How To Think, Not What

Four inter-related lessons to “think” more effectively by:

1). Understanding that reality is not optional;

2). Understanding you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts;

3). “Correlation” is not the same thing as “cause and effect”;

4). And lastly, my ignorance is not a form of evidence in support of my own quirky ways of looking at the world.

Combine these four things with Ockham’s Razor and Sagan’s Baloney Detection kit and they make for a powerful combination indeed.

PS. Be bloody well willing to go where the evidence takes you.

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Quotables #4: Art, Rick, Rick, Art

“If you want the world to become a better world listen to the artists, not the politicians”–Me

The intent behind what I am saying is it is when I encounter meaning in film, books, photographs, paintings or sculptures, I am reminded of what it is I am trying to work for in all that I do–to promote a world of beauty and where people desire to pursue truth for its own sake and to do good. Politics at face value prevents this because it is by nature competitive; art is contemplative and like comedy (specifically satire) art can reveal our inner selves to ourselves, eg. Whenever I write I reveal to myself what it is I actually think and believe.

I think if you read more in the history of the sciences the connection I am making would be more obvious: the creative impulse where a sculptor sees an image in marble before they sculpt, a painter reveals an image on the canvas, or a musician stumbles upon or feels a movement, etc. that creative impulse is identical to the one felt by an Einstein who looks at a clock and conceives of a new vision for physics, a Descartes who intuits the importance of backing up observation with mathematics or a Godel using mathematics to construct a model where time travel is indeed possible.

Google the etymology of the word ‘art’ and it presses the point home further.

The Problem With Refugees

We are a nation of immigrants; it’s a fact: go back far enough every single one of us—European, African, Asian, even First Nations and Inuit—can trace their origins to somewhere other than Canada. Humanity explores, it puts down roots and calls wherever it happens to end up home. People attach a lot of importance to their home; this is where they raise their families, form their worldview, worship, work, play and build a life for themselves. Thus, it isn’t terribly surprising when we encounter strangers living among us one of our first instincts is to become defensive as opposed to open.

Canadians might be awfully polite but they certainly aren’t immune to xenophobia or fear. There were three major waves of Irish immigration to British North America: the first came around the time of the American Revolution in the 1780s; the second took place during the 1840s when a potato famine drove approximately 1.5 million Irish Catholics to Canada. My ancestors on my father’s side arrived in the United States during the third wave in the 1890s; they established a farm somewhere in the American Midwest eventually moving north to Canada to take advantage of free land on offer in the Canadian West. In all three cases, the Irish were not generally well-received: in the context of both Canada and the United States, English Protestants felt threatened by the sudden influx of non-English Catholics to their countries.

The Irish were thankful for the opportunities afforded to them by their adoptive countries; nevertheless, inevitably their presence elicited negative reactions among Americans and Canadians alike. Newcomers always force us into uncomfortable spaces by challenging us to re-evaluate ourselves and our priorities; they compel us to ask questions around what it means to be a people and a nation. In the present day, some of us are responding as well as can be expected to Syrian refugees (and, more recently, to others groups escaping to Canada because of an uncertain future in the United States). Most of our problems when it comes to dealing constructively with one another is the result of a certain inability to empathize with one another. The people best responding to the recent influx of refugees are those capable of seeing something of themselves in these new immigrants—people displaced by famine, war, and repression in their home countries; yet, there are others of us who aren’t responding so well: ironically, some Canadians on social media are using the self-same arguments against Syrians that previous generations used against their own Irish, Norwegian, Swedish, German and Ukrainian ancestors, e.g. these people aren’t like us; they didn’t work for what we have; we owe them nothing; they’re wrecking the country; everything was so much better before they came; they’re stealing our jobs; they’re lazy, smell, speak funny, and don’t look like us real Canadians.

The idea of a real Canadian versus a fake one is a strange concept to me; it’s not like we can freeze time and say there, back in the 1820s (November to be exact) during the colonial period, that is what Canadians should strive to be, we should all be white, English Protestant United Empire Loyalists; or wait it’s 1867 and Canadians can be French Catholic now, just not too French, but it’s tolerated; or it’s 1945 and the end of World War II, England is less important to us and out of compassion we’re welcoming Hungarians and other dispossessed persons to Canada because they need our help, we didn’t like them so much in 1905 but times have changed; or it’s 1965 and we have a new flag and First Nations peoples are no longer willing to be second-class citizens and the majority of Canada’s immigrants are from Africa and Asia and, without us even realizing it, we’ve moved from biculturalism to multiculturalism. We didn’t even notice the change (and certainly didn’t plan it). But we are, and will continue to be, a multicultural society whether critics like it or not.

Friedrich Nietzsche observed humanity is in essentially a continuous state of revolution (or paradigm change); we don’t recognize these changes because what once appeared as revolutionary eventually becomes the basis of a new normal. Thus, a Canadian born in 1840 naturally answers the question “What is a Canadian?” differently than say one born in 1867, 1919, 1945, 1965, 1995, or 2017. If there’s a standard definition of what constitutes a true Canadian, it’s a floating one and it definitely isn’t as simple as saying it is someone who is white, English-speaking, and Christian. With that said, the recent wave of Syrian immigration to Canada is taking place during a time of significant stress: the recovery of the global economy from the shock it received during the Great Recession (2009) is still in doubt and we continue living with its legacy, e.g. wealth continues to become increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, Canadians and Americans are becoming more and more desperate because of a sense of financial insecurity, and where the economy goes so too goes our seeming capacity to practice tolerance and pluralism; also, we are also confronted by the specter of climate change and an inability to deal with it effectively or its secondary effects, e.g. 21.5 million people are currently displaced worldwide and considered climate change refugees (some of whom are seeking refuge in North America and Europe); this number is bound to grow as climate change’s effects become increasingly severe and ubiquitous; and right wing political movements—secular and religious—are growing in popularity as though we’re taking part in some sort of macabre replay or dress rehearsal for World War III; given all that’s going on it’s little wonder so many people have such mixed feelings about helping strange Syrian refugees when existing Canadians themselves don’t feel secure enough about their own or their children’s futures.[1]

So where does this leave us? I suppose at one of those revolutionary periods Nietzsche mentioned. The great irony is we possess all the knowledge and understanding to solve every single one of our problems; yet, it seems we’re doomed to repeat past mistakes instead of learning from them because of a fundamental lack of collective character or imagination to conceive of new ways of living with and treating one another. There’s not much historical precedent when it comes to nations or societies becoming selfless or other-centered in times of significant economic downturn, political upheaval or when confronted by an existential crisis as significant as climate change. However, I would argue we can use how we eventually decide to treat refugees and immigrants as a litmus test for our future prospects. Some political theorists argue history is on the side of democracy. I like the sentiment but I would add the following caveat: history is on the side of those who want to survive. The great irony is most people think survival means circling our wagons, siding with the tribe and pushing strangers out. The truth is the world is a much smaller place in 2017 than it was in 1917. For this reason, I believe, if we’re going to survive we’re going to have to find ways to do it together; it’ll be cooperation not competition that’ll determine humankind’s direction and whether there’ll be a Canada or a United States for future generations to immigrate to.

 

Notes
[1]
http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/syrian-refugees-poll-trump-1.3988716

Governing by Brand: Trump Inc.

“You know what uranium is, right? It’s this thing called nuclear weapons. And other things. Like lots of things are done with uranium. Including some bad things. But nobody talks about that.”—Donald Trump

If I wanted to take power, Alexander Hamilton wrote, I would mount the “hobbyhorse of popularity, I would cry out usurpation, danger to liberty, etc. etc. I would endeavor to prostrate the national government, raise a ferment, and then ride the whirlwind to direct the storm”.[1] Demagogues and populist leaders not only direct storms, they create them; they whip the people into a frenzy and the minute they relax their hold—allowing people time to actually think instead of feel—the power monger’s influence wanes.

I have a theory about America’s new president. I don’t think he has any intention of actually governing. He governs by decree and executive order (something he and fellow Republicans vilified Obama of doing). This isn’t governing, it’s institutional cynicism. He’s going to continue doing what he did in the business world—sell a brand.[2] He doesn’t know how to do anything else (and he’s good at it). Yet, being good at selling a product doesn’t necessarily translate into being able to lead the world’s most powerful democracy for a four year term.

Trump doesn’t make anything; he slaps his name on a building or a steak and claims it as his own. Instead of actually reading briefings, Trump watches television to get his information. He listens to white supremacist radio shows and thinks he’s getting an accurate presentation of the state of the nation. If the man cracked a book in his adult life I’d be surprised. He isn’t a thinker. He’s a doer. So, instead of attending intelligence briefings or learning what constitutes or what does not constitute overstepping presidential prerogative, he’s back on the campaign trail bragging about his election how he carried Florida. He’s a salesman, not a president. Three weeks into his presidency and there hasn’t been a single day where Trump’s “finely tuned” administration hasn’t made some sort of mis-step. I hear the bell from the news app on my phone and I cringe wondering ‘what’d he do now?’ I still, honestly, cannot believe he won the election; and it wasn’t his smarts that won him the election–it was arguably the ignorance of the average American voter (who appears to be willing to trade the rule of law and pluralism for the prospect of short-term financial gain). I don’t think people understood what exactly they were buying.

A good test of a man’s character is how he reacts to constructive criticism. Trump fails this test. In order to avoid the justifiable criticism of his executive orders and cabinet picks, he directs attention back on the media calling them the greatest enemy of the United States. The greatest enemy of any country is a leader who resorts to special pleading[3] and cries foul whenever light is brought to bear upon one of his many ill-founded policies. Speaking of policies, when the Free World is led by a man so ignorant of history he cannot be expected to develop policies with a context (he just criticizes existing agreements or institutions a either “very, very bad” or “the worst deal maybe ever”); when you elect the intellectual equivalent of Jared the Subway spokesmen to power, you cannot reasonably expect him to make informed decisions around science generally or climate change (a Chinese plot!) specifically, e.g. his pick for head of the Environmental Protection Agency is a climate change denier.

So, if I have any advice for President Trump it is this: just do it, sir. Build that wall. Think different. Think so differently that it appears you’re not thinking at all. The people will continue to melt in your hands, not in your mouth; because your leadership tastes so good, cats ask for it by name.[4]
Notes
[1] Private correspondence from Alexander Hamilton to Edward Carrington (1792). See: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-11-02-0349.

[2] Trump reputedly offered Governor Kasich the vice-presidency. The president told Kasich that he could control domestic and foreign policy. When asked what responsibilities Mr. Trump would take care of it became apparent the businessman turned politician would be the face of the White House, i.e. he’d sell the policies and be the brand for a new order. http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/20/politics/john-kasich-donald-trump-vice-president/

[3] The Republican Party recently passed a notion permitting President Trump from not having to release his tax returns. If Trump has nothing to fear and there’s no conflict of interest, why the secrecy? Just like his predecessors he should be required to be forthcoming with information that establishes his trustworthiness and integrity; or we can just take him at his word and trust. When has that ever gotten a people into trouble?

[4] https://blog.hubspot.com/blog/tabid/6307/bid/33535/10-companies-that-totally-nailed-their-taglines.aspx#sm.0002dixf216rtfiqscz2fcdl6e35p

Westminster: Governing Through Reason, Not Tradition

The Westminster system of parliamentary democracy was established on the basis of reason and not traditional authority: after years of civil war (1642-51) between the middle and upper classes in England forced the Crown to eventually submit to the authority of a written constitution called the Bill of Rights (1688). England became a constitutional monarchy effectively ending the problems associated with either a king or queen changing their mind or a law at a whim. With the Bill of Rights in place, the Crown now governed with the consent of the governed while being limited by the law (reason).

The establishment of constitutional law in England introduced an era of unparalleled stability continuing into the present day. Prior to the Bill of Rights authority was exercised more or less on an appeal to either tradition or power, e.g. family dynasties, etc. and an appeal to God’s will, e.g. Divine Right of Kings. The problem with kings or queens is some of them aren’t particularly bright or well-suited to rule. With the establishment of a functional and well-organized parliamentary system, rulers became accountable no longer to something abstract like a good but to something concrete like the law. No one was above the law any longer.  Not even the king.

Since President Donald Trump assumed the presidency this past January, he has been an executive order writing machine. The executive branch of the United States Federal government has been gradually growing in power since the end of World War II. Although federalists like John Adams and George Washington believed in the need for a strong central government, it is unlikely that they would have approved of any president governing essentially by decree; however, these revolutionary brothers occupied a simpler time when factionalism was only beginning in the new republic known as the United States. In 2017, and with the Congress and American polity so divided, it has become more and more common for presidents to govern less by consent and more by fiat.

The Americans do not have parliamentary democracy; rather, they utilize a republican system that nonetheless possesses certain qualities in common with a parliamentary system, e.g. there are three branches (legislative, executive, judiciary), the government governs on the basis of the rule of law, and the law (and separation of the various branches) ensures no single branch oversteps its power. On January 27th, President Trump signed an executive order effectively banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries traveling to the United States. A federal judge, however, took issue with the constitutionality of Trump’s order and blocked it. Specifically, the judge argued the executive order violated the “establishment clause” of the Constitution (1783). The argument, so far as I understand it, is that the Federal government could not show preferential treatment for Christians seeking asylum over Muslims. The United States, despite assertions to the contrary, is not a “Christian” nation but a “secular” one in which Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. are allowed the freedom of worship and equally secure under the law. President Trump argued the courts had failed the United States. In reality the courts (or judiciary) worked precisely how they’re supposed to by preventing the executive branch from overstepping its authority, i.e. when you become president you don’t become “king of the world”. Your powers are limited (and wisely so).

* * * * *

As early as the 17th Century, democratic ideas like equality and liberty had grown in popularity and acceptance among the peoples of the Old and New Worlds. The Age of Reason (also called the Enlightenment) placed into doubt the wisdom of blindly accepting the authority of either the Church or the Crown. The Enlightenment created a fertile environment for philosophers and politicians to dissent and criticize traditional authority; and with every passing year in France of the 18th century, it became harder and harder for a tiny aristocracy to justify its lavish lifestyle while tens of millions of farmers, laborers, artisans and merchants, etc. all tried to eke out an existence.

Across the Channel in England (1685), King James II attempted to make himself something of an absolute monarch. He believed in and appealed to others to believe in the Doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. According to this superstition, God had made James II king; therefore, if the people wanted to obey God then they would have to obey James. The middle and upper classes of England were not convinced (and disliked the trend of absolute monarchs appearing on the Continent). During the Glorious Revolution (1688), the English people rose up overthrowing James II.  James’ successor was his nephew William of Orange (later known as William III).

King William III accepted the Westminster System of parliamentary democracy when he acknowledged the supremacy of the English Constitution (Bill of Rights (1689)).  Instead of an absolute monarchy, England established the world’s first constitutional monarchy.  Responsible government had arrived as the king could no longer suspend laws, levy taxes, make royal appointments, or maintain a standing army during peacetime without Parliament’s permission. The King was effectively limited by the law. According to the Westminster System, parliament was divided into an upper house representing the aristocracy (House of Lords) and a lower house representing the merchant class and basically everybody else (House of Commons). The wisdom behind the division is obvious: each house represented the interests of their particular class and new laws (taxes) would have to be approved by both houses (ensuring no clique or segment of society could unilaterally rule the nation). This meant that in theory no one segment in society would have more power than another. For a new law to be passed it had to be demonstrated that it was reasonable, fair and did not violate the Constitution. Gone were the days when the king made up the rules as they went along. Arrived now were the days of responsible government whereby the king and Parliament were held accountable for their actions or inaction.

* * * * *

Canadians living in British North America rightly believed England’s political institutions to be some of the most “enlightened” on Earth; however, the colonies of British North America had the misfortune of inheriting not the Westminster but a colonial system of government with the passage of the Constitution Act (1791). The Constitution Act actually increased rather than decreased the power and privilege of the aristocratic and business elite in the Canada, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The power of the colonial government was so complete that the governor of Lower Canada could be said to possess more power than even the English king exercised in Westminster. The fundamental reason responsible government was not established in Canada was to prevent another American-style revolution. Westminster reasoned that America had rebelled because it had been given too much freedom; therefore, the logical response (to the English at least) was a reduction of freedoms, a turning back of the clock so to speak to less “progressive” times.

Absolute power was therefore given to the aristocracy of Upper (Family Compact) and Lower Canada (Chateau Clique). The reason the British chose to side with the aristocracy was because they were predictable: they could always be counted on to pursue their own self-interest at the expense of the greater population. (Not much has changed to be honest.) To the British Government the elite were “our kind of guys” (so to speak). The masses, unlike the aristocracy, were supposedly incapable of being reasoned with. They had to be controlled. Members of the upper classes argued the poor simply didn’t know what was good for them. Whenever any segment of society possesses privileges not enjoyed by all a condition of class struggle exists; and Canadians in the 1830s no less than the English (1688), Americans (1776) or French (1789) before them desired liberty and responsible government.  Politicians like Louis Joseph Papineau, William Lyon Mackenzie and Joseph Howe, though differing in their means, all wanted the same thing: they wanted the citizens of British North America to enjoy the self-same democratic rights enjoyed by the people of England itself.

In every society (regardless of the century), there is an ongoing struggle between two classes of people: there are those that “have,” e.g. aristocrats, priests, wealthy businessmen, etc. and those that “have not,” e.g. serfs, slaves, plebeians, and industrial workers. The 19th century political philosopher and economist Karl Marx called this condition a class struggle. To him class struggle was a permanent state of affairs; it could only be destroyed by destroying class itself. Further still, Marx argued it was natural for the upper class to try to maintain its privileges. After all, if you were rich, wouldn’t you seek to maintain your standard of living? And it was just as understandable for the lower classes to want to improve their own material and legal situation. Marx argued that the workers and laborers would one day rise up, cast off their chains, and overthrow the ruling class. He further argued that the working class (whom he called the Proletariat) would establish an ideal society where class no longer existed.  Marx of course was completely wrong. There were Marxist or communist revolutions in the 19th and 20th centuries; however, a new ruling class always emerged following each revolution that was successful, e.g. the Bolsheviks formed the basis of an economic elite in the Soviet Union while the inaptly named Communist Party (in contemporary fascist) China likewise forms the basis of an elite.

The colonial system in British North America established through the passing of the Constitution Act (1791) was by its very nature unfair; that is, it placed all the decision-making power into the hands of the few (oligarchy) while completely ignoring the needs of the many. For example, the common person had the privilege of paying taxes but no say on how those taxes might be spent. In such a situation, it was inevitable that the lower classes would regard violence as preferable to the status-quo. The rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada (1837-38) were a catalyst for such change. The rebellions woke the British up to the fact that maintaining “peace, order, and good government” in Canada did not depend upon building an alliance with the wealthy elite. Instead, good government depended upon the reverse: establishing relevant democratic political institutions that empowered everyone—regardless of class—giving everyone a voice in their own government. The English learned this very same lesson in the 1600s when they removed a would-be absolute monarch in James II.  For some reason the British lacked the foresight to apply the same wisdom to the American colonies in the 1770s or its Canadian possessions in the 1830s.

Society, when governed by laws, runs smoothly; it might be counter-intuitive to people in positions of great power but laws are supposed to be inconvenient; they’re supposed to be limiting, i.e. we cannot rely upon the good character or judgement of men or women occupying positions of influence. Instead, we rely upon a combination of a leader’s prerogative while balancing their decisions against constitutional standards of what is lawful and what is not. While I doubt President Trump is much of a student of history (especially legal history), I suspect he learned a valuable lesson when he attempted to push the ill-advised executive order banning Muslims from traveling to the United States through. Specifically, he is not the “boss” of the United States; he’s the “president” and there things he can do and things, constitutionally speaking, he cannot do.