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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Saturday 21 July 2012

One Hand

      When one hand claps
      It brushes against the world;
      If your thoughts are still and your mind open,
      You can even hear the silence.

Friday 20 July 2012

It's Like History, Only In Reverse

It's an interesting way of looking at it that we haven't really considered.  Every home a castle, every person a lord, everyone armed - for protection.  People have a right to safety, after all; we gotta be able to keep the threats at bay.

What about when guns run out of bullets, though?  For security, you should be able to have a back-up weapon on hand.  Swords work well.  That, plus expand your territory to keep the bad guys out.  Maybe hire a few security guards to keep the peace.  Oh, and export potential bad guys.  If they put up a fight, you just have to make sure you've got the better weapon.

It's like history, only in reverse.

No wonder Game of Thrones is so popular these days.

Puzzling Behaviour

See if we can connect the dots between:

  - A gut-instinct that makes one feel like apocalyptic closure is inevitable.

  - A single-minded focus on individual interests.

  - The urge to model behaviours we see as empowering to our inner inclinations (mafiosos copying the
    Godfather, shooters dressing up as Bane, Kick-Ass, any kid that plays make-believe)

  - A lack of in-depth consideration of broader consequence, to ourselves or others.

  - An inconsiderate amount of attention being paid to risk.

  - Violence.

There's a puzzle here that isn't too hard to put together; we just have to be conscious in doing so.  Like any 3D puzzle it's easiest to start with the pieces at the centre.  Where does behaviour originate?

It Begins with Denial

I started writing this yesterday while thinking about the shootings near where I used to live.  I lost the thread and began to write something else.

Today, in the wake of the Colorado shooting, it's fresh in my mind.  We're in the denial stage right now; it's government and regulation that's the problem, nothing innate within ourselves.

Man, we're in for a rude awakening.

It's 2001 and I'm sitting in a living room in Zagreb, Croatia, listening to a couple of listening to a Croatian couple I've met tell me about living through war.

Both were students when the violence was escalating; they did their homework, thought about dating, played games. These Croatians are emphatic on the point that they were normal kids, just like anyone else - they just wanted to enjoy life and prepare for the world of work. War, they said, came to their lives the way it comes to the lives of Canadian boys and girls - through the news. First, they told themselves it wasn't that bad, people were exaggerating. As the violence drew closer to their town, they started to grow concerned but comforted themselves by saying, "it's over there, it doesn't effect me, I don't have to worry." They kept calm and carried on.

When the violence came to city, the calmness gained a tint of panic, but still they refused to accept that anything in their lives would change; the war was in a different neighbourhood. Then, it was on a different street. It wasn't until a bomb blast shattered their dining room window while they were doing homework that they were forced to accept that the war had engulfed them as well. Once it did, everything changed. After the denial subsided, they changed.

What We Write About When We Can't Write About Anything Else (The Atlantic Wire)

AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez
Jen Doll 12:45 PM ET
When something like this happens, what happened in Colorado, the meaningless shooting of theater full of people there to do the simplest of things—watch a movie, be entertained, things we take for granted we will be safe and relatively comfortable doing for a couple of hours in the dark, among strangers—it's hard to know how to react, on the Internet or off of it. It all feels bleak, and so we start reaching for answers or for some way to feel a little bit less desperate and despairing. We read as much as we can, to find out what we know, but it's a breaking news story so what we know changes from moment to moment as facts are collected and dismissed, as new voices emerge to add to the chorus of information and disinformation.

As people on the Internet and as writers, of course, writers on the Internet especially, we're used to this ... we've seen how these things go. Sometimes we think we've gotten so cynical and jaded that nothing can affect us anymore, nothing can truly shock us. But something always can.

After we search for information and try to clarify the facts, we have to weigh in. There's a twisted thing happening, which involves us scanning and reporting and reiterating the news as a service and also trying to find new "ways in," because this is our job; our job is, in a tragedy as well as in happier times, about getting people to read what we say. That makes us feel a little ill always, but especially now. We justify this by thinking that in the wake of a tragedy—and I'm not sure we should call it that, it's a tragedy, yes, for the families of victims and for the victims, and tragic for the family of James Holmes, the 24-year-old who did the killing. But this was a willful act, not an accident, this was murder, this was a form of terrorism; he terrorized those people and he terrorizes us, too, in the images we see of bloody shirts and cell-phone videos of carnage and in our own imaginations of the horror. So, in the wake of this thing, we also reach for the stories that need to be told.

What "needs" to be told varies drastically in the eye of the beholder.

It might be a story about how we politicize events like this, so quickly, how politicians are keen to turn them to talk about what they want to talk about, to bolster their side. We do this too, of course. Gun control laws should be more stringent. Or, on the converse side, gun control laws should be less so, so that more people can carry guns to (allegedly) protect themselves. Or we talk about how this might impact the movie's bottom line (oof); or about a woman who was killed, a journalist herself, who recently narrowly escaped being involved in another shooting; or about children who die, far too young, about people who simply didn't need to die in this way, not at all. We hurt, so we talk.

The we turn to matters more practical: security measures in theaters, for instance, how the NYPD is doing this, in fact, for New Yorkers. There's religious and anti-religious talk of varying degrees of decent and horrible. We return to politics and perceived political connections, and early perceptions that, like most early perceptions, turned out to be incorrect. We bring up historical precedents, words like Columbine and Virginia Tech and Jared Loughner, names whose meanings changed forever after the events occurred. We talk about how we should have learned, but didn't, or even, more despairingly, how we're never going to fix this problem we have, that some humans want to kill others, for no apparent reason. We talk about why. Why would someone want to kill someone else, many others, in this brutal fashion? Was it violence he's witnessed, in movies, in video games, in comic books, in real life? Is there a connection to the movie itself? It's not the fault of movies, we say. Of course not, one man did this, a young man. Is it schizophrenia then? Mental illness?

