Monthly Archives: October 2014

In Favour of Newtonian Reaction

In 2005 four members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were killed on a farm in Mayerthorpe, Alberta. In 2014 three members were killed on a street in Moncton. Last week two members of our military were run down in a parking lot, and one of them killed. Yesterday another was shot and killed in  Ottawa. The word “terrorism” is being used freely to describe the most recent killing, and maybe the one before. I don’t recall it ever being used for the first two.

When does a murderous attack by one deranged or insanely misguided person on those who have put themselves in the line of fire to protect us, become terrorism? When it has a political motive or justification? When it is organized and directed as part of a campaign? When by its nature it tends to frighten people into believing it could happen to them or in their immediate surroundings? When it happens in some place of symbolic importance? When it seems likely to unravel the fabric of society? When a politician decides to call it so?

My dictionary (The Canadian Oxford), defines “terrorism” as: “1 the systematic employment of violence and intimidation to coerce a government or community, esp. into acceding to specific political demands. 2 an act of terrorizing, esp. continued over an extended period of time; persecution.” I am deeply saddened by the killing in Ottawa yesterday, as I am always by acts of murderous violence, and concerned about over-reaction on the part of the authorities, but I am not terrified.

Brian Stewart, in a sensible article on CBC News this morning (http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/ottawa-parliament-shooting-we-ve-known-this-day-was-coming-1.2809722), draws our attention to warnings by the US army about possible threats to military personnel and “lone-wolf (why ‘lone-wolf’ instead of ‘lone-person’, I wonder) attacks on police, government officials and media figures” in that country, and this warning is no doubt well founded here, but does the risk of free-lance murderous violence by individuals on police and soldiers add up to terrorism? Can something so apparently random be the same as something systematic? Not in any mathematics I ever studied.

What frightens me is the risk that inherently among all the wonderfully diverse, creative, humane, and fulfilling possibilities nurtured in contemporary society thrives a set that encourages derangement and insane misguidance of murderous kinds, and that if we over-react to it we will dilute or even lose the wonderful ones too. Freedom of speech and thought means, unfortunately, the freedom to think and even speak in deranged and insanely misguided ways. When they spill over into action, as they will from time to time, we do not need to scream terror, but calmly get on with our lives and let our police, judiciary and mental-medical institutions do the work we have entrusted to them.

The late Isaac Newton, in his Third Law, tells us that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. That’s “equal and opposite”, fitted to the real size and nature of the action, not “hysterical and excessive”.

As one of my correspondents put it yesterday: “So, a sad day in the country today.  I am not looking forward to some of the rhetoric we’re going to hear over the next few days, and I particularly wish that people would drop the notion that today’s events mark some sort of massive change in the fabric of Canada.  They don’t, or at least they don’t need to.” Amen to that.

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Pop Goes Iggy

A friendly relative drew my attention to a column by Elizabeth Renzetti in The Globe and Mail (October 17th) concerning the artistic-financial ideas of Iggy Pop. (See http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/when-iggy-pop-cant-live-off-his-art-what-chance-do-the-rest-have/article21154663/.

I blush to confess that I had not previously heard of either Iggy Pop or Elizabeth Renzetti, which says something about my culture, reading habits, and geographic location. I am therefore doubly enlightened by this relative’s action, not for the first time.

Renzetti linked me to Pop’s John Peel lecture on the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1DBxXYBDJLt2xZgxjzCkLRg/bbc-music-john-peel-lecture-iggy-pops-keynote-speech-transcript) where I learned that the old boy has some interesting ideas, which are perhaps relevant to the political thought-pot I am trying to evolve.

Iggy Pop says, in one paragraph of his lecture: “I think people are just a little bit bored, and more than a little bit broke. … There is a general atmosphere of resentment, pressure, kind of strange perpetual war, dripping on all the time.” Which, coupled with incessant inundations of advertising, leads to the nub of the problem, highlighted by Renzetti, that “everybody wants to listen, but nobody wants to pay.”

In the political sphere this reads: “Everybody wants public services, but nobody wants to pay,” the latter reluctance being backed by a tax-cut lobby that says they shouldn’t have to pay, or that they don’t need or shouldn’t demand the public services because not having to pay for them is somehow beneficial to us all. Which is balderdash, as we all know if we make a minimal effort to look around, but powerful balderdash these days.

We are better off in this country than in the US, because it’s much more difficult here to win any level of government based on this guff, although unfortunately not impossible, and even harder to keep it for long. In the wide array of municipal candidates paraded before us at last week’s all-candidates gathering we had only one libertarian tax-cutter, and I will be very surprised if he gets elected. The mood of the people was not with him. The recent provincial election in Ontario is also instructive, and consoling, in this respect. Our municipal election draws to a close next week, and we will see what shakes out. I expect that the middle of the road will be a comfortable spot for candidates.

People may well be more than a little broke, as Iggy says, but I am doubtful about the boredom. I wonder if he really means numbness, because I can’t see any reason why boredom should be a wide problem in this place and age. Numbness is another matter, amidst the incessant pounding on our eyes, ears and brains of advertising, propaganda, chatter, importunity, and even the occasional voice of reason or beauty.

If boredom is the problem, then a little imaginative stimulation will go a long way. But if numbness arises from over-stimulation, then stimulating people to overcome the over-stimulation will require a delicate art, and as a polis we don’t “do delicate” very well. In the age of the attack ad, if at first you don’t succeed, get a bigger hammer. Or at least so runs the theory. I wonder if anyone has the guts to try something contrary.

Iggy is right, however, about the “general atmosphere of resentment, pressure, kind of strange perpetual war, dripping on all the time.” We should do something about that. Can art make a start?

