Thursday, August 27, 2020

Ghosts of the Purple Sage Riders


In the opening chapter of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, an independent, Mormon-raised rancher-woman is approached by an elder and a posse of 7 men to settle what to them is a major transgression. Jane has in her employ a “Gentile” cowpoke and they want him gone from Utah territory. He’s encouraged toward this end by threats of a severe beating and is tied up in preparation. i

And then, a lone rider on a magnificent black horse approaches, drawing everyone’s attention and delaying the process of doing away with the “Gentile” cowboy. It is, of course, Lassiter, magnificent in black leather and two low-slung holsters, stopping to water his horse. He’s humble, almost obsequious in his request, but only until he’s apprised of the situation and the dilemma of the Gentile. The story follows the general motif of the Western novel; the “bad guys” slink away in fear of the righteous gunslinger, a helpless vagrant is saved and a beautiful, rich young woman is vindicated.

It’s my opinion that what made Westerns so popular (Zane Grey was probably the first writer-millionaire in America) has echoed down the corridor of American history to emerge in 2016 in the election of another Lassiter to be president. The world of the “Wild West” was once characterized by violent crime, both organized and serendipitous, and justice was of the vigilante sort. Mormons, Indians, Mexicans, cattle rustlers took turns being the bad guys; the good guys longed for a Lassiter to protect them. With the coming of settlement and official, organized law enforcement and the marginalizing and subduing of the displaced Aboriginal population, the Wild West gave way to more orderly democracy and a new social contract. But the longings for real or imagined enemies, and the adulation for Lassiters to banish them lived on, vicariously through the popular novels and movies, literally in hibernation in the culture and politics of the country.

Lassiter is a hero in the novel even before anyone knows or cares if he passed or flunked grade school. He’s not wanted for his erudition, wisdom or broad knowledge; he’s wanted for the willingness and ability to do what he does: vanquish a gang of 8 bad guys, in a shoot-out if necessary.

Shooting from the hip has given way, of course, to shooting from the lip, but no matter; the effect is the same. In imagination and on social media, the Mormons, Indians, Mexicans, liberal-thinking left-wingers and the Chinese have been vanquished; humiliated, put to flight with their tails between their legs, the taunts of the messianic Lassiter ringing in their ears.

Supporting this return to a Wild West sentimentality, of course, are the workings of nostalgia, which often repaints the past through rose-coloured glasses. Tales like Riders of the Purple Sage are written as stories of heroism. Just as denominational Christianity can’t abide any suggestion of cracks in the armour of the Jesus Christ as they’ve each constructed him, so a Lassiter either has no faults, or more accurately, is followed by disciples unable to admit of any cracks. That’s the problem with heroes without character; with time, cracks enlarge to become gashes, gashes widen until disintegration is unavoidable. “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen famously sang to us. This too shall pass, once the light gets in.

The re-emerging longing for Wild West answers isn’t the only historic signpost to the present state of the Union. Slavery was wrested away from the south and a demographic of “good guys” formed, with the released slaves and “them damned Yankees” lumped together as the enemy. It would be naive to assume the biases of that era would not be passed down to the present; we see it now in the denigration of Confederate symbols on the Yankee side and their veneration on the other. No less significant were the brutally genocidal Indian Wars which, again, left an imprint on the soul and the mind of Americans and reinforced divisions. That the burden of memory regarding these three historical realities (the Wild West, emancipation of slaves, subjugation of Aboriginal populations) should linger in the unconscious of America to this very day is surprising only to those who don’t see how one generation sets the table for the next, that next generation for its successors, etc.

Progressives often attribute to ignorance, stupidity, simple-mindedness the pro-Trump movement’s dogged determination to support their Lassiter to the bitter end, regardless of what he does. The fact that the Trump camp has a similar opinion of the progressive half of America simply means that they’ve come to look at each other over a chasm across which the throwing of rocks and insults seems the only communication left to them. As in a spaghetti western, subtleties like social contracts, legalisms, manners, ethical principles become meaningless and the focus turns to a kind of gunfight in the OK Corral. The quick draw and the accurate, most deadly shot is all that matters when we get to this impasse.

There are reasons, of course, for the fact that the progressive-leaning population is a slow-draw, easily-gunned-down, easily caricatured cohort. Progressive politics and religion carry the burden of proposing novel ideas in answer to evolving issues; it’s easy to make sport with the unfamiliar. Conservative politics and religion rest on the past and most often on an assumption that, with effort, old solutions can be dragged into the present and the nostalgically-visualized past will return. In Riders of the Purple Sage, Chapter 1, Lassiter stymied the Mormons; today’s Lassiter will clean up the mess we find ourselves in. Who are seen as the Mormons, Indians, cattle thieves and Mexicans in today’s real-life novel? Take your pick of brown immigrants, Mexicans, a swamp of civil service ne’er-do-wells and the “socialist/communist hordes”—the task for Lassiter is almost too large to be accomplished without a huge cadre of sycophants kissing his holsters. The motto is not “Make America Great,” you will have noticed. It’s “Make America Great Again.” Let’s go forward by reversing, in other words.

