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.

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Purpose

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“A life without purpose is like the life of a dog.” I’m not sure who first said this. Me, maybe. Don’t get me wrong; a dog’s life might not be so bad. You sleep until someone – or your stomach – wakes you. You eat whatever is available (though it may well make you sick) and you hump whatever you can. Best of all, you always know where you fit in – alpha dog, beta dog, gamma dog.

No alarm clocks, no going to the office, no worries about what is right or wrong. Nothing to do but live in the moment. A great life. If you are a dog.

Humans are not so lucky. We are aware of our own death from an early age. We are prompted by religion, politics, economics and family to do something. Get a job or prepare for death. Be like Jesus or Buddha.

Yet, most of us go through life without any real sense of why we are here and what we are supposed to do in our brief span upon the earth. As noted, there are plenty who are willing to tell you, willing to take the answer out of your hands and mind.

Some tell us to practice mindfulness – which is to be aware of the forces, internal and external that act on us and to focus fully on the present. A bit like dogs, I suppose. The proponents have appropriated aspects of Buddhism (mostly stripping it off its spiritual elements) to create a ‘meditative practice.’ You can take weekend courses or go to summer camp to learn it. Those that love it love it a lot. Those who don’t suggest it might cause psychotic episodes.

But if it lowers your stress and reduces the chances of you beating your kids when they annoy you, I say meditate away. Even if all that focus on the self seems a little – well, selfish.

Purpose isn’t about you. Purpose is about what you do in and with the world. Some people discover that early on; realize that it is possible to make the world a better place through concerted and focused action. Often we can only make change in groups but some people express their purpose in small ways – helping neighbours or supporting candidates who are motivated by hope and charity rather than fear and anger.

Because of course a purpose-filled life is not much good if your purposes are self-aggrandizement and the oppression of others. But you know that isn’t what I mean.

It’s important to remember one thing: you can never fail when you lead a purpose-filled life. The meaning comes from the striving not in reaching the goal. If your purpose is to end world poverty, you are apt to end your life in failure – unless you accept small victories for exactly that.

I like to summarize it by saying you should always strive to live your values. Whenever you do something that is likely to affect your family, friends, neighbourhood, community, country, world, you can ask: is this consistent with my most deeply held and cherished beliefs.  This does not mean you will always do good – some beliefs shouldn’t be actualized – but it does mean you will always do something.

But of course, first you have to know what your values are. The good news is that, unlike a dog, it is something you can actually do.

And that’s ten minutes.

Climate Insecurity

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In 2007, in the dying days of the Bush administration, generals in the Pentagon had already identified climate change as a major security risk. They didn’t talk much about it – climate change wasn’t exactly a popular topic with POTUS at that time. Times have changed.

All over the world, military planners and defense strategists not only accept that climate change is happening (and many acknowledge it is manmade as well) but are factoring it into their security and defense considerations. While the evidence that climate change has directly led to conflict remains slim – though not non-existent – the military considers it a major factor in exacerbating and multiplying risk levels, as well as actual conflicts.

Clearly, as climate change causes disruptions to weather patterns – increasing both droughts and floods, depending on where you live – people will seek to move to someplace more stable. At least, they will while such places continue to exist.

Low-lying island nations and places like Bangladesh will be the first to be hit as rising sea levels – brought on by melting ice and the expansion of water as temperatures rise –wash away their land, leaving them no choice but to sail away to someplace with higher ground. Sea level rises will hit the developed world, but those economies are better able to cope with lost coastline – at least for a while.

The tropics will be the next to fall into crisis as higher temperatures reduce the ability of Africa and South America to produce food – perhaps by as much as 25%. When people are hungry and afraid, they have little choice but to move. If the West thinks a few million refugees moving away from war zones is hard to handle, wait until they face  a few hundred million climate fugitives.

The military isn’t merely planning for climate change; they are trying to do something to mitigate it. Many European nations have adopted green defense strategies, trying to find ways to reduce energy consumption in notoriously gas guzzling operations. What they can do is limited in a world where high performance is a necessity to meet combat responsibilities but nonetheless, they are greening their buildings and bases, finding fuel efficiency where they can and integrating alternative energy into their operations. In France they are even turning training grounds into ecological preserves.

In Gabon they are going one step farther and using the army to plant heat hardy trees to replace those being damaged by changing weather (and lousy industrial practices). One might envision the day when those same forces will go after those who caused the devastation in the first place. Indonesia might be a good place to start.

This is all well and good but the military can’t get at the root of the problem, only their host states and the politicians that run them can do that. Scientists already say we are looking at a 2.7C temperature rise by the end of the century – when 2C is where we lose control. The upcoming meeting in Paris is unlikely to stop that from going even higher but they need to at least get a start on it – before the real climate wars start.

And that’s ten minutes.

Yearning

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Sometimes I start the day not knowing what I will write but last night I decided I would spend ten minutes on ‘yearning.’ Not surprisingly it impacted my dreams.

