Future Thinking

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The past is irrelevant.

Well, like most categorical statements, it’s not entirely true. The past can serve – if you approach it with a critical mind – as a guide to success. And failure. It can at least tell us how we got to the here and now.

Still, it is surprising how many people, on both the right and left, spend most of their time staring behind them, either with fond, if misguided, nostalgia or with bitter resentment. The past is a rich lode that can be mined to fuel present day prescriptions to restore a glorious era or overcome ancient wrongs.

But here’s the thing. While you may make tremendous efforts to re-write the past (so much easier than living in the present), you can’t actually change it. It’s over and done with. Despite aphorisms to the contrary, it’s dead, Dave.

More importantly, the past will always be that home to which you cannot return. As for those people who say ‘we should have done it differently…’ Well, you didn’t. In fact, for the most part, the speaker wasn’t even part of that mythical we; in some cases they weren’t even born.

So, while the past is not exactly irrelevant, it is largely unimportant to our current existence. You can’t change it and you can’t return to it. So grow up.

So what does that leave us? The eternal present and the envisioned future.

Which is plenty. By some metrics, there is now more ‘present’ than there has ever been. More people, more nations, more problems and more possibilities.

Everything we do occurs, by facile definition, in the present. But, at the same time everything we do extends into the future.

Ah, the future. Unlike the decaying body of the past, the future is pregnant with possibility and change. Indeed, every time we act in the present we create a different future. Science fiction fans will be familiar with the idea of ever-branching futures – each one shaped by the billions of actions taken by billions of humans every second. Most of those futures are indiscernible from each other, but no matter.

In truth, there is only one future – the one we all wind up living in. Almost nothing we do makes a bit of difference to that future. Even powerful people like Presidents and CEOs and public intellectuals and revolutionary leaders spend most of their days doing meaningless things. It is only in hindsight that we can ever say that this action or decision mattered.

Which might make life seem rather pointless and powerless. But it doesn’t.

We can have whatever future we collectively want. But that’s the thing – it is a collective decision. It’s not like some leader can take us to the future (any more than they can return us to the past) because they don’t know the way anymore than the rest of us. A book called Superforecasters recently pointed out that it is possible to make really good guesses about what the world will look like three months or even six months from now – but three years or six years. Not so much.

Maybe that seems pretty limited but still it does suggest a way forward. Conversation, dialogue, shared visioning – it’s not much but it may be the only way to get the future we want.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Freedom

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Everywhere man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. So thought Jean Jacques Rousseau back before the French Revolution. One wonders what he might think now. Plus ça change… and all that, I guess.

Freedom is relative, of course. Very much a case of the chains half on or half off. In the West, we often talk about how free we are and, yet, whenever someone chooses to exercise that freedom, say by refusing to stand up when an anthem was played, we get all sorts of responses – such as the pastor who stated at a football game (to wild cheers) that anyone who refused to stand, should be shot.

That struck home since, on occasion, I’ve refused to stand for such ceremonies. I got some dirty looks – or, this being Canada, some sidelong glances – but no one pulled a gun on me. Of course, talk is one thing – it’s a free country isn’t it? – but action is quite another. “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?

Religious freedom is one area where people become particularly confused. They feel that their freedom has been limited if they aren’t allowed to impose their views and values on other people, aren’t allowed to be paid by the government but refuse to serve citizens if they don’t like the cut of their jib. It’s public service folks! If you want a cult-run state, move to North Korea.

Or they believe in freedom religion but only for their own. Daesh (ISIS if you like) is all for freedom of religion – you’re free to convert anytime you like. And if you don’t… well, you have no one to blame for yourself.

But, of course, freedom can take many forms. In some places, people have proposed right-to-work legislation – even imposed it – but what they really want to do is take away your freedom of association, or put it more bluntly, they want to outlaw unions. And why not? Employment they say is a matter of a contract between two people – a boss and a worker. It’s a bit like saying that anyone can get in the ring with the heavyweight champion of the world and expect a fair fight.