What it boils down to in the end, is the arrival at a plausible, livable, new social contract. As defined in Britannica, a social contract is “an actual or hypothetical compact or agreement between the ruled and their rulers, defining the rights and duties of each.” In modern democracies, we would point to a constitution as an “actual” contract, the ethical codes held in common by the majority as “hypothetical” contracts. In a nation as large and diverse as the USA, there are bound to be groups and individuals who take exception to items in the “contract,” polygamy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints giving way to the ethic of monogamy in the national social contract, for instance. But every social contract is fluid; the monarchy in Great Britain has evolved through many bumps and reversals from a contract of absolute rule to representative democracy rule.

The USA today has hit upon a time when the social contract no longer works well, neither for citizens nor for governments. Pockets of population demand strict adherence to one item in the constitution (the gun lobby, for instance) while ignoring all countervailing items. The question of what in the office of president is lawful and what isn’t is under tense scrutiny. How the nation will reach “a renewed or hypothetical compact or agreement” is really what the current political turmoil is all about.

Oversimplified, there are at least these two ways of settling the contract renewal dilemma: 1) measured, patient negotiation in good faith or 2) the exercise of power such that the current rulers enforce a contract which matches their vision of what it ought to be. The Wild West image of making things happen looking down the barrel of a weapon has to be enticing because it’s fast, it answers the human need for conquest and it ends up with a contract—although lopsided—that favours the vision of the ones holding the guns. Compromise be damned.

Enter the Biden/Harris, Trump/Pence shootout at the OK Corral. I’m sure that by now the citizenry of the USA is gaining an awareness that no matter who wins the shootout, the social contract will remain in tatters. A nation that can’t find an agreed-to process to mend the contract will inevitably break apart and states, for instance, will promulgate a constitution with which they can live and break away from a nation and other states with whom they no longer feel at home. California comes to mind. An unlikely alternative to this is the separation referendum, of course, where the residents in the state weigh the pros and cons of separation and the result forms a component of the contract going forward. Referenda in Quebec, in Scotland and Brexit itself clarified the populations wish regarding creating a new contract or holding their noses and living with the old. That can only work if the prevailing social contract includes the sovereignty of a majority vote.

The election of the current president in 2016 signaled the emergence of a renewed Wild West mentality. The building of the wall, the getting tough with China, the tearing up of trade deals, the insulting of democratic presidents and prime ministers along with the praise for dictators were early signals that tiresome negotiation would not be America’s immediate future. Say what we want—and many a pundit has—that despite the president’s colossal ignorance on any details beyond the obvious in foreign affairs, domestic affairs and, well, pretty much everything, the fact remains that he is the most powerful force in whatever happens to the quest for a renewed social contract, and that he has so managed to dominate the news that his following numbers in the tens of millions. He is their Lassiter.

I haven’t finished reading Riders of the Purple Sage and I’m not sure I will. Grey has written some remarkable passages describing the countryside, the ambiance of sage brush country. His characterization of anything that is deeply human borders on the absurd, though, not totally unlike Trump’s characterizations of anyone who doesn’t support him, mimicking the uncontrolled movements of a citizen with cerebral palsy, for instance. The Wild West approach requires that empathy be dampened down, and if you never had any, well, bonus.

And here’s another kicker. Peace is boring. Negotiating, conversation, dialogue are boring. Patience is boring. Nothing beats either the gunfight or the tongue fight to raise one’s heart rate, to excite the mind and to offer at the end the reward of conquest. (Except, possibly, the Roughriders kicking the s**t out of the Stampeders!) If humanity is to evolve, finally, in the direction of Kingdom of peace and justice, triumphalist power and its application will always be that which seeks to undo every forward step. All the way up to and including the soldier shot through the throat and dying in the mud of a battlefield, it seems so many of us believe that old lie, Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori. It is sweet and honourable (some translate it proper) to die for one’s country.

One of the greatest “Mennonite” sermons was written as a poem during WWI when Wilfred Owen (who likely never darkened an Anabaptist church door) penned Dulce et decorum est. Owen was discharged to hospital with severe PTSD in 1917 and died at 25 in 1918, just one more victim of the great lie about which he wrote. I’d urge re-reading it at:

Happy Trails to You!

i  I confess that I don’t know much about relations among Mormon settlers and non-Mormons in Utah at the time in which Riders of the Purple Sage is set. Certainly their characterization in the novel is startling when we compare it to what is today The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Friday, July 17, 2020

You're free to say anything, anywhere . . ..

