We just finished watching the third season of Game of Thrones on DVD this past weekend. Before that, we watched The White Queen, another DVD series (one season only, although it deserved more).
As we watched both, I found myself wondering why directors and producers felt the need to insert gratuitous – but apparently obligatory – explicit scenes of sex and violence that really had little to do with either plot or character development.
The same questions arose when I watched Deadwood, The Sopranos, First Blood and Boardwalk Empire. Personally, I found these explicit bits distracting, like commercials, because they drew attention away from the story and characters.
I had a notion that the writers ran out of ideas at these points and instead threw in a bit of sex or violence, hoping the audience wouldn’t notice the paucity of the writing.
Why do both need to be so graphic? Can’t the same effect be accomplished by suggestion, by clever camera indirection? Do we need spurting blood and genital closeups to make a scene seem real or effective? Can’t a good director or cinematographer convey these emotions through suggestion, shadow and impression?
Do we need to have full-frontal nudity to convey a sense of the erotic? Or has pornography dulled our senses to the point where anything less doesn’t capture our attention? Why do we need sex and violence instead of story? Because we, collectively, haven’t got the attention span of gnats and our emotions are reduced to biological urges?
Or is it a generational thing? Am I just being old fashioned and curmudgeonly? Maybe, but I’ll keep my reserve, thank you.
Collingwood should be in the forefront for green initiatives in Ontario, not lagging behind. There’s no reason we should not be leaders in exploring new ways to reduce greenhouse gases, reduce our carbon footprint, promote sustainable and environmentally-friendly strategies, and reduce our energy costs.
These will be some of my top goals for the 2014-18 council, if I’m re-elected.
In the energy world, we have a great partner with Powerstream, which has already explored many of these areas and taken steps in other municipalities. We should embrace and encourage similar projects here, and use the experience and expertise Powerstream has already developed to fast-track them. I have already spoken to their representatives and know they are willing and eager to help.
I recently asked at the council table for a report in installing electric vehicle charging stations in our municipal parking lots. Powerstream has already erected similar facilities – solar-powered stations as well as the standard charging stations – in Barrie and its headquarters. The Tesla company is donating stations to municipalities. Why don’t we have them here?
It’s time we did.
Charging stations do several things. First, they encourage local people to buy electric vehicles, thus reducing the GHG emissions. Second, they encourage visitors in such cars who might otherwise be reluctant to come here because they don’t know if they can make a return trip from the GTA on a single charge. “Charge anxiety” is thus reduced, tourism is increased.
Having municipal charging stations might get local car vendors to push more electric vehicle sales in their own lots, and could encourage others to open outlets to sell them. Which means the town could potentially move to electric vehicles in the future when replacing existing, older cars and trucks – meaning we would further reduce the municipality’s GHG emissions.
I expect the report on this proposal to come to council this fall and, if it is accepted, we might even see the first station erected in spring, 2015.
Those who look down upon this world, will surely take hold and try to change things. So begins verse 29 of the 4th century BCE Chinese classic (Jonathan Star translation*), the Tao Te Ching.
That verse suggests that those who feel themselves superior to the world and to others, who feel their actions, thoughts, views and beliefs are above those of others, will attempt to impress their own rule on others. And, as the verse continues, they can only fail in their attempts to control things. Control slips from their fingers.**
There’s a lesson here in verse 29, that winds throughout the book. It’s not simply for mystics and those who seek philosophical answers: it’s for politicians, including local candidates, too.
Moderation, humility, compromise, Lao Tzu suggests, is what works best; blunt attempts to control the world through confrontation, anger and challenge fail.
Some of his words of advice would fit the medieval “mirror for princes” books, which Machiavelli challenged in The Prince, but which Balthasar Gracian remade in hisArt of Worldly Wisdom.
A couple of millennia have proven Lao Tzu right. Many others have shared his views over the ages – not necessarily because they read him, but because they came to similar conclusions about people and power. You can’t simply be negative and look down on things as if you could rule the world. A sense of superiority just isn’t enough to make a difference: you need virtue. Michel de Montaigne wrote:
Every other knowledge is harmful to him who does not have knowledge of goodness.
Book I, ch. 25
Lao Tzu’s small book is peppered with similar advice. It’s short enough to be read in an hour, but rich enough to be returned to through a lifetime.
The Derek Lin translation gives this rendition for verse 29:
Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose
Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force
Therefore the sage:
So begins Shakespeare’s sonnet number 103 (I started rereading the sonnets recently because, well because it’s Shakespeare, damn it all, and what other reason would anyone need?).
