democratic system of government. The people of the country are accustomed to and have come to accept the reality that their congressmen and senators are far more responsive to those who finance their political careers than they are to their constituents. There is scarcely any outrage or public outcry when Congress grants billions of dollars in government subsidies to the big oil companies who have financed their campaigns; the fact that those companies are the most profitable enterprises in the history of mankind and don’t need any social assistance to thrive makes absolutely no difference to anyone. And the very same lawmakers can sanctimoniously point to having voted to cut funding for the most desperate and vulnerable of their constituents, and pat themselves on the back for their exercise of “fiscal responsibility”.chuck heston NRA

When you have party leadership that vets every initiative by checking with their lobbyists before bringing them to the floor for discussion; where the National Rifle Association has de facto veto power over any gun-related proposed legislation, democracy is not at work. When special interest groups with enough financial support can create “think tanks” to draft legislation that favours themselves, and then see their tame representatives and senators table those proposed laws without changing a comma, we are not dealing with a democratic process. When a blind eye is turned to gerrymandering, to deliberately created electoral inequalities, to state level disregard for federal laws, we are not looking at democracy.

We have to accept thCongressional BJat, in the United States, congress and the courts are not genuinely accessible or answerable to the average citizen. Laws are made by corporate interests. Well heeled anti-democratic special interests like the extreme religious right can determine a politician’s career path.  Legislators spend at least 50% of their time in office raising money from wealthy private donors and corporate interests to whom they owe their allegiance and who can threaten to withdraw support if they’re not satisfied with their purchase. The last tenuous shreds of democracy have been lost when one considers that the two big parties’ nominees for the presidency are among the most despised people in the country.

Nevertheless, Donald Trump can find millions of supporters when his campaign, on the one hand, can be based on the notion that the country has gone to hell, and that it is a laughing stock in the community of nations; while on the other hand he is selling the snake oil that the country is so wonderful that the drawbridge needs to be raised and all hands prepared to repel boarders. He can repeat, day after day, that the country has become a third world cesspool and still garner applause when he condemns an athlete for failing to show proper respect for the national anthem. Trump claims that he is defending freedom by demanding that the athlete in question be punished for exercising that very freedom.

In a world where people are encouraged to come to important decisions viscerally, where they are bought and paid for congresstaught that reason, logic, and knowledge are east coast liberal conceits, and that their own ignorance supported by intense feelings is superior to another’s facts and researched information, the mechanisms of representative democracy cannot work. The failure of democracy and the decline of expertise, education, and factual knowledge are inextricably entwined; each contributes to the other and results in an inevitable vicious cycle. The rise of demagoguery, as well as the belief in magical thinking and the increase in divisiveness are the other side of the same coin. The increase in ignorance is reflected in the decreasing respect for rational and prayer-350empirical thinking; and ignorance is always accompanied by its dark companions: fear and hatred. But democracy, particularly representative democracy, requires leadership that embraces reason and arms itself with knowledge and compassion. As things stand at the moment, reason is eschewed for gut instinct, knowledge is rejected in favour of opinion, and compassion is dismissed as weakness and seen as being taken advantage of. Democracy cannot and does not work under these conditions.

When some of the greatest intellects of the Enlightenment collaborated and drew up the Constitution of the United States, they did not design a two-party system of government; that was something that emerged spontaneously as the infant democracy found its footings. They didn’t mention parties at all in the document they produced. And when a country is as polarised, when groups are uncompromising and determined not to give an inch, but rather, inclined to harden their positions, a two party system doesn’t work. There is only a binary choice at the polls, and neither option is likely to be fully satisfying to the vast majority of voters. A multiparty system, like in a parliamentary democracy would work better because it would force compromise, it would require coalitions and working with opponents to achieve anything.

But the founding fathers believed that their constitution would be even more democratic, because therush_822 people themselves, more than any party, would be the drivers of the nation’s destiny. Because of the intricate system of checks and balances built into the constitution, they believed that the people would always be sovereign and their will would be expressed through the election of representatives in congress, and in their choice of president, who would express his understanding of their will through his judicial appointments. Nevertheless, in the Federalist Papers, Publius, (the pseudonym of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay) was clear that a rational and thoughtful population was critical to making the system work:

 “It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force. (Federalist 1)

At this point in US history, and in much of the rest of the developed world, accident and force are making a comeback as the deciding factors in political decision making. Thlincoln on revolutione Federalists were not completely convinced that democracy was a good idea; their concern was that bad, or unfair polices would be enacted by a majority and trample the rights of the minority. The Federalists were deeply concerned that democracy would be little more than mob rule. They accordingly built in those checks and balances. But mostly, their justification for opting for democracy was that they had confidence that the people of America could live up to their ideal of conducting politics with reflection, human decency, and informed thought.

