Monday, March 31, 2014

You show me your world; I'll show you mine . . .

Wait for it, wait for it . . .

It’s odd. When you’re in church and you’re singing How Great Thou Art, and the preacher’s expounding on the Beatitudes and the choir is singing . . . and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, it’s easy to see everything that was, is and will be through the window of those words, those emotions, those harmonies.
                And then you go home and you listen to the news of what politicians, kings and armies, and corporations are doing to the world, and that becomes reality and you bristle in disappointment that the world is so material and crass, that it’s all competitive and heartless and grasping and nothing like the Kingdom of God.
                And maybe you pick up Stephen Hawking and read a conceptualization of the universe to which our planet and all that’s in it are integral, where distance is measured in millions of light years and the earth as we know it is a speck, a wart on the leg of a flea on a dog’s back in some incomprehensibly massive “everything” and . . . the glory of the Lord shall be revealed seems like a long-forgotten page in a child’s book of rhymes.
                Or you take a walk in the woods, see the stars as poets have seen them for centuries, lose yourself in a Manet landscape and the whole idea of belief falls away and the universe—you realize—is inside you, a something in your brief soul that is, in the end, the only reality there may ever be. It’s joy, it’s discovery, it’s art, it’s music. For a moment, sheer exhilaration casts off all those other “truths” like spent, dried shells.
                Is it any wonder that the concept of believing is being rethought by anyone who is well-off enough to own access to many different windows: television, radio, newspapers, the internet, books, lectures, schools, galleries, etc. Unless one is able to hold competing “beliefs” without too much dissonance, life becomes a game of accepting this, rejecting that or the other way ‘round. Not that that won’t always be the case to some extent, but it seems to me that the “everything” has to be—in the end—one thing, and that the apparent worlds have to be—logically—one world. In other words, the “everything” is a unity, no matter which window opens upon it at any given time.

                For most of us, most of the time, living actively in the idea of a unified “everything” is just not possible; it’s a case of trying to force a litre of water into a teacup; there just isn’t room. Lately, I’ve been finding some solace in exercising what is called in German, Gelassenheit, most closely translated into English as “yieldedness,” a sentiment that’s familiar to us in the proverb illustrated above and translated: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference (generally attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr).” By all means, enjoy studying the “everything” through all the windows available to you, but yield to the knowledge that in all time to this date, no one has been found who is able to gaze through all the windows at once with the sense of the completeness for which we long so desperately.
                There are plenty of witnesses around who will gladly draw the blinds for you on all the windows but the one that is their view of choice. Gelassenheit, to Niebuhr, never meant settling for ignorance, for the single-window understanding of the world. To that, I would guess, Niebuhr would say that choosing to explore a broader—as opposed to a manageable—range of possibilities falls into the category of “changing the things we can,”
              . . . and that takes courage.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wounded Soldiers

Viking Warriors Imagined

Veterans groups are turning on the federal government. Roughly, the complaint goes like this: you send us into dangerous battle in the interest of protecting lives and propagating Canadian democratic values abroad and when we come back—many of us wounded physically and/or mentally—you drop us like hot cannon balls! We deserve better than that!

               I don’t know how the armoured, sword-and-dagger-wielding gladiators of medieval conflicts behaved after battle, but the high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers returning from Afghanistan should tell us that modern-day warfare is taking a terrible toll on soldiers. As to veterans’ contention that the government that sent them into battle is not sufficiently grateful, the suicides and the fights over compensation for the wounded speak for themselves. 

               But wait; doesn’t this bypass a bigger question? Is the work of a soldier really that heroic that special treatment for the wounded is obvious? Heaven knows that many of us are wounded performing day-to-day, unheroic services to humanity: road and bridge building, construction, farming, commercial fishing, and I’ve seen numerous teachers come away after a season with unruly classes exhibiting what could be called post-traumatic stress disorder. Granted, many injured civilians are fighting with Workers’ Compensation and disability pension providers much like the veterans are struggling with the federal government. Agencies that ostensibly provide backup services in case of injury at work are good at taking in premiums, not so good at paying up; a budget-balancing government is no different.

               Had Afghanistan been a war where a decisive victory over an enemy could be declared, the situation of veterans of that conflict might be different. But as I’ve said in earlier posts, the Afghanistan intervention had the flavour of a fool’s errand; Talibanism is woven into the cultural and faith fabric of that country and you don’t successfully combat religion with conventional military warfare. El Quaeda was driven out of Afghanistan but simply relocated, possibly only temporarily.

Granted, schools were built and large numbers of children—including girls—are attending, but it takes a great deal less effort to burn a school down than to build one. Maybe the slim hope that a few years of education will have changed what has been the oppressive factor in that culture can be legitimately held up as a worthy achievement of that war, but if that’s the case, the real evidence won’t be demonstrable for some time. The proof will be in the pudding, and this kind of pudding takes time.

