Open Letter to the Americans: Communism is Socialism But Socialism Isn’t Necessarily Communism

Political leaders, particularly ones from the Republican Party (but not exclusively), misrepresent socialism whenever they get a chance. They use the “S” word to scare you; they bring up horror stories about Stalinist Russia, gulags, and the specter of communism. (I don’t know how many times I’ve heard them use a failed state like Venezuela as an example of what socialism gets you. What they should do is show you what a successful socialist country looks like.) Canada is socialist. So is France, Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Norway, Finland and a half dozen other countries in Europe alone. Australia and New Zealand are socialist. Citizens living in socialist countries enjoy higher standards of living than people residing in the United States; and every single country I mentioned is a genuine democracy where people are free to own private property, marry who they want, practice a religion (or not) if they want, participate in elections, form political parties, and so on and so forth.

Communism is one of many forms of socialism; it is accurate to say communism is socialism. However, it is not accurate to say socialism is necessarily communism. This is because there are different types of socialism (communism being only one kind). When most people hear the word “socialism” it is actually being used in reference to something called Fabianism; this word is an allusion to the “delay tactics” used to slow the invading armies of Carthage by the Roman General Quintus Fabius Maximum Verrucosus (280-203 BCE) during the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE). Fabians reject the revolutionary doctrines of Marxism, recommending instead a gradual transition to a socialist—or more equitable—society. Fabians do not want to abolish private property or do away with fundamental freedoms like freedom of speech. On the contrary, Fabian socialists (or “socialists”) are trying to mitigate some of the worse aspects of capitalism—like exploitation and massive wealth inequality—by introducing social reforms like progressive taxation, enacting minimum wage laws, improving working conditions, and guaranteeing the right of workers to bargain collectively and to strike.

I wrote this because I’ve heard even Democrats (e.g. presidential candidate Julian Castro) conflate “socialism” with “communism”. The Demorats are supposed to be the “reasonable” ones but they appear to be just as ignorant of it as any Republican.

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Fascism 101: Pay Attention to Trump’s Quirks

President Trump recently claimed that the noise from wind mills cause cancer. Quirky opinion. He is full of quirky opinions, really. But people continue supporting him, overlooking his “quirks” because he promises to do some things they want. I don’t blame the people who support him who want a job. Not one bit. Completely understandable. I wonder, though: is it possible to elect and support someone who can get things done without simultaneously undoing 200 plus years of liberal democracy?

I hate the comparison (because I feel like it’s intellectually lazy) but, in all honesty, there are some parallels to draw with Germany’s situation in 1933: Hitler’s “excesses” (a synonym for “quirks”) were tolerated by the business class because he promised to put labor unions in their place (thus maximizing profits); the army looked past Hitler’s quirks because he promised to rebuilt the military (something the “weak kneed” Wiemar Republicans refused to do). Vice-Chancellor von Papen, and President Hindenburg particularly, looked past Hitler’s quirks because he would bring order to disorder (or make “Germany Great Again” (a trope Hitler literally used)). He quickly outsmarted both men and was dictator within a year of being made chancellor.

As it turns out, those “quirks” everyone seems to conveniently look past are kind of telling: they reveal what’s going on or not going on in the mind of that person you are supporting with such unqualified loyalty. Oh, I don’t support Trump, he’s cRaZy, but I like what he’s doing. So what is he doing?

Fascism is an insidious thing: democracies can evolve into them (as was the case with Wiemar Germany in the 1930s and Italy in the 1920s). Democracies die the death of 1000 wounds. Every time you look past a quirk because you or your tribe are going to somehow materially benefit, democracy becomes just a little weaker.

You cannot put a price tag on the rule of law. Once it’s gone, it’s gone (and only restored after great violence). History tells us as much.

The philosopher Hegel observed the only lesson history teaches us is that we don’t learn from history.

fascism_101

Awareness: A Garden of Possibility

Who am I? Why should I strive to be good? What is goodness? What is justice? Why do people do the things they do? Why do I think the way I think? What is the meaning of life? Why is it important to ask such questions?

