Down in The Gutter

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American politics may have hit a new low with accusations that Ted Cruz engaged in extra-marital affairs. This comes after a nude picture of Donald Trump’s wife was used in an attack ad by a pro-Cruz SuperPAC. Never have such tactics appeared in American politics. Well, if you don’t count the outing of John Edwards and Gary Hart, the vicious attacks on serial monogamist Newt Gingrich, efforts to impeach Clinton over a blowjob, the various Senators and congressmen caught doing the dirty in public washrooms or the various rumours spread about Presidential infidelities going right back to the founding fathers.

Sex and politics have always been mixed up in the United States – not surprising for a country founded by Puritans and other fundamentalist Christians. Of course, this is also the country that gave us Mormonism, the religion that solved the problem of philandering males by letting them “marry” as many young girls as they like.

Of course, everyone says that it is not the sex that matters but the hypocrisy. I’m sure that if Cruz hadn’t been so rigid, I mean, firm, or rather, determined in his sexual purity, none of this would have come up. In any case, after a brief spurt of outrage, I’m sure we’ll soon return to more usual discourse – idiot, snivelling coward, jerk, liar – to which we’ve become accustomed.

All this is being driven by the on-going uncertainty about who will get the Republican nomination. Analysis of the latest polls suggest that Donald Trump will win just enough delegates for victory before the convention is held. Or he will be a few dozen short. Neither result will ensure he gets the nomination if the organizers adjust the rules to let delegates become unbound before the first vote. It’s all very complicated but you can read about it here. Trump has threatened lawsuits and predicted riots if such shenanigans occur. I think I’ll avoid Cleveland this July (or, well, forever. I mean, Cleveland!)

On the Democratic side, Sanders supporters have begun a ‘we was robbed’ narrative, starting some time ago but reaching a crescendo with the total mess that came down in Arizona. No one questions that it was a voting disaster but it was run by the state of Arizona and its hard-right Republican government. The gutting of the Fair Voting Act – which was implemented precisely because of states like Arizona with a history of depriving minorities with the vote – coupled by the archaic rules used by the state for registering voters was the source of the problem. It’s notable that voters were particularly impeded from voting in counties with high black and Hispanic populations, hardly fertile ground for Sanders based on past performance.

Of course, a few Sanders supporters probably think the clearly liberal, Ms. Clinton, is in cahoots with the Republicans to keep their guy out of the White House – highly plausible given the warm and cozy relationship the GOP has had with the Clintons over the years. Of course, Clinton hasn’t been exactly nice to Mr. Sanders either – though so far she hasn’t suggested he’s a closet communist. But as June approaches and if the race stays close – I wouldn’t be surprised if photographs of baby Bernie in the arms of Joseph Stalin appear.

And that’s ten minutes.

Porn

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Porn.

Did that get your attention? Well, you’re not alone. Pornography, which used to lurk on the back shelves of seedy bookstores on the shabby screens of even seedier cinemas, is now everywhere. Blame the Internet if you like but this transition began in the 70s when chic New Yorkers flocked to movie houses in better neighbourhoods to see Deep Throat or The Devil in Miss Jones.

Now, porn lives on every laptop or tablet. In a few clicks, every taste can be served. Google can find any sex act you can imagine and quite a few you might never want to think about. In the West almost all of it is legal, with the exception of images involving children. Where it isn’t legal, it is still ubiquitous. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry whose motto seems to be: if you make it, they will come.

But it is not simply graphic images that have invaded our world; the very idea that forms the basis of pornography has become ubiquitous. The blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality and the confusion between lust and desire now form a key part of everything we do, even our politics.

My wife and I sometimes engage in what we call real estate porn; we’ve even dipped into tourism porn. We aren’t surfing the net for bawdy houses or nude beaches. We are gazing longingly at things that we can never have. Which is the essence of the porn experience – to gaze not at the forbidden but at the unattainable.

And then to imagine that we can attain it.

This is not a minor thing. Everyone has dreams but ordinary life tells us that those dreams are tempered by reality; at the very least, we learn, those dreams can only be attained, if at all, by hard work, sacrifice and focus. Nothing comes easily in the real world.