Neither the Taliban nor El Quaeda have surrendered.

It’s my suspicion that Canadians just want to put Afghanistan behind them like a hockey game they should have won—but lost in a shoot-out. This is not good news for wounded veterans trying to rebuild their lives without adequate means to do so successfully.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Soon, but not yet
I enjoy watching Peter Mansbridge's The National in the evening, especially when the “At Issue” panel is on and his three clever informants analyze what we've been seeing and hearing . . . but might not be understanding. Last night's conversation was about the Quebec leaders' debate, Joe Oliver's appointment as finance minister and Alison Redford's resignation as premier of Alberta.

Hot topics of the day; some days, there's not enough new “news” to make it riveting.

      I watched it again on my computer this morning for two reasons: the first was to assess for myself how they expressed their opinions on the issues as opposed to what they said. It's my understanding that the exchanges among Peter Mansbridge, Andrew Coyne, Chantal Hebert and Bruce Anderson are only broadly scripted, that they are aware of the questions they will face beforehand but are speaking ad libitum. In other words, they're thinking and talking at the same time.

       It's when speaking extemporaneously that facility with language—or clumsiness, for that matter—sticks out like like either a well-turned or a sore thumb.

       My second reason for wanting to review the exchange was to hear again the use (or misuse) of the phrase, it begs the question. I thought I recalled Andrew Coyne using the expression in last night's At Issue and I guess I wanted to catch him “red-handed,” because all three of the panelists are—to my mind—eloquent . . . in general. I'd long been annoyed by the use of the phrase to mean it raises the question when it actually refers to an argument in which the whole point being made is supported by a premise that is unproven . . . as if it were proven. Put as simply as possible, the statement “Because boys are naturally cleverer at mathematics than girls, they are likely to do better in engineering disciplines,” is a case of begging the question. It's a logical fallacy described long, long ago by Aristotle: the argument requires that we accept the unproven premise that “boys are naturally cleverer at mathematics.” It's very much like the logical fallacy we call a non sequitur: the conclusion doesn't follow from the premise.
    Begging the question is also described as "a fallacy in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume that the conclusion is true," as in "She's not pretty because she has unattractive features."

     I didn't find the phrase in question; maybe I missed it, imagined it or remembered it “out of place.”

      And besides, does it matter that we use begging the question in a different way than was once intended?

      One thing seems apparent to me: politicians utter begging the question statements all the time; it's a tragedy that we don't educate our children to recognize them when they hear them. Take this argument: “The Harper government is good for Canada because it has managed to maintain economic growth through a difficult recession.” The premises that the Harper government is responsible for the “maintenance of economic growth” or that the recession was “difficult” need to be shown with some proof before the argument, “good for Canada” even becomes a satisfying rhetorical conclusion.

      The question of whether or not “ecomonic growth” can be assumed to be good in any case begs yet another question. That premise is most certainly unproven, especially as it pertains to the generations yet to come.

      Meanwhile, I like watching and listening to At Issue.                
     Sometimes, I even pay attention to what's being said.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Modest Proposals

COMING SOON . . . to a garden near you.
Ireland. 1729. 
     Superficially, it could be described as being populated by peasants of Catholic persuasion starving under the yoke of Protestant English landlords. So harsh are their lives that women can be seen everywhere, dragging their swarms of ragged offspring through the streets, begging for the means to survive for yet another day. Men are demoralized by their inability to provide, reduced in their ambitions to only two impulses: to live for one more day and/or to find oblivion in a bottle.

      Enter essayist Jonathon Swift with his acerbic pen and the still-infamous satire, A Modest Proposal, in which Swift proposes that the problem of poverty and hunger be resolved by fattening up these hordes of starving children and selling them to the landlord class as table delicacies. “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy Child well Nursed is at a year Old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boyled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragoust.” (

      There are readers who recognize satire when they read it, and there are readers that don't. In the case of Swift's pamphlet even those who recognized its intent were shocked; we don't eat our young under any circumstances, and certainly don't sell them to our overlords to solve poverty and hunger! We don't even suggest it! (Never mind Swift's depiction of the cannibal-chef as an American. What eyebrows that would have raised if it ever found it's way into the hands of US citizens . . . who could read!*)

      A Modest Proposal illustrates a critical dilemma; we tend to see issues through narrow slits in our field of vision, a phenomenon that is well characterized by the expression, thinking inside the box.      
     In the case of the starving Irish peasants, and regarding their fertility, I expect that most saw the world through the small aperture provided them by their clergy: "be fruitful and multiply" and "the poor you have with you always" and "be content with your lot" stuff. The landed gentry no doubt analyzed the problem of Ireland through a different—if an even narrower—slit: we are entrepreneurial and deserving; Irish peasants are lazy, undisciplined, stupid and therefore undeserving.

      A Modest Proposal certainly urges its readers to broaden the slit, to think differently for a change.

