Saturday, December 30, 2017

Conservative with age?

Typical Newfoundland
“A person who’s not a socialist when he’s twenty doesn’t have a heart; a person who’s not a conservative when he’s forty doesn’t have a brain.” This old saying was bandied about on a recent “Ideas” episode on CBC focused on whether or not—and if so, why—we become more conservative with age. Presented was some documented evidence that showed we actually do become less liberal in our worldview as we get older and interviews with a few people who have demonstrably moved from a left-wing to a right-wing outlook supported the contention.

In general, the documentary’s informants left me with the impression that as young persons they were full of good will toward their fellows and were enthusiastic about supporting those less fortunate, but turned right when they realized that a socialist economy “just doesn’t work.” Author P.J. O’Rourke said he made his big right turn when he got his first job and his first pay check and realized that almost half of his total wage had been deducted for taxes, a consequence of a “communist” system. A general consensus among some interviewees was that liberalism is both ineffective in achieving its goals and that it curbs personal initiative, entrepreneurship and—worst of all—infringes individual freedoms.

Defining liberalism and conservatism in our time is a bit of a fool’s errand. Those of us who have an interest in and some involvement in politics in Canada likely consider ourselves to be either one or the other, but that does little more than divide us politically into camps, give us a sense of belonging. Truth is, our economy, our culture are not properly labeled using the liberal/conservative polarities; Western democracies are all mixed economies with both liberal and conservative elements.

I would have liked to ask those interviewees who saw themselves now as convinced conservatives which liberal—even socialist—parts of the Canadian economy they would like to eliminate: Univeral healthcare? Public highways? Public education? Crown corporations? Old Age Pension? The Canada Pension Plan? Public hospitals and nursing homes? All this could be thrown onto the back of individual entrepreneurship: toll highways; pay as you go healthcare; family, at-home care for the aged and infirm; corporate ownership of airports; for-profit schools, jails and universities; etc.

O’Rourke referred to a quote from philosopher Michael Oakshott that he considers to be a perfect definition of conservatism: “To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” O’Rourke goes on to say that the movement from a liberal to a conservative outlook is inevitable, that liberalism is an attribute of youth and that we eventually “have to grow up.”

Other interviewees saw O’Rourke’s comments as silly . . . naïve, as did I, beyond belief for someone as renowned as he has come to be. I've known many a gray-haired person with an abiding social conscience. A failure to maintain youthful idealism doesn't equate to "brainlessness."

A young woman interviewee described herself as a liberal/socialist and defined her worldview as “an unconditional commitment to social justice.” I believe she said she was the founder of "Black Lives Matter - Toronto."

I’d recommend taking an hour to listen to the podcast by clicking HERE. I found the ending particularly helpful; in other words, give it the whole hour!

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Jerusalem: THE place, or A place.

A place, planet earth (not Jerusalem)

A different place, planet earth (not Jerusalem either)

Yet another place, planet earth (still not Jerusalem)
Netanyahu was positively gleeful as he thanked Donald Trump for American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel.

His demeanour didn’t match that of most world leaders responding to the event; the fear of hostilities and armed clashes, potentially unleashed by Trump’s declaration, was palpable.

Three monotheistic religions—Muslim, Jewish and Christian—claim substantial stakes in the “holy site” status of Jerusalem. I’m not historian enough to weigh the legitimacy of these claims, except that Christian interest in being involved in the fate of Jerusalem as a “holy site” is baffling. It’s clear that through selective reading of the gospels and dispensationalist, pre- or post-millenialist explanations of the end-of-times, Jerusalem can figure in the apocalyptic formulations of people who call themselves Christian. 

But Christian faith was clearly meant by the prophetic voice that gives it its name to shift faith away from tribalism and the idolatrous worship of place. The classic conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, for instance, (John 4: 19-24, NIV) can’t be easily ignored:

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. [. . .] Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Perhaps a reverence for—even worship of—a place is inevitable given human nature. When good things happen to us, a fondness develops for the place in which we were at the time. For indigenous Canadians, cultural roots are not recorded on paper but in the memories partially residing in sacred places. There is Heimweh, homesickness that can colour our worldview, cause us to long for places lost but not forgotten. And then there’s the romance of place: Old Montreal, Paris, The Big Apple, Grand Canyon that possess an aura well beyond the stones and soil of which they’re made.

And yet, can nostalgia ever be a defensible foundation for taking up arms? I tend to see our dilemma evolutionarily: our capability to wage destructive war has surpassed by far our social progress, so Jerusalem becomes occasion for quarreling and war, not for glorious, multicultural celebration.

