COLUMN: values past and present, and the news
A mind in movement across space and time: Part III
Traveller Chaos, Column Coherence
This month’s column is about travel, time, and identity. I have just returned from a four-week trip by car across the nation to Ontario and back. It is not the first such trip of my life; I have logged tens of thousands of miles since my first cross-continent drive in 1973, many of them by hitchhiking, some driving myself.
The subjects I touch upon in the column are many and not-always clearly connected, for this writing brings together the ideas and thinking of four weeks of travel. I have deemed it a good idea to divide the column, which I wrote over the Canada Day long weekend, so that it falls into three instalments.
I will attach this introduction to each section.
The Present confronts the Past
It is just dead wrong for the Present to judge the Past, for we in 2018 at the leading edge of human historical change, to say a person in the past must have their reputation trashed on the basis of standards appropriate to 2018 but not known in the past. The person whose reputation in our historical memory has been made for actions we celebrate, but who also held views we now find abhorrent or unacceptable, should not lose all reputation because of the latter. Did this person hold opinions, act in accord with belief systems, that were the prevailing norms of the day and which provoked no strong condemnation in the public sphere then?
Such a person can be usefully re-evaluated by present historians but ought not lose all respect for their better deeds due to defects in their opinions. Their defects are a late discovery by people of a different time in different ethical, moral, political, and cultural climates. Sir John A. MacDonald is such a man of our past.
The truly valid criticisms of a past political actor are those made in his own time by his own society, its media, its public opinion. If the general community standards of his day were harmonious with his actions and words, if the actor was a representative of the social norms of the people who elected him, it is not only the politician who deserves criticism, it is the times and culture, the zeitgeist. And again, it is hardly fair for the present to judge the past by newly-evolved standards.
No one today knows the judgements the future might make about us, and we would be quite wrong to worry about it. As Gandalf told Frodo in Lord of the Rings, you engage the battles put in front of you, fight the good fight in your day, and in future people must do their best in their circumstances, regardless of the past. This is not to say all moral and ethical principles are relative; some may be absolute and eternal (Gandalf said so), but many are relative to a time, place, people, and cultural ethos, and not easy to condemn.
This difficulty in determining whether a person in the past has acted in a manner we can judge from our present perspective, demands that we “walk in another person’s shoes.” Charles Eisenstein challenges us to say to ourselves, as we confront a person we think is acting or speaking badly, “What does it feel like to be you?”
“Einstein said Time isn’t really Real.” — James Taylor, Secret of Life
What if Time is not unrolling as parchment from a scroll, whereon is written each event only at the moment it happens?
What if Time is a book, and all the pages in it are moments co-existing side-by-side in a continuum — but our human consciousness is simply constituted to make it impossible for us to be in any moment but the one we call “the present”? I have not originated this notion; I first encountered it in the pages of a Kurt Vonnegut novel, The Sirens of Titan (1959). It fascinates me, and I often think about it when I am considering an event, such as my trip, with a before, a during, and an after.
I did not know the “future” of my travels on May 20th, before I left Nelson. When I returned here and awoke June 21st, the travelling was in the “past” and I could remember it. But that is only because my consciousness is so limited, it cannot “move” my awareness up and down, forward and back, along the time continuum.
In effect, my trip and all I did and said during it, was already scripted, was simultaneous with every other moment of my life.
So what, I hear a skeptic ask? Well, it says a great deal about consciousness and how it comprehends the nature of our reality, this cosmos our sciences try so hard to describe to our human minds. Time is not a force as real as gravity, one can say, but exists only where human consciousness exists.
These reflections lead me to one conclusion: in a level of reality I cannot inhabit, my life is completely “written” and unalterable. I cannot know it, I would not wish to know it, and I experience life as having freedom in which my “self” makes choices. Choice is the key quality touching my personhood and my power to change; my sense that I can choose who I am is real to me but might be illusory.
News and my life
Finally, my time away from home was a period of no regularity in my daily routines and I took a break from my typical habit of “keeping well informed” – as media would like me to say – about global and national events. I knew this already, that ignoring news would not be meaningful for my life, making no difference to anything significant in my personal world. Many times I have taken breaks from the habit of news consumption and not suffered, yet always I return to the habit. This time I intend to maintain the magnetic power of news media at a weakened level within my daily routine. What has the news really done for me beyond provide a lot of fodder for conversation that eventuates in absolutely no action?
News consumption is a more-addictive habit now than ever was possible in the past due to the ubiquity of electronic news media and the 24/7 nature of round-the-world news gathering. At the same time, there is much less professionalism and higher education demanded of so-called reporters and journalists. I am Old School in my own journalistic career path, having had a lot of post-secondary education in my preparation to be a journalist. Those days of the power of journalism to stop a war (Viet Nam) and force a US president to resign (Nixon) are past, likely never to return.
But I am kicking my news addiction less for the lowered quality in the professionalism of media reportage than for my deeper level of rejection of what is called “the news.” What is offered to me on CBC, CTV, the Globe and Mail, (The Guardian, HuffPost and the New York Times online), is not “the news” but “their news.” It is not all the news information fit to print but the information that people, whom I do not know and am asked to trust, decide to publish.
News and the things that matter
Friends of mine – all male – try to convince me that the way to overcome my dislike of other people controlling my news sources, is to have a multitude of sources from around the world, available as never before in the history of the world. They think it worthwhile to spend hours a day reading Canadian, American, British, Asian, First Nations, Arab, and African media in translation online so that they can overcome the bias in establishment mainstream media in this country. I cannot see how such dedicated consumption of news has added to their quality of life or their behaviour in action.
One startling event of real news value to me did occur while I was travelling, right in my hometown of Nelson. A man died on Baker St. in a fight, and his attacker is in jail awaiting trial for manslaughter. Not one of my email correspondents here informed me of this, and I was of course not reading local news while I was away. This event matters to me and my sense of the place I call home; it is not news of no consequence to my life such as 99% of Trump’s over-reported antics. I frankly find focus on Trump terribly disturbing.
News and our democracy
News is not a phenomenon equivalent to weather or sports reports where the facts to be told are so simple and unaffected by editorial interpretation or journalistic filtering. Rain or shine, games lost or won, temperatures and scores, are easy to report. News in the world we live in is a capitalist business, not disinterested, altruistic public service. Having said that, I am not at all dismissing the supreme value of journalism in holding public servants, politicians, corporate leaders and all authorities in our democracy to account. We absolutely must use the freedoms of the press and of speech to make people in power respond to our anger when they abuse power.
What happened to journalists at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, was a heinous crime. Their murders are horrible to consider in the light of the worth of good journalism for democracy.
News is business, not service. What is offered our children in our state-funded schools is also not a simple service but complex, subtly-constructed, social-engineering selections of curriculum; but at least the public education systems in a democracy can claim that the public has input and can exert power as voters to change schools by political means.
We cannot change how the news business operates except by the method the Market responds to: making news more or less profitable for the news publishers, and for the advertisers who pay the media to carry their messages selling goods and services.
Every democracy ought also to have a public news agency, not subject to the vagaries of the market and the bottom line of profitability. Tax payers should support such news agencies.
I would rather that the private news business respond to its public because of public outrage than be legislated by the State to do their business according to rules the State lays down.
This column, composed over a few days but divided into three parts for ease of reading, has been disjointed and lacking a single thematic focus, I know. The only unity I can claim is that the thoughts I publish here are the reactions, responses, and inspirations accumulated over the four weeks of my trip.
I hope that, despite the lack of singular theme, there has been a topic or two of interest to every reader who persevered with the parts to the end.