Ideas: Part 3: The Problem With Ideology

People are literally the soil where ideas (or memes) are planted; ideas are planted by teachers, peers, parents, churches, advertisers, and governments; and for this reason thinking can be, paradoxically, a rather thoughtless process; it’s enough to make a person wonder whether or not anyone is capable of conceiving an original thought or if we’re doomed to always occupy intellectual spaces constructed by others.

Russia in the 19h century illustrates this notion of people being soil for the planted idea. Imperial Russia was a repressive regime with every attempt at revolution failing; that is, while violence is easy (all it takes is anger and hot heads) true reform is difficult; this is because change requires first articulating why reform is necessary and a public ready to listen. Thus, the Petrashevtsky, a reform-minded group of intellectuals (including a young Fedor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)) avoided open conflict with the Tsar. Instead of open revolt, this group pursued a decades’ long strategy of exposing the Russian peasantry to the appropriate propaganda in order to “[win] hearts and minds, so that when, in the distant future, the revolution finally came, it could be sure of mass support” (Mike Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution, Page 103). The important role propaganda plays in shaping our understanding of the world cannot be discounted: we are literally what we think about; and the content of our thoughts is informed by the information we are exposed to; so it makes intuitive sense that all of us, to varying degrees, are influenced by ideology.

There are many different types of ideology, e.g. there’s fascism (a tendency to look inward for meaning and enemies), liberalism (a belief in a limited government and freedom of the individual), communism (a faith in the role of class conflict leading humankind inexorably towards the dictatorship of the proletariat), etc. and so on and so forth. For all their explanatory power, ideologies pigeon-hole our thinking; ideologies limit the options available to us by boiling complex issues down into simpler components like a party-line or a favored line of reasoning.

Turning our attention to economics, the support ideas like “trickle down economics” continues to receive from many despite the fact it objectively doesn’t work speaks volumes about how easily people are manipulated by propaganda mills. Trickle down economics, it was argued in the 1980s, would encourage broad economic growth across class lines; however, the opposite has occurred, in that, with the advent of globalization only the top 1% of Americans have actually benefited from this economic practice. Money didn’t trickle down; rather wealth tends to gravitate towards the powerful; and as money becomes increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands the general population maintains its high standards of living, not by spending money it has earned at well paying jobs, but through the artificial purchasing power granted to them through access to cheap credit and financial deregulation. Trickle down economics simply doesn’t work. Yet, free market fundamentalists, ideologues in every sense of the word, keep selling the idea it works and the population keeps buying into the myth.

The blind faith some people have in free market fundamentalism, or its bastard-child trickle down economics, demonstrates the single greatest weakness of any ideology: ideologies only make sense if its foundational assumptions are accepted unquestioningly and at face value. To gain an appreciation for the absurdity of unqualified acceptance of any ideology, let’s discuss two situations drawn from the history of science:

Josef Stalin (1878-1953) was the undisputed dictator of the Soviet Union. He was notoriously distrustful of intellectuals. Stalin’s power was so complete he used his influence to have the history of the Russian Revolution actually re-written so the dictator appeared to have played a more important role than he actually did. He was uncompromising in the pursuit of seeing his particular vision of communism realized: only those pieces of art, music, history and literature reflecting the Leninist-Marxist ideology were acceptable. No other alternatives were entertained.

Leninism-Marxism not only made for some questionable Russian history, it also had deleterious effects on Russian science. Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) was a preeminent geneticist working in agriculture during the time of Josef Stalin. Vavilov didn’t believe science had to be made to fit Leninist-Marxism; rather, he believed science was a process of discovery where the world revealed its secrets to us through testing. As a geneticist working in the 1930s and 40s, Vavilov accepted the idea that the building blocks of life (DNA) were comprised of tiny things called chromosomes and alleles; however, despite the evidence in support of this view, Vavilov was hounded out of Soviet science for accepting the existence of chromosomes, etc. by a pseudo-scientist, and Communist party hack, named Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976).

According to Lysenko positing the building blocks of life were divisible into chromosomes and alleles was ideological heresy. True “socialist science” stressed the “unity” of the “whole organism.” Socialist scientists could not in good conscience tolerate any notion that tiny, individual pieces were responsible for shaping an organism; this was the scientific equivalent of saying society should be divided into different classes; however, Marxists asserted history was on the side of the industrial worker and the end of class systems and capitalism. Therefore, Lysenko forced Soviet science to conform to political expectations by directing professors, researchers, etc. to only study those ideas and models conforming to socialist expectations. If scientific ideas didn’t agree with communist ideology as interpreted by Stalin (or one of his lieutenants) it had to be abandoned.

The absurd thing is that even though the full structure of the DNA molecule wasn’t fully understood until the work of Watson, Crick and Franklin by the mid-1950s, we could still see this molecule with its chromosomes, alleles and such. Facts or reality don’t matter much to the ideologue though. Ideological purity is more important than possessing and adhering to the correct information. Thus, science in the Soviet Union—at least when it came to genetics—made the Central Committee and Stalin’s personal authority, and not physical-objective reality, the measure of what is true and what is not. In a scene resembling something out of the Spanish Inquisition, one Soviet scientist was apparently commanded to recant his “faith” in chromosomes by an important Soviet diplomat named Vyacheslav Molotov. The scientist had the stones to reply, “But does Comrade Molotov know more about genetics than I do?” The scientist, and anyone else who did not toe the party line, was dismissed. In the case of Vavilov, he was actually imprisoned for “believing in” Mendelian genetics (chromosomes, alleles, and all). Lysenko’s interference set Russian science back decades (Alec Nove, Stalinism and After, Pages 104-105).

A similar situation played itself out in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. A Nazi scientist attended a lecture given by Albert Einstein (1879-1955) in the United States on the theory of relativity. This scientist returned to Germany excited by the paradigm changing implications of Einstein’s ideas. Excitement turned to disappointment, I am sure, when he was told to forget relativity because Einstein was teaching “Jewish physics.” According to Philipp Lenard (1862-1947), an anti-Semitic and Nazi proponent of the so-called Deutsche Physik (or “German physics”) movement, Einstein couldn’t properly apprehend the physical world because of his “Jewishness.”

Lenard argued that “the Jew conspicuously lacks understanding for the truth…being in this respect in contrast to the Aryan research scientist with his careful and serious will to truth…Jewish physics is thus a phantom and a phenomenon of degeneration of fundamental German Physics.” Lenard’s view was, and remains, demonstrably false: between the years 1905 to 1931 no fewer than ten German Jews were awarded Nobel Prizes for their contributions to science (William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Page 251); moreover, as of 2014 the final of some 20 odd predictions made by Einstein based on the theory of relativity was confirmed, e.g. as the earth spins the surrounding space-time warps into a swirl like whip cream spun on top of a latte. For the record there’s no such thing as either German or socialist or Jewish physics or biology (there’s just physics and biology). However, the communist and Nazi examples illustrate facts don’t matter; it’s more important, it would seem, to force the world to conform to expectation.

Few of us actually appreciate the significance for how completely arbitrary or fabricated and accidental our worldviews are: if we were born to different parents, at a different time, on a different continent it’s a virtual certainty we would look at the world in directions that the accident of our birth pushes us. Although some ways of looking at the world are demonstrably better than others—thinking scientifically (objectively) as opposed to superstitiously or ideologically—there really is no single, right way, no ideology, which best describes the world we inhabit. So far as I can tell there are only preferences, prejudices, propaganda or a combination thereof.

The ideas we entertain as true are so near and dear to us we rarely see them for what they are—a snapshot of us fixed in time. Ideas aren’t outside of us (they wouldn’t even exist if humankind didn’t). Ideas are a reflection of the values, assumptions, and emotions of the individual as opposed to a reflection of the reality they purport to describe. For instance, I am a 21st Century Canadian. Although growing up in a democracy, my understanding of what constitutes a genuine democratic society is completely different from the view held by an ancient Greek from the city-state of Athens in the 4th century BCE.