Perhaps Islam or Judaism are dependent on Jerusalem being a more sacred place than Budapest or London or Rio de Janeiro. Logically, if there is but one God, and if his name is Yahweh, and if there is but one God, and if his name is Allah, then Yahweh and Allah are names for the same God and I have to wonder how he/she sees the shenanigans into which Donald Trump has now inserted his blunt instrument!

As Christians, though, who worship God “neither on this (Samaritan) mountain nor in Jerusalem,” we might do well to take our mandate from Christ himself to foster reconciliation and to stop finding excuses to participate as partisans in the Muslim/Jewish nonsense that since 1949 has focused on Palestine/Israel, and now on the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall, a politics of futility.

2 Corinthians 5:17-19 (NIV)

  1. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
  2. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:
  3. that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (emphasis mine)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

I been workin' on the railroad . . .

Painting in Oils

Among the numerous curiosities in Canadian political dialogue these days, the “yes/no, maybe so” about pipelines has to be one of the curiositists. An NDP government in Alberta is working hard to swing public, government and corporate opinion toward the economic efficacy of pipelines for bringing Alberta crude to markets. The NDP government of BC knows that it’s beholden to opponents of the Trans-Mountain pipeline for its slim victory in the election there. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper eulogized pipelines but couldn’t get them done. Trudeau’s Liberals have approved the building of pipelines but there are indications that they won’t be any more successful than the Harper government was.

It’s probably most relevant to say that whether or not Keystone or Trans-Mountain or Energy East (or a few other options not much talked about) are ever completed won’t be determined in legislatures but in corporate board rooms. Environmental concerns are generally little more than irritants when profitability is being measured; it’s this measure that counts in the end. Profit-seekers usually find a way wherever there’s a buck to be made.

I’m told the price of oil is low because there’s a glut of it on the market now. That’s Economics 101. What ought to be considered in all this babble about Alberta’s—and by extension Canada’s—prosperity are the trends and trajectories that will determine the future supply and demand situation regarding fossil fuels. Every wind generator, every hydro dam, every new solar panel, every efficiency built into our cars reduces the demand for fossil fuel. Increasing populations, burgeoning middle classes in developing countries pressure the demand upward. Where do these trends cross on a graph? Is it possible that at the same time as an expensive pipeline is completed, the sale of what comes out of it will cease to be profitable?

We’ll probably never pump wheat, or lumber, or people through redundant pipelines. What looks like a surer investment for the future in this country is the modernization of trains and the twinning of rail lines. Well-planned rail systems can transport almost anything cheaply and cleanly—including oil when necessary. Modern rail systems are comparatively economically maintained, can take pressure and expense off road construction and maintenance, reduce the traffic glut and smog in urban centres and are ecologically friendlier than every other transportation mode except, possibly, ocean freighters.

And rail has a romance to it; have you ever heard of a hobbyist setting up a miniature landscape of pipelines? Neither have I.

A broadly educated, reading, studying population ought to realize that the pipeline topic is sucking up far more oxygen than it deserves. The exciting challenges of the future neither revolve around whether or not Exxon or Shell remain profitable, nor even around the jobs their activities create. We’re in an era of massive adjustments and it’s in the informed search for—and incorporation of—new technologies that a prosperous future lies. 

“Jobs, jobs, jobs” is a shibboleth politicians and corporations throw at us all the time. The goal of every corporation, ironically, is to reduce the employment of humans to as close to zero as possible through their replacement by robotics, mechanization, technology. How a living for citizens will be earned or supplied in this kind of a future is a far bigger challenge than what's represented in this tiresome pipeline quarreling.

I used to smoke a pipe. I gave it up. A pipe tends to turn into a sewer unless you tend it like you would your child. (This is irrelevant to the rest of this diatribe, except for pipe, sewer and child.)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Delicious Walleye with a side of Mercury, anyone?

Fort Carlton

It's a half-century and twelve hundred kilometres away from where I'm sitting today. Grassy Narrows, Ontario. 1967-69. We lived in a ten by forty mobile home and taught adult education classes in the community hall which we'd divided into a literacy and an advanced classroom. Twenty-five to thirty men would show up in the morning and we'd do school: Science, Math, English, History.

We didn't know it until a few years later, but our two years in Grassy Narrows Reserve coincided with the arrival there of severe mercury contamination from the Dryden Pulp and Paper Company. The Wabigoon River and connected lakes still look clean, almost pristine, but mercury lodges in the cells of its fish, transfers to people who eat the fish, is passed on to a next generation in the placenta of mothers. Invisible mercury has been known for a long time to play havoc with the human nervous system, it's symptoms often resembling Parkinson's or Huntington's Chorea, producing developmental deficiencies and/or deformity in infants and at the extreme: Minamata disease, it's deadly, worst manifestation. 