Still, we have the right to vote, right? Well, we do as long as someone is watching. But look away for even a moment, and someone will start to find ways to exclude some voters. Voter registration and identification is just a modern form of the Jim Crow laws that were designed to keep black Americans from voting or the Indian Act in Canada that denied indigenous people the vote into the 1960s. Even when we talk of wasted votes or design systems where votes don’t really matter, we find ways to limit political freedom – at least for some of us. The very wealthy can always buy whatever freedom they want and often do.

Still, not all is lost. In the West at least, what used to be solved by force of arms – war and revolution – is now achieved through voter revolts and populist movements. Not always pretty but less likely to enslave us. And if it does we can turn to another old time thinker who said, echoing Rousseau: Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.

And that’s ten minutes.

The War on Drugs

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The war on drugs has taken a new and somewhat bizarre turn with the interview of El Chapo – the notorious Mexican drug lord – conducted by actor, Sean Penn and published in The Rolling Stone. It created a bit of a stir among the chattering classes and a lot of embarrassment for Mexican and American drug enforcement agencies who have been trying to track him down ever since he escaped from a maximum security prison six months ago. Meanwhile satirists, critics of the drug laws and Mexicans in general have been having a good laugh. A lot of them admire the nerve of the fugitive, it seems.

Guzman – his real name – wound up being captured, in part because of the interview, and is expect to be extradited to the USA to face charges ranging from murder on down. He will undoubtedly be convicted and shoved in a prison somewhere – if his money doesn’t, once again, help him escape.

The most interesting thing El Chapo said in his interview was that nothing – his capture, his death, millions more for police or fences or prisons – will interfere with the operation of the illegal drug trade. In that he is probably right. If the war on drugs was an actual competition between nation states, the United States would have been on its knees a long time ago.

Prohibitions never stop the prohibited product being consumed. The prohibitions of alcohol did nothing for America but increase deaths from tainted bootleg alcohol and establish the Mafia as the major crime organization in a multitude of cities. It also founded the fortunes of a number of still prominent Canadian families but that’s another story.

It is unclear to me why America is so determined to prohibit – rather than control – the use of drugs. No doubt, drugs do harm but there is plenty of evidence that drug use can be mitigated if treated as a medical condition rather than a moral failing. Studies in cities in England where pilot projects temporarily turned heroin use into a medical issue rather than a legal one saw dramatic reductions in death rates, a virtual elimination of petty crime and even the return of some addicts to productive work and family life – even while their addition was maintained and managed. The experience in Portugal has been similar.

Movements to decriminalize or even legalize drug use in America have taken halting steps, focusing on marijuana which is not, apparently, physically addictive though it may be psychologically so. In the long term, government control of drug sales will reduce the negative impacts of the drug trade and make it less attractive to criminal elements. There will continue to be some violations of the law but it will be reduced to the level of the local bootlegger – a problem for society but seldom a threat.

I’ve long believed that all drugs should be decriminalized, medicalized, regulated and, in some case, legalized. The savings in terms of law enforcement, health care, and personal suffering would be considerable. And I’m not alone – the mayors of America’s largest cities have called for the same thing.

You have to wonder who exactly is profiting – aside from drug lords like Guzman – from the current system?

And that’s ten minutes.

 

Bowie

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David Bowie died yesterday at the age of 69; another icon of our collective youth has passed into the void about which he sang so eloquently. I was never a huge fan of Bowie but was always aware of his music and his transformations. Even if you didn’t listen to his music you could see it reflected in the work of others – talking back to him or following along.

Tributes are flowing in from around the world – fans, fellow artists, even politicians are talking about what the man and his music meant to them. Everyone seems to be able to find something in his music. He explored science fiction and sex, politics and love. It was an impressive body of work.

But what impresses me most is not how David Bowie lived but how he died.

Most people were unaware of his on-going fights with illness. After suffering a heart attack in 2004, he became somewhat reclusive, focusing on his art and his family. Perhaps he began even then to think about what the last days would look like.