It’s a sentiment I well know. The impoverished Muse thing, I mean. There are three dozen pieces in draft mode I’ve started here, then hesitated, and left incomplete. Unable to pull the threads together into a coherent tableaux because my muse is busy somewhere else. I have numerous unfinished stories, novels and even two books in progress on my hard drive. And a basement full of hardcopy of older efforts. Novels, even – several, in fact. Awful stuff, really.
I should delete them all, except that they remind me that writing is not just talent: it’s work. And maybe one day my Muse will return and kickstart me to finish them, not simply relegate them to the “chronicle of wasted time” (Sonnet 106).
True, some of it is trash: mad ramblings, naive, amateurish, even puerile. I can’t spout high literature or tell sad tales about the death of kings. For every piece of deep cogitation – be it feigned or heartfelt – there is a piece wading in the shallows of triviality. Sonnet 110:
Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
It’s odd: some days I could spend the whole day writing, hardly ever leaving my chair. Some days I could pen a dozen pieces on as many topics without losing vigour, darting back and forth between them without losing a single thread. Some days the words just fall into place and every one is like a brick in a well-built home. I love those days, love crafting posts with a sense of coherency and logic, writing stories and essays with consummate ease.
And other days it’s crap. Nothing works. Words collide. Thoughts clatter about like shopping carts pushed through a Wal-Mart by anxious shoppers hunting for the bargains. That’s frustrating. Annoying. Writing consumes me. Where Descartes said “I think, therefore I am,” I would have to put it as Scribo, ergo sum: “I write, therefore I am.”
Another piece posted on The Municipal Machiavelli this week; this time a short comment about Machiavelli and Xenophon, the ancient Greek writer who Niccolo referred to in The Prince and The Discourses:
Niccollò Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” a guide for the ideal ruler, made his name synonymous with a ruthless pragmatism based on the manipulation and total defeat of an enemy. But the ancient book that significantly influenced Machiavelli, Xenophon’s “Cyropaedia” — which translates to “The Education of Cyrus” — depicts a leader who believes quite the opposite…
Xenophon depicts Cyrus as a leader who kept a cool head and knew when to be severe and when to be compassionate. The book survived antiquity and became a favorite of not just Machiavelli, but also Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson.
Feloni is not accurate in his simplistic reduction (reductio ad absurdum) of Machiavelli’s political philosophy. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting topic to research.
Freeman’s work is a short (132 pages in a small format) book with a mix of English and Latin content derived from the writing of Marcus Cicero, thematically chosen around the topics of governance, politics and war. It’s billed as a sequel to his “How to Win an Election”, but I didn’t feel it lived up to that title.
However, I hope it can help introduce an audience of modern readers to the Roman writer Cicero and spark some interest in reading further and deeper. Certainly it’s an easy read – probably no more than an hour’s effort to get a peek into one of the sharpest minds in classical times.
There’s one good line in the book worth sharing, from the section “On Leadership” (p.12):
The ideal state is one in which the best people desire praise and honor while avoiding humiliation and disgrace. Such citizens are not deterred from wrongdoing by a fear of punishment as laid out in the law as much as by an inborn sense of shame given to us by nature itself that makes us dread the thought of justified criticism.
As a local politician who understands the effect of unjustified criticism, I understand this sentiment.
Montaigne, writing almost 200 years before Descartes, recognizes that cats can play. Amuse themselves, have fun – just like people can. That strikes me as a considerable leap in understanding: play is the act of an intelligent, self-aware being, not an automata. Montaigne knew that cats were conscious.
The second thread is that of our own consciousness and what it can know of itself and the external world. Montaigne’s comment is remarkably akin to Chuang Tzu’s famous butterfly dream from the third century BCE:
Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly. What fun he had, doing as he pleased! He did not know he was Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and found himself to be Zhou. He did not know whether Zhou had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhou. Between Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is what is meant by the transformation of things.**
Who is the awakened, who is the dreamer in Montaigne’s statement? Is the cat or the writer the active player? Or are they actually cooperating in the act, a shared reality that neither holds independently without the other?
One of Montaigne’s favourite hobbies was imagining the world from different perspectives…. At home, he extended his perspective-leaping to other species. “When I play with my cat”, he wrote, “who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” He borrowed her point of view in relation to him just as readily as he occupied his own in relation to her. And, as he watched his dog twitching in sleep, he imagined the dog creating a disembodied hare to chase in its dreams – “a hare without fur or bones”, just as real in the dog’s mind as Montaigne’s own images of Paris or Rome were when he dreamed about those cities. The dog had its inner world, as Montaigne did, furnished with things that interested him.
These were all extraordinary thoughts in Montaigne’s own time, and they remain so today. They imply an acceptance that other animals are very much like us, combined with an ability to wonder how differently they might grasp what they perceive.
