Stan Lee’s Poetic Super Powers

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons humanity is so flawed (and one of the reasons even the most effective education fails to increase one’s awareness) is because we all believe ourselves to be the …star of our very own narrative in some measure; if only others saw the world just as I do then they would suffer uncertainty no longer and all would be well. There is no such narrative and my story, albeit meaningful to me, is not the only tale to be told; we live as a collection of stories…

Stan Lee wasn’t just a storyteller or comic book artist. He was also a teacher: his lessons came in the form of characters who were super but also flawed; his work echoed G. K. Chesterton’s aphorism that faery tales aren’t important because they tell us dragons exist; rather, faery tales (or comic books) are important because they tell us dragons can be defeated.

Even the greatest obstacle can be defeated.

Lee’s character Spiderman, more than any other character, had the single most important thing to say: with great power comes great responsibility. This particular lesson, how the great have responsibility, applies equally to the small, to real people, people like you and me. Lee’s recent passing reminded me of this simple lesson: we all have responsibility—a responsibility to stick up for people who might not be in a position to stand up for themselves.

I mentioned G. K. Chesterton previously. He was a renowned poet. Poetry, surprisingly enough, can teach us a lot about standing up for the little guy. Poetry is likewise uniquely suited to provide readers with insights in to the emotional, psychological, spiritual and intellectual experiences of the poet. This is important because by getting to know others better we grow in our own self-awareness. Poetry thoughtfully considered leads us to ask such questions as:

  • What makes us who we are?
  • How do we define ourselves?

Questions like these are important to ask because they nudge us closer to self-knowledge. For instance, consider the following lines from the Metis writer Gregory Scofield’s poem Women Who Forgot the Taste of Limes [2]:

ni-châpan, if I take ki-cihcânikan,
press it to their lips,
will they remember the taste of limes,
sea-salt bled into their grandfathers’ skin?

If I pull from this bag of rattling bones
the fiddle, the bow bone,
if I go down to the lazy Red,
lay singing in the grass

The first line of the first stanza is written mostly in Cree (translated into English as “my ancestor, your fingerbone”). Clearly Scofield is referencing his ancestors in Cree to demonstrate how powerfully and meaningfully he connects to his past. This idea is further developed when in the fourth line of the same stanza he refers to his grandfathers in the plural, possessive. He is not talking about only the father of either his mom or dad; rather, he is talking about all of his forefathers (a synonym for nation). Again, Scofield wants us to view the past not as some fleeting memory but as a real, living testament of the past’s importance to our understanding of the present; and finally, in the second last line of the second stanza, Scofield alludes to the “lazy Red” (or the Red River) which was the life blood of the Red River settlement (a place he considers is his ancestral homeland).

Why should Scofield’s thoughts or feelings about his ancestors matter to us? And why should we care what he remembers while lying down in the grasses by the “lazy Red”? Reading his thoughts helps us appreciate the fact human experience is a shared experience.

On the outside we might all look quite different from one another; however, on the inside we are cut from the same cloth, we are made of the same fundamental substance. Certainly, our unique experiences and perspectives make us actually quite different from one another. Yet, at the most fundamental level one thing makes us all the same: at root we are all meaning-making creatures sharing the same human nature; therefore, when Scofield feels sadness you and I can appreciate why; when he expresses joy we can experience it, too. Consider what Scofield himself says about the personal significance of his poem Women Who Forgot the Taste of Limes (Scofield (102-103)):

My claim to Manitoba as ancestral homeland dates back at least four generations, to the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Country Wives—Cree women whose Indian names have long since been forgotten.  In 1863 ni-châpan, my maternal great-great-grandmother Mary Mathilde Henderson, was born in the Red River Settlement, just as her parents and grandparents were.  Many years later, my grandfather George Scofield (Cusitar) left Manitoba to escape poverty and discrimination.  My mother knew little about her father’s childhood, or of the half-breed women who lived in the marrow of memory.

