Category Archives: Social Order & Disorder

Conrad Black: Wrong on Religion, Again

QuoteAtheists renounce and abstain from religions; they don’t reform them. So said Conrad Black in a recent National Post column. Black seems to be increasingly theological in his writing; perhaps he has had some sort of epiphany in prison. If so, it seems to be pushing him towards a Pauline-style intolerance and exclusivity, religiously speaking. That attitude is not conducive to dialogue, but it certainly suits the writer.

And, as he has been in the past, he is wrong about both religion and atheism. He speaks from the position of the True Believer for whom no other perspective, let alone dissent, is tolerable. Black, a convert to Catholicism, wrote contemptuously of other religions in 2009:

… Anglicans, moreover, have never really decided whether they are Protestant or Catholic, only that they “don’t Pope,” though even that wavers from time to time. Luther, though formidable and righteous, was less appealing to me than both the worldly Romans, tinged with rascality though they were, and the leading papist zealots of the Counter-Reformation.
The serious followers of Calvin, Dr Knox and Wesley were, to me, too puritanical, but also too barricaded into ethnic and cultural fastnesses, too much the antithesis of universalism…
Islam was out of the question; too anti-western, too identified with the 13th-century decline and contemporary belligerency of the Arabs; and the Koran is alarmingly violent, even compared to the Old Testament. Judaism, though close theologically, is more tribal and philosophical than spiritual. … the 80% of the early Jews who became Christians, starting with Christ, had correctly identified the Messiah than that the proverbially “stiff-necked” rump of continuing Jewry are right still, ostensibly, to be waiting for Him.
It need hardly be said that the Jews are the chosen people of the Old Testament, that they have made a huge contribution to civilization, and that they have been horribly persecuted. But being Jewish today, apart from the orthodox, is more of an exclusive society, and a tradition of oppression and survival, than an accessible faith.*

Let’s start with a simple clarification: everyone is an atheist in that there are many gods a lot of people don’t believe in. I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts Conrad doesn’t believe in Moloch, Zeus, Baal, Ahura Mazda, Krishna, Hera,  Shiva,, Ganesh or Odin. That makes him and everyone else who doesn’t believe in them an atheist to those who do. Those whom many people normally label as atheist merely believe in one less deity than those who claim to be believers. Atheism is thus relative.

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Fishy Thoughts

Nat PostCanadians, the headline reads, now have shorter attention span than goldfish thanks to portable devices. The story in today’s National Post underscores a growing problem that is fuelled by technology: our dwindling attention spans.

The Microsoft study of 2,000 Canadians found our collective attention span has dwindled to a mere eight seconds, down from an already embarrassing 12 seconds a similar study found back in the year 2000.

Goldfish have an average nine second attention span.

Eight seconds! How can you read a newspaper article, let alone a novel, with such a short attention span? How can you write or create anything of consequence with your mind flitting about like that?

The Ottawa Citizen quoted from the report:

“Canadians with more digital lifestyles (those who consume more media, are multi-screeners, social media enthusiasts, or earlier adopters of technology) struggle to focus in environments where prolonged attention is needed.”

Which explains why distracted driving – drivers on cell phones or texting at the wheel – is fast growing to be the number one cause of accidents and fatalities. Yet every day I walk my dogs or when we walk downtown, I see someone talking on the cell phone or texting while driving. Every day.

It also explains why many people fall for conspiracy theories, religious cults, advertising scams or the diaphanous piffle of local bloggers: they don’t have the attention span required to do the critical analysis of what is presented. They’re thinking less because they’re too easily distracted by the …. oooh! shiny!

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Ontario’s Sex Education

Idiot protestersAs Frank Zappa sang in his 1968 song, What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?:

What’s the ugliest
Part of your body?
What’s the ugliest
Part of your body?
Some say your nose
Some say your toes
I think it’s your mind, your mind,
I think it’s YOUR MIND, woo woo

I’m not a fan of the Wynne government, but I respect their current willingness to wade into the public muck that clings to any attempt to implement or even update a sex education curriculum in public schools. The old curriculum was last updated in 1998 – years before sexting became headlines, before the internet became awash with pornography or Millie Cyrus twerked onstage. Before young women committed suicide over cyberbullying and rape videos. Before we became this hyper-sexualized culture.