I dreamt of a zombie apocalypse. It differed from most in that after the zombies were killed (again) they came back to life with much of their old personalities intact. Except they were nicer and more helpful. One of these rejuvenated zombies – who was still dead of course (and decaying) – embraced me and explained in a low voice that they had become better than they had been. “We are better than humanity,” he said “because we have left behind yearning.”

I have to disagree.

We all yearn for things. We feel an intense desire or longing often for things we can never have, or having lost can never recover. We yearn to see our dead mother or to find a long-lost sister. Some of us yearn for selfish things – like power over others or a life of comfort and ease. We yearn for pleasure.

Often our yearning leaves us melancholy; we feel incomplete and bereft. We yearn for something to fill the emptiness in our hearts.

Is not this yearning for completeness, the desire to be one with the world or even to be re-united with lost loved ones at the heart of all religion? Certainly it runs throughout spiritual writings and many people describe their yearning towards God in terms of filling the emptiness in their soul.

Given my own atheism, you might think I would agree with the zombie when he says, we would be better without yearning.

Yet, it is yearning – that longing for completeness, the desire to be in a better place, that, along with reason and curiosity, fuels the scientific impulse. It is not central to the scientific method itself but it is essential to the impulse of those who find they are at odds with the world. It is that feeling that we have an argument with the universe that triggers the investigation into causes. And that is the beginning point for scientific investigation.

The same can be said for art. It is a yearning to express our hopes, our desires but also our feelings of loneliness and despair that drives the artist. We feel a need to explore the various shaped holes in our hearts. Yearning to understand and explain ourselves to the world is a key element in all artistic activity.

To lose our sense of yearning, to become self-satisfied and unquestioning, to sink into a complacency of material goods and simple satisfactions is to leave humanity behind. But being a spiritual zombie is no improvement over the pain, longing and striving of the human condition.

Saint Augustine yearned to be made pure – though he ended his prayer with ‘but not yet, Lord, not yet.’ Meanwhile Spock explained: ‘Sometimes having is not as good as wanting; it is not logical but it is true.’

So, I will continue to yearn for what I can’t have and continue to strive to grasp it anyway.

And that’s ten minutes.

Walls

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Walls have long been a simple solution to complex problems. You know, good fences make good neighbours and all that. Spend a few days in civil court and you might find that’s not exactly true.

Still, whenever people have had a problem they have resorted to walls as a solution – either to keep people out or to keep people in. The Chinese built the Great Wall – which is not the only human construction that can be seen from space – to keep out the Mongol hordes. It was moderately successful. Of course it was built over many centuries so until it was done, the hordes could always go around.

Hadrian built a wall that is still standing near the ancient border between England and Scotland. He was worried about the Picts. And why not? Anybody who would paint themselves blue and fight naked in the Scottish climate would be someone to be worried about.

The Russians built a wall – though not in Russia. The built it along the borders between Eastern and Western Europe and most notably in Berlin. The purpose was not to keep people out but to keep them in. Many of those lucky enough to live under the Soviet heel often took to their own heels and headed west. The Israelis have built a wall to keep Palestinians out but not, unfortunately, to keep Settlers in.

The Americans have built walls along the Mexican border – a bit like shutting the barn door after 11 million horses have left but better late than… well, maybe a more rational immigration policy would serve them better than a very porous wall. Now Scott Walker, governor of one of those piddly-ass states somewhere in Middle America (I can never keep those insignificant ones straight) wants to build a wall along the Canadian border even though the cost estimates suggest it would bankrupt America once and for all. I for one am fully supportive – after Florida sinks under the waves and California finally burns down completely, we’ll need a wall to keep all those climate refugees from heading north to steal our water, jobs and women.

Now, for the first time in several decades, people in Europe are building walls again, threatening the central principals upon which the European Union is built – open borders and the free flow of people and goods across them. Hungary – led by a conservative government – is taking the lead here but they are not alone. England is fortifying the Chunnel to keep people from crossing from Calais and soon, I suspect, other countries will follow suit.

This is all in reaction to the crisis in Syria, Iraq and increasingly other parts of the Middle East – a crisis that is largely of the West’s making. Right now it seems impossible to get a handle on the magnitude of the problem let alone on possible solutions.

Still, I’m sure that a mixture of humanitarian compassion, rational negotiation and finding common cause against barbarians will serve us better in the long run than more walls, either physical or bureaucratic. It won’t be solved by America or Germany or Canada or Russia or China or Saudi Arabia acting alone but maybe together… That’s a wall worth scaling.

And that’s ten minutes.

Interstellar

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Most everyone I’ve read – mostly science fiction writers and fans – have described Interstellar as the best science fiction film of the last twenty years. There have certainly been comparisons to 2001 and so there should be – the references and homages to Kubrick’s classic were obvious. The focus of most people seems to have been on the space travel component and the treatment of concepts like relativity and the effect of gravity on space and time. And that was excellent. Spoilers ahead.