In the porn world, everything can be obtained with a wink and a nod. Beautiful women and men fall into our arms at the merest hint of desire. Even pizza delivery guys get laid on a regular basis. And everyone wants sex, everywhere and all the time – no matter how tough or shitty the day has been. And, if you don’t what’s wrong with you? It’s no wonder men feel inadequate (and it’s not merely penis size) and some women feel helpless. Rape culture didn’t start with pornography but it has undoubtedly been exacerbated by its spread. While men (and women) with real life experience might be slightly inured; studies have shown that the confusion over what is sexually normal (and by that I mean adult, responsible and reciprocal rather than any particular sexual practice) has impacted relationships among the post-Internet generations.

But the pornification of western culture doesn’t stop at the bedroom door or on the dance floor. The real estate bubble, boom and bust was, in a way, a porn experience – people unrealistically believing that the object of their desire was within reach – without cost or consequence.

And the current explosion of populist politicians a symptom of the same psychological stance. We listen to their impossible promises and desire what can never be achieved. And we let them pretend that problem solving is as simple as a nod or a wink. No wonder they prove inadequate, brags about penis size aside.

And that’s ten minutes.

Romance

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According to Freud, most, if not all, human behavior can be explained by two things: sex and death. The desire for one and the fear (and embrace) of the other. Eros and Thanatos. Richard Dawkins might not disagree.

Sex and Death or if you prefer romance and mystery. The mystery you will have to wait for because today is Valentine’s Day – the day we celebrate the brutal torture and murder of a Christian saint by sending each other flowers, chocolates and paper hearts. It is not as irrational as it might seem.

For some people this day is torture. They cover it up by celebrating such things as Voluntarily Single Day or Day Before Chocolate Sales Day but we know how they really feel.

It all goes back to grade school when we were encouraged (forced) to send everyone a card for Valentine’s. No one could be left out even if we hated them. And if someone got forgot – someone always was, ripples of shame and hurt would circle our seven year old heads like vultures after rotting meat. Some cupid that was.

If the card sending was voluntary of course, it all became a numbers game. How many cards did you get and is your stack bigger than the next guy’s? Even at nine, size mattered.

And what did the cards mean anyway. If they were those precut ones with places for ‘to’ and ‘from’, you could pretty much dismiss them. But what about a store bought card – or worse yet, a homemade one all filled with hearts and arrows? Was it love or some sort of cruel joke? By twelve it had become a matter of life or death.

Thankfully the teenage years made it all clear. Between raging hormones and undying cynicism, we could decide it was all a shallow popularity contest (unless we were the popular one). Besides, what mattered weren’t cards but kisses in the closet. Now we were getting to the heart of the matter.

Even as we first became aware of the inevitable approach of death, we were in the midst of life and what was more important in life than romance. Everything else – sports, theatre, work, money – were merely preludes: tokens to make the down payment on the big prize.

And then – something happens. The first flush of lust turns into something else: commitment perhaps or a wandering eye – all driven by brain chemistry, but so what? We are rationalizing animals and if it feels like love, surely we know our own minds, right?

I like to think so. It may well be that we are nothing but the product of our chemistry (and of course, we can hardly be less than that) but I cling to mystery as my salvation. The uncertainty principle applies to those brain chemicals and their ever shifting bonds. And if it seems like love, why call it anything less?

So here’s to love – in all its forms. And if you don’t have someone else to love, you can (should) always love yourself. And who knows, there may be something in your future. Well, something that doesn’t carry a scythe.

And that’s ten minutes.

Casual Ageism

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A friend of mine recently announced he was thinking of having his remaining hair – just a fringe really – removed with laser treatments. While it will save him the time and trouble of shaving, that is not the primary reason. Rather, being completely bald and shiny will make him look younger than having a short fringe of greying hair will. A highly successful novelist, he is making the transition to film and TV and looking younger is a definite plus in Hollywood – where ageism is notoriously rampant. There, it not only impacts the limited roles women of a certain age can get but also diminishes your chances of being taken seriously.