An Athenian would have no problem accepting that the gods divided people into masters and slaves whereas my modern sensibility makes slavery completely incompatible with anything resembling democracy. I was also raised Catholic and taught by well-meaning parents and teachers the value of honesty, telling the truth and humility. For all intents and purposes I believed what I was taught was right and not living this way was somehow intrinsically wrong. Yet, by contrast, young boys in ancient Sparta were taught the value of being cunning, shrewd, calculating, and to steal; it was only ever wrong to steal if you were caught. The way I was raised was fundamentally different than how Spartan youth were.

Despite the fact different groups or governments value different ideas or possess differing worldviews over time, this doesn’t stop most of us from thinking we ourselves somehow are fortunate enough to possess the right understanding or right ideas. Yet, again, our particular understanding is just a snapshot in time of a person who just so happens to live where you do, had the parents you did, lived under the political/economic system you do, and so on.

So, whether you believe baseball is better than cricket, that women should remain subordinate to men or not, that the economy cannot be tampered with for the sake of the environment or not, or if you prescribe to a religion or not, etc. at some level you likely feel your particular way of looking at the world is closer to the truth than not (and you might even feel a combination of anger and compassion at the ignorance of others who don’t prescribe to your view). If our worldviews are just accidental collections of ideas which we just so happen to prescribe to at a given time in a given location, then what constitutes truth? What is knowledge? Is there such a thing as one correct way of looking at the world?

I fancy there isn’t…

Quit Watching the Train Wreck

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the Republican nomination.

Yoda Kennedy

Take the Trump test. Turn to CNN and see whether or not they’re discussing the controversial Republican presidential candidate right now.

I’ll wait.

My family’s been taking the “test” for several months now and 98% of the time, there he is, the “Donald” in all his orange glory being discussed; it doesn’t matter what time of the day or night. There he is (inescapable like gravity). By comparison the coverage Clinton’s campaign receives is negligible. You hear the odd thing about emails, secret speeches given to Wall Street, or the magic word “Benghazi” creep up now and again, etc. but other than that you don’t hear a lot about her.

Why does Trump get so much coverage and Clinton so little?

Click bait. If it bleeds, it leads. Trump is strangely alluring—sort of like a car crash where you just want to see the burning wreck for its own sake; and his campaign, arguably, has been one car wreck after the next, e.g. calling Latinos rapists, saying he’ll ban Muslims, cajoling war heroes, picking fights with parents of Muslim American war veterans, refusing to make his tax returns public, encouraging the beating of critics attending his rallies, impulsive tweet after tweet after tweet, his “locker room” conversation with “Access Hollywood’s” Billy Bush about a certain inability to control himself around beautiful women, and then his recent promise to sue 11 “beautiful women” who came out saying he’d groped them—just like he said he couldn’t help from doing; nevertheless, we keep watching and waiting to see if the latest controversy is the final one…and it never is.

I can’t seem to look away; and that’s the problem with Trump and why he won’t just go away—we keep looking, we keep listening; the fire is too pretty; my Freudian Thanatos impulse too strong. Mr. Trump gets stronger every time we watch the, to borrow one of his very, very favorite words, “disaster.” This reminds me of the god Aries as portrayed in an animated “Wonder Woman” movie. When people fight Aries, the god of war, he gets stronger; once people quit fighting and seek peace he gets weaker. Trump is like Aries: the more we watch the stronger he and his brand becomes.

I looked at November 8th as a sort of emancipation day. Even Canadians support him; they tend to be of the conservative variety; and the liberals I know vilify him. I’m tired of hearing Canadians and Americans talk about the guy. For my part I think I’ve written about six articles looking at the Trump phenomenon. I’m done. This is the final one. I’m moving on to bashing Trudeau or giving my qualified support to Saskatchewan’s premier, Brad Wall. Wall is the only one of the three civic leaders I’ve actually met. I took a class to the Regina Legislature a number of years ago and he took time out of his busy day to meet with us. He was magnanimous, funny and friendly. I have never actually voted for the guy but I know he has the province’s best interests in mind. I just wish he was a little closer to the center is all.

So, Trump is going to lose the election. I have little doubt of that. But he isn’t going to go away. He’ll keep pushing forward the idea he lost—not because of his many personal defects—but because the election was rigged. I think he’s going to lose the election more because of his “busy hands” and impulsive nature than anything else. Nevertheless, he isn’t going anywhere after November 8th.  He’s going to rile his followers up in an effort to build his brand out of the wreckage he’s left behind on the democratic and political landscape of the United States. Worse still there’s talk about him starting his own television channel after the election. I thought Oprah’s channel was bad, Trump’s will be worse.

Even though he’s not going anywhere, there’s a solution: quit watching. Turn away. Tune out. I’m not advising people remain fundamentally ignorant of the goings-on in the world. Just remain ignorant of Trump is all. Ignore him and don’t give into the temptation to look at the burning wreck. When you quit watching, just like when you quit fighting Aries, he loses his power and his capacity to influence.

Save Your Democracy by Not Voting

I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

Thomas Jefferson

Around elections people frequently say things like “get out and vote!” The assumption is if you cast a ballot you are somehow preserving democracy. But what if by voting you are actually helping to undermine the very system and freedoms you’re trying to preserve?

In principle, elected officials make decisions that reflect the will of the people. Additionally, civic officials sometimes protect democracy by not making decisions reflecting the will of the majority.

Following the Boston Massacre in 1770 a lawyer named John Adams was tasked with defending several British soldiers accused of murdering American protestors. Adams was under considerable pressure not to vigorously defend the accused. A guilty verdict would mean the soldiers would be hanged thereby satisfying the American desire for revenge. But Adams was a principled man who believed in the rule of law, due process rights, and that a truly free society was one where principles (not emotion or the capricious will of the majority) was the basis of civic order. The accused received a fair trial and were found not guilty.

Looking to a contemporary Canadian example, when Prime Minister Paul Martin managed to push through the Civil Marriage Act in 2005, he did so despite the fact many Canadians opposed same sex marriage; however, he had a duty to protect the fundamental rights of all Canadians (and not just preserve the privileges of the majority). Although preventing gay people from marrying one another might satisfy the vanity or sense of propriety of some, to deny anyone marriage equality would be a violation of democratic first-principles and the Charter of Rights of Freedoms. Martin’s greater responsibility, in this case, was to secure the rights of a minority.

The degree to which a society protects its minorities is considered a litmus test by many political theorists for how healthy a democracy is. Again, elected officials defend the people, all of the people by upholding each respective country’s constitution; these officials have to have the power to work independently, follow their conscience insofar as this is not used to justify an arbitrary or moving standard of justice, and use their personal judgement when it comes to the passage or repeal of laws; the best elected officials possess what Machiavelli called civic virtu and a strong sense of civic responsibility (as per Martin’s example).

This is the ideal: but we find few elected representatives actually operate like this; most politicians (with exception) have little to no independence of action. They can’t vote on bills based on the needs of their constituents. If they actually could, we’d have seen common sense legislation passed on regulating the proliferation of guns in the United States a long time ago; we would have seen legislation on hydraulic fracturing to protect the water supplies of communities unfortunate enough to reside on the Bakken Formation; or laws protecting people from the effluence and continuing toxic effects of mining on the health of residents in West Virginia or Montana.

Elected representatives can’t pass these laws (even if it is the will of the people). Corporations through propaganda mills like the Heartland Institute, and through cadres of tens of thousands of lobbyists, buy and sell federal and state level politicians and influence; these powerful interests own the decision-making process. So much for government for and by the people. This reality is one of the reasons why Sanders and Trump (and even Obama to an extent) were so popular. They all promise, or promised, to do something about the situation. The problem is the political system, as it is currently constituted, cannot be fixed (at least not through elections).

Americans have personal freedom but lack civic freedom; they are free to speak their minds, to follow (or not) a religion, associate with like-minded people, etc. However, Americans lack meaningful civic freedom (or power): you can hold public office but to win an election you exchange corporate donations for political favors: this compromises the independence of the sitting members of legislatures while essentially nullifying the purpose and meaning of elections.

…Americans lack meaningful civic freedom (or power): you can hold public office but to win an election you exchange corporate donations for political favors: this compromises the independence of the sitting members of legislatures while essentially nullifying the purpose and meaning of elections.

