Thursday, December 23, 2010

In Celebration of Awe


It was a metaphysical standoff befitting the holiday season in the information age, the age of reason, the age of consumerism and The Spirit Age. In late November, American Atheists, an organization the mandate of which is to protect the civil liberties of non-believers, let its views on Christmas be known on a billboard just outside the Lincoln Tunnel’s New Jersey exit. It read: “You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason.”

By early December, the Catholic League, an organization dedicated to protect the civil liberties of Catholics, had retaliated with its own message on a billboard on the other side of the tunnel, which read: “You know it’s real. This season, celebrate Jesus.” Drivers who use the 2.4-kilometre tube to commute between New Jersey and Manhattan were literally caught between the apparently diametrically opposing viewpoints. The media understood that the story was of universal interest – regardless of with which side you aligned yourself – and provided details ranging from incendiary quotes from representatives of these organizations to the cost of each billboard: the atheists paid $20,000 while the Catholics paid $18,000.

A very different sort of duel between the faithful and the rational occurred in Toronto on Nov. 26, when the celebrated Munk Debates centred on the resolution: “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.” In support of the resolution was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who now heads a foundation that “aims to promote respect and understanding about the world's major religions and show how faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world.” In opposition stood Christopher Hitchens, the celebrated journalist and author of the book God Is Not Great.

An Ipsos Reid poll taken immediately before the debate among 18,200 subjects from 23 nations showed that the world was more or less evenly divided on the subject – “half (48%) agreed that ‘religion provides the common values and ethical foundations that diverse societies need to thrive in the 21st Century’ whereas the other half (52%) agreed that ‘deeply held religious beliefs promote intolerance, exacerbate ethnic divisions, and impede social progress in developing and developed nations alike.’”

The debate’s transcripts show both men advocated and defended their positions eloquently and insightfully. Hitchens attacked religious faith along the countless ills it has caused in the world. He deconstructed familiar, common occurrences: “Handed a small baby for the first time, is it your first reaction to think, beautiful, almost perfect, now please hand me the sharp stone for its genitalia that I may do the work of the Lord?” He argued with fervour against faith that had potential for catastrophe: “Have you looked lately at the possibility we used to discuss as children in fear, what will happen when Messianic fanatics get hold of an apocalyptic weapon?”

Blair countered with a parable revealing the essence of religious faith: “It was Rabbi Hillel who was once famously challenged by someone that said they would convert to religion if he could recite the whole of the Torah standing on one leg. He stood on one leg and said: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That is the Torah, the rest is commentary, now go and do it.’” Blair also cited numerous concrete examples of immensely good deeds inspired by religion: “I think of people I met some time ago in South Africa, nuns who were looking after children born with HIV/AIDS. These are people who are working and living alongside and caring for people inspired by their faith. Is it possible for them to have done that without their religious faith? Of course it's possible for them to have done it. But the fact is, that's what motivated them.”

There of course were numerous other aspects on each side of the argument discussed and dissected by these intellectual orators. In the end, however, Hitchens apparently made the greater impression: immediately before the debate, 55 per cent of the 2600 members of the audience disagreed with the resolution while 25 per cent agreed. After Blair and Hitchens had their say, disagreement with the resolution had risen to 68 per cent while agreement had risen to only 32 per cent.

My brief summary of their debate does not do it justice. Before returning to it at the conclusion of this post, however, I would like to recount a more directly personal story: A fledgling novelist recently asked me to evaluate his manuscript, specifically asking me whether it was publishable. When I replied frankly that, although any honest, sincere writing is a laudable exercise, his story had not yet been crafted into a product in which a publisher was likely to invest, he became rather defensive. At one point he suggested I was incapable of appreciating his book as I was a spiritualist while he was an atheist. He went on to claim that, since his novel was intended for atheists, it was not suited for, according to his own estimation, 90 per cent of the market. I suggested he not include that idea when he pitched the book to publishers.