(Preamble: As is usual, my posts reflect an opinion, hopefully with credible support. I relish debate, discussion on anything I write about so don’t hesitate to pose another viewpoint either by commenting on the post or emailing me at

On Mackinac Bridge, January, 2016

Let’s begin with the obvious: physically, anyone can say anything he/she wants, wherever and whenever the mood and incentive present. Senate page, Brigette Marcelle, can whip out a “Stop Harper” placard during the throne speech and parade it in front of the then-prime minister. We are free to stand in front of the Post Office locally and assail patrons with a religious or political message. If we have the nerve, no one will stop us from standing up in church and denouncing the pastor mid-sermon.
    The issue so much in the news these days is not free speech, really, it’s the effects and consequences of speech, period. A letter in Harper’s Magazine over the signatures of 150 “names of note” posited that we’re too “illiberal” in the consequences we mete out for the expression of unpopular opinions. (Columnist/author Malcolm Gladwell signed, but tweeted that he signed it because he disagreed with the views of some other signatories and wasn’t his right to do so exactly what the letter was about?
    Many a professor or teacher has lost his/her job for promulgating unpopular opinions—like the Holocaust never happening, or that aids is a homosexual disease—and I daresay that to teach that socialism is the economy of the future would in most any American university right now signal time to update one’s resume. That’s not an equivalent case to a brother-in-law praising Trump at a family gathering. Call it free speech or whatever, there are substantial gradations in the offense speech delivers and the consequences that apply . . . that should or shouldn’t apply.
    If I hold an unpopular opinion, the expression of it in my community comes down to a personal judgment, including the weighing of consequences. I think we all assume that the world would be better if others would see sense and adopt our opinions, whether we’re with the majority or the minority. Holding a minority opinion will always be the weaker position, and so consequences for expressing a given opinion (especially on matters of far-reaching consequences) will always seem harsh simply because dissenters will be louder, more numerous, often by far. And so, the cry for having the right to express minority opinions generally comes off as the complaints of “victims,” which fact doesn’t consider that the right to express an opinion and to express opposition to that opinion are equal rights or are no rights at all.
    Given the right circumstances, most of us can be deluded into thinking that “sticks and stones may break [one’s] bones, but words can never hurt [one].” Indeed, the assault rifle probably pales in its ability to do harm when compared to the tongue. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” primarily because it can lead to war or avert it while the sword can only deal with the consequences of diplomatic failure.
    Our words support discrimination or they alleviate it; our words can encourage hope, or promote despair; our words build people up or tear them down; and if current social media are the yardsticks, can bring out the loving best in us or encourage the hate-filled worst.
    A recent social media post claimed that the Holocaust had nothing to do with racism, but rather that the NAZIs assumed Jews would leak government plans to the enemy and the concentration camps were set up to prevent that. Are the people promulgating this opinion to be protected from criticism on the basis of their right to “free speech?” Or if a person expressing such opinions is invited to address university students on the Holocaust, should “free speech” protect that person from protests by students? Certainly not, and not anymore than would constitutional protection for exercising “the right to set fire to things.”
    If speech ceases to merit consequences, then ignorance and erudition become equals. Harm or benefit should set the benchmarks for the acceptability of public utterance. Our nation, our provinces, our municipalities, our communities are given stability by what we often call “a social contract.” Speech—just like actions—shouldn’t be allowed to diminish the value a stable social contract renders to us as individuals. The attack on democracy we see happening south of the border can certainly be blamed—in part, at least—on a carelessness with truth modeled in the declarations and tweets of the president, granting license for all kinds of divisive rhetoric in the fringes of the nation by his example. 
    To declare that white supremacist or racial slurs are guarded by the constitutional right to free speech is a non sequitur. Diminishing a person’s self-confidence, tarnishing a reputation by whatever means, lessening a group’s chances of achieving equality in the nation, these are crimes and speech is often the weapon of choice.

    Perhaps something needs to be said as well about that kind of positively-approached jousting of opinions by which communities work their way to a decision during times of controversy, particularly.
    We may underestimate the significance of our elections, for instance, which are peaceful, and the results of which are accepted without rancour or rebellion. We do have courteous (for the most part) habits to inform us.

Something is wrong in a family or community if certain subjects become taboo, or if legitimate but differing opinions are stifled in the public forum. Granted, to have the self-confidence to state and defend a minority opinion, even where there is an existing commitment to unity, can be wrenching; the first order of business must always be the determination to extend a fair hearing to every individual. Communities have too often so neglected the arts of dialogue that minority views feel too threatened to give voice to their stances. If it applies anywhere, then surely this is a place and situation where “free speech” should make sense.
    Nevertheless, where pronouncements tend to undermine the social or community contract, the penalties ought to be commensurate with the potential damage in order to be just. A teacher indoctrinating vulnerable students with a revisionist history hasn’t—probably—broken any bones, but is the damage less than would be the actual breaking of an arm or leg? Is it OK to wave an “All Lives Matter” placard at “Black Lives Matter” demonstrators? If discrimination against black persons is a problem, and if the demonstration is an effort to persuade the public to accept changes that would alleviate the problem, then efforts to water down the movement’s message with such speech—even though reasonable generally—may be no less criminal than driving a car into the demonstration. This is not free speech; this is psychological, political arson.
    By now, there is far too much hurtful, harmful speech being propagated to allow us even the dream of a just and honourable social contract, at least in the internet forums. I’ve tried to engage in a number of conversations online that fall into the “COVID 19 as political hoax,” category as courteously as I’m able, hoping in my small way to—I guess—impose my “Canadian Christian Social Democratic Vision” on the hard-line, me-first-and-only dialogue. What I realized early on is that opinions on both sides are driven less by truth-seeking than by partisan loyalty. (Except in my case, of course!)

