Referendum on Reality

Hate to sound glib here but the CV-19 pandemic in the United States is basically been a referendum on reality—you acknowledge it (deal with it) or do not acknowledge it (willful blindness).

The complete unqualified support the President received, and continues to receive, reflects this dangerous rejection of reality by a good proportion of Americans.

If you cannot convince someone there’s an immediate problem when 126000 body bags are filled and counting, how in the heck do we get America to move on something that is actually more dangerous to humanity—climate change—which takes place so gradually?

Reality? I check that box.

Yes, Donald. That’s a solar eclipse.

Diversity is Strength

Canada is 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 home: this is where they raise their families, worship, work, play and build a life for themselves; and it isn’t terribly surprising when we encounter strangers living among us that one of our first instincts is to become defensive as opposed to embrace them.

Canadians are known worldwide as being “awfully polite”; however, they aren’t immune to xenophobia or fear of foreigners. 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 when the Canadian West was being settled during our so-called Golden Age. In all three cases, the Irish were not well-received: in the context of both Canada and the United States, English Protestants felt threatened by the sudden influx of Irish Catholics. The Irish were thankful for the opportunities afforded to them by their adoptive countries; nevertheless, 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 influx of Syrians, for example, 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, 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 finally acceptable; 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 1914 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 bi-culturalism to multiculturalism. We didn’t even notice the change (and certainly didn’t plan it); yet we are, and will continue to be, a multicultural society whether critics and xenophobes 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 2020. If there’s a standard definition of what constitutes a true Canadian, it’s a floating one and definitely isn’t as simple as saying it is someone who is white, English-speaking, and Christian. With that said, the wave of Syrian immigration to Canada took 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 is 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. over 30 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 responding to these changes and growing in popularity as though we’re rehearsing for World War III; and then add to that a global pandemic it’s little wonder so many people have such mixed feelings about helping strange Syrian refugees when extant 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 alongside and treating one another better. 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 (or the massive cultural shift we’re currently seeing with Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd).

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 appreciate the sentiment but I would add the following caveat, i.e. 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 keeping strangers out. The truth is the world is a much smaller place in 2020 than it was in 1920 when the Spanish Flu epidemic rocked the world. 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] Poll suggests 25% of Canadians want Drumpf-style policy suspending refugees | CBC News

Belief in an Age of Doubt

Introduction
Art imitates life compelling us to look deeper in to the significance and meaning of human experience.  For this reason Roger Lundin, author of Believing Again, felt studying literature was vital to our well-being—books weave experience and sensation together giving expression to certain underlying truths about human existence. When Lundin was thirteen years old he read Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire.” After finishing the story he felt like his life was taken away momentarily—measured and judged—and then returned to him in the form of an alienated majesty (a realization his own situation, and that of the main character in London’s story, was essentially identical.)

“To Build a Fire” is a story about a man lost in the Yukon wilderness. He must build a fire or perish. Everything that can go wrong goes wrong. When the nameless man’s efforts eventually fail, he submits to fate by falling asleep and slipping into death. London’s story of a hapless man freezing to death made perfect sense to a young impressionable Lundin: life was not directed by any divine being towards some sort of greater purpose; on the contrary, life appeared governed by purposeless accident and blind necessity. Things, sometimes terrible things, simply happened to people for no particular purpose or reason. The death of his older brother, in Lundin’s grade ten year, during routine surgery reinforced this sense of life’s purposelessness. To Lundin everything was either random or the workings of a God so distant and indifferent the thought of submitting to it was unbearable. So for the final two years of high school, he poured himself into reading books; and the poets and novelists he encountered during this time placed him on a path towards eventually returning to God.

In his book Believing Again, Roger Lundin describes his personal journey from unbelief to belief. He traces his journey using the thoughts and paths followed by various 19th century writers. Writers like Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Fyodor Dostoevsky provide a fruitful context for a discussion on the origin and consequences of doubt for people living in the 21st century.


A Changing Zeitgeist

Lundin takes the beginning of the 19th century as his starting point: the Enlightenment was in full swing. People were buoyed by a sense of hope and optimism about the future. They believed reason, and education in particular, was the solution to all of humanity’s problems. There was a scientific renaissance in fields like geology, biology, chemistry and physics successfully challenging old assumptions about the physical world (and God). Emerging sciences like sociology and psychology added further fuel to the fire challenging traditional beliefs and religious claims about the world in particular. The increase in scientific knowledge contributed to the development of a new more modern Zeitgeist.[1] Where once we thought ourselves special, advances in biology (e.g. theory of evolution) indicated we were not; where once it was believed the Earth was only thousands of years old advances in geology pointed to the planet actually being hundreds of millions of years old. More than one person asked themselves questions like why did God create the dinosaurs and why did He take so long to get to us? In a sense science knocked humankind off of its pedestal. By the end of the 19th century people were filled less with optimism and more with a sense of feeling adrift.[2]

The scientific process cannot really be blamed for causing this cultural shift; rather, it was the perceived implications of scientific findings causing people to question the existence of a divine order or purpose to things. Many of the major cultural figures of the 19th century, like Emily Dickinson and Fyodor Dostoevsky, wrote their most important works during this period. Both writers felt they were living during a time of challenge and bracing change; and although doubt had always co-existed alongside faith, it was during the 1800s open unbelief first became an intellectually viable and, perhaps most importantly, a socially acceptable option. In the 21st century, we have learned to live with unbelief. Yet, when modern unbelief first broke upon the scene in the mid-nineteenth century, the sense of disruption and disorientation it caused, was palpable, even overwhelming for some; and by the end of the 19th century doubt went from being an isolated experience on the cultural margins to becoming a central component of modern life.


