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Language in the era of uncertainty

Declining Standards or a Sea Change?


(VANCOUVER ISLAND) I use the phrase “Sea Change” ironically to point out the declining standards also referred to in the slug above this essay.

Although Shakespeare used the phrase in Ariel’s Song in The Tempest, the expression “sea change” is bardactually a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the bard’s greatest tragedy, Prince Hamlet of Denmark undergoes a nearly inexplicable modification of his personality and character during an off-stage adventure at sea, which is not performed, but only described to the audience by means of the play’s dialogue. Unobserved by the audience, Hamlet embarks on the adventure as the melancholy Dane, an indecisive, dithering mass of uncertainty. When he returns, he is strong, focused, stalwart, and determined. He has undergone a sea change.

That phrase is commonly employed by writers today who mean little more than a modification of the status quo; as a metaphor, it has lost its punch through misuse and overuse.

I only mention that single and not terribly important example as an indicator of an increasing degradation of the English language. Unexamined metaphors are one thing, but the erosion of the fundamentals of the language is something else again. The inclination to disregard rules and conventions of usage is a clear trend, and it is snowballing as it gathers strength and increases in acceptability. I doubt if anyone who is proficient in grammar, spelling, and word usage has failed to notice, and even decry, the way the English language has lost much of its beauty and elegance in an unequal trade for a naturalistic sound in published prose.

toystory-badwritingEven a cursory look through the Internet editions of highly respected publications like The New York Times, The Atlantic, or Time Magazine will reveal typo after typo, syntactical errors, and misused words. Just today, I saw an article by a professional journalist who used the word “clique” where she clearly meant “cliché”. An error on the part of an auto-correct feature? Perhaps. A slip as a result of writing under the pressure of deadline? Could be. But the point is that errors of all types are increasingly common. What is significant, though, is not so much the frequency of errors, but the indifference displayed even by professionals to their appearance in print or online.

It is exceedingly rare to read anything online today that is entirely free of errors. What is becoming increasingly common, though, is the deliberate employment of chatty colloquialisms, Web-jargon, and acronyms. Serious articles contain expressions like LOL, or WTF, even presidential candidates rely on social media familiarity by posting phrases like “delete your account”, which would have been meaningless even a decade ago.

Now this essay isn’t intended to be a crotchety, pedantic, lament from a professional writer for “the good good-newsold days”. On the contrary. I’m writing this piece to suggest that we may just be at a watershed point in the history of the English language. Historically, it wouldn’t be the first time the language has undergone a process of rapidly overhauling itself.

The Great Vowel Shift of the 15th to 17th Centuries was a process of radical modification in the way English was pronounced; essentially, English was spoken like Chaucerian English before the shift, and like Shakespearean English afterwards. At roughly the same time the pronunciation was changing, the language itself was changing from Middle English to Modern English. A quick way to get a sense of the scope of the change is to compare the readability of something by Sir Thomas Malory from the early-mid 15th Century, to the ease of access enjoyed by the King James version of The Bible, written between 1604 and 1611.

Two great dictionariests also had marked impact on the English language. In 1746 in Great Britain, Samuel Johnson was contracted to produce a more definitive English dictionary than the haphazardly researched ones then available. Over nine years, he single handedly researched, compiled, and wrote A Dictionary of the English Language, sometimes printed as Johnson’s Dictionary. Widely recognised as being among the greatest scholarly achievements in history, Dr. Johnson’s magnum opus remained the standard English language reference until The Oxford English Dictionary was completed over 170 years later. Thanks to Johnson, spelling became standardised. Prior to his dictionary, spelling was idiosyncratic and capricious, with words being written however the writer heard it in his head at that moment. William Shakespeare famously even spelled his own name differently on different occasions. Now there was a correct and an incorrect way of writing the spoken language.webster-johnson

On the other side of the pond, in 1806 Noah Webster’s first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, was published. Webster can be credited with standardising the American spelling of English language words, and formalising the differences between British and American spelling. In America, centre became center; labour, neighbour, and favour all lost their Us and became labor, neighbor, and favor; specialise swapped its second S for a Z (now called zee rather than zed) and was spelled more like it is pronounced: specialize; and so with civilize, vitalize, recognize, and harmonize.

And all of these mowilliamdifications, shifts, and changes are in the relatively modern history of the language. Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, a modern English speaker would not have understood a Briton’s language at all; the introduction of Norman French to the language of the Angles and Saxons altered the language of the British Isles and sent it off on a trajectory that culminated in today’s version.

That we are in a new period of flux and uncertainty regarding English usage can be attributed to the Internet, of course, but there is also a sociological and even political component at work.

The Internet has provided an audience undreamed of by writers even 20 years ago. And that audience is available to literally anyone who has something to say and access to a computer. For those of us who started our careers in print media, we were second guessed on newsroom-old-schoolmatters of adherence to the publication’s style manual, on spelling, on usage, and our editors always had a spike waiting if we wrote crap. Nothing was set in type without having been seen by at least five sets of eyes. Mistakes in print, therefore, were rare. In contrast, for the vast majority of people who post on social media, or even personal blogs and websites, there is no third party filter; there is no editor to exercise control over content, there are no copy editors to impose style, spelling, and usage standards, and there are no proofreaders to provide a final check for errors. What they post can be stream of consciousness, straight from their keyboards to a potential audience of hundreds of millions of internet-warriorpeople. And no matter how unhinged the copy is, it can find an audience within that vast amorphous crowd who wants to read more of it. That’s how The Drudge Report and Breitbart manage to stay in business.

People are becoming accustomed to sloppy syntax, to the casual employment of neologisms, unconventional grammar, usage, and spelling. The unprofessional writing standards of even very successful Internet outlets has become the new normal. And that’s where the sociological and political component comes in.

