Saturday, January 25, 2014

Now I See Through a Glass Darkly

Reading it ain't easy!

Gerald Gerbrandt, former president of CMU (Canadian Mennonite University), gave his first talk on “Hearing the God of Scripture” last night at the Rosthern Mennonite Church.  The first session encouraged us to think of the scriptures that have been passed down to us as “story, art and drama.” 
    Three more sessions are planned.
     I had lunch with a friend newly-returned from a week in Israel the other day, and in the course of our chatter he asked me what I considered to be the solution to the impasse in Palestine and might it come through the Christianization of the people there, which would make our role more missional than diplomatic. I said I didn't have anything to offer as a solution; for one, I've never been there, never had the opportunity to “feel” what it's like to be Israeli or Palestinian in that small part of the world in 2014.
     What's becoming clearer to me is that Christians are no more “of one accord” than anyone else on the subject of bringing peace to the Middle East. In part, their ambivalence is tied to the way in which scriptures and the historical records are read. We may be looking through the same windows, but interpreting what we see has a host of antecedents.
     Harper really did us all an injustice when he brought the word antisemitism into the dialogue on his recent visit there. There are probably numerous people for whom a hatred of Jewry figures in criticisms of Israel's behaviour, but to link such criticism—for instance of the establishment of West Bank settlements—to antisemitism tends to stifle dialogue and generosity of spirit in the ongoing efforts to broker a lasting and just peace.
     There are other trigger-words about. For instance, who could blame a casual reader of scripture for linking the Israel of the Old Testament with the name of the present state of Israel, and present-day Jerusalem with the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation? (“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” -Revelation 21:2) For many a scripture-reader, dividing the modern-day, secular, political democracy that is Israel from the Biblical chronicles doesn't come easily.
     Gerbrandt urged us to think of scripture more as artful story than as rule book. Many of the laws in the book of Leviticus, for instance, have long since been rendered obsolete by the passage of time and new experiences. Meanwhile, there is clearly an over-arching “story” in scripture, an establishment of basic principles that include, at least, justice, empathy and compassion as the birthright of every living creature. Neither Israel's treatment of Palestinians nor the Canadian treatment of Aboriginal citizens historically can pass the smell test when the principles in the scriptural story are applied: both fail on justice, empathy and compassion standards even when the behaviours in question can be rationalized legally.
     That's not being antisemitic; that's being human and, hopefully, in synch with the appeals of the whole scriptural story.
     Gerbrandt's seminars are timely—and much needed.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

15 Milligrams of Neil Young - twice a day with meals.

aserotonin-specific reuptake inhibitor
It was an amusing exchange: Neil Young against the CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) on the subject of the Oil Sands. Young, of course, emphasizing his rage with hyperbole and metaphor at the devastation caused by oil sands mining (including a simile conjuring images of Hiroshima) and the CEO of CAPP dismissing Young as ignorant, more or less. “Neil Young doesn't know what he's talking about,” was the gist of DavidCollyer's response in an interview with CBC.
      Someone in the media (can't remember who) characterized the exchanges as arguments of the deaf.
      Somehow all this resonates with an experience through which I'm going at present.
      Some 15 years ago my family doctor diagnosed me as needing the assistance of what is called an aserotonin-specific reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI—Paroxetine or Paxil being its familiar names. I've been sailing along with full, if misplaced, confidence in the inventors—GlaxoSmithKlein—and my family doctor and my pharmacist, who either did not know—or knew and didn't inform me—of the potential side effects; I was initially assured it wasn't habit-forming besides.
      If you are taking an SSRI for depression or anxiety, the benefits might well outweigh the detriments for you, but the following information should at least be made known to everyone for whom such drugs are prescribed:

Paroxetine is an SSRI anti-depressant released by GSK in 1992 and sold as Paxil, Seroxat, Aropax, Brisdelle, Pexeva and Sereupin. The company's promotion of the drug for children was one of the grounds for the 2012 fraud case in the United States. [for]10 years the drug was marketed as "not habit forming," which numerous experts and at least one court found to be incorrect. Approximately 5,000 US citizens have sued GSK after using paroxetine; lawsuits have also been filed in the UK. The lawsuits allege that the drug has serious side effects, which GSK downplayed in patient information. In 2001 the World Health Organization ranked paroxetine as the most difficult antidepressant to withdraw from. In 2002 the FDA published a new product warning about the drug, and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Associations said GSK had misled the public about paroxetine and had breached two of the Federation's codes of practice.