Changing Zeitgeist: Changing Expectations

Up until the middle of the 19th century young people were expected to adopt the same values and worldview as their parents. No questions asked. Today the situation is changed: young people are expected to make their own way through the world; they cannot rely entirely upon traditions, society or their family to guide them. Young people are expected to examine things objectively and not just accept things at face value. People living in the 21st century possess a degree of freedom and individual responsibility inconceivable to our ancestors.

Lundin is a child of the 20th century. He grew up living with significant doubt. At times he entertained the idea some force governed the course of life; however, he had no idea what it was like or whether it even had a name. He clearly did not believe it was a loving, forgiving, or personal power directing history or events from behind the scenes. As a child of the 20th century, Lundin believed the laws of life took no notice of his personal longings or the prayers and destiny of people. Instead, it appeared to him people were simply wandering around life from nowhere to nowhere. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz aptly describes the situation in his poem “Road to Nowhere”:

If what is proclaimed by Christianity is a fiction,
And what we are taught in schools,
In newspapers and TV is true:
That the evolution of life is an accident,
As is an accident the existence of man,
And that his history goes from nowhere to nowhere,
Our duty is to draw conclusions
From our thinking about the innumerable generations
Who lived and died deluding themselves,
Ready to renounce their natural needs for no reason,
To wait for a posthumous verdict, every day afraid
That for licking clean a pot of jam they go to eternal torment.

Milosz’s reference to the “evolution of life” is an allusion to the work of Charles Darwin. When Darwin developed the theory of evolution he made no use of a God. Instead he explained humankind’s origins solely through material and observable forces. Life took the shape it did, not because of the activity of a loving all-powerful God, but through interspecies struggle and survival of the fittest. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. His “dangerous idea” caused controversy for at least two reasons: firstly, it provided an alternative explanation to the biblical account of humankind’s origins; and secondly, the theory contributed to the emerging 19th century notion that all previous generations of the faithful had merely been, to quote Milosz, “deluding themselves”.

For his part Darwin was never an atheist. Scientists study nature for its own sake (not to disprove religion).[3] Darwin developed the theory of evolution through his work studying barnacles. He wanted to explain why there was such a variety of them. Why caused them to differ so much from one another? He concluded that barnacles took the forms they did due to adapting to new environments through a process he called natural selection, i.e. organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. In other words, dead barnacles don’t have babies. Competition between the different varieties of barnacles shaped what they looked like. The most important conclusion Darwin reaches was all of varieties of barnacles shared one ancestor population in common. The implications of shared ancestry weren’t lost on him: he looked at the United States with horror because white people justified the continued practice of slavery by an appeal to racial superiority. Darwin concluded correctly that if humankind was evolving, then just like with the barnacles, every human being could trace their ancestry to a single shared ancestral population in the distant past. Later developments in biology confirmed what Darwin suspected: there is no white person or yellow person or black person or red person genome (DNA molecule). There is a single universal human genome.[4]

People living in the 21st century are shaped by both faith-based and scientific perspectives. Consequently, today even “firm” believers appreciate that while religion provides a meaning, science likewise has something to teach us. Therefore, to be a believer today is to recognize that in the deepest personal sense, belief appears to be more or less optional; that is, whatever a person is able to accept and affirm he or she is also free to reject or deny. Faith, therefore, is a choice. By the same line of reasoning unbelief is a choice, as well.


The Adulthood of the World

There is no point in regretting our freedom to choose. The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said as much in his Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer argued it made no sense for Christians to try and fight the “adulthood of the world”.[5] Specifically, he observed that it was “in the first place pointless, in the second place ignoble, and in the third place un-Christian” to jettison scientific findings if and when they conflicted with established belief.[6] Admittedly, some ideas and certain perspectives make many believers uncomfortable. But being made uncomfortable by a particular idea or line of reasoning isn’t evidence that the idea is false. Such discomfort is more or less an indicator of individual’s ability or inability (unwillingness) to change their thinking to reflect new and better information.

Bonhoeffer asserted if gainsay was our only defense against challenges to belief little was accomplished. Facts are, as President John Adams once observed, stubborn things. So, when an assumption about God is successfully challenged, like the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and not 6000 years like some creationists claim, this does not mean that because we got the Earth’s age wrong we must also be wrong about God even existing. Darwin argued science told us how processes unfold, not why[7] or for what greater purpose they unfold. Look at it this way: people make assumptions about others all the time. Are the assumptions themselves the person whom they’re being made about? Or are they an imperfect reflection of a version of them? God and the assumptions people have about It.[8] are not the same thing. Not even close.[9]

