Friday, December 30, 2016

A few days on Taboga


Taboga Express Ferry.
Families trading the grime of Panama
For the sweltering beaches
Of Taboga.

We walked Taboga’s narrow street today,
Almost to the end and back.
This is some of what we saw:

A mother tormenting her toddler,
Walking ahead too fast for the little one
To keep up.
Crying, crying rage.

Four men under the hood of a pickup truck,
(One of only three or four on the island)
Tools, parts scattered about,
Perplexed, resigned expression of a listener to
A voluble, mechanical sermon from a man drinking
Coca Cola through a straw.

A dim church
A clutch of people praying.
New construction, crumbling ruins.
Beach girls wearing little,
Eight drunken young men
Singing, dancing, shouting, making sure the world knows
They exist.

Remains of a shipwreck.

Balboa may have been here,
But I doubt it.
1510. Step father of the Latin in Latin America.
Made it to the blue, blue Pacific
for which
Countryman Pedro Arias de Ávila ordered his head chopped off.

Also a painter, writer was here,
Anita McAndrews, born 1924.
Died 2005 in Newport,
Memorialized on a tarnished plaque
Above the beach.


On the black horizon,
A freighter resting with lights twinkling,
For a rendezvous with the locks of
The Panama Canal.

And in the distance, faintly,
The skyline of Panama City.
Henry Morgan, I recall, was there, 1671,
(Panama City, that is)
Burned it to the ground
After the raping and pillaging was done.

Taboga Express Ferry.
Families escaping the grime of Panama
For the magnificent beaches
Of Taboga.

        I ate two fish tacos, papas fritas and half a tomato
      With a cold beer to wash it down:
      Balboa Cerveza – $1.75 US.
      (I actually prefer Corona, a Mexican beer
      But it’s a dollar more.)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Meet the Ngäbe-Bugle

Ngäbe-Bugle girl


I think they, the largest indigenous group in Panama, are usually called No-bee. Their history and their place in Panamanian society interest me primarily as a comparison/contrast to the situation of indigenous Canadians. All indigenous groups together total roughly 200,000 in a country with a population approximately the same as Alberta. The Ngäbe-Bugle form the largest indigenous grouping.
      When the Spanish conquered the Panama region in the 16th -17th Centuries, the goal was to clear the country of indigenous peoples and populations were violently, brutally decimated or forced into slave labour. The Ngäbe-Bugle had been coastal people but were driven into the mountains of Central Panama where most still subsist on vegetable and fruit cultivation and seasonal employment on coffee and fruit fincas and on ranches belonging to Mestizos. In general, the Ngäbe-Bugle live far below the Panamanian poverty line and the comfortable climate, the abundance of rain are directly responsible for their ability to survive on what is relatively marginal land on steep slopes. The year-round temperature range where the Ngäbe-Bugle live averages ca. 17 to 27 degrees Celsius.
      What I find interesting in the Panamanian situation is that indigenous people have found ways to negotiate forcefully with governments and as a result have obtained large swaths of land over which they are sovereign. The Ngäbe-Bugle, for instance, were able to obtain sovereignty over a large homeland when in 1997, the government hived off portions of Chiriqui, Bocas Del Toro and Veraguas provinces to create the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle. The closest equivalent we might find in Canada has been the creation of Nunavut with a great deal of autonomy granted to the indigenous population. The way we think about land sovereignty in Canada might be different if the negotiations for “reserved land” had taken place in the 20th Century instead of in the 19th!
      Although the federal system retains taxation and infrastructure control in the Comarcas, the control of how land will be used and by whom is in the hands of elected councils in the Comarcas. I was looking for a route today by which we could get to Buabidi, the largest centre in Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle; the map shows not a single road so I expect that such lack of infrastructure is typical of those regions designated as indigenous territory.
      Here in Boquete in Chiriqui Province, it’s obvious that the Ngäbe-Bugle don’t live exclusively in the Comarca. The colourful dresses of their women and the jeans-and-shirt men are abundant in the town square and on the roads leading into Boquete. The similarity to Canada in this regard is obvious. Survival on the marginal lands reserved for indigenous people requires that the opportunity for casual or seasonal plantation or ranch work must be taken. (An aside to this is that wages in Panama are abysmal; a coffee picker might well work a long hot day for $10.00.)
      Some things have decidedly been done right. Virtually the entire population of Panama has a school nearby and the literacy rate is as high as Canada’s. Panama has also had a long-standing policy of non-discrimination and ethnic minorities and women can generally find a route to self-sufficiency—everything else being equal. 
     In contrast to some Latin American countries, Panama has no strong Marxist party, has had no revolution comparable to Cuba or Nicaragua; it’s generally been governed conservatively (since Noriega’s military dictatorship), probably a consequence of the overbearing American presence from the time of independence in 1903 to the transfer of the Panama Canal to Panama in 2000.
      In essence, European colonialism has left a stench wherever in the world it’s been. The Cree of Saskatchewan and the Ngäbe-Bugle of Panama have all had to live with this smell for a long, long time.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Super Hornet Anyone?