For about 20 years now and increasingly every day, a movement within conservative circles has deliberately disparaged and undermined any hint of intellectualism, or expertise. Part of the new conservatism, especially as represented by the so called “alt right”, is an insistence that an expert opinion is just an opinion and anybody, however ignorant of the subject, can have an equally valid opinion. Scientific claims can be refuted, in the conservative zeitgeist, by anyone who makes a contrary claim; accepting an expert’s claim is seen as elitism unless even the least educated counterclaim is given equal standing.

That, of course, crosses over into the field of writing. A professional who anti-intellectual-1automatically avoids splitting infinitives, who ensures that verb and subject agree, chooses words with care, and is consistently accurate in his spelling, is condescended to as an “elitist”. The anti-elitist thinking goes so far as to suggest that it is safe to reject the arguments of someone who frames them logically, presents them with precision and care, and supports his points with factual evidence. To criticise the quality of writing in the blog of someone who is barely literate, is to invite a rebuttal that would argue that it must be good writing because of the number of hits it racks up. Popularity justifies bad writing. Bad writing is becoming standardised. But this may be the dawn of another shift; this time from Modern English to a 21st Century English language.

For a new and updated version of the English language to become the agreed upon standard, perhaps a period of fluidity, of flux, is a necessary precondition. Before a Samuel Johnson can emerge and rewrite the standards of acceptability in the new New English, it may be necessary for people to become dissatisfied with the capricious way people speak and write. If so, that probably won’t take very long. The problem with people using language willy-nilly, without reference to conventions or rules, is that communication suffers.

People simply won’t be able to understand one another clearly without conventions of usage. We have paul-ryan-trump-ap-reuters-640x480already seen the bastardisation of the English language leading to confusion in the current US presidential election. The mutability of words allows, for example, Paul Ryan to refuse to defend his party’s nominee; to acknowledge that Donald Trump is the very definition of a racist, to report being “sickened” by his misogyny, but somehow continue to endorse him. When words do not have a clearly understood shared meaning, every statement made can be weaseled out of as having been misunderstood. That’s where we are now.

But soon, one can hope, people will reject the muddy, indefinite, and vacillating use of language that is so common today. A new set of conventions will, one can hope, emerge, and lead to a comfortable period of clarity, understanding, and perhaps even elegance of expression in the English language. Perhaps then public figures won’t be able to get away so easily with claiming they didn’t say something they were recorded saying. Words have power; it’s incumbent upon us all to insist that the power be used with care.



Rational Self-Defence

A Legacy


(VANCOUVER ISLAND) My regular readers probably know that I am, to all intents and purposes, a single father of a seven-year-old boy. As such, I spend virtually my entire waking life trying to make sure that my son has a safe and happy childhood. Under our unique circumstances, that proposition is even more challenging than it is for most parents. For one thing, I am 60 and JJ is 7; as well, I am fighting a 128cancer that keeps popping up in unexpected places; JJ also has a classic case of ADHD and is being assessed for placement on the autism spectrum; JJ is of a visible minority and as such is bully bait; our financial situation is precarious as a result of my having had to withdraw from the world of full employment for several years. and because of the over $250,000.00 I spent (mostly on bribes) to acquire the paperwork necessary to get him out of Indonesia and to confirm his status as my son. Nevertheless, my main concern every single day is that I am providing JJ with a good role model and a safe and happy life.

            All that having been said, I am starting to develop a counterintuitive hypothesis: that a happy childhood can have a negative impact on one’s adult life.

mental-health            Having offered that hypothesis, it’s only fair to state at the outset that I cannot claim to have had a particularly happy childhood. My mother was, for most of my childhood, an undiagnosed and untreated manic depressive, and my father, being a narcissist, was a  a control freak. I loved them both very much and acknowledge that they both heroically struggled with their mental illnesses, and that they did the very best they could as parents. I was their sole caregiver in their final years and watched them both succumb to Alzheimer’s; I was there when they each breathed their last. I learned during that stressful period just how tough their own lives had been. Nevertheless, my childhood was not exactly idyllic.

My soon-to-be ex-wife, Yolanda, on the other hand, had a very happy childhood. Her parents are extraordinarily kind people and devoted parents. She has two brothers and a sister who all love one another and consider each other to be their best friends. She was tropical-villagebrought up in a village in a tropical paradise where childhood activities included swimming in the Indian Ocean, a pristine beach being just a short walk from their home, playing in the clove and nutmeg orchards, coaxing monkeys to eat from their hands, and visiting extended family and neighbours who populated the village. Moreover, the Indonesian child rearing paradigm is extremely attentive to the desires and autonomy of children; their wishes and desires are taken into consideration in every decision that might have an impact on them.

But here’s the thing. Adults with memories of nothing but happy times and positive relationships when they were growing up seem to have no reason to question what they accepted as truth when they were children. For those people, lessons learned in lessonschildhood are eternal truths. What their parents did or said while bringing them up is rarely contested, as there is rarely a sense that they may have been less than perfect.

On the other hand, I have said many times, only half jokingly, that my surest guideline for parenting is to ask myself what my parents would have done in a similar situation, then do the exact opposite. Because, even from a very early age, I was aware that my parents were simply wrong about many things, I was never tempted to believe that simply because they asserted or believed something, it must be true. The result of that was that I was always sceptical when I was asked to accept something simply upon someone’s authority. I learned early on to look for evidence in support of claims. I learned to recognise that an expert’s opinion on a matter within his field is evidence but an uninformed and unsupported opinion is just that. I went so far as to major in and then to do graduate work in philosophy because it is founded upon critical thinking and rational analysis of propositions.