Ageism is a factor that most people face as the years pile on. Sharon Pollock, who has won the Governor General’s award twice for playwriting and continues to work creatively well into her seventies, reacted this way when the Canada Council announced they were shifting a significant part of their funding to support writers under forty: What are old writers supposed to do? Die?

I see it all the time in the public service. When you reach fifty, you may be respected as an experienced manager and a useful policy analyst. By sixty, everyone expects you to leave. And, of course, you no longer know anything current. It’s even assumed you can’t use modern technology – even though you may have been programming computers before the whiz kids were even born.

Here’s a hint – it’s not that we can’t master our smart phones; it’s just that we have more important things to do. Like work.

Another friend of mine, now in her 70s, told me how shocking it was to her when men simply stopped noticing she was in the room. “It was like I became invisible,” she said. Still a sexy woman – if you care to look – she found her sudden dismissal hurtful. Fortunately she had the maturity to get over it.

Of course, ageism cuts both ways. Who hasn’t heard the dismissive ‘kids these days’ remark, usually immediately followed by: Hey, get off my lawn! One of the great things about going to the North when I was 27 was that I got to do work that I was fully capable of but considered too young to take on while I was living in Nova Scotia.

Despite the occasional dismissal of youth that still occurs (I frequently refer to the young punks in the PMO as kids in short pants), we do live in a society obsessed with youth. People are always telling me that that fifty is the new forty and that you are only as young as you feel. I certainly hope not – some days I feel over a hundred.

I’d say more but it’s time for my Metamucil and my cane needs oiling.

Besides, that’s ten minutes.

Trophy Wives

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My father was 14 years older than my mother and I certainly know lots of people who have connections with those much younger than themselves. I’ve never really understood it – all my relationships have been with women a couple of years younger or older than me. It was funny a few years ago when someone asked Liz, my wife, if she was my trophy bride (given she is two years my elder). Very complimentary to her, I guess; to me, not so much.

Still, I sometimes wonder when age differences move beyond the understandable and move into the creepy. The heart wants what it wants, according to Woody Allen – and I fully recognize the irony of quoting him in this context. But what exactly is it that it does want in these cases?

Some might think it is a desire on the part of the man to cling to youth – his youth by proxy – and, more importantly, potency. Yesterday I saw a picture of retired Senator Rod Zimmer coming from court with his twenty six year old wife (he is in his 70s). It wasn’t his legal problems that were at issue though he has plenty of those – she was being charged with weapons possession as part of a drunken incident. I was struck by how angry she looked and how tired and stooped he appeared. And what was she seeking – financial security or a father figure? I wondered if the two things – his youthful wife and his legal troubles – were linked to a common cause, a desire to still feel in control of the world.

Of course, none of it is simple. The pattern of older men and younger women is common place even when the man isn’t rich or the woman isn’t alluring. It may be a cultural thing, part of the infantilization of women that some men need to feel like men. And according to Kate Fillion who wrote extensively on the subject in a book called Lip Service, the same phenomena occurs with older women and younger men. It is less often commented on and perhaps less common but the dynamic seems remarkably the same.

I’m sure that in the end it all comes down to our selfish genes and the desire to find the right mate even if child rearing isn’t what we have in mind. Or it could be someone was too busy to fall in love (again) until the candle was almost burnt down to the base. Tony Randall married for the second time late in life (his first wife was deceased). He sired children and seemed enormously happy – though I often felt there was a deep sadness inherent in that family. He would never see (and didn’t see) his children graduate primary school let alone have children of their own.

For me, I’ve always needed to have a deep relationship – based on shared values and experiences, shared tastes and shared times together. Liz and I spend hours every day just talking and while I’m quite capable of carrying on an endless monologue it is in dialogue that I find my joy.

And that’s ten minutes.

Fallen Angels

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New revelations have proven what many of us had already concluded: that Bill Cosby is a serial sexual abuser. The revelations do not come from more victims coming forward but from Cosby himself – contained within a sworn deposition from a civil suit settled nearly a decade ago. In it Cosby admits to obtaining Quaaludes – a potent tranquilizer – in order to drug young women and have sex with them. Many people are calling for criminal prosecutions and jail time – though that seems unlikely. Most of the cases are too old – past the statute of limitations – to be prosecuted. And for a criminal charge to stick, a general statement has to be shown to be a specific act, that is, in this particular case, it has to be proven that he used drugs to overcome a specific woman and have non-consensual sex. Not impossible but not certain either.

Certainly, there will be consequences for Mr. Cosby. His income will drop as people stop going to his shows or as promoters stop booking him. He may also wind up in more civil suits that will eat into his considerable fortune. Certainly his position as a moral leader in America will be radically reduced or eliminated.

That elevated position was the reason the judge unlocked the sealed files in this case. You can’t go around preaching to others how to live their lives – especially when it comes to sexual or family morality – and expect your own indiscretions to remain private. Think of the cases of Jim Bakker and other failed evangelicals or of homophobic politicians caught picking up men in bathrooms. They were outed and many of us took delight in their downfall. Everyone likes a fallen angel.

However painful the revelations are for Cosby’s family and his many fans, there may be some positive outcomes for society if not for his individual victims. Perhaps the next time a celebrity or the guy down the block is accused of sexual crimes, the public and the media will be less likely to shame the victim and more likely to look closely at the behavior of the accused.

Not every accusation is true but no crime is treated as ‘untrue’ as often as that of rape or sexual assault. People accused of break and enter are seriously investigated – no one suggests the homeowner deserved what happened or encouraged it. There is no guarantee that things will improve – similar high profile incidents haven’t destroyed rape culture and I expect we will continue to hear stories of men in positions of authority using their power to abuse women (or men) they come in contact with and control.

And that is what it is in so many cases: the desire to control. After all, a man with Cosby’s wealth, profile and sense of humour probably could have found many willing partners. Yet, it seems, he preferred his women unconscious and unable to express any part of their own personality. If that’s not a symptom of something darker I can’t think what is.

And that’s ten minutes.

Biological Wiring

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According to the Canadian Chief of Defence Staff, sexual misconduct in the military occurs because of biological wiring. Apparently, the same rationale might apply in the Canadian Senate. The Chief has since apologized amid calls for his resignation. No word from the Senator yet.

Well, what are we to make of this? Is the general right? Are men (and he didn’t rule out women) wired to behave badly? Are we nothing more than dogs?

Of course, there is a biological basis in human behavior – several of them – including the drive to procreate. Similarly we have a drive to eat and to sleep. We have lots of biological heritage from millions of years of evolution. Yet, we know that people who can’t control their urge to eat constantly or to sleep their lives away have problems. Why wouldn’t we think that people who can’t keep it in their pants, can’t respect other people’s imperative not to have sex (not necessarily never have sex, just not have sex with YOU), why wouldn’t we think they have a problem? A problem that needs to be dealt with in the most appropriate way – whether that is treatment, punishment or dismissal.

There are those who seem to believe that we are nothing but a series of instinctual twitches, driven by our chemistry and our genes to behave like automatons. I always wonder what motivates people to think that.

However, humans long ago transcended their biology. We have liberated ourselves from the vagaries of nature. While people may go hungry in the world, there is actually no biological or natural reason why that should be so. We, in fact produce enough nutrition to feed everyone. We just do a lousy job at distribution – another biological imperative presumably is to horde food and wealth and deprive ‘the other’ from what we enjoy.

So these are all choices we make. Perhaps that is the greatest biological imperative of all, to use our collective intelligence, our constructed rationality (made of language and law and civil practice) to overcome those remnants of biology that seem to drive some people.

The military of all places should understand that ‘wiring’ does not determine human behavior. The whole purpose of ‘boot camp’ and strict discipline is precisely to manage our fight, flight or freeze response, to overcome our natural reluctance to kill other humans, to make soldiers agree to follow orders of people they don’t necessarily think have superior qualities.

Perhaps the general needs to start thinking about how to overcome biological wiring so that he can be in command of human beings instead of mindless animals.

But that’s ten minutes.