Rock Stars

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A recent article called into question the “progressive” agenda of the new leader of Ireland. Young, good-looking, openly gay and of mixed race, his election as Taoiseach (leader) was hailed as step into modernity for the people of Ireland. Certainly, Ireland seems ready for such a move, having recently approved gay marriage despite the opposition of the Church and many conservative politicians.

Yet, the policies of Leo Varadkar remain decidedly neoliberal in most areas and his support for women in a decidedly patriarchal and Catholic state has been called into question. How could this have possibly happened?

Well, give your head a shake. Varadkar was elected head of a centre-right political party, having been a long time member and MP. This didn’t happen by accident. He was elected leader not because he was gay and mixed-race but despite of it. Party members selected him (he has yet to face the people in an election) because he shared their values: more progressive on a few things but generally a conservative at heart.

Why do progressives fool themselves into thinking that politicians are equally progressive when it is clear that they are not? Certainly the fact they are better than the alternatives is a factor but I also put it down to the “rock star” factor.

We have a tendency to see certain kind of people – young (but not too young), good looking, energetic and athletic, well-spoken but not snooty—as somehow imbued with the royal jelly. They have a quality—often undefinable—that makes us see them as more than they are. While anyone who gets to be leader of a country or even a political party is a cut above average, they are still human, with human limitations. Not only that, they are also exactly who they appear to be; exactly who they’ve always been—no matter what shine they try to put on it.

The same can be said of France’s new president—elected as much to keep the ultra-right Le Pen out of office as for any other reason. Macron was viewed as a fresh face and a new approach and, even, by some, though certainly not by all, on the French left as progressive and forward-thinking. That was before he announced that he wanted to govern France like the god Jupiter. Yet, the president is exactly what he has always been, what he showed himself to be as a Minister (who quit in a huff) in the previous socialist government: a market-oriented liberal with some progressive views and a decidedly neo-liberal bent.

The same might be said of Canada’s own Justin Trudeau. I voted for him and generally like him but my vote was based on “he was better than the alternative” –including the party of the left at that time. While by nature and inclination a democratic socialist, I wanted Harper out and Trudeau was the best bet to do it when Election Day came.

But I was never under the illusion that he was left-wing or even slightly more than left of centre. He is a liberal with progressive views on some issues (women, indigenous people and the role of science) and very pro-market liberal views on taxation and, I suspect, the environment. But he looks like a rock star and still seems better than the alternatives. Though that may change if we actually get a leader who was a rock star.

Of course, the United States doesn’t suffer from this problem. Few of their current leaders or potential leaders have rock star qualities. They best they have to offer the public is reality-show bozos and aging hippies. But don’t worry – I’m sure Americans will find their own shining political star to lead them on and let them down.

And that’s ten minutes.

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End Days

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Apparently the world will end this weekend. Again. Every few months or years, fundamentalists predict that they have discovered the date and time of the end of the world or, as it is sometimes called, the rapture. It may be based on numerology as the current one is or on the Mayan calendar. It may be based on mysterious communications from gods or aliens. It is mostly based on wishful thinking. And, so far, it never turns out to be true.

There are lots of ways the world—or at least civilization—could end. Some of them loom on the horizon but, they are hardly preordained. If the world comes to an end, it will likely be caused by human foolishness or human agency. Or an asteroid. Hardly the stuff of heavenly prophecy. I mean, if God wanted to end the world, surely he could come up with something better than throwing rocks at it.

It’s easy enough—and lots of fun—to tease people who suggest that prophecy has predicted the end of times. It’s a little unfair to do so, a bit like kicking a puppy for barking. Sadly, more than a few people are taken in and some lives have been ruined when folks follow the advice of these religious naysayers.

In any case, predicting the end of things has a long and happy tradition well away from the sweaty-faced prophets and weird cults of the world.

Take capitalism. People have been predicting that capitalism will fail and disappear ever since the first person called himself a capitalist—whenever that was. Marx was certain that his scientific materialism showed the days of the capitalist system were numbered. Yet here we are in the second stage of post-modern, post-industrial capitalism, and the world keeps ticking along, mostly using some form of market based economy.

I think it was Faulkner who said the past is never dead; it’s not even the past. Pretty profound for a guy who didn’t know when a sentence should end.

But he was certainly right. Just as William Gibson was correct in saying that the future has already arrived, it just isn’t evenly distributed.

Because no system—once invented—ever really goes away. Don’t believe me? I know people who still play vinyl records, take film photographs, and listen to radio – all of which were predicted to disappear years ago. And did you know you can still send a telegram?