My family and I carry in our bodies a low level of mercury poisoning from our two years there.

Occasionally, when I read about the persistence of physical and mental health issues in Grassy Narrows resulting from the colonial past, the mercury poisoning and resource starvation, the names and faces flood back: Gabe Fobister, Andy Keewatin, the Necanapenaces, Ashopenaces, Loons, Hyacinths, Kokopenaces. Friends? We were outsiders paid by government to live in a fenced compound with water in the tap, an indoor flush toilet, diesel-powered electric service while they hauled water up from the lake in tubs on the hoods of battered cars, carried it up the hill in pails, heated overcrowded houses with wood, lighted them with kerosene.

The numbered treaties struck a bargain: the inhabitants of the land and waters gave us the access we settlers needed in order to build this rich European-styled country; in exchange, we gave them empty promises and the finger.

It's evident at every turn. The persistence of ignorance about our history, racial prejudice and discrimination in Canada make the prospect of reconciliation with our indigenous neighbours hard to imagine. Prime Minister Trudeau spent valuable time in his speech at the UN General Assembly recently decrying the sordid history of colonialism in Canada, promising that the future would be brighter than the past. Both in the media and on the street, the reactions included puzzlement, resentment, even derision. And some applause. The perception in the general population seems to be that European settlement constitutes the real indigenous Canada and that aboriginal peoples are the refugees, the immigrants. It's incredible, but the mentality is substantiated by the fact that Senator Beyak can urge our Indian population to trade in their status cards for citizenship . . . and be applauded by many, retain her position in the leadership institution of this country.

The prospects for a better Grassy Narrows' future are not good. Although there are knowledgeable, good people who understand what has to change in Canada, and why, they face an overwhelming culture of, “They're just a bunch of lazy bums manipulating for handouts. And what's more, who gives a damn?!”

All Canadians ought to put their pre-judgments aside long enough to read a heart wrenching article by Jody Porter at

Saturday, August 05, 2017

What racism looks like

“A lot of talk about racism has been floating around lately. There were comments from FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron recently saying racism is a daily reality for indigenous people. It is for everyone.”

So begins the column appearing recently, then retracted, written by the regional managing editor of the Melfort Journal, Greg Wiseman. The column goes on to equate the racism Bobby Cameron decries with the ethnic joke; somehow the Newfie joke becomes the equivalent of the systemic discrimination that’s made it hard for indigenous Canadians to prosper in this country.

Wiseman is right when he says, in effect, that we are all potentially bigoted (including indigenous people) and all eligible to feel the sting of some kind of prejudice in our lives. But the racism that Cameron is talking about isn’t anything like the bite of an ethnic or personal slur. The “Ukrainians [] women, Newfies, athletes, gays, bikers and so on” Wiseman claims to be the recipients of “racism” similar to that of indigenous Canadians are all members of the settler portion of the population: they fall under no special set of laws like the Indian Act imposes on indigenous peoples.

Case in point: when my ancestors settled on Treaty 6 territory in 1893, they very soon had a school built nearby with qualified teachers so that every child could reasonably live at home with family and get an education. The residential school system that was the federal government’s provision of education to indigenous people saw their children picked up by force and hauled off to boarding schools run by church denominations. It was a patronizing, colonial mentality driving a system that ran over culture, community and family life with heavy boots.

That’s what racism looks like.

Case in point: decimated by the small pox for which they had no immunity and the disappearance of the bison on whom their economy depended historically, the indigenous people of Treaty 6 territory were forced into a bargain that basically said that in exchange for rights to over 90% of their land, the crown would provide for their food, health, and economic needs. The deplorable conditions under which the indigenous people thereafter lived for generations resulted from the failure on Canada’s part to honour both the spirit and the letter of the deal to which all the signers agreed in 1876. (To explore the content of Treaty 6, click HERE.)

That’s what racism looks like.

In 1932, Edward Yahyahkeekoot had to get permission from the Indian agent in order to tend his trap line and to "hunt for food." 

This is what racism feels like. 

I could go on and on with examples. Suffice it to say that in order to write such a column, Wiseman had either to be uninformed about the history and content of treaty making . . . and keeping, and/or was just being very sloppy with the English language. Although withdrawn and an apology published in its place, it echoed the sentiments of many Canadians, unfortunately, and the publicity around it reinforced views that indigenous people should just “get over it,” that we’re all just as hard done by as they.

