Saturday, April 30, 2011

Is this as good as it gets?

. . . consider how the lilies grow.

Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, etc. I expect you know where I’m going with this. While we’re holding elections in Canada and anticipating some surprising results, privileged dictatorships in other countries are killing their citizens in attempts to hold on to power.
In an extremely flawed world, there’s a danger of overlooking the magnificence of democracy as we know it. No matter what is decided on Monday, the vanquished will go quietly, if sorrowfully, to the sidelines. There will be no tanks in the streets, no crack-downs, no suicidal marches. The RCMP will not be placed on high alert; no jet fighters will be scrambled; the UN Security Council will not meet in emergency session.  
The current campaign has been highly educational. It’s pointed out in stark contrast, for instance, what we now are with what we could become. Stephen Harper has unwittingly made it clear that we haven’t yet mastered the degree of compromise and cooperation that would be necessary before we could ever declare ourselves a mature democracy. His declaration that he will not try to save a minority situation by seeking a coalition with another party smacks of the “my way or the highway” mentality that Canadians just won’t buy anymore—it’s far too reminiscent of an ugly, distant “lord of the manor “past.
The Royal Wedding juxtaposed with the campaign has been informative in its irony, if for no other reason. Even as we struggle (painfully slowly) to hone our democracies for ever more fairness, more equality, more transparency, we suspend our debate to revel in the ultimate cult of personality: adulation for an unelected, undeserved and archaic hereditary monarchy. I’m reminded of the lines from Loving Arms, a song popularized by Elvis Presley, Kenny Rogers, The Dixie Chicks and many others, and written by Tom Jans:  I've been too long in the wind, too long in the rain, searching for any comfort that I can. Looking back and longing for the freedom of my chains; laying in your loving arms again. Democracy is hard work; sometimes we’d just like to go back to the days when a king made all our decisions for us.
Speaking of the cult of personality, how and when did our elections degenerate into American Idol-style contests? It’s all about four people, isn’t it? Are we for Harper, Ignatieff, Layton or Duceppe? Closely related to this dumbing-down phenomenon is the focus on strategy. Even our national TV/Radio provider, the CBC, has abandoned dialogue on issues to engage in endless speculation on strategy. It’s all about trends, polls, ads and who’s doing what to manipulate the voters, who’s failing in the ad wars and who’s succeeding. We might as well be watching another episode of “Coach’s Corner” on Hockey Night in Canada. Has Layton’s cane been critical to the NDP surge? Was William’s kissing Kate twice, as opposed to the traditional once, a signal of a new era in the British monarchy?
How I long for a sincere, civilized dialogue on (for example) what we as a country can do to improve the housing situation on reserves, what the right size of military structure might be for Canada, how we’re going to maintain our infrastructures for the next generation, what our current definition of freedom of conscience ought to be.   
How I long for less speculation on how the Liberals, or the NDP, the Conservatives or the Greens should approach the next election in order to succeed.
But enough complaining already. Whatever it is we’ve got, flawed as it may be, I’m exceedingly grateful for it. Remember Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria.
Like my fellow Canadians, I’m allergic to bombs, bullets and blood.
Even so, we could do a lot better, couldn’t we?—or is this as good as it gets?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

What's your *****ist, I mean really?

When peace like a river . . .

What’s your *****ist, anyway.

I’ve cancelled my delivery of the paper version of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. “Why?” you ask, in a voice feigning interest. Here are the reasons:

 Main reason: I abhor the waste of resources in that mass of paper, 9/10ths of which interests me personally not at all.

 Secondary reason: Yesterday, the paper led with a huge, front-page headline about Harper pursuing successfully the youth vote. The building interest in the NDP was buried on page 4 or so.

 Third reason: For half the price of paper delivery, I can read on-line the StarPhoenix, the Edmonton Journal, the Calgary Herald and/or half a dozen other papers, some of which may print news and eschew propaganda (this may be wishful thinking).

 Fourth reason: Our paper is delivered by Karen refugee kids who are helping their growing family out by peddling their bikes around Rosthern in every kind of weather. It reminds me too much of serfdom. (This one needs more thinking; it might be a reason to continue delivery).

It’s Easter morning in the middle of an election campaign. Like the StarPhoenix, both events put pressure on people to declare themselves, to accept an *****ist adjective, to put themselves into their proper categories.

“Do you believe in less government?”

“No, not necessarily.”

“So you’re a socialist.”

“No, not necessarily.”

 “A communist?”

“Don’t you have to carry a card to be one of those?”

“I myself am an anarchist!”

“Funny. I thought you were a Biologist.”

“That too, I guess.”

“At least you’re not a bigamist . . . are you?”

"Certainly not."

“Well, if you’re an anarchist and an anti-communist, you must also be a fundamentalist, eh?”

“I could be; I don’t know what that word really means.”

“Neither do I, but do you believe in literal resurrection?”

“I’m a biologist, remember?”