More significantly, slavery, abolished in most of the world more than a century ago, still persists, not just in the dark corners of collapsed states but right here in Canada, the United States and Britain. The slave economy—often operating as an adjunct or as a shadow parallel to the capitalist system—still thrives with an estimated 11 million people caught in its net. And though some people call capitalism ‘wage slavery,’ it is sheer pedantry to suggest the two economic systems are the same.

And what about colonialism? Relegated to the scrapheap of history? Well, there aren’t a lot of western states still elbows deep in the practice, but take a look at what China is doing in Nepal, on the Indian border or in Africa or what the newly expansionist Russian empire is doing in eastern Europe and it’s not so clear.

The belief that we are at the end of an era—or at the dawn of a new one—is deeply embedded in the human psyche and in human culture. Predictions of the apocalypse are scattered throughout history like marbles in a child’s playground. We all—even so-called rationalists—seem to embrace one death cult or another. Yet, the more I see of the world, the more I believe we are all simply muddling through, making deals with entropy to get from one day to the next. Systems are as illusory as the predictions of their end.

So don’t worry, be happy. The end days come for us all—but we don’t have to drag the world down with us.

And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

And really I should apologize—I’m in the middle of writing a novel of post-collapse recovery. As soon as I get to the hopeful part, I’m sure my blogs will get more cheery. Or not.

Second Fiddle

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There are people who crave the limelight, who always have to be in the forefront, the leader of the pack. We’ve all seen them, pretending to listen to others while waiting their turn to dominate the conversation. Men are particularly noted for this behavior but I’ve known a few women with the exact same trait.

Some people are suited for leadership I’m sure—though not nearly as many who seem to think so. In fact, a lot of people (again mainly men) seem to think they are better than they are. But the sad truth is; they are seldom as good as they think they are.

Personally, having tried to move to the forefront in my youth, I long ago came to the conclusion I’d rather be the second fiddle. When offered the position on a board I’m more often to take the job of treasurer or secretary than president. The best job of all is vice-president because, really, you don’t have to do anything at all except hope that nothing bad happens to the president.

I have had the lead from time to time—I was a federal candidate twice, though I learned from that experience the candidate is often the least important person in the campaign. They pretty much do what the campaign manager or the party HQ tell them to do—mostly smile, shake hands and not stumble of the talking points.

I also was once the bureaucratic head of an arts education organization—which meant I had to run the thing on a day to day basis but never actually made any policy decisions. Though I gave a lot of advice. That, in fact, is what I’ve proven best at: giving advice, laying out options and then doing whatever the decision makers tell me to do. If you do it well, and I generally did, you can control a lot of the action without having to take much heat if things went wrong. No credit, of course, but you hardly need fame if they pay you well enough.

Maybe that’s why I preferred being a director to being an actor—a lot of control over the final product but it wasn’t my naked ass out there on the stage when the show didn’t go well. In a similar way, I sort of prefer being an editor to being an author—though in that case it’s not as definitive (I like telling my own stories). As an editor, I give a lot of advice and sometimes the writers take it and sometimes they don’t. In the end if the story or novel falls on its face it will be the author who takes the blame. Of course, if you help make it turn out brilliantly, all you can expect is a mention in the acknowledgements and maybe in the acceptance speech when they get the award.

Ultimately, all human endeavours are a team effort no matter what those at the top may think. As a friend of mine likes to say: the graveyards are full of indispensable people. While everyone—especially those who think of themselves as natural born leaders—would like to think they are like George Bailey and the world would be a worse place if they had never been born, the sad truth is that most of us would disappear without a trace and the world would go its way with hardly a ripple.

At least when you play second fiddle you don’t suffer from delusions of grandeur and that has to be worth something, right?

And that’s ten minutes.

Where is thy sting now?

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I’ve been strangely preoccupied with death lately. This is not unusual—I am much closer to the day of my death than I am to that of my birth. Still, my health is good and I have plans enough that I hope the final day is still well off.

Death is all around us, of course. I am an orphan and I’ve lost several good friends over the years. Social media seldom lets a day go by without recording some loss or another whether it be a parent, a friend, a pet or some celebrity who has touched one of us in some way. Most of us have pictures on our walls or albums of those who are no longer with us.

Still, that hasn’t changed nor is it likely to change any time soon.

What has brought death to my mind lately is one particular death and the way it occurred.

A few weeks ago I heard that someone I once cared a lot about was scheduled to die on a certain Tuesday. No, they weren’t on death row in Texas; they were in a hospice bed in Halifax.