Whether you agree with the curriculum, you have to admit it takes a brave government to tackle something that has always been a flashpoint for public dissension, and all too often a rallying point for the uber- and religious right (always a vocal minority). Governments should be willing to tackle the tough issues, not simply pander to the vote or themselves.

The protesters may have some valid points about the age at which some of the content may be presented, and those should be considered. However, the protests have become trolling dragnets; capturing all sorts of ideological and theological flotsam and jetsam. Frankly, much of what floats to the media surface from these protests is idiotic, chaotic and archaic.

Governments should not kowtow to the fringe, no matter how vocal it gets.

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National Poetry Month

National Poetry MonthApril is National Poetry Month in Canada. I don’t know if this gets widespread acknowledgement much less appreciation among the public and in the schools, but it should.

Poetry is an important part of our cultural lives, although it seems to me our collective passion for it has waned over the past few decades. I blame MTV, video games, rap music, Stephen Harper and cuts to education budgets. And maybe the phase of the moon. Whatever the cause, we seem to have less poetry in our lives, in our souls than we did in the past.

Okay, I don’t know why we don’t seem to have such a national passion for poetry as we once have, nor why we don’t value our poets as much as we once did, but I have my suspicions that it stems from our current popular culture, although the precise mechanism eludes me. Can observance of this event help rekindle our passion for poetry? Maybe – if anyone aside from the poets takes up the torch to publicize it.

According to Poets.ca:

Established in Canada in April 1998 by the League of Canadian Poets (LCP), National Poetry Month (NPM) brings together schools, publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, and poets from across the country to celebrate poetry and its vital place in Canada’s culture. The year 2015 marks the 17th anniversary of National Poetry Month in Canada.

This year we are encouraging poets and hosts to explore and savour the theme of Food and Poetry… we want to investigate the ways in which “food is personal, political, sensual and powerful”.

There’s also a Mayor’s Poetry Challenge,

Begun in 2012, the Challenge is an annual initiative through which municipal councils across Canada open their Council meetings with a reading from a local poet. The aim is for local communities to celebrate poetry, writing, small presses and the contribution of poets and all writers to the rich cultural life in our country.

I don’t recall reading about this when I was on council, nor can I recall anyone in office locally taking up the challenge. Which may not be because no one cares – it may simply be under-promoted. So I’ve sent it to our Mayor and hope she takes it on. Maybe it will spread.
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The Responsibility of Free Speech

The stages of argumentIn January, 2015, Marie Snyder, on her blog, A Puff of Absurdity, raised the question of how free should speech be. I share her concerns about the apparent limitlessness of our rights: our right to free speech is not matched to any inherent responsibilities, civic or moral, to behave in a mature manner, nor does it require anyone to speak the truth. And we are not taught in our educational system either the basics of argument (in the classical sense), rhetoric or even manners and civility.

I don’t always agree with her positions (although I did like her take on Montaigne), but this one I agree wholeheartedly with:

People say some truly cruel things, and I’m not convinced we should have a right to be publicly malicious.

Many people feel they have that right. And they willingly and eagerly trespass well beyond basic civility into libel and slander – often telling outright lies (as we know from the local blogosphere) and engaging in vulgar insults and name calling.

Snyder is also concerned about the venomous nature of those attacks and the very personal nature of some of the comments, well outside the forum for civic debate. Those attacks erode the credibility of the attacker, but they also fuel an online hatefest as others pile into the virtual mosh pit to contribute their venom to the mob frenzy.

As the newspaper’s editor, I always believed that a politician’s stand, speeches, votes and ideologies are open territory for criticism. And that criticism should be fair, any claims based on documented facts, and disagreement always made respectfully and civilly. It should never descend into a personal, ad hominem attack. And to resort to vulgarity and name calling is the lowest of the low in the ladder of civic engagement. Snyder writes:

Venting and criticizing are two different things with a different purpose and, as such, deserve a different forum. Venting is what we do with a close friend listening privately; it has no place in a public debate. This distinction is all the more important when openly criticizing people in positions of power further down the line – like MPs that you’re likely to see in your grocery story, or local journalists, or even teachers who didn’t sign up to be in the public eye in the same way politicians and journalists do. With open access to an online forum seen by millions, it has become far more important to teach argumentation skills at a young age, and to offer reminders everywhere. But if we can’t teach people to stop venting in public places, to actually control their own outrage like a theoretical grown-up might do, then I think (big breath) we need to have some legislation in place to prevent or punish this action.