If either the Republicans or Democrats win an election the running assumption is the will of the people is being expressed. Ignoring the role propaganda has on shaping political attitudes and election outcomes, citizens do decide the outcome of elections; yet, after election day the role/will of the people ends; it is replaced by the control exercised by corporations through their lobbyists. Voters might want their representatives to end the for-profit prison or health-care systems. But elected officials can’t: they’re pressured to maintain the status-quo or face being either cut off from future campaign funding or face propaganda attacks which all but assure they will never be re-elected. So nothing changes; and worse still voters legitimate the whole thing by casting their ballots.

When you vote for and elect these compromised public officials, you are actually complicit in your own oppression. They aren’t working for you. They work for the likes of George Soros or the Koch brothers. By casting a ballot you make the whole process—from the campaign, the election itself, and finally to the decision-making processes in the legislatures that follows—legitimate. Basically, you are justifying the corporate order every four years by ratifying it through the ballot—an order which makes it nearly impossible to change the environment destroying course we are currently on; an order where we’ve seen a massive transferal of wealth to a small number of individuals; an order which is becoming increasingly unresponsive or relevant to meeting the needs of the people; and an order treating people not as equal citizens but useful only insofar as they consume, consume, consume.

The whole idea of legitimacy sets dictatorships apart from democracies. Dictatorships don’t rely on legitimacy (popular support) for control; they rely on coercion, the control of information and resources, and of course fear. Democracies by contrast only work if people feel they are genuinely part of the decision-making process. For this reason the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy developed in Great Britain is the longest lived political system currently in operation. People don’t feel the need to overthrow or replace it; it is a responsive system; it is a responsible and accountable system. The law, and everyone (even corporations), is subordinate to the civic good as upheld by the constitution.

This is not the case in the United States.

The thing about the corporations though is they know they need to keep up appearances. If people become aware, truly aware, something is wrong with the decision-making process then the gig is up (as they say). So the propaganda mill keeps churning out lies keeping people oblivious and powerless; and we keep playing our part in a sort of failed democratic ritual.

But what if we decided en masse to no longer participate in elections? If we didn’t vote, we’d stop legitimating the results of sham processes. We would generate awareness among the polity about the importance of not being passive but active in their own governance. We would in essence finally draw a line in the sand and say no more and no further. We would embarrass the elite, as the Radical Party did in Argentina in the 1920s and early 30s, into a more equitable sharing of power. There’s no getting around having an elite; yet, a more equitable balance of power is achievable. Change is possible and needed.

Critics of what I propose rightly point out that if you don’t vote then the “other guy’s” party will win the election; the running assumption though is that there’s a meaningful difference between the political parties and candidates. There is no critical difference (except in rhetoric) between the two major parties in the United States. They’re both bought and paid for. Thus, the American voter doesn’t even have the choice of choosing between the lesser of two evils…they just have evil and evil.

For this tactic of not voting to work it would require organization, time, and committed individuals. But I guarantee nothing is going to change based on the results of the next presidential election; and the next congressional election we’ll see the emergence of the same types of representatives making the same decisions for the same corporate-interested reasons. If you want to rescue democracy, one of the many things you can do is refuse to participate in meaningless, sham elections. This tactic won’t work in 2016; however, in 2020 it might be one of the few weapons left to people who genuinely want to preserve liberty.

The end game isn’t to win elections: it’s to destroy the myth that voting in and of itself constitutes a genuine expression of democratic sentiment. Citizens need to realize their democratic responsibilities do not end after election day (these responsibilities begin); they need to be active in their communities building food boxes or book boxes; they can teach literacy skills to those who lack them; they need to keep elected representatives accountable through the effective use of the media (citizen journalism); they need to quit being indifferent to the suffering of their fellow citizens when these are shot, disenfranchised or bullied, e.g. join Idle No More, Occupy or some equivalent movement (start your own movement); they need to demand of judges that the Constitution be protected and upheld, i.e. there’s no such thing as a conservative or liberal interpretation of this document (there are simply democratic first-principles we need to preserve); citizens need to take their power back from corporations and they can do that in part by achieving food independence (growing their own food), energy independence (citizens making use of either solar or wind power), and civic disobedience (not cooperating with the government).

Fitness Saved My Life

Six years ago I entered a depressive episode lasting the better part of four years. Emerging two years later—chastened by the experience and filled with regrets for how my situation adversely affected many people I care about—I gained a greater understanding for people coping with mental illness along with a healthier appreciation for my own imperfections.

I’ve struggled with some form of anxiety or another since I was little. In elementary school, I had a lot of social anxiety due to a combination of shyness, awkwardness, and the seeming inability to feel at home in large groups. I absolutely hated high school. In grade nine I was bullied the entire year by a grade 12 student. I’ve never understood why people have to go out of their way to be mean to others. Hell truly can be other people as the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre observed. For some reason society finds ways to devour the most sensitive of us. I’ve honestly hated myself at times for being so sensitive; it makes me feel weak or less of a man. I’d tear it out of me if I could. To gain an appreciation for the scope of my situation, consider the following: when I was six years old, I’d come across a gum wrapper lying on the ground all by itself. I’d feel sorry for it and then find a stick or a rock for the wrapper to be beside so it wouldn’t feel lonely. We never entirely escape our genetics, and so I turned a bully’s aggression into an expression of self-loathing and self-harm. I was so happy I survived high school.

Sometimes we unleash hell on ourselves: after a period of extensive reading and study at university, I entered a two year existential crisis brought on by a loss of faith in God. My understanding mother helped me appreciate the importance of nuance when it came to the apparent conflict between science and religion. Although she helped me navigate a dark period, I’ve never quite escaped those uncertain waters. Not really. Nonetheless, I survived by finding constructive outlets for my doubt eventually abandoning any need for certainty.

Faith became less about believing (fide) in doctrines and more a matter of trusting (pistus), in that, promises made would be promises kept.

I continued pursuing what some call living a life of the mind by pouring my energy into reading books. I fell in love with knowledge and I fell in love with the people I met through and in them.

Yet, we aren’t frozen creatures, any of us; we don’t hit a “good” spot and stop changing; instead, we’re sculptures constantly shaped by our circumstances, experiences, and temperament; and there was something different, even life threatening, about my most recent bout with depression. I won’t go into specifics but suffice to say the pressure of the school I work at possibly closing, along with the confluence of some other factors, nearly destroyed me.

I remember waking up one morning feeling something was different, like someone had turned a switch off. I physically couldn’t get out of bed. My brain is usually fixed on philosophical, logical or ethical problems. My mind was empty. When I finally did get up, I felt a physical weight and pressure on my chest that remained for four years.

That was just the beginning.

Music lost its allure. Books gathered dust and remained unopened. I started eating food in large quantities as a sort of way to medicate myself. I gained weight and didn’t really care. I had zero energy for my kids. Normally, when my kids hugged me I would feel so alive. I no longer sought their affection. I was a complete bear to my wife. I didn’t enjoy playing hockey. I quit playing drums. I quit laughing. I un-successfully tried hiding what was happening to me from others. I didn’t think my kids noticed anything was different but one day my son Alec wondered aloud at supper why his dad seemed to be sad all the time. The thing about depression—at least in my experience—is I’d be perfectly happy one moment and then inexplicably teary-eyed the next. Why are potatoes making me cry? Like what the fuck? I’m certain students and co-workers noticed something was not quite right with me. Admittedly, I did get energy from teaching but eventually even that became an almost unbearable source of stress for me. What used to give me joy no longer did. I just couldn’t seem to pull myself out of a cycle of unhealthy thinking. I was stuck in something outside of my control and I was acutely aware and powerless to stop it. I was residing in a sort of living death.

That’s the best way I can think of describing it: living death.

As the years passed, and things didn’t seem like they were going to turn around, I started feeling I was running out of time. Then something unexpected happened. During a hockey tournament I met someone I hadn’t seen in several years. He was a fellow teacher, about ten years older than me. He’d lost about 25-30 pounds. When he started putting on his equipment I noticed he had a six pack and looked ripped. I asked him what he did to look the way he did and he said he completed an extreme fitness program called P90X. I resolved to try the program myself. So, the next day I ordered P90X online. When the program finally arrived it sat on a table in the living room for about two weeks. I’d look at the large white box and say to myself…not yet, not yet. Eventually, I quit procrastinating and completed my first work out.