Clearly he had no intention of simply fading away. After nearly a decade away from the music scene he released a new album in 2011 to critical acclaim. Another was released last Friday, on his 69th birthday. Two days later he was dead. He had to have known the end was coming, even as he recorded his last songs.

A lot of people, faced with illness or death, become closed in, smaller. They disengage from the world. They focus on the end to come instead of the life still left to them. Some turn to the consolations of religion – the hope for a life to come.

Maybe there is a life to come – though I don’t think so. But even if there is, it is another life, not a life of the body or the senses but a life of… well, who can say? No-one has reported back.

Perhaps it would be better to believe there is only this life – the one we are living right now.

I’m not a big believer in spirituality (I honestly go blank when people bring it up) or meditation. But I do believe in living as if this were my last moment. It may seem bleak but it’s not. Though it’s not always easy. The past creeps in; the future looms large but in the end, what does one do but put one foot in front of the other? Whenever I feel like nothing is worth doing, I think of when I will be able to do nothing at all. It helps.

We all face our own demons. I’m sure Bowie had his. But he chose to wrestle with them to the very end. Maybe the best way to remember him is not to grieve at his death but marvel at his life.

And that’s ten minutes.

Boycott America

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I’ve visited 15 American states; mostly in the west but a smattering on the east coast as well and around the Great Lakes. I love New York and Boston, Seattle and San Francisco, Denver and Santa Fe. I’d like to visit New Orleans or return to the deserts and mountains of New Mexico, Utah and California.

But I probably won’t.

America troubles me – not all of America and certainly not all Americans. As the saying goes, some of my best friends are American. But there is a central core of America that troubles me – that core who see carrying weapons openly in public as anything other than bullying, those Americans who are happily racist, homophobic  or misogynistic (though their heads explode when you call them out on it), Americans who believe that wealth signifies virtue.

What to do? I’ve boycotted products from countries that offended me. For two decades – especially after Tiananmen Square – I wouldn’t buy anything from China. I fought apartheid by avoiding products from South Africa. I even boycotted American grapes in support of farm workers in California.

So I’m considering boycotting America. I’m not sure if I can avoid all American products. They are Canada’s largest trading partner and a lot of American-made parts go into things made in Canada. But I can avoid travelling to the United States. I can refuse to spend my tourist dollars there.

Will it make a difference? I doubt it. I expect the very people I’m protesting will say – stay home you snotty nosed liberal. We don’t need your dollars. Oddly enough, America does need the dollars of foreigners to run their own economy – to create jobs at home – but those types of Americans still believe in trickle-down economics when even the IMF and the WTO say it’s a failed strategy. Rich people and their sycophantic supporters aren’t all that good at actual economics.

I suppose the logical step would be to refuse to sell my books in the USA. Exactly the opposite. I’d like to not only keep my money at home – I’d like to bring their money here.

This all probably sounds a little extreme – and it’s meant to be.

My point is that people have to realize that consequences have actions. It’s like those stores that refuse to serve Muslims or gays. They may initially do okay – as right wing crazies send in orders from all over America – but in the long run, a business that refuses to serve a sizeable percentage of their community (including progressives like me who will spend elsewhere) will fail.

There is much about America to admire. The progress they have made – and which people like Trump and Cruz want to roll back – is miraculous. Most Americans believe in caring for their neighbours and believe in playing an important role in maintaining a prosperous and progressive world. They even believe in reasonable gun control. American values of equality, liberty and democracy are exemplars that the world can learn from.

Which is why it is doubly disappointing to watch some Americans refuse to defend those values – who prefer isolation, fear, hatred and guns in every hand. Maybe America needs to boycott itself.

And that’s ten minutes

Resolutions

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It’s that time of year again. A time for looking back and summing up; for looking ahead and making resolutions. Some people claim not to make them; some people avoid resolutions the way bureaucrats eschew obfuscation. That is, not at all: they just say they do and take a course to prove it.