 

I recently went on a reading tour in Manitoba with seven other First Nations writers to promote awareness and appreciation of aboriginal literature to both Native and non-Native communities.  I viewed the tour as an opportunity to bring y poetry “home,” to give something back to the people, land and sky of my ancestors, to honour the bones that I’ve been given to sing.  When the tour ended in Winnipeg, I visited the Exchange District’s antique stores.  I have a love of antiques, believing in the sharp memories of trees, iron, clay, cloth, and stones; the craftsperson’s hands; stories created from flesh and bone.

 

I spoke to one store’s owners at length about my collection and my desire to find a small candle table.  The women were so gracious and helpful that I felt I’d found kindred spirits.  They did a phone search for the table, and after finding a store that sounded promising, I asked them to call me a taxi.  They grew silent, looking at me like I’d said something terribly wrong.  One of the women busied herself behind the counter while the other one cleared her throat: “You may want to reconsider that.  The Indians around here use taxis like public transit.  They’re really dirty.”

 

I felt as if I’d been slapped.  I often take taxis; so had my late mother.  I could see her sitting in the passenger seat wearing her beat-up cowboy hat with faux turquoise hatband, arriving home with bags of groceries and her six-pack of Old Style.  I was tongue-tied and tearful.  All I could do was present a black and white photo of my mother, cowboy hat and all, from my wallet.  I left the store in a daze, hating myself for appearing weak, for not speaking up.  I wandered the streets back to my hotel, counting the cracks in the sidewalk and considering the generations of my family who had helped to create this province and country.  On the corner of Portage and Main, I saw an old half-breed woman holding a bag of bones.  From her bag she withdrew her finger and said, “ni-châpanis, take this and make good medicine.”

Scofield’s experience in the antique store regrettably is not unique. For whatever reason, many Canadians continue looking down and mistreating Metis and First Nations people. Although I have not personally experienced persecution or bigotry, I have seen it. I recall one afternoon many years ago riding my bike along Broadway Avenue in Saskatoon:

I stopped at a traffic light waiting for my turn to cross at an intersection. On the opposite side of the street, a First Nations man stood there quietly minding his own business. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until a white man, safely ensconced within the cab of his pick-up truck, started yelling, “Hey Indian?!  Hey Indian?!” The First Nations man kept looking forward, appearing unaffected. Undeterred, the truck driver rolled his window all the way down jutting his head out and yelling even louder, “Hey Indian?!!  Hey Indian?!!”

Strangely, I did not feel anger but a sense of shame. I felt ashamed because the truck driver looked like me; and if he was capable of doing such a stupid thing then maybe I was, too.

One of the reasons we read poetry, and why reading writers like Scofield or Chesterton or Lee is important, is not only are we potentially that man driving a truck barking insults but, potentially at least, we are also a First Nations man standing on a corner minding our own business.[3]

We have a responsibility, you and I, to not be silent. Like Edmund Burke observed back in the 18th century, all it takes for evil to win is for men and women of good conscience to stand back and do nothing. Refuse to do nothing.

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[1] The Red River Settlement was established in 1811.  This small colony was located in Rupert’s Land (Manitoba).  The Red River area was continuously settled by First Nations and Mêtis before the settlement was officially established.  In 1870 Rupert’s Land was purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company by the Canadian Government.  Mêtis and First Nations people suddenly found themselves becoming citizens of Canada; immigration of English and Scottish Canadians to Red River followed shortly thereafter.  Consequently, many Mêtis and First Nations were displaced or pushed out (and moved west in to what is now known as Saskatchewan to “start over”).

[2] Scofield, Gregory. “Singing Home the Bones.”  Canada: Houghton Boston, 2005.

[3] Many political theorists measure the health of a democracy based on how minorities are treated.  The reality is the rights of the majority and minority(s) are inextricably tied, i.e. if the majority is able to arbitrarily take away or limit the rights or legal protections of a minority, what would stop a minority (if it were capable of seizing power) from doing the exact same thing?  A society built on the principle of the rule of law does not give groups power but rather gives individuals protection from interference from those groups and from government.