Oh my God.

When I was half-way through the first workout, I was so tempted to quit. I could barely complete a pull-up. Dripping in sweat, I could tell push-ups weren’t exactly my bag. The 12565526_10208793627783958_145982676850428941_nthing about lifting weights, pull-ups, push-ups, plyo-metrics, and yoga, etc. is exercise acts like an anti-depressant; it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself. I was super stiff, and could barely walk at times, but I eventually started feeling much better. I had an outlet for stress.

I resolved to give the program two solid weeks. I needed the program to work (and work it did). After 30 days of P90X I lost 20 pounds (going from 215 to 195 pounds). I felt so much more energy. I also started getting some counseling, too. The counseling helped me break the cycle of defeatist thinking I was stuck in. (I did try medication for a time, as well. I abandoned pills though because I didn’t like how they made me feel. I’m not against someone using medication though. Not at all; it’s a personal decision and people have to do what’s right for them.) By the end of 90 days my weight dropped to 173 pounds. I looked a lot better and felt more confident. I still had, and continue to have, issues with anxiety and depression yet I have found a life-affirming way to address it: now when I feel like the black dog of depression is returning I don’t try to sleep or eat it away; instead, I’ll complete a workout like the one called “The Challenge” and complete over 230 push-ups and 100 pull-ups in 30 minutes.

I believe fitness saved my life.

Again, I still struggle with things at times. I don’t always eat well. Yet, I’m thankful for finding a way to deal constructively with the stress and pressures life throws my way. The funny thing about life, really, is it can take you on unexpected turns—sometimes life’s turns don’t take you in positive directions but sometimes they do. In my case, I was fortunate to discover someone capable of inspiring me and giving me a means of turning things around. One thing I can honestly say about depression, though, is I’d never wish it on my worst enemy. The people I know who struggle with this daily, you are my heroes. If I might have one word of advice, don’t try to stick things out or go it alone. Seek help from others if you need it. Confide in the people who love you; and above all, be patient and love yourself; and if you’re looking for a training partner, or you want to talk about fitness or life or whatever, I’m as close as an email (

Episode 16: Why You Should Support Trump

Peasants & Emperors is a podcast presenting topics related to democracy, science, culture, women’s issues, current events and critical thinking. A new podcast is produced and available for listening/download approximately every two weeks.

In episode 16, the Hooligans welcome their first guest speaker (Lane S. who is a statistician based in Kansas) to the podcast. Rick and Jess hoped Lane might be able to shed some light on why so many people support Trump. Lane argues Trump’s candidacy is more or less a reaction of Middle-America to decades of graft and corruption in Washington, D.C. Whatever side of the political spectrum you reside on, you’ll find some of the things Lane has to say revealing to say the least.

Episode 16: Why You Should Support Trump

Click on the hyperlink above to download and listen to the podcast. Feel free to leave a comment or question in the comments section below. One of the cast members will respond.

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Notes & Clarifications
1). In the podcast, Lane asserted 94 million Americans are currently not looking for work. This would be an extraordinary number of unemployed people considering the population of the United States is approximately 320 million. The figure above (94 million unemployed) is used by Donald Trump. According to the Bureau of Labor, approximately 92 to 93 million Americans aged 16 to infinity were not participating in the labor force as of July 2015. This number needs to be unpacked, i.e. it includes a number of people not actively looking for work (17.5 million retired Americans 65 or older). The number likewise includes high school, graduate and professional school students. Also, it includes people with disabilities, stay at home parents, and every adult attending school full-time. The official number of unemployed Americans is 8.3 million (but according to Political Fact, a watch-dog website, depending upon the criteria you use the number of unemployed could be as high as 21 million). So a more realistic number might well be somewhere between 8.3  to 21 million unemployed.

2). Lane observed 68,000 crimes had been perpetrated in Texas alone by illegal immigrants in Texas since Obama was elected in 2008. According to Political Fact figure is accurate (and depending upon how you interpret some of the statistics) and might be more or less an understatement of the problem facing the American judicial system by illegals.

3). Rick claimed that 7 out of every 10 jobs created in any modern economy are technology related. He was unable to find the source where he came across this information. He did recall learning this statistic while completing his education degree back in the 1990s. Nonetheless, listeners are counselled to take this stat with a grain of salt until a source can be found affirming it.

4). Lane observed he had some problems with free trade but no problems really with “fair” trade. This led to a discussion of some examples of “unfair” trade which has resulted from free trade agreements. Specifically, the topic of Apple Corporation’s exploitation of cheap Chinese labor in Shang-hai came up. Follow this link to a discussion on Apple’s problematic alliance with the Chinese government. Ultimately, when you purchase Apple products you are directly contributing to the misery of tens of thousands of workers in China.

5). During the podcast, Rick couldn’t remember the name of the legal instrument used by corporations to sue national governments. This tool is called an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). Every major free trade agreement, e.g. NAFTA, etc. has an ISDS clause empowering corporations to sue national governments whenever a government’s policies or laws might threaten shareholder profits. Critics of ISDS have raised concerns about its unpredictability, how it contributes to a lack of transparency, and the apparent lack of impartiality on the part of arbitrators; that is, the same lawyers who craft the agreements also preside as judges (arbitrators) during conflict resolution.

6). Lane referred to an apocryphal story of Donald Trump helping a married couple out by paying hospital bills, mortgage, etc. for helping him with some car troubles. The story is fictional and has made the rounds in different forms with different celebrities helping the couple. A similar story has circulated about stars like Vin Diesel or Will Ferrell moving to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to escape the hurly-burly of Los Angeles. Click here to see the Snope’s fact check page on this story.

7). Rick mis-spoke when he said nuclear deterrence has worked for six years. He meant to say six decades.

8). Rick couldn’t remember the location of one Al Qaida led terror attack on an American embassy from a country starting with the letter “t” (that country was Tanzania and it took place in 1998).

9). Lane mentioned an attack on the American embassy in Iran in 1973. He meant to say an attack came during the 1979 Iranian uprising.

Part 1: Donald Trump: The Problem of Relying on Men Instead of Principles
Part 2: Donald Trump: Why Reasonable People Vote for Him
Part 3: Donald Trump: Where’s It All Heading
Trump Makes Promises He Can’t Keep
Podcast (audio): Why You Should Vote for Trump

Elections 101: Kang and Kodos on Clinton and Trump

The year is 1996 and it’s an election year: aliens have kidnapped presidential hopefuls Bob Dole (Republican) and Bill Clinton (Democrat). Aliens Kang and Kodos take on the human forms of the candidates and run for the presidency themselves; these tentacled creatures have not come in peace but to take advantage of America’s two-party system where voters have no choice but to vote for either the Democratic or Republican party in the upcoming election. Yet, before the coup d’état is complete, Homer Simpson arrives in a stolen UFO smashing into the Capitol building. Homer reveals to the crowd they’ve been duped into supporting alien overlords. With their cover blown, Kang and Kodos abandon their human forms revealing themselves as hideous, single-eyed, green, tentacled monsters. The conspiracy uncovered, the aliens don’t attempt to escape. Instead, they confidently communicate to a crowd of spectators that they have no choice but to vote for either Kodos or Kang. After all, America has a two-party system and it’s too late to select new candidates; also, the aliens caution the crowd from being so foolish as to throw away their vote by supporting a third-party candidate like Ross Perot.

Art imitates life or, in the case of the Simpson’s, satirizes it. Clinton and Trump’s approval ratings are about the same as Kang’s and Kodos’. Clinton like Kang before her is viewed as an untrustworthy opportunist seeking the presidency out of personal ambition as opposed to a desire to serve. The insomniac Trump, just like Kodos, is believed lacking in the intelligence, judgement or the temperament required to be president; and as was the case with the voters in 1996 the electorate in 2016 are a free people captive to an unresponsive two-party system where the only option available is to choose between the lesser of two evils.