I’ve pilfered a copy of Wiseman’s original column from CBC Saskatchewan.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

About Omar Khadr

As we all know by now, Omar Khadr sued the Canadian government for $20,000,000 as compensation for their role in not only allowing, but participating in his torture and prolonged incarceration without a fair trial in Guantanamo Bay. We all must have heard by now that the Supreme Court looked at the responsibility in law of Canadian authorities toward citizens imprisoned abroad and determined that the government of Canada failed to extend required protection to Khadr. The short conclusion has been that the current government decided to settle out of court and an offer of $10,500,000 was agreed upon.

The Conservative opposition seemed immediately to detect an opportunity: simplify Khadr’s personna as just-a-terrorist, re-brand the settlement as a reward for terrorism and the voter base could be easily caught up in a round of righteous indignation. Andrew Scheer called it “disgusting,” Michelle Rempel slammed the settlement on Fox News, and in the Wall Street Journal, Peter Kent accused the Canadian government of “falling all over itself to turn a terrorist into a multimillionaire.”

It worked. Polls showed that the majority of Canadians bought into the Conservative line. Home run.

As is so often the case these days, facts are selected or rejected based on whether or not they support a viewpoint. Khadr was ten when his doctrinaire father, an Al Qaeda supporter, took him to Afghanistan to fight on the side of a resistance movement justifiably called a terrorist insurgency. He was fifteen when the building he and Al Qaeda operatives were occupying was bombed by the American military and most of the inhabitants killed. Khadr survived that bomb attack as well as two bullet wounds to his chest and may or may not have thrown the grenade that killed Sergeant Christopher Speer as he entered the bombed-out building to “mop up.”

Khadr was spared; a medic was charged with keeping him alive so that he could be interrogated and he was flown to Bagram Airfield where he took three months to recover from his injuries. He was next flown to Guantanamo where he was tortured repeatedly until he eventually confessed to throwing the hand grenade. Canada knew that prisoner torture was rampant in Gitmo and despite Khadr’s being a Canadian Citizen (born in Toronto), was a child and could therefor confess little because he knew little, Canadian intelligence cooperated with the Gitmo apparatus, interrogating him mercilessly for hours and turning over their meager yieldings to Khadr’s persecutors.

That a 15 year-old would defend himself with whatever he could find when knowing that soldiers are coming to kill him can hardly be justifiably brushed aside. No American soldiers were tried and convicted for killing the dozens of insurgents in the building and if that’s because it was a war, then Khadr’s throwing of the grenade (if he did) would also be an act of war.

If what we’re hearing today is the level of discourse that characterizes conservatism in Canada, then heaven help us. To elect people to office with such a slim understanding of “how things work . . . actually,” would be tantamount to making the witch doctor the Minister of Health, the snake- oil salesman the chief pharmacist. To realize that Scheer, Rempel and Kent would set out deliberately to twist, over-simplify, the news in order to enrage and energize voters is an even worse prospect than the possibility that they are ignorant of the real story.

It’s happened in the USA . . . very recently; it could happen here.
As to the amount of the settlement, I have no informed opinion on what the right amount would be, if any. I know that even a moderately skilled athlete in professional hockey, baseball or basketball can earn more in a year than I have in a lifetime. The logic of the relationship among work, play, celebrity and commerce and the remuneration they draw has always been enormously flawed . . . in my opinion. Given the past, Omar Khadr is bound to have a rough go when he seeks to fit in, find meaningful work, earn a living. Perhaps $10,500,000 is justified on that ground.

It’s taxpayers’ money, that’s true. About 29 cents per person.

For a blow-by-blow summary of all the events pertaining to this case, Click here for a pretty good start.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sister Act - a curmudgeonly review

Let me begin with my disclaimer: I can be an out-of-control curmudgeon when my mood dictates it. So if you read my review of Sister Act and are offended, tell yourself that you’ve been curmudgeoned . . . nothing more.

I tend to avoid high school and community drama, partly because I’ve been there and gradually tired of the tedium of it—the memorization of lines and blocking, entrances and exits, the building of sets, the painting, the sawing, the cajoling of hormone-laced actors, and the practicing, practicing for days and weeks for one or two nights of sheer terror. I’ve helped manage back stage for musicals like The Pirates of Penzance, been a Chinese passenger on HMS Pinafore, played Annas in Jesus Christ, Superstar and the uncle in Wizard of Oz, for instance. I’ve “taught” Hamlet about 15 times, The Crucible and Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet half a dozen times each. I even attempted Oedipus Rex with a Grade 12 class. Once.

I’ve seen Christopher Plummer and Cynthia Dale on the Stratford stage. Wow!