After all, who hasn’t woken up on the day after the night before and resolved: Never again! Who hasn’t looked in the mirror by accident after their shower and thought: Just 5 pounds. Who hasn’t come home from work tired and depressed and thought: I need to get a different job.

We do it all the time, whether we make a formal effort at New Year’s is merely a trivial detail. We all think that soon, we will work harder, look better and be a nicer person. Is that so bad?

If it were only so easy. Life, like everything else in the macro-universe, operates on the three laws of motion. You know, the ones you learned in high school physics and vowed never to forget. I can’t quite quote them verbatim but I do recall that things in motion tend to stay in motion (and those at rest sit on the sofa) until some external force comes along to change them.

You see, Red Green was right. I can change. If I have to. I guess. All it takes is a little shove. From someone. So why not me?

I think everyone should have a few resolutions but not ones that are too hard. After all, it hardly helps your reformation to fail right away, now does it?

Let’s start with a simple one.

I resolve to get up every day. There, that can’t be too hard. Well, unless you’re confined to a “hospital” and they have you strapped down for your own and others’ safety. It could happen.

But still, you get the idea. Start with the easy ones and work your way up. No point in going crazy with things like: I’ll go to the gym every day. That’s just a waste of money. Because what you will do is buy a gym membership. You think, if I’ve spent all that money, I’ll surely go more often. Nope. You will go exactly as many times a month as if you paid for it on a per visit basis – that is, about 5. Studies have proven this. Which is why gyms make it so easy to sign up for a membership and so hard to cancel it.

Free money for them. Which of course defeats YOUR resolution to be more careful with your cash.

So whatever you do, don’t promise to do what you know you can’t do. If you haven’t gone to the gym in a year, don’t plan on going three times a week. Resolve to go to the gym once. Just once. If you do that, you can make another resolution (there is no rule that it all has to be done at once). I’ve been to the gym once, I’ll go again some time. How hard is that?

Baby steps. After all, you are starting a new life.

And that’s ten minutes.

What You Don’t Know

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It is a commonplace expression that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. This is patently false and a little bit foolish. If you don’t know that Lyme disease is spread by the bite of ticks, you can easily turn a walk in the woods into a very long and painful illness. If you don’t know that malaria and dengue fever are spread by mosquitoes, you risk death when all you wanted to do is photograph lions.

Ignorance is often fatal yet many embrace it like their long-lost brother. People take comfort in not knowing things. There are those who publicly take pride in being ignorant of the facts, in not being experts in anything, in not being scientifically literate. Sadly many of these people are political candidates.

Things get worse. There are those who are happy to tell big lies in service of what they see as a bigger truth. Someone might think that a certain behavior is evil and offensive or just too damn titillating (so many of the liars get caught on film in tawdry bathrooms), so they make up things to make it look even worse. They make up lies to make innocent people look like villains and evil people look like heroes.

No one can stop people from lying. As soon as we learn language we learn how to use it to get what we want. Everybody does it a little. Makes things up to make themselves look better. Sometimes the only way they have to make themselves look better is to make others look worse. So maybe it is in our natures to lie.

But why are so many people willing to believe those lies? Usually it is because it is too hard not to believe them. If we don’t believe that climate change is a conspiracy of scientists to pry money out of the taxpayer, then we have to believe that maybe it is a real thing. A real thing we are contributing to.

And that, one presumes, would mean that we would have to change. And most people are averse to change. The joke on them is that by refusing to change a little today, they will have massive change forced on them later on. Ha, ha, very funny.

When that happens – and you can pick your own set of lies to believe or truths to be ignorant, about race, or economic inequality, or women or refugees or vaccines – they will be angry. And they will do everything they can to cling to the lies that political or religious or corporate leaders blithely tell for their own self-interested purposes. Like shoot people at women’s health clinics. Or beat up protesters at political rallies. Or set off bombs at mosques. Or any number of evil acts.

Of course they didn’t do it because of the lies they were told or because they were ignorant. They will have done it because they were deluded. But who fed their delusions?

Don’t ask me. I prefer not to know.

But that’s ten minutes.