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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Dispatches from Japan

Recently I spent the better part of 11 days in Japan with my wife and son. The following are some of the thoughts and experiences I had during the trip:

1). Tokyo: the thing that first impressed me about this city, aside from its tremendous size, was its organization; it is a city of over 30 million people but doesn’t have a lot of the problems with traffic much smaller Canadian cities have; they have this elaborate highway system rising above and below the city; and a number of the places where people live and work are built into essentially terrace. Tokyo is a city symbolizing the word up-wards and downwards. The other thing about Tokyo was the sheer number of people. My group traveled downtown to a place called Hachiko Square at night. There were all sorts of neon signs, video screens (like one would find in a Blade Runner film) illuminating one of the streets where hordes of Japanese people criss-crossed and partied.

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The cool thing about Japan, generally speaking, is even around large groups of people you feel perfectly safe. There’s virtually no crime. No one locks up their bikes. My wife sat down in a food court in a Hiroshima mall and two Japanese girls left their purses and smart phones on a table. The girls left their valuables to go to the washroom. Canadians are fairly law abiding; nevertheless, if you did this at a food court in Saskatoon you probably shouldn’t be surprised your purse or phone is gone. In Japan it’s just the opposite. I guess, ultimately, to be a good person or not is just a choice after all. Japan is about as safe a place as you can visit.

Oh, and you can’t tip anyone. I left a tip for a waitress at a Tokyo restaurant. When I started walking away the waitress stopped me and returned the money. Apparently, if you leave a tip it suggests the person helping you is somehow low or needful or not as worthy of respect (or something like that). I didn’t know this. I didn’t tip again; however, some of the people I was traveling with purposely left a tip and ran just to see what would happen; and the waiter ran and caught them returning the money.

2). Politeness: Japanese people are super polite. I think my neck strength increased tenfold from all the head-bowing-in-thanks I returned to everyone. I only ever had one interaction where a Japanese person appeared to lose patience with me, e.g. a man working at the front desk of one of the hotels we stayed at. I was talking to a colleague at breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. My wife left me to return to our room. I didn’t have a key (really a card) to access my room, i.e. you need a card to even make the elevator work. Plus, I didn’t know what my room number was. So I asked the clerk at the front desk what my room number was and his English was probably as bad as my Japanese. Anyways, he directed me to the wrong room. I should’ve talked to his robot for help (there was a little robot, that also only  spoke Japanese, that stood at the front desk to help visitors).

There are apparently hotels where the font desk is looked after by only a robot. I don’t think the robots are cleaning rooms (yet) but Japan is definitely on the front line when it comes to automation. I have some misgivings about all this automation, in that, as we automate we continue to push people out of jobs (and there’s a limited number of jobs available to people as not everyone is capable or willing to get an advanced education).

3). Shrines & Temples: we visited a ton of holy sites. One thing struck me as odd yet predictable: every single one of these sites–Buddhist or Shinto–required the faithful to drop money into some sort of grate in order to pray or ask for divine favor. I highly doubt God or the gods or Buddha will deny you something important unless you give them some yen. Institutions trading off of the religious feelings of people certainly isn’t unique to Japan. Money corrupts everything it touches in my honest opinion. I’m not anti-capitalist but I would like to see money stay out of certain sacred intellectual, religious and artistic spaces.

My favorite site to visit was a Buddhist temple called Fushimi Inari-taisha. The temple was constructed at the base of a small mountain and had steps–complemented by a series of arches–leading from the bottom all the way to the top over top of a staircase. I left my group in an attempt to visit the top of the mountain but ran out of time before hitting the top.

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The walk was absolutely picturesque, in that, the stairs and path upwards were ensconced in ancient trees and moss. The place, along with many of the gardens we visited, reminded me of something out of a J. R. R. Tolkien novel. The picture below is from a Shinto shrine called Kinkaku-ji; it was home to a golden pagoda and was some sort of haven for samurai during the Edo period.

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4). The Food: if you have an adventurous pallet, and you don’t care if your food is sentient while eating it, then Japan is the place to go.

I’m not such a person.

I confess this was the thing I least liked about Japan. There were a couple highlights, e.g. Hiroshima Pizza (called Okonomiyaki) was pretty good; it’s a pancake, fried egg, cabbage, bacon, and saucy construction. The curried rice I quite liked, as well. However, I did get sick of rice (the Japanese eat rice three times a day) and the raw fish wasn’t attractive to me at all. Many meals literally looked like they went directly from hook to plate. One of the people I was traveling with opened a container and observed, “Oh, a creature is looking at me”; it is a rare meal indeed when something isn’t looking at you accusedly in Japan.

I survived the trip largely by eating chocolate covered almonds. As healthy as the Japanese diet is they don’t eat a whole lot of fruit. I found it hard to find anything other than a banana or apple here and there.