Socrates once remarked that the un-examined life is not worth living. Jesus said as much when he observed “Man does not live on bread alone” (Matthew 4:4). For both teachers the purpose of life was to grow in our understanding of ourselves and others. We cannot grow in that understanding unless we take the time to examine and reflect upon life.

By consciously examining ourselves we become aware of how our subconscious programming shapes our decision-making. If we do not do this, that is, increase our awareness of the powerful mental software running our lives which we call mind, we are little more than robots living day to day in unconscious and automatic repetition; an existence where people surrender to the illusion of fate or the weight of circumstances wondering why they are unhappy; they live life as though they are living on an assembly line—unaware, mechanistic, assembling, persisting in constructing the same things over and over while vainly expecting different results.

I recall when my first son was born feeling something like I was living out the life-cycle of a moth. My son’s birth was of course tremendously meaningful and important to me; nonetheless, I couldn’t help feeling as though I was walking someone else’s path or living out some sort of role. A conscious examination of life helps us not only deal better with what life happens to throw at us but it also helps us perceive our existence, less as a prison, and more as a garden full of possibility.

The Propaganda Value of evolutionnews.org

Evolution News is an arm of the Discovery Institute (DI). The DI is not a science-based institution but a creationist think tank from the United States. The DI, and their proxies like Evolution News, are well-known for promoting pseudoscience. Two of the most influential ideas coming from the DI are intelligent design—really a watchmaker argument for God—and Michael Behe’s “irreducible complexity”, e.g. something as complex as the human eye could not possibly evolve over time because the rods, cones, retina, and such are, well, irreducibly complex.

Both intelligent design and irreducible complexity were used in the mid 2000s as part of the Discovery Institute’s “wedge strategy” for getting creationism taught alongside evolution in science classes in the United States. Unfortunately for the creationists, they can offer nothing but rhetoric in support of their positions, i.e. they have not conducted a single viable or peer reviewed experiment supporting their hypotheses (because their hypothesis is really just a fancy way of saying God did it which is entirely unfalsfiable). Since the DI offers nothing tangible in the way of research to back up its assertions they lack scientific credibility. I would not go to this site for scientific reasons; however, I would go to this site if I wanted to learn more about the “culture wars” raging in the United States. Sites like Evolution News don’t dabble in science but in theological and philosophical hand waving; it is a fundamentalist propaganda website.

Here are a couple links you might find illuminating as they relate to the DI (and by extension to Evolution News):

1). The “wedge strategy” I mentioned before is an important thing to be aware of, i.e. since the DI has repeatedly failed to use courts to push creationism into biology classrooms they have changed tactics. The tactic is now to attack science itself generally (not just evolution). If public confidence in science can be sufficiently eroded, the thinking is then evolution can be weakened and in the space created creationism can be seen as a more viable explanation. Wedge strategy – Wikipedia

2). For legal context, check out the Wiki on the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School Board case. This was, I believe, the most recent attempt by the DI to get creationism into science classrooms. The DI failed, again, because they offer nothing concrete in the way of experiments, tests, and so on. Here’s a link to that case: Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District – Wikipedia. Interestingly, I read a book written by one of the biologists who was called to testify in this case on whether or not irreducible complexity and intelligent design were “scientific” theories. The biologist’s name is Ken Miller—a Catholic who believes in God by the way—who argued that these were not scientific theories because they could not be falsified, i.e. a genuine science question must be capable of being either proven or disproven. Intelligent design, for instance, is really the equivalent of just saying “God did it” when it comes to life on Earth. You cannot prove or disprove the claim. Anyways, Miller wrote a book called Only a Theory. He talks about the case and about Behe and so on in this book.

If you aren’t the reading type, you could download and listen to the podcast Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (episode 190). Dr. Steven Novella interviews Miller and I believe they discuss the Kitzmiller decision and Miller’s role. Here’s the link to that: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.