Boeing F-18 Super Hornet jet fighter
$325,000,000 X 18 = $5,850,000,000 +$500,000,000 = $6,350,000,000

Do these numbers look outrageously large to you? They do to me. Canada is planning to purchase 18 Super Hornet jet fighters from Boeing. Including the weaponry and spare parts, the cost for each would be around $325,000,000 Canadian if the final price tag is the same as the ones Kuwait just purchased. 18 of them would run to $5,850,000,000. Additionally, the government proposes to spend another $500,000,000 to upgrade and service the old CF-18s we now have so they can stay aloft—for now. That should hold us for ten years or more until we can replace THE ENTIRE FLEET at who-knows-what cost.

Let’s do some comparing; the numbers are just too big for unaided imagination. The total cost of the Hornets and the upgrades to the CF-18s if reapplied could build 42,333, $150,000 houses. That means it could pretty much end the housing crisis on reserves and provide at least 100,000 temporary jobs. It could build 254 hospitals at a cost of $25,000,000 each.

If applied in developing countries, this much cash could arguably achieve 3 or 4 times as much.

As if this weren’t enough, let’s keep in mind that each Hornet at $325,000,000 carries a maximum of two humans and 11 bombs. You could get that into an SUV! Furthermore, the fighter jet has only two applications: destruction of airports, homes, hospitals, factories, roads, bridges, etc—and the killing of people. It can’t operate as a rescue vehicle, as transport for people or as a freight moving vehicle. Except for it’s lethal potential, it’s a $325,000,000 pile of junk that--because we are not at war and because we have no urgent need to fear attack from anyone--will serve as little else beside the stroking of crisply uniformed, robotic, marching military types for whom lethal weaponry is a macho turn-on.

I’m not sure how many search and rescue helicopters, how many forest-fire-fighting planes and helicopters this money could buy, but given a choice, my taxes would be given up much more happily for the purchase of equipment that saves property, that protects life against fire and flood, pollution and climate change.

Most recently, our fighter jets have participated in Libya where we’re implicated now in the virtual destruction of that country as a functioning entity, and in Iraq/Syria where our participation was largely inconsequential and the strategies dubious at best.

But then, our aging fleet is an embarrassment whenever we compare them to the machinery of our allies, we're told. The Hornets will help us save face in a world that measures strength militarily.

How much face can $6,350,000,000 buy? It better be a lot.

And by the way, this interim plan by itself amounts to an expenditure of $211.00 for every man, woman and child in the country, unless you add in the cost of borrowing the money for it--which we'll likely end up doing.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Mobile vulgus.

"If Hillary gets in, I myself I'm (sic) ready for a revolution because we can't have her in."

The woman who said this to a reporter possibly knows little history, may never have studied the roots of the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Cuban Revolution. I’m pretty sure, though, that her comments were energized by an emotion similar to that of the bearers of pitchforks and muskets in earlier sociopolitical upheavals; rage at the consciousness of living under the real or perceived oppression of those whose wealth and power has freed them from the muck and pain of life in the “real world.” A perfect mix of jealousy, frustration, indignation and visceral rage, a brush fire stoked by the winds of mobile vulgus, “‘the fickle crowd,’” [and] from which the English term ‘mob’ originally was derived in the 1680s.”

We have names for it that don’t require a knowledge of Latin: populism is what it’s being called in the news these days: a population seeks to wrest control from corrupt rulers. Populism is a political ideology that holds that virtuous citizens are mistreated by a small circle of elites, who can be overthrown if the people recognize the danger and work together. Populism depicts elites as trampling on the rights, values, and voices of the legitimate people.”

It’s not surprising that those who own power and wealth should fear populist upheaval. Neither is it surprising that the relatively comfortable “middle classes” should fear it; better the devil you know then the devil you don’t, and most of us between the extremes have already contented ourselves with life in relatively warm, fuzzy niches.

What’s happening in America—that would make a lower middle class woman in Alabama use the word “revolution”—doesn’t strike me as unusual given the history of humankind. That democracies have routinely failed to deliver promised fairness and equity is one of the real frustrations of our age. America, Canada, Britain, Germany, etc.—as democratic in their makeup as any country has ever been—have nevertheless developed a socioeconomic layering that wouldn’t have to be! As surely as the ostentatious, privileged lives of France's  Louis the 14th or the Romanov oligarchy of Russia produced a festering that would eventually burst forth in revolution, so the political, economic elites of modern democracies should be more aware that creeping class structuring, escalating privilege can’t possibly weather the storms of time untouched.