Jeanne was my second wife—we stopped being a couple nearly 30 years ago and haven’t had much contact for nearly 15. That was her choice but I can’t blame her for that. I was the one who left and while I still have feelings from those days, they are not tinged with sadness or hard-feelings.

Over the years, I know that Jeanne had made a good life for herself—filled with the love of her partner, her friends and her family and she had some real successes to look back on. When my mother was dying, she found it in her heart—no matter how she felt about me—to be kind to her and my brother.

Unfortunately, cancer came calling far too early and eventually her condition was declared terminal.

That’s when Jeanne did an incredibly brave thing. She chose to seek medical assistance in dying (MAID as it is called in Nova Scotia). She chose the time and place of her death. I don’t know what led her to that place—it could not have been easy, she loved life and had religious views that must have made the decision more difficult—but I am happy for her that she had that choice to make.

I’ve long been an advocate for assisted death for those who want it. I supported the legislative changes made last year—though I didn’t think they went far enough. That may yet come—it is a moving legal and moral landscape. However, it is one thing to support something intellectually but quite another to have it impact you directly even at a distance of many years and miles.

Now that it has, I have to tell you I am more supportive than ever. Jeanne died with great grace and strength and she died with her family beside her—saying good bye in the way we would all like to say good-bye, with full hearts.

And she died without pain and without the indignity that death tries to bring to us all at the end. Who wouldn’t want that?

I hope that when my time comes I can approach it with joy and courage the way Jeanne did. Then we can truly say: Death, where is thy sting?

And that’s ten minutes.

Life on a knife’s edge

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As those of you who read my blog will know, I am definitely a glass half full kind of guy. I have argued and will continue to argue that we’ve made a lot of progress and will continue to do so if we exercise our agency to do so. I’m not one of those “new optimists” who think progress is inevitable and largely due to the ‘hidden hand of the market’ or ‘western-driven globalization.’ For one thing I’m pretty sure that the market and global capitalism work for the interests and because of the agency of a relatively small and coherent group of very rich people.

Still, some recent news reports have given me pause. Nukes and missiles in North Korea should alarm us all—though no more than in any other place. I’m more troubled by headlines that describe entire islands emptied of humans by record breaking storms. Or the news this week that for the first time in decades, world hunger is again on the rise. Or that diseases we should have eliminated are again a threat because bone-headed celebrities speak out about vaccination. Or new diseases are coming out of the tropics that might take us all down.

So I’ve been thinking like Fermi these days.

The Fermi paradox poses the question: if there are millions of technologically competent (i.e. as good or better than us) civilizations in the universe, why have we never detected even one?

There are several ways to answer this question. Some will say that we are God’s special creation and therefore unique in all the infinite reaches of space. To which I can only say—well, you’re certainly “special.”

More rationally, one might say we don’t yet have the technical sophistication to winnow out their messages from the background noise of radiation – but that argument, if it was valid ten years ago, is probably not valid now.

The most optimistic answer might be that they are hiding – deliberately keeping us from finding them until we are civilized enough to join the intergalactic club. Yeah, it’s one big conspiracy and everyone is in on it except Earth.

The most common response is this: as soon as a society is capable of transmitting signals—even accidental ones—across interstellar space, they are also capable of destroying themselves and inevitably do. The reason we don’t hear from advanced aliens is that they’re all dead. Dead by their own hands.

All it takes is a couple madmen whose dicks are… I mean, whose nukes are bigger than their brains to pretty much take us back to the Stone Age. Of course, they could always be replaced if there was the will to do so.

Much more concerning is the matter of climate change, which requires nothing to proceed to its inevitable conclusion other than we keep doing what we’re doing. There is some hope there, even now. Emissions have stopped rising—though they are still high enough to tip us over the edge and earth’s natural defenses may have reached their limit. Still, every year they don’t go up, there is a chance we will act to make them go down and actually reduce civilization-killing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Which is our only real hope.

Well, your hope—I’ll probably be dead before it all goes to hell. So if the glass is now half empty, maybe I’ll just order another round and party like it’s 1999.

And that’s ten minutes.

Let’s Make a Deal

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Donald Trump’s claim to fame is that he can make deals. He even wrote a book about it: The Art of the Deal. Okay, so he didn’t actually write it but he made a deal with someone else to do it for him. That has to count for something, right? For the moment we’ll ignore the number of deals that he reneged on or which failed to work out for all concerned—even him.

Let’s accept that Trump lives to make deals—especially deals made in public that make him look like a winner.