But hey, you say. That’s unfair. And you’re right. To sing and perform like the cast of RJC’s Sister Act did last night while you’re still just learning the rudiments of vocal music and dramatic performance is truly remarkable. Soloists were competent beyond their years, chorus numbers were musical and well-rehearsed, and if teenage actors tend to do a bit too much “standing around between lines,” that’s to be expected and is easily forgiven; physical awkwardness dominates in adolescence; hands never know what feet are doing. The confidence and energy overflowed.

My hat is unreservedly off to the RJC staff for motivating and preparing what had to be over half of the student body to pull this off, and to do it so well.

BUT! HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Grease have at least one thing in common (and that with opera, the original musical theatre genre); the plots tend to be drivel. Sister Act out-drivels most of them and for those of you who protest that these plays were never meant to be deep, that they are venues for catchy songs, farcical humour and copious laughter, I concede that you have a point. I like farce too, even John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks still breaks me up. But Sister Act is not quality farce; it sinks along with much of American sensibility to the tiresome “humour” of gag lines and double entendres. (Our Father, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name.” Rumour has it that so many corpses turned over in their graves at this gag line that the Eigenheim Church cemetery resembles a plowed field this morning.)

When the director felt it necessary before the performance began to warn the audience that they might be shocked by Act One, but that . . . wait for it, wait for it . . . there would be a 180º turn in Act Two, I knew that we were witnessing a classical error in dramatic performance, ie. telling the audience what the play means. Not good. Unfortunately, the 180º turn is . . . what? A timid policeman finds out that he can be “the guy,” a fame-seeking singer decides to give up her selfish dream for a nobler cause, a convent of nuns learns how to sing overnight and becomes a jiving, chorus-line “ACT?”

Did I just not get it?

OK. It’s really hard to find suitable material for a mandatory, year-end musical to accompany graduation celebrations in an Anabaptist Christian School in middle Saskatchewan in 2017. Granted. I may prove to be wrong, but by the audience’s “standing ovation” response (they always do this; our kids flat-out amaze us from time to time) Sister Act with all its flaws did what the school needs; endear itself again to its constituency as a Christian, junior, liberal arts school that knows how to do education in this era and is not afraid to take some risks, be innovative. It’s a cracking good school with, probably, more potential for greatness than we deserve.

And here’s a thing. Teach kids to throw mud on a potter’s wheel, help them train their hands to mold and shape with both gentleness and firmness, and so what if all that occurs to them at the moment is to fashion an ash tray? Perhaps, in another day and when they are all grown up, mastered skills will enable them to create a new, exciting, Grecian Urn.

. . . When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." - John Keats

Meanwhile, would someone out there start to work on a really good musical that can be performed at a school like RJC without the necessity of an apologetic disclaimer preceding it?? The world is full of amazing plots, magnificent harmonies, hilarity and joy. Surely we have a really good play in our collective consciousness.

The Midnight Trials of J.J. Thiessen, perhaps?

Thursday, June 08, 2017

How it's Made: hammers and sentences.

Made in Rosthern, ca 1907
I took a History of English course at the University of Alberta long, long ago. The prof was a linguist and the approach was consistent with evolutionary thinking. Anyone in the class who rejected biological evolution would still come away from that class believing in linguistic evolution. It became so darned obvious under the tutelage of someone like Dr. Cantrememberhisname.

There’s a program on the Discovery channel that I like to watch: How it’s Made, it’s called, and it follows the manufacturing processes of everyday objects beginning with raw materials and ending with, say, a hammer or a snowmobile. We can probably be forgiven for seeing a hammer that “just is” without paying attention to it’s origins; you just can’t know everything! But in that class at the U of A where we looked at our English language with the intensity of How it’s Made, I gained an appreciation for the fluidity of language, the way it begins and the ways in which it changes, usually in concert with changes in other aspects of our cultures: our ecology, our economics, our migrations.

(A tidbit: vulgar meant the common people early on in it’s life. It’s equivalent in understanding today might be “the middle class.” From it’s Latin base to the present, it’s evolved to be used to describe low, mean, highly objectionable persons and actions. How it went from its reference to the peasant class to its use in describing despicable persons and events would in itself make for an interesting cultural study. ((An aside to the tidbit: the Vulgate Bible was not a translation for rude, mean people; it was a translation for common use.)))

Historically, people didn’t have the benefit of scholarship like that of Dr. Cantrememberhisname, or of TV programs to explain How it’s Made. But some were understandably curious about how it was that when some people spoke, they couldn’t understand them, and when they themselves spoke, others heard gibberish. At some time, the myth of the confounding of language at the Babel Tower was given birth, a myth that gospel writers reversed in the de-confounding at Pentecost. Taken together, they illustrate that what went wrong is being made right with the coming of Christ and the upside-down nature of his teaching.