5). Hiroshima: we visited the site of the atomic blast. The thing that struck me most was the extent of the explosion. For example, I saw a display in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum presenting the scale of the explosion. In order to avoid the direct impact of the blast I would have to travel about ten minutes by subway from the epicenter (or hydrocenter) of the blast. The attack on Hiroshima is nothing compared to what current nuclear weapons are capable. If you look at the top of the dome, you’ll notice it is slanting slightly to the left. The force of the atomic blast melted the metal and pushed it sideways. There was another building, not too far away from this site, where a Japanese man in a basement survived the blast. He must’ve been Irish.

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6). Trees, Trees & More Trees: Japan is the most treed country on the planet. The cities and countryside are equally treed and beautiful. I visited Tokyo in July; however, if you visit in Autumn you can see this one street with ginko nut trees lining either side (see below).

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Japan is full of such living pictures and images; it is probably the most singularly beautiful country I’ve ever visited. If you love trees and nature, this is probably one of the best places on earth to visit. I was absolutely enamored of the countryside. I might try to grow some of these ginko trees in my back yard. I regret not bringing home a maple leaf from Japan.

 

Teaching White Hatred…Accidentally

There are a lot of websites and videos online illustrating how terrible Europeans were with respect to establishing their overseas colonies or how poorly minorities have been treated in the former colonies of Canada and the United States. These sources are often used in primary, secondary and university classrooms. These ideas have their place in an accurate retelling of Canada’s and every other Western nation’s history.

I wonder though: how effectively is this information being presented? Is it taught in a nuanced way where students emerge with an appreciation for the overall ethical and historical significance of these events? Or is it taught in such a way as to push people towards fascism, towards obstructionism, or to reinforce an ideology like progressivism? Regrettably, the way these things are taught sometimes has unintended consequences.

The unstated premise of “white people have enjoyed unearned privilege and power” could be “white people are the enemy of progress.” I accept, historically speaking, that because of that power white people have inflicted–intentionally and unintentionally–a lot of pain and repression on people of color and other marginalized peoples. Also, I totally support the justice aims of everyone being secure in their person and equal under the law; however, the villianizing of white people will no more establish a culture of tolerance, or a more equitable and sympathetic society, than the repression of marginalized peoples could.

I am white (and a male) but I most certainly did not establish the reserve or residential school system. I never held the opinion that women could not do anything a man could do. I have always argued in favour of Canada possessing a progressive tax regime where the nation’s most vulnerable have access to healthcare or unemployment insurance. My being the prototypical “white male” has nothing to do with the values I hold; a sense of justice isn’t limited by or an expression of genetics.

So, I think it would be great if schools taught the facts–that yes Canada has some sordid periods of history–but avoid teaching this collective white guilt nonsense.

To illustrate: when I learned about Catholic repression of Lutherans during the 15th century when I was in my grade 10 history class, I automatically sided with the Lutherans and came to detest Catholicism. This is because I had no larger context to operate under. I had a knee jerk reaction (typical of emotion rather than reason at work). I just saw injustice in the most immediate sense and failed to see a larger picture (mainly because my history teacher was substandard). Over time I came to see the issue in a more nuanced way and that I did not have to practice self hatred (I was a Catholic) in order to feel fraternity with Protestants.

I have since studied race relations at the university level and had professors tell me only white people are capable of being racist or repressing others. I challenged that notion in class by appealing to racial/ethnic differences being the cause of genocides in Rwanda and Turkey in the 20th century; and I pointed to the fact that the Chinese have an unflattering term used in reference to white people that translates to ‘garbage’ and that during the 1930s and 40s Japan taught master race theory to its people. My professors largely ignored me (one literally telling me to just be quiet).

So it seems I had crappy professors and teachers at every level: myopic intellectuals fixated on the moment or present need, incapable of seeing a larger picture.
If we are realistic we accept the fact any individual can not only experience racism but also be a racist. Schools that teach a limited narrative, that refuse to build an appropriate overall context are inadvertently teaching young white people not only to hold a greater sense of civil responsibility to others but also, potentially, to feel a sense of “white guilt.” This is counter-productive; and while this might appease the emotional requirements for revenge held by some of the more emotionally charged folks out there, it results in the creation of a self defeating fiction.

Effective teaching would not result in this happening. If you go into teaching, please do not do this.

The Continued Influence of Ancient Greece

Belief in the “supernatural ” belongs to a “bygone era” (along with the belief in ghosts or that ideas exist outside of mind.) The very act of entertaining the existence of ghosts reflects the continued influence of pre-scientific, mythological thinking on the present; and despite the privileged position reason, logic and science currently occupy, Western culture appears incapable of entirely shedding its ancient skin, e.g. we still call our galaxy the Milky Way even though no one believes in the existence of the goddess Hera; while continuing to entertain the idea of mind-body dualism despite advances in neuroscience which quite satisfactorily describe consciousness—“ideas” if you will—as an emergent quality born out of the complex physical workings of the human brain. There is still a minority of neuroscientists who entertain the notion consciousness implies that the sum of the brain’s parts alone do not satisfactorily explain consciousness; nevertheless, this is a minority position and the neuroscience community appears to have made peace with the fact a physical explanation agrees with observation. Or to invoke Ockham’s Razor the mechanistic explanation definitely makes far fewer assumptions than the idealist explanation does.