I contrast that with those people who had perfect childhoods and would never think of old-wives-talesrejecting their parents’ wisdom. Yolanda, for example, is convinced that the worst thing you can do if you have the flu or even a cold is to drink any cold or iced drink. Her parents taught her that and other Indonesian old wives’ tales as fact when she was a child. Why they did, or where that idea came from is a mystery to me, but it is unquestionably true to her. I often self-prescribe ice cold lemonade when I have a flu; my thinking is that I need liquids, the cold will keep my temperature down, and the vitamin C can’t hurt. Yolanda’s mum tells me that cold would be a shock to the afflicted throat. And that’s the end of it.

There are countless examples of other more or less harmless beliefs that Yolanda and her siblings accept unquestioningly; from their marvellously kind and decent parents, for instance, they learned that eating beer-and-duriandurian (my favourite fruit in the world) with beer is sure to kill you. Having consumed the two in great quantities on many occasions, I’m happy to report that it’s all bullshit. The problem is that some of the well-meant but utterly false notions that children pick up from their parents are not entirely harmless. And the inclination to accept those notions isn’t balanced by any inclination to apply critical thinking to them.

In Indonesia, everyone has a religion; 90% of the people are Muslims and the majority of the rest are Christians, Buddhists, or Hindus. If an Indonesian were to ask you what your religion is, answering that religious_map_of_indonesiayou have none would make no sense. It would be like telling them you have no name, or that you were not born anywhere; one’s religion is a defining characteristic of every person. Consequently, people from wonderful childhoods generally accept their parents’ religion completely uncritically. And that acceptance of the religious beliefs of good parents is not only an Indonesian phenomenon; most people here in the West who claim to have a religion, have the religion of their parents. And among those who share their parents’ religion and feel comfortable enough with it not to spend a lot of time agonising over their faith, my observation is that most will cop to having had great childhoods and to having great respect for their parents.

There are lots of things I would like my son to accept unquestioningly. I’d like him to believe, for one-raceexample, that violence is wrong, that being kind to others should be at the very foundation of his character, that there is only one race, the human race, and all members should be accorded the same respect, that knowledge, understanding, and curiosity are preferable to ignorance and intellectual complacency. However, most of all, I want him to learn to apply critical thinking skills to anything he is asked to accept as dogma.

It seems to me that the things I want him to weave into the fabric of his personality, the decency, kindness, and tolerance, are more attitudes than factual propositions; they can be modelled rather than taught. I therefore have the responsibility of living my life with those ideals in mind, and I must be in a position to articulate them without hypocrisy if their suitability as values ever needs to be discussed. But critical thinking can be taught.

conspiracy-theoristsI need to teach JJ to respect people even if he can’t accept their beliefs. He doesn’t need to respect erroneous claims of fact, but he has to understand that people have a right to be wrong. I also need to ensure that, if people try to proselytise some crackpot notion like young earth creationism, or a denial of anthropogenic climate change, or chemtrails, or Barrack Obama’s Kenyan citizenship, he has the critical skills to see through the bullshit. He needs to know that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, not just extraordinary conviction.

In short, I’m hoping that I can give JJ both a happy childhood and the intellectual ammunition even to dispute my claims when I am in error. And crucially, I want my son to have the intellectual firepower trump-fibscombined with the strength of character to survive in a post-truth world in the event that Donald Trump’s message of evil and hatred prevails this November. Since Donald Trump announced his intention of running for the presidency, truth, facts, reason, and human decency have been under assault; everyone is going to need the skills of intellectual self-defence. Being able to separate the truth from hyperbolic fact-free statements will be more important than it has ever been. I will not have the person I love the most in the world succumb to the coarsening and dumbing down that Trump spearheads.


The Psychological Perspective

Cognitive Dissonance


(VANCOUVER ISLAND) It’s an accepted scientific observation, that has been repeated many times and has never been falsified by any reputable study that, in general, people who hold right wing views are brainsconsiderably less intelligent than those who identify as liberal or progressive.  That comes as no surprise to any liberal or progressive, although making that statement has been known to strike some right leaning conservatives as provocative for some reason. Go figure.

Evidence of this observable tendency is to be found in abundance at rallies for the Republican presidential candidate. Simple observation inclines one to suspect that many of Trump’s most fervent supporters are engaged in deliberate acts of self-parody as they labour strenuously to perpetuate the stereotype of being ignorant, bigoted, violent, and profoundly stupid rednecks. But a closer look, and any attempt to engage one of them in conversation quickly reveals that theirs is no act. They are for real. Their right wing views include racism, religious fundamentalism, climate change denial, and rejection of evolution. A significant percentage also adhere to flatly idiotic theories including birtherism, faked moon landings, the 9/11 inside job theory, and the notions that vaccinations cause autism and that Donald Trump is a suitable presidential candidate.

believersThat the real knuckle dragging mouth-breathers and inbred hillbillies subscribe to those views is not a particular surprise. We have always known that those people exist, it’s just that up until recently, most had the laudable instinct to remain hidden from public view and only to share their cretinous views with one another. Trump has legitimised their moronic ideas and given them permission and a platform from which to shout them out to a bemused and somewhat bewildered normal world. No, the real surprise is the Trump-supporting demographic that doesn’t get all the press: the people that believe themselves not to be racist or xenophobic, but support him because they claim seriously that he would be a better president than his opponent.

Among that group, we can disregard the Republican politicians like Paul Ryan, who are simply party hacks for whom their positions within the party take precedence over the nation, or who are, like Chris Christie,


Katrina (hand me a spoon) Pierson

nothing more than sleazy opportunists who are rolling the dice on a Trump victory and hoping for some of the scraps that would fall from his table. We can’t assume that their views are held out of stupidity, since it is impossible to say what their views really are, beyond expediency and personal ambition. Ditto with their surrogates and party spokespersons; guns for hire who would cheerfully eat a plate of Trump’s turds on CNN for the right paycheque.

The ones that cause real head scratching are the rest. The ones who have bought into the hate propaganda that paints Hillary Clinton as everything from a serial killer to a man with AIDS in drag, and intend to vote for Trump because they genuinely hold that he is the lesser of two evils.