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The Bully Pulpit

Theodore Roosevelt“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”

US President Theodore Roosevelt uttered those words in office (reported in the February 27, 1909, issue of The Outlook magazine), coining the phrase ‘bully pulpit’ in referring to the presidency as an ideal platform from which to expound his ideas and advocate his causes.

Of course, in his day, bully – a word with which Roosevelt was very fond – as an adjective meant ‘excellent,’ ‘first-rate,’ ‘jovial’ or just ‘good’ – a usage we still share when we say ‘bully for you.’ His bully pulpit, however, was a moral platform.

Roosevelt wasn’t commenting on having a platform of influence from which to bully people in today’s more common use of the noun to describe “a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.”*

Both uses of the word bully come from the Dutch boele, meaning ‘lover’ and it was originally a term of endearment. They migrated to their odd, double meaning in the 17th century.

National Post reviewI came across the term recently in the title of Doris Goodwin’s book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt , William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism,” which I picked up last week, mostly for its references to the historical development of journalism.** But the politics also interest me and, since I am not as well-versed in American history and politics of that era as I am in other periods, I wanted to educate myself.

Roosevelt is fascinating in that he was a Republican and very progressive – yet it’s a party today we associate with backwardness, the entitlement of the 1%, racism, promoting anti-Christian policies while pretending to be devout and religious***, anti-environmental, anti-science, intolerant, corrupt, petty, mean-spirited spokespeople for whichever industry or corporation buys their votes.

Yet remarkably, in Roosevelt’s day, the Republicans were the progressive party, and it was under Roosevelt that the government put limits on corporate greed, stifled the robber barons, sponsored economic and monetary reform, protected the environment and created national parks, passed socially progressive laws for education and labour… quite the opposite of today’s narrow-minded and suspicious Republicans.

In part, I wanted to read Goodwin’s book to understand, if I can, how the GOP fell from such socially responsible heights to become the despicable, misanthropic and misogynistic party it is today. As the New York Times wrote in reviewing Goodwin’s book:

Let her transport you back to the turn of the 20th century, to a time when this country had politicians of stature and conscience, when the public believed that government could right great wrongs, when, before truncated attention spans, a 50,000-word exposé of corruption could sell out magazines and galvanize a reluctant Congress. The villains seemed bigger, too, or at least more brazen — industrial barons and political bosses who monopolized entire industries, strangled entire cities. And “change” was not just a slogan. “There are but a handful of times in the history of our country,” Goodwin writes in her introduction, “when there occurs a transformation so remarkable that a molt seems to take place, and an altered country begins to emerge.” The years covered in this book are such a time. It makes a pretty grand story.

In his career as a politician, Roosevelt had a very good, close relationship with the media. He engaged them in debate and discussion, created a separate room for the media in the White House, and challenged reporters over their stories – Roosevelt also coined the phrase ‘muckraker’. But it was a relationship based on mutual respect and civility. As Goodwin writes:

…Roosevelt had established a unique relationship with numerous journalists. He debated points with them as fellow writers; regardless of the disparity in political rank, when they argued as authors, they argued as equals. He had read and freely commented upon their stories, as they felt free to criticize his public statements and speeches.

Goodwin calls the relationship between Roosevelt and the media “collegial” – the New York Times suggests ‘symbiotic” as a better choice. As the NYT tells it, Roosevelt

…allowed reporters to question him during his midday shave. Editors and writers who caught his attention would be invited for luncheon conversations that might last until midnight. With his many favorites, Roosevelt exchanged voluminous correspondence, sometimes two or three letters a week. He shared early drafts of his major policy speeches and legislative proposals, and they briefed him on their reporting projects before publication.

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Bad Thinkers and the Unknown Knowns

Critical thinkingI came across an interesting piece on bad thinking online recently. In it, the author argues some of the points I’ve mentioned in the past about people who believe in conspiracy theories, gossip and other online codswallop:

The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal.