What we’ve agreed to in Western democracies is that majority opinions prevail, and that they’re expressed meaningfully through the ballot box and their legitimacy is honoured. It’s the heart of representative democracy.
    Perhaps, strengthening the significance of that combined with better liberal arts education is where our hopes for the future will lie.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Does your left wing know what your right wing is doing, or are you not a bird? An airplane?

By now I think most of us are pretty tired of the terms lefties and righties—or versions thereof—being hurled about as pejoratives. The terms don’t define anything that actually exists and even if a given person tends to side with liberal views and policies while a neighbour tends more toward conservative values, that doesn’t justify the labeling that’s becoming so strident in the West, for instance.

Right-wing worldview has come to mean something like a preference for keeping things as they are because they’re working. Its focus is individualistic; it favours self-reliance over social benefit, strict property rights, and as a result, isn’t keen on income equality, preferential hiring for minorities, feminism and/or any program that hands tax money over to the needy who should “just get over it, get a job, get off their asses.”

Left-wing worldview sees a role for government in ensuring the well-being of all citizens and
tend to be sympathetic toward universal health care, subsidized housing & daycare, social welfare and food banks. In North America, this doesn’t equate to socialism, particularly the kind we see in Venezuela, the former Soviet Union, China or North Korea. The fringes I’ll mention later tend to attach words like communist, or fascist to augment their vacuous pronouncements.

According to Jordan Peterson and others, the “leftie” viewpoint and the “rightie” worldview are necessary as checks against a politic that can swing too far toward the total nanny state on the one hand or a dictatorship/police state on the other. It’s when people with differing viewpoints lose the ability to dialogue productively and see each other as teams that must be defeated that the balancing breaks down and reasonable policy becomes difficult to negotiate.

We have plenty of examples to guide us in assessing where we are in keeping Canada in balance. The Russian Revolution swung so heavily toward the nanny state side that it destroyed itself and millions of its citizens with the excesses that followed. Latin American countries (Nicaragua, Columbia, Venezuela, for instance) have swung so sharply from one extreme to the other that citizens have been left to duck and run or die, time and again. Their balance systems have been known to fail . . . to put it graciously.

And let’s face it: in Canada today we’ve chosen a mixed economy and multi-culturalism, both of which are negotiated and balanced stances between extremes. What this means is that we have left wing and right wing-style commerce going on side by side, smoothly and productively. Most Canadians are conservative on preserving/ “conserving” the environment, liberal (actually, socialist) on healthcare. Phone, gas and hydro service in Saskatchewan are state-owned, potash mines are free enterprise. These few examples illustrate the frustrating and unnecessary dividing into hostile camps (NDP voters are lefties, CPU voters and Saskatchewan Party voters are righties.) What exactly is this labeling supposed to achieve? Except, if one of our great desires is for peace, another thing we are itching to have is a fight (this irony I witness in myself, time and again). And for fighting, name-calling, ridiculing you need sides. And these sides need derogatory names that can fit on a placard.

One might think that a test of our “balance” could be had from the way we have dealt with, for instance, gun ownership, or Medical Assistance in Dying, or gay marriage, or drug regulation. Typically, we have felt our way over time toward a position with which the majority can live. Liberals start a gun registry, Conservatives abolish it. Liberals ban classes of weapons, Conservatives cry foul. It’s a nation of social-leaners, capitalist-leaners and a mass of voters indifferent on the subject clumsily negotiating their way to a compromise. Liberalism may bring in assisted dying legislation; Conservatives are there to ensure that it doesn’t escalate to extremes. And vise versa, of course.

For reasons wise people could probably explain to me, our politics hasn’t capitalized on cooperative legislating and decision making. Take right now in this minority parliament during a pandemic when collaboration ought to be so very obvious an approach. What we have instead is decisions made for us in cabinet, opposition parties scrambling to find messages that denigrate the Liberal’s plans and processes when it would make good sense to govern in a “committee of the whole” manner, with all the ideas and all the “safeguarding” voices in one room.

Here’s a thought. What would change if in that debating phase of governance we call parliament, legislators would draw lots for seating in the chamber? It strikes me that at present—with government and opposition members ranged like battalions across a no-man’s land as if in preparation for medieval battling—the very configuration militates against productive dialogue and the necessary give and take when important matters are being negotiated. You’re much less likely to jeer an opposition member if he/she is sitting right beside you and you’ve been chatting about your respective grandchildren while waiting for question period to start.