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Stand Up for Democracy

https://www.amazon.ca/Democracy-Chains-History…/…/1101980966

Democracy in Chains written by historian Nancy Maclean has written one of the most important books published within the last 100 years. If you want to see what the enemies of democracy are up to while Trump deliberately distracts everyone then give this a read; while everyone has been distracted by Trump’s antics (and he’s doing it on purpose because if there’s one guarantee its liberals will lose their shit at the least provocation), the Republican Party has garnered 24 of the 30 votes necessary to call a constitutional convention. The last convention was held by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, etc. back in the 1770s.

The objective of the new convention will be to repeal certain amendments. For example, they want to repeal Amendment 17. Amendment 17 was considered a victory by progressives back in the 1930s because it got rid of the practice of appointing senators and introduced the current system of having the People themselves vote for them. By repealing Amendment 17 the practice of appointing senators would be reintroduced and I can assure you that the will of the People will be utterly ignored. What you’ll see is an increase of corporate influence and interference over the organs of government.

You guys: if democracy fails in the United States it is only a matter of time before that sickness spreads to other countries. Quit falling for the distractions, put aside your petty differences, and come together.

Note: for context you need to also read a book published by Mark R. Levin (an influential thinker from the far right in the United States, e.g. The Liberty Amendments). You can see ALL of the amendments that the Right wants to push through. Another amendment is to make it illegal to pass budgets that create deficits. This sounds great in principle (i.e. don’t spend money you don’t have, etc.), however, this will be the Trojan Horse leading to the repeal of social programs like Social Security and Medicare.

One way or another, the United States will not look, feel or be the same following the next presidential election.

Let’s Go to the Banca

If you need money then go to the “banca.” In the 14th century, when capitalism was emerging through the work of a growing class of merchant bankers in Italy, these bankers exchanged money at the “river bank” where they met traveling merchants to exchange currency. Hence, the name “bank” is a reflection of a centuries old Italian “riverbank” financial exchange. We are surrounded by words, ideas and concepts whose origins have passed into memory and then into complete obscurity; we presume they’ve always existed in their current form (a form we’ve inherited) giving our worldview an unjustified veneer of sophistication, meaning and purpose.

This is one of the reasons why knowledge and literacy are so important: knowledge increases a person’s awareness of where things come from (increasing the possibility of change and improvement) while literacy provides a person with the means to continue unlearning the nonsense their well-intentioned parents, teachers and parent culture taught them.

If You Seek Wisdom Drop Your Opinions

The Buddha observed that if you seek wisdom you should drop your opinions. Experience has taught me an additional truth: if you seek wisdom develop your capacity to empathize, perceive and see issues from someone else’s point of view. Specifically, just because an idea or issue isn’t important to you (or doesn’t affect you directly) this doesn’t mean that that idea isn’t worthy of consideration or that the issue isn’t important in principle.

Too many of us, without even realizing it, think and operate from a narrow position of egocentrism or self-interest; we think we’re informed, and we hold strong opinions, but–instead of seeing the 1s and 0s that make-up reality like Neo from The Matrix–we are ultimately just making things up as we go along. We are being arbitrary. This kind of thinking follows the formula: if I don’t personally approve of X, or if I don’t like X, I appeal to a combination of my dislike, and fundamental ignorance, as a sort of evidence in support of my opinion on X. The problem, though, is your like or dislike has absolutely nothing to do with anything whatsoever.

I’ll explain.

I make mistakes in reasoning all of the time. I know for a fact I reach conclusions without having all the necessary information or without taking time for proper consideration. So why, I wonder, should I ever hold an opinion or view so strongly I am unwilling to change my mind? Moreover, should my experience ever be the standard by which everything else and everyone else is measured? I’m thinking, no.  I understand people are going to form opinions (that’s inevitable). Yet, isn’t it possible to form more thoughtful, nuanced, and principled opinions? I think so. But we must practice more empathy and more humility. We have to drop some of our opinions.

Former American Vice-President Dick Cheney was an outspoken opponent of the LGBTQ community for decades. Then, suddenly, he changed his mind…when his daughter came out as a lesbian. Now he supports gay rights. Gay rights are human rights. Women’s rights are human rights. The rights of people of color are human rights. Rights don’t just belong to my tribe. Cheney should’ve supported gay people, not because his daughter is gay (and he is now personally affected), but because reasonable people should seek to operate from a consistent set of principles and beliefs. If you do otherwise, you are just making stuff up as you go and living incoherently (worse still you’re imposing your incoherence on others).