In the era of Trump, that optimism is demonstrably unfounded. Mob rule is taking over and democracy is clearly failing. Can it be rescued and revived? Ask me again on the morning of November 9, 2016.

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…

 

 

Democracy is as Democracy Does

Democracy: A great idea

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Here in North America, particularly during election campaigns, we repeatedly hear about the democracy we enjoy. Democracy is used as the benchmark for fairness, justice, and integrity. To say that someone, or some institution or action is undemocratic is to condemn; if the accusation can be seen to have merit, there is no defence. To be democratic is good; to be undemocratic is bad. The notion of democracy is so deeply ingrained in our Western psyches as an absolute and unquestioned value, that the dissemination of democracy is virtually the only acceptable moral justification for a war of Western aggression.

Forget for a moment that in the last several decades the West has initiated and waged wars primarily for economic war is terrorismbenefits or to feed the ego of US presidents; the continuation of those wars was always justified by the assertion that the invaded countries would be given democracy. Democracy was a gift that we were willing to bestow on the people of countries we first carpet bombed and then occupied. Once we devastated the countries, we would make it all worthwhile by instituting Western-style governments and democratic systems of governance; we would stick around indefinitely in the form of heavily armed “peacekeepers” to ensure that the newly democratised people didn’t backslide to their traditional non-democratic ways. Here in the West, the value of democracy itself is always assumed without question.

There are two major problems with that view. The first difficulty is formulating an argument that persuasively defends democracy as the ideal we assume it to be. And the second is finding an example of democracy anywhere in history or in existence today.

Winston Churchill, upon being voted out of office immediately after he orchestrated the Allied victory in the 2nd World War, famously said that the people of Britain could do what they wanted, as theirs was a democracy. And as to democracy Winston-Churchill-Democracy-Quotesitself, he said in a speech to the House of Commons on November 11, 1947, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

The notion that democracy is the best, indeed the only righteous form of government seems self evident; from the smallest group dynamics to the vast complexity of a system of government like that of the United States, something is considered just and fair if it has been put to the people and a majority approves. Even three children will recognise that if two of them want to do something and one doesn’t, the majority should get their way. And yet democracy as a philosophy of government or politics is a fairly recent development.

Ancient Greece (or more accurately, the city-state of Athens) is held up as a model of ancient democracy and in ower to the peoplesome ways it was. But Athenians would have been horrified at the prospect of real democracy being instituted; no self-respecting Athenian democrat would have countenanced extending the vote to people who were too ignorant to be trusted with that responsibility. It would be absurd to expect that slaves, paupers, or women ought to be among those enfranchised. Democratic though the vote was among leading Athenian men, the fact is those with the right to vote formed a tiny minority of the population.

More recently, even the Founding Fathers of the US did not agree that democracy as a model of enlightened governance was self-evidently the way to go. They were more afraid that the political process would be dominated by the democracy-quotes-8rabble; there was real concern that most people simply weren’t sufficiently sophisticated, educated, or possessed of sufficient wisdom to have much say in government. Nevertheless, democracy as a political philosophy won the day and the US Constitution was written with elaborate safeguards and failsafe mechanisms to ensure that neither one branch of government nor any outside faction could upset the balance of powers. However, just like the ancient Athenians, the draftsmen of the US Constitution explicitly denied the franchise to their slaves, their wives, mothers, and daughters, and to anyone who was not a landowner.

Over the decades, the franchise expanded and the country became incrementally motrikosko-Marchers-with-signs-at-the-March-on-Washington-1963re democratic; women were granted the vote only in the 20th Century. It took the bloodiest war in American history, but slavery was abolished and African Americans were eventually given the right to vote. Nevertheless, Jim Crow laws curtailed that theoretical right and it wasn’t until the mid 1960s that the Civil Rights Act (1964) and then the Voting Rights Act (1965) were passed. And still today there is an ongoing effort on the part of the Republican Party to disenfranchise black voters by legislating new hoops for them to jump through in order to cast a ballot.

