The News: A User’s Manual

The NewsAlain de Botton attempts in his small book to give us a guide, to provide some larger, meaningful context, to the news we get 24/7 these days. I don’t think he succeeds very well. In part it’s because he sees news as something grandiose, world-moving, world-shaking. I’m more familiar with the local aspect; a much smaller scale. It may not appear to have the majestic sweep of international news, but it isn’t any less relevant.

We are focused, collectively, on the US presidential campaigns and the interpersonal battles between Trump and Clinton. It’s a great drama of Homeric or Shakespearean proportion (albeit comical). But are they really any more important to us than, say, the confrontation between members of our own council – Deputy Mayor Saunderson, Councillors Doherty and Jeffrey in particular – and the local hospital board?

A local issue may seem small in comparison, but it certainly has more impact on our daily lives here. And the personalities and their comments are no less colourful.

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Where is Che now that we need him?

CheMaybe it’s simple nostalgia, but it seems to me the world was a lot better off when the Soviet Union was around. Really. Bear with me while I explain.

When the USSR was the main enemy of our loudly-proclaimed free and democratic society, we struggled to measure ourselves against its yardstick.

If the USSR claimed to have the best chess players, we had to beat them with Bobby Fischer. If they claimed to have the best students in math or science, well we had to show we had the whizzes. If they claimed their medical system was better, their workers were better treated, their social services and their agricultural output was better, we had to show ours could beat theirs. They put a man in orbit, we walked on the moon.

Anti-Communist propagandaOf course, the USSR – and indeed most Communist nations past and present – were not the workers’ paradise they alleged. We knew that, but we pretended not to. Most were bleak, dreary, economically destitute, brutal dictatorships. They weren’t run by lofty ideologues seeking to craft a society for the betterment of the working class. They were run by an oligarchy of squabbling, irritable competitive sycophants and bullies in a race to see who would be last to face the firing squad.

Communist propagandaContrary to the way the Communists portrayed the West, we weren’t all imperialists, capitalists without a conscience, greedy, warmongering expansionists. At least Canada wasn’t. Mostly. But they weren’t entirely wrong about the West, either. And if they could see us today, they’d be saying the same thing they said back then. To America in particular.

Both sides of this political divide ignored the full reality of the other because it made for better propaganda campaigns. And it was much easier to justify wars, coups, and interference in other nations’ business. The threat of the other side’s emergence was often sufficient. Propaganda was at its pinnacle.

Fischer-SpasskyBut at the same time, the competition between two opposing systems also brought out the best in both. It created the space race and some of the most important scientific and technical developments in a century. It spurred the Civil Rights movement. It created a half-century of exploration, achievement, education and science. It made chess international news: the Fischer-Spassky match briefly put an intellectual pursuit ahead of the corporate sports news. And into headline news at that!

Under pressure from the West, Soviets had to lighten up on dissidents and writers, allowing some to escape to the West. And both sides curbed their nuclear strategies for fear of mutual annihilation.

And because most wingnut terrorist groups were allied to one side or the other and dependent on that side for arms, money and direction, there was at least a modicum of control over what they were allowed to do. There was never an ISIS back then.
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Electing atheists

Anti-atheists billboard
trust meterA recent story on Religion News discusses the DNC’s concerns about former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ religion. Not that he was Jewish, but that he might be a closet atheist. And that send the DNC-crats over the roof. Scary, eh?

You can’t elect an atheist in America. You can elect liars, cheats, adulterers, misogynists and creationists (and sometimes all in the same person…). But not atheists.

Even Donald Trump, whose murky religious beliefs remain cause for much speculation, overshadowed by his overt worship of power and money, hasn’t strayed into atheism, at least publicly.

And it’s been that way since the late 1960s-early ’70s. American religion and politics somehow became entwined around then, and today they are inseparable, Constitution notwithstanding. The right paints anyone who isn’t Bible-thumping along with them as atheist, leftist, socialist or liberal (or all four…). The recent Republican presidential-candidate race often seemed more like a series of fundamentalist, revivalist prayer meetings than political debates.