In early 2004 GSK agreed to settle charges of consumer fraud for $2.5 million; the drug had $2.7 billion in yearly sales at that time (
 At this point, halfway through a withdrawal regimen, I can substantiate from personal experience that the drug's negative side effects are real and serious and that discontinuation is beastly; I'm still not certain of success.
      What has all this to do with oil sands? you ask. Well we should never fall into the trap of assuming that corporations are in the business of seeking ways to make our lives better, slick advertising notwithstanding; their motivation is maximum return on investment. In the case of GlaxoSmithKlein, the profit motive produced real and dangerous effects for consumers of their product. The courts as well as the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Associations determined that GSK deliberately and maliciously misled the public in order to maintain and increase highly profitable sales.
      Similarly, members of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers are not engaged in helping us wean ourselves of our carbon-based energy addiction, their interests lie in expanding the market for their product, and like GSK, if necessary, by misleading the public and confining the debate to what they call “the real world”.
      Question is, which is the “real world?” Is it Neil Young's or David Collyer's? In fact, David Collyer's portraying Young as ignorant of the facts is—at best—the pot calling the kettle black; I would venture to guess that David Collyer's knowledge of environmental and biological sciences is as deficient as Neil Young's knowledge of fracking.
      Hence, the strident, angry arguing of the deaf.
      You will all draw your own conclusions, of course, but the elephant I ride on is holding onto the tail of Neil Young's elephant. I believe the earth should be seen as if from outer space, a small, fragile and vulnerable planet which is nevertheless the source and sustainer of all the life that exists in the universe—as far as we know. If life is important, then its wellspring ought to be tended and nourished.
      It's this to which the the corporate mind is wilfully blind.
      One more thing needs to be said, among many that could be said. An aspect of Collyer's argument was that the very public decrying the expansion of the fossil fuel industry is addicted to their product, uses their product on a daily basis and therefore their criticism of the oil sands projects is hypocritical. On its surface, this seems a logical and fair argument; but let's think for a moment. That would also make me a hypocrite for criticizing GSK because I was, after all, a consumer of their product. That's nonsense unless I used the paroxetine with the full knowledge of possible consequences, which the company and purveyors of pharmaceuticals withheld from me.
      There are numerous ways in which the corporate world and corporate government can manipulate consumers' choices: Saskatchewan winters are cold, I need to heat my house to live, I use natural gas to do that because the means to heat with solar panels and wind generators or hydro-generated power does not exist where I live, and I haven't got the investment means to bring their existence about; it's the corporate world and corporate government that manage where investment dollars go.
      Meanwhile if you catch me slamming doors, screaming curses at the sky and/or withdrawing from this world, you may assume that my tapering-down project is not going well.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Solidarity Forever, for the Union Makes us Strong.

Poor pay, poor conditions (dust, knee strain, etc.), no benefits! Where's my shop steward??
Today I'm disturbed by government efforts to shrink the influence of unions, part of an ongoing phenomenon in North America that you already know about if you watch the news. I'm disturbed because I just read Kathleen Monk's blog post on the subject, and if you don't have a lot of time, click on the link and read her post instead of this one.

My first job was as a lumber yard go-fer. I was told what I would be paid ($100/month, 1960) and my employment conditions were laid out for me. I went from that to working for the Bank of Montreal at a salary of $1200/yr., also laid on without my input. One day the accountant told me to go out and buy some new shirts because my frayed collars didn't look seemly for a business person. I couldn't afford shirts, even in the singular. From there I went on to Teachers' College and a teaching career, all of it as a member of a union. I served as a local president, was involved in negotiations of salaries and working conditions and as a result of past negotiations, enjoyed health benefits, sick leaves etc., that would have been unheard of at the B of M at the time. My wife and I now benefit from pensions that wouldn't have been ours had it not been for collective bargaining.

I don't have to go into the role of collective bargaining rights in freeing society from child labour practices, starvation take-it-or-leave-it pay, abominable working conditions, etc.; this should be common knowledge to anyone who paid attention in high school History. What the past has shown us is that commerce and industry leadership/ownership doesn't like to see employees having a say in their work lives; it compromises control, impinges on profits. If unions are being systematically weakened these days, we ought to check out who's cheering; it certainly isn't the burger flipper at McDonalds or the welder at a non-union shop, except . . .

. . . except that there's been a steady campaign of union demonization going on for years, so much so that even people who have benefited from the social improvements made through collective bargaining are bad-mouthing the hands that fed them. If a service like garbage collection is suspended by a strike, it's the union's fault; if the stoppage results from a lockout, it's also the union's fault for making unreasonable demands. Somehow, gouging corporations and businesses have won the public relations war, a sad phenomenon that unions will have to find better ways to counteract.

For me, the bottom line is this: the employer who invests and the employee who sweats are equals, humans in a world where racism, gender-ism, ageism, etc. are not permitted. That employees should have the right to sit across the table from employers and negotiate the conditions of work and their remuneration seems a human right that ought to be obvious, unless we insist that the world be organized vertically. 

It's noteworthy that as unions are losing their effectiveness—generally through legislation and bad press—inequality is increasing. 

The connection is obvious. 

Do read Kathleen Monk.