“Then you must be an atheist.”

“No, not necessarily. I’m probably a fundamentalist agnosticist.”

“They used to burn hereticists like you at the stake, you know.”

“I think this conversation is going off the rails.”

“Probably a good thing. How about a game of ping pong.”

"Sounds good." 

It’s Easter morning. There’s magic in waking up at 6:30 in the morning and the sun already streaming in through the bedroom window. It’s a kind of resurrection—the spring of the year—that won’t tolerate an *****ist adjective easily. It shines on everybody, no matter what their *****ist, or lack of it. It unites; it abhors division; it shines over fences and walls and says: “Good morning, my children.”

It reminds us to celebrate all those who have spoken those magic words: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”

Peacemaking is a gerund - a noun made out of a verb, if you like; it’s not an adjective.

Pacifist notwithstanding.

Happy Easter.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Thank you Me Me, wherever you are

three-quarters empty
A commentary on Yahoo News by a person calling himself or herself “Me Me” was entitled, “Why the Conservative Base Will Always Vote Conservative.” It equates Conservatism with Authoritarianism and lists the following points (with references to Altemeyer; Haddock, Zanna, & Esses, 1993: Robert Altemeyer is a retired professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba and has written widely on Right-wing Authoritarianism. Haddock, Zanna & Esses references are to a 1993 paper on “Assessing the structure of prejudicial attitudes: The case of attitudes toward homosexuals.)
Does any of this ring bells for you?

*Authoritarianism…happens when the followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want--which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and brutal.” (Altemeyer, 2006, p. 2)

*An Authoritarian is “someone who, because of his personality, submits by leaps and bows to his authorities.” (p. 8)

*Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honoured, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians.” (p. 9)

*Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:

1. a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;

2. high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and

3. a high level of conventionalism (believing that everybody should have to follow the norms and customs that your authorities have decreed ).

*High authoritarians are extremely self-righteous individuals who maintain a strong acceptance of traditional (i.e. Religious) values and norms, possess a general willingness to submit to legitimate authority, and display a general tendency to aggress against others (especially those who threaten their conventional values and norms). They see their own aggressive behaviour as righteous rather than hurtful. (Haddock, Zanna, & Esses, 1993)

Authoritarians believe in traditional gender roles, racial prejudice, negative attitudes toward homosexuals, conservative (fundamental or orthodox) religious values, and are low on openness to experience. They are also extra-punitive toward law breakers. They assign longer jail times for any law breaker (no matter how small the crime), they think the crimes are more serious than most people do, and they find “common criminals” to be highly disgusting and repulsive – it makes them feel glad to be able to punish a perpetrator,

. . . But they go easy on authorities who commit crimes.

Thank you Me Me, whoever you are, for condensing some interesting research on the authoritarian mindset.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Don't Walk Your Dog in Swinglow, Saskatchewan

The burning at the stake of 224 Waldensians in France in 1243.
A copper-plate etching by Jan Luyken

Lately, I've been led to think about the meaning of religious freedom by a number of events, starting with a request from the Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan to review Tongue Screws and Testimonies. In keeping with this current preoccupation, I present here some religious-freedom scenarios . . .

1) The Conga Bonga Church in Swinglow, Saskatchewan believes that the god, Conga Bonga, can only be appeased by animal sacrifice, so they have built a huge furnace into which every member throws a beloved pet on the date of the summer solstice, and the smoke rising is a balm to the nostrils of Conga Bonga, and the faithful are protected from dire tragedy for another year.

2) In Bountiful B.C., a fundamentalist Mormon community believes that polygamy is sanctioned by their faith as a legitimate way of life. The leaders are brought to trial on charges of abuse.

3) “In September, 2008, the Province of Quebec changed the religious education curriculum, requiring all students from first grade to the end of high school to take a course each year entitled, Ethics and Religious Culture. The course surveys all religions, treating Christianity on par with all other religions. No religion is permitted to be presented as more desirable than any other. The course is mandatory for all public and private schools. Even religiously based private schools are not permitted to teach a religion course contradicting Ethics and Religious Culture (Quoted from Canadian Council of Christian Charities release of April 5, 2011).”

“CCCC is asking members and other interested parties to pray that the judges of the Supreme Court of Canada make a decision preserving this religious freedom in Canada (ibid).”

It’s quite certain that the definition of “Freedom of Religion” is going to need some pretty significant discussion and debate in Canada in the future. Cooler heads would say that in a multi-cultural democracy, the public institutions shouldn’t favour one religion over another, hence the abandonment of the Lord’s Prayer and Bible readings in public schools makes democratic sense. There are many, however, who still declare that we are a “Christian Nation” and that newcomers ought to adapt . . . so there. You’ve heard the rhetoric.

We’re prone to see issues as having two poles, and only two. You either ban books, or you don't; you favour nuclear energy or you oppose it; you vote on the left, or on the right; you either have free speech or you don’t; either you have freedom of religion or you have tyranny. We don’t do well with nuances, especially on emotional issues.