The upshot of “us vs. them” politics is written all over the news coming from the USA. Divisive leftie/rightie rhetoric seeded into the general population will, I think, always produce hardened fringes that don’t even need to know what the issues are, that bond with others to form an antagonistic “club” identifiable as the extreme version of whatever ideology gave them birth. A problem is that democracies know intuitively that the extremes aren’t what they want, but the Skin Heads, the Antifas, white supremacists, the Tea Party, the gun lobbies, etc., tend to suck up all the oxygen available to journalism, dominating our news and encouraging us to think that we’re headed toward one or the other hell.

Some would say that “it’s just human nature,” or that “this is as good as it gets,” neither of which give us much hope for a future in which we’re eager to participate.

Being Canadian, I’m obviously most concerned with how we as a nation will launch ourselves into the future, particularly now in the light of the pandemic, the decimated economy, the changes happening in our southern neigbour and climate change. Perhaps this column falls into the category of the old man who plants trees, knowing he’ll never live to enjoy their shade, although the temptation is to hunker down and make the best of the good things this country has allowed me . . . and to hell with politics. But I’m also a history buff and through much reading have discovered how extensively one generation sets the table for the next generation . . . and the next . . ..

We must not let the line between imagined camps grow darker and wider as is the tactic of an incompetent US president. How to erase this barrier is the challenge before us. To this end, I have two suggestions: 1) do away with the party system in provincial politics and run our provincial government the way municipalities are run. (Side note: Toronto has 2.5 times the population of all Saskatchewan), and 2) have members of parliament choose their seat in the chamber by lot, not by party.

Would that be a start? I think so. If you’d like to dialogue with me on this or any other topic, my email address is

Monday, June 15, 2020

To reconcile what has become divided

Seems to me we need to do some serious thinking on the topic of racism, beginning with recognizing that it exists on two levels: the personal and the corporate.

A story: The Nepalese Gurkhas gained renown as mercenary fighting units for mainly the British in India. After Indian Independence in 1947, they were given the choice of serving in the Indian or British Army. A minority chose the Indian army and served on the Indian sub-continent, but were always looked down on (personal racism) as the dirty Nepalese and were paid poorly compared to Indian soldiers. When Gurkha soldiers retired from soldiering, they received no support from India, were disallowed from owning property (corporate racism) and were basically persona non grata in their neighbourhoods.

Not identical to--but showing similarities to the situation of the descendants of slaves in the Americas and Indigenous populations in the USA, Canada and elsewhere--Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss has a wonderful description of what can go on in the consciousness of a member of a visible minority when events like the killing of George Floyd happen. This is about Gyan, an underemployed, underpaid Nepalese inhabitant of India as he joins with an insurgent movement:

"For a moment all the different pretenses he had indulged in, the shames he had suffered, the future that wouldn’t accept him—all these things joined together to form a single truth.

"The men sat [in the canteen] unbedding their rage, learning, as everyone does in this country, at one time or another, that old hatreds are endlessly retrievable.

"And when they had disinterred it, they found the hate pure, purer than it could ever have been before, because the grief of the past was gone. Just the fury remained, distilled, liberating. It was theirs by birthright, it could take them so high, it was a drug. They sat feeling elevated, there on the narrow wood benches, stamping their cold feet on the earth floor."

Like Paul to Timothy, we are urged to “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” What do we need to learn here? 

Obviously, looking at a visible minority member from the outside will differ from his/her view from the inside. Can we get a faithful perspective without hearing from the police, the indigenous people and people of colour? Not easy in a time of pandemic.

To declare that we are not individually racist (personal) may not be enough, may not even be important, but where corporate racism continues to exist, we can be sure that personal discrimination and racism may well follow. And from places like India, Columbia, USA, Canada, Nicaragua, Russia, France, Germany, Great Britain, China/Hong Kong, etc., we should have learned by now that where corporate discrimination persists, violence often follows.

These are surely times for churches to give at least some of their energy to the breaking down of corporate and personal prejudice and racism. What might that mean in your church, in mine? We dare not declare ourselves in solidarity with a side, neither that of the protesters nor the justice establishment; our calling is to make peace, to do our bit to reconcile what has become divided, to offer ideas for change that might accomplish at least some of what would make for a better world. 

Our solidarity is with all who share the planet.

Perhaps that’s what we need to “study.” Eh? for comments. 

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Defund the Police? What?


“Defund the Police,” strikes me as yet another slogan to accompany “Black Lives Matter,” “I Can’t Breathe,” and so on. A new thing to fit on a waving placard and for me, a good reason to pause and think again about the role and practice of law enforcement as we find it today.

Take our experience of the mass killing in Nova Scotia recently, the skepticism about police actions in that event, questions about whether or not it could have been prevented and the subsequent attempts by the RCMP to justify its actions. And given the way we currently deal with violence and crime, and given that the perpetrator always has a huge advantage over enforcement, the reasons and excuses for the tardy apprehension of the perpetrator may well be valid.