In the piece, the author, Quassim Cassam, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, argues that the fault lies in how these people process information, not the quality or quantity of that information. They are, in other words, bad thinkers. They have intellectual vices or intellectual bad habits:

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness… negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking… Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues…

Cassam uses a fictional character, Oliver, and his obsession with 9/11 conspiracies despite evidence that all of his conspiratorial notions can be proven wrong.

Oliver is gullible because he believes things for which he has no good evidence, and he is closed-minded because he dismisses claims for which there is excellent evidence. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter. To say that Oliver lacks good evidence is to draw attention to the absence of eye-witness or forensic support for his theory about 9/11, and to the fact that his theory has been refuted by experts. Oliver might not accept any of this but that is, again, a reflection of his intellectual character.

But 9/11 is only one of so many of these conspiracies and bad ideas that are like pond scum on the internet. Their following can’t all stem from bad thinking. Some might be from laziness – after all, assessing a claim properly can be hard work and our brains are our body’ biggest energy user. Some people may not have the energy (couch potatoes, for example) to expend. So it’s easier to accept a claim – no matter how fatuous – than investigate it (something the media are prone to do).

Some are actual cons and deliberate hoaxes that hook the gullible. While others – like angels and ghosts – may be superstition or wishful thinking (aka faith). Other examples may simply be eccentric expressions of our personality.

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Manufactured Terror: Bill C51

Stephen Harper wants you to be afraid. VERY afraid. If you’re frightened, you likely won’t question his and his party’s destruction of the country, the decaying economy, job losses, homelessness, the ignored murder of aboriginal women, the muffled and cowed bureaucracy, hobbling the CBC, undermining Canadian science and scientists, and our waning credibility on the world stage.

And if you’re scared, you certainly won’t challenge him or his party over the introduction of Bill C51 – ostensibly an “anti-terrorism” bill but one that threatens to take away your rights and advance Harper’s private agenda.

And, of course, it’s his tactic for winning the next federal election: by appearing Canada’s sole defender against the boogeyman of terrorism, while tarring his opponents with the epithet “soft on terror.”

But while all Canadians are concerned about the threat terrorist post to our society, our institutions and our way of life, it seems few of us think Harper’s Orwellian, Big Brother state is worth the trade. Some of us even wonder why the bill seems to ignore the growing cyber-security threats from Asia and Russia, and focus so much on Islamist extremists.

Harper has been accused by opposition leaders of fostering intolerance towards Muslims:

Tom Mulcair accused him of fostering “intolerance” and helping create “Islamophobia.”
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who began the attacks earlier this week by accusing Harper of spreading “fear” and “prejudice” of Muslims, jumped into the fray again on Wednesday.

But in reality, all Canadians should be worried by this bill. As the Globe and Mail noted in an editorial in February, “Anti-terrorism bill will unleash CSIS on a lot more than terrorists…”

Why does the bill do so much more than fight terrorism? One part of Bill C-51 creates a new definition of an “activity that undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada” that includes “terrorism,” “interference with critical infrastructure” and “interference with the capability of the Government in relation to … the economic or financial stability of Canada….”
So what is this other class of security-underminer the bill refers to? A political party that advocates Quebec independence (there goes our “territorial integrity”)? Indian activists who disrupt a train line? Environmental activists denounced as radicals by a cabinet minister?
… if Bill C-51 passes, CSIS will be able to disrupt anything its political masters believe might be a threat. As the bill is currently written, that includes a lot more than terrorism.

But it’s not just Bill C-51 that’s a threat to civil liberty. The government also has Bill C-44, the Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act, in the wings. As the Huffington Post notes,

The bill would allow CSIS to seek a judicial warrant to investigate a security threat — “within or outside Canada.” The warrant could be issued “without regard to any other law, including that of any foreign state,” the legislation states.

An editorial on Rabble noted,

Bill C-44 is a systematic attempt by the government to circumvent the limits Canadian courts have placed on its investigative and surveillance powers, through legislative amendments. It expands the powers of CSIS to allow for surveillance activities in Canada and abroad, consequentially allowing CSEC to intercept, or allow other foreign agencies to intercept, telecommunications of Canadian citizens when travelling abroad.

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