Again, Evolution News is nonsense from a scientific standpoint; it is an example of propaganda and little else.

Drop Your Chains

Jean Jacques Rousseau observed human beings are born free but everywhere they are in chains. The chains Rousseau spoke of were in one sense real and in another sense figurative and imaginary: chains are real in the sense that in order to live in society people necessarily give up some of their freedom. (Abraham Lincoln observed perfect liberty for the wolves means death to the sheep.) In terms of imaginary chains—and that’s what they are, imaginary—when we believe our tribe (based on either race, ethnicity, gender, or religion) is best we inevitably exclude others; and in the process of excluding others society repeats the same tired pattern of fear-based pointless conflict, violence and dysfunction that continues plaguing humanity preventing it from progressing and enjoying peace.

She Died on a Saturday

The anniversary of my mom’s death is fast approaching. I wrote this piece twenty years ago and wanted to share it.

Looking Back
Looking back on my life I can barely recall a time when mom wasn’t sick or ailing in some measure. Don’t get me wrong I’ve got plenty of fond memories. In particular, I miss how she’d affectionately say things like “Rick, you’re such a geek” after I’d share one of my peculiar insights into life’s meaning when I was a kid.  Another memory that comes to mind is when I brought home Nintendo Golf. To play the game you had to swing a golf-club controller to hit the ball on the screen. Both of my parents were hardcore golfers so it didn’t take much to convince them to give the game a try. Dad liked it immediately.  When he got to the third tee he decided he wanted to hit the ball a little further so he swung the controller a little bit faster and in the process drove the club straight through a light fixture in the ceiling.

He was mortified.

I laughed so hard I could barely breathe (I actually fell to the ground). My dad was embarrassed by it all. Laughing at him didn’t help things. He wanted blood. You could see it in his eyes. He was a father of the old-school: one of those spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child types, a man expecting automatic respect and deference, a man who could not laugh at himself. And that’s why I found the situation so uncontrollably funny. (I felt like one of the palace guards from Monty Python’s Life of Bryan who couldn’t stop laughing because the governor kept saying the name Biggus Dickus to him over and over and over again.)  If it weren’t for mom dad would’ve killed me with that fake golf club.

She was an amazing woman. I went through something akin to a mid-life crisis around the age of twelve.  I specifically remember having a conversation with her on how life for me was irrevocably changing. (And I don’t mean changing in the sense hair started growing in places it hadn’t before.) I meant change in that I remained the same while everyone seemed to be growing more complicated; life was becoming inexplicably and un-necessarily harder; and peers—especially girls—made even less sense to me than before. She didn’t offer advice or attempt to explain away what I was feeling. I remember the exact words she spoke to me in the kitchen during that conversation 37 years ago. “You still want to be a kid.  I understand.” She was right.

Disbelief
I was the last of four kids to move out. I returned to visit only infrequently, and when I did, it wasn’t to visit my parents so much as to spend time with the neglected family cat or to play my drum set. I took my parents entirely for granted. I assumed they’d always be there. Perhaps that’s what made accepting mom’s death all the more difficult?

I couldn’t comprehend the loss.

I don’t believe it. That’s how I responded after learning she had cancer. I simply couldn’t believe it. Somewhere in the back of my mind I must’ve thought disease and death only affected other people. Many of us—including me—just don’t learn the lessons childhood should teach us through the countless bumps, bruises and band-aids.

We are mortal.

Ignoring the fact we die prevents us from living realistically; and when we dodge the balls life throws at us we not only ignore reality’s perils we fail to explore its possibilities.

Certainly subtle hints of mom’s decline were visible (if only a person knew what to look for). Unfortunately the cancer continued growing undetected until the most terrible and obvious symptoms of the disease expressed themselves. Though the effects of cancer are very real, the lightness with which people treat it never fails to astound me—especially in the case of smoking related cancer. People justify a stupid habit like smoking by appealing to the myth of the ancient smoking uncle or that it’ll never happen to me.

