10/19/14

Skepticism Too Easily Slides Into Cynicism


CynicismYears spent in the media, plus decades of independent practice as a writer and social critic honed my native skepticism into a protective psychological barrier against a wide range of social ailments and inappropriate, often dangerous beliefs. It has made me question motives, statements, logic and conclusions, and search for the underlying truths. It motivated me to explore, to examine, to dig deep. To try to understand, not simply deny.

It’s an easy slide, however, from a healthy skepticism to a soul-destroying cynicism – using the modern sense of the word. Modern cynicism encourages acceptance of the notion that everything is bad, rotten and evil except the viewer; cynics become too lazy, too self-assured of their own faith and beliefs to investigate further. They draw conclusions from surface appearances without going deeper; and blanket everything with negativism.

Skeptics, however, keep enough of an open mind to continue asking questions. Healthy skepticism is often paired with conscious awareness, emotional intelligence and ruthless compassion:

In order to have more freedom and empowerment in our lives we need conscious awareness, healthy skepticism, emotional intelligence and ruthless compassion. The more we practice these skills, the less we’ll be subject to manipulation and exploitation and the more unencumbered we’ll be in pursuing true happiness and fulfillment…
Our skepticism will bring out the best in the upstanding people and institutions and will bring out the worst in those that are dishonest and corrupt. By asking questions and observing the reactions and responses of those we’re questioning, we’re able to discover who we’re really dealing with and make informed choices with respect to them.
To question things is to take back control of our lives, because knowledge and understanding bring us power and choice and enable us to act on our own behalf in the best, most informed manner. Not accepting everything at face value and being skeptical about the underlying motivations of those who want to lead us, advise us or profit from us is a wise course of action for all the above reasons.

Cynics simply don’t believe in anything but their own surety. They don’t feel the need to go looking for the roots and the causes that skeptics hunt and wrestle with. Cynics are negative, skeptics are searching for answers. Cynics don’t have to take responsibility for things because they’ve already decided the world is against them: skeptics look for answers and meaning to make things connect and work.

You cannot shed light into the darkness if you’re convinced that there’s some ulterior motive behind the light. That’s why conspiracy theorists are for the most part cynics in the dark. Scientists, on the other hand, are generally skeptics with candles.

I’ve tried, through my life, to keep my skepticism healthy and active; a tool to fuel my curiosity, while dampening the trend to assume a cynical approach. I have tried to use skepticism in the way of free inquiry, as taught in the Kalama Sutra. After all, the word comes from the Greek skepsis, meaning “inquiry.” Not doubt.

I’m not always successful in avoiding the cascade into cynicism – it’s easier and faster, requires less effort and thought, especially with social media, but overall I believe I have stayed above it.

The philosopher Denis Diderot wrote in Pensées Philosophiques (1746):

Scepticism is the first step towards truth.

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10/16/14

The mote and the beam



“Hide witch hide, the good folks come to burn thee;
Their keen enjoyment hid behind a Gothic mask of duty.”

Jefferson Starship: Mau Mau (Blows Against the Empire, 1970)

I was thinking about those lines recently. They seemed appropriate given the events in town since last spring. I was also thinking about what Gord Hume wrote in 2011:

“Explosive internet columns, blogs, and opinion pieces that do not seem to be overly-burdened with concerns about facts or accuracy are now being added to the traditional media mix, and have further aroused this toxic brew.”
Gordon Hume: Take Back Our Cities, Municipal World

Toxic certainly describes the political atmosphere in Collingwood these days. It’s been a rough campaign season, although I have to say thanks to the support I and some other members of council have received from residents. It’s good to know the poison has not seeped into every pore. Not everyone listens to the harridans of hatred.

Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.
Shakespeare: Macbeth

Coffee mugIt’s a sad day indeed for this community when any person is judged guilty solely on an allegation from a blogger, without any evidence, without even hearing his or her side. Just innuendo, rumour and gossip. And increasingly more often, outright lies.

What happened to our Canadian sense of justice and fairness?

A former politician recently called the attitude among the local negativists as a “lynch mob” mentality and referred to the madness of the McCarthy era. Both seem, sadly, true.

But I have to add: Honi soit qui mal y pense – evil be to him who evil thinks.

Who would have thought anyone in this small, quiet, beautiful town would be so shamelessly determined to hurt and demean others? I simply don’t understand that. It’s outside my ken.

I never understood bullying. And now we have the local cyberbullies pointing their fingers at us and call us bullies when we stand up to them and demand accountability; who damn us for asking questions of staff after they spent years castigating and accusing staff themselves.

Ah, the hypocrisy never ends, does it?

It sometimes disheartens me, demoralizes me. Maliciousness affects our families, our friends and neighbours. It is, as Gord Hume wrote, a toxic brew; and it keeps getting stirred by this small group.