Understanding the story of languages—the How it’s Made of our mother tongues particularly—is far more important than knowing how the handle of a hammer is given its shape. In the case of the hammer, it doesn’t really matter if we imagine it to have arrived intact in its present form; lack of facility in and knowledge of the nuances in language starts wars, ends marriages, breaks communities up into parcels of misunderstanding.

We taught language facility in an earlier age—rhetoric and oratory, debating, grammar and penmanship—as the important subjects in school. Students were required to master basics of Latin (from which much of English vocabulary and grammar derive) and possibly some Greek as well. We deemed it important that people learn to express their thoughts well and that they comprehend the thoughts of others, well expressed. We understood how important it is to be able to write legibly, clearly and precisely; how important it is to be able to read and comprehend clear and precise writing; how crucial an adequate and growing vocabulary can be to all human interaction.

We once understood that language knowledge and facility are key to pretty much everything.

(A recent bit of satire chastised Barack Obama for deliberately humiliating President Trump by speaking in complete sentences with an actual verb in each.)

 Pointing-and-grunting might be language enough when we’re digging a ditch, but the demands of the times cry out for language more fluent, more precise, more poetic than that.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Put Values in my pipe and smoke them.

Food is still far and away the best cure for hunger. 

I didn’t count, but I think that as I watched the Conservative leadership convention last night, I must have heard the expressions “core values” and “Canadian core values” a hundred times or more. Brad Trost and Kellie Leitch hung their hopes of winning the leadership on convincing Tory membership that there exists a common Canadian value system and that we must be vigilant guardians of that system. 

No real mention was made of where these values come from and what actions they precipitate. Are they Christian imperatives? Were they handed down to each new wave of immigrants by the indigenous elders who would know because they’d occupied this land for thousands and thousands of years? Are they a natural outgrowth of gluttony on American television fare? Are they a consequence of our northern geography and climate which makes us robust lovers of life and ardent conservationists? Whence came these values we supposedly all hold because we’re Canadian?

Maybe it’s an ingredient in our beer that’s always been produced using only water from fresh, cold mountain streams.

Let’s make no mistake. Canadian values were “shot to hell” when the first European set foot on this soil, planted a flag, claimed the land for some shallow, belly-scratching foreign king and declared the indigenous inhabitants to be heathens and savages and therefore unworthy of the land God had provided for them. If there is a “set” or “system” of values held by Canadians, it’s in that reality that we ought to be looking for at least one source.

We use the values word too loosely; we confuse it with policy. Some would claim that opposition to giving women the choice to abort a pregnancy or not arises from their value of respect for life. You can’t really preach that position without implying that the policy of giving women choice in the matter signals that lawmakers who enacted the policy of choice don’t value life. So if the law regarding abortion is favoured by 65-70% of the population, how then can a Conservative policy on the subject be labeled a “Canadian value?” Well, it apparently can be if you’re running for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada in 2017!

But let’s consider that what were touted as values at the convention were words, words, words, and nothing but words. The authenticity of a claim to own values is not shown in blather, it’s in the actions and choices that values precipitate. Person A earns a modest income and often teeters on the brink of bankruptcy because he donates so much of his means to an organization that treats eye problems in an African country. Person B earns a modest income but hoards his means, spends his time on the computer looking for the best return on his savings. Their actions derive from different value sets. Both are Canadian. They both live on our street. They curl on the same team.

There’s a lot we do and/or tolerate as Canadians that insults my values—and yours, I’m sure. I’m also certain that they’re not the same things for you as for me. Martial parades, policemen in uniform, the eulogizing of our soldiers at sports events, all these raise my hackles because I’ve had the idea instilled in me going back at least 50 generations that true peace can’t be won through the application of force and fear. In the light of my values on the subject, making and/or brandishing an AK47 seems not only repulsive but also stupid, a product of a fixation that is naïve, self-destructive. But I have coffee with people who may well value the idea that our freedom, our way of life depends on the ability to engage successfully in warfare.

The other emphasis of the convention that struck me was the oft-repeated, blatant declaration that this was about 2019 and choosing the leader and adopting the strategy that would defeat Justin Trudeau and his Liberals in the next election. The NHL draft with its competition for acquiring hot, new prospects came to mind.