The mob that drives revolutions can bear almost any political, social, even religious stamp. What`s happening in the USA is not really reminiscent of the Peasant Revolts of the 16th Century in Germany where economic, religious and social dissatisfaction boiled over simultaneously. (One-third of the estimated 300,000 individuals participating in the uprising were slaughtered by the ruling classes and their armies.) What do the supporters of the changes currently rallying behind Donald Trump have in common? 

What’s the nature of the glue that holds them together? We’re told the current Trumpian phenomenon owes its primary support to angry, white, middle-class men. Is it then little more than a Freudian striking back against feelings of castration and the blaming of this emasculation onto foreigners, ethnic minorities and a conspiracy of economic elites? That wouldn’t explain the masses of screaming women waving “lock her up” protest signs at Trump rallies. Does it have to do with the fact that the opposing candidate is female and that the majority of men are deathly fearful of the “Samson haircut?” and that certain women have never overcome their antagonism to counterparts who manage to gain stature and power in a society where they themselves have neither?

It’s not enough to say that the revolution shaping itself in the USA is the product of ignorance and pettiness, although both are displayed in abundance in every utterance of Donald Trump. The American Doctor Jekyll invented and constructed the Mr. Hyde it’s currently struggling to control. Past policies must always be looked to when current “revolution” threatens.

Will November 8th initiate another violent revolution as some are predicting? Certainly there are pitchforks (read handguns and assault rifles) enough to make mayhem and the shedding of much blood a possibility and even the most squeamish can come to welcome it given the visceral energy that builds in mobilus vulgus movements.

In the German Peasant Wars, the revolutionaries were defeated because they were vastly outgunned technically, but also because they turned out to be battlefield incompetents; mob bravado is normally just that, it dissolves quickly when the mob is scattered and individuals begin to fear for their actual lives.

The last party I’d be loathe to mess with is the American military machine.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

From Sea to Shining Sea

From sea to shining sea
I watched the US Presidential Nominees debate with that kind of anticipation that causes one to run toward a fire or a plane crash. I expected candidates to shoot themselves in the foot, the arm and the torso like they appear to be doing regularly right now; bickering their way through an overlong nomination process occupying the electorate for a year—and coming up with two people whom almost nobody can comfortably endorse as their next president. 

You’d think they could save themselves a great deal of anguish—and come up with more amenable nominees, probably—if they ran a Presidential Nomination Lottery (PNL) on which anyone could buy tickets.

As far as the debate goes, it amazes me that we’ve applied the zero-sum game mentality to our politics as we Westerners tend to do to everything else from music to sports to art to, well, just about everything where we decide who won and who lost. ((Zero-sum Game: In game theory and economic theory, a zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant’s gain (or loss) of utility is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the utility of the other participants: Wikipedia)) If Trump “wins” the debate Hillary “loses”. Give him a plus one for winning and her a minus one for losing, “sum” them and you get zero: the Zero-sum principle in game theory.

Applying that principle to the debate is absurd: the whole world won, if learning about the fitness for office of the candidates started out as the purpose of pitting them against each other face to face. In similar fashion, the final choice will not be zero-sum . . . unless Americans make it so; their federal government exists for the unity and the benefit of the citizens, and the selection of a president without a civil war will guarantee the continuity of democratic government as the founders of their nation visualized it. The fact that either of the candidates could be elected or not according to the ballots cast is the test of that democracy, at least when so many presidents worldwide gain office through fraud, intimidation and/or brute force.
Conservatives, Liberals, Socialists or Libertarians will all continue to be beneficiaries equally of the benefits inherent in a democratic federalism; there will be no “losers” unless the followers of the unelected candidate decide not to abide by the democratically-determined majority decision. The eruption of violence should  Trump “lose” is not unthinkable; the fact that so many lethal weapons are in private hands makes the emergence of dissenting militias with lethal means an eventuality that shouldn’t be off-handedly discarded.
Seen in this light, the American electorate appears to be headed toward a precipice. Choosing between a Clinton who can’t possibly be separated from her establishment, status-quo, been-in-Washington-forever image and a belligerent, combative billionaire who sees everything and understands nothing much beyond loophole business, the urge to stay home on November 8th must be powerful for many.
I sympathize with our next-door neighbours, but at the same time, I can’t help thinking that the old adage fits: You made your bed, now lie in it. 
Unfortunately, we lie in a double bed with them and must always be in fear of being crushed whenever they decide to roll over.
As to the debate, I suspect that if you’re a doctrinaire democrat, you’ve decided that Hillary wiped the floor with Trump; if you’re a Tea Party Republican, it was definitely the other way ‘round. It’s another downside of applying zero-sum game theory to politics: each side appoints its own umpires and referees and the rules are made up as the “game” progresses.
And there’s no arbiter to decide objectively when the puck is actually in the net. 
Except for the ballot box angel. Without her, the demons are bound to creep in.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