But to me the real strength of the movie revolved around the backstory of environmental collapse and the consequences for society when the planet can no longer sustain the human quest for more stuff. Whether you want to pin the blame on climate change or the depredations of Monsanto, the message is clear: we are pushing the world toward another extinction event and our only hope is… well, what is it? Abandon the planet or fix it?

At first neither seems possible. Science has run up against the wall. In fact, for most of the people involved, science has been thankfully abandoned (the Apollo mission was fake – which is another way of saying that progress is a lie — a central theme of all ultra-conservatives) as people subside into survival mode. Just hanging on and hoping that next year will be better.

But can science overcome human nature? Some certainly think not. Dr. Mann has abandoned hope – his view is that individual survival is understandable but that people are incapable of thinking in the abstract, of acting in ways that ensure the survival of the species even if their own survival and that of their children is the price to pay. It certainly is a conundrum but people have shown themselves capable of working on things they know will never be completed in their lifetimes. Visit the cathedrals of Europe most of which took 400 or more years to construct and you will see what I mean.

Others – Professor Brand – pretend to be almost there with the solution, even though he knows that the answer can’t be found without more data. He fakes his work so that people won’t lose hope. His plan B is plan A all along. He abandoned individual humans long ago so that the species can continue. He incorporates recursiveness in his equations as a way to hide the awful truth.

This is all well and good but really, isn’t that what we all do? None of us expect to actually reach the promised land but we all work hard to take a few more steps on the journey so that our children , grandchildren, or if you are like me and have never produced any, the children and grandchildren of our neighbours can have a better life. Individual selfishness is certainly a barrier to that but not in the simplistic way you might think.

What I really liked about the movie was the way it seemed to include a mystical element without ever having one. The solution seems to come from advanced aliens who want to help us (i.e. God) but in fact comes from the human future. But the person transmitting the message is from the present, from someone who only wants, selfishly, his children to survive.

In other words, the answer to our current problems can only be solved by us – in the present – driven by selfish motives that are ultimately altruistic. The answers don’t come from God; they certainly don’t come from abandoning science or accepting second best solutions because the real solution is too hard. It comes from the on-going scientific conversation and keeping an eye on the future. While the temptation always exists to hold onto what we have and fight fires as they come, to constantly look to the ‘more simple’ past, the world can’t take any more of that. The future is coming, one second at a time, and we need to prepare for it rather than deny it.

And that’s what good science fiction is: a conversation with the future.

I just wish all the actors didn’t mumble so much.

And that’s somewhat more than ten minutes.

Migrants

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My father always told me Canada was a nation of immigrants. Our own family had come from England in the late 1700s. But we were hardly the first; the Acadians were there (we took their land) and before them, the First Peoples of Canada who themselves had come in successive waves across the Bering Strait.

Perhaps it was because he had lived the migrant experience himself. He had fled the climate catastrophe of the Dust Bowl to go down to the USA where he lived and worked as an undocumented immigrant for several years. He didn’t use social services – there weren’t any in those days other than a few church soup kitchens and municipal relief rolls – but worked wherever he could to survive.

He swung a shovel at Boulder Dam, worked on a variety of farms and as a fruit picker; he bussed dishes in New York and worked as an orderly in a mental hospital in Boston. He contributed and, maybe, in some small way, helped America work its way out of depression. Sound at all familiar?

Canada has long been open to immigrants. Waves of them came to Canada to open up the West before WWI. There was a dark period when we placed a ‘head tax‘ on Chinese, turned away Indians fleeing poverty and war in their own country and Jews fleeing persecution and genocide in Europe. But we redeemed ourselves in the post war years as we took people from all over the world – fleeing poverty, oppression, war, climate disaster or merely seeking a better life. After the Vietnam War we welcomed tens of thousands of ‘boat people’ to our shores.

Almost every one of these immigrants came and contributed to our country – making us strong economically and socially and creating the diverse, multicultural, and free democracy we all love so much.

Now the world is faced with another refuge crisis. Fleeing a situation, partly, if not entirely, caused by a century of western intervention and the endless quest for oil, Iraqis and Syrians are looking to Europe and North America to protect them from war and social disaster. More war is unlikely to solve this; western intervention of any kind is almost futile and to keep doing the same thing and expecting different results is clearly a sign of madness.

The issue now, as brought home by the image of a dead toddler on a beach – a dead toddler whose family wanted to come to Canada – is a simple humanitarian one. People are dying, people are starving, people are fleeing, people are looking for a place where they can work and live in safety.

We can’t take them all – but we need to take a lot more than we currently are and we need a Minister who understands that and doesn’t simply repeat the lines given him – and then lie about doing so. (And congratulations to him for suspending his election campaign to work on it)

And we need a better solution to what is happening in the Middle East than simply dropping more bombs.

And that’s ten minutes.