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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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.

Nukes!

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In my novel, Defining Diana, I refer to a brief war that left the Korean peninsula a radioactive ruin. While science fiction writers are sometimes believed to be prescient (though their success is vastly overrated), this is one area where I hope my inadvertent prediction proves wrong.

I suspect it likely will.

Clearly North Korea intends to become (has already become) a nuclear power, capable of raining death down on all its perceived enemies, the real question is: what can be done about it?

Not much it seems. Officially there are seven members of the nuclear club – USA, Russia, China, England, France, India and Pakistan – with North Korea getting ready to join. Most strategic experts are certain that Israel also has the bomb, and South Africa used to have six—but got rid of them (some good news at least) though presumably they still have the technology. Five NATO countries have nukes on their soil and while former soviet republics gave up their bombs and signed on to monitoring, not every warhead is accounted for. And let’s not forget Iran. And South Korea may be rethinking their own no-nukes policy. So much for non-proliferation efforts of the last fifty years.

The good news is that while lots of people have the bomb and the means to deliver it to targets far and wide (almost as difficult a feat as building the bomb itself), no one actually has, since the Americans dropped two of them on Japan in 1945.

That’s really quite remarkable. Since India and Pakistan both developed the weapons, they’ve actually been to war a couple of times. If Israel has nukes (they tend to be cagey about it), they must have at least been tempted to use them once or twice during their interminable conflicts with the Arab world. Yet both showed restraint.

China and India are currently engaged in an increasingly tense border dispute yet no one seriously thinks Delhi and Beijing are going to go up in flames.

Historically we’ve often been closer to nuclear war than we are right now – during the Cuban missile crisis and at the height of the Star Wars threats of Reagan and the response of the USSR to those threats. But missiles never flew.

Why does North Korea worry us so much? Well, they are highly militarized and are led by a narcissistic leader who believes in making his nation great. That should worry everyone.

But this has actually been true in North Korea for some time. Their military is huge and well-armed, thanks to the ability of the world’s arms industry to largely avoid sanctions by the UN. China hasn’t helped, using N Korea as a useful tool to make themselves look reasonable while they practice economic and, to a lesser extent, military imperialism. Many think China will eventually clamp down on Kim Jong Un if he gets out of hand.

But it may not be so easy. In the sixties, the great powers kept a firm hand on the military and nationalistic ambitions of their client states. But with the proliferation of conventional weapons – which kill as many every year as the nukes did in Japan—client states are no longer so compliant.

Still, everyone knows, even madmen (and it is not clear that N Korea’s leaders are any madder or more power hungry than those leading a dozen other national governments), that there is no profit—however you define that—in a dead world. I guess as long as we never have a world leader who thinks they have a role in bringing about the prophesied end of the world we should be okay.

And that’s ten minutes.

Doctrinal Purity

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Before he became the ruler of the city-state of Geneva, John Calvin was noted for, among other things, his writings on religious tolerance. During the five years as head of a government – not so much. He oversaw the execution—mostly by burning at the stake—of more than 50 people for heresy. Calvin was catholic in his approach – not capital-C Catholic of course but ‘universal’ as the word also means. He killed pretty much anyone who disagreed with his particular interpretation of the Bible and God’s word. And, if anything, he seemed to dislike his fellow Protestants the most.

Doctrinal purity is a dangerous thing. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Careful how you answer that or you could find yourself catapulted away just like those who can’t figure out the ground speed of an unladen swallow. There is always a finer point of questioning to catch you up. As for three-in-on or one-in-in three, unless you are talking about lubricating oil, you had best shut up.

Thankfully times have changed. You can no longer be burned at the stake for getting some trivial religious interpretation wrong. These days it is more likely to be beheading or maybe just a bullet to the head. But not in the west, surely?

Well, surely not. Here we are satisfied with jailing people for defamation or perhaps shouting them down at a political meeting. Slap suits are a common tool of the rich to silence people who question how they got their money. And give them enough power and they may just remove your right to speak at all.