Trees

Trees are peaceful company. They stand
Calmly in random order in the bush,
And whisper conversation through the hush
With which their graceful presence fills the land.

And if I cut them down to make a trail
Or build a home for us or birds or goats
They do not die with anger in their throats,
Or hate before the scaffold and the nail.

But ah! the hurly-burly of humanity—
Contrary, narrow-minded, self-obsessed
In folly, wisdom, hate, love, zest,
And all too frequent outbursts of insanity.

Muscle me, Muse, to close with these complexities
Untempted by the equanimity of trees.

Copyright © Paul Worrell Conway October 2014

Just Imagine!

Last week I attended a meeting of the Bruce Peninsula Environment Group (www.bpeg.ca), where we received a detailed report from a new local organization called PACE (Peninsula Action Committee for Education) whose blog (http://bpeducationmatters.wordpress.com/) will inform you immediately about the “timing of ARC announcements at BWDSB”, thus proving that the day of the acronym has not yet gone. I am not sure that economy of keystrokes necessarily contributes to clarity of expression or sonority of speech, but that is an issue for another day, indefinitely postponable. The issue being confronted through the advocacy of the Committee, however, which is the fate of small schools in small population centres at a time of declining enrolments, is not.

As my two cents’ worth in the ensuing discussion I said, drawing on my own experience, that the Committee should expect the environment for advocacy to be polluted by two phenomena: failure of imagination, and the belief that rural children should receive an urban form of education. I said further that these pollutants would be found concentrated particularly at the top and the bottom of the pyramid, that is, in the central bureaucracy, and among the parents. This prediction evoked much head-nodding.

I read somewhere—it might have been in a novel by Robertson Davies—that nothing is more expensive than living in the past. I am not sure about that. I believe it more correct to say that nothing is more expensive than trying to live in the present and the past at the same time. The same can be said for trying to live in the country and the city at the same time. That too is an issue for another day.

I am more immediately concerned about failures of imagination, with which our politics abound at all levels. The most conspicuous one this week is the Canadian government’s decision to bomb some extremely unpleasant people in the Middle East who are known as ISIS, or ISIL. I believe that the lack of imagination shown in this case is so blatant, and so lethal, that it must be confronted explicitly.

Our governors think that if they bomb these people, they (the people, that is) will first “degrade” (whatever that means), then disappear. That is only true if operating in the open in a concentrated, mechanized way is the only way of fighting open to them, and if when defeated that way they will throw down their weapons, put up their hands and go home. Where, in our experience of the Middle East, do we find data for such a prediction?

I am with those who believe that the anger, despair, perverted idealism, and restless energy of these young people will simply rise up in a different form, maybe even uglier if that is possible. Because I don’t think you can bomb anger, despair, idealism and restless energy out of anybody. You have to find new channels for it, and that’s where the imagination comes in. And if you were to ask me what I think should be done, I would say that we should find the people in the Middle East who are trying to approach that problem in imaginative ways, and support them to the full in ways that are compatible with what they are trying to do. That will require imagination on both sides. I expect those people are not hiding. With the eyes we rely on, we simply don’t see them.

Unfalling the Sky

Earlier this week I recognized Chicken Little (or Chicken Licken as she is sometimes named), gamely undertaking the work of telling us that we have a problem, or even several of them. Climate change and other assaults on Nature, lop-sided inequality, persistent violence, hideous prejudice and discrimination: these evils appear on most thinking people’s lists, along with others too numerous to mention here. Not everyone agrees about the lists, of course, and some people espousing some lists have tremendous power. That too is part of the problem.

The term “Balance of Power” shows up frequently in discussions of international strategy. It might make a good slogan for domestic strategy too.

This week I encountered four ideas that are perhaps relevant to the pursuit of such an aim. The first came from the Canadian writer Naomi Klein in an interview concerning her latest book (http://billmoyers.com/2014/09/16/naomi-klein-only-a-reverse-shock-doctrine-can-save-our-climate/). I won’t quote her because I don’t have room and you can better read it for yourself. The essence of her prescription is a drastic overhaul in our ideology and societal practice. Fair enough.

The second came thanks to the CBC, who on Ideas Wednesday evening introduced me to the Degrowth Movement. You can read about that at Degrowth / Decroissance Canada (http://degrowthcanada.wordpress.com/), where they advocate a “steady state” economy instead of the mindless pursuit of growth. Fair enough.

The third is attributed by Alan Ryan (On Politics, p. 267) to Dante, whose “premise is that the purpose of life in society is to allow the human species to manifest all distinctively human perfections; the two most important are the capacity of the individual to attain the life of reason and to govern himself by moral law. These perfections cannot be achieved in the absence of peace, and the preservation of peace is the fundamental duty of rulers.” Fair enough, or even more. I write this on the day that our Prime Minister has announced that we are once again going into a war, albeit a bit tentatively.

The fourth I found in The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, generally edited by Clifton Fadiman (1985), where Aldous Huxley is quoted as saying (p. 295-6): “It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘Try to be a little kinder.’ ”

I wonder if that prescription is not the most profound of them all, because it is so obviously within reach for every one of us and all our agents and institutions, whereas I don’t think the others are, or at least not quickly enough. What would happen if we all, in our own lives, took that gently incremental approach, and applied it widely. We might be astonished at the magnitude of the cumulative effect.

Try to be a little kinder. Try to be a little wiser. Try to be a little more aware. Try to be a little more involved. Try to consume a little less. Try to burn a little less. Try to waste a little less. Try to borrow a little less or pay off a little more. Try to be a little less impatient. Try to be a little (or even a lot) less addicted to violence. Try to be a little less gullible. It doesn’t sound all that difficult, because it isn’t.

We might be amazed.