What makes you so special? Nothing.

When you rationalize away the danger you disarm yourself and empower the disease and its known causes. And guess what?  You may not know it but the decisions you’re making today have future consequences for your family (some members you may not even have met yet). Mom never did get to hold even one of my three sons. She would’ve adored them. They’re geeks like me.

Some Bad News
After spending several hours reading in a quiet corner of the university’s main library, I packed up my things and headed home for supper. Passing through the heavy silver doors of the library’s front entrance I entered the winter night invigorated by the cold. Snow blanketed the ground a foot deep in every direction. Jumping from one foot impression to the next I reached my rusted out Chevrolet Malibu. Sitting in the car waiting for it to warm up I felt like I was forgetting something: earlier in the day dad said he’d taken mom to the hospital for tests. She was supposed to stay overnight for observation. I decided to visit her before heading home.

Driving northbound down University Drive the dark outline of the hospital rose slowly above the lighted silhouette of Saskatoon’s downtown. Too cheap to park at a pay meter I risked the law’s fury by parking illegally at a nearby lot intended for the exclusive use of contractors. I made my way towards one of the hospital’s side doors. A group of white coated and professional-looking people—nurses, doctors, technicians—stood huddled smoking together in front of the entrance. I took a deep breath plunging through them to open the door entering the building. I ascended a set of brick steps entering the cathedral-like hospital mall—a massive elongated room with a towering ceiling and a multitude of cascading windows. Moments later I was at the information desk where an older woman sat in the middle of an octagonal desk doing nothing in particular.

I asked the attendant what room my mom was in. She began prattling away at a dusty keyboard: 6-1-0-3.  Thanking the attendant I made for the nearest elevator. Entering the elevator car I pressed the button for the sixth floor.  I moved to the back of the car busying myself reading posters on a non-descript bulletin board. One poster read “Pastry sale.  St. Joseph’s Church.  January 26th at 12 noon.”  Another read “If you see someone with an identification band around their wrist leaving the building, please notify hospital personnel.” Although the posters were about as stimulating to read as the Periodic Table of Elements, the material served its purpose: while the body is stuck somewhere it doesn’t want to be the mind remains free. I discovered this time gobbling trick of distraction at church when I was seven. Too young to understand anything the priest said I occupied myself counting each individual page of every song book I could find in the pews. In fact, my siblings and I turned page counting into a competitive game racing one another to see who could count them all first. Although I didn’t turn into much of a Christian I did develop panache for counting.

The elevator rumbled to a halt and the door opened. Entering a darkened hall I turned right, then right again, and walked towards a nursing station. I saw the number to mom’s room. I stepped inside but was impeded by a wide green curtain hanging across its width: peeling back the curtain I saw my proud father lying prostrate before my mother, holding her hand, sobbing. Meekly I approached her bedside. Her face was beet red, cheeks speckled with tiny sanguine dots—a product of relentless coughing; her hair hung about her shoulders in hapless clumps; and a film of hardened mucous formed into sores on her lips. I must’ve startled dad because he raised his head abruptly trying to brush away his tears. Mom was almost unrecognizable. I knelt down to touch her hand. Dad spoke to her quietly, “Dawn. Dawn. Richard is here. He’s come to see you.”

She raised her head feebly to acknowledge me and my throat felt like someone was squeezing it from the inside. I choked out a, “Hey, mom…” and looked up at dad searching for some sort of explanation. He avoided eye contact. So, dispensing with the pleasantry of discussing death around the dying, I asked him point blank what was wrong. He explained she hadn’t been feeling well for at least two months and she was having difficulty speaking. She didn’t feel well around Christmas. The inability to speak, however, was a revelation. He should’ve told me sooner. The anger I felt towards him disappeared replaced by a tremendous sense of guilt at being such a distant, self-absorbed son.

“Let’s go for a walk.  Mom needs to rest,” dad said while we walked out of the room into a deserted hall. “Rick, it doesn’t look good. There’s a good to definite chance she has cancer.”