Social media rewards partisanship. It is the nature of the medium that like-minded people talk to one another and reinforce one another. It is easy to dismiss any aliens who challenge your prejudices. Unquestioned prejudices shrivel into slogans and labels.
keller.blogs.nytimes.com

These attack posts, these accusations are not about engagement, or debate, issues, process, or even democracy. Never have been. Democracy comes with responsibilities; social media doesn’t. They’re not about civil debate; the mature exchange of ideas and views. They’re not the Collingwood way of engaging one another.

They’re simply about hurting someone else, about smearing them, discrediting them, demeaning and belittling them, getting revenge for a council decision they didn’t like. Just like in the school yard: bullies, grown up to be cyberbullies.

There’s always been a political agenda playing in the wings. This term it’s been replete with dirty politics, name-calling, smears, lies and self-righteous but groundless accusations. Some say it’s part of a generations-old feud between Liberals and Conservatives. Or just a longstanding personal animosity between some current and former politicians. Others say it’s big-city politics, or Harper politics, or American politics. Doesn’t matter: the relentless personal attacks, the denunciations, the accusations have continued unabated, their angry clamour growing louder with every week as we approach the election date.

Any opportunity for an engaging debate on the issues, even for simple explanation and exchange of views, was scorched away by the ongoing vitriol. Who can be heard over the continual schoolyard shouting, the lies and taunts?

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10/16/14

Cold Mountain Poems


Han Shan and Shih TeI first became aware of the Tang dynasty poet, Han Shan, in the late 1960s, when I was engrossed in reading the poets of the earlier Beat generation. It was at that time that, through them, I started to discover and explore Western Buddhism – as it was adapted and represented through their experiences and words. I eagerly read everything by Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and others from the era.

Sometime around then, I discovered a few of Han Shan’s poems. Beat poet Gary Snyder had translated 24 poems for the Evergreen Review in 1958, and later included them with a collection of his own poems in his 1959 book, Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems. My copy of that book, in its 1966 reprint, has long since vanished from my shelves. But I remember the effect they had on me: their austere simplicity, their sincerity, their unfeigned naturalness.

I found Snyder through Kerouac’s portrayal of him in his novel, The Dharma Bums (which I also still have on my shelves). Around the same time I discovered haiku, Kenneth Rexroth’s translations, and translations of other T’ang poets: Li Po, Wang Wei and Tu Fu in particular… books which I still have. Snyder’s translations were crisp, clear and poignant.

Han Shan means “Cold Mountain” in Chinese. It’s not simply a place: in the poetry it’s a metaphor for both a state of being and a spiritual destination. The reader is not simply looking at a person: he or she is looking at a mirror: Han Shan is telling us to look within. The poems are important in the literature of Ch’an Buddhism, which later migrated to become Zen in Japan.

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
translated by Gary Snyder.*

His original name has been lost in the ages between us. He has been dated to a wide range of years in the T’ang dynasty, between about 577 and 901 CE. He has also been identified as different individuals during that period, as well as a collective of poets. He travelled and wrote with a companion, Shih-te, although some authorities suggest they were the same person. No one knows for sure. All we know is that he wrote his poems on rocks (and maybe on bamboo and the wood or the walls of houses).

His only contemporary biographer, Lu Ch’iu-yin, Governor of T’ai Prefecture, wrote this of Han Shan:

He looked like a tramp. His body and face were old and beat. Yet in every word he breathed was a meaning in line with the subtle principles of things, if only you thought of it deeply. Everything he said had a feeling of Tao in it, profound and arcane secrets. His hat was made of birch bark, his clothes were ragged and worn out, and his shoes were wood. Thus men who have made it hide their tracks: unifying categories and interpenetrating things. On that long veranda calling and singing, in his words of reply Ha Ha! – the three worlds revolve. Sometimes at the villages and farms he laughed and sang with cowherds. Sometimes intractable, sometimes agreeable, his nature was happy of itself. But how could a person without wisdom recognize him?

You can read other biographical accounts online, including this one at Hermitary.

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10/11/14

Lessons From the Campaign Trail


Door to doorI always learn something new, something valuable from every municipal election campaign. I learn from talking to people, I learn from community meetings. I learn from comments and emails I receive. I learn from other candidates, too – there are often good ideas proposed that can be developed by council later.

Each election campaign has been a bit different, and I’ve tried different approaches each time. In some, I’ve done more door knocking; in others I’ve done more mailing. I’ve tried different signs, different literature. This time, I knocked on a lot of doors. It’s been educational every time.

Here are a few of my thoughts about campaigning this term (and some thoughts that have percolated through from the five elections in which I have run as a candidate):

1. Face to face matters. No brochure or lawn sign can match the value of actually talking to someone at the door. Going door-to-door is a grinding, often tedious and tiring process, but nothing can match it for getting in touch with the voters. People want to voice their opinions, their concerns, ask questions and get answers. People like seeing their candidates, putting a face to the name. Nothing can match the personal interaction you get at the door.*

Be positive, be upbeat and be courteous at the door, even when you face someone hostile or an opponent’s supporter. Don’t argue or be impolite: leave them with a good impression of you.