Montaigne isn’t merely projecting himself into his cat. The question has greater reach: how does any of us really know what reality is? Is there even an objective reality outside our subjective viewpoint? Is there some objective reality that is separate from the observer or are effect and observer inseparable (the Schrodinger’s cat theorem…). And of course it leads back to Descartes and thus to the TED video posted at the top of this page.
What, after all, is reality and can we discover it? Timothy Leary philosophized about what he called the “reality tunnel” of subjective perspective:
The theory states that, with a subconscious set of mental filters formed from his or her beliefs and experiences, every individual interprets the same world differently, hence “Truth is in the eye of the beholder”.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” wrote Anais Nin, in her novel, The Seduction of the Minotaur, 1961
Can we really know what another person is thinking or feeling – let alone what a cat is thinking? We don’t even know for sure if another person sees the came colours or hears the same sounds as we do. And we assume there is some objective, measurable reality about such physical phenomena. So how can we know thoughts?
Montaigne, of course could not get into the mind of his cat any more than we can get into the mind of Montaigne. It was a rhetorical question, really, meant as an observation, or perhaps the starting point of a discourse on the subjective nature of reality. Unfortunately, he left that line alone and never followed through in a later essay to explore the thought further.
A recent poll done by Pew Research reiterated what I’ve been saying for the past two years: social media (SM) doesn’t necessary facilitate social debate and in fact may be stifling it. Discussion on many SM platforms tends to reinforce existing beliefs because in general only those who feel their beliefs are shared by their circle of “friends” or followers will express them. It’s called the “spiral of silence.”
The Pew report noted:
…social media did not provide new forums for those who might otherwise remain silent to express their opinions and debate issues. Further, if people thought their friends and followers in social media disagreed with them, they were less likely to say they would state their views… Previous research has shown that when people decide whether to speak out about an issue, they rely on reference groups—friendships and community ties—to weigh their opinion relative to their peers… Those who do not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agree with their opinion are more likely to self-censor their views…
When social media emerged as a concept or platform that could be labelled* it was hailed as the new tool for social engagement, the panacea for flagging social interaction in many spheres like politics, education and government. And for a while, it was.
But that proved not to be the case any more than previously existing platforms (forums and list servers). In fact, for many who embraced it, social media proved more of a liability (think Anthony Weiner).
Blogger Raed El-Younsi blames the technology as at least partially responsible for the way we interact online. He wrote:
The internet gives us an unprecedented opportunity to understand one another. And yet anyone familiar with internet “discussion” boards knows that NOISE, group think and personal attacks can drown out most attempts at constructive dialogue. (For an extreme example, try discussing politics or religion in the YouTube comments.)
Similarly, the recent U.S. Government shutdown is a visible symptom of a much deeper trend: the polarization of our global society, online and offline…
Going into online discussion boards often means going into “hostile” territory and, as such, it can be a risky proposition. People often resort to attacks out of boredom, to be seen, or to “rally the troops” and win the numbers game. Strategically, our options are usually fight or flight – aggression or avoidance.
I have written in the past that it’s equally because we see the Internet as ours and respond to things online as if they were a threat to our personal property. It’s our computer, our modem, our house, our phone or cable bill, our wireless router… of course it’s our internet, too. And we respond to anyone who dissents or offers different ideas as we would a home invader or trespasser: with aggression. (Read the signs of narcissism here: listening only to dismiss; feeling the rules don’t apply to you; quick to anger; refusal to take responsibility; inability to take criticism.)
The notion of digital democracy at first suggested a great step forward. After all, what’s to dislike about free speech, freedom of expression, free exchange of ideas and open debate without borders? That quickly proved naive. The new social media proved an easier platform for the expressions of ideology than an exchange of ideas – just as the old forms had been. And in these situations, people who offered alternate or conflicting positions often found themselves denounced, attacked, insulted and vilified; their ideas or comments drowned out in a sea of vituperation. Instead of civil debate or an intelligent exchange of ideas, often these threads degenerated into a race to see who could type the nastiest rejoinder soonest.
One recent poll suggests 25% of Americans have been harassed, bullied or threatened online and 62% of those had been harassed on Facebook. Some writers have suggested countermeasures, but these seem not to have gained much traction yet:
While keeping in mind that this is a self-reporting survey, the findings nevertheless illustrate the seriousness of online harassment and attacks, and the fact that people are increasingly becoming disenchanted with the negative behavior they experience.
We know online harassment and attacks are a huge social problem. We know they are a huge social GLOBAL problem. And it’s up to all of us to help turn things around.
While the steps needed to make this happen aren’t simply or easy, and also won’t solve the problem overnight, they will be concrete actions towards creating a positive cultural shift in online communication.