In theory now, every adult US citizen has the right to vote for the candidate of his or her choice. But disregarding the gerrymandering that deliberately skews the results of elections, and ignoring the laws insisting that voter IDs rarely owned by minorities must be presented at polling stations, and forgetting about the dirty tricks like reducing voting hours and polling stations in minority districts, we still have to ask whether we are looking at a democratic form of government in the United States. The current state of American society would suggest that democracy in the US would be a terrific idea and really ought to be tried some day.

As this is being written (1 July, 2016), all indications are that the two candidates for the country’s presidency will be the Democrat Hillary Clinton and the Republican Donald Trump. Barring some unforeseen cataclysmic shakeup, those will be the only alternatives voters will really have. And yet by actual polls those two potential presidents are among the clinton_trump_donkey_most thoroughly despised people in the United States. Donald Trump is ahead of Clinton in the “viewed unfavourably” sweepstakes, but both people have more people respond negatively to them in polls than they have positive responses.

That could perhaps be blamed on the candidates’ respective parties and their method of candidate selection which is so labyrinthine and Byzantine that the average voter is at a loss to understand or even participate meaningfully in primaries. The average voter has absolutely no idea that although they cast a ballot favouring their preferred candidate, their wishes don’t actually count; it’s the vote of the electoral college in their particular state that decides who actually wins. It isn’t cynical, it is only realistic to point out that the will of the majority doesn’t determine the winner of a presidential election; if it did, we never would have seen George W. Bush in the White House and we would be looking back fondly on the Al Gore presidency.

In the democracy that the US believes ought to be given to other nations as a gift, it is worth noting that occupying a seat in the legislature permits the representatives or Senators to vote as they see fit. Fair enough; that’s representative democracy as opposed to direct democracy. But is it any sort of democracy when 90% of the population is strongly in nascarfavour of legislating gun control measures, but congress refuses to do so? It is neither unfair nor cynical to point out that the members of congress who steadfastly refuse to vote as their constituents want are accepting contributions from the gun lobby that is against any form of gun control. Mitch McConnell, the head of Senate Republicans and consistent opponent of any sort of gun control, has accepted just under 1 million dollars from the National Rifle Association as a contribution to his last election campaign. If it walks like a bribe and it quacks like a bribe…

While much noise is generated by the established legislators about the lazy “takers” and the hardworking “makers” as justification for reducing welfare benefits for the most destitute, the same group writes an annual cheque for billions of dollars in corporate welfare for the oil companies that finance their campaigns. These grants are given to the most profitable corporations in the history of the world and are used largely to pay the multi million dollar salaries and bonuses of the corporations’ senior executives.

This is Western democracy. A government that, to be realistic, is comprised of an oligarchy of enormously wealthy individuals, transnational corporate interests, and a dug-in and all but permanent governing class. It is government of the quote-the-people-have-the-power-all-we-have-to-do-is-awaken-the-power-in-the-people-john-lennon-79-88-40wealthy, for the corporations, and by the established interests. It is complacency and blindness that encourages the average Westerner to refer habitually to their system of governance as democratic. It is beyond arrogant to insist on imposing that system on others and believing that they’re doing them an enormous favour.

The system in question is not fundamentally democratic; until we have put in the effort and political will to revamp it to the point that we can be a positive example, exporting it is the most pernicious expression of nationalist hubris imaginable.

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…

 

 

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…..

Ringing out the old

Griping….again
Pagun

VANCOUVER ISLAND — CANADA Those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time analysing, criticising, chastising, and reproaching society either for a living or by temperament or both (as I do), seem to have a predilection, in our fiction reading anyway, for dystopian depictions.

1utopiadystopia

Dystopian views of the world, of course, have venerable antecedents. Depending on your viewpoint or cynicism (or lack of it), one could argue that the very first example of the genre – a Utopian one, in fact, the very one for which the genre was named, was the novel Utopia by Saint Thomas Moore. The eponymous novel form had a following and, one can argue, quite a subsequent genre in the form of those romance novels that invariably provided happy endings before the inevitable nuptials.

The prototype, Utopia, published in 1516 in a religiously tumultuous Great Britain (More, himself, Lord Chancellor to Henry viii was beheaded for heresy on perjured testimony just a few years later, for defending Catholicism. This was at a time when Henry was desperately searching for a Catholic rationalisation for his divorce from Anne Boleyn. Not finding an ecclesiastical one, even with More scouring the literature assiduously on his behalf, Henry settled on making himself head of his own church, creating new rules, beheading the irritant and then permitting divorce in his newer, truer Christianity. For his failure to come up with a rationalisation that would have done the job within Catholic strictures, More’s last view of the London skyline was a rotating one as his head tumbled from the block).