American Demons

Every time I go out to coffee row these days for a bit of java and gossip, the talk swings around to Donald Trump. I’m beginning to believe that old Hollywood shibboleth that all publicity is good publicity. In other words, whether your goal is to become a celebrity or its cousin in the political world—a president or governor—it’s not necessarily what you do or say that’s critical. Rather, it’s the number of times your name is mentioned, the number of times your face is on the screen that effectively furthers such an end.

It’s a bizarre turn of events. If telling streams of lies and half-truths as Trump is doing these days serves to gather support, then the world has inadvertently turned itself inside-out, up is down and the other way ‘round.

I’m currently reading Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence by Walter Wink. Although published in 1985, it might have been written for exactly this time. Wink makes a compelling case for the existence of “demonic forces,” but sees these forces as emanating from within the souls, minds and habits of cultures and individuals. Demons from outside of us don’t afflict us, according to Wink, unless we tolerate them, allow them to live and, finally, to dominate our thoughts and actions.

In the public’s attraction to the liar (who among other things, lies about his opponent’s honesty), America is displaying a collective demon that they’ve allowed in and need desperately to exorcise.

I’m reluctant to name their demon because I’m not sure what it is, but it seems to me that if it had a name, it would be something like “F**k all of you; my ignorance is worth just as much as your wisdom.” (I should acknowledge the person who said something like this, but I can’t remember who it was . . . he/she didn’t use the “F” word. I apologize for using it, but it seemed to fit.). Donald Trump wouldn’t say—for instance—that Hillary Clinton started the “birther” myth and that he was the one who ended it . . . unless there existed a large and growing audience that’s willing to accept that lies are bullets, and the establishment is due for a big dose of buckshot. So bring it on!

But America hosts another demon, one that may have given rise to the first. Public education of high quality for all citizens just hasn’t been a priority. Ignorance, illiteracy, illogicality are all demons

It’s no outside, horned beast that causes us to be content with superficiality in these crucial components of competent citizenship. It’s the invitation extended by a lax and lazy populace in which the tripe churned out by Hollywood is eulogized; it’s a culture in which mediocrity has for too long been excused; it’s a society in which the possession of lethal weapons and the right to own and use them are considered to be a right. Worst of all, it’s a society that has allowed materialism to trump spirituality to the point where talk of love, of service, of generosity is swallowed up in the quest for stuff, for the cheap thrill, for freedom from social responsibility, for wealth and recognition. A society where free speech includes the right to emasculate, eviscerate, slander and libel other persons or other people . . . who aren’t ME. Where lying can be a legitimate political tactic.

America is not alone in having admitted this legion of demons, but America is the country at present whose demon-possession is on display. If I had to name just one similar demon in Canadian society, I’d have to point to our inability to discover a way to mend the injustices we’ve perpetrated against our indigenous population, to set the settler/indigenous relationship on a wholesome path. One of the demons preventing it is racism, but like the demons that drowned with the Gadarene swine (Mark 5:1-20), a renewal of that relationship is probably hindered by a legion of demons we’ve 
allowed in and are fearful to name.

My next post will be about exorcising the demons; but I haven’t finished reading those chapters in Wink yet.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Get a Job, You Lazy Bum!

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
“Get a job, you lazy good-for-nothing!”

Generally, that admonition means, “Find employment; search out a person or company that needs someone to do work you can do and for which they are willing to pay . . . and stop expecting others to feed, house and entertain you while you sleep late and pick at your navel.”

There was a time when our self-sufficiency was directly tied to our work, when eating a potato followed planting, hilling, hoeing and harvesting that potato. When buttering your bread followed milking a cow, separating the milk, churning the cream and adding the right amount of salt. Whether a long day’s activities included catching some fish, hunting down a few rabbits, nailing boards together for a shelter or pulling weeds under a hot sun, our time and our energies had to be given to jobs, and the thoroughness and efficiency with which we did these jobs paid off directly in our well-being.
People who slept late fared poorly; people who worked hard had good shelter, good food and probably a surplus they could trade for luxuries.

Except that with the industrial revolution, the view of people as production inputs initiated a new view of humanity that tied people to the factory, to a dependency on the "charity" of the owners of the means of production. 