Take freedom of religion: there’s no likelihood that animal sacrifice will ever be excused in Canada as a facet of religious freedom. If Swinglow, Saskatchewan and it's worship of Conga Bonga actually existed, would the prosecution of animal sacrifice be an infringement on religious freedom? Whether or not polygamy falls under that right or not has yet to be shown. And in the third case above, I’m not sure CCCC has explained it correctly. To my knowledge, separate schools that teach a specific religion will continue to operate under the protection of the Charter, although they may be required to teach the generic course on world religions as a part of a provincial curriculum if the state requires it for graduation, much as they must teach the Biology course even if it includes the theory of evolution.

Like freedom of the press and freedom of speech, freedom of religion is not on a toggle switch – either off or on. By way of comparison, to say one is against the banning of books is absurd. What people who argue on one side or the other of the book-banning question really mean is that they want a more or less liberal policy regarding acceptable literary content. (If the education system were to introduce a neo-NAZI history text into the curriculum, I would be a book-banner, at least until a defensible case for its introduction had been presented. In general, I favour a liberal content policy where material is classified and the choice of its purchase is left to the reader.)

Likewise where the fundamental freedoms are concerned, we shouldn’t allow our debates to boil down to strident defenses of one or the other pole; there is more merit in seeking together the sweet spot, the compromise that allows every citizen to live life in an environment that feels like justice and fairness have been the bases for legislation. That’s what democracy in a secular state means, in the end.

At election time, it seems especially important that we forego clinging to the poles—and risk real dialogue somewhere closer to the middle.

And then, you might well say, we can look down at our feet and realize that hell really has frozen over!

Sunday, April 03, 2011

I'm fed up, by George

Jasper Station

Here’s something new besides Election 2011 for which I may sue somebody. You may have heard it among the thousands of ads we’re exposed to—even while watching the news. “By George . . . it’s George—exclusively at WALMART”

At WALMART, no less. Henceforth, don’t look for me at Sears, The Bay or Work Wearhouse. WALMART has appropriated me for their “exclusive” use. Used to be, classmates in elementary school would taunt me with “Georgie, Porgie, puddin’ ‘n’ pie, kissed the girls and made them cry.” Now I expect I’ll be greeted with “By George . . . it’s George.” How can I and all the other Georges go on after this?

If that isn’t depressing enough, how about the election rhetoric we’re supposed to swallow day after day? My good friend, HS, and I agree. Democracy may be a wonderful ideal, but the way we do it these days, i.e. party-system acrimony, is dumbing down the population. The competition for seats has become the underlying theme, as if it were the world cup of propaganda; the issues are only trotted out as absolutely necessary to support that propaganda. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the competition for sales among the big box chains and our politics, except the retail world may still retain a smidgen of respect for our intelligence, 'by George . . . it’s George' notwithstanding.

CBC interviewed some voters in a car dealership in Northern Alberta the other day. They will all vote for Stephen Harper. One said, “Ah, we’ll probably vote Conservative, and then be ashamed of what we get.” If that doesn’t sum it all up, I don’t know what would. He’s obviously grasped in his own way the absurdity of party politics in our day.

HS suggests that change will never come from the top, and I agree. At any given point, the persons in government see it as a detriment to their interests to effect a change. That’s our Gordian Knot. But I look at Libya, Egypt and Tunisia and realize the other truth that HS iterated forcefully: change has to be forced by the people, by you and me.

So here’s one proposal. A vote strike. Let’s all agree to spoil our ballots, or stay away from the polling stations altogether and back our refusal to participate with a clear message and a bold demonstration that we want a more civilized governance model, and then insist upon it. There would be massive upheaval for a time, but look at Egypt; if you’re serious about change, you have to put some money where your mouth is.

Here’s one example of what we’ve allowed ourselves to become: that debacle we call a “Leaders’ Debate,”—that display of petulance, bad manners and false accusations wants to exclude Elizabeth May because the Greens had no representation in the last parliament. Well excuse me, this isn’t about who GOT elected, but who WILL BE elected! Every Canadian who votes will see a representative of each party on the ballot and will choose among these equals. It is in our power to make Elizabeth May prime minister, and for the leaders currently in office to deny that we have a chance to oust them and choose someone else—say Jack Layton or Elizabeth May—is tantamount to holding the ballot in contempt.

But then, contempt for the people, their parliament and now, their ballot, seems not to be a deterrent politically.
This, too, shall pass. But only if we want it badly enough and exercise some courage.

If you happen to see me this week, don’t greet me with “By George . . . it’s George” or I will take you to WALMART against your will, chain you to the ladies’ wear rack and make you spend a whole day absorbing the ambience of consumerism gone mad. Or I’ll make you sit through the entire leaders’ debate.

Two scenarios specifically designed to prepare us for the rigours of hell.