One of the indicators of lower intelligence or mental instability is a high tolerance for cognitive dissonance. Those with higher intelligence and healthy psyches instinctively seek to resolve paradoxes and align theircalvin thinking and behaviour with the information available. For anyone at this point in September 2016 to argue that Donald Trump isn’t a racist, or that he is refreshingly honest, or that he is a uniter of people, requires at least one of three things: 1) That he or she is willfully and woefully ignorant and simply has been living under a rock for the last year, or 2) They are simply liars and don’t care if you know it, or 3) They are capable of tolerating cognitive dissonance of breathtaking dimensions.

It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to separate the man from his baggage. One cannot support Trump and dismiss his racism, his constant and habitual lying, and his unparalleled record of reversing himself, of claiming statements were only sarcasm and then that they weren’t, while insisting that one is not a racist or that one values the truth. The vile and hateful facets of Trump’s character cannot be isolated from one’s decision that he ought to be the president of the United States of America. The level of cognitive dissonance required to hold both that Trump would be a good president and, at the same time, that he is what he has unrelentingly demonstrated himself to be, is beyond the capability of a mentally healthy human being. Lewis Black said it succinctly: If you vote for Trump you’re going to hell.

The human mind is hard wired to resist cognitive dissonance; where it exists, tension builds and inclines cognitive-dissonancea healthy person to seek to resolve the paradox. An unhealthy mind (or a stupid person) can tolerate the dissonance with less stress because they have no problem with holding contradictory beliefs. (There are those who can, for example, believe in the literal truth of every word of the bible despite the glaringly contradictory stories in Genesis 1 and John1: 1-13.) But healthy and intelligent people use their higher faculties to resolve paradoxes, not to accommodate them. It is this drive that motivates physicists to delve deeper and deeper into higher mathematics and theoretical physics in an effort to resolve the apparent paradoxes that crop up in the quantum realm. It was that drive that led Einstein to say ironically that god doesn’t play dice with the universe.

From a standpoint of rationality, following the logic of an argument to a paradoxical conclusion demonstrates the fallacy of the argument; a conclusion that entails a logical absurdity is a flawed argument. A paradoxical conclusion means you have to go back and question the premises and try to detect fallacious argumentation. But the conclusion cannot stand. To look at the painfully obvious facts about Trump and still conclude that he should be elected to the most powerful office in the world is to arrive at an absurd and paradoxical conclusion. It cannot stand in a healthy and reasonably intelligent mind.

It is clear that one can support Trump if one is a supporter of his most salient traits: his disdain and contempt for the truth, for facts, and for pretty much everyone but himself. But if one rejects racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, fundamental dishonesty, ignorance, and hatred, one has to reject Donald Trump, the personification of those things. The cognitive dissonance of rejecting those things and accepting Trump is simply too great to accept.


A Free Press…

is a right; reading it critically is a duty…


(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 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.



The World According to Trump

Looking to a Grim Future


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Time it was

And what a time it was

A time of innocence

A time of confidences

Long ago it must be

I have a photograph

Preserve your memories

They’re all that’s left you

Simon and Garfunkel

simon and garfunkel

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

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

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

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

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


Splitting the Baby

A Tale of Two Opinions


(VANCOUVER ISLAND) A favourite technique of the right wing seems to be to attempt to influence public opinion by pretending that there is a serious debate on a subject of importance when in fact there isn’t.

An obvious example of that tactic is the right wing’s insistence that the question of anthropogenic climate change is a controversial issue; that there is genuine disagreement as to whether human activity is contributing to climate change. Not that they’d ever admit it, but even that position represents a retreat from their original argument that climate change (the phenomenon formerly known as “global warming”) simply didn’t exist outside of the fevered imaginations of leftist socialist tree hugging alarmists. When the elephant in the room started to fart and trumpet loud enough that its existence could no longer be ignored or denied, the argument became: Sure the climate is warming up, but it’s part of a natural cycle; dumping millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has no effect on the planet. And, of course, that “argument” came from politicians who, entirely coincidentally I’m sure, accepted huge contributions from Big Oil and, bush denialalso coincidentally, voted to give those very companies billions of dollars annually in corporate welfare. Where that spurious argument did not come from was any actual climate scientist.

The level of public discussion actually included everyday conservatives pointing to every record snowfall and unseasonably cold day and shouting out that here was evidence that global warming was a liberal hoax. Rather than becoming involved in a hopeless attempt to explain the distinction between climate and weather, or to explain how planetary warming could lead to anomalous weather events in some areas, climate scientists started to use the phrase “climate change” to make the truth a little easier to grasp. Still, in an attempt to demonstrate to the public at large that there was a serious debate on the issue, at one point the shills for Big Oil managed to put together a list of “scientists” who held that there was no such thing as human generated climate change. Itclimate-change-denier-1 took about twenty-four hours for that ploy to be exposed as a fraud. Among the deniers were high school science teachers who had never published in peer-reviewed journals and a wide selection of experts in fields like anthropology and dentistry. What was absent was any representation of climate scientists. Despite the rhetoric, there has rarely been, at any time in history, so solid a consensus among scientists; only crackpots and non-experts dispute anthropogenic climate change in 2016. And conservative politicians who have sold their constituents a bill of goods.

As far back as 2001, actual climate scientists published their consensus and their scientific opinion on climate change in the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Its conclusions were summarised as follows:

  1. The global average surface temperature has risen 0.6 ± 0.2 °C since the late 19th century, and 0.17 °C per decade in the last 30 years.
  2. “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities, in particular emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane.
  3. If greenhouse gas emissions continue the warming will also continue, with temperatures projected to increase by 1.4 °C to 5.8 °C between 1990 and 2100. Accompanying this temperature increase will be increases in some types of extreme weather and a projected sea level rise. The balance of impacts of global warming become significantly negative at larger values of warming.