      I've been pondering Swift and wondering what he would say about the big dilemma civilization is rapidly approaching today: far too many consumers chasing scarce, non-renewable resources. Specifically, I wonder how he would satirize overpopulation today, given that that was central to A Modest Proposal. I doubt he would modestly propose eating our children: been there, done that. And the likelihood that he would suggest eating our seniors is not only equally bizarre, but dangerous. Irish children probably couldn't read; our seniors can . . . and do.

      But thinking outside the box would at least suggest that it not be only birth control that crosses our minds when we think about overpopulation and gluttonous consumption. We are living too long; we are spending nearly half our lives consuming without producing, being kept alive by more and more, costlier and costlier artificial remedies for ailments that had the potential for ending our demands on the planet at the proverbial three score and ten years.**

      It's food for Swiftian satire, isn't it?

On a different—but related—subject:

      Olivia Chow has decided to run for the position of mayor of Toronto. I just read My Journey, (review will appear soon, hopefully) Chow's autobiography . . . to date, and concluded that she has broad insight as opposed to the tiny slit through which the current mayor seems to see things. Indeed, our current governments generally look out on the world and see little but the economic-growth landscape and like the Irish peasants under their English overlords, we will certainly suffer for allowing them to mis-shape our world.

      Where is a good satirist when you need one! If reality doesn't convince us, could satire?
P.S. Olivia, you go girl!

* satire . . . I love Americans!
** not that keen on this debate since I passed 3 score + 10 . . . three years ago.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Zaporozhye, Kiev, Moscow and Batoche

The Capture of Batoche - French Metis vs English Colonialists (borrowed from Wikipedia)

My great-grandfather lived his entire life on and near the banks of the Dnieper River, inside the area we now know as Ukraine, specifically on the outskirts of current-day Zaporozhye:

In 1789 Mennonites from Prussia accepted an invitation from Catherine the Great and settled in what became the Chortitza Colony, northwest of Khortitsya island. Mennonite-owned mills and factories were built in Alexandrovsk and later expropriated by the Communist government. After the Russian Revolution [they] emigrated, fled as refugees, or were deported from the area. Currently few Mennonites live in Zaporozhye. Mennonite buildings still exist in the area and in the other main Mennonite colony center, current day Molochansk. (A cursory and mainly accurate account from Wikipedia)

It wasn't the Mennonites' religion so much as their ethnicity and their economic dominance that rankled the Russian authorities in 1914 and onward, and for which their lives were gradually made unbearable. My family had left much earlier.  After my great-grandfather died, his widow and offspring emigrated and settled in the Rosthern area in 1892-3.
     Note that it was Moscow that called all the shots for the region we now call Ukraine, not Kiev.
     The degree to which ethnicity and language continue to act as divisive markers continues to be as tragic a presence in the region as it was when the Russian Revolution overran the area. Putin's excuse for sending troops into the Crimea is ethnically driven in part--along with strategic considerations, of course:

“Putin has defied calls from the West to pull back his troops, insisting that Russia has a right to protect its interests and Russian-speakers in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine.” (

The psychology of all this is complicated, but it's probably safe to say that my German-speaking ancestors fared better in Canada than they did under absolutist monarchies and communist dictatorship because here they had landed in a working democracy with a bit of experience in multiculturalism and multiethnicism. They were scorned for their unwillingness to bear arms during the World Wars, but the most Canada would do to express this resentment was to require their participation in forced labour camps as “conscientious objectors.” (Herding Japanese-Canadians into concentration camps was another matter; being of European descent apparently stood for something.)
     It's easy to come to too-broad conclusions about the conflict in Ukraine. Some media are portraying it as Russia and the West engaging in a tug-of-war for the hearts and minds—and the loyalties—of Ukrainian citizens. Others interpret it economically: Ukraine is an economic basket case currently dependent for survival on outside help, some preferring that it come from the East (the ethnically Russian), and some looking westward for a better, more modern future (the ethnically Ukrainian). It's probably accurate to say that whatever the immediate causes of the conflict, the deeper ones are a combination of grinding dissatisfaction with national poverty and ethnic and political animosities reaching way back in history to the Czars and the old Soviet Union.
     The closest we come to the Russian/Ukrainian divide here in Canada has to be the French/English “situation.” As in the Ukraine, we have here two distinct groups, both of which are large enough to affect the economic, nationalist aspirations of the other. It's probably naive to think that the kind of dangerous confrontation currently building between the two groups in the Ukraine could never occur in Canada, hard to imagine as that may be. Perhaps it seems so unlikely because there are elements in a working democracy that keep us reaching for negotiated conclusions and not for rifles. It's been a long time since we resorted to guns to settle differences here in Canada; where I live, since 1885 at Batoche and Duck Lake.
     As for protesting and ousting the government through demonstrations, have you been outside today? It's a frozen hell out there!
     Harper, you're safe until the next election, at least. That's the way we deal with unpopular leaders here in Canada. Yawn.