We piece together his life, slowly but surely, trying to make sense of what went wrong, because something clearly went horribly, dreadfully, repulsively wrong. We want to know more about this person, this person who did this; we're fascinated at the same time we blame his family at the same time we grieve for them. And we think about ourselves -- how the simple act of walking into a movie theater has been suddenly, grossly changed. We wait for the president to tell us what to do, what to feel, to help us rally. Then, inevitably, we criticize him for not doing enough or for doing it wrong. Gun control, why are we not talking about gun control? No more attack ads, no more attacks. We talk about how awful it would be to share a name with the shooter. Shooter, what a vile word. On Merriam-Webster, other vile words are trending, shrapnel and terrorism, for instance, we are told. We're briefly surprised. We'd thought it would be tragedy. A tragedy. Everyone's reviews of this movie today were ruined, weren't they, we think, and then we hate ourselves for it.

Ourselves. We consider the story that last night we thought we would write today, a response to a piece about semi-colons—semi-colons! How it seems weak and pointless and silly, how every story we thought we might write today is an abject failure in light of this new darkness. With nothing else to do or say, we lay more blame. On others, for not writing the right thing, for not feeling the right things, for saying something we call wrong or rude or insensitive or callous or cruel or unrelated or oblivious, or for being too excited about their breaking story, about their chance to be a part of this national event. We lay the blame on ourselves, on everything: This abject failure of humanity.

But blame only gets us so far. We stop and look at photos of people hugging for a moment.

We always say this, after something like this: We'll do better. We'll try to do better. And then, 6 months later, it's as if we, or most of us, have forgotten completely, only to be reminded when the next awful thing occurs. But still we hope and maybe, if we're religious, we even pray, because if there's a time for ushering up good thoughts to a higher power it's a time like this, that we won't let this one slide away from memory like all the rest, into the great void of things we wish never would have happened, that never should have happened.

There will be a day for writing about semi-colons again. It just won't be today.

Rob Ford is A Starfish - But Aren't We All?

Rob Ford is angry.  He seems to be angry a lot, actually.  That's a big part of why he got elected, because Toronto voters were angry, too.  They wanted decisive action of some kind and Rob Ford was the only one providing a black-and-white solution.  Problem is, as we've learned, there wasn't much substance behind that solution.  Rob Ford is a one-off kind of guy; hit one problem, doesn't matter the consequence, then hit the next.  It's all very reactionary.

In this, Rob Ford is like the little boy throwing the starfish back into the ocean; he might not be able to save every starfish on the beach, but he can pat himself on the back for saving that one.  Problem is, that very same starfish will get washed back onto the shore and die along with all the others that were ignored.  You can only solve the problem if you look at it from a structural perspective; what causes all these starfish to wash up on the shore in the first place?

We can get mad at Rob Ford, or Dalton McGuinty, or Stephen Harper, but they're really just starfish, too.  Voting them in on narrow mandates and then voting them out for working on those mandates might be emotionally satisfying, but it doesn't solve anything; in fact, it allows the problems to worsen.  These aren't one-off challenges; there are no quick fixes.  You can't fix a broken system with little tweaks.

What's needed is systematic, structural change.  Every single facet of our governance structure needs revisited.  You can't solve gun crime, for instance, without addressing education, poverty, healthcare, employment access, taxation, etc.  They're all interconnected.  People get really stuck in their own, narrow views, though; some will say gun crime is an immigrant problem, or a poor parenting problem, or a poverty problem.  They demand limited resources get spent on their niche area of focus and not in fields they see as frivolous.  How can you manage sweeping changes in a representative democracy where people put their own ideologies first?

The answer is, you can't.  There are only two ways out; one is through dictatorship, where one person calls all the shots regardless of the views of the people.  That's where we're headed right now, as politics at all levels has increasingly sought to consolidate power in one person and their inner circle.  To facilitate this process, information is becoming more tightly controlled; a lack of information for comprehension results in more emotional reaction.  We've seen why this is a problematic trend; people get very angry very fast when they feel they have zero say in their fate, don't trust the people at the top and don't much know what's going on big-picture.  They will eventually decide to take back control of their fate by force, enforcing their own interests through any means necessary - which is what's happening with the pisolitzation of Toronto.

Answer number two is the most challenging but ultimately, only sustainable one; we stop being intransigent, start looking out for collective (not selfish) interests and embrace this little concept of moving forward together.  That means not focusing on validation for your own views, but constantly challenging them to see where there's room for improvement.  It means not looking to invalidate the views of others, either, but deconstructing down to points of commonality.    Believe me, they're always there.  From that shared ground, compromise can be achieved.  How do we put the views of others before ourselves, though?  How do we trust the other?  We do it by taking a long, uncomfortable look inwards and re-evaluating the confabulated notions of identity which we wrap ourselves up in, like a banner or a blanket.

We've come so far in our social journey - chiefdoms, empires, republics, parliamentary democracies, etc.  It's always about empowering the people to collaborate strategically on building a better world of us all.  We can only do that when we do it strategically, consciously.