These findings were and continue to be recognised by the national science academies of all industrialised nations. Since then, climate change has become more pronounced and the scientific consensus has become a virtually unanimous voice. There is, in other words, no meaningful debate.

Nevertheless, people with a vested interest in maintaining the current level of hydrocarbon consumption insist that there is a genuine debate to be had and insist that no serious action be taken until the “controversy” is resolved. That technique is known by logicians and rhetoricians as “the fallacy of the middle ground”. That logical fallacy is the mistake of believing or asserting that if there are two sides to a dispute or two competing opinions, the truth is to be found somewhere in the middle between the two opinions. While that may be true on some occasions, and while it may seem intuitively democratic and fair, it is an affront to critical thinking. The tactic employed here is to stake out a position absolutely contrary to reality and try to force people to move away from the truth and toward an artificial middle ground.

However, simply asserting something does not give the assertion legitimacy or any intellectual standing. Despite science-conspiracythe right wing’s anti-intellectualism and dismissal of expertise as elitism, an expert opinion caries more weight than an uneducated, unsupported claim. That is most particularly true when we are speaking of scientific propositions being contradicted by insisting that anybody’s unsupported opinion is as valid as a scientific conclusion.

There is no serious debate on climate change. There are scientific conclusions, and there are uninformed opinions and wishful thinking based on, of all things, political views. That is not a debate. The only debate is how to deal with the reality that the world is facing a clear and present danger that we continue to exacerbate while we keep our heads in the sand. And we do that so the most profitable corporations in the history of the world can continue to increase their revenues and power, and collect more billions of welfare dollars, courtesy of the politicians they own.

Another example of the technique of insisting there is a controversy where none exists is the increasingly nonsensical insistence on the part of conservative, and especially evangelical, Christians that creationism (or its uptown cousin, intelligent design or ID) should be taught along side evolution as a competing scientific theory. Their argument is simply this: Evolution is a theory; so is ID. They should have equal prominence in schools, and refusing to teach ID on an equal footing is one more example of the modern persecution of Christians and Christianity.

This, of course, is another non-debate. The fact that it is even discussed is evidence of the lack of education of the creationism-evolutionID proponents; they don’t understand what, in science, a theory actually is. Having read little but publications that offer theories like: Elvis is alive and living on life support in a cryogenic chamber in Area 51, or President Obama is a Kenyan Muslim plotting the destruction of America, or the moon landings were faked by Stephen Spielberg as a final project to graduate from film school, they don’t understand what a real theory is. They don’t understand that a scientific theory is an explanation of phenomena; an explanation that has been examined, scrutinised, and subjected a series of repeatable experiments and has survived all attempts to falsify it. A scientific explanation is only considered to be a theory if it is testable by experiment or other empirical method. And those tests must, to be valid, be attempts to disprove or falsify the proposed explanation (or, in scientific jargon, the hypothesis); it is easy to find evidence to support a hypothesis but for the hypothesis to become accepted as a theory, it must survive every attempt not to prove it, but to falsify it.

Evolution is a theory. Anthropogenic climate change is a theory. Gravitation is a theory. Even the existence of atoms and subatomic particles is a theory. In fact, most of those things are looked at as facts by any educated person. They are called theories simply because explanations of phenomena can always be refined and tweaked; to call them facts would be sloppy science. Intelligent design, in contrast, doesn’t even qualify as a hypothesis. It is merely an assertion based on an interpretation of a compilation of folk tales told by illiterate late Neolithic middle eastern nomadic goat herders and written down some time over two thousand years ago. To call it a theory is to misunderstand and misuse the word.

At first glance, it is bewildering that scientific questions are political debates with sides lining up along the CorpSpend91214liberal/conservative division. But when one considers that the denial of human caused climate change is supported by the same people and for the same reason that they denied the connection between tobacco smoke and lung disease, it becomes a little clearer. Their phony arguments are sponsored by industry and insisted upon because doing so makes right wing politicians a lot of money. The same is true of the refusal to make any real attempt to stem the flood of deaths by gunshot; politicians have been paid to insist that guns don’t kill people.

The outlier here is the insistence on the propagation of intelligent design as science. Nevertheless, there is a political element in that phony debate; conservative and evangelicals Christians, the proponents of ID, tend to be on the right of the political spectrum, so conservative politicians find themselves pandering to their crackpot notions in an effort to ingratiate themselves. It is cynical in reasonably rational politicians, and in the devout, it is simply one more example of the religious right’s constant pressure to undermine democracy and create a Christian theocracy.howinsteadofwhat

Critical thinking, self education, broad reading, and constant vigilance are all needed to push back against the forces that would twist the facts to fit a political agenda. I believe very strongly that, rather than expend enormous amounts of money and energy to teach particular doctrines in schools, there should be a combined effort, from both sides of the political spectrum, to include critical thinking as an integral part of the curriculum. When rational scepticism, an understanding of rhetoric, recognising sophistry and logical fallacies are all part of the arsenal of students it would be interesting to see how many of these idiotic non-debates simply fizzle and disappear.


An Atheist’s Dilemma

Religion and genius



My grandfather was a genius. I mean that in the most traditional, unequivocal meaning of the tesmartrm. Just by way of example, he had a bunch of Ph.Ds, all suma cum laude,before he was 25;  even in his 90s, he had never met a brain teaser that teased him for more than a second or two. He was Swiss by birth and he was also Catholic, by which I mean when he was born in the 1800s, he had been baptised and had gone to mass regularly for his entire life. His wife, my grandmother, was of English/Irish/Scots extraction and came from a very religious family; my relatives from her side of the family include, in just one generation, a few nuns, an archbishop (Alex Carter) and a Cardinal (His Eminence, Gerald Emmett Carter). My grandfather’s church attendance was mostly a pro forma affair to maintain tranquility on the domestic front. So thanks to nepotistic connections, I was able to obtain, acquired by my cousin the Cardinal for me, directly from the Pope, what is known as a “plenary indulgence”.