He explained the doctors believed her dementia was caused by pressure on the brain from a tumor. (That didn’t explain why she was having trouble breathing.) She had swollen lymph nodes all about her neck and under her arms (sure signs of the presence of the killer disease). An examination was scheduled to take place sometime in the next few days to confirm the diagnosis. Then they would determine the most appropriate course of action. Instantly, the thought of her smoking entered my mind and my hatred for it grew.

“Apparently the source of the cancer has to be found,” dad explained. “If it starts in the lungs, then they have very different treatments than if it were discovered to emanate from the ovaries.”  He squeezed the back of my neck and said, “We’ll just have to prepare for the worst.”

I returned to the room alone to giving dad a chance to grab a cup of coffee. Her eyes followed me slowly as I moved across the room. Her neck remained perfectly rigid. I sat on dad’s chair and smiled awkwardly. The scab-like build up on her lips looked uncomfortable, even painful.

“Would you like me to clean up your mouth?” I asked.

She nodded.  I grabbed a wet cloth from the bathroom wiping away as much of the hardened ooze as I could. I felt like a person holding a newborn baby for the first time—I didn’t know how to hold it and I felt like I might break it if I was too rough. Something didn’t feel right about the situation (it felt backwards). I’m supposed to be the one who’s sick and she should be taking care of me. This wasn’t right. Mom, you’re supposed to get me some ginger ale to calm my stomach and a Batman comic from the corner store; I’ll skip school and watch television on the couch. I’ll feel better, no problem. Stroke my hair that always made me feel amazing and loved. I put the soiled cloth on the bedside table and returned to sit down beside her.

Quiet.

I inspected her puffy hand lying on the other side of the bed’s safety rail. When I was little I used to watch the Amazing Spiderman during Saturday morning cartoons.  I’d be eating my cereal and she’d walk up to me and start stroking my hair with that hand. She made me feel so cozy. I always hoped it would never stop. Now that hand appeared so alien. I extended my trembling hand to hers and began to cry quietly. The unrecognizable woman transformed into the mother I knew in my youth, and she used every ounce of strength remaining to her to say, “I’m sorry.” I cried uncontrollably laying my head and broken heart on the bed beside her. Life made so much sense until then.

The Last Day
I didn’t visit her the next day. Instead, I broke hospital policy sneaking up to her room after visiting hours the following night. The hall and nursing station were empty. The door to her room closed. I hesitated momentarily and then opened the door. I discovered her lying in the middle of thought—her mouth agape, eyes fixed blankly on the wall, head hanging still as a doily off a piano nobody plays anymore. She took no notice of me. What goes on in the mind of someone who has so little time left to live? To me it is the thinking about, and not the actual, death that causes me the most trouble. I found out the next day mom wasn’t the scared one (I was).  Dad told me she admitted being ready to die, not fearing it, more concerned with the welfare of her children.

Three weeks later mom was admitted to the Palliative Ward at St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon. I didn’t know it at the time but this was the ward where you go to die. There are no more treatments. Instead, doctors just try to take the edge off the pain. Nevertheless, even at this late a juncture, I still held out hope she’d recover.

Hope abandoned my family on this final day. I remember walking into her room half-expecting to see her sitting up able to carry on a conversation. She barely acknowledged me when I stopped at the foot of the bed affectionately squeezing the shape of her sheet-covered foot. She was so much weaker now: the steroids she took controlling the growth of the tumor was destroying her immune system. The night before the final day she got pneumonia. Her breathing sounded like that sucking noise when you’re trying to get the last bit of pop out of a cup with a straw.