And I think about the role of policing in the demonstrations/riots currently going on full bore in the USA, triggered by the police murder of George Floyd and the ongoing attempts by police to find their way out of charges of endemic racist practices in their ranks. We’re familiar with the scenes of battalions of robot-like, Darth Vader-like riot police in full conflict gear descending on demonstrators as if this were a face-off between two teams, one angry and unarmed, the other equipped like a military force with lethal weapons. From the president, meanwhile, a tunnel-vision preoccupation with brute force as the solution to every conflict.

I think it’s reasonable to say that our policing is primarily engaged in apprehending and punishing breakers of the law. There is a preventative aspect to that, of course: you can’t rob a bank from a jail cell. But on the whole, we’re putting a great deal more tax money into cleaning up after deviance than we are spending on preventing it in the first place. Perhaps this is what “Defund the Police” is all about; reducing the budget to policing and diverting it instead to social services, schools and wholesome recreation for youth. Poverty, discrimination, racism and the ennui of “nothing to do” are all like petri dishes for the culture of anger and deviance. Why not reinvest scarce dollars into preventative facilities?

I’m not well versed in the training of the police, I admit. What I’ve gleaned, though, is that a similarity to military training can’t be ignored. I’ve seen prospective Mounties marching in crisp uniforms and in strict formation in Regina. There’s weapons training, self defense practice and, of course, enough law and human rights indoctrination to prevent abuse. In part, it’s reasonable. It strikes me that police being summoned, for instance, to a weapons incident would be deathly afraid for their own lives given the history of so many of their fellows dying in service. But as surely as the parameters of medical practice, for instance, are bound and governed by the social contract we’ve agreed to as citizens, so our policing has always responded to what the public demands.

Perhaps citizens are beginning to change their minds on what policing shall look like in the future, their clues coming from the news of the Nova Scotia massacre, the “lynching” of George Floyd and myriad stories of guns, gangs, shoot-outs and mayhem in the streets of our towns and cities. Too often, police involvement has made conflicts worse, even when officers and constables are decent, compassionate people. Fear for our lives changes how we react to the world around us.

So often, families of people who’ve died while being “policed” have cried out for justice. Unfortunately the justice they are calling for isn’t justice at all, it’s retribution akin to “an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The justice that the Old Testament prophets, that Jesus Christ cried out for is something else: it’s in righteous and compassionate dealings in all aspects of society, evenly and mercifully distributed to every child of creation so that all can rest in the good will of their neighbours.

The adult in us is shaped by the experiences of our childhood and adolescence. Perhaps it makes a lot of sense to put our dollars into a better school for every child; more and better-trained teachers; a universal guaranteed income plan; engaging recreation, music and arts opportunities everywhere children are growing up; fabulous, universal daycare.

And finally, determining together to pursue a real and forward-looking plan to eliminate every injustice that ends up necessitating retributive policing. A country without guns, because, “Why the hell would I need one, stupid?”

And, putting our money where our mouths are, eh?

Thursday, May 28, 2020

COVID 19: The possible and the probable.

Spire of Metropolitan Cathedral, Casco Viejo, Panama City

"Though a good deal is too strange to be believed, nothing is too strange to have happened." ~ Thomas Hardy in Notebook, 1871.

Somewhere around 1982, we decided to spend Christmas in Victoria B.C. And because we’d be away for a few weeks, we asked a daughter of friends to nip into our apartment in Thompson, Manitoba a few times to water our houseplants. In Victoria, we became bored and decided to take the ferry to Vancouver for a few days. We stopped in at a mall—quite at random—and at lunch time, wandered up to a cafeteria on the second floor where a queue had formed. Before us was a young couple and at some point the girl turned around, and it was the girl we’d commissioned to look after our plants back in Thompson, some 2,000 Km away!

Thomas Hardy was right; there’s nothing so bizarre or unbelievable that it could never happen. In fact, given the infinity of space, the enormity of the numbers of galaxies, stars and planets, the eternity of time, the likelihood of even the strangest, most unbelievable event not happening somewhere even now would be the oddity. That is, unless in all this universe the accident of planet earth being the only one among gazillions to have the right conditions for life turns out to be a fact. But how likely is that?

An old adage says that if you put enough monkeys in a room with enough typewriters, they will eventually write the Bible, simply by their random pecking at keys. The use of enough makes this a tautology; if no Bible has been written, it’s because they haven’t been given enough time. Is this literally true? Or is it just a way of illustrating 1) the randomness of the universe, and/or 2) the lack of constraints on what shape probability will take. If you roll a die 1000 times you’d likely bet that the number of times each number turns up would be about the same. But if you roll one die 6 times, it’s not only possible but not unusual to have the 6-side come up all 6 times.

It will happen eventually, only because it’s possible.

The odds against winning a lottery are, they say, slimmer than the odds of being struck by lightening. Yet someone always wins. And even the man who goes out in a thunderstorm thinking the odds favour his safe return will eventually be struck by lightning if he persists in this behaviour. Or not. It’s not probable but it is possible that he’ll never be struck by lightning but that his neighbour who stays indoors during storms is victimized by lightning . . . multiple times!

Bizarre and unexpected as they may be, things don’t happen or not happen because of probability; they happen because of possibility. The events we consider bizarre, even miraculous by the odds, happen all the time. When they do, it’s easy for us to postulate a guiding hand . . . how else could something so unlikely happen?

When we do something—or avoid doing something—on the strength of probability or improbability, we’re gambling; we do it all the time. We get into a car and drive to the city because we know that statistically, for every 10,000 or so cars making that trip, very few end up in a crash. But my car crashing on this trip is possible and friends hearing of my misfortune—should it happen—would be shocked, but probably not surprised.

Everything we need to know about cause and effect, probability and possibility, degrees of risk can, of course, be learned by paying attention in Math class, or by thinking deeply about the COVID 19 pandemic and people’s and governments’ reactions to it. To this point, it’s become clear that the possibility of becoming infected exists world-wide. The probability varies according to a number of factors including the ability/non-ability to survive in relative isolation. So far, the most common approach has been to lower the probability by reducing human contact and possible transmission of the virus. Cases documented have shown that even when probability is muscled down to near zero, the possibility can’t be ignored; a man related that his bout of COVID 19 infection could only be traced—as far as he could tell—to the touching of a doorknob. It was possible. It happened.

As we attempt to normalize our world again, we’re called upon as individuals to assess our risk of becoming vectors for the virus. Every unguarded human-to-human contact contains the possibility of setting off a geometrically-spreading chain of infection. Indeed, that’s the only modus operandi of the COVID 19 spread as far as we know. People will undoubtedly respond differently. Some will see the loosening of guidelines for gatherings as a signal that the storm has passed and its business as usual again. Some will continue to isolate until they’re satisfied that the probability of infection is so low that caution no longer makes sense. The majority, I think, will vacillate, alternating between mask wearing and not wearing, for instance, thereby opening the possibility and the probability doors wider than necessary.

Apparently we assess risk differently; as I write this, New Brunswick—a province that was on the verge of being COVID 19 free—went back into social distancing mode because a doctor had traveled to Quebec, returned and continued treating patients, bringing upwards of 100 people into contact with the virus he’d picked up in Quebec. Not only did he break cross-border, isolation-after-travel protocols, but he suspended his professional judgment and banked on the low probability of catching COVID 19 . . . and ended up playing Russian roulette with the health of many.

To make a province and finally the country free of COVID 19, we must make our decisions on the basis of what’s possible, not what’s probable. If necessary, those too uninformed or too defiant to stay with the prevention program may well have to be subjected to severe penalties. Come to think of it, the New Brunswick doctor might well be subject to a charge of criminal negligence and/or criminal negligence causing death depending on the consequences of his error. But what about the person breaking protocols without any harm done? Would that be like getting a ticket for speeding in a school zone even if you didn’t hit a child?

The risks with COVID 19 are not like the risk one takes when setting out in a boat on a stormy day. With the virus, any risk I take imposes a risk on anyone with whom I have contact. That alone must give me pause before I leave my mask at home and say, “Jeez, it’ll never happen.”

“Nothing is too strange to have happened,” Hardy wrote.

"When there's a professional in the house, don't go to your horse for advice."

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Parallelograms and Taxes

Spring - Nadine Ens
“I’m glad I studied parallelograms in high school rather than how to do my taxes; it’s really handy at parallelogram time!”

Aphorisms like the one above have been floating around in increasing numbers on social media. There are a couple of problems with declarations of, “Why waste my time in school studying things I don’t use when I’m out there making a life, a family, a career?” One is obvious: there is no reason why a person of average intelligence (as most of us are) can’t become proficient at both taxes and parallelograms. Secondly, taxes are a complex issue and learning how to fill out the income tax declaration so it’s acceptable to Revenue Canada doesn’t guarantee an understanding of how our governments collect and spend citizens’ dollars, doesn’t guarantee that we will be knowledgeable about the huge picture of how citizens cooperate to run a nation successfully. Doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be voters any democracy would be proud of.

Meanwhile, parallelograms are just a small, almost insignificant part of Mathematics and Geometry, and Mathematics and Geometry can provide basic understandings of how the universe works, understandings that were necessary for the invention of everything from the wheel to the silicon chip. True, people who do understand wheels and silicon chips will make a computer for me that I can use, but our future as a civilization depends on how our knowledge and inventiveness is applied. We learned to harness nuclear energy . . . and made with that knowledge a bomb that can kill thousands in a single event. Our children and grandchildren’s happiness depends on our understanding of the predictable consequences of climate change and a host of other issues.

Anatomically, learning is the creation of brain pathways that facilitate thinking and/or that facilitate physical action, like playing a chord on a guitar or mixing different paints to achieve a certain colour, or filling out a tax form while contemplating the meaning of Schroedinger’s cat experiment. The number of pathways that can be created is unlimited; studying parallelograms doesn’t interfere with learning how to fill out a tax form. Children who live in a two-language environment can become fluent in both before they even start school.

For me, a good analogy for understanding learning is music. We appear to be born with a pathway that recognizes rhythm, certainly, and harmony, possibly. But to play the piano, numerous additional pathways must be created, and the pathway that allows the brain and body to cooperate in identifying C# on paper and playing it on the keyboard, I’m told, requires an average of seventy repetitions before it becomes a permanent pathway. You can easily imagine how many brain pathways are required, for instance, to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Opus 30. You might think that to play this, Alexander Malofeev could have done nothing but practice every day, all day. True, he practiced a lot, spent a lot of time with teachers. But learning his level of skill on the piano certainly didn’t prevent him from learning to fill out a tax form, to appreciate the applications of the parallelogram in mechanical applications.

The brain, we’ve learned, has amazing capacities so that if its potential were to be measured in gigabytes, it would exceed the largest computer we’ve invented. I can’t imagine that anyone claiming that learning only a few pathways necessary for mundane survival is doing it justice. For believers, the argument might go like this: “Why would God have given us such capability except as a gift to be used, to be enjoyed, to be inventive, to be happy.”

Renaissance Man is a humanist doctrine that says, according to Britannica: “[man is] limitless in his capacities for development . . . and . . . should try to embrace all knowledge and develop [his] own capacity as fully as possible.” Leonardo da Vinci, painter, inventor, mathematician, humanist is held up as the hallmark of the Renaissance spirit, of course.

It’s too easy to point at schools’ failure to educate our children in all the pathways that the complex life to come will require of them. We are all implicated. The broadening of our capacity—as Britannica puts it—is a life-long, exciting endeavour. Adults who model curiosity and exploration to children need not be in the education business. To expect teachers to make up for parents who themselves dropped out of the learning, exploring, practicing mentality is to ask too much of them.

So what causes us to mount this attack on broad, liberal education? Is it our belief that to secure a good occupation with good pay is all that’s necessary for our sense of worth, our happiness? Is it sheer laziness that creates in us a dominant brain pathway that responds primarily to entertainment and physical pleasure? Or is it that we live in a culture and economy that benefits from an ignorant-and-so-gullible population?

I asked a person aged around 20 a while ago what would be the best way for a museum curator to communicate with her generation. “Not facebook or posters or announcements in newspapers,” was her answer: “Instagram, Snap-chat; a striking picture with not more than one sentence.” Her opinion, apparently, was that the days of “reading stuff” was over, that attention would now be paid primarily to rapid-fire, ever-changing visual stimuli. It’s scary. Think about it. The wisdom of the ages stored in books sent to recycling in favour of the mental masturbation of flashing stimuli on a screen.

That sounds harsh, but far more important even than the spouting of badly framed, almost incoherent opinions on climate change, for instance, is the language competence with which we debate and come to agreement on important issues that affect us all. Young people are graduating from our institutions without the ability to frame a coherent, logical argument, spoken or in writing. Challenging enough for many is the constructing of an intelligible sentence. There are so many essential brain pathways that aren’t developing because, in part at least, smart phones and computers have duped us into thinking that reading and writing, thinking and debating are as redundant as the knowledge of parallelograms.

Akin to the aphorism with which I began this diatribe is a current meme that says, in effect, “My ignorance is worth just as much as your knowledge,” a viewpoint supported by the fact that the one who knows lots and the one who knows nothing each get one vote. In the end, democracy lives or dies by the wisdom of the individuals who cast ballots.

So, what am I really urging here? Nothing more than that we be life-long learners, and that we share a curiosity and an attitude of exploration with our children. When in his seventies, my father-in-law expressed a thought that he would go back to university—if only he was younger. “I’d be eighty when I graduated!” My wife’s comment to him was, “Well, how old will you be in four years if you don’t go?”

Some suggestions:
  1. Think about brain-health as much as about physical health. Read this article on Alzheimer’s prevention.
  2. Study and learn another language; use the free DuoLingo or the cheap Babel or take a class.
  3. Get back to reading books, even if it’s slow going and you sometimes need a dictionary at your elbow. Take notes as you go.
  4. Walk 6,000 steps a day if you can.
  5. Take a course on a subject on which you’ve never concentrated before. Athabasca University is only one source you might peruse.
  6. Volunteer in your local school; take note of how education is done “these days.”
  7. Correspond with a friend as a way of exploring issues, by email can work.
  8. Cut down TV time to make room for reading and study.
  9. Eat more fish.
  10. Learn a word a day . . . and use it seventy times.
  11. Join or form a book club.
  12. Get a library card and go there often.
  13. Actually read political party platforms.
  14. Buy a ukelele or a recorder and learn to play it.
  15. Visits museums and galleries and engage with what’s on display.
  16. Learn the difference among parallelograms, trapezoids, rhombuses, isosceles and equilateral triangles . . . just for fun!
  17. Above all, challenge yourself! Think “I should try to embrace all knowledge and develop my own capacity as fully as possible.”