The deal he made last week with the Democrats (and some moderate Republicans) in Congress may be a defining moment in his so-far lacklustre presidency. The deal was not huge, just an agreement to raise the debt ceiling for three months and provide relief to Texas, but it was significant. It sent a clear message to America that the Republican Party, at present, is in disarray and not prepared to govern. This should come as no surprise to anyone. The GOP has suffered huge fractures in recent years and has spent much of the last ten years actively trying not to govern. They have become a party of wreckers not builders – but they can’t even agree on what they want to wreck let alone what will replace it.

America seems to like what they’ve seen, with many in Trump’s base happy to see something happen even if it means more debt and billions in Federal spending on disaster relief.

What happens next will determine much of what happens in America for the next 3 to 7 years.

This, of course, could be a one-off never to be seen again or it could drive the Republicans to paper over their deep ideological internal divisions. Or it could become a habit.

Much of that will depend on the Democrats. They could pursue more deals with Trump—say on Health Care or on Immigration or Infrastructure Renewal – all capital letter issues for the President. Obviously to do so they will have to swallow hard and make some concessions. They may not have to give Trump a wall to create a pathway for undocumented immigrants (especially the Dreamers) to gain citizenship but they will almost certainly have to concede greater powers of deportation, border security and so on to finally solve America’s immigration problems.

Health Care is also a real possibility. Trump is deeply angry at the Republicans for failing to repeal Obamacare. The ACA is hardly perfect and Trump might go for a deal that fixes the worst parts and keeps all the good ones, as long as he can claim that he built a better system than Obama. Never mind that it costs more and imposes more limits on insurance companies. A win is a win and a deal, a deal.

I suspect none of this will come about. Trump is far too mercurial to be relied on and too concerned with his own welfare to do deals that may not profit him directly or keep the masses of the very right in his camp. But you never know. The very flaw that makes Trump such a bad president—his greed and narcissism—might let progress be made.

If the deal is right.

And that’s ten minutes

IMHO

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We all have a range of opinions; some of us have opinions on everything. Like taste, opinions are not disputable; you feel one way or you feel another. That doesn’t mean some opinions aren’t wrong—just that the people who hold them are not open to persuasion by facts. Facts are something else entirely. As they say, you are entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts.

Some people find that annoying and insist on their own facts. We might refer to them by a lot of names but I prefer to call them “willing slaves of tyranny.” As soon as you deny reality and accept “alternative facts” (that is, lies) as equally valid as something that can be objectively proven, you become the ready and easy bait for would-be dictators.

Still, most opinions are harmless, right? For example, I’m of the opinion that Brussels sprouts aren’t fit for anything but garden fertilizer; they certainly shouldn’t be eaten. Many disagree and have even argued vehemently that I’ve just never had them served in the proper way. I listen more or less politely and then explain that those recipes would be delicious if only they didn’t contain the offending sprouts. I’ll even accept they might be nutritious (those are simple facts, provable by scientific analysis) without agreeing that they are worth eating. After all, those vitamins can be obtained elsewhere. I’ve had people tell me I’m wrong but I respond with: to each their own taste and have I extolled the virtues of stinky sticky blue cheese?

You see – there are opinions (taste) and there are facts (nutritional value) and never the twain shall meet.

But most things in the world are not like that. You can have the opinion that the world is flat but the facts say you are wrong. Some people can’t let the facts or any kind of evidence prove their firmly held opinion wrong. Those people are stupid or they are deluded and, if they happen to be famous, they are stupid, deluded and dangerous. Celebrity is not a certificate of excellence.

Of course, some people know they are treading on dangerous ground and qualify their remarks with such phrases as “in my humble opinion” (IMHO) and then proceed to prove they never have looked up the word “humility” in the dictionary.

Some of you might say that in a democracy, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and that’s true, but they are not entitled to think that their opinion is some reflection of reality or is in some way superior to the opinions of other people. They are certainly not entitled to the idea that their opinion cannot be criticized or disputed, or heaven forbid, proven wrong-headed or actually wrong by an examination of the evidence.

Of course, this is much like a salmon trying to swim up a dry stream – the salmon is programmed to do it and determined it will somehow work but it learns the hard way that you can’t fight reality (or the laws of physics). It would be nice to think that this fact denying affliction only troubles one small group of people or one side of the political equation.

But the reality is—we all, including me, like to hold onto our beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. It’s wired right into our brains. But here’s the great thing, we have language to communicate and explore alternative views and we have reason and the scientific method. And if we all just used those tools on a regular basis, there would probably be a lot less arguing over opinions. IMHO, at least.

And that’s ten minutes.