History points us in that direction.  It'll happen; the only question is how long it will take us to learn the basic lesson of "live together, die alone" before we get there.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Faith Goldy-Bazos on Canada's China-Based Cognitive Dissonance

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a speech during a business dinner in Guangzhou, China, on Feb. 10.
Recent public unease over the newly dedicated Norman Bethune monument might be about more than putting hard-earned tax dollars toward commemorating a committed communist. Perhaps all the Twitter trouble and on-screen outcries are indicative of something more fundamental: the anxieties many Canadians have over our nation’s growing relationhips with China.

Currently China is our second-biggest trading partner, up from the number four spot it occupied in 1997. With Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird presently on a tour of Asian countries, our relationship shows few signs of slowing down.

More affiliations with China, however, entails a more earnest evaluation of conscience.

China’s record — past and present — is no secret: 65 million massacred at the hands of Chairman Mao, the continuation of forced abortions, its treatment the people of Tibet, China’s support of North Korea, aggressive posturing in the South China Sea, China’s treatment of prisoners, environmental issues, animal cruelty … The list is seemingly endless.

Even so, Canada must react to China’s rise and the changing global balance of power in an era of continued American decline. Not to mention China’s eagerness to drink up the oil we’re marketing in our guise of “an emerging energy superpower.”

Canada can’t ignore China, clearly. But at the very least, we can aim to have a China policy that is agreeable to Canadians.

Canada should stand strong in those areas in which China’s interests are adverse to its own. Such an approach would recognize China’s failure to respect human rights is a flagrant weakness to her power both at home and abroad. So emphasizing the centrality of human rights to Canadian ideology would seem to be a good way to set the boundaries, within which a rising Chinese power can operate without threatening Canadian interests. Ottawa’s China policy could reject Sun-tzu-style diplomacy, which aims to convince the other side that certain issues are too politically and culturally sensitive to discuss. China, for example, might be reminded that the universality of international human rights is a matter of international law, not opinion.

And, with Prime Minister Harper’s promise this past February that Canada would always be a “vocal advocate” for human rights in China, it appears we will pursue this second approach to relations.

Or will we? Surely a Conservative government spending $2.5-million to erect a memorial to an ally of Chairman Mao cannot jell with the defenders-of-human-rights image.

Unless Canada is taking a page from China’s diplomatic handbook. Chinese diplomacy is psychological. As far back as the third century, the military commander Zhuge Liang sent back an enemy army by opening the city gates and sunning himself on the ramparts; it looked like a trap and frightened away the opposing general. Recall when Mao received Nikita Khrushchev in his private pool, forcing the Soviet leader, who could not swim, to negotiate in water wings.

It’s possible Canada is staking out a psychological position in this new era of enhanced engagement with China. By commemorating Canadian-born Norman Bethune, who is a household name and heroic martyr in China (where the public is treated to a rich diet of nationalistic sentiment), Canada might emulate Chinese strategy, rather than yield to it. Perhaps Treasury Board President Tony Clement championing the monument wasn’t so shameful as it was strategic. Much will depend on what Canada gets back in return. Increased access to Chinese markets will be a good thing for Canada. But probably not enough to convince our leery public that the gesture was worth the price.

Is Meritocracy A Sham? (by Walter Russell Mead)

He's obviously thought this through a bit; definitely worth a read.

I review books on the United States for Foreign Affairs; that means every couple of months a huge box of books arrives at the stately Mead manor and I go through piles of books trying to decide which ones to read for review. It’s a lot of work for not much product; the “capsule” reviews are about 200 words each. That’s much the same length as the book reports I used to write for Mrs. West back in the third grade; if I’d known how important this literary form was going to be to my future career, I might have tried harder back then.

There are times when this seems like an intolerable burden; between blogging, teaching, keeping up with the news and reading books for review, I don’t have as much time for free reading as I’d like. There are all kinds of books on 17th century French and Spanish history piling up on my iPad these days — full of insights and juicy ideas that would deepen my understanding of early modern history and generally refresh my soul, but I don’t know when I’ll get to them. (And that’s saying nothing about the literary and genre fiction I’d like to read this summer. More Hilary Mantel, more Neal Stephenson, and more Allen Furst, please.)

One of the books I’ve been reading for review is Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes. I’ll save the review for Foreign Affairs, but for Via Meadia readers, this is an interesting book because it represents an effort by a talented and thoughtful left thinker to grapple with the nature of contemporary American populism. Hayes (who I’ve never met, but would like to) is an interesting guy and his perspective a few steps to the left of the center-left technocratic consensus of the mainstream media allows him to make some interesting observations about where things stand in the United States today.

I get the impression he’s still in the group that thinks we could preserve the blue social model if we just willed hard enough; that was my view for maybe 15 or even 20 years after I first started writing about the unraveling of post-war American liberalism and what I now call the blue social model back in the 1980s. The old system worked so well for so many people that it seemed to a great many people who cared about progress and democracy that we just needed to keep tweaking this model to approach an almost ideal society through a smooth and gradual process of incremental social change.

The failure of that social democratic future to materialize, and the set of changes which have made capitalist society much more competitive and riskier pose a huge set of challenges that the left is still trying to master. Intellectually it is looking for a theory and programatically it is looking for a workable political program. So far in my view there is no real sign of progress on this front; rather than trying to resuscitate a political vision whose economic, historic and moral foundations are irretrievably lost, the left (like everybody else) has to come to take on a much more difficult task. We all need to understand how the new global information economy works, and think our way through to some kind of understanding of what kind of free, just and sustainable social organization can be raised on these still-emerging and still poorly understood foundations. That has to happen, in my view, before either the left or the right can offer meaningful political ideas about how the new society and new world should be governed.