The drive in research and development has always been to produce more with less work. It appears that as a human species, we abhor work, that we acknowledge less and less the premise that our food, shelter and recreation must come at the expense of work, of putting in time at a demanding, possibly tedious job for someone else. But in a world, finally, where robots build self-driving cars, where tons of flour can be milled in a day by one man sitting in front of a console, where giant machines with a few operators plant and harvest our food crops, where computers and printers can churn out perfect copies of all the great literature of the world with a modicum of work (as we used to think of it), getting a job can become more and more uncertain.
Physical work, particularly, is not needed nearly as much as it once was. Granted, mental work is still required in the communications/technology and service areas but there too, the drive is toward rendering jobs an obsolete concept. Finally, a super computer can build a far better system in far less time and with far less effort than can a bunch of people on a factory floor or office complex juggling widgets, typing in data for 48 hours a week. (The only sectors I can think of where work is increasing and jobs are still offered in agreeable measure are the service and hospitality sectors; with an aging population and the increase in leisure time, healthcare, education, travel and fast food are thriving.)

So where are the newly unemployable to go to earn their daily bread?

Because we currently measure the health of an economy by Gross National Product, Trade Surplus/Deficit, Employment, House Prices, Stock Market Indicies and other statistical data, the true purpose of an economy is easily forgotten. An economy is—in the final analysis—the means for distributing resources among people so that the necessities of life are made available to everyone. Were we to plan our economies on this basis, our world would look much different.

The need to patch up the failures of our economies through food banks, soup kitchens, social assistance grudgingly and skimpily given, “free” health care, etc., provides a far more pertinent measure of our economic success/failure than does the Dow-Jones index. As good as the charitable act may feel to those who are able to perform it, there is no way to avoid the degradation the recipient experiences. The indignity of accepting the necessities of life through charity because one is unable, unwilling or unprepared to earn what one needs . . . is unavoidable.

Charity—in the end—produces the need for itself. If meaningful jobs are the standard of worthiness, of the deserving of the necessities of life, then we have missed the point of economy. At the same time, we’ve sacrificed our insistence on dignity, self-esteem for everyone.

What’s better: handing out clothes to a person who can’t afford them when winter sets in, or enabling the individual to walk into a store and choose the clothing he/she will wear? The cost economically speaking is the same; the politics of the choices is very, very different.

As job offerings and opportunities change, as the spread between those who have means and those who don’t widens, we need to pay close attention to the reasons and the consequences of what we allow and don’t in our economies. In a world where a single government policy can undo a mass of charitable effort, the principle that Christians, for instance, ought first of all to be economists and politicians if they wish to emulate Jesus’ concern for the poor surely presents itself. To be “in the world, but not of the world” is, in the end, a doctrine of spiritual self-preservation.

As Christians (and all others who embrace a spiritual understanding of life), we need to continue to be at the forefront of charitable endeavour, especially as it relates to natural disasters and desperate populations. But our focus must include a working toward the end of the need for charity.
Progress has been made: we no longer have poor houses, debtors’ prisons, beggars in the streets. We do have Old Age Security, Child Benefits, Income Supplements, Universal Healthcare, Social Assistance, a patchwork of remedies for destitution caused by sickness, poverty, age or handicap. 

A guaranteed annual income could eliminate all these supports at less cost, with less administration and with the prospect of greater self-worth, dignity for all.

Let’s, at least, talk about it.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

12 Questions about the Olympics

Twelve questions I have about the Olympics: after reading Olympic canoeist Tom Hall’s excellent article in Walrus.

  1. Why is Canada so preoccupied with amassing more medals than other countries when the Olympic motto is about achieving personal athletic excellence?
  2. Is it right for federal support for Olympic sports to be weighted heavily toward those sports and individuals that are most likely to reach the podium?
  3. Does “Own the Podium” express an attitude that is more about nationalism than about the spirit of athletic achievement?
  4. Does the rash of arrests and dismissals—for improperly using positions on the International Olympic Committee for personal gain—have anything to say about the games themselves?
  5. Are the enormous amounts spent on Olympic venues (that can’t be sustained, maintained after their brief days of glory) justifiable?
  6. Do star athletes’ multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts with corporations have anything to say about the stated objectives of the games?
  7. Have we got the right funding priorities when Olympic and international-sport funding is increased while funding for amateur participation in a sport is cut?
  8. If 60% of the National News is about the Olympics, what stories of real significance have been cut to make space?
  9. Why don’t competitors compete naked like they did in the original Mt. Olympus contests? (I know the answer to this; I’m grateful that they don’t.)
  10. Do the Olympics contribute to international good will, or do they accentuate antagonisms?
  11. What is it with doping? How can it even be considered a legitimate adjunct of sport, Vladimir Putin?
  12. Why can’t I think of a twelfth question to make it an even dozen? (Oh, sorry. I just did.)