The smugness apparent among some atheist is exemplified by my friend’s implication that I somehow could not see what he saw. What he did not realize was how I understood the atheist perspective quite well, because I, in truth, used to be one. Just as many atheists disavow their beliefs after being raised in a traditionally religious family, my spiritual awakening, as trite as the term may be, came partly as a reaction to having been raised by a strictly secular household headed by a theoretical physicist. Furthermore, as a comparative literature major who focused on modernity, I was more than familiar with the existential works of Satre and Camus. Generally progressive by nature as well as by upbringing, I once firmly believed in Mao’s declaration that religion is “the opiate of the masses”.

But atheism did not make Mao or Communism incapable of atrocity. The estimated number of deaths which resulted from his autocratic Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1961) ranges from a conservative 14 million to 43 million. The Cultural Revolution which he launched in 1966 and which ended officially with his death in 1976 created a Kafaesque reality in the People’s Republic which caused both flase persecutions, paranoia and economic stagnation, all for the sake of revolution against all bourgeois institutions, including religion.

The fanaticism of fundamentalist religions has inarguably caused countless suffering throughout history. To therefore condemn all religious beliefs and activities, however, appears equally fanatical and irrational. This was one persuasive argument Blair made during his debate.

For his part, Hitchens maintained that: “If we give up religion, we discover what actually we know already… which is that we are somewhat imperfectly evolved primates, on a very small planet in a very unimportant suburb of a solar system that is itself a negligible part of a very rapidly expanding and blowing apart cosmic phenomenon. These conclusions to me are a great deal more awe inspiring than what's contained in any burning bush or horse that flies overnight to Jerusalem or any other of that -- a great deal more awe inspiring, as is any look through the Hubble telescope at what our real nature and future really is.”

To this, I would only add that spiritual practices – which includes, but is not limited to, religion – evolve over time, no differently in truth from science and rationalism. If a burning bush was fantastic imagery in Biblical times, then so today is the gravitational singularity at the centre of a Black Hole where infinite spacetime curvature is contained in a single point – not to mention countless other esoteric theories that speculate what is occurring on the fringes of our reality. My own sincere belief in such scientific concepts owes itself primarily to one thing: faith. So perhaps the core of the debate between Blair and Hitchens may not be anything much more consequential than semantics.

And perhaps the American Atheists and the Catholic League both have it wrong. It strikes me that at Christmas, we are not celebrating the Nativity myth because it may or may not be real; we celebrate it because of the sense of awe it has inspired in a considerable portion of humankind over the centuries. This is my own best explanation as to why, as a non-Christian, I celebrate Christ’s birth wholeheartedly with my Catholic wife and children.

Thus, whether your traditions around the winter soltice centre on Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanza, or something else, I hope you derive just as much inspiration from them this holiday season.

Photo by Suat Eman at Freedigitalphotos.net

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Devil's Best Trick


“He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws.”
-- one of the charges against King George III listed in the US Declaration of Independence

Stifled laughter murmured across the congregation gathered at the church of Western democracy shortly before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, when Chinese authorities announced public protests would be allowed during the games but only at officially designated parks; and only if applications were approved in advance. As of August 21, three days before the games ended, the Public Security Bureau had received 77 applications from would-be protesters – hardly dissidents considering their amenability. None of them had been approved. In fact, two elderly women, aged 77 and 79, who applied to protest the demolition of their homes, were even ordered to undergo a one-year re-education training program through labour. (The order was subsequently rescinded.)

Canadians shook their heads, at once sad and smug. Those wacky totalitarians, we smirked, grateful to be living in an enlightened, free and open society.

This was just under two years before the G20 Summit in Toronto this past June. In April, security officials announced Trinity Bellwoods Park in the city’s west end, well beyond the visibility of the gathering world leaders, as the “designated speech area”. The officially sanctioned place of protest was later moved to Queen’s Park, considerably closer to the Summit, but such pronouncements were still being made with a straight face. The Globe and Mail reported that one Montreal activist subsequently Tweeted: “Just discovered a ‘permit’ to protest against the G20 in Toronto: it's called the Charter of Rights. So, stop asking cops for ‘permission’.”