But I’m getting away from Twilight of the Elites. What Hayes does here that is so useful and valuable is that he brings some good old fashioned left skepticism to the Mcnamara-Obama vision of a technocratic, meritocratic society run by the “best and the brightest.” What we loosely call American liberalism today is made up of several quite distinct strands; two of the most important are social populism and technocratic progressivism.

The social populism side of the left comes out of the agrarian and labor protests of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This was a mix of traditional American individualism and populism with a sense that the “little people” had to band together to bring down the big beasts of the capitalist jungle: the Carnegies, the Morgans, the Rockefellers and so on. The monopolists and the big capitalists were such a danger to the freedom, dignity and economic well being of ordinary Americans that the little guys were going to have to band together and act through politics before the trusts and the corporate elites crushed the life out of the American dream.

The technocratic progressives were a very different group of people, culturally and socially. They were (and are) upper middle class and upper class reformers: good government types. They saw their role as to curb the excesses of both the big beasts in the capitalist jungle and the unwashed masses of the populist movements. People like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (who hated each other on a personal level but whose social visions had much in common) thought that most of society’s problems were technical rather than ideological. Good administration and effective, non-political management by well educated technocrats could solve society’s most important social and economic problems by finding a middle way between the angry left and the greedy kingpins of capitalism.

There was always a tension here. The technocrats sold themselves to the populists as the means through which the populist dreams could be achieved, but the society the technocrats wanted — and want — was very different from the one populists thought they were building. For the populists, equality was the point. They wanted an America in which ordinary people ran their own lives in their own way — as much as this was possible in a modern industrial society with all its complex dependencies.

But the technocrats were — and are — committed to the concept of rule by the best and the brightest. This is not a temporary stage on the road to a higher and ultimately more equal stage of society to gentry liberals. It is a natural division of power and responsibility based on innate differences in human beings. Gentry liberals believe that people who score high on SATs, do well in college, and get through the PhD process are, well, smarter than people who don’t do those things and that society will be better off if the dumb people get out of the way and let the smart ones make the important decisions. (And the unimportant ones too — like how big a Slurpee should be.)

This is, sort of, what Thomas Jefferson meant by a natural aristocracy. The meritocratic social ideal is that there should be an open competition to determine who is best. There should be good schools that ensure that the children of non-elite families get real educational opportunity. Alumni privilege and other extraneous factors should not affect admissions decisions at the best schools. From this process will emerge the cadre of talented, public spirited and able leaders who, to put it in the blunt, nasty way that liberal technocrats think is horribly tactless but actually true, can best make the decisions that the average person is too stupid to understand.

The “open meritocracy” paradigm is very powerful in America today and, to some degree, we couldn’t live without it. William F. Buckley (and I) might rather be governed by names selected at random from the phone book than by the Harvard faculty, but nobody wants their airplane piloted or their kidney operation performed on that basis.

But, and this is what Hayes is pointing out, there are a couple of problems with meritocracy in practice. The first is, evidently, that it doesn’t always work as advertised. The “best and the brightest” organized the financial market reforms of the Clinton years that led to the Bush bubbles and the Obama doldrums, and neither the wars in Vietnam by the Kennedy era Great Meritocrats nor the Bush and Obama era wars were triumphs of social engineering.

The second problem is that in the end, meritocracy doesn’t promote democracy. The meritocrats may have won their positions through an open competition and their kids (with some advantages to be sure) are still going to have to struggle to make it into top colleges and so on, but once they win — they’re an elite. And their perceptions about how hard they competed and how fair the competition was makes them more smug and more entitled than the old elites ever were.

The new elites don’t feel guilty about their power; they didn’t inherit it. They earned it. They are smarter than everybody else and they deserve to rule — and in their own minds at least, they also deserve the perks that power brings. Money, fame, access: bring it on.

Wealth and entitlement corrupts the meritocratic elite. Members of this elite can no longer see society easily from the perspective of ordinary people and so their decisions increasingly reflect their own interests rather than those of the people they are supposed to represent. They lose the ability and perhaps also the will to be impartial arbiters between the masses and power; they identify with power and start to use their own influence to tilt the system farther and farther away from the populists and toward the old power centers.

I’m not of course doing justice to Hayes’ book here; if I could it would have been a blog post not a book. But this critique of the meritocratic ideal from the left speaks also to the populism of the right; indeed, while Hayes loathes what he understands of the ideology and political program of the Tea Party as much as any left intellectual in America, he has far more emotional sympathy for its hatred of the ├╝berclass than many writers on his side of the spectrum.

There’s much to be said about this subject, and regular readers of these essays will see many ways in which Hayes and I worry about some of the same things, if often from a different point of view. But rather than get into all that today, there’s another point I’d like to make. This has to do with another dimension of today’s American meritocracy that I think is deeply problematic: atheism.

Now before all the atheists out there ignite a new flame war in the comments pages, let me make some points. I’m not about to argue that all religious people are nicer or better than all atheists. And there are many atheists who avoid some or all of the pitfalls I’m about to explore. I am not writing this as a criticism of particular individuals; there are lots of atheistic meritocrats in America today who I consider friends and for whose achievements and character I have both admiration and respect. And before the foreign readers go incandescent in gibbering rage, let me also point out that I’m talking much more about atheism in an American context than in a European one. The dynamic Whiggish optimism that is such a deep element of American culture needs the kind of balance that, classically, comes from a theologically grounded sense both of Original Sin and of God’s transcendence of all human history and thought.

But caveats and cautions aside, there are certain consequences of success in a meritocracy that put people, and especially American people, without a strong religious faith at great risk, and I think we can see today in American life some of the consequences that come when a powerful but to some degree godless social elite lacks the spiritual resources and vocabulary that would better equip it for its role.

The first problem is arrogance. A practicing and committed as opposed to a theoretical or a birth Christian (and I talk about Christians rather than Jews, Muslims or Hindus or other people because this is what I know best, not because I’m trying to say that only Christians derive these kinds of benefits from their faith) who succeeds in a meritocratic structure has all kinds of inner convictions and reflections that can keep his or her arrogance within limits. This doesn’t always work; the case of Woodrow Wilson is one that we should all study.

For a Christian, the belief in the equal value of all people in God’s eyes is a bedrock belief. Every human being is created directly by God; every human soul is beloved by God. Human beings are not all alike, and we have different gifts and different abilities. But each of us was created to be exactly who and what we are by the Author of the Universe, and we believe that God loves and values the child with Downs’ syndrome as much as he loves and values the Nobel-prize winning economist.

That’s right. God thinks Trig Palin is just as marvelous and wonderful and adorable as Paul Krugman. The homeless old guy with the shakes down by the subway is as important to God’s vision for the world as the Rhodes Scholar passing him by.

For the Christian, what matters about you isn’t, in the last analysis, your gifts or your talents. God uses our gifts, but he doesn’t need them. He can raise up a million children smarter than you and faster than you and more ambitious than you, should he so choose. He’s made you an intellect, an artist, an entrepreneur because his love wants you to join him in co-creating the world, not because the world wouldn’t be rich and beautiful (and efficiently governed) without you.

More, God’s knowledge, his “talents” are so much infinitely greater than your own that the intellectual distance between a Newton and a retarded child is, quite seriously, insignificant in his eyes. St. Thomas Aquinas, a great Catholic philosopher and theologian, widely considered to be one of the greatest intellects who ever lived, said that in the light of God’s presence, everything he had ever written was like so much straw. And that’s about right: God doesn’t think any of us are particularly smart, though he does, I suspect, sometimes think we’re cute when we start spouting off.

The kind of arrogance, vanity and inflamed self-esteem that flatters the imagination and corrupts the spirit of the successful meritocrat needs to be checked and humbled. Being constantly reminded on the one hand of the infinite gap between ones own limited talents and vision and the perspective of Almighty God, and on the other of the radical equality with which God judges and loves the human race is a healthy counterweight to the flattery of the world and the smugness that comes with success.
But there’s more. Serious Christians have to struggle continually against the temptation to view “merit” uncritically. To begin with, any gifts that you have are just that — gifts. Your ability to score 800 on the math section of the SAT is something for which you can personally take no credit whatever. It’s like a pretty face or perfect pitch: it’s very nice to have, but it’s God’s sovereign choice, not your sublime inner nature, that is responsible for this. And of course, he doesn’t give his gifts without a purpose.

And guess what: the reason God made you smart wasn’t to make you rich and to make you special and to allow you to swank around in the White House or at Davos. He made you smart so that you could serve — and the people he wants you to serve are exactly all those people you feel so arrogantly superior to. At the end of the day, they aren’t going to be judged on how much they deferred to you, respected you, and handed over to you all those rewards you felt you deserved. God isn’t particularly interested in what the Paul Krugmans of this world think though he wants us all to do our best to get things right; he’s interested in how much Paul Krugman and the rest of us loved and sought to serve one another.

You are going to be judged on how much you did for the “ordinary folks.” Were those Downs’ syndrome kids any better off because of the way you used your mathematical and reasoning gifts? Were the poor better fed and better housed because of the use you made of the talents God trusted to your care? Did you use your power and the freedom that came with it to help others live freer and more dignified lives, or did you parade your superiority around like a pompous and egotistical ass, oppressing and alienating the world when you should have been enlightening it?

And the serious Christian meritocrat is going to spend a lifetime being haunted by the warnings of Jesus. God actually judges the gifted and the successful by a tougher standard than he uses with the “ordinary” and the poor. The popular pundit on the television talk show needs to go home and tremble on his knees when he or she reflects on the judgment that is in store. The corporate CEO needs to lie awake at night wondering whether his business dealings have been fair; God will demand an accounting for the wages he offered to his janitors and his employees overseas. As you sit at the five star restaurant with the celebrity chef, enjoying a convivial dinner with congenial, intelligent people, you need to be haunted by the specter of the homeless outside on the street; God not only cares as much about what they eat as he cares about your dinner — he is going to ask you one fine day just what you did to make sure they were served.

Are you speaking the conventional wisdom to applause and esteem? Then know that God warns you of the judgment to come: the dreadful words of the Gospel of Luke (chapter 6, verses 24-26) must always echo in your ears:
But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full ! for ye shall hunger . Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.
Finally, the Christian meritocrat must live in the light of the doctrine of Original Sin. Often seen as some dark, dismal dogma of the bigoted and the misanthropic, this idea may be the single most necessary piece of mental equipment a successful person needs to lead a genuinely constructive life in America today.

Original Sin is the idea that human beings, despite all their talents and capacities, are deeply and hopelessly flawed. Like water flows downhill, we are constantly turning toward our own selfish goals. We are vain, jealous, petty, self-seeking. Our judgement twists away from what’s right to what benefits us and our side. We can’t keep our fingers off the scales.

It’s not just our moral choices that go awry. Our thinking isn’t straight. What we think is logic is often self interest. When our interests and our passions are engaged, we lose all mental clarity just when we need it most.

At the collective level, this explains why meritocracy cannot in itself be an answer to the political problems of the human race. There are no Platonic philosopher kings, no unmoved movers, who will judge all things and all men clear and true. And the problem isn’t simply our ignorance and partial knowledge; it’s the flaw in our natures that means that our intellects are often the least dependable when we need them most.

At the individual level, for the successful American who has gone through the right schools, won the merit badges and made it through to a position of power, influence and either affluence or great wealth, a lively sense of original sin helps protect you from the evils and temptations to which you exposed.
First, you must acknowledge and remember your own sin. Original sin is not just an abstraction; every human being has done sad and shameful things. We all have weak and shaky bits of our character. We all fall short of what we could have done and should have done; we have all wasted and misused the gifts intrusted to us. A serious Christian life keeps these truths before you as in daily prayer and meditation you weigh your thoughts and deeds by God’s standard and tremble at what you see.

Success makes you smug and self satisfied, and this makes you less fit for any useful purpose in the world. Christians today understand that the Pharisees as depicted in the New Testament do not reflect the insight and wisdom of the Jewish religious tradition that developed from the Biblical era, but without projecting this picture onto our Jewish friends and associates, the picture of the Biblical Pharisee is one to keep before us always. Legends of righteousness in their own minds, revered by the ignorant multitude, teachers of the law who applied intellectual discipline to difficult social and moral questions: what is the Pharisee but the meritocrat of an earlier day?

Think of the one who stood in the synagogue to pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11) Is this not a picture of the smug meritocrat who drives a Prius, eats locally sourced organic foods, has impeccably progressive views, is effortlessly brilliant in the practice of a complex profession and for every occasion knows the right attitude to take and the right thing to say?

From the standpoint of the Gospels. much of Jesus’ public career was a struggle against the meritocratic social and intellectual elites of his day. Yet his attitude wasn’t simple demagogic populism. Over and over again he speaks of his respect for the knowledge that they have, but insists repeatedly that while it is indispensable, it is also worthless unless your heart is right. And you can’t make your heart right by study or achievement. For your heart to be right, you must be born again. You must look outside yourself, your education, your offices and your honors. Your “merit” on its own doesn’t stand. Only the merit of another can give life and meaning to who you are and what you do.

The old gospel song “Denomination Blues” says it best, perhaps: “You can go to your college, you can go to your school/But if you ain’t got Jesus you’re an educated fool.”

There are crackpots and know nothings who sing that song meaning that nobody should go to school and college. “Jesus” is all you need. And there are those who think that the right school and the right college will teach you all you need to know. But there are a great many people running around today who studied for years in top colleges and top schools without ever learning what it’s all about. In many cases, nobody ever even offered to teach them.

In any case, a serious Christian commitment serves as a moral and psychological anchor for members of an elite. Your life circumstances may be different from those of hoi polloi, you may have power and freedom that most people don’t, but if you are a serious Christian wrestling daily with your inadequacies before God and your need for God’s grace, you are living an inner life that is very similar to the lives of millions of your fellow citizens. The spiritual life is the ultimate democracy: every human being approaches God on the same terms. A Nobel economic laureate or a Fortune 500 CEO who spends time on his or her knees in honest prayer and honest spiritual struggle every day is keeping it green; for those few minutes that person isn’t a successful meritocrat whose meteoric career streaks across the sky.

Chris Hayes is not wrong that American meritocracy as it exists today is both a symptom and a cause of a society losing its footing and in danger of a real fall. And I do not say that a “Christian” or theistic meritocracy would work where a secular one must fail. (We had a Christian meritocracy in Puritan New England. The best, brightest and godliest hanged Quakers and witches.) And I repeat what I wrote earlier, to avoid misunderstanding: Christianity is not the only religious or other source of the kind of moral insight and spiritual depth that can mitigate the problems of a meritocratic society. It is the one I understand best and the one that, historically, has played the most important role in American life. I leave to others the task of describing other resources and traditions by which other Americans whose talents have brought them into important and powerful positions in our society can be guided and checked.

But with those appropriate reservations appropriately taken, I do say that the fading of serious Christian commitment in the sleek and successful ranks of America’s meritocracy plays a significant and damaging role in our national life. The renewal of Christian commitment among a significant sector of America’s elite is, I think, a necessary condition of continued American progress and success. If we get this, we will still need social reforms and social change — much of it, I suspect, not what Hayes wants, but that is another story. But if we don’t get that kind of renewal and commitment, no program of reform, however wisely engineered, can keep our liberty, our prosperity and our democracy safe, much less transform them into something richer, deeper, greater and more widely and fairly shared than anything we have yet seen.

Here's How It Begins

Two stories I've just read, indicating the next slip into the spiral:

Rob Ford:

Jason Kenney:

This won't end well - not for anyone.  Sadly, it's those who think they can ignore past lessons and make up their own realities that are the ones doomed to repeat history.

Politics: Game of Power

                                "You don't fight with honour."

                                "No.  He did."

I used to live a ten-minute walk from that park.  My son and I have played there many times.  I know some of the families that would have heard the gun fire and I have a very good idea of what living in fear does to one's ability to focus on anything other than survival.  In a climate of fear, there are only two escapes; to hunker down and stay as isolated as possible from potential threats or become the feared and take what you want by force.  Anxiety and aggression; that's how survival of the fittest really works.  That's what's happening with these shootings.

We really shouldn't need to explain this to Rob Ford.  By all indications, he exists in a near-constant state of cortisol-fueled reactiveness himself.  He doesn't like to be managed, says his former Hand who also used deceit to eliminate a potential threat to Ford's ascendancy to the throne.  Now holding the chains of office, Ford feels harassed by media and wants to retreat to the safety of his castle and even increase his holdings if necessary to feel secure there.  Along the same theme, he bans access to reporters and outlets he doesn't like, or whole retinues if people he doesn't like are in the party.  Beat that, reporters.  Meanwhile, Ford himself is hyper-aggressive; chasing jouranlists down halls, giving the finger to drivers, snipping at TTC drivers.  Argue all you want about his justification; he's got a track-record of escalating problems. 

There's the rub - he keeps suggesting people should just go along with him and things will work out, but people don't go along with him, creating mounting problems.  Council won't fall in line?  Ford focuses on how to get rid of them next election instead of working with them now.  He's Mayor, after all, he should be able to do what he wants.  Gang violence in the streets of Toronto?  Get rid of them, too.  "...I want them out of the city. Go somewhere else, I don’t want them living in the city anymore.”  His solutions is to get rid of problems or pass them on to others - not solve them. 

Run 'em out of the city.  How do you do that, exactly?  How do you get people with guns out of the woodwork?  By toughening sentences?  All that does is make criminals work that much harder to avoid getting caught.  See, they don't want their rights trampled, either.  They want to do what they want; consequences are for those without control.  People who kill other people are really the pinnacle of survival of the fittest - they remove the competition, proving just how tough they are.  They're the boss - they get to do what they want, so long as they reinforce their power.  The only way to tackle that approach head-on is through escalation.

Which is exactly what Stephen Harper is doing.  With what I'm sure he feels are the best intentions, he is reducing opposition to his reign and increasing punishment for those who don't fall in line.  He's also a fan of firewalls; building moats around his castle to keep the barbarians at bay.  Barbarians within the realm need to be removed, either directly or indirectly.  It's all in the name of free market capitalism, he'll tell us with a nod to his economic background.  Regulation, special interest groups, unions are all impeding prosperity.  Without rules, the law of supply and demand takes over.  Am I picking unfairly on Tories?  Well, how 'bout this - it was the other guys who introduced the concept of the War Room. 

Politics isn't about supply and demand.  It certainly predates a money-based economy.  Politics is about the obtaining, retaining and the hereditary passing on of power.  Politics is selfish, tribal and focused on doing whatever it takes to win -  be it treachery, manipulation or the surest way to force compliance, violence.  In a battle of strength, it's he who has the most destructive weapons and the largest army that survives; but you need money to buy these things. How do you get them?  People consumed by power don't bargain or negotiate for what they want; they take it by force.  They oppress challenges to their power through force.  To things not directly connected to their power, they say "so what?"  Which is what Toronto's gangs, or drug cartels in Mexico, or any extremist group tries to do.  Sadly, it's what our frame-the-message, define-the-ballot-question political agents (Parties, sectors, everyone) tries to do, too.
The narrower our wedge of focus becomes, the more we miss the external factors that create threats.  Issues like poverty or civil rights are "minority group" issues; if they're not going to support you anyway, and their causes are in opposition to the causes of your voter base, ignore them or use them as wedge issues to foster more support on your side of the scale.  Sustainable economies and productivity; those come second to the rights of the brotherhood.  What are the populations that fall through the cracks through this approach?  The poor, the disenfranchised, those who are more likely to take up arms, join gangs and get what they want at the margins of civil society, where regulations aren't enforced.  Pirates, brigands, gangs all gestate in this social gap, eventually creating problems for those at the other end of the spectrum.  What happens to those in the middle?  Fear is only sustainable for so long, before it turns to anger.  Angry people have this habit of taking to the streets.

What happens when civil society comes into conflict with feudal politics?  Take a gander at Syria for an example.  While we will see an increase in violence across the Western World and the need for more militant intervention in the face of unacceptable violence, we aren't going to have a civil war, nor repeat World War II.  I don't say that out of whimsical hopefulness, but out of an understanding of history.  War might make a profit for some, but not when it's being fought in your backyard.  In terms of stable profits, you need stable society, which means compromise solutions.  Those with capital will tire of the hits instability inflicts on their wealth and will use their resources to reign in the politics. 

Private sector interests facing loss want regulation, they want stability, they desire order.  Nobody is imposing this on them; it was people of means that gestated our current system of governance in the first place.  People of means will also proactively support stability and market generation; charity, education, micro-credit, whatever are all means of enhancing the labour pool and expanding markets.  With stories like Davos and Goldman-Sachs we see a proactive-approach to emerging threats that the private sector is hoping to proactively resolve, before it's too late.  They talk about this lots, but what action do we see taken?  

Action might be directed from the top, but it always comes from the bottom.  The foot soldiers of any movement are the rank and file of society.  How do you motivate every-day folk to risk their lives?  It helps if their lives are already miserable and they have little to lose, but the best motivation comes from believing in something that is bigger than the individual; the tribe, honour, a better world.  Here's a vision that would help convince a guy like me to take up the sword:

Peace, order, good government - and opportunity.  Not for me; I'm part of the first generation in a while that's being told to expect a lower quality-of-life than my parents.  If the world is contracting around us due to the narrow vision of some, it'll take a generation to broaden our horizons.  As I contribute to a better world, it's for my son and, by association, all the children that will be adults around him.  I would rather none of them in this increasingly-integrated world grow up in poverty, surrounded by gunfire and without hope, because I know what sort of behaviour that experience fosters in the long run.  History provides lots of examples.  I'm even willing to give up a bit, personally, to foster that world.

Power is about control - drawing resources to oneself and gaining the ability to do whatever one wants.  The only way to acheive power is through manipulation, be it verbal or by force.

The opposite of power is not powerlessness.  It's sacrifice; the willingness to put collective interests ahead of individual interests.  Sacrifice is not something that can be forced from without; it has to motivated from within.  Honour isn't something that must be shed for accomplishment; it's something that must be obtained to maintain it.  By empowering others, everyone gains something.  It's this thing called society.  We can live together, or we can die alone.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Power and Politics

Remember that politics is all about power - acquiring power, exercising power and, most importantly, retaining power.

This is true; and power isn't best practices, it's about control.  This is why true leaders don't horde power, they serve as conduits.  Something our current crop have lost sight of - which is why we are doomed to repeat history.

Be mindful

Three stories that jump out at me today...

Mazza was on mental health leave until now - psychiatrists deemed him medically unfit to testify.  Of course, there will be those who say that's all just a ruse, an excuse to avoid scrutiny.  They should check out the CAMH campaign around mental illness denial.

Angry people in Canada?  There's a growing trend of this fact making the news.  Of course, it's sensationalist (ie, twigs our emotions) but it's none the less true.  Stephen Harper has been waging a fear campaign for his entire stint as PM and now it's coming back to haunt him.  Harper's a decent tactician and certainly strategized his political rise carefully enough - why didn't he see this coming?

Mayor Ford's solution for gang violence?  Declare a war on it.  A war on war has never been a particularly successful approach, but Ford is certain it will work this time.  He doesn't believe in proactively supporting people to help provide them choices other than violence, though - that's too totalitarian in his view.

Is there a common thread to these stories?  I believe there is.  Until we take the time to understand what makes behaviour tick and consciously wrest control from gut reaction, we will be doomed to repeat history.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

How Fit is Rob Ford?

Ostracize.  Contain.  Punish.  These are Rob Ford's solutions to gang-related crime.  The underlying principle is that some people are bad seeds and need to be removed from society to prevent harm to everyone else.  It's not an a-typical social conservative position to have.  It goes along with the idea that government is oppressive to the individual and that taxation disincents people from working and innovating; if they got to keep more of their money, they'd work harder to get even more money.  Greater prosperity will result in greater demand, more jobs, and more prosperity for everyone.

So - on the one hand, we need to remove bad apples so as not to spoil the bushel.  On the other, we shouldn't regulate behaviour, because that impedes good behaviour through resentment, etc.  Some people would say that taking away social services and regulation (minimum wage, education requirements, etc) but punishing people for crimes that are fostered by socio-economic conditions is ridiculous; you're punishing people, essentially, for their lot in life.  It's not fair.  It makes more sense to be proactive, to educate, accommodate, etc and avoid crime in the first place.  Reactive behaviour comes too late.

It all depends on what kind of society you're trying to build.  There actually is a case to be made for the Rob Ford model of society - it's called "survival of the fittest."  It's basic evolution - the strong will rise to the top no matter what and the weak or unruly will be eliminated (or locked away/run out of town).  By culling the weak/unprosperous, only the successful will be left.  It's not trickle-down economics; it's cut-the-bottom-off economics.

There's a problem, though - consciously or not, social conservatives are applying biological evolutionary rules to society.  Society is a different animal entirely, with different rules.  See, if society were designed for the "fittest" to survive, it would actually the ones who kill, steal and cheat that would get ahead.  They're the toughest; they're willing to do whatever it takes to win.  Think about it - do back-stabbing and dog-eat-dog competition result in the smartest, most social, most innovative people climbing corporate or social ladders?  From a different angle, does wealth make one immune to the impact of a riot, or an epidemic? 

Despite what laissez-faire free-marketers would have us believe, we actually have had a Rob Fordesque society in history - just look at medieval Europe, or before that, Rome for two examples.  People aggregated where there was opportunity, but when they're solely out for themselves, they aren't looking after the interests of their neighbour; waste goes into the street, work gets done to the lowest price and the least amount of work, etc.  Disease, fires, looting, etc were significant social problems.  The challenges of many people living in close quarters actually fostered the climate of centralized coordination and regulation that is government.  The "free market" model isn't what we're moving towards - it's what society is moving away from.

The only way for a truly free market society to thrive is if people live at a distance from each other - each to their own plots, free to make and enforce their own decisions without being impacted by the actions of their neighbours.  A feudal society, in short, with everyone lord of their own castle.  That's the position of the Ontario Landower Association folk.  There's a problem with that model, too - when people are left to their own devices, independently, they actually don't need to innovate as much or share their innovations; after all, new ideas aren't going to be picked up until someone proves them, and where's the profit in the proving process?  The reason that innovation has continued to pick up speed is due at least as much to social density as it is to any other factor.

Innovation is a social phenomena.  Literally; the part of our brain that motivates pro-social behaviour is the same one that allows for innovation and executive function (the ability to proactively plan).  The part of our brain that is the seat of emotions (biological drives that motivate us to react, like locking people up after a crime is already committed) stores memory, but doesn't foster connection-making or active solution-creating.

Social conservatives don't trust hope, because hope implies change.  They're thinking with their reactive brains, primarily; there's no way to quantify hope and really, there's no evidence in the world that can convince them you can reform a criminal through education and restorative justice.  By the same token, progressives get frustrated with the "with us or against us" mentality of the socons; why can't they see where progress can take us?

Evolution isn't a ladder - neither the reactive nor proactive brain are better than the other.  Both have their uses, context-determined.  It just so happens that in an increasingly dense social context, the ability to plan is a really useful tool to have.

Ford says the best social program is a job - but you can't get a job unless you can prove you're able to do the work.  How do you get the training, the experience, the dare I say it, social skills?  Through social programs.  The more educated a society is, the more equitable resource access is, the more prosperity there is for everyone and less violence.

It's not that Rob Ford's model is wrong; it's just that he hasn't followed it through to conclusion.