Thoughts in fits and starts
The way to ruin the American people is to give them everything they want. — John Steinbeck
The nobility of poverty
I’m always hearing people extol the virtues of humanity when we are in a dire crisis, whether it is earthquake, flood, fire, famine, tsunami, or war. We are at our best when we have to help each other, because all are in peril.
This has implications for us, Canadians, for we have it all. All the affluence, science, security, democracy, and privilege that comes with being one of the most-wealthy nations on earth. A UN survey rates us #6 from the top of its list of the best places to live. (We’ve just fallen a few places, though)
The peoples of the world who are first exercising the right to cast a ballot in a democratic election, turn out to the polls in the 90% range. We typically manage around 50% in federal elections, and under 30% in municipal ones.
It is the rich world that has the fewest children born to its affluent citizens. Children put limits on personal freedom, on the licence to do what you want when you want, to go where you want whenever, to spend your money on whatever.
The generosity of poor people to others is remarked by many. How often do you hear someone start a sentence: How can a rich nation like Canada allow…” and finish with some nasty Canadian social pathology like our child poverty rate?
It is the rich world, particularly America, which has massive problems with drug addiction. The USA has a war on drugs, but its people love their chemical and botanical habits and make criminals rich from the commerce in drugs. Why do we rich nations feel we need drugs when we have so much prosperity, ask people in very poor nations? There is no simple reply to that one.
Is Canada happier for never having had a sense of mission or purpose such as America has had? No great Dream, no ideal of being an elect nation with a destiny to bring freedom and happiness to immigrants who want a better life? We’ve built a good society without a clear assertion of national mission. I’m of two minds about that. It has a yin and a yang aspect, this Canada. We’re amused by exceptionalist ideology in America, but our blurred, fuzzy identity is problematic for us.
Quebec and a Charter of “Values”
“That this House recognizes that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada.” — Resolution passed in the House of Commons, Nov. 27, 2006
I love the fact that Quebec makes Canada think hard about tough topics. Canadian identity vexes Canadian minds and hearts. Quebec has made us think about our identity and nationalism more than we might otherwise, because our Parliament has recognized that there is a nation in Canada called the “Quebecois.” Parliament’s resolution has no definitions, did you notice?
There is no nation in BC called “Columbians” nor are the pedigreed WASPs of Ontario a nation, but our ruling federal institution has decreed that “les Quebecois and Quebecoises” are a nation residing within the union of Canada.
It is no surprise that the political parties, the PQ and BQ, dedicated to making Quebec a sovereign State want to make sure there is a definition of peculiar and particular “national values” setting it apart from all others. The whole rationale of Sovereignty is to define one homeland for one distinct nation.
The Charter of Values aims to do this by eliminating cultural/ ethnic/ religious/customary signals of people who work in public employment, i.e. who are on the payroll of the Province. The fraction of all Quebec workers who have employment with the Province is one fifth, so the law can affect a lot of people.
Why does a Party, wanting a Sovereign Quebec, feel it ought to legislate what cultural badges workers for its “neutral” State are allowed to wear? Is it just a wedge issue to win an election, as many say? Is it deeper than that?
I do not know, and I am not sure the Pequistes themselves know the necessary link between an independent State and one that vetoes visible religious-cultural practices in State workplaces. One thing is quite clear, people in rural Quebec who don’t experience minority folks in their daily lives (whereas Montrealers live in the reality, and like it) support this divisive Charter. An urban/rural split on this issue is not smart politics for the PQ. For the rest of Canada, watching a debate over “what does it mean to be a Quebec-resident Canadian?” is fascinating. You thought you understood multiculturalism? Well think again. Then compose your description of a Canadian national identity.
Brain transformation through technology
Everyone knows how our behavior has been altered by computers, cell-phones, the internet and satellite connectivity. We can speak to one another around the world in email, in images, on social networks, on our phones, in a manner that must be called magical, it is so beyond most people’s true comprehension of the science behind it all. We are mesmerized by our screens. Our social behavior is bizarre, people ignoring one another to be online or on a phone. Today at an ashram, I saw a cell-user oblivious to the world all around her – gorgeous, peaceful, green, natural, spiritual space – sunk into digitized cyber-space. We give up vast amounts of (life)time to screens, unaware automatons.
But behavior is not biology. Is the human brain different because of the tools it uses? Not yet. It takes a long time to change a brain. The ones we are using are the ones homo sapiens have had for a hundred thousand years. To be sure, there’s a great deal of neuroplasticity in the brain within synaptic and neuronal and chemical structures. Our thoughts can physically reconfigure our brains.
But the brain is still a primate brain, with a “reasoning “ neocortex stuck on top of it all and reptilian roots deeper down, along with a limbic system not entirely rational and not understood by neuroscience. To use all technologies we have now with no understanding of effects they might have on our brain, is, to me, astonishing: like giving a knife to a baby. But who has the parent role?
Stop War through Violence? The Syrian Horror-show.
America had no urge to intervene in an atrocious 8-year war (1980 – 88) when Reagan the cold-warrior was President. He loved cheap victories (Granada, Panama) but did nothing to stop the Iran-Iraq War and its litany of horrors at a time when Iraq’s Saddam was an American friend. Letting both sides exhaust themselves was clever realpolitik for Reagan; Israel certainly liked that policy.
Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people; US media did not bother to say much — and intervention was out of the question so long as the USSR was a superpower and had armies on Iran’s border in Afghanistan.
How is Syria’s war different?(1) Israel, a US ally who seems able to pull the US like a dog led by its tail, wants a partitioned Syria. (2) There is no Soviet superpower today. (3) It seems “rational” to intervene. Assad, like Saddam a moral monster in our eyes, invites it. Help the opposition, weaken Assad: thus the US (the only Superpower) is Liberty’s Champion among half of all Syrians.
War against Assad is like using force to stop a bully, say the interveners. Would you stand by and let innocents be hurt if you saw an awful fight?
When force seems to stop violence, it’s a seductive option. I have stopped two children fighting by using superior strength – I separated them by physical intervention. I used implied violence; it worked. That simple example makes sense to those who want a limited “surgical” US airstrike on Assad’s Syria.
To boldly go where no one has gone before…
“There are only two things I know to be infinite. The universe, and human stupidity. And I am not sure about the former.” — Albert Einstein
This month our Earth, via its “dominant species” called humanity, sent a proof of intelligent life beyond a boundary never yet crossed. The border of our solar system has been passed by the 1977 probe called Voyager I. It contains the most-advanced technology we possessed in that year, and some of it looks like a joke since then we lacked personal computers, cell phones and internet.
If an E.T. intelligence finds Voyager and comes looking for us, presumably they’ll understand that time’s passage means humans have pushed far beyond what limits we were under in 1977. They might know that at the rate of speed our technologies push us, there’s every chance our planet might be an ecological ruin and our species on the verge of killing itself via war and other stupidities. Imagine their debate. “Should we contact them, or wait until they evolve sufficiently to merit joining the galactic love-consciousness federation? How can we help? Is their nature so malignant that we can’t help them?”
The Prime Directive of Star Trek mandated not altering the natural course of a planet’s evolution. Would our hypothesized ET’s leave us alone? Would they save us, benevolently intervening? Accelerate us toward becoming loving, compassionate, wise, unselfish, just, egalitarian angels? (for surely that is the direction of our growth?)
For an amusing filmic answer to that, I recommend the British movie The World’s End. It got 4 ½ stars from the Rotten Tomatoes reviewer, a rare feat.
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. You can find the last edition of Arc of the Cognizant here.