Not that America is unique in this. Despite a growing percentage of the population claiming no religious affiliation running as an atheist in politics taints any candidate. As the article continues:

Raising a candidate’s religion or questioning his or her faith is beyond the pale. One reason the email is so damning (pun intended) is that atheists are among the least-liked groups in America. There is a wide gap between public opinion toward Jews and feelings for atheists.
How much are they disliked? The average American feels warmer toward Congress than toward atheists. That’s as low as you get in public opinion.

Statistics show that roughly 20% of Americans claim no religious affiliation, but that doesn’t mean they’re atheists. In fact, the large majority of them believe in a deity or have some spiritual belief. A Pew Research poll suggests only 3.1% of Americans are actually atheists and 4% are agnostics.

Although 23.9% of Canadians claim to be ‘irreligious’, the list of openly atheist politicians in Canada is pitifully small (and all of them are from Quebec…).

An Angus-Reid poll also indicates the troubling notion that a lot of Canadians who consider themselves non-religious or ambivalent about religion also believe in superstitious claptrap like astrology, reincarnation and psychic powers.

Overall, though we don’t much care for prayer in public meetings, regardless of what we believe. And that’s a good thing.

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More relevant words from Nixonland

Harper as NixonOnce again, as I continue to read through Anthony Summers’ biography of Richard Nixon, The Arrogance of Power (Penguin Books, 2000), I am struck by the uncanny resonance of many comments quoted within it to local politics. It’s like people living in the 1950s had a device through which they could view the politics of today, see the politicians on our own council and were reflecting on them, instead of their contemporaries. Some time viewing device right out of science fiction.

Of course, we know they are speaking and writing of Richard Nixon and his activities, but nonetheless… the word uncanny keeps springing to mind. Like I said in my last piece on this book, I am astounded at its local relevance.

Nixon was despised early in his career for his dirty tactics, lack of morals and ethics, his underhanded tricks and his incessant lying. He was unscrupulous in his bids for power and didn’t waste any sentiment on those whose reputations and careers he despoiled. Sound familiar? Like anyone you know on council or in town hall? Like the background for the previous municipal election campaign? Isn’t that resemblance scary?

Even though these words below were penned more than 60 years ago and on the other side of the border, I can’t get over how eerily they fit the local political scene. How well they can be snapped into any critical comment or editorial (should local media ever develop the spine or other parts of their flaccid anatomies to write one…) about Collingwood politicians and their blatant skullduggery.

So much so that, if I ever thought any of The Block actually read anything with more words than a stop sign, I would suspect they had read a biography of Nixon and chosen him as their role model.

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Demagogues and dictators

Lenin, Stalin & HitlerI’m not sure why they fascinate me, but I’ve been reading about demagogues and dictators for many decades now and still can’t seem to get enough of them. Of course, it’s in part because I like to read about politics in all its forms and fashions, but there’s something more than just celebrity watching with these. There’s the psychology of propaganda and mass movements, the inoculation of widespread ideologies, the use of technology and mass culture.

The period between the two World Wars in particular intrigues me because it was an era of great social change. Upheaval, really. The rise of the automobile, the telephone, radio, film… technology changed the world in ways no one could have predicted before WWI. And it was the first time mass propaganda was used to propel politics. Effectively, too. The old pre-war social orders and empires crumbled and new ones emerged. Democracy blossomed, too, albeit not without conflict.

But while many of the issues may have changed since then, the methods and the styles of today’s demagogues, how they appeal to the masses and spread their message, are much the same as they ever were. Watching Donald Trump in action as he campaigns, I can see echoes of his predecessors back into the 1920s and ’30s.

There’s a certain fusty notion of political correctness not to play the Hitler card or the Stalin card in these comparisons, but they are there and people would be foolish not to see the parallels in methods and popular appeal. After all, those who forget the lessons of history…

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