Free speech in social media does not come with any sense of responsibility, just narcissistic entitlement. People feel they have the right to comment on anything, in any manner, for any reason, regardless of their involvement in the issue, understanding of the idea, or respect for the feelings and rights of the others. Look what happens when some “hot-button” issues are broached – look at the angry back-and-forth over gun control or abortion.
Strangers can enter the fray, too, and anonymous posters can sling mud and spew invective at the original poster. It is difficult enough to argue with people you know or work with but generally much more polite and engaging; arguing with violent strangers or angry cowards hiding their identities through pseudonyms quickly makes people reluctant to engage.
Compounding it is the sheer number of people who can participate almost simultaneously: the confusion of multiple comments can turn what began as a discussion into a cacophony. A mob mentality that takes over and users on one side gang up to batter the outsider or dissenter into submission to the group mind – it’s called “seal clubbing.”
When ideology enters the fray – particularly political or religious – there is often no real civil debate on social media, but there is clearly intolerance as opposing sides batter away at each other.
And it doesn’t seem to be getting better: the Pew report found people are more willing to self-censor themselves on social media than among friends and co-workers. Based on earlier studies done by the organization, this suggests to me that the initial enthusiasm with which many people embraced social media has been curbed by the actions/words of the users themselves. Continue reading “Social media and social dialogue”
Looking forward to 2015 and beyond, here are some of the things I would like to see Collingwood Council and the town staff accomplish in the upcoming term. I have laid these out in my campaign website and literature already, but thought I should include something in my blog to complement those sources.
Maintain our current fiscal stability and sustainability. This council has been very proactive in keeping taxes and spending low, without compromising on any essential services or infrastructure. We have paid down $11 of the $45 million debt we inherited, and only borrowed minimally for necessary infrastructure projects. The average tax increase this term has been less than the rate of inflation: 0.5%. And we got two stunning new recreational facilities without having to go deeper into debt or raise taxes. Staying this fiscal course for the next term is a must.
Complete and implement the waterfront/harbour master plan. We have started the process, held public meetings, but we need to see it to the end. Our harbour is underutilized and offers many benefits, resources and economic opportunities we can take advantage of. We need to make it more attractive, safe and accessible for all users, while drawing visitors and business to the community through aquatic activities and resources.
Embrace more green initiatives. Change to LED lighting in municipal buildings, rec facilities and street lights; put solar panels on municipal buildings; and install electric vehicle charging stations in municipal parking lots. Collingwood should be in the forefront of energy conservation and awareness and we must work closely with our utility partner, Collus/Powerstream to accomplish these goals.There are significant savings in energy use to be had.
Rebuild the BMX/skateboard park, with input from users for the design and layout. A new skateboard park could draw users from all over Ontario and host competitions and events. Let’s start planning for a revitalized facility next term and get the youth involved in the design process. It’s a prime project for a public-private partnership and sponsorship, too.
Aggressively promote and market Collingwood. We have a new economic development/marketing manager in a new office shared with our community business partners. We must harness these dynamic services to attract businesses and industry, and to cement our brand as the most attractive place to visit and to open a business in Ontario.
Implement governance changes. Our CAO has recently proposed some sweeping changes to the town’s governance and committee structures, to help make council more efficient and effective, while smoothing out the public input process. These changes will need experienced politicians to help guide them, help communicate them, and make sure they meet the needs of our residents. I have the experience to help make these changes work.
Promote a greater mix of housing types for both sale and rent; encourage affordable and attainable development including more rental properties, providing opportunities for workers and young families. This is a challenge because the town is limited by legislation what it can offer as incentives to developers. A roundtable discussion with planners and developers will help set priorities and strategies.
Integrate event planning & culture with economic development; Culture and events are economic drivers that can benefit the entire community. We must look for new signature events and activities to draw visitors, and keep people coming back. Look for new, innovative ways to increase traffic and activities downtown and engage both residents and visitors in them.
A regional local food strategy: I would like to see one developed with our neighbouring municipalities, which would look at promoting local agriculture, food tourism and related events. I would also like the town and BIA to look at updated and enhanced models for the farmers’ market with an eye to developing a year-round, indoor market that could attract visitors and merchants.
These are my main priorities and my vision for the upcoming term. If elected, I will bring them to council and help implement in the next four years. Some of these – the electric vehicle charging stations, for example – I have already raised this term, but because of timing, other pressing issues, budget restraints or staff changes, they have not had the opportunity for a full discussion at the council table. I have the experience, the vision and the passion to continue as your representative on Collingwood Council and work as diligently on your behalf as I have for the past three terms.