This November 8thAmericans head to the polls to elect the 45th president in what many regard as the most important election in generations; it is important because America is stuck with a dysfunctional two-party political system offering voters little hope for meaningful change. There are third party candidates and parties yet these alternatives aren’t really options at all: the Green Party’s Jill Stein has little understanding of economics; she believes quantitative easing is the appropriate tool to pay for social programs or free university, etc. She has zero appreciation for the negative effects of pursuing such a dangerous fiscal policy in the long-term; then there’s the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson who an American friend of mine aptly describes as an “asshat.” Johnson is essentially a stoned Donald Trump—he is chill, likes to “partake,” and doesn’t know much about anything in particular. So, the Americans limp towards the next election like lame ducks.

Political theorists argue two-party systems are actually supposed to prevent parties from becoming too polarized—the competition for popular support (at least in principle) keeps party policy somewhere in the middle. This clearly is not happening in America. The dysfunction in the Congress we’ve seen over (at least) the last eight years and the lack of civility when it comes dialogue in the public sphere, e.g. conservatives labeling progressives as not “true Americans” and liberals accusing conservatives of being a bunch of Luddite racists, etc. take us anywhere except along a middle course. You could not have a more divided polity right now.

Since I’m lacking any direct experience with the American system, I asked Kang and Kodos if they would answer some questions I have about the two-party system, the Electoral College, and the overall significance of the 2016 election.


Rick: Kang you obviously did your homework before attempting to take the presidency in 1996. You were the Republican nominee. Kang was the Democratic nominee. Has there only ever been two political parties in the history of the United States?

Kang: glad to be here. I trust there will be no need for a bloodbath. To answer your question there have been plenty of other political parties. They just come and go. For example, there were the Federalists (1790-1820), National Republicans (1825-1833), Whigs (1833-1854) and Democratic-Republicans (1800-1820s).

Rick: Kodos how long have the Republicans and Democrats been the only real options available to Americans?

Kodos: why do you recoil so? My culture has learnt all it can from human anal probing. Rest assured you have nothing to fear from me. Kang, well, that is another story. Since 1852 only candidates from either the Republican or Democrat parties have placed first or second in a presidential election. There was one exception: in 1912 Theodore Roosevelt ran as a Progressive third-party candidate. He came in second to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson.

Rick: I took a gander at the Constitution (1787) and there’s nothing in there saying America has to have a two-party system. This is just a convention that developed over time. Kang why did the two-party system develop in the first place?

Kang: [polishing his anal probe] some of your human balding white political scientists argue two-party systems are the natural result of using a winner-takes-all voting system.

Rick: [looking around for all the available exits] some of my readers might not know what this winner-takes-all voting system is. Could you explain further?

Kang: [drooling] why yes, most certainly. In such a system, the candidate receiving the most votes compared to the others wins the district. You don’t need to win a majority or receive 50% plus one of the votes. You win by just getting more votes than the person in second place. Candidates who come in third, fourth, etc. don’t matter whatsoever. The winner could receive as little as 15% of the votes assuming the second place finisher received 14% and so on and so forth.

Rick: a person can win an election by receiving so little of the popular vote?

Kang:  baha, oh my. The main problem with winner-takes-all is there’s a real chance the wishes of the majority of voters in any given electoral district are not reflected at all in the final results.

Rick: what system do you use on Rigel 5?

Kodos: [interjecting] we’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.

Rick: yes…

Kodos: but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting.

Rick: yes, I see.

Kodos: by a simple majority, in the case of purely internal affairs.

Rick: yes, yes, I see.

Kodos: But by a two-thirds majority, in the case of more major—

Rick: let’s bring our attention back to earth shall we? There is one genuine alternative to winner-takes-all. This is called the proportional representation system like Australia uses.

Kang: Australia an interesting place. We avoid probing its animal life: everything there seems to want to kill you.

Rick: could you describe the proportional representation system used in Australia…?

Kang: in the proportional system if 25% of the electorate vote for one political party then that party receives one-quarter of the seats available in the legislature. All parties receive a proportion of seats in the legislature based on how well they performed in the last election. But proportional representation isn’t possible when a country is divided into single-member districts like in Canada or the United States. In Canada you call these districts “ridings” I believe. Speaking of ridings: Kodos and I were in Sydney just the other day and we overheard a conversation between an Aussie and an American. The American asked the Australian if all Aussies rode kangaroos. Then the Australian responded by asking the Yank if all Americans rode fat people.

Kodos: I don’t get it.

Rick: lost in the idiom I suppose. So to be clear in a single-member situation each district can only send one representative to the legislature?

Kodos: yes, yes. And this makes it all but certain that third party candidates and parties, and the people who support them, are not represented in either the Congress or your fancy-smancy Parliament.

Rick: there are exceptions though. Sometimes third party candidates or independents win elections.

Kang: [unibrow moving up and down] yes, but it is as rare as a redneck who doesn’t like a good probing.

Rick: I think since 1939 of the 535 people elected to the Congress only two have been independents. The most noteworthy independent to win is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Kodos: feel the burn.

Kang: au contraire, feel the probe.

Rick: okay, turning our attention to the presidential election and the Electoral College. Which one of you can explain this best for our readers?

Kodos: I think I’m a little more well-rounded than Kang.

Kang: we’re both round.

Rick: Kodos how about you explain?

Kodos: [puts thesaurus down] interestingly, there are 50 states in America. With the exception of two states—Nebraska and Maine—every state has a specific number of electors. Some states have more than others. The strange thing, and this is coming from someone from Rigel 5, is when someone votes in a presidential election they aren’t really voting directly for the president.

Rick: could you elaborate? What do you mean voters don’t vote directly for the president?

Kodos: let’s ignore Jill Stein of the Green Party and the Libertarian Gary Johnson for the moment. Let’s say there are only two candidates on the ticket—one a Democrat and the other a Republican—people can vote for. You cast your vote on election day, November 8th.

Rick: it would’ve been hilarious if the election took place on the 5th of November…

Kodos: I’m not sure what you mean.

Rick: sorry. Keep explaining.

Kodos: California has a total of 55 electors. Following the results of the election all of the electors by convention pledge to support either the Republican or Democratic candidate.

Rick: all?

Kodos: all of California’s electoral votes go to the winner of the state-wide election, even if the margin of victory is only 50.1% to 49.9%. All of the votes go to the winner.

Rick: so if, let’s say, Donald Trump receives 60% of votes from California he receives all 55 electors. Clinton doesn’t receive 40% of the electors.

Kodos: no. This is a winner-takes-all approach. [Puts thesaurus down, again] There’s no room for nuance.

Kang: [proud of himself] this winner-takes-all approach contributes to a situation where voters choose between the lesser of two evils. Whoever wins 270 of the available 538 electoral votes becomes president.

Rick: so the election is decided by electoral votes and not the popular vote?

Kang & Kodos: that is correct.

Kang: [punches Kodos on the shoulder]—Jinx! You owe me a soda!

Rick: this is what happened during the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Bush received less of the popular vote than Gore while Bush received the majority of the electoral votes. Bush won because he carried states which had proportionately more electoral votes. This seems odd that in a democracy someone could become president without actually receiving the greater proportion of the popular vote.

Kodos: the system was designed to [makes air quote gesture with tentacles] mitigate the problems with giving the American People themselves too much decision-making power.

Kang: this is true. We did the same thing on our planet. There’s a strong tradition dating all the way back to Adams and Hamilton in the early days of the Republic where the elite of your country feared what they called a mobocracy or the [makes air quote gesture] rule by the mob. Electors make sure democracy doesn’t get too democratic.

Rick: what if neither candidate receives 270 of the electors? What happens then?

Kodos: in that case according to the 12th Amendment of the Constitution the House of Representatives determines the next president.

Rick: you know for a couple of aliens you know quite a bit about political systems. Thanks guys.

Kang: it was our pleasure.

Kodos: I would run if I were you.

The leading theory why countries with genuinely free elections evolve into two-party states is called Duverger’s Law. This law, one of the few established in the field of political science, states that two parties are a natural result of a winner-take-all voting system. In principle the winner-take-all system is supposed to keep the parties running for election in the middle when it comes to platforms and values. However, theories are only as good as the most recent data. The law was formulated a long time ago and the data has definitely changed.

When the French political scientist Maurice Duverger first began articulating this “law” in his essays in the 1950s, the political situation was very different then in the United States compared to now. Specifically, the political left and progressivism (social reform) had been on the ascendant in the United States since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed through his “New Deal” through a combination of compromise and executive orders during the 1930s.

Since the Great Depression, and even before the Stock Market Crash in 1929, a significant proportion of the American polity actually distrusted capitalists. This is one of the reasons why otherwise reasonable people supported more radical political movements like the American fascist and communist parties in the 1930s. Through the New Deal, the United States developed into one of the more socially responsible and responsive societies in the world (a process reaching its nadir during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon in the 1970s).

After Nixon the political right began a concerted effort to deregulate the economy, deregulate ecological oversight, deregulate social services, increase military spending, and sell the American public the idea that socialist policies (or regulating anything) was some sort of social evil or anti-American. The naked pursuit of wealth and defeating the Soviets during the Cold War was all that mattered. In the intervening decades, from the 1970s to the present, governments at the behest of conservative politicians and corporations clawed back social programs; conservatives gained more and more control of both state and federal level government. This corporate influence reached its apogee in America with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010. This court decision removed any limits on how much a corporation/billionaire could spend to support a particular candidate running for political office. This decision benefited both Democrats and Republicans; and it also compromised the independence of the Congress. The members of the House of Representatives and the Senate pay back billionaires for their support through the granting of political favors. This is why Donald Trump is correct when he observes the “system is rigged.”

The political system is rigged making this presidential election an important one: the two parties are so clearly bought and paid for, and the decision-making process so clearly partisan, the American electorate is willing to support anyone (even a man as unsuitable to lead as Donald Trump) to change things up. Both Trump and Sanders offered alternatives to the status-quo. Regrettably, Sanders never had a chance to win the nomination for the Democrats because of in-party intrigues; and equally regrettable is the fact Hillary Clinton, if she wins the presidency, will likely be nothing more than a caretaker president.  Considering the alternative—like Trump becoming the leader of the Free World—the best outcome in the short-term is to support Clinton and the status-quo. There have been third party choices—Libertarians Ross Perot (1996) and Ralph Nader (2000)—but at the end of the day people vote for the major party candidates. So don’t expect much from either Johnson or Stein in 2016.

Americans appear to like a divided government, e.g. in 38 of the last 60 years presidents have had to work with legislatures controlled by the opposing party. If this is the case, then it is likely Clinton will be declared the 45th president of the United States. Yet, the emergence of the Tea Party movement, the recent importance placed on populist leaders like Obama, Sanders, and Trump, etc. seems to point to a future where people are more interested in grass roots, anti-systemic movements. The Democrats and Republicans will have to change things up significantly if they want to avoid a challenge to their traditional influence (like Sanders and Trump presented).

If you thought the 2016 election was historic, or even just a little volatile, just wait for 2020. If nothing significant changes in the intervening years, and if the economy happens to go into another major recession (which is being predicted by many economists based on the new financial instruments introduced by Wall Street using risky car loans), the 2020 election will be a hell storm by comparison. People will look back at 2015-2016 with fondness saying “those were the good ol’ days. Where’s the anal probe at?”

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might be interested in related stories or podcasts. Explore the list below:

Part 1: Donald Trump: The Problem of Relying on Men Instead of Principles
Part 2: Donald Trump: Why Reasonable People Vote for Him
Part 3: Donald Trump: Where’s It All Heading
Elections 101: Kang and Kodos on Clinton and Trump
Trump Makes Promises He Can’t Keep
Podcast (audio): Why You Should Vote for Trump

Canada Shouldn’t Even Exist

Canada shouldn’t even exist. We’ve broken virtually every rule where it applies to nation building:

  • We aren’t one race but many. We are the only genuinely multicultural society (at least legally). Despite appearances, though, Canadians need to check their ego at the door when it comes to practicing toleration or celebrating diversity; we’re becoming less and less tolerant of Muslims according to a recent Angus Reid poll. America, yes the land of Donald Trump, is comparatively more supportive of new comers keeping their customs, language, etc. when immigrating to the United States than we are when people come to Canada.


No country is perfect I guess; and that’s quite a Canadian thing to admit, really.

  • We don’t have one official language but two…and counting. Linguistic diversity sometimes poses a challenge (especially in schools and in the work place).
  • Canada’s history is not a single narrative but a shared collection of stories. This is one of the few things about being Canadian I am genuinely proud of. There’s no point in celebrating any one branch of the Canadian family more than the next; everyone has contributed to creating this patchwork Canadian culture.

Nations are supposed to be simple things. Canada is far from simple. According to 19th century standards, nations consist of one ethnic group speaking the same language, worshiping the same God (in the same way), and sharing a common history. For example, Germans and Japanese nationalists insisted their respective countries were the greatest in the world in the 1930s. Around the same time Italians under Mussolini reminded Italy was once the seat of Roman power. In some respects deserved and in others not so much, France has persisted insisting it possesses a certain je ne sais quoi setting itself apart from other nations. Turning our attention to China, the Chinese refer to their country as the “Middle Kingdom” (a place existing mystically between Heaven and earth) while Americans are notorious for thinking themselves exceptional in absolutely every way. Canadians are different (or at least they think they are); they love their country while not holding themselves up as the standard by which all other countries are measured. Canadians admit they do some things well while acknowledging other countries do other things well.

Yet, Canada does have a rich history of intolerance. In shades of Plato’s “one and the many” dichotomy, there are examples in our history where the English majority (the “one”) attempted to push out or assimilate minorities (the “many”). English Canada has actively worked to limit French access, language, and legal rights. In the early days of Canada becoming a country, English Canada completely determined the path the country followed. Interestingly, the English aren’t the only ones who’ve been a little on the tribal side of the political spectrum. The early 20th century journalist Henri Bourassa wondered why French Canadians would fight for England in France when the fight for French liberty had not yet been won at home. French Canadians have also had some unflattering things to say about multiculturalism and such. In the mid-1990s, a prominent federal politician from Quebec named Lucien Bouchard argued Canada “wasn’t [even] a real country.” In a sense, he was right: we were too complicated a creature to constitute a nation. He was of course appealing to those 19th century standards about nationhood I previously mentioned. Bouchard didn’t view diversity as a strength but as a watering down of French Canadian culture and identity. Diversity was dangerous. In the early 2000s, Prime Minister Paul Martin argued the opposite observing “Canada is the world’s only truly post-modernist nation.” Martin invoked the post-modernist notion that diversity, truth, identity and purpose were relative things, not absolutes; there was more than one right way to go about building a nation.

Despite the recent Angus Reid poll, Canada is a multicultural society. We have our challenges (as do all notions, even ones with homogeneous populations). But I’m confident, invoking Abraham Lincoln here, that the better angels of our nature will eventually win out and the irrational fear people have of Muslims, specifically, will abate. Yet, optimism notwithstanding, tolerance is usually tied to how well the economy is doing more than anything else.

Pinpointing when modern nations first appeared in history is difficult. Some scholars claim England was the first nation state. They draw our attention to the year 1689 when England passed in to law its first constitution (Bill of Rights) thereby establishing a constitutional monarchy. Other scholars suggest the French Revolution (1789) brought into existence the first truly national identity. This particular view is not without its challenges; that is, only 50% of France’s people actually spoke French at the time of the Revolution (Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy, page 34). If one of the hallmarks of a nation is linguistic unity then France fails at every turn in 1789.

Ultimately, nations are not created simply by passing legislation limiting the power of the King (England) or by lopping off the Regent’s head (France). Nations are multi-headed creatures and complex. In the Canadian context, Canada breaks the rules and is successful primarily because, to quote John Raulston Saul “[Canadians] accept their non-conformity with some ease. They live it and so it makes sense” (Reflections of a Siamese Twin, page 9). In other words, we have little to no experience living any other way than being chill to one another. Not every Canadian is on-board with multiculturalism. Nonetheless, I would say it is an indisputable more Canadians than not support allowing individuals and communities to pursue happiness wherever it might take them.

Eventually France and England became nations but not for the reasons you might think: one did not love France just because one spoke French, revered the king or belonged to the Catholic Church. Historically speaking, France was divided into several dozen mutually exclusive rival provinces. Unity only came once people faced a shared threat from either Spain, England or Germany. The French nation, therefore, wasn’t born with the French Revolution, the declaration of the First Republic, and the beheading of King Louis XVI. On the contrary, France was born when she was invaded by the other powerful monarchs of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars (1798-1815). Nations, and national identity in particular, are created ultimately through destruction (war).

Wars make nationalists and nationalists make nations. In the case of the United States, it took two major wars—the American Revolution (1776-1783) and the Civil War (1861-1865)—for it to become a modern nation state. In the case of the Dominion of Canada, it became a country in form with the passage of the British North America Act in 1867; however, Canada did not become a nation in fact until our success at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in France (1917) during World War I. The shared sacrifice of Canada’s soldiers (French, English, German, Jewish, First Nation, Chinese, Japanese, etc.) gave Canadians a shared sense of pride resulting in a shared sense of identity. Heck I was born in more than 60 years after Vimy and the pride I feel is palpable. War is not the only way to build a nation. Yet, it seems to play a huge part in the development of national identity.


Above is a picture of a group of students I took to visit Vimy Ridge in May of 2015. (I’m the devilishly handsome and balding person with crossed-arms to the right of center.) The experience was unforgettable and one every single Canadian should make in their life.

There’s a certain irony that a nation like Canada which prides itself as an international peace keeper became a country following a military victory during an obscure battle on a non-descript hill in France in 1917.

Ideas: Part 2: Language & Power

Language is our first step towards salvation. We cannot fight what we cannot describe.–Chris Hedges

The social critic and author George Orwell recognized the relationship between language and power. In his novel 1984, Orwell presents us with a glimpse of how totalitarians in the modern day silence people; they don’t just do it by making people disappear or locking them away in concentration camps; they also maintain their domination by dumbing-down language.

People lacking word power are vulnerable to the forces of persuasion and propaganda. Words are repositories, or holding centers, of meaning; and they are the primary means available to us for exchanging ideas with others; and it’s precisely the exchange of ideas, along with our capacity to influence one another, that’s led to all of the great revolutions in thought and the progress we’ve made as a society. Reduce the number of words available to a people and you proportionately reduce the potential combinations of ideas available to them; and the ignorant are a lot easier to control than people in the know. For this reason the powerful have always distrusted intellectuals: intellectuals are harder to control (or predict) than, as the saying goes, a herd of cats.

In the case of Winston Smith, a newspaper redactor working at Oceania’s Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s fictional world, publicly he possesses a diminished vocabulary making him sound like everyone else. He uses simple words to describe life experiences as “good” rather than “fantastic,” “plus good” instead of exceptional, or “double-plus good” as opposed to “extraordinary.” There’s more to Winston, though: on the outside he seems to be like everyone else but on the inside he couldn’t be more different. He grew up surrounded by banned books and in a household where critical thinking was valued. However, Winston lives at a time where 24 hour surveillance and privacy are luxuries that cannot be afforded. This is because his tribe (Oceania) is at war with Eurasia. Sacrifices must be made to achieve complete victory. Yet, Winston is old enough to remember the world before the perpetual world war. This makes it impossible for him to conform in anything other than in a superficial way. Nonetheless, outwardly he is forced to adopt and use the most basic linguistic structures preventing that troublesome thing called nuance from creeping in and ruining everything. Not only does a paucity, or lack, of words negatively affect dialogue in the public sphere, Orwell’s world also illustrates how such limits imposed on the private life limits both the thoughts and options available to an individual. Fewer thoughts mean fewer options for people to pursue which means a more predictable society (and suddenly everyone, except for the cats, become herd-able).

Some things in life readily lend themselves to simple description like watching an interview on Fox News for instance; however, when it comes to certain situations or experiences a more powerful and expansive vocabulary is required. Some thoughts are impossible to express without first having access to certain words. Picture Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his I Have a Dream Speech using phrases like “I have a dream my kids will live in a double-plus good nation”; or consider how Winston Churchill might describe to his Zurich audience in 1946 the dangers posed by the Soviet Union to liberty by saying “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic a really, really, really heavy curtain has fallen on the Continent.” Dr. King’s speech was one of the most important events during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Churchill’s speech is considered by many historians as the beginning of the Cold War. The quality of our thoughts, and our policies and values, are determined by the quality of our thinking (and the words we employ).

By restricting access to information and using propaganda, public opinion can be molded and the public conversation steered in whatever direction. In this way, the tobacco industry managed for decades to deceive consumers into thinking smoking cigarettes was safe; they accomplished this despite the existence of substantial clinical evidence pointing to the contrary and the repeated warnings coming from medical science. Tobacco’s successful disarming of the public speaks volumes to the advantages conferred upon scrupulous marketers driven solely by the profit motive as opposed to intellectual honesty; and since information flows both up and down stream, there’s an equal chance information will be used for good or for ill; and in the case of the tobacco industry, they purposely misinformed consumers about the relative risk posed by tobacco through the use of plausible deniability. To preserve their profit margin cigarette companies hired a right-wing think tank known as the Heartland Institute. Heartland flooded the public with lies and half-truths making a point of creating a counter-narrative to challenge the emerging science, i.e. if science said tobacco was dangerous then Heartland followed up by saying the amount of risk was debatable (maybe even minimal). Heartland didn’t have to win the debate; they just had to sow the seeds of doubt and people would remain ignorant to the risk and the status-quo would be protected; and that’s exactly what Heartland did.

Every corporation in every major industry funds a think tank like Heartland. Basically, what this means is every corporation has its own Ministry of Truth whose sole purpose is to protect profits by transmitting corporate friendly propaganda to citizens through simple soundbites: like “CO2 is naturally occurring and it helps plants grow big” (used by climate change deniers) or “this commodity is crucial to our nation’s future” (an argument used by supporters of hydraulic fracturing). The reality is despite the gainsay coming from denialists, climate change is real and hydraulic fracturing causes more problems than it solves. Yet, the media continues to fail the public spectacularly when it comes to informing the public: this is because in an effort to be objective the news media give equal time to denialist and scientist alike.

Fair enough.

However, in as much as everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they are not entitled to their own facts; and objectivity isn’t achieved by remaining impartial. Far from it. Instead, being objective is accomplished by following the evidence wherever it takes you (regardless of the implications for your politics, profit margin, or beliefs of doing so).

Words matter and our access to them even more so.

Ideas: Part 1: Thinking About What We Think About

In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.—Bertrand Russell

My wife thinks I’m weird. How do I know? She tells me. Sometimes when inspiration takes me I’ll stop whatever I’m doing, look deeply into her eyes and ask, “What’s it like being you?” She gives me this strange look and then says something facetious. The question is odd I admit; yet, I am genuinely curious how the world looks to others and I find the thinking of others, particularly the ideas they entertain, interesting for a number of reasons.

A person’s ideas provide glimpses into their inner-world; and ideas are a currency exchanged between people. Consider the importance of books. I can literally enter into the mind of any writer simply by reading their written work. If I hadn’t read either Thomas Paine or John Locke, I wouldn’t have the same appreciation for democracy or the rule of law. Without Plato popularizing the ideas of his teacher Socrates, it would’ve taken me decades longer to develop an appreciation for learned ignorance (if I had developed it at all). When I was six I received a biblical story pop-up book for Christmas. I loved turning the book’s tactile pages: what it lacked in terms of historicity, it more than made up for in terms of shaping my later ethical development.

Books are obviously influential. So, too, are the interactions we have with the people in our lives: while growing up if I had a different father, an intellectual in every sense of the word, I wouldn’t have had the same critical conversations influencing me to place so much value on the need for intellectual integrity, consistency and honesty. If I had a different mom, I wouldn’t have developed as a strong sense of empathy. I’ve spent more hours than I can count talking with the friends I’ve had throughout my life; and each friend has in their own way challenged and forced me to re-examine my thinking in some way. Everyone follows their own path while being shaped by such experiences.

The experiences we do not have are often just as pivotal to our development as the ones we do have. If I lack a knowledge of Islam, or an attendant desire to learn more about it, I’ll likely make the mistake of lumping all Muslims into a single, fictional whole. Add fear to ignorance and you get a powerful combination. The fact we are living in such tense times with droves of Syrian refugees, the challenge of ISIS, and domestic terror attacks, etc. makes it even less likely people will want to understand Islam’s complexities; it’s always easier to just generalize and say all Muslims are the same. The reality is Islam is affected by the same sectarianism as Christianity, and the same divergence of beliefs as any of the world’s other major religions; and by contrast if I’ve never lived in a Western society where human rights are protected by law, but instead I’ve only ever lived in an honor-based society dominated by clerics like one finds in Iran, I likely won’t understand or accept the need for protecting either religious freedom or women’s rights. In philosophical terms, human rights are not a living option to someone living in an honor-based system while unquestioning obedience to religious authority is a dead option to a person living in a rights-based Western society.

In his book The Will to Believe, William James (1842-1910) introduced the concept of living and dead options. To illustrate how this dichotomy worked, James observed how no Turkish Muslim ever participated in a Catholic mass because of its self-evident truth. Although at an abstract level non-Catholics can see why a Catholic might find a mass meaningful, the value or merit of it is only evident to people actually raised in the Church to believe it’s something worth doing; and by comparison the Muslim requirement to face Mecca and pray six times a day is intrinsically without merit to a non-Muslim. Again, the idea of obligatory masses or prayer is a taught, not self-evident, necessity. This compulsion or need speaks volumes about how rarely we give any real conscious thought to the origins behind our own thinking, beliefs or actions. We are just sort of born into a time, setting and worldview as it were and then proceed from there.

Ideas are paradoxical and potentially dangerous things, i.e. they can precipitate change and progress or act as a catalyst to justify continuation of the status-quo and repression. In terms of progress, the idea human beings have rights is certainly one of the most important innovations of the last thousand years. Human rights don’t actually exist (not in any concrete sense like a table or a cat); they exist only in mind as an abstract “thing”; they require a biological host (us); their existence also requires specific social, political and cultural conditions to be met—like the existence of capitalism, individualism, constitutionalism, and a separation of church and state, a Reformation and Scientific Revolution, and something akin to Lockean liberalism. Rights didn’t always exist, nor were they inevitable; they just so happened to evolve in the fertile soil known as Western thought. The paradox is ideas like fascism, intolerance, Social Darwinism also grew out of this same soil.

In terms of the co-mingling of ideas with repression, one-thousand women a year are murdered in Pakistan because of a concept known as family honor. Honor killings, where brothers and fathers kills their sisters, wives and mothers, take place because of the perceived violation of the natural order; a natural order where gender roles are prescribed and any challenge to that order, e.g. a female family member is raped, etc.and males are required to take appropriate action to restore the family’s honor. There is no natural order to things, not so far as I can tell. If such a thing existed, one would expect to see more similarities and agreement between cultures. The reality is the idea of a natural order—a belief that there’s but one correct way to live in, view, and interpret the world—was invented by those already in power who appealed to that order to legitimate their continued control of society, e.g. priests, kings, nobles, elites. We are surrounded by such fictions. Human rights are fictions. So, too, is the notion of a natural order. Yet, fiction notwithstanding and human psychology being what it is, it doesn’t really matter if something exists or not. All that matters is a person believes something is real and then they act accordingly. Faith in the Boogie Man, for example, translates into a believer taking real actions to secure themselves from perceived (not actual) danger like leaving the bathroom light on at night or being cautious while walking near closets in darkened rooms. Perception becomes the reality; the reality, though, is there’s no Boogie Man in the first place (but try telling that to someone absorbed by fear).

This is because none of us really are in a habit of first confirming something is true before believing. We don’t continually check to see if the chair we’re going to sit on is there. We just sort of trust prior experience and sit. When it comes to meeting new people we, more often than not, trust to first-impressions (which may or may not be wise). Growing up we, generally speaking, do not question what our parents teach us. We trust them because they love us, they’re older, and we just assume that what they’re telling us is true. The problem is fundamentally we do not learn early enough the need or value of testing claims or the value of possessing a questioning attitude. The reality is, as wonderful as our parents can be, they don’t know everything; they make mistakes and they make assumptions; and they themselves learned certain valuable things and certain errors from their parents and so on and so forth. Fortunately, human psychology being what it is we are never quite set in stone (even though we might find ourselves set in our ways): when we finally understand the Boogie Man doesn’t exist, the power of this phantom—to dictate our present and our future action—is broken. Yet, breaking the hold myths have on us—since human beings are hardwired to tell and believe in stories—this is no easy task.

We are natural storytellers who believe in the need for a beginning, a middle, and an end. The show of a good story is it moves you emotionally; and we’d rather be moved than reasoned with. Unlike emotions, reason doesn’t come naturally to most of us. I think most people consider themselves reasonable people but if we are being perfectly honest with ourselves, invoking Giambattista Vico’s maxim, we tend to believe in more than we understand. Current research in neuroscience has established we possess “believing brains” meaning we tend to force new information to conform to old understandings (as opposed to changing our thinking to reflect a new understanding). For this reason logic, or at least appealing to reason over emotion, presents something of an upward battle to most of us. We tend to close our ears (not open them) when someone challenges us on a point of belief.

If our particular story’s beginning or middle or end is challenged in some way we tend to dig our feet in. If you’re honest you’ll appreciate what I’m saying, in that, more often than not when you encounter an idea or opinion that is contrary to what you believe is true you tend to feel the idea or opinion is wrong as opposed to know something is amiss. We are, in a sense, our own worst enemies when it comes to being reasonable because we just are not built for it. We’re built to connect with family, community, and society; built to be part of a group and to challenge popular wisdom is to become an outlier within the group. We’re built with a need to belong and share ideas and values in common. These needs, reflecting the peculiar hardware and software one finds in the human brain, combined with our tendency to succumb to emotion instead of trust in objectivity wherever it might take us, encourages us to conform to groups instead of risk being pushed out for being skeptical.

Before leaving the idea of emotions ruling over us let’s consider the following example. For the record I mean no disrespect in what I’m about to say. I just think it’ll help bring what I’m trying to say into greater relief: Tom Cruise is assumedly a reasonable guy, I’m sure he thinks of himself as such. He belongs to an organization called Scientology. As a Scientologist he believes the following to be true: several trillion years ago the Galactic Overlord Xenu’s planet had problems with overpopulation. To prevent a collapse of his own society Xenu brought this excess population to the planet Earth…just to kill them. (If Xenu was just going to commit genocide, why go through the trouble of traveling interstellar distances to kill everyone? I digress.)

Xenu got rid of this excess population by dumping them into volcanoes on the Earth; and just to make sure everyone was dead he dropped hydrogen bombs on the volcanoes. These beings then became spirits (what Scientologists call Thetans). Thetans, according to Scientology, are the main cause of human psychological problems: these spirits occupy us and cause bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and so on. Fortunately, if you have the money, the Church of Scientology has the know-how to get rid of the Thetans. Lucky us. I didn’t make any of that up; these are actual beliefs only the highest level Scientologists were privy to until quite recently.

So as you read my account of Scientology’s core teachings I bet you thought to yourself: how can anyone believe any of this? Yet, odds are you might very well believe in something equally fantastic like someone named Jesus walked on water or rose from the dead. If you are a Christian, I bet I hit a nerve there. Which only proves the point I was trying to make: we are usually able to appreciate the problems with the view points or beliefs of people different than us; however, we respond emotionally instead of logically to new information or to challenges to our existing thinking. In all honesty, the Scientologist is as justified (in their own mind) to believe Xenu is responsible for creating Thetans as a Christian is in believing wine can be turned into blood. The main reason why Jesus walking on water, or any other miracle or improbability, sounds reasonable to you is because these stories have been around a lot longer than Scientology; and you are surrounded by people who accept the idea someone can walk on water is valid; you likely accepted this idea at quite a young age; and these ideas form part of the intellectual tradition and culture of the West. However, as Thomas Paine observed, the long habit of believing a thing true might give it the superficial appearance of being right…but belief in and of itself does not make an idea true. Not by a long shot. I want to end this line of reasoning by reminding you how I began it: I had to preface talking about Jesus by saying I meant no disrespect. If I had to ask your forgiveness in advance, again, doesn’t that suggest we’re not quite as reasonable as we thought and that maybe our emotions at some point need to take a back seat to reason?