US President Barrack Obama since taking office has repeatedly sought bi-partisan consensus on issues ranging from health-care reform to foreign aid. In his stead, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appears to have succeeded in establishing a united front between America’s left and right in reaction to his recent controversial release of confidential international diplomatic cables. Conservative political celebrity and former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has equated WikiLeaks with terrorism. “'[Assange] is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands,” she declared on Facebook. Taking the Obama administration to task, she went on to ask, “Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders?”

Palin found an ally in, of all people, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said that the disclosures of confidential cables were “not just an attack on America's foreign policy interests,” but also “an attack on the international community.”

Here in Canada, Tom Flanagan, a political science professor at the University of Calgary and former advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the CBC, “I think Assange should be assassinated, actually.” When asked to elaborate, he said, “I’m feeling very manly today.” Although Flanagan quickly apologized for what he called his “glib” remark, political higgledy-piggledy predictably ensured. Official Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff said Flanagan’s remarks “crosses the line.”

“I think it is absolutely irresponsible, reprehensible to use language of this sort,” he said.

Assange, for his part, said in an online interview with The Guardian that Flanagan and others like him should be charged with “incitement to commit murder.” The “others” would presumably include Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, who, as glibly as Flanagan, told the panel of debating commentators Alan Colmes and Monica Crowley, “I’d like to see a little drone hit Assange.” Among the Canadian media, conservative columnist Ezra Levant in the Toronto Sun suggested: “U.S. President Barack Obama could do [to Assange] what he’s doing to the Taliban throughout the world. He doesn’t sue them or catch them. He kills them. Because it’s war.”

Assange’s crime – for which he apparently should be summarily executed without a trial – is repeatedly described as putting innocent lives in danger. One commonly held limit to freedom of expression is that utterances cannot pose a mortal threat to the public – one cannot be allowed to yell “Fire!” falsely in a crowded theatre if the resulting chaos can be reasonably expected to cause death or injury. However, as the McClatchy newspapers Website reports: “Despite similar warnings ahead of the previous two massive releases of classified U.S. intelligence reports by [WikiLeaks], US officials concede that they have no evidence to date that the documents led to anyone's death.”

“WikiLeaks has a four-year publishing history,” Assange told The Guardian. “During that time there has been no credible allegation, even by organisations like the Pentagon that even a single person has come to harm as a result of our activities. This is despite much-attempted manipulation and spin trying to lead people to a counter-factual conclusion.”

Not one death.

Another common criticism of the latest WikiLeaks deluge of leaked cables – criticism often put forth by members of the mainstream media – is the dismissal that they reveal nothing new or significant. “For all the fuss and hand-wringing provoked by the WikiLeaks online vomit, I fail to see where America’s reputation has been significantly harmed,” wrote Rosie DiManno in The Toronto Star. This, however, does not explain why Clinton would be so upset. Could it be she feels that WikiLeaks’s revelation that her State Department directed diplomats to collect passwords, emails, and even biometric data of foreign officials, likely in violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, is indeed considerably to her disadvantage? This is listed among a number of other, similarly significant revelations in the Dec. 1 article by Glenn Greenwald on Salon.com. We in Canada for our part were surprised to learn, among other things, that French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner personally had asked Clinton to consider releasing Canadian detainee Omar Khadr from Guantanamo Bay, even as our own government steadfastly refused to intervene. More nuggets surely will be delivered in the weeks ahead.

Nor surprisingly, Chinese security officials has blocked access by its citizens to the WikiLeaks site. Those wacky totalitarians…. Wait….

In the same post, Greenwald describes how Connecticut Senator and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security Joe Lieberman is devoting considerable energy and resources to persuade private companies such as Amazon, whose cloud servers had provided refuge for WikiLeaks when it was attacked by hackers, to deny continuing service to what was becoming a rogue operation in the eyes of Western democratic leaders. “That Joe Lieberman is abusing his position as Homeland Security Chairman to thuggishly dictate to private companies which websites they should and should not host -- and, more important, what you can and cannot read on the Internet -- is one of the most pernicious acts by a U.S. Senator in quite some time,” said Greenwald.

As of this writing, for various reasons, Pay Pal, EveryDNS and Tableau have also discontinued service to WikiLeaks. Cyber-attacks by hackers, whose identities and motives remain secret, continue. Assange remains in hiding, as authorities pursue him for alleged sexual assault – accusations which he denies. The latest developments on these and other related matters crop up across the Web, even as the WikiLeaks disclosures of the diplomatic cables continue through the mainstream media – which apparently are not guilty of treason or terrorism when reporting on them.

Those who preach in the church of Western democracy enthusiastically recount the gospels of Jefferson and Lincoln. They also educate the young on the cautionary tales of Orwell, Huxley and Solzhenitsyn. As all these lessons fly out the window, and as the heavy hands of power grow as fat as the pigs at the dinner table in Animal Farm, I can only suggest one more inclusion in the syllabus: The 19th-century prose poem “Le Joueur généreux” by Charles Baudelaire, which contains the phrase that was later used famously in Bryan Singer’s 1995 film, The Usual Suspects: “The devil's best trick is to persuade you that he doesn't exist.”

Photo by Salvatore Vuono at Freedigitalphotos.net.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Narrative Nations


The media, all said and done, could not help but frame the recent financial crisis in Ireland in terms of the country’s fierce sense of identity when a crucial by-election was held Nov. 25 in the northern rural county of Donegal. The senatorial election occurred the day after Prime Minister Brian Cowen introduced an emergency austerity budget, made necessary to satisfy the lenders of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund as Ireland faced the bleak possibility of bankruptcy. In reaction to the budget which, among other things, raised the sales tax and cut minimum wage and welfare payments while leaving corporate taxes untouched, the electorate chose to pull the incumbent Brian O’DOmhnail, the candidate for the Prime Minister’s Fianna Fail party, and elected in his stead the candidate from the extreme left: Pearse Doherty representing the Sinn Féin. (Sinn Féin in Irish, befittingly, means “we ourselves”.)

His victory, announced Doberty as quoted by the Irish Times, was a rejection of the budget, as well as its acceptance by Ireland’s other major political parties: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. He also clearly added, however, that “It is also a rejection of the interference of the IMF in Irish affairs.”

The statement punctuated the narrative that had long since become as much about nationalism as economics. Just a week earlier, the editorial in the same newspaper equated the then-anticipated bailout by the IMF and the European Central Bank with a decisive loss of the country’s sovereignty. “A nation’s independence is defined by the choices it can make for itself,” the paper’s editorial board stated. “Irish history makes the loss of that sense of choice all the more shameful. The desire to be a sovereign people runs like a seam through all the struggles of the last 200 years. ‘Self-determination’ is a phrase that echoes from the United Irishmen to the Belfast Agreement.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, another island nation finds itself caught between its own steadfast identity and reality. Japan, like Ireland, wrestles with its own pressing economic quandaries, its demographic consisting of a shrinking as well as aging population that paints an arguably even bleaker picture of the future. As reported on CBC Radio’s The Current, deaths outnumber births in Japan by 10,000 people, and the country's population is expected to drop by 15 per cent over the next 40 years. Moreover, the declining birthrate will result in a labour shortage in which the population of the workforce will be half of what it is today. The number of retired persons over 65 will also roughly equal the number of those in the workforce, meaning each worker will have to provide economically for one retiree.

“As the working-age population rose from 50 million in 1950 to 75 million in 1975, savings boomed and companies channelled them into breakneck growth,” explained The Economist in its recent special report on Japan. It quotes Akihiko Matsutani of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies as saying, “What goes around comes around, and the same demographic profile that supported economic growth will now begin to weigh heavily on Japan’s economy.”

“If this decline continues,” Hidenori Sakanaka, the former Director of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, said on The Current, “it will be impossible for Japan to support its economy, financial structure, social security and everything else that is necessary for people to live.” Sakanata is the author of the Immigration Battle Diary, his manifesto on how Japan’s should shape its future immigration policy. Indeed, while other highly developed countries, including Canada, face similar problems with respect to demographics, much of the effects are offset by immigration. Sakanaka for this reason recommends that Japan accept 10 million immigrants in the next 10 years. “Unfortunately, this idea has not gained wide acceptance yet,” he laments. “I feel that the way in which the Japanese regard immigrants has to change.”

The Mainichi Daily News reports, for example, that Japan decided in December 2008 to accept Karen ethnic minority refugees from Burma. "But with a quota of 90 people over three years, compared to the tens of thousands that the United States and various European countries are taking in, what Japan is doing does not qualify as having fulfilled its responsibility," says Shogo Watanabe, a lawyer actively involved in human rights issues relating to refugees and other foreign residents in Japan. This admittedly is only a snapshot example of the country’s overall attitude toward foreign immigrants, but the difference between Japan and the rest of the world is at once stark and typical.

“The Japanese have always seen themselves as a single ethnic group,” University of Toronto sociologist Ito Peng* explained on The Current. She added the Japanese have traditionally defined themselves according to “one national narrative” premised on the idea that their nation consists of one, single ethnicity. “This narrative was very important, I think, for Japan in terms of creating a social harmony – for its economic and social development. The problem with immigration is that if we accept that Japan could be multicultural then this grand narrative actually falls apart, and that’s frightening.”

The rules of semiotics state that the signified is defined by the signifier and not the other way around. Contrary to the intuitive belief that words are defined by the concepts they evoke, it is actually the concepts that are shaped by the words. Similarly, it is not the identity that evokes the narrative, but the narrative that defines the identity. William Randall, the director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Narrative at St. Thomas University, once wrote, “How can we have an existence – a human existence – apart from stories?” He then answered his own query. “In my view the answer is clear: We cannot.”

If a strong narrative can define one’s identity, its sudden absence must be no less traumatic than the loss of a limb. Yet, narratives, in the end, are meant to be abandoned. Adhering to them beyond the appropriate shelf life can only result in what the Buddhists call “attachments”. This is true for a nation as it is for an individual.

Changing the Japanese perspective of themselves, however, is no facile task. Its success is far from certain if the government simply and unilaterally imposes immigration policies and quotas onto its public. Just as much effort must be devoted toward formulating new, promising narratives for the future based on multiculturalism and the benefits it brings. The need for a fresh perspective and narrative equally applies to Ireland as it sets to rebuild itself in cooperation with the international community. And while governments may assist in the process, artists, academics, social workers and the general populace will inevitably need to take equal ownership in formulating their new identity.

Peng, for her part, is hopeful about the Japanese. “I have begun to see and hear people saying, ‘Well, Japan needs to really think about its immigration policy and we have to begin to consider thinking of Japan as a multicultural society,’” she told the CBC. Finally convinced that the door in front of them is closed, some Japanese are starting to see how countless others have just opened. Whether we are speaking of a nation or of the personal and individual, steering away from the path as soon as it becomes defined is what sages for centuries have called the Way.


* - Full disclosure: Ito is a neighbour and good friend who always has very insightful things to say about Japan's social policies.

Photo by nattavut at Freedigitalphotos.net

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What Is Is What Is Not


“Semantics is always a bitch.”
- Gil Scott-Heron



Any complaints Preston Manning makes about volatile political discourse might easily be interpreted as a loss of heart – the dissatisfaction of a former leader of a now defunct federal political party who since his retirement from public office has grown weary of battle.  But the observations the founder of the Reform Party of Canada expressed in an Oct. 14 op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail are those undoubtedly shared by many among a public increasing distrusting of the democratic process. At the same time, however, Manning’s reason for lament – the knee-jerk polarization of political debate by virtually all stakeholders – is something which the public practically demands of its politicians.

The process he describes is painfully familiar: “Candidate Jones declares that she favours national health-care standards enforced by the federal government – a reasonable position, whether or not you agree with it,” Manning puts forward as an example. “Candidate Smith, however, reacts in mock horror to this suggestion. ‘I can’t believe it! Jones wants to trample on the constitutional rights of the provinces and establish a federal dictatorship over health care.’”

Candidate Jones to retaliate will then push some statement by Candidate Smith to the extreme.  And so it goes.

No one could dispute Manning’s portrayal of what now has become a reflexive reaction to any position taken by a political opponent. He suggests, however, this strategy is founded on the middle-of-the-road worldview commonly ascribed to the electorate of this country: “Canadians are generally a moderate and tolerant people – thus the quickest way to publicly discredit a political opponent in debating an important issue is to characterize that opponent’s position as ‘extreme.’”

Manning clearly has not spoken to Barack Obama about how the American president is also routinely depicted in extreme terms by the paradoxically twisted yet simplistic Tea Party. In truth, the strategy to polarize debate intentionally is not so much a reaction to moderation as an aversion to complexity. Moreover, this strategy is firmly supported by communication theory as one which presents the most concrete, well-defined message for your side – the message, namely, that you are not the other side.

Semiotics, put simply, is the study of signs and how they operate – signs as defined in their widest sense as any representations of information. The observation of the behaviour of signs (ie. – the various ways in which we process information) dates back to the days of Plato and Aristotle, but the discipline was formalized as a distinct branch of philosophy in the mid-19th to early 20th century with the advent of such semioticians as Charles Sanders Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes. The late 20th century saw a greater awareness of semiotics within the general populace with the attention garnered by the works of the iconic scholar and novelist Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose).

The semiotic process requires a signifier (the sign) and the signified (what is represented by the sign). According to the branch of semiotics known commonly as semantics, a symbol is a sign that has no concrete relationship with its signifier. For example, a realistic painting of a dog is a sign that depicts various characteristics of the animal in concrete ways – if the dog’s eyes are brown, they also shall be so in the painting. In contrast, the letters D-O-G together also signify a dog, but these letters have no physical characteristics that relate to what they signify. The word “dog” is therefore a symbol by definition, and language is a system composed of symbols and the rules governing their uses.

A central tenet in semiotics – one that is illustrated clearly by polarized political discourse – is that symbols have no inherent meaning; rather, they are defined by their relative position to other symbols within the linguistic system. In other words, things are defined not by what they are, but, rather, what they are not. It is difficult to list unique characteristics that make a dog a dog. Other animals have fur, four legs and can be humanity’s best friend. Meanwhile, a dog with no fur, just three legs and unfriendly to humans is still a dog. No set of characteristics can produce the quintessence of a dog. A dog, however, is definitely not a cat or a horse or a table.

Thus we get the most clear and definite idea of what something is when we are told what it is not. Candidate Smith in Manning’s example takes advantage of this simple rule by pushing Candidate Jones’s platform to its extreme then spending the rest of his time arguing that he is not Candidate Jones. This is not to say this strategy is all one needs in order to succeed in politics. At the risk of oversimplification, Mayor-elect Rob Ford succeeded in defining himself with the message that he is not the spendthrift status quo at Toronto's city hall. The other candidates’ subsequent message that they are not Rob Ford, however, clearly did not capture the favours of voters.

Moreover, saying simply that the given situation fits longstanding philosophical tenets is far from saying all is as it should be. Rules of semiotics are being used to the advantage of politicians as well as the media, but not of the general public. We, however, cannot expect them to abandon what clearly works so well for them. What we can and must do therefore is not facilitate the process. When we become aware that we are being drawn to the “what is not” worldview – virtually demanding it from our politicians – we must turn vigilant to draw out the “what is and can be” message. For what is sorely lacking in today’s political process, as Manning would certainly agree, is opportunity as well as willingness among much of the electorate to weigh and clearly assess the constructive viewpoints of our potential leaders and officials.

Or, to borrow further from of a branch of postmodern philosophy that directly descends from semiotics, we do not need any more deconstructionists, unless it is to deconstruct deconstruction.

Photo by Salvatore Vuono at Freedigitalphotos.net.