 

According to the Buddha, when we form opinions we are creating not discovering reality. We construct a narrative that both makes sense to us personally and which agrees with whatever political culture we just so happen to belong to by the accident of our birth. Arguably, we need to create meaning; doing so helps us navigate and make sense of the world; nevertheless, in the process of creating meaning we would do well to avoid becoming a sort Dr. Frankenstein giving life to a monster (an opinion) reflecting our vanity on to an unwitting world; rather, we have a certain ethical responsibility to ourselves and others to think and contemplate well; and, if you can, give life to opinions reflecting principles that are self-evidently true rather than to ones satisfying the need to win arguments or mock others. In the end, there’s more that links us than separates. Perhaps if we forget some of the things we were taught, or that we’ve taught ourselves, we can in principle work towards building better and happier communities.

Elections 101: Russian Lambs & Political Theatre

1). The popularity of a Russian leader, historically speaking, increases proportionately in relation to how much that leader is disliked or criticized by the international community. Their popularity increases the most when their country is at war or invaded.
 
2). Said Russian leader assassinated very publicly a former Russian spy in the UK using a nerve agent that intelligence services in Britain would certainly trace back to the Kremlin. Putin wants everyone to know it was him who ordered the attack.
 
(Putin has publicly killed his enemies for the sake of consolidating his domestic strength on three occasions, e.g. the most recent attack in the UK, the use of Polonium against Litvinenko, and the shooting of Boris Nemstov (an outspoken Putin critic) on the steps of the Kremlin. The numbers go up considerably when we include all of the journalists he’s killing in his country.)
 
3). International community predictably plays its part in the narrative by reacting with outrage. Russian citizens circle their wagons around the puppet master and defend Putin.
 
4). Putin wins election in two days by landslide as the populist leader and defender of the mother country.
 
5). Democracy in Russia continues not to exist for at least another 4-5 years. Minorities in that country continue to suffer and we get to continue on with the Cold War 2.0 and a suicidal arms race preparing for a third world war no one can actually win.

The Problem with Deduction

Scholastics were medieval theologians and philosophers who focused their efforts on protecting the teachings of the Catholic Church from being challenged and replaced. They never tested anything empirically.[1] Instead, scholastics emphasized the importance of “revealed truth” in figuring out what was right from what was wrong. This means they relied on God Himself to talk to them and reveal truth to them. The problem with relying on revelation was determining whether God was actually talking to you or you were simply talking to yourself. There was no way to scientifically test where the voice (and ideas) were coming from; it was, after all, quite possible scholastics were just convincing themselves God was inspiring them. Ultimately, scholastics had one purpose—to defend Church teachings from challenges by freedom seeking kings, questioning scientists and troublesome philosophers.

Scholastics relied on not only their inner voice but also the use of logic and deduction. [2] Deduction is a powerful tool because you can use it to create a big idea from little information. For example, in the 20th century we finally had telescopes powerful enough to look outside of our galaxy. A Catholic priest named Georges Lemaître (1894-1966 CE) was the first to notice galaxies were either tinted blue or red. Thus, he deduced light was cast from these galaxies like sound traveling from a car to a person standing still (as in the Doppler Effect). When a car approaches a person standing still the sound is low but when the car passes by the pitch becomes higher. Light, Lemaître deduced, must also change when it is traveling towards and away from us, i.e. if a galaxy was “blue-shifted” it was flying away from the Milky Way but if it was “red-shifted” then that galaxy was flying towards us. Deduction, as illustrated in the example above, can be quite a powerful tool; however, it is not without its problems.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 CE) was an important scholastic and theologian who was responsible for creating something fancy called the “ontological argument” for the existence of God. The word ontology has Greek roots and is roughly equivalent to the English word necessity. Anselm deduced that it was necessary God exist. He reasoned that he could picture the most perfect and powerful being in his mind. The only way this was possible was if God actually existed (because, Anselm argued, the concept of a God had to point to the object God). In other words, it was necessary God exist because otherwise a concept of this being would not be possible. The problem with Anselm’s argument is it is easily disproven. Another thinker came along about 150 years later named William of Ockham (1285-1347 CE). William, like Anselm, was a theologian and worked for the Church. William, however, unlike Anselm was not made a saint by the Catholic Church. Instead, William was persecuted for doing things like absolutely disproving Anselm’s proof for the existence God. Specifically, William reasoned he could conceive in his mind of the most perfect and powerful unicorn; however, he concluded that just because he had a concept of a unicorn in his mind this didn’t necessarily mean the unicorn actually existed; and that’s the problem with scholasticism, really: it was never based on evidence, it was based on a series of self-reinforcing assumptions about reality.