There’s no harm in talking about, comparing values. But when we do, we ought to be looking at what it is that we do, and working backwards to determine what there is about us that makes us do what we do. That determination will describe our true values. Say you believe in protecting God’s creation while throwing your plastic waste into the garbage can? Think again. Then tell me if you value conservation over convenience. Say you value the admonition to “love your neighbour as yourself” while protesting the reception of refugees from Syria? I don’t think so.

Could be that our blather on our greatness as Canadians is only blather: perhaps our real Canadian values are more like dog eat dog, exploit creation while you can, save up for yourself treasure on earth, to the strongest go the spoils and get as much as you can for as little effort as possible. Try running for the leadership of the CPC on that values-laden platform!

So here’s a secret: it wasn’t our values that brought us to whatever greatness we can claim, it was our luck in landing on a part of the globe where creation has provided far more resources than would be required to sustain us. It’s only that that separates us from Bangladesh, or Nicaragua, or Chad. Were values the measure of our greatness, I fear we’d be judged on the values that guided us to be chintzy and selfish in the disposal of our surplus in a world where whole populations could survive on the food we discard, where whole communities of Canadians are destined to live their lives in abject poverty.

It’s time to put that tobacco in our pipes and inhale deeply. (This is a metaphor; don’t smoke unless you place little value on your health.)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Hand over your DNA!

Are you my ancestory?? is the website. The smiling face on the home page is said to belong to a satisfied customer who is 38% West European, 24% Scandinavian, 16% Irish, and 11% Greek. (Hmmm. This only adds up to 89%, wonder what part of this poor guy is missing!) You could get your racial/ethnic mix tested for only $129 Canadian. There are many other websites as well that offer to trace your genetic origins based on a swab you send in. 

I’m not a geneticist; not even close. But I have to admit that I’m skeptical about how one can be genetically Greek, for instance. Japanese, Scandinavian, British are neither ethnic nor racial designations, surely these appellations link to citizenship, which has no genetic component. If I think of my ancestry, I’m sure a genetic test would not indicate “Canadianess,” I’m likely nearly 100% West European, a piece of information that’s totally useless. (It might be useful if the genes that most West Europeans carry also figure in a physical condition that could kill me, something like gereonteritical europeanensis—don’t look this up; it’s fake news.)

Obviously, the retailers of genetic ancestry services have grouped and named genomic categories in such a way that the appearance of meaningful information is present. But we all know about retailing that it’s not about public service, it’s about profit. And if we’re the kind of people who can be enticed into buying a basket of sheep manure in Christmas wrapping for a mere $129 Canadian, well, you get the drift.

My brother ordered an EPP heraldic crest; what he got for his $10.00 was as phony as the Donald Trump Fact Society (DTFS). What somebody out there got was $10.00 minus the cost of a piece of xeroxed paper, a cheap envelope and a postage stamp. Sell this as a remedy for low self esteem to 10,000 people and you’ve made . . . well, you do the math.

We still put a lot of stock in the relative worth of racial, ethnic, religious, language and national origins. Yet none of these are predictors of our quality as creative, honourable, faithful, peace-loving human beings in a sea of other, almost-identical humans. Truth is, one can brag over coffee about being 20% Caucasian, 20% Native American, 20% Oriental and 40% genetically sprung from Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Thomas Edison, Florence Nightingale and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow . . . and still be a total jackass. 

It’s happened.

Or one can count Genghis Khan, marauding Huns and Joseph Stalin in ones genetic ancestry and still be the one who develops a cure for cancer while fighting AIDS in the jungles of England and writing romantic poems with lots of trees and birds in them, and constructed in perfect sonnet form.

Genetic DNA may well determine body build, appearance, propensity to be vulnerable to certain health issues, etc. I guess I'm more interested in spiritual DNA, cultural DNA, educational DNA, nutritional DNA, etc.; those precursors that actually make us what we are to our families, friends, community.  

(If you wish, I can advise you on better ways to flush away $129. Or if you can’t decide among the millions of “better ways,” send it to me and I’ll invest it for you. I could make you very, very rich and if not, $129 is no great loss . . .

. . . eh?)

Just hope you're never faced with something like, "I suspect your 17.5% Kurdish; your nose gives it away. Let me swab the inside of your cheek! It'll probably also tell me whether or not you are likely to become a terrorist!"

Monday, January 09, 2017

Let's put our flags down and talk.

Driftwood at Las Lajas

The Washington Times in March of 2016 reported on a speech President Obama gave to Argentinian students. In it,  he was basically making the point that the hard-line choice between capitalism or socialism need not be their only options when visualizing their future politic. He went on to say that under Castro’s communism, Cuba was able to realize good education and health care for all Cuba’s citizens, but that the same system proved unable to develop a decent, working economy. Similarly—although the capitalist market place economies have produced huge economic growth—modifications have had to be made in order to ensure that citizens benefit from these results.