I recall once being accused of being a Trotskyite by a fellow NDP party member as a way of shutting me up. But that was nothing.  Now you’d best be careful of what you say on any cultural issue or you may find yourself in for a Twitter storm of abuse or much worse – having the SWAT team called to your house by an anonymous tip. Not exactly a walk in the park.

Both left and right have considerable aversion to each other’s shibboleths and doctrines but I sometimes think they hold out their strongest criticism for those within their own ranks who deviate from the received Truth. Just read a few of the repulsive alt-right tweets about John McCain’s recent diagnosis with brain cancer or the silencing of any voice that doesn’t toe the identity politics line – check please (your privilege that is). Silence is far preferable – and apparently safer – than critical analysis or questioning of someone’s facts.

Everyone, of course, can lay claim to their own opinions but increasingly they lay claim to their own facts, too. Cries of fake news started by the right have been embraced by the left just as political correctness, originally a weapon of the left against their own, was appropriated by the right. Oh, and don’t get me started on appropriation.

Of course, the left argue they have the high ground since, while the right rely on religion, they believe in science, except when it comes to the disquieting studies that show GMOs or vaccines aren’t dangerous or that eating meat may not be as environmentally dangerous as we thought.  I could go on but who needs the abuse.

Well, pox on all of them, I say. And if you don’t agree, well, sit down, shut up and wait your turn on the grill. And that’s ten minutes.

Tolerating Evil

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How much tolerance do you have for evil? Most of us like to think we have very little and, on one level, that may be true. As long as we are fairly certain that what we are considering is truly evil and as long as we feel we can actually do something about it, our tolerance is pretty low. Damn right I would step up to stop Hitler! But what about Goering? Some nameless Captain in the SS? How about the skinhead next door? Would you slap down the well-dressed and well-spoken head of a neo-Nazi or alt-right group?

Probably – if you didn’t think you would get stabbed.

Still, actually figuring out what is evil is the hard part. It’s easy in retrospect. Obviously whoever lost the fight (i.e., the Nazis, the slaveholders) was evil. Or, where there is no clear winner or loser, we can all agree that evil was done – though sometimes we can’t quite figure out by whom.

But that’s retrospectively, right? In the late 1930s, there were plenty of people—including the former king of England—that thought Hitler wasn’t a bad sort, if a little hysterical. At first, Idi Amin had his supporters and, given that he lived out his life in comfortable exile, continued to have them after he was deposed. Alt-right guys probably think they are doing the proper thing—if only the 99% of people who don’t support their agenda could see it.

They say that all that is needed for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. But that, of course, presumes you have the capital T truth about what is good. Missionaries that wound up destroying indigenous cultures and supporting the slave trade justified themselves by saying they were bringing salvation to the heathens. Communists who instituted the Cultural Revolution in China surely did it to bring about the glorious freedom of pure socialism.

But let’s bring it down to some simple things. If you see a man hitting his spouse or a mother wailing away on their child, would you personally intervene? Would you call the cops? Would you say: It’s a private manner?

I once witnessed a mugging. One of the muggers (they were all pretty young but there were five of them) showed me a knife. I decided not to do anything except watch it unfold. I had time to decide that, if no one got hurt, I would let things unfold. It was only money, right? Afterwards I realized that waiting until after the victim was stabbed would have been too late (no one got stabbed by the way). I was furious at myself but would I do any different today? I hope so but I’m not sure. I’m getting old but I’m not quite ready to die.

I see a lot of hate on Facebook – almost as much of it from the left (whose agenda I largely agree with) as from the right (whom I find hard to bear). Occasionally, I say something about it but I find it a useless expenditure of time and emotional energy. I’ve come to understand that a small percentage of people you meet are assholes (most don’t come close to qualifying and if you think they do, you should take a long hard look in the mirror) and that an even smaller percentage are irredeemable and dangerous assholes. I can only hope someone steps up to stop them before they actually hurt people. But it probably won’t be me.

Not much fun to admit but, I suppose, admitting weakness is the first step to overcoming it.

And that’s ten minutes.