Shortly after Lundin’s conversion to Christianity, he dreamt about how much better his life might have been if he were born during the middle ages. Life was simpler then and the authority of the Church and the Bible were not questioned (actually this authority was challenged but the Church’s ability to kill or imprison opponents is what kept such questioning to a minimum). Yet, Lundin’s view of the medieval period was correct in at least one respect: the Christian narrative then was firmly accepted “as is” without any real challenge from science. Lundin, though, freely admits wishing to be alive at this time is an example of foolish idealism. When he was a child his life was saved twice by modern medicine. If he lived during the middle ages, he would have died twice by the age of ten. Lundin does not cry over our loss of innocence and medieval certainty. Instead, he accepts reality for what it is: something is true not because it is believed in; rather, nothing depends upon a believer at all, e.g. God might exist despite the atheist’s lack of belief and God might not exist despite the theist’s belief. Again, Lundin asserts there is no point in wishing this were not the case. Faith is a choice.[10]

To writers like Emily Dickinson and Czeslaw Milosz , belief and unbelief were real tensions, and like Jacob did with the angel, these authors wrestled with God—and in some cases also with the shadow cast by His apparent absence. To her credit Dickinson perceived the promise and peril of the modern world earlier than most. In the case of Dostoevsky, he knew that the theological ground had shifted dramatically over the course of a single generation from confidence to doubt in God. They found the new dynamics of belief challenging and grew weary pursuing God; though they had strong convictions their self-dividing doubts always remained. Near the end of her life Dickinson observed to a friend that on “subjects of which we know nothing…we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps [belief] nimble”.[11] Her observation captures the essence of what it means to believe or not believe in the 21st century—we are as justified in practicing one position as the other.

Conclusion
Poet W. H. Auden looked at the influence of science as both admirable and harmful. According to Auden, science liberated men from misplaced humility before a false god. Interestingly, Auden observed the god whose death Friedrich Nietzsche declared in the late 19th century was not the Christian God but a cultural creation or a “Zeus without Zeus’ vices”. To Auden, the singular achievement of science in the modern world was to demythologize the universe; and since God created the universe He could not be directly encountered within it.[12] So we are left partially blind and to our assumptions. In his book The Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains the situation this way:

Now this change, which has taken place over the last [thousand years] in our civilization, has been immense. We move from an enchanted world, inhabited by spirits and forces, to a disenchanted one; but perhaps more important, we have moved from a world which is encompassed within certain bounds and static to one which is vast, feels infinite, and is in the midst of an evolution spread over [ages].[13]

In 1849 Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky was arrested by the czar’s secret police in Russia for criticizing the government’s policies. He and several others were condemned to death; at the last moment, a note from Czar Nicholas I was delivered to the firing squad. The czar spared the writer commuting his sentence to four years’ hard labor in Siberia. A woman named Natalya Fonvizina gave Dostoevsky a copy of the New Testament just before his four-year exile began. Dostoevsky wrote Natalya a letter while in prison. The contents of the letter place the Russian author squarely at the center of the 19th century discovery of unbelief and the subsequent efforts to believe again:

I will tell you that I am a child of the century, a child of disbelief and doubt, I am that today and (I know it) will remain so until the grave. How much terrible torture this thirst for faith has cost me and costs me even now, which is all the stronger in my soul the more arguments I can find against it. And yet, God sends me sometimes instants when I am completely calm; at those instants I love and I feel loved by others, and it is at these instants that I have shaped for myself a Credo where everything is clear and sacred for me. This Credo is very simple, here it is: to believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly, and more perfect than Christ; and I tell myself with a jealous love not only that there is nothing but that there cannot be anything. Even more, if someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth, and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.[14]

There exists no more passionate statement of faith than what is found in Dostoevsky’s letter. Human beings are as much a product of reason as they are of passion. If people are genuinely thoughtful, and value intellectual humility and honesty, they cannot ever entirely escape some degree of doubt. But then I remember one simple thing I learned as a young boy reading scripture for myself: Jesus never told me I had to have the right ideas (assumptions) in my head. He didn’t tell me faith consisted in having the right understanding; he told me I was literally born to do good. Maybe the question of God’s existence is not so important after all (since it cannot really be answered scientifically). Perhaps faith then is best understood not as a series of logical propositions or doctrines, but more of a conscious decision to persist and choose to love the good and live in hope and trust.

________________________

[1] Zeitgeist is taken from the German literally meaning “spirit of the time”. The zeitgeist is the “defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time”.

[2] In the 1930s, sociologist Émile Durkheim described this popular sense of feeling adrift through the concept of anomie. Anomie, in societies or individuals, is a condition of instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals. Scientific advances successfully challenging religious claims contributed to a collective sense of rootlessness and despair. Science, or knowledge itself, was not to blame per se; rather, the problem was with how intractable and unbending people were in their thinking: instead of adapting to the new information by adjusting old beliefs to reflect new scientific information, many abandoned religion altogether.

[3] Darwin actually completed significant education and training towards becoming an Anglican priest.

[4] By the end of his life Darwin was an agnostic: he accepted the fact some questions were simply unanswerable by their nature. He never said at any point evolution disproved God’s existence. Darwin observed scientific theories merely describe how a process unfolds; scientific theories, however, do not answer the question why the observed process existed in the first place (or if someone as opposed to something was responsible); thus, unlike some opponents of religion claim, evolution never unseated or “killed” God; it is possible God used evolution as a means of creating and shaping life. Nonetheless, it is accurate to say evolution certainly challenged certain assumptions people had about God.