So, no brain? No ideas. Yet, an argument can be made ideas potentially exist, i.e. ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ do not exist “out there” as in some sort of Platonic form; however, it is quite reasonable to suppose—and I’ve heard various philosophers and scientists seriously consider this hypothesis—that once an appropriate mechanism evolves (like the brain, for example) consciousness and then ideas inevitably follow. So, in a sense, ideas exist independent of mind as something potential rather than actual; they just need a host in the same sense a bow needs an archer to pull the string.

Why do people continue to entertain beliefs in things like soul, spirit, idealism, mind-body dualism though? There are a combination of factors but I would appeal first and foremost to Thomas Paine’s explanation, i.e. the long habit of thinking a thing true gives it the superficial appearance of being right.

People have thought these things exist or are true for so long the culture has literally succumbed to a sort of organic or inherited “argument from antiquity”. The reason you appear to even entertain idealism (and by extension mind-body dualism) is Western culture–to which you belong–was shaped considerably by Hellenistic thought. From the Greeks we inherited some useful ways of looking at the world and some not so useful. For example, from the rationalist Thales we inherit the idea that we can explain what happens in the natural world (like a volcano erupting or lightning striking) by appealing to natural causes (or mechanisms) rather explaining these things by saying Hephaestus or Zeus are angry. We also inherited the assumption that souls, spirit and mind exist independent of the body. Plato, as I mentioned previously, even went so far as to claim, as you’ve entertained, ideas exist “out there” objectively and that the so-called “mind’s eye” perceived them. The problem with idealism, souls, gods, mind-eyes, etc. is there’s no reason (no evidence) to suppose any of it reflects the way the world actually works. Gods, etc. were all constructed from common sense deductions—based on the assumptions of the time—that offered a pseudo-scientific explanation satisfying the ancient Greeks. Nobody told the inheritors of Greeks (us), however, that not only could we drop belief in gods but also assumptions about souls and objective ideas, as well.

 

Some Thoughts About the Left

Never has there been an example in history where an ideology (or a group of ideologues) say to themselves: we’ve gone far enough, no further, e.g. identity politics, political correctness, etc. just like National Socialism or communism in the 20th century have a certain grim logic to them that seems to escape its adherents, e.g. when I use the phrase “Boy, it sure is hot out here” and feminists consider the usage of the word “boy” a form of micro-aggression, I think it’s safe to say we are living in a society that has more in common with Orwell’s “1984” than the Canada Baldwin/Lafontaine’s envisioned or the America Jefferson/Lincoln envisioned.

Watch the video below before continuing on.

I suppose this is what Hegel alluded to when he observed history is composed of paradigm pendulum swings where conservatism is ascendant for a time, then the paradigm swings the other way and liberalism becomes fashionable, and so on and so forth. This new “liberalism” isn’t liberalism though; it’s a pseudo-liberalism that smells more like a secular religion than a political philosophy, e.g. if you go back centuries the Catholic Church tried to engineer society by controlling what thoughts and ideas and expressions its adherents used to help save them from hellfire. The politically correct crowd is equally well-intentioned when it comes to “saving” people from oppression it seems; it is something if not ironic that in an effort to combat oppression the political left has become oppressive itself. I abandoned the left primarily for this reason and gladly occupy the center. I’m hoping more people will join me there going forward.

Take heart: maybe liberals will be reminded that everyone is entitled to intellectual freedom, expression, etc….even those they disagree with or the ones who promote unpopular views. You don’t fight terrible ideas by turning your back and not listening or outlawing them from being expressed; you fight lousy ideas by coming up with better ones and communicating them rationally.

We Are Our Minds

We are our minds and they’re all we can offer to others. This might not be obvious, especially when there are things in life needing improvement, e.g. unrealized goals or relationships in need of attention. But it’s the truth. Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind and every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved. If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you’ve become or who is in your life–you won’t enjoy any of it. Not a single thing.

Everything we want to accomplish–to get in better shape, write a book, travel, make a career change–is something that promises if we do it fulfillment; but this is a false hope: most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of such a search: each of us is looking for a path back to the present (we are trying to find reasons to be satisfied now).

Why is it I can appreciate this at an abstract level but fail to implement it at the practical? Given enough time, I suppose, our mental software can be modified to a certain extent (despite the determinism of that blasted limbic system I inherited from my forebears).

Perhaps the most important realization I’ve had in all of this is my need to feel connected and be part of a community (and to contribute to the well being of that community). I learned this when I participated in an urban outreach program while in Washington, D.C. a few years ago but forgot the lesson for some reason. I’ve spent the better part of the last five years pretending to be a human being; it’s time to actually become one in the fullest sense of the word and quit seeing myself through the eyes of others.

The World According to John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck made a pretty nifty observation: he said socialism never took root in America because the poor never saw themselves as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. I suppose this is why so many of them oppose progressive tax reforms that would be in their interest to support.

American culture is so hostile to the idea of limits, i.e. Marx was surely right when he called capitalism a “machine for demolishing limits”. It does a pretty bang-up job of demolishing planets, as well.

And now for the obligatory cat picture.

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