His point was: look for choices that work in your place and time, and don’t be tied to an ideological allegiance to either extreme.

There is, of course, a large anti-Obama cohort in the USA and any number of websites use this speech and some references to a friend who voted for a communist candidate in college to allege that Obama is, in fact, a communist. (See and search “Obama is a communist” to access the gist of that discussion.) One irony is that the American constitution guarantees freedoms that would certainly allow anyone to legitimately hold to a political philosophy that is socialist and to campaign in that direction, so how can being a socialist automatically make one un-American? Similarly, the attempts to prove Obama to be a Muslim (as a condemnation) defy the same American constitution's guarantees of freedom of religion.

The notion that America is a capitalist, Christian place and must defend itself against any threat by other economic or religious alternatives is a delusion. Although the economies in North America largely operate on free market principles, the practice of providing health care at state expense, supporting child-raising with government subsidies, the provision of education at taxpayers’ cost, support of the poor through social welfare programs, all these fall under a “socialistic” rubric. Not to mention that governments regulate and tax corporations—the scope of marketplace freedom is not unlimited.

We live under mixed economies in North America—not capitalist, not socialist, but we have generally come to do what works for us in our time and place. That was exactly Obama’s point in his speech to the students. The USA leans more toward the capitalist extreme than Canada, but neither country can boast of being a bastion of either extreme position; we will continue to find the mix that works for us. Sweden leans more toward what’s sometimes called the ‘granny state’ than either of us. It seems to work for them.

One lesson history should have taught us is that attempts to impose either the pure capitalist or the pure socialist economies have always been disastrous. Both systems, when left unmodified, produce elites that either through political-party status or through the accumulation of obscene wealth produce ever- increasing inequality. Both systems unmodified produce an upper class and an underclass. Both systems tend to decay as inequality mounts: citizen participation decreases; cynicism and non-cooperation turns to active protest, even sabotage; citizens whose allegiances veer toward either the left or right turn on each other, blame each other for their perceived problems. In short, community and the community spirit seeps away until national goodwill is badly damaged or gone.

The Soviet Union breaks down, the Roman Empire collapses, Tiananmen Square protests are crushed, the 2008 economic crisis in the USA sees taxpayers blackmailed into rescuing irresponsible bankers, North American politics is polarized as never before, Greece and Spain verge on economic collapse, Brexit happens.

Latin America has had more than its share of right-wing dictators, doctrinaire communist dictators, bloody uprisings, foreign interference and failed coups. Obama was advocating that students put down any flag-waving, ideological biases and work together in negotiating what mix will work in their country at this time. It’s exactly what’s needed all over America; it’s the only approach with any real chance of long-term success.

Unless your definition of success is a full-scale, fight-to-the-death showdown in the OK Corral. That could be fun too.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Tanker, pipeline, tanker, etc.

I didn’t know until today that a major crude oil pipeline crosses Panama from the Pacific to the Carribean just south of where I’m writing this. Reading about the pipeline reminded me that a cross- mountain pipeline development (Kinder-Morgan) has been approved to increase capacity for transporting oil from Alberta to tidewater at Vancouver. When the pipeline here was completed in 1982, a road was built connecting the two oceans, a road we traveled a year ago to visit a friend in Bocas del Toro. I noticed then a large, white pipe exposed where it crossed ravines and rivers and buried—I presumed—where it didn’t. I took it to be an aquaduct.

Originally, the pipeline facilitated the transportation of crude from Valdez, Alaska to the Gulf Coast refineries in the USA. Up to 20 tankers a day carried the oil to the terminal on the Pacific side of Panama from where it was pumped across the isthmus and reloaded onto tankers at Bocas del Toro on the Carribean side. It makes for a mind-boggling potential for spills.

The Panama Canal has affected the practicality of the tanker/pipeline/tanker sequence for moving crude, but the pipeline has been adapted for forward/reverse shipment and still moves oil between the USA and Ecuador as well as from Venezuela to the Pacific

Back in 1982, scant attention was paid to environmental impact, and “PTP [Petroterminal de Panama S.A.] has applied little restraint in construction and operations of the pipeline with consideration to the environment. The pipeline project "was approved and completed in 1981–1982 before submission of an environmental impact assessment". ( The pipeline crosses the Panamanian Cordillera and both as a result of it and the road construction required to facilitate its construction and servicing, there’s been a marked disruption to delicate ecosystems, soil erosion, etc.

You can take a visual tour of the pipeline courtesy of Petroterminal de Panama S.A. by clicking here.