An “indulgence” in Catholicism is sort of a get-out-of-jail-free card; it’s a guarantee that certain sins are forgiven and a piece of your penitential time in purgatory will be lopped off. A “plenary indulgence” is the Rolls Royce of indulgences; it forgives all sins, past or present, and eliminates a purgatorial sojourn entirely. So, I’m good. I never have to worry about putting my bet down on the right side of Pascal’s wager; if it turns out that I’m wrong and Catholic doctrine is cartoon prayerabsolutely correct, I don’t have to worry about hellfire and eternal torture; my sins of heresy and apostasy (along with everything else) are pre-forgiven. An enviable position for an atheist or even an anti-theist like me to be in, I’m sure you’ll agree.

After my grandmother died, my grandfather became considerably more open about his religious views. He was, much like his colleague and contemporary, Albert Einstein, an atheist. As he explained it to me once many years ago when I was in grad school, working on a Master’s in philosophy, he was content that the basic scientific theories were sufficient to allow for satisfactory accounts of things religion is often recruited to explain. He was satisfied that ontology would be covered by the specifics within physics and evolutionary biology; epistemology could be dealt with within the framework of empirical science and the rational investigations of mathematics. People would ask him if it didn’t make sense that, although things got started with the Big Bang, somebody or something had to say “Bang!” And wouldn’t the thing that said, “Bang” be God? He simply quoted Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace and said, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

Although, in the years immediately following the death of my grandmother, he was outspoken on the subject of his newly articulated atheism, after a while he seemed to lose interest in engaging the devout in rational debates; he gave up being a missionary for reason over superstition. Although he still felt, indeed he felt more strongly than ever, that the religion-heavenreligion of his childhood and that of his late wife and most of his family was utterly absurd and, frankly, an insult to any normal person’s intelligence, he also felt that it was wrong to deprive people of a source of comfort and security and give them nothing to replace it. Although Voltaire had said something to the effect that if he rescued someone from a beast that was devouring him, it would be ridiculous to ask him with what he intended to replace the beast, he just couldn’t bring himself to take without giving back.

In my view, that was years of religious indoctrination talking, and talking louder that his rigorous science training. His initial burst of outspoken atheism was more morally correct than his later diffidence; in short, he caved in his later moderation. The fact is that my grandfather was a moralist; he was a militarist, but he was also an uncompromising pacifist who sided with us, the hippies, during the 60s anti-war protest years. He cared for all living things and actually walked the talk; he bought up all the offal he could gather from his butcher and fed the neighbourhood stray cats; he even treated their skin conditions with some concoction he brewed himself. When he didn’t think he was being watched, I have seen him catch a mosquito and shoo it away rather than swat it. And it was that human decency, his profound compassion that initially fueled his vocal atheism.

As a man of intimidating intelligence, and as a human being of morality and kindness, he saw the unmitigated evil that is represented by religion, particularly theistic religions and most specifically, the three big Abrahamic cults. He saw them for what they are and he rejected their tenets as inhuman and deeply cruel. Most of all, he rejected the fundamental house on religionpurpose of religion\; to divide people into the elect and the damned. He saw that as soon as one cleaves to a particular iteration of a theistic creed, one has counted oneself as being among the special few and better than and separate from the rest. Religion is the great divider of humanity into them and us. As a devout pacifist, those divisions were repugnant to him.

In his last years, as he mellowed, he retreated from his overt condemnation of religions; not because he came to accept their pretenses of validity, but because he had come to abhor any form of conflict and confrontation. He would smile and nod when he was lectured by a Witness of Jehovah who thought she had spotted an old, vulnerable, weak-minded widower as an ideal mark. She couldn’t have been more wrong, but he permitted her to babble on in her fallacy-laden arguments for her absurd cult’s dogma. He could have argued circles around her and, by virtue of his superior knowledge of her bible and deeper understanding of her doctrine, he may even have persuaded her of the inherent wrongness of her religious views. He thought that would have been wrong, since she was genuinely trying to save his immortal soul; showing her the errors of her beliefs and thinking would have accomplished little except leaving her bereft of comfort and possibly shunned by her family and congregation.

I disagree. Had I been him, I think I would have taken the bait and opened up the discussion. I would have considered it a victory for the forces of good in the world to have rescued that woman from her imprisonment; for that is what dogmatic religion is. I believe that my grandfather abdicated his responsibility as a rational and compassionate man militantto save others from pernicious doctrine. I believe that the doctrine that he could have argued against is the most destructive and repugnant force in the entire history of the world. I believe that the toxicity of religion has poisoned humanity for thousands of years, and that if religion was treated like any other crackpot notion; given no respect in society, treated with dismissive contempt, and not permitted to influence the public sphere, the world would be an immeasurably better place. The energy and brain power that would be freed up to seek actual real solutions to social problems would have an incredible positive impact on mankind.

My grandfather, though, was too kind to continue to confront those who tried to sell him their snake oil. Out of compassion, he allowed them to enjoy the comfort of their chains; he pitied them, but he didn’t have the confrontational nature needed to fight back against the worst evil at work in the world today



Stupid is as Stupid Does

A Civilisation in Decline


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Coming Dark Ages

Barbarians at the Gate



I join other pundits in making the observation that, although the Trump phenomenon is astonishing in its offensiveness, we shouldn’t be all that surprised. Another thing that shouldn’t surprise us much is the breathtaking hypocrisreagan (1)y of the GOP stalwarts trying somehow to square the circle by simultaneously denouncing their nominee, The Tiny Tangerine Titan, and endorsing him. Trump’s offensiveness is merely the bombast with which he delivers the talking points that have been the Republican worldview since Reagan first blew his dogwhistle about “welfare queens”; racism and contempt for anyone who can be seen as “other” have always been at the core of the Republican message and philosophy and Trump is only saying it out loud rather than with a wink and a nod.

That’s why it really set one’s teeth on edge when the Republican House Speaker, who has (as was inevitable) recently endorsed Trump, said that one of Trump’s recent racist outrages “came out of left field”. A big surprise? The Republicans have never been in line for beatification as a result of their rigid adherence to principles of truth and honesty; but that whopper is almost in a league by itself. The GOP, the party of white working class male privilege; the party of Archie Bunker; the party whose nominee started his campaign with a promise to build a wall on the Mexican border; the party whose operatives overtly acknowledge george-wallaceethnic and minority voter suppression as a means of increasing their share of the vote; that party’s elected Speaker was surprised by one more racist remark by the most overtly racist candidate since George Wallace? Seriously?

All this hypocrisy ought to be telling us something and the rest of the country and the world should be taking it in. They will eventually, of course, but the question is whether the obvious will sink in before November. The party of Lincoln, the Republican Party, is utterly morally bankrupt; it is bereft of any claim to ethics, integrity, or honesty; it is now a dumping ground for nutjobs, bigots, racists, conspiracy theorists, and misanthropic sociopaths; it is all but done as a genuine political party.

The hypocrisy of the Republican stance with respect to their nominee is so transparent that the party’s leaders have given up even pretending that they have, or ever have had, the country’s best interests in mind. Congressman Chris Stewart, who once called Truhypocrisymetermp “our Mussolini” has now endorsed him. Party stalwart Rand Paul, who is on record as having said that Donald Trump was less qualified than “a speck of dirt” to be president, has endorsed him. And let’s not forget Bobby Jindal, ex Republican governor of Louisiana and vice chair of the Republican Governor’s Association; he said that Trump is a “madman who must be stopped”; he endorsed him too. I guess one way to stop a madman is to vote for him and to encourage others to do the same. And then there is “Little Marco”, taunted and ridiculed by Trump; he also wants you to know that you should do as he is doing, and vote for Trump. And of course there is Paul Ryan himself; outraged and shocked at the nominee’s racism and overt bigotry – he wants you to vote with him for Trump.

Apparently Trump was almost right. If he were to do as he believes he could, and shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue, I suspect he actually would lose some votes. I don’t think he would lose any party endorsements, though. The depth of the hypocrisy demonstrated by the shambolic remnants of the GOP is such that a complaint would only be heard if the shooting victim was a white male Republican. And that would only be because of the lost vote. The Republicans have put the country on notice that their degenerate party is of more significance than any other consideration, up to and including the country; the country they swore in their oaths of office to put ahead of everything else.

That on their list of priorities, the country comes after their systemic racism and their political party, was made manifest during the Obama presidency when the GOP swore to undermine the president at every turn. Their stated mission at first was deny him a second term; in his second term it was to deny him any accomplishment or victory. These patriots went so far as to hold the country at ransom, threatening to shut down the government and refusing (contrary to the Constitution) to pay bills which they themselves had incurred in Congress.  That Congress was far and away the least productive Congress in the history of the US, having done virtually nothing whatsoever except to pass a few porkbarrel bills for their own constituents and steadfastly refusing to do anything worthwhile. lazy repubNevertheless, Obama prevailed and turned the economy around, brought in a rudimentary form of national health care, tracked down and killed Osama Bin Laden, and opened the doors to greater equality under the law for all Americans. One cannot help but wonder how much could have been accomplished had the Republican Congress not filibustered, refused to hear, or simply ignored every bill, nomination, and initiative proposed by the president or any Democrat. The Obama years might well have been a halcyon period of US history.

The Republicans could not have been more clear in telegraphing their contempt for their oaths of office, their president, and, saddest of all, their country and their fellow citizens. But that message has been sent. It has been doubled and tripled down. The Republicans would rather see their country collapse into anarchy under the steady hand of a madman who previously needed to be stopped than see a non-Republican in the White House again.

They don’t care about governing. They have no coherent vision or any way of achieving it if they had one. They are nothing any more but a loose rabble of misfits, outcasts, and bewildered and angry socially marginalised leftovers on the ground beside the evolutionary ladder; and it’s terrifying that there are enough of them to make a credible run at the presidency. Nevertheless, they will not prevail. Trump and his cohort of incompetent anti-intellectual sociopaths will lose in November to a majority of the country that still has some vestige of intelligence and critical thinking skills. There are still enough people of conscience and sense in the US to reject a breathtakingly ignorant, narcissistic, racist fascist.

Barbarians at the Gate

Barbarians at the Gate

But what’s scary is this: that demographic is shifting. I think there’s a chance for civilisation to overcome the barbarians at the gate this time; I’m not so sure about 2020. And 2024 is even less certain.



Home of the Whopper

In all honesty…


(VANCOUVER ISLAND) I have argued elsewhere that we ought to pay attention to the scientific studies that have demonstrated that those professing to be liberals are, on the whole, more intelligent than those who self-identify as conservatives. Although for obvious reasons that observation isn’t repeated very often by those on the right side of the political spectrum, and is usually politely glossed over by most of my fellow occupiers of the left, it’s fair to say that it’s pretty much self-evident. That the right is aware of its own intellectual disadvantage is clearly expressed in the anti-intellectualism that they embrace.homer-simpson-quote-how-is-education-supposed-to-make-me-feel-smarter But one other characteristic that the right can assert as having in greater abundance than the rest of us, is their inherent dishonesty. Although, in politics, the truth is an endangered species by any measure, the hypocrisy of the conservative movement outpaces any that the left could claim.