[5] Bonhoeffer used “adulthood” as a metaphor referring to the advances made in science and the subsequent leaving behind of certain beliefs.

[6] Bonhoeffer, D. (2017). Letters and papers from prison. London: SCM Press, p.327.

[7] The words how and why are actually quite similar in their meaning, e.g. they both ask the question in what way or manner did something come to be. However, I am using the adverb why to refer to something related to Providence or the work of an unseen God. So why is being used here as a synonym for “underlying reason” or “overarching purpose”, e.g. Why was X made? So that Y would happen.

[8] It is not even clear that God is a He or a Him in the strictest human sense of the word. Some theologians and anthropologists argue that if we live in a patriarchal society it’s more likely we’ll explain God in masculine as opposed to feminine terms.

[9] Every ancient society believed gods directly influenced human history. Judaism was unique, in that, it was the first religion to posit the idea there was only one God, not many gods, at work in the world. Christians believe God worked through Israel to prepare a foundation for the birth of Jesus; and God used Jesus to show us His parental heart: God is a parent—in every sense of the word—who looks after us. He is not necessarily an indifferent cosmic power as some critics claim.

[10] When it comes right down to it faith is a choice. Faith is not a collection of ideas. Faith is a state of being, not a series of “correct” propositions the believer is obligated to memorize and apply to their life formulaically. Appealing directly to St. Paul, faith has less to do with fide (literally “belief” from the Latin) in series of ideas or doctrines and more to do with a persistent state of pistus (literally “trusting” from the Greek) in God, anways. Faith, therefore, is a choice between trust and doubt.

[11] (n.d.). Retrieved May 14, 2020, from http://archive.emilydickinson.org/correspondence/lord/l750.html.

[12] Auden elaborated on this position through the following analogy, e.g. Just as when I read a poem, I do not encounter the author himself, only the words he has written whit it is my job to understand”. Kirsch, A. C. (2005). Auden and Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, p.162.

[13] Taylor, C. (2018). A Secular Age. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p.323.

[14] Frank, J. (2002) Dostoevsky: Years. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p.160.

Gateway to Destroying Truth: Holocaust Denialism

The casualty of the ongoing culture wars raging in the United States today is a decrease in the public’s trust in media, political figures and the historical record. Leaders exploit this uncertainty using a combination of fear mongering and plausible deniability to mould public opinion. If you can simply wipe away the historical record by calling it “fake”, then collectively we are in a lot of trouble indeed. Specifically, for any civilization to cohere, move forward, or even endure, its people must share a historical sensibility in common. When memory itself is under assault, as is the case with Holocaust denialism, then all of us placed into greater jeopardy because scrupulous and powerful individuals will exploit the subsequent weakness; and with every such attack democracy and the democratic impulse becomes just a little weaker. Democracy dies the death of a thousand such wounds.

Perspectives on Antisemitism
Racism affects every single society on the planet shaping politics, economics, social policy, culture, art, music and everything in between. Racism is not a rational viewpoint to hold; it is an emotional response of a person to the strange and unknown. Racism reflects the fact human beings are not particularly rational by nature. We tend to make decisions from the hip based on incomplete information. In the process we risk mistaking our assumptions about people for facts. Since 2015 antisemitism (or hatred of Jewish people) has risen significantly in democratic countries like France, Britain, Germany, Canada and the United States.

Antisemitism’s rise correlates with the significant economic problems following the Great Recession in 2009 and a subsequent rise in populism.[1] Mark Twain reputedly observed history doesn’t repeat though it rhymes. With Twain’s observation in mind, the 1920s and the early 2000s “sound” eerily similar: during these two decades both Germany and the United States experienced existential crises where economic collapse fell fast upon the heels of military failure, e.g. Germany losing the Great War and the United States being chastened in both Afghanistan and Iraq. These crises contributed to, and exacerbated feelings of, desperation and a sense of rootlessness in German and American political life; and in both situations, for good or for ill, the type of leaders benefiting most weren’t democratic-minded ones but reactionary men promising radical solutions.

Economic or politic crisis doesn’t always mean a rise in the popularity of right-wing movements. However, at the risk of sounding fatalistic, authoritarianism does hold a certain attraction for those of us—especially in times of uncertainty—who look at the world in black and white terms as opposed to grey.[2] In this context, the fear felt by white Americans, and expressed in their support for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, seems understandable, even predictable. There really is no historical precedent of a majority (white men) going quietly accepting their fate, i.e. sitting back while women grow in influence and immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East radically change America’s demographics. The average person really isn’t motivated by principles like pluralism, tolerance or even democracy. Instead, what motivates them more are things reflecting some of the cognitive (“thinking”) problems affecting to human nature: tribalism, the distrust of strangers, and the jealous guarding of privilege.