With apologies for that aside, the history of utopian/dystopian literature has been a somewhat lopsided one. Very few utopian visions appeal to a majority, and much of their features have distinctly dystopian overtones for many of us.

One, if not the earliest, The Republic of Plato, is an exercise in postulating a perfect society. While it is hard to ignore the rigorous logic, psychology, anthropology, and application of justice that the attempt to thread the needle takes, Even Plato doesn’t expect the Republic to last indefinitely. While it is stable, relatively safe from wars or financial catastrophe, and the people would be content with their lot, Plato uses a few tricks to jam the pieces of the puzzle together.

PlatoRepublicTo make it all work, Plato has his population divided into three classes: the Guardian Class, the police, soldier, militia class of citizen; the Artisan Class, the class that actually does stuff, the tinkers, tailors and candlestick makers, framers, street cleaners, cooks, artists, writers…everybody; Finally, the one you and I would belong to (Plato was talking to his contemporaries, after all, the Philosopher Kings…these are the intelligentsia, the ruling class, who by virtue of their superior intellect and civic sense of responsibility would exercise a benign rule and administration over the Republic.
The entire “Utopian” edifice rests on an assumption that there are certain types or classes of people, people who are unchanging and, if their immediate needs are met and superseded, will be satisfied with their lot, and if they feel that they are treated with fairness, dignity, and above all, justice, they will live lives of satisfactory fulfillment. That assumption, of course, conflicts with reality, as anyone who knows an accountant, who would rather be a cop, or a waitress who longs to be an actress, or a Prime Minister who would make a better dog-catcher, could attest.

Aldous Huxley addressed that exact issue in his utopian(?) book Brave New World. In the society he postulated in BNW, we are at first confronted with what appears to be a genuine utopia.

Imagine, if you will, a society in which there is no want and indeed, only luxury. Certainly there are different tastes and different desires in this society, but that is expected and accounted for. Think of the movie Titanic (1997). The people below decks, in steerage, have every bit as rollicking a good trans-Atlantic passage (at least until they get to the Newfoundland Icefields) as did the white-tie and diamond bedecked upper deck denizens. Such is BNW. Society is divided in prenatal laboratories and then in class divided crèches into different segments with infants of different intelligences where they are programmed to have different desires, ambitions and aspirations.

Some of society’s citizens will be predisposed to be thrilled at the prospect of a night at a hockey game followed by a raucous evening of post-game beer-drinking and analysis. They will be content, indeed, delighted with their occupation as computer programmer or mechanic and will each be at the point of being Peter Principled. Given sufficient levels of this planned society, there ought to be no systemic dissatisfaction. Of course, in a complex human society, there is always room for some individual instances of transient dissatisfaction. That’s where SOMA comes in.

For those moments when anxiety, dread, anger, or any other negative emotion dares raise its ugly head, this world that hath such people in it, seems to have a limitless supply of a pharmaceutical that softens any and all of the rougher edges of the perfect society. SOMA is 1somanon-addictive, apparently has no lethal threshold, and is recommended when any…ANY…less than tranquil, copacetic emotion crops up. Feeling a little crabby? Maybe a half SOMA would be in order. A full-blown panic attack? Go ahead, take two. SOMA seems to restore one’s psyche to a calm, reflective, logical, emotionally sanguine condition. There is apparently no cognitive impairment, soporific (unless one is unduly agitated), or negative residual effect from SOMA. The perfect drug. Never mind that BNW turns out to be a dystopian rather than utopian novel (SOMA notwithstanding), the point is that dystopian world visions are far more commonplace than are the opposite – world visions of an ideal rather than a demonic nature. The truth is that there are far more ways for things to go wrong than right; far more ways to piss people off than to please them.

Among the results is the proliferation of dystopian books. Pretty much any book that offers an alternative history, or corresponding reality, or alternative universe, can be assumed to offer a bleak reality with corresponding events that are replete with more angst and fear and loathing than the current one. And this one, of course, cannot really be judged, as there IS no alternative reality or no easily accessible reality, anyway, outside of the imagination.

And, frankly, the current one is becoming as dystopic as the most cynical among us could hope for.

This being a brand new year, I’m disinclined to start with a litany of societal ills, or the growing evils that inhabit the world in which we have to perform our daily dance for the cynical amusement of whatever gods we might worship. It’s wretched and ugly, and lacking in human decency and compassion and it’s getting uglier every day. So in honour of the new year, I’ll leave most of that low-hanging fruit for another day…I’ll just focus on a single example of the tawdriness and selfishness of today’s society, and the fact that we choose this shabbiness over what could be marginally less soul-eroding and maybe even a tiny measure inspiring.

Rarely in our lifetimes has there been so much unemployment and poverty amid such wealth and opulence in our society. Never has there been such a well-educated and ambitious generation of youth facing such a rugged obstacle course simply to enter the mainstream; something that the post-war generation has always considered a birthright. Nevertheless, as the ambition of these young, educated, and potentially productive starry eyed job aspirants drawbridgeto society manifests itself as job seeking, they encounter the drawbridge mentality. The drawbridge mentality is that inclination demonstrated by the mediocre who take the position that now that their positions are secure, it’s best to pull up the drawbridge and keep the barbarians from entering the promised land. This attitude is with respect to barbarians that are, in fact, our children and our neighbours’ children; it also has to do with a “promised land” which is our shared birthright but is being treated as a personal fiefdom by those who have managed, through whatever means, to have breached the walls and ensconced themselves within.

Still, the young people, hungry to participate in the good life that they see on TV and all around them every day, keep on trying. Meanwhile, they are treated with contempt by those who already have that for which they are striving with every breath they take. Get a job, lazy bastards! Kids today don’t know the meaning of work! And if they should have the temerity to access any of the social safety net that we have long ago determined to be necessary and for which we have worked so hard to create and maintain? The stigma is palpable. They are sneered at and they are marginalised; they have become “takers” rather than “makers” and those who have snuck into the citadel and are now in a position to avoid paying taxes treat them as the cause of all our economic woes? The solution they offer is brilliantly simple….cut them off; diminish whatever minimal resources are available to help alleviate the situation. Repeat the mantra that those trying to join the ranks of normal society are the reason there are economic problems to begin with. Not to be resoundingly obvious, but Logic 101 would tell you that thinking that way is a classic example of confusing cause and effect.

That attitude, I’m afraid, isn’t going to change soon. There is little that can encourage those who find themselves in a position of superiority to accept that others are as good as they are and every bit as entitled to their share of the society that was built jointly by their forbears. But maybe – I, for one, doubt it – just maybe, we can be a little more respectful of our fellow citizens.

We all know that communication, both spoken and written is immeasurably easier than it was a few decades ago. When I first started working in the real world, you couldn’t possibly do my job or that of most white collar drones without a secretary. For those who are to young to remember what that was like, forget all those old Jack Lemmon movies or 50s and 60s TV sitcoms. While some secretaries did, in fact, bring the boss a coffee, their primary function was handling correspondence.

Where we might today bash out a five line email, we used to dictate the same letter either into a Dictaphone or to a short-hand secretary. She would then, on a typewriter, transcribe, lay out and punctuate the letter on the appropriate letterhead over one or more sheets of 1paperworkcarbon. The original would come to me for proofing and if there were any revisions, she would probably have to start over….if it was minor, she may have been able to do some remedial work with White-Out and make it acceptable. Once approved, I’d sign it, she’d fold insert, stamp and mail the original and then file the copies.

Now, correspondence secretaries don’t even exist, because even the most indulged CEO has his own email account and writes and even files much of his or her own correspondence. That’s come about not because the workplace has become more egalitarian or because executives are less indulged than formerly, but because it’s easier. And that said, there is no excuse for the prevailing policy toward applicants for advertised positions.
Despite the obvious fact that even if a company’s HR department were to receive literally thousands of replies to an advertisement for an entry level position, it would still take the person responsible for hiring hours to read through and short list the potential candidates, responding to every applicant would take only moments. Whereas in the past one could be assured of – at the very least – a form letter thanking you for your application and offering encouragement, today the advertisements almost invariably close with a sentence that informs potential applicants that although their interest is appreciated, only short-listed candidates will even be contacted. Those advertisements that don’t contain the warning simply toss aside all non-starting letters of application. For this, there is no excuse…except arrogance and a “fuck you, Jack, I’ve got mine” attitude.

Over the years I have advertised literally hundreds of times and received applications for positions ranging from research assistant to high school teacher. Both when I had a secretary and in the current eon, I answered every single one of them. Once, when the advertisement 1keystrokeelicited over a thousand responses, I admit that I wrote a form letter, but I signed every one and I kept every single application on file and referred to them at subsequent times I needed staff, and I made a genuine effort to consider who might be interested in the candidate and forwarded the CVs to potential employers. It took a little more time but I slept better and I hope some others did as well.

What I didn’t do was leave a group of sincere, possibly desperate, job seekers indefinitely twisting in the wind with no idea whether the letter had even been received, let alone reviewed and rejected or considered. It was a small gesture but it made a small section of the world marginally less inhuman and maybe softened the blow of rejection by an infinitesimal increment. That is just courtesy. And that is the purpose of courtesy. It doesn’t, in any overt, obvious way, add to efficiency or contribute directly to anyone’s bottom line. But it does make the world ever so slightly easier to bear.

And that is my New Year’s wish. I wish we would all try to exercise that little degree of courtesy, even kindness, that makes the lives of others a little less unpleasant. It’s time we gave a thought to those who have less than we do and recognised that a small effort on our part can make a big difference in their lives.

Happy New Year everyone!

New-Years-Eve

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Morality, politics, and fuzzy thinking

Left is left and right is right,
but when the twain DO meet…

Pagun
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – While the left/right model of socio-political analysis is somewhat deceptive in its over-simplicity, it remains a generally useful shorthand for describing the political landscape in very broad strokes. Nevertheless, it would perhaps be more useful to look at the left/right continuum as existing on a crescent as opposed to a straight, flat line, with the extreme ends of the continuum curving downwards and toward one another until they meet. The extreme left – Soviet-style communism, therefore becomes very similar to the extreme right – Nazi-style fascism. So just as the radical fringes of both ends of the continuum become increasingly similar in their determination to control the lives of citizens, the political posture at which the left and right remain the most distinct is at their moderate positions. On a crescent-shaped model, the moderate position of either side is where the left and right are at their greatest distance; at both the centre and the extreme ends, the positions tend to approach one another. When they meet and form a circle, the political zeitgeist is totalitarianism, and left and right becomes a distinction without a difference.

Fortunately, neither the radical left nor the reactionary right, except for a few genuine sociopaths, advocates for the logical extreme of either side. Although the spectrum is more realistically plotted on a crescent than a straight line, the points don’t touch and the two remain distinct.

As the conservatives in North America become more emboldened, they move steadily further to the right and embrace more and more extreme views. In the news and in the media generally, including the blogosphere and social media, the rhetoric, at least, has become so extreme that for most people to compromise and seek some middle ground would necessarily require them to assume a position that, even twenty years ago, would have been seen as borderline fascist.

Looking to the south, we see Barack Obama routinely accused of being a communist by the more vocal right wing; that he is a socialist has become common wisdom to such an extent that the Democratic Party has given up denying the accusation. The truth of the matter is that, had definitions of left and right not shifted so radically, Obama would be seen as a centre-right politician. The centre has moved so far to the right that even right-leaning moderates are now considered by conservative true believers to be unacceptably liberal. The very word “moderate” has, to the new conservatives, become a dismissive epithet.

conservative compassionAs the extremism of the right becomes more manifest, it becomes apparent that the parallel disciplines of moral/ethical philosophy and political science begin to overlap. As the favourite meme of the right – that right wing solutions are hard-headed, unemotional, practical ones – is put into play, the need for a moral analysis of those solutions becomes imperative. It becomes imperative because one of the salient characteristics of the doctrine of the right is that decisions ought to be made in practical, unsentimental ways; that is, morality ought to be left out of the equation and pragmatism is the appropriate paradigm for making political judgments. The view from the conservative standpoint suggests that, when making political choices, the truly rational person eschews the softer, sentimental impulses and opts instead to act upon purely practical, bottom line-oriented thinking.

This, of course, highlights the very reason some of us remain committed liberals. For the right, property values are paramount, whereas for the left, human values are where we prefer to focus.

The pursuit, acquisition, and retention of profit is the benchmark by which conservatives measure values, whereas for the informed liberal, that benchmark only has utility insofar as profit motiveit can act as a measurement of human wellbeing. At its most fundamental level, the contrast between economic conservatives and economic liberals is the difference between property rights and human rights. The problem is that these different paradigms don’t merely represent alternative priorities, hierarchies that are open to examination and discussion. For the new conservative, the benchmark represented by the core value – money – is so fundamental that trying to examine its validity is like trying to understand quantum physics explained in a foreign language.

Both liberals and conservatives, however, seem to forget that there is nothing inherently more emotional or impractical about making political and social calculations with human values rather than property values as the benchmark. It is only a matter of choosing whichprofit motive ii we, as a society, ought to be striving for; the thinking and reasoning processes are the same. In fact, the zealous inclination to protect and preserve the profits of an individual or corporation is every bit as emotional an impulse as, say, the equally fervent desire to provide a minimum standard of living for the poor. And yet the former is regarded as practical, rational, clear thinking, while the latter is seen as fuzzy, sentimental, and impractical.

It takes only a minor shift in perspective to realise that one can be practical, pragmatic, and hard-headed and yet focus on human values like poverty alleviation, minimum standards of living, universal health care, environmental protection, combatting climate change, access to education, and world peace. In fact, for many people it doesn’t take any shift all; a significant portion of society is employed in occupations that apply practical, pragmatic approaches and thinking to precisely those areas. Nevertheless, in popular discussion, the territory of rational, practical thinking has been ceded to those who advocate for property rights, even by those who advocate just as passionately for human rights.

And this is where moral philosophy comes in. Both sides seem to acknowledge that practical, pragmatic thinking is better or more desirable, at least when seeking to achieve goals; on that issue there is little disagreement. It seems that the crux of the disagreement is the question of just what those goals ought to be. The question of what human goals ought to be is one of the central questions of all moral philosophy, just as how to achieve those goals morally is a central question of all ethical philosophy.

COMPASSION-ACTION-HEADER

Without getting too deep into the weeds of moral philosophy, it is fair to say that most, and all serious, codes of moral human behaviour, from the religious to the secular doctrines, take the view that those actions that enhance the wellbeing of sentient creatures are inherently moral, and those which diminish that wellbeing are not. And that application of Occam’s razor allows us to offer the following proposition: A left wing political posture is inherently more moral than a right wing stance.

In virtually every instance where a choice must be made between profit and human wellbeing, the conservative choice will be in favour of profit. One need only follow any discussion of an environmentally threatening but profit-generating project. Just as a single example, in an instance where a pipeline that will, on the one hand, displace human beings and degrade the environment, further threaten endangered species, put people and their environment at risk of devastation in the event of an accident, but, on the other hand, will create profits for a corporation, the conservative will invariably argue vigorously for the latter course.

One need only listen to the passion and vehemence in those pro-profit arguments and consider the ad hominem epithets employed – tree-huggers, welfare bums, sheeple – to recognise that there is as much fuzzy, emotional, ideological thinking on the arguments from the right as we are accustomed to hear of in accusations routinely hurled at the left. There is very little clear, dispassionate, unemotional reasoning in those defenses of the conservative’s ultimate value. Nevertheless, even if the arguments were to be rational and devoid of logical fallacies, the position held, insofar as it assumes corporate profits to be a higher value than human wellbeing, would still be wrong. Within those parameters it is easy to see that the position of the conservative is a morally wrong one.

Given the forgoing, what is needed in the left/right debate is an acknowledgment on the part of the right that their arguments are not morally neutral or even capable of being made while dismissing morality as irrelevant. To argue for their fundamental underlying principle of profits over people is not to argue amorally; it is, quite frankly, immoral. The right cannot argue rationally that their views are more rational or that their reasoning is less emotion-laden; or they can, but it’s demonstrably not true. They can only argue that their fundamental values are different from those of the left. And every reasonable moral system in the history of human life on this planet agrees that their values are fundamentally morally inferior to those of the left.

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Does SCOTUS pass the buck?

Breaking the rules

Pagun

 

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – It becomes clearer as one gets older just how resigned society is to certain paradigms of lifestyle. To test this observation, all you have to do is step outside if the established pattern for a bit and see exactly how square the hole into which your rounded shape is trying to jam itself actually is. 

Oh, we’re all used to the iconoclasm of youth, particularly those of us who are baby boomers We know all about the fights over long hair, the youth culture battles of the late ‘60s, emergence of the rock culture, recreational drug use, living together without the sanction of marriage, single parenthood, and pretty much everybody either has or has known someone who has come out as gay. But the truth is that those issues have pretty much either resolved themselves or society has come to some kind of accommodation with them. 

Those of you who know me personally also know that one of the personal characteristics frequently remarked upon is that I tend not to think or act in a mainstream way much of the time. It seems that the direction my life has taken in the last few years has reinforced that impression. For someone who is fairly familiar with being out of step with much of society, I have been discovering that things that seemed normal and straightforward to me are considered to be eccentric, even bizarre by many people. 

My son just turned four. This summer I will turn fifty seven. That strikes a lot of people as strange; some are even offended. I’m not going to recount the full backstory of how, why, and with what difficulties Yolanda and I adopted JJ at my venerable age; I don’t feel inclined to defend that decision. I will say that had Yolanda and I not chosen to do what we did, our beloved little boy, who has brought us indescribable joy, would be naked, parentless, probably unloved, malnourished, and facing a bleak future in an impoverished village in a 3rd World country. 

Nevertheless, I am often looked at askance when I mingle with the parents of JJ’s pre-schoolmates. For one thing, since, as a writer, I work out of the house and am JJ’s primary caregiver, I attend those kinds of events when Yolanda is at work; most of the parents with whom I associate are women easily young enough to be my daughters. I’m fairly used to that atmosphere, of course; Yolanda, being more than twenty years younger than me and from a different part of the world, has necessarily turned our social circle into a pretty eclectic and non-traditional group. 

But as the world becomes more flexible, as people’s life expectancies increase, and as tolerance becomes expected rather than the exception, it becomes clearer to me that the ideal of withholding judgment while respecting the choices, lifestyles, and rights of others still has a long way to go. I am occasionally annoyed by the implicit ageism I run into as the parent of a four-year-old. I must acknowledge with a degree of pride that, in Canada, Yolanda and I have never, not once, been subjected to any detectable racism despite our different skin colours and ethnicities (except for online trolls, and I discount those cowards); we have, however, frequently shocked or at least raised eyebrows with our age difference. 

It therefore is not completely unclear to me just how painful and awkward it must be for gay couples in a society that still thinks there is a reasonable debate to be had as to whether the right to marry the person one loves ought to be denied on the basis of chromosomal distribution. Canada, I’m happy to say has for many years recognised marriage equality and it did so without fanfare or hand-wringing. It was obviously the right thing to do, so it was done. Nobody who is in a male-female marriage can legitimately claim that they were negatively impacted, and the institution of marriage is doing just fine, or as fine as it was doing before the legal recognition of marriage equality. 

I have often wondered just how brutally painful it would have been for me and for Yolanda had there been a legal impediment to our marrying because of our races.

(In Indonesia, where we were married, there do exist laws preventing mixed marriages…specifically, marriages between people of different religions. Like most inconvenient laws in Indonesia, however, these aren’t taken very seriously. The laws are Muslim-inspired laws intended to prevent Muslims from diluting their faith by marrying infidels and possibly bring up children as kafirs. Some Muslim clerics believe that for a woman to convert from Islam to Christianity is punishable by death, so conversion for convenience isn’t very common. I personally know at least five men, however, who legally converted to Islam so that they could legally marry Muslim women. Nobody in the union takes either the conversion or Islam itself seriously, of course – in fact one of those people is an ordained Christian minister – but this way they avoid any hassles.)

But it’s worthwhile remembering that in the US laws against mixed race marriage existed right up to the mid-20th Century. We know now that such laws were a grotesque violation of the civil rights of people who simply wanted their committed relationship to be recognised by society like anyone else’s. It ought to be a source of shame for any thinking American that the Supreme Court of the United States isn’t simply mechanically ruling for equal rights. The anti-marriage equality forces haven’t even raised an argument for their position…they are doing nothing but fighting equality by trying to keep the Supreme Court out of the fray and allow the decision to devolve to the states.

 

Learning hatred

It is also worth noting that some of the most fervent Christians have it on good authority that God disapproves of mixed marriages and quote Deuteronomy 7 to support that bigotry. In today’s pro-bigotry argument, they have Leviticus 28:22 to support their anti-equality agenda. Nevertheless, there is Jesus, who espoused inclusion, tolerance and non-judgmentalism (and according to some historians was clearly gay). Go figure. But since we’re dealing with the Supreme Court here, there is a piece of literature that is literally a higher law than any scripture of any religion: the Constitution of the United States of America. And that is supported by the Founding Fathers’ clear and explicit intention to maintain an impregnable wall to serve as the separation of church and state.

If the Supreme Court passes the buck to the states on this issue it will be a shameful piece of judicial duty shirking. Nevertheless, there seems to be an inclination to do exactly that, solving exactly nothing. There has rarely been a clearer constitutional issue than the question of extending constitutional guarantees to all citizens. It’s in front of SCOTUS right now…let’s see whether this court is still behind the curve of the rest of society.

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