2. All-candidates’ meetings are frustrating for voters. Talking one-on-one at the door is often appreciated more than all-candidates’ meetings. There the voters are a passive audience, unable to ask questions or challenge answers, debate, argue, even talk with candidates. Many people I spoke to at these meetings said they liked the time before and after the speeches best, so they could actually make direct contact with candidates.

Speeches don’t win many votes. In two or even five minutes, you can’t express your whole vision, your accomplishments, your hopes, dreams or even much of your bio. Just try to get a few salient points across that might be remembered later.

People match candidates’ faces with their names, so speaking well and confidently is important, too.

Small gatherings where people can speak one-on-one to candidates are more popular than big venues with 300-400 people in the audience. But events where only a select group of candidates are invited poisons the atmosphere for residents and candidates alike. People want fairness and openness during elections, not secrecy and exclusiveness.

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10/10/14

The Lobbyist Registry


Snidley WhiplashI was in the local grocery store with Susan, picking over the collection of organic vine-ripened tomatoes, earnestly searching for the best couple of them. A man recognized me as a member of council and approached me, smiling, hand extended.*

“Hi, Councillor Chadwick,” he said. We shake. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Okay,” I replied and passed what i considered the two best tomatoes to Susan who headed off in search of some fresh Ontario asparagus. “How can I help you?”

“Well, I’m Pastor Jones with the local United Way and I wanted to ask…”

“Wait a second,” I interrupted, holding my hand up. “Are you going to lobby me?”

“Uh, I suppose. I’m not sure. I just wanted to…”

“Are you registered?”

“What do you mean? We’re a registered charity…”

“No, I mean are you a registered lobbyist?” I shuffled sideways to the avocado bin and started to gently poke them. My new companion followed behind, scratching his head.

“I… I don’t know. I’m not sure. But we might be. But I just wanted to ask…”

“Not good enough. I need to know if you – not just your charity or corporation – is registered. Personally. You have to be registered before you can lobby me. Council passed a bylaw. I can’t talk to any unregistered lobbyists.” I picked a particularly nice avocado and handed it to Susan who passed by on her way to the potatoes.

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10/9/14

The Cold War


The Cold WarI was reminded by an article on Slate that the (to me) iconic film of the Cold War, Fail Safe, was released fifty years ago this week. And as the article records, more people remember the satirical film, Dr. Strangelove than the more chilling drama, Fail Safe. Perhaps they have forgotten it, as they have the Cold War itself.

Forgotten too are the tensions and the fears that pervaded that era; the threats of nuclear war. the suspicions and paranoia about Communism, the McCarthy hearings, the accusations and the innuendo. It seems as distance today as the era of Frederick the Great or Napoleon. For some people, anyway.

For a younger generation, the Cold War must seem as far from their world as my grandfather’s days in WWI seemed to me: a time of antiquated technology, of difference music, of style and fashion that seems so archaic. Watching the 1964 version of Fail Safe today must seem so dated, so antiquated. No tablets! No smart phones! No Facebook!

I came of age through the most tense, most confrontational years of the Cold War.

My first political memories are of the contentious “Kitchen debate” between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US Vice President, Richard Nixon. Nixon visited Moscow in July, 1959 and almost immediately got into a scrap with Khrushchev. There’s a photo of Nixon poking K in the chest, with K frowning. The two got into a heated argument at an exhibition of American kitchen appliances that was broadcast worldwide. It almost seemed the two would start WWIII right there.

Yet despite the apparent animosity generated during that visit, Khrushchev made his own tour of the US a few months later, in September. I recall the black-and-white images on TV of him and his wife, and President Eisenhower, riding around in the limo.

That visit is delightfully retold in Peter Carlson’s K Blows Top. As Carlson relates it, the event was a combination of surrealism, politics and Marx Brothers:

Illustrating the adventures of K in America were photos of the pudgy traveler, who mugged shamelessly for the cameras like a mischievous eight year old. Khrushchev may have been a dictator responsible for thousands of deaths, but he was also an incurable ham who couldn’t bear to disappoint a photographer. Consequently, the pictures in the clip folders were wonderfully wacky: Khrushchev grabs a live turkey! Khrushchev pats a fat guy’s belly! Khrushchev gawks at chorus girls! Khrushchev pretends to shoplift a napkin holder by stuffing it into his suit jacket while laughing uproariously!

Khrushchev’s trip was, as Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis dubbed it, “a surreal extravaganza.” Within an hour of reading the first clipping, I was hooked. For months, I spent my Thursdays and Fridays following the adventures of K as he traveled from Washington to New York to Hollywood to San Francisco to Iowa to Pittsburgh to Camp David, creating hilarious havoc all the way.

Fifty-five years ago, this past September 25, that tour. I still have a memory of it, a trifle hazy but still intact.*

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