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Here are the latest News

Once upon a time this was news, to someone.
Do you watch the evening News? Do you subscribe to and read a daily paper . . . daily? Do you check out the News on your smart phone regularly? I mean by going to a News channel and reading what’s offered.

I’ve no idea who first called the publicizing of the day’s events, News. “New” is an adjective, not a noun. It’s not grammatically eligible for pluralization by adding an s. If there can be a day’s News, why not a day’s bigs, or smooths, obeses, wets? The day’s wets would be all about events like floods, drinking water boil advisories, contamination of rivers, rain. It would be about events that are wet, just like CBC’s The National is all about things that are happening that weren’t happening yesterday. Events that are New.

But then, objecting to the nounification of an adjective could certainly be taken as a sign of obsessive, ludditeful Englishteacherism. Humans invented their first words, and we’re still making new ones. Like prioritize, which came in to use in my lifetime although priorize already existed for use on occasions where rank just wouldn’t do. So why not orderitize, simplifitize, managetize?

Just wait. They’re coming.

But back to the news. “Here is the evening news,” the TV announcer intones. Shouldn’t it be “Here are the evening news,” now that News is a plural noun? You don’t say, “Here is my sister’s twins.” Or do you, and have I been left behind . . . again?

George Carlin has noted that there’s really only bad news. Good news aren’t news. In one of his monologues (you can find it on YouTube) he puts into words what all of us know but aren’t prepared to admit: when we turn on the news, we want to hear of immense conflagrations, wars, floods, many people killed. We want to hear about crime, about powerful people being destroyed, of people we don’t like being masterfully humiliated by people we do like. As much as news are increasingly less able to command our attention, who on earth would tune in or read the evening paper if all the stories were about success, achievement and peace?
“An Air Canada Boeing 747 Saskatoon to Winnipeg flight took off at 7:00 am as scheduled and arrived in Winnipeg without incident an hour and twenty minutes later. The captain, Arnold Pansyfoot, and his co-pilot, Diana Gottago reported that the weather was fine and “it was clear sailing all the way.” Rounding out the crew for this flight were flight attendants Danielle Perkyhat and Orville Getarealjob, a native of Edmonton. When interviewed, passenger Jonah H. Fishbait said: “The peanuts tasted really fresh!”

Good news just isn’t. Sorry.

Lately, it seems, the news have become overburdened with a need to provide what people want to hear as opposed to what they ought to hear. News are paid for by advertising, mostly, and advertisers want to see large audiences, and so even the mainstream newspapers and broadcast media have been leaning toward the most sensational, bad news. I call it tabloidifying the news. (Or should it be tabloidicizing) “Hey folks! Follow us. We ferret out the worst news our world has to offer . . . with pictures. Parental Guidance strongly advised.”

Donald Trump is well versed in two areas: 1. knowing that there’s a huge audience for bad news and, 2. understanding that the media have an insatiable thirst for bad stories. They have to have such a thirst; their very career lives depend on it.

Here are a few news for Sunday morning: I’m still in my bathrobe at 8:00 am and, I’ll be going to church later. I’ll bet you’re hungering to hear that I crashed my car en-route. Well, maybe not you, but certainly all the news junkies out there.

If I do, it will be on the evening news. If I don’t, it won’t.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Pokeman Go and the local Museum

Do you know this great man? Do you know what he said . . . and did?
We’re always elated to see visitors in the Mennonite Heritage Museum. Especially those that ask questions, ponder the meaning of exhibits and chat among themselves and with us about the subjects we present.

So when I went to open the museum yesterday, I was excited to see four people already on the steps. Waiting for the place to open . . . I assumed. Silly, Luddite, ever-hopeful me. They were in fact four teens with cell phones gathered in by the “Mennonite Heritage Museum” sign where a PokeStop has been placed by the virtual-world “Holy Ghost” that guides the inner workings of Pokemon Go.

I’ve heard it touted as a virtual game that gets people out and about: exercising, breathing fresh air, meeting real people and making new friends. The dozen or so drawn by the game to our front yard have been uniformly oblivious to their surroundings and/or have harboured too little interest in things historical to engage with me or the museum. (I’m pretty sure I appear historical to Pokeman Go enthusiasts!) Those I’ve seen haven’t been doing any real exercise; they strolled, and lolled; one lay down on his back and held his cell phone up, arms extended for about ten minutes. I tried to engage the four yesterday in a bit of conversation; they weren’t having any of that nuisance—not with me, not with each other.

So is this new—and probably short-lived—virtualized version of geocaching a “step in the right direction” for kids who are hooked on gaming and social media? You tell me.

We see our humble museum as a classroom, a classroom where curious people can come to learn useful things, like how they and their friends came to be here, what their ancestors did to make possible the life they enjoy, what Martin Luther King meant when he said, “We don’t make history; history makes us,” or words to that effect.

The good functioning of any democracy—be it a family, a church, a community or a country—is dependent on its participants being knowledgeable about the realities of their world. Isaac Asimov has said, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

My experience with Pokeman Go is minimal, confined to a few encounters and the reading of the game rules on Wikipedia. It doesn’t take a knowledge of logic to realize that the time Pokeman Go consumes could have been spent in other ways, like actually exercising, actually meeting and getting to know people, actually learning about the world, how it came to be what it is, what it means to wrestle with its future.

Marshall McLuhan coined the media phrase, “the medium is the message,” an insight that has supported our suspicions about TV, for instance, being more than a tool for acquiring information and entertainment; the TV in every house changed the culture irrespective of what programming was chosen to be broadcast. The car, the phone, the computer and the internet have all in their turn reshaped our culture, our politics, our socialization.
Pokeman Go is just another game? I don’t think so. If it were designed to be educational or even informative, it might well be a medium whose message is constructive in our culture, country, communities. But I can’t see that message there at all. The message, I fear, will again be the enrichment of a few highly-knowledgeable entrepreneurs through the further addiction of the not-yet-knowledgeable young masses.

If it would ignite enthusiasm for museums, galleries, libraries and actual travel, I would endorse Pokeman Go. If it should turn out, after all, to have this effect, I will humbly apologize—and then eat the Mennonite Heritage Museum, one brick, one exhibit at a time.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Brexit, Ad-blocking and the Blaring Trumpet.

What are you seeing from up there, Mr. Crow?
Two news stories this morning:
  1. Users of the internet can buy ad-blocking software that eliminates most advertising from showing up on their mobile devices. If we all bought the software, ad revenues that pay for the production of what we use on the internet would dry up and Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, etc. would disappear, along with a myriad of research sources, amusement sites, etc. etc. In short, the death of the internet unless its consumers would be willing to pay large fees to maintain it.       We’ve long been able to watch nearly-free television because the pesky ads paid for it for us. Same principle.
  2. Britain has decided to exit the European Union. A lot of the Brexit hype stressed the economic and legal strictures the union put on Britain and the perception that such “globalization” benefits the wealthy and powerful and impoverishes the rest, and that softened borders makes it too easy for undesirables to get into the country.

Both stories are gloomy. They remind us that our unhappy marriage to corporate wealth and power is insoluble unless we’re willing to give up stuff we cling to like barnacles on a ship’s hull. The protestors against fossil-fuel dependency have to grind their teeth at the fully-justified accusations that they drive cars, fly in airplanes, use petroleum-sourced products routinely. We surely know that if the production and use of fossil fuels were made illegal right now, our lives as we know them would tank, bite the biscuit, kick the bucket, be flushed down the toilet.
      At present, only corporate or communal wealth and power is capable of building a car, manufacturing a smart phone, running a communications network, producing the necessary supplies of food, drugs, consumer goods and leisure opportunities that we either need or desire.
      Our local Lion’s Club is not about to take over the production of computers if IBM and Apple are defuncted. Churches and mosques, temples and synagogues would build lousy roads even if they were willing to attempt it.
      A commentator said that if we give people the choice of doing what’s right or doing what’s free, most of us will choose free . . . virtually always. No matter how much we rail against the tyranny of corporate wealth and power, we are bound to neglect the fact that it was our needs and wants that made them what they are, to forget who it is that fulfills our dreams. Let’s look to our own ethics first.
      We don’t want to know that the problems of climate change, earth degradation, wars and political conflict, etc., etc., are products of ours and our family’s and neighbours’ choices.
      Donald Trump is promising to take back America; his backers love the phrase but I’d venture to guess that most of them (including Trump himself) haven’t the faintest idea what that noble-sounding phrase actually means in practice. Brexit has started Britain on a road to “taking back their country.”        
     They will undoubtedly find in the end that “taking back the country” in the way they’ve visualized through rose-coloured glasses will be the equivalent of the proverbial “shooting oneself in the foot!”
      To my mind, there’s only one viable way to own both the resources necessary to provide us with the goods and services we need while keeping control over the excesses corporate wealth and power currently tend to admit, encourage. Shareholders guide the actions of corporate wealth and power, presumably, and if the shareholders are all of us—as is the case with SaskEnergy, SaskPower, SaskTel, for instance—we share in the direction setting and in the blame when mistakes are made. In such an environment, the need for a Brexit, for ad-blocking, for Donald Trump and his ilk wouldn’t arise to fuel our rage and imagined persecution.
       We should be able to kick out the management (our elected government) if the efficiency AND/OR the ethics of our corporations don’t pass muster!
      Unfortunately, private corporations now own the media, by and large, and we’ve been cajoled and “tricked” into choosing the governments that suit the wishes of private corporations even as we rail against them.
      There are plenty of photos of our real
enemy, people. They hang right above the sink in each of our bathrooms.
      For God’s sake, READ SOMETHING.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Hooligan Temptation

Creation is hard work, destruction is easy

Gangs of Russian, English (and other) hooligans are fighting it out in the streets at the Euro Cup of Soccer in France taking place right now, Hooliganism has become an adjunct of soccer, it seems, and its participants rehearse for battle, set out with mischief-making in mind, and equip themselves to practice their deviltry, the soccer game being little more than an opening for a greater goal—the perpetration of as much mayhem as possible.
      But hooliganism wasn’t invented by soccer fans. Free Dictionary includes a couple of definitions of the word, what it’s come to mean: reckless or malicious behavior that causes discomfort or annoyance in others; the termination of something by causing so much damage to it that it cannot be repaired or no longer exists. I would probably add, “the organized creation of straw men in order to experience the longed for, orgasmic high that comes from the act of attacking and burning them down publicly.”
      I think we all recognize the biology of hooliganism intuitively. It’s not only the good deed, the making of something wonderful that can bring about the physical and emotional euphoria our minds and bodies crave. Euphoria can be had—given the appropriate circumstances—from the destruction of the good deeds and wonderful inventions that others or we have created. Typically, we attempt to escape this fact by assigning blame or praise—as the case may be—to God and the Holy Spirit or to the devil who “made me do it.”
      I’m sorry, folks, but it’s all built into us by the very creative process that made us. Fight or Flight are defensive mechanisms for our protection, the adrenaline that fuels them lives on even when danger has to be invented—the straw man. It’s why we have games like hockey and football, where danger and battle are replicated in an attempt to achieve biological euphoria, even if only vicariously. But direct participation is limited and in the need to be a part of it, fandom emerges, and it doesn’t take much beyond Psychology 101 to predict that hooliganism will break out among those for whom the vicarious experience no longer totally satisfies.
      But even if soccer hooliganism can be controlled by policing and public indignation, there exists a hooliganism that’s far more sinister, that threatens—particularly in peaceful times—to erupt and grow to uncontrollable proportions. It can be characterized as it was in a bumper sticker during the Vietnam protests as “Have patience, you say? To hell with that. I’ve got a gun and I’m gonna kill something!” (My paraphrase; that would make a far-too-long bumper sticker.) The NAZI vendetta against Jews, Gypsies and gays was hooliganism developed to its logical and predictable conclusion; the diatribes and threats against the Notley government in Alberta is the thin edge of hooliganism showing itself; the rise of Donald Trump as a legitimate (politically) candidate for president of the USA is a result of neglecting, nurturing and then legitimizing hooliganism. The method of Trump hooliganism is “ the termination of something by causing so much damage to it that it cannot be repaired or no longer exists. The support Trump is getting from the National Rifle Association is completely fitting; the very act of purchasing and owning an automatic weapon is the entertainment of the possibility of hooliganism.
      ISIS, to my mind, epitomizes well the concept of hooliganism. There comes a point where achieving euphoria through acts of mayhem becomes habitual. There comes a time when—as Shakespeare’s Macbeth puts it—“I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er.” When you’ve beheaded ten innocent men and women for a video, pushed 20 homosexual men off the roof of a tall building, burned a pilot in a cage and videotaped it, what likelihood is there that you will say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I was wrong. I’ll make it up to you and mend my ways.” Returning would be as tedious (read, impossible) as going all the way.
      ISIS is a criminal gang; we need to think about it as massive, organized crime rather than as a war of ideals. The Mafia, ISIS, Abu Sayyaf are not, in the end, ideologically or religiously driven. They’re Hooligans who’ve stepped in blood so far that the way back has become impossible. In for a penny; in for a pound.
      But here’s my ultimate concern: when followers of Christ and other prophets of peace, love and non-violence begin to compromise their own principles, begin to ignore, condone, excuse or applaud the hooligans, begin to take their euphoria from words and deeds of belligerence and de-struction, the way back is dangerously close to becoming impossible. When Christians start “packing,” I fear for tomorrow’s children. I fear for all minorities. I fear for women. I fear for the witness of the church, the witness of peace-loving Muslims and Jews, the witness of gentle-minded Hindus and Buddhists.
      Have we stepped in so far that returning would be as tedious as going all the way? 
     I sincerely hope not.