My wife Camille arrived a little later the same day. I remember this vividly because it was the last time mom ever spoke to me. I sat by a window facing 20th Street holding a novel called The Immigrants. I didn’t do much reading (I found it comforting to hold a book in my hand for some reason). I was watching mom literally drown as her mouth and lungs filled with mucous she couldn’t expel. Mom motioned for Camille to come a little closer and then spoke something inaudible into her ear. Camille turned and said to me mom didn’t want me to stare at her anymore. Embarrassed I turned my gaze back out the window where a collection of tears and brilliant sunlight co-mingled blurring the cars on the busy street below into indistinguishable moving shapes. Camille used a mouth swab wiping away some of the mucous choking mom. In my heart I was so grateful for Camille’s help because it diminished, temporarily at least, months of futility.

Mom died that night.

It was a Saturday I think around 1:50 am. She was surrounded by her entire family. Her children (and their spouses) eventually left the room as her breathing became increasingly shallower with every minute. Three-quarters of an hour later dad appeared at the doorway to the family room where we were all sitting talking. He said she was gone. When I entered the room her mouth was puckered as if stubbornly asleep and her arms were stretched at the sides abandoned of life. I laid my head on the bed beside her, lifted her left hand and placed it on my head one last time.

I kissed her one last time.

Epilogue
When I was around ten years old I had a remarkable experience. I decided to include this experience in the narrative because in retrospect it seems connected:

I was lying in my bed thinking about my Grandpa Wilson (my mom’s dad) who’d just recently died of lung cancer. His death scared me because my mom was also a smoker. I feared she’d die in the same way. I wept bitterly begging God to take some of my remaining days and give them to her. While I cried a beautiful female voice spoke from the corner of the darkened room. The voice spoke two words absolutely dripping in compassion, “Oh, Rick.”  That’s it. In complete and child-like awe I shut right up scouring the darkness for the voice’s origin. I fell almost instantaneously asleep.

Sadly 16 years later my fears were realized. Just like grandpa and Aunty Joyce and Uncle Billy and Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Maki, etc. mom succumbed to a disease that continues to kill millions.  Now older, stronger, and supposedly wiser, I’ve come to look back on this mysterious voice with scepticism and disbelief; that is, until a similar experience took place when I was 26 years old. Mom had been dead nearly a year and obviously I missed her. I missed her so much. I feared somehow that I was forgetting what she looked like. I tried remembering every detail, the sound of her voice, and I couldn’t.

And then I heard that same voice again.

A woman’s voice spoke my name into my right ear. I  swear I heard it two just two inches away clear as day. Yet, despite how concrete both experiences felt I remain skeptical. For good or for ill I’m just not hardwired to accept these kinds of things at face value. Many years ago I learned the Cree believe that when a person cries he or she is then closest to the Creator. Maybe there was something to this whole voice/crying thing after all? I don’t know. There are lots of things I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll meet mom again or a semblance of her or if this brief existence is all there is. Yet, I know and feel she lives on in my heart like a poem—a pure metaphor of the mother—an impression that will remain until her youngest son joins her.

 

Canada in the Age of Trump

Months before Donald Trump won the Republican nomination and then the U.S. Presidency, Matthew MacWilliams, a University of Massachusetts postdoctoral candidate, stumbled across a striking way of looking at a candidate who seemed to defy all the rules of politics.
 
His polling research had revealed that parenting styles were a powerful predictor of voter attitudes towards Trump. In particular, MacWilliams discovered that those who preferred authoritarian child-rearing approaches—who valued traits such as obedience and good behavior in their children over curiosity or independence—were much more likely to back Trump. Moreover, their support wasn’t strictly contingent on traditional party preferences. As MacWilliam’s polls showed, authoritarian parenting preferences can be found among both Republicans and Democrats.
 
To further confirm his hypothesis, he also looked at correlations between those with authoritarian outlooks and more specific political views, such as attitudes towards the protection of minorities, terrorism and immigration. The results further confirmed the distinct alignment of values and politics that allowed Trump to win over working-class Midwesterners, religious South¬erners and even some affluent younger people, among them voters who might have balked at his positions on LBGTQ+ rights or looked askance at his behavior.
 
Extracted from Michael Adams’ Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit.