I Just Don’t Understand Americans

I’ve long been somewhat of a politics/history junkie, and as such I read a lot about both topics, from ancient times to modern; I read about events, wars, issues, personalities, elections, debates, governance, and the philosophy of politics. I read books, newspapers, websites, magazines, social media, and more books. I don’t have cable TV, however, but I do get to several reliable media sites online every day, including BBC, CBC, Al Jazeera, Atlantic, Reuters, Spiegel, Agence France Presse, Forbes, Macleans, New York Times, The Star,  Globe & Mail, Slate, and others.* 

So even though I am not an American, I like to think that, for a foreigner, I am reasonably well acquainted with American history, geography, and politics. It’s hard not to be at least somewhat aware, when it’s splashed all over every paper, website, social media, and radio news even in Canada. I try to be well-informed about the events and issues that affect our biggest trading partner and (sometimes uncomfortably close) neighbour because they always affect us here.

But for all my reading and attention, some days I just don’t get Americans. Don’t get me wrong: I have known and loved many Americans over the years; I count quite a few Americans among my friends or at least friendly acquaintances. I’ve worked for them, I’ve travelled with them, had sex with them, I’ve partied with them, played music with them, and danced with them. I’ve sipped tequila with them in a tiny bar tucked away in the hills of central Mexico, and I’ve played wargames and paintball with them. But when it comes to politics, I just don’t get them.

Why would ANYONE have voted for Donald Trump? It was like standing on a train track seeing the light coming towards you at full speed, hearing the whistle warning, and yet staying on the track because you believed it would pass you by and hit someone else.

Come on, folks: it splattered body parts all over the nation. He’s spent almost four years proving he’s a racist, intolerant, lying, narcissist, fake-Christian, barely literate, uneducated, vindictive, nasty clown doing his best to destroy the United States economically, environmentally, socially, and politically. He is shredding your nation’s democracy as we speak, undermining your Constitution, destroying your ability to vote,  and making Vladimir Putin a very happy man. He mishandled the pandemic at the cost millions of jobs, a worse economic collapse than the Great Depression, and more than 170,000 deaths (and rising). He mishandled international trade at the cost millions of jobs and hikes to consumer prices. He alienated every ally in Europe and North America. He has screwed education, tried to sell Puerto Rico, wanted to use atomic bombs on hurricanes, thinks windmills cause cancer, put incompetent sycophants into the Supreme Court, golfed this term more often than most people golf in their entire lives, and played footsie with America’s sworn enemies.

The whole fucking world is laughing at Trump and his blundering, his ineptitude, his unpresidential shenanigans. And they’re looking aghast at the overt fascism being rolled in. Unidentified, armed federal agents kidnapping people off the streets. Children separated from parents and put in cages for years, suffering abuse and sexual assault. Billionaires making billions more because of his tax cuts to the already-rich while workers lose jobs, rights, and benefits. Is this how you want American and its leaders to be perceived?

So who in their right mind would vote for him again? Especially now there’s a reasonable alternative in another candidate (and an excellent choice for VP) who can help the country heal and regain its stature in the world. Not the perfect candidate, sure, but in comparison the two Democrats simply outweigh the incumbents in ethics, morality, humility, public spirit, and intelligence.

Apparently, being in your right mind is not a requirement to vote for Trump or his enablers (Moscow Mitch McConnell, Lindsay “Vlad’s Boy” Graham, and the other crypto-fascists). Voting for any of them would be like asking to be disembowelled right after the executioner had lopped off your arms.  I just don’t get it. Who does that to themselves?

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Can an atheist be a good citizen?

The answer to the headline’s question is no, at least according to the late Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus in a podcast in the Socrates in the City series (Sept. 22, 2004; I came across it as one of the chapters in the 2012 book from the podcast, Life, God, and Other Small Topics. Neuhaus’ talk was actually based on a 1991 piece he wrote.) To which response I must respond: codswallop.

Not that I expect religious employees like Neuhaus to defend atheism, but to suggest people can only be good under the influence of the supernatural — and even then only their particular version of the supernatural — is an arrogant, ideological statement, not one of fact. It’s been debunked by much better minds than mine (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Robert Buckman come to mind). 

Interestingly, the Catholic League weighs in on the debate, Can We Be Good Without God, without entirely refuting Neuhaus, but rather by expanding on several points of the argument. However, the conclusion the author of that piece reaches is that “Ultimately, yes, one individual here, another individual there could be really sweet and fine without God, but a system that obliterates the religious basis of morality will ultimately consume itself.” To which, I again say, codswallop.

Neuhaus’s perspective is regrettably narrow: Christian, Catholic, and American. He takes pot shots at Protestants, especially recent ones, doesn’t comment on other world religions at all (as if they were invisible), ignores non-theistic philosophies, doesn’t talk about levels of governance aside from the US federal, rambles about the American founders, and ignores the experience in other countries. Even in context of his American perspective, he blithely sidesteps the vexing Constitutional separation of church and state by not raising it at all. For such a big issue, his answer is a peashooter response that misses the target entirely.

Yet for all my disagreement, this is the sort of philosophical debate I love to read about and engage in (not that there’s a lot of opportunity to actually debate these days; Facebook is just a noisy echo chamber). So my participation is mostly limited to reading the works of others and blogging about my own perspective. So here goes.

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Musings on leadership

Dilbert
What makes a good leader? Or a bad one, for that matter? That’s a long-standing debate that reaches back into history.* Of late I’ve been reading about and pondering the characteristics of leadership.

Some people are promoted, elected or appointed to positions of authority. This makes them leaders by definition or responsibility, but not always by capability, style or attitude. Simply being in a position of authority or having a title doesn’t necessarily mean these people have leadership qualities.

We’ve all had the experience of people who were promoted or appointed beyond their ability; people who became martinets, bullies or who lost control of the group they’re supposed to lead, either by incompetence or inability.

The Peter Principle states that “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” This can been seen in politics, too. We’ve watched many MPs, MPPs and councillors promoted to the ranks of the government, taking on important roles only to show themselves as incapable of handling the task. Not everyone is suited for the role of leader. Some people are simply best as followers, as supporters, minions, backbenchers or even as the opposition.

Leadership implies teams and followers, not just an office or title. No matter how lofty the title is, without followers a leader is just a lone person out for a walk.

leadership stylesAccording to the US Army Handbook (1973) there are three styles of leadership: Authoritarian or autocratic; Participative or democratic; Delegative or Free Reign (see the illustration on the right for a graphic description).

This may seem a mite simplistic. Other sites list more styles, often many more. For example, the site Mind Tools offers ten distinct styles:

  • Autocratic leadership.
  • Bureaucratic leadership.
  • Charismatic leadership.
  • Democratic leadership/participative leadership.
  • Laissez-faire leadership.
  • People-oriented leadership/relations-oriented leadership.
  • Servant leadership.
  • Task-oriented leadership.
  • Transactional leadership.
  • Transformational leadership.

Now while it is seldom a leader single-mindedly practices just one of these styles, and usually displays a mix of different styles that surface at different times, most leaders bend towards a particular style. Or a combination – an autocratic, bureaucratic leader, for example. There are clearly positive and negative management styles. Post-hoc and micromanagement are two examples of bad styles, for example.

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Open for Business, But Not For Your Input

Did you happen to read the town ad on the inside page in the Enterprise Bulletin this weekend? February 6, top of page D7? I’m betting you didn’t because no one I’ve spoken to seems to have read it. And since you can’t find the ad on the EB’s website, you won’t have read it online, either.

But you should because it likely affects you and possibly in a big way.  It may change your life and not in a positive manner.

It’s on the town’s website, buried under a user-unfriendly URL here: www.collingwood.ca/node/11875.

It looks innocuous enough at the start:

In accordance with the Retail Business Holidays Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. R.30, as amended, and Ontario Regulation 711/91 – Tourism Criteria, the Town of Collingwood hereby gives notice of a Public Meeting and intent to pass a by-law to incorporate proposed changes to the Retail Business Holiday Exemption By-law, during its regular meeting of Council to be held Monday, March 2, 2015 at 5:00 p.m. in the Council Chambers, 97 Hurontario Street, Collingwood.

But read a little further and you’ll find these two bullet points:

  • Allowing retail business establishments to be open to the public Family Day, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, in addition to the other exemptions provided in the by-law.
  • Review of application from the Business Improvement Area and the Chamber of Commerce to incorporate a town-wide exemption encompassing all retail business in Collingwood.

That’s right: council intends to pass a bylaw to permit retail stores to open on statutory holidays – two of them among the most important religious holidays of the year for Christians. And they didn’t warn anyone this was coming. But read on, there’s more.

Open for business, not for your input

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