One of the oldest and most common forms of racism is antisemitism. For centuries Jews have experienced violence and discrimination at the hands of Christian groups and governments.[3] This hatred isn’t confined to the past: in 2017 white supremacists, and members of the so-called “alt-right” (otherwise known as reactionary conservatives), marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. They were protesting the removal of statues depicting “heroic figures” who fought defending the South during the American Civil War. The majority of these statues were erected in the 1960s, 70s and 80s—in reaction to the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—making many African Americans feel insecure and understandably upset, i.e. these statues are justifiably perceived as symbols celebrating racism. The Charlottesville white supremacists marched at night carrying torches shouting “Jews will not replace us” over and over and over again. The protest reminded me of similar actions taken by National Socialists in Germany during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Eventually, during a counter-protest white supremacists and their opponents clashed in street battles. One counter-protester was killed when a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd. On October 27th, 2018, a white supremacist walked into a Jewish place of worship in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania opening fire killing eleven Jews.

Actions are the products of thoughts and thoughtlessness: in April 2018 an article broke revealing how four out of even ten millennial had never heard of the Holocaust.[4] Ignorance of the Holocaust didn’t necessarily contribute to either the Charlottesville or Pittsburgh events; however, when we forget or ignore our collective history we seem to be doomed to repeat past mistakes.[5] The world has changed a lot over the past seven decades since the end of World War II. Human rights are more broadly respected. In Western countries like Canada, America, France, Germany and Britain, minorities enjoy greater security and opportunities than ever before. Governments and courts actively protect vulnerable people from exploitation and discrimination. Yet, despite this progress some people remain unwilling to tolerate others different than themselves. Jews, and other minorities, are still targeted by hate groups, e.g. Jewish gravestones are frequently marred by spray painted Swastikas, synagogues are broken in to and burned, and the people themselves are likewise attacked.

As bad as the marches by torch wielding white nationalists, and the physical attacks on Jews themselves, I’d argue one of the greater threats to Jewish people comes in the form of Holocaust denialism. In an insult to the memory of millions of people who suffered and died under the Nazis, deniers claim the Holocaust never even happened. If deniers convince us 6.5 million people didn’t die in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Dachau, or Treblinka, etc. then they might be able to convince us to reconsider other things like respect for human rights or tolerance of minorities generally; it is important to fight Holocaust denial if only to preserve and remember the voices of a million children silenced by jack booted, educated men.

Elie Wiesel, author of the novel Night, is only one of many people who actively worked to preserve the memory of those who died in the camps. Historian and author, Deborah Lipstadt, likewise worked opposing Holocaust denial and antisemitism. She publishes books, gives lectures, takes the deniers on directly through court cases, educates people, and generates awareness of the problem of denialism by working closely with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

________________________

[1] Populism is a political approach where leaders of a movement appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. Populist leaders were elected in the United States, Italy, Turkey, and Brazil. The growth of populism reflects the growing discontent among the average person with politicians who appear to be beholden to corporate interests. Regrettably, in the Western context the growth of populism correlates strongly with a growth in intolerance.

[2] Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics, p.18.

[3] Jews were not allowed to hold certain types of jobs or participate as full members of society; they were forced to live in ghettos apart from surrounding Christian communities. In addition to being socially and economically marginalized, Jews experienced violent persecutions (called pogroms) in every country, e.g. they were thrown in to holes upside down and buried, they were drowned, and beaten to death.  Although the Jewish People have suffered persecution for centuries, the term anti-Semitism is actually a relatively new word: it is based on a 19th century German term, e.g. Judenhass literally meaning “Jew-hatred.”

[4] The Holocaust was the product of the Nazi’s so-called “Final Solution” the “Judenfuge” (translated to “Jewish problem in Europe”). Two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe was gassed, starved, shot, etc. from 1941 to 1945. This equates to approximately 6.5 million people (an estimated 1.5 million were children). The article can be accessed here: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/holocaust-study-millennials/.

[5] The German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831 CE) observed “the only lesson history teaches is we don’t learn from history.”

“Trump” + Florida Man

An older couple after hearing the President tout the healing properties of hydroxycloroquine, which were unproven at the time of the claim (and has since been studied to show an actual increase in mortality rates due to CV19), drank some aquarium cleaning solution which had chloroquine phosphate in it. The wife mixed up the solution. The husband died. She was hospitalized. The packaging actually says “not for human consumption”. And why wouldn’t you Google “is chloroquine phosphate safe to consume”?

This is why it matters what people in positions of authority say: not everyone possesses the discernment to navigate life safely. Not sure how some of y’all survived past 30 to be honest. So what you say publicly must be measured and planned (and not ad hoc). There was a spike in poisonings following the POTUS’ claim that drinking bleach might kill the virus.

What a disaster. I am too scared to Google the phrase “Florida man” + listened to Trump.

Reality matters. Being lead by a used car salesman has its uses but I sure would not want one in charge of this crisis.

Read an article covering this example of natural selection here.

Tolkien: Strength Through Weakness

Tolkien uses Gandalf to communicate an important theme present throughout the entirety of his Legendarium: hope against hope.

Gandalf observes, “The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many”.

Frodo pauses, dejected, and then says something that many of us feel when life at its hardest. Frodo says, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened”.

Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. There are other forces at work in the world besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought”.

While it might seem we are weak and evil is strong, there are forces at work—seen and unseen—which taken individually might not amount to much, yet taken collectively are capable of turning the tide towards the direction of hope. Tolkien’s Christian faith, and the notion of strength through weakness (like Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to defeat death), comes through in Gandalf’s words. A couple days ago I finally realized why I liked Gandalf so much (he’s by far my favorite literary character): he’s basically a Jesus character created by Tolkien to encourage people and to build hope.

Through Gandalf’s wise counsel to Frodo he doesn’t dismiss what the troubled Hobbit has to say, but he also doesn’t allow him to give into despair. Instead, he asserts that in the midst of that despair, there can be hope. So, in a sense, perhaps whatever difficulties we are given in life we were /meant/ to go through them; and while we cannot change the situation, we can change our attitude and the decisions we make. We can decide to either let it keep us down or we can decide, once again, to pick ourselves back up and move forward.

I’ve made so many mistakes in my life; it sort of helps (it’s therapeutic even) to think that maybe I was meant, in a sense, to make them so that some good might come out of it in the end.

Imperial Irony

Watching my cat look out the window and this random thought pops in my head: former 19th century empires–France, Germany and England for example–are the friendliest states in Europe to the idea of multiculturalism.

There are, of course, people in these countries who fear diversity; however, the majority of their populations are cosmopolitan in their outlook. Interestingly, Hungary and Poland–both countries occupied by outsiders throughout the 19th century–are the most resistant to immigration and the most cloistered.

So, in something of an ironic twist, we have the countries which robbed the identity of nations 150 years ago now embracing those identities; and those states that had their identities robbed are the most reluctant to embrace diversity. There appears to be a correlation, however strong or weak, between an imperial past and a multicultural present.

Here’s a thought…

The same methods used to discover gravitational waves are used for climate science.

Here’s a thought: why aren’t conservatives denying gravitational waves? Might it have something to do with the absence of an anti-gravitational wave lobby?

Filter Bubbles

When I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s, I had access to three television and maybe a couple radio channels. New information usually came in the form of asking a well-educated and well-read father questions or cracking open a book and reading for myself. Since information was funneled through a narrow channel, odds were good I shared a similar frame of reference of what was happening in the world with basically everyone else. There was certainly misinformation and disinformation 30-40 years ago; however, it was nothing like what it is today.

Today we have so much more choice: there are thousands of television channels, dozens of streaming services, and several billion websites covering every conceivable subject. Ironically, I think I actually had more “choice” back in the 80s: when you and I conduct an identical Internet search using Google for, say, like “climate change” you might get a list of sites “proving” it is a hoax while I’ll receive hits for websites confirming it as fact. Why the disconnect?

Filter bubbles.

Google, Facebook, Amazon, Yahoo, and so on, only send me information which reflects my online activity used to create a “digital avatar” of me. They know I accept the scientific consensus on climate change; thus, when I want to look up related information they send me in the direction of www.scientificamerican.com. Another person by contrast might be sent to www.climatechangehoax.net or some such equivalent. Both of us get a shot of dopamine as our worldviews are confirmed. These tech giants curate and filter what information you receive and what I do not and vice versa; it is no longer to share a frame of reference because everyone exists in their own little Truman World.

This is making it increasingly difficult to engage in meaningful and constructive dialogue with people online because we do not share the same frame of reference. Instead, you have a set of facts, I have a set of facts, that person over there has their own, etc. Democracy in large part relies heavily upon the presence of informed citizens. I can’t think of any greater danger to democracy than the internet: people visiting a site like CNN can literally watch video footage of Trump mimicking/mocking a disabled reporter during a speech; you can see the video for yourself; and then people watching FOX believe Trump when he says he never mocked the man.

2 + 2 apparently equals 5.

I think we owe it to one another, you and I, to be discerning and skeptical when using the Internet. Be aware that the Internet is less an “information highway” and more of an “information wilderness” (and all that implies).

What can we do to build awareness and break free of filter bubbles? Well, so long as you’re consuming digital media you’ll never entirely break free; however, you can develop better metacognition. Metacognition literally means “to think about what one thinks about” or “to be aware of one’s own thoughts”. The best education teaches a person not to find the right answers but seek out the right questions to ask:

Is my judgement compromised in any way by either motivated reasoning or confirmation bias?

Did I go into this search with my mind already made up or am I genuinely willing to change my mind and go where the evidence actually takes me?

Do I know everything about this topic? Is it possible a person could disagree with me and be equally reasonable and have something to teach me?

Do I argue to learn or to win?

Do I listen with charity and ask questions for clarity rather than build and attack straw men?

Is this or that news source or political leader that amazing that they’d never make an error or exaggerate or lie?

Do I believe in something more than I understand it?

We are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.

Sapere aude.

The Challenge of So-called “Fake News”

When the printing press appeared in West back in the 1500s, it had a revolutionary effect: ideas no longer had to be remembered but could be stored permanently; also, ideas became more widely available as economic growth meant more people could afford books (which became much more abundant because they were much cheaper to produce). Growth in literacy levels, and the emergence of a reading culture, ultimately helped encourage a series of transformational movements ranging from the Renaissance to the Protestant Revolution and the Scientific Revolution to the Enlightenment. Books, in a word, encouraged an intellectual and cultural transformation of Western society.

Books, quite unlike websites, are costly to produce and publish: books cost money whereas anyone with an Internet connection and an email can literally create a blog for free almost instantly; publishing companies go to great lengths vetting (fact checking) claims made by authors of books and the sources they use, i.e. writers making false claims potentially open up a publishing company to lawsuits. Thus, sources are checked and factual claims confirmed by an appeal to evidence. Websites, unlike books, are produced by everybody—by people ranging from genuine experts to tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorists. Websites, like books, increase public exposure to new ideas: the problem is not all ideas are equal. Some sites are created by people who make claims to expertise (but who are not experts in anything); some are created to deliberately deceive readers. Add to the mix the uniquely human tendency of readers seeking out only those websites confirming existing beliefs, as opposed to sites challenging them, and it becomes easy to appreciate why groups like the Flat Earth Society gain adherents. Human beings by and large tend to be motivated reasoners[1] subject to confirmation bias[2] thereby becoming too easily “useful idiots”.[3]

Now not all books published before the arrival of the Internet were necessarily good or trustworthy (far from it). Yet the discipline, time and expense of producing a book tended to separate the wheat (the good stuff) from the chaff (the not so good). Not so with the Internet. Aside from a few scientific journals, and online newspapers, there is little quality control or accountability. In other words, the Internet is a not so much an information-highway as it is an information-wilderness where readers—some better than others—are left to themselves to figure out what is true and what is false.

This would not be a problem if people tended to make decisions based on an appeal to reason; however, quite the opposite is true: studies in cognitive psychology demonstrate people tend to think in, and interpret the reliability of a source, through appeals to emotion.[4] Democratic societies depend heavily upon informed citizens. Thus, ready access to trustworthy information is absolutely vital to the healthy functioning of liberal societies like Canada’s and the United States. But democracy is currently in retreat virtually everywhere in the West.[5]

The causes of this retreat are varied and complex; nonetheless, a major factor contributing to a demonstrated decline in tolerance and an increase in, say, a phenomenon like white nationalism is the public’s declining confidence in the trustworthiness of news sources. The frequency a phrase like “fake news”[6] gets used by both politicians in speeches, and average people on social media, reflects this declining trust. While websites do exist deliberately producing fake news, not all sources of information are untrustworthy. But how do we tell the difference between legitimate sources/claims and illegitimate ones? And, just as important, what can we do to arrest and turn back the growth in anti-democratic sentiment?

____________________________

[1] Motivated reasoning: phenomenon studied in cognitive science and social psychology that uses emotionally-biased reasoning to produce justifications or make decisions that are most desired rather than those that are most logical, while still reducing cognitive dissonance.

[2] Confirmation bias: is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or strengthens one’s prior personal beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias.

[3] Useful idiots: a useful idiot is a derogatory (negative) term to describe a person perceived to be supporting a cause without fully comprehending the cause’s goals, and who is cynically used by a cause’s leaders for influence.

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4128497/

[5] https://intpolicydigest.org/2019/08/06/a-global-retreat-from-democracy/

[6] The phrase “fake news” is problematic: the term is used and misused so often it’s become virtually meaningless. For example when President Donald Trump was criticized for mocking a physically challenged reporter the President denied the accusation calling it “fake news”. The problem is the President’s interaction with the reporter was caught on tape. This is one of literally hundreds of incidents Trump has called “fake” while evidence exists to the contrary. This phrase is used, more or less, to simply silence critics or deflect criticism, i.e. if reporter X says something politician Y does not like then Y simply denies it calling it fake. Thus, it appears facts which are “inconvenient” are “fake” (while remaining fact).

I’m Not Anti-Capitalist. I’m Anti-Oligarchy.

“Capitalism was once viewed by workers as a system to be fought. But capitalism is no longer challenged. Capitalist bosses, men such as Warren Buffett, George Soros, and Donald Trump, are treated as sages, celebrities and populists. The liberal class functions as their cheerleaders. Such misguided loyalty, illustrated by environmental groups that refuse to excoriate the Obama White House over the ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, ignores the fact that the divide in America is not between Republican and Democrat. It is a divide between the corporate state and the citizen. It is a divide between capitalists and workers. And, for all the failings of the communists, they got it.”
Chris Hedges from Death of the Liberal Class

Ecologically speaking, it seems capitalism isn’t sustainable in the long-term, e.g. capitalism is premised upon infinite growth within a finite system. This isn’t possible and we are seeing extinction rates that the planet hasn’t seen since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Some models predict there won’t be a living thing in the ocean—no sharks, whales, dolphins—in the oceans by 2050.  Where the oceans go, I suspect, we go.

Chris Hedges isn’t anti-capitalist per se; he’s anti-oligarchy; it just so happens he isn’t going to give capitalism a pass while criticizing capitalists who exploit certain aspects of this economic system at the great expense of the public. In history there isn’t another economic system that has produced as much wealth or enabled so many people to enjoy such a high standard of living. Not even close. Hedges though, like Marx before him, is critical of neo-liberalism (or the whole laissez-faire approach that the Republican Party and its uncritical acolytes places on a pedestal). We’ve conducted this “unfettered capitalism” experiment before: we called it liberalism in the 19th century, the Gilded Age. Before the passage of labor laws, minimum wage laws, and a number of other progressive measures, etc. the working class was vulnerable to exploitation, dismissal, and abuse by employers. Government stood by unwilling to do anything because of the “liberal” ethos, i.e. it was widely believed the worst thing a government could do was intervene in the economy or lives of the individual citizen. This is what was known as Classical Liberalism ( a far cry from the “liberalism” of the 20th century). The terms “liberal” and “conservative” mean entirely different things today.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” changed things for America (as Bennett’s equivalent did in Canada) in the 1930s where governments intervened in the economy to regulate it thereby, in principle, mitigating some of the risk and volatility that naturally flows from a capitalist system, e.g. stock market speculation in the 1920s resulted in the New York Stock Exchange crash and led to the Great Depression.

So FDR’s administration intervened passing the Glass-Steagall act to prevent banks from acting fraudulently or taking on un-necessary risks that created systemic risks for the economy as a whole. Arguably, the social programs that emerged out of the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations made the United States a model for other liberal democratic states to follow with respect to moving towards a more equitable approach to governance and economic oversight.

Glass-Steagall was repealed by Bill Clinton in the 90s; the American economy was de-regulated more and more through the George W. Bush years; then we saw a massive expansion of the financial services industry at Wall Street and all these wonderful products like credit default swaps. In 2008-2009 the whole system collapsed due to systemic fraud and borrowing: investment banks over leveraged themselves; they risked others peoples’ money by using it to purchase credit default swaps; they then bet on those swaps failing by taking out insurance; and then when these products failed made enormous personal profits why the whole economic system—the one upon which everyone else depends—collapsed. Not a banker batted an eye. So far as they were concerned the system worked (just not for anyone else). A few dozen Wall Street speculators and traders made off like bandits. No charges laid. Unfettered capitalism.

Marx argued unfettered capitalism (that whole Classical Liberalism, known as neo-liberalism today) was a revolutionary force—it doesn’t take us to a socialist dictatorship but towards fascist authoritarianism (or corporatism). I’ll totally admit at face value America looks pretty free, and it is, but the great irony is you can have all the civic and civil rights you want and still not possess any real decision making power. The American political theorist Steven Wolin describes the situation in America as “inverted totalitarianism.” I talk about this problem specifically in a post called Part 3: The Donald Trump Phenomenon: Where’s It All Going? (click here).

Ironically, we don’t have to go to the communists to find a critic of American-style capitalism. Adam Smith, author of the Wealth of Nations argued “greed is good”; however, it seems like the GOP and conservative economists read up to this point and then quit reading; if you keep reading Wealth of Nations, Smith argues entrepreneurs do have a responsibility to society as a whole; they don’t just get to do whatever they like for the sake of profit; rather, they have a responsibility to their communities not to act unethically or so selfishlessly that they jeopardize the public peace (he also had problems with monopolies and corporate power). In fact there were many cases of people running corporations who were either imprisoned or put to death for defrauding the English public in the 1600s and 1700s. Sort of places the whole Great Recession of 2008 into perspective, doesn’t it? Literally only one banker went to prison for what happened.

By contrast a good proportion of those traders in 2009 who committed fraud (although they broke no actual laws because Glass-Steagall was repealed, though these men and women certainly crossed some ethical lines) would’ve been put to death by 18th century standards of law and the corresponding capitalist ethos. Smith is the proto-capitalist who saw the need and wisdom for wise regulatory regimes; and that’s all Hedges would argue for.

Warning: Digital Bait and Switch

cat_group_picIn 2018 the CIA identified about 20 Facebook pages as suspicious: these pages were set up by Russian troll mills apparently. This was established through the use of digital forensics and Facebook’s assistance. These pages were not obviously political ones like the “pizzagate” ones that duped so many during the previous presidential election cycle. Instead they were pages much like like this “cat lovers” page (see image).

The thinking was the pages were set up to appear harmless and fun thereby attracting followers quickly through humor.. The pages presented funny memes and entertaining cat videos. However, the plan was to eventually and gradually become political, I.e. messaging would evolve from “I hate Mondays” to “I hate libtards” over time. When it comes to psychological warfare, repeated exposure to slogans and buzzwords can insidiously shape the thinking of the people exposed (and IQ is no defense).

These pages were designed to eventually be activated as the 2020 presidential election approached. You can read about this kind of tactic by Googling “meme warfare” and listening to Sam Harris’ podcast “Making Sense” (episode 145 ‘The Information Wars’). Many of these pages had hundreds of thousands of followers before being taken down.

Keep one eye open at all times because what you see is not necessarily what you are getting.

Sapere aude.

A Dostoevsky Inspired Thought…

Human life is not some sort of collective movement from a backward past to a better future. This fiction thrust upon the Western world by well-meaning, but overly optimistic philosophers, has been used to justify engineering societies for the sake of the illusion of progress at the expense of real people. The Age of Reason may have given us modernity; yet, it seems modernity is failing us. Opinions are successfully replacing facts. Dogmatism, or fervency of belief, is mistaken for genuine conviction. We’re giving up on terrible freedom, exchanging it for a collection of pleasing cages called social media, smart phones, political correctness and Internet echo chambers.

And so, every person stands in each moment on the edge of an eternity confronted by decisions: to move either forwards or backwards; to progress or stay the same; to side with the tribe just for the sake of doing so or embrace uncertainty leaving behind a family of superstition and ignorance; to submit to an artificial past because of its superficial gravity; or to mistake ignorance for truth, tradition for certainty, and habit for wisdom.

So, what’s the point a Russian asks me? There is none and never was I reply.