Politically, the right is known for repetition of long since debunked memes; statements of fact that run entirely counter to reality and yet are routinely trotted out as self-evident and widely known facts. One of their favourites, by way of example, is their reliance on the people to accept the myth that Republicans (or, in Canada, Conservatives) are fiscally responsible while Democrats (Liberals and NDP) are the tax and spend parties. Looking at modern US history very easily shows anyone willing to face reality that exactly the reverse is true. In actual fact, history shows us a pattern of Democratic presidencies leaving surpluses or balanced budgets for incoming Republican presidents who then promptly squander the peoples’ money and through deficit spending, run up enormous debts while at the same time eschewing revenue by reducing taxes on the wealthiest. Look at how Bush the Younger managed to piss away the Clinton legacy of a balanced budget and cash surplus. Desperate to be seen as

Mission Accomplished: Who are you gonna believe? Me or your lyin' eyes?

Mission Accomplished: Who are you gonna believe? Me or your lyin’ eyes?

a swaggering, macho, wartime president, he squandered over a trillion dollars of his people’s money on hypocritically justified wars as a monument to himself. He built a debt that is serviced by continued deficit spending and, not incidentally, cost the US thousands of lives and orders of magnitude more foreign lives. That shows how tough he was.

Tax and spend, especially for wars, is obviously, even self-evidently, a Republican “conservative” principle. And since we’re looking at the hypocrisy that typifies the conservative movement, let’s just note for a moment the so-called justification for Bush’s aggression. Weapons of mass destruction, anyone? Perhaps aluminum tubes that could only be for the production of nukes?

Another particularly egregious example of the hypocrisy of the conservative Republicans and their pretence of fiscal responsibility is their views on the social safety net and its forms of government support for those in desperate need. The prevailing view from the moral high ground on the right is that poverty is generally a result of laziness; if denied food stamps and welfare, those parasites would get up off their indolent asses and work for their daily bread. They argue that the US is the land of opportunity and, with hard work, anyone can become not just successful, but vastly wealthy; government handouts erode that ambitious spirit. With that as a cornerstone of conservative philosophy, they proudly vote down any initiatives that could ease the burden of the desperately poor in their country. Nevertheless, they take billions of dollars out of the budget to give as subsidies to the most profitable corporations inCorporate_Income_Tax_as_a_Share_of_GDP,_1946_-_2009 the history of the world – oil companies, like Exxon and Shell, great friends of the Bush family – every year. Moreover, among non-oil corporations, corporate tax paying is only for suckers; those companies that actually pay corporate income tax do so at laughably low rates. Apparently that doesn’t mean corporations are among the “takers” that Romney and Ryan railed against during the last general election cycle. And after all, remember Mitt Romney’s statement from those days? “Corporations are people too, my friend!”. Even better than people, apparently. Corporations deserve our financial support where actual human beings can starve as an object lesson in conservative values. The poor, it seems, should contribute far more than they do to the election campaigns of conservative candidates for Congress. A Congressman doesn’t come cheap any more, and Senators are really pricey these days.

These big picture hypocrisies are evident to anyone who actually looks at the situation; they are so commonplace and familiar that they are part of the political landscape and barely register any more. Most people just shrug and say, “Whatcha gonna do?” But the smaller, quotidian assaults on truth and reality are out there too.

For a long time, the Republican initiatives to suppress the vote among constituencies that are likely to vote Democrat were justified by a spurious need for curtailing voter fraud at the polls. Despite Voter-ID-1athe fact that the kind of fraud that the picture ID requirement is supposed to address simply doesn’t occur, Republicans routinely enact more and more restrictive legislation. Recently, however, it has become perhaps unfair to accuse them of hypocrisy here. These days they are stating explicitly that the aim is to make voting more difficult, that having many polls, early voting polls, and having them open for long hours just makes it too easy for “those people”.

Part of the rock bottom, immutable conservative political philosophy is that the smaller the government is, the better; a realpolitik expression of the idea that “less is more”. Republicans, and particularly their Tea Party faction, all repeat the mantra of wanting to eliminate governmental intrusion into people’s lives. Grover Norquist famously expressed that view in his crusade to “starve the beast” and his desire to shrink government to a size where he could drown it in a bathtub.

Nevertheless, it is conservative and almost exclusively Republican politicians who routinely introduce legislation that would control women’s bodies; anti-abortion laws requiring the most invasive intrusion imaginable into people’s lives, and the increase in governmental oversight to enforce the law are apparently okay here. They also don’t mind using government resources to ensure that some of their desperately crackpot initiatives would be enforced; they presumably would be happy to have government monitor the sex at birth of those wishing to use public toilets.

bathroom cop

No Republicans

As far as hypocrisy goes, here’s one of their greatest hits. Amid all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over their idiotic laws intended to keep our children safe from cross dressing sexual predators in public facilities, they neglect to confront the fact that more Republican politicians have been charged with sexual offenses in public washrooms than have transgendered people. If children’s protection rather than simple discrimination were their true aims, they’d keep “family values” Republicans out of public restrooms.

This list could be expanded to fill a book. Everywhere we turn, we see hypocrisy and specifically conservative mendacity; so common is it that they don’t even try very hard to hide or excuse it. Republicans will vote themselves a pay raise and at the same time blithely refuse to support an increase in the minimum wage. They will take an oath of office to put their country ahead of their party or lyingunderoathpersonal interest and assure each other that their primary mission as representatives of the people is to undermine their own president and his office – regardless of the consequences to the country.

And of course, the Mount Everest of hypocritical conservative bullshit is their choice of Donald Trump as their party’s candidate for the highest office in the land. From a “Never Trump!” position to “I’ll pinch my nose and vote for the party’s candidate,” to “I’m starting to be persuaded that Trump is the best candidate”, the Republicans have betrayed their constituents and their country time and again.

So given all the lies, all the hypocritical posturing and all the reversals of pledges, promises, and guarantees, one has to ask why anyone would continue to vote Republican. And the question almost answers itself. Look at the very first sentence in this column; they just aren’t all that smart.