In the 17th century, the Church was successfully challenged by scientists and philosophers. Science represented a new way of looking at the world. The scholastics looked at the world spiritually; they explained the word spiritually. Scientists looked at the world materialistically and explained physical reality by appealing to laws of nature rather than to a God pulling strings behind the scenes. Scientists didn’t rely on revealed truth like scholastics; rather, they literally tested their assumptions against physical reality; it was the work of early scientists, like Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 CE) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727 CE), who nudged science in the direction of finding patterns in nature; and from these patterns they developed laws like the Law of Gravity, the Law of Planetary Motion and the Laws of Thermodynamics. The Church was also challenged by modern philosophy because philosophers like Rene Descartes (1596-1650 CE) and John Locke (1632-1704 CE) encouraged people to “doubt systematically.” When someone doubts systematically they ask a series of questions, and conduct a series of logical tests, to determine whether or not a belief is valid or if it is fallacious. The best philosophers, like Descartes and Locke, also used scientific knowledge to inform their thinking. This is because intellectuals were more focused on finding patterns in nature, patterns in human societies, etc. and from these drawing conclusions about their meaning and significance. Scholastics, on the other hand, started with the meaning and significance and then explained what they saw.

Humanist philosophers used logic and deduction, as well. However, while scholastics designed arguments simply to defend Church teachings and authority, humanists were motivated out of a genuine desired to describe and understand truth for its own sake. This doesn’t mean humanists did not believe in God; on the contrary, virtually every humanist, scientist and philosopher during the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment periods believed in God. God wasn’t in question. The Church’s doctrines, teachings and authority were; and the Catholic Church’s authority gradually grew weaker and weaker over time.

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[1] Testing something empirically means testing it by means of observation or experience rather than through theory or pure logic.

[2] When we only have a little bit of information we use deduction to work from what little we do know to create a larger picture. The problem with this approach is it requires a lot of imagination and basically no testing or experimentation. Aristotle, for example, used deduction to explain why objects “fell” downwards. He didn’t appeal to the existence of gravity but instead deduced it is in the nature of an object to “want” to fall down. The strange thing about thinkers before the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution is they believed objects actually had intentionality, e.g. magnets were explained as not being attracted due to a force called magnetism but that they had “souls” that sought one another out.

Mr. King & Me

Martin Luther King Jr. observed he’d (and the civil rights movement) placed too much hope in white people, in that, after some freedoms had been won and initial progress made they abandoned African Americans. King argued white people were more concerned about stability than justice.

I’m a white dude. I also consider(ed) myself a moderate. I contemplated King’s words and I wonder: am I part of the problem? By wanting to just introduce piece-meal reform of the existing system, am I actually getting in the way of something better?

I’m not entirely sure how to answer this. I definitely wouldn’t prefer living under some sort of communist system; I’ll take class systems and freedom of mobility over that every time. But I’m not exactly in favor of an economic system that pools so much wealth into so few hands that it actually contributes to political instability and human suffering.

So, what exactly do we replace capitalism with? Capitalism lite? I like Hedges because he identifies the symptoms of what’s wrong. But, man, where are the people who can genuinely articulate what we can replace the extant system with? And what would prevent that system from simply being dominated by some sort of elite eventually?

I just want people to be free, happy and secure. What political system allows us to achieve that? Democracy and the rule of law are definitely great steps towards this. Hmmm. Maybe reforming the existing system, meaningfully, can achieve some semblance of a more equitable, just society?