fall back position

In Uncategorized on November 5, 2017 at 10:04 pm

Always remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason, and plot!
We see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

I have been recalcitrant with my writing on this site. My personal life justifies this, but it’s time to get back to it, and November 5th seems a good day. This day is known as Guy Fawkes day. In the late 1500’s and early 1600’s people who openly practiced Catholicism in Britain were subject to fines and restrictions for their faith. With the coronation of the nominally Catholic king James I, many Catholics throughout Britain looked for some respite, but the new King chose to work with Parliament to maintain the level of persecution. (The fines brought in a nice and regular subsidy to the treasury.) In 1605 a group of Catholics, feeling disappointed and betrayed by the new king, attempted regicide and the assassination of all the members of Britain’s Parliament. In the off-season they rented a cellar under the house of parliament and stocked it with gunpowder. They intended to blow it up when the king sat to reopen Parliament, but on November 5th, 1605, their plot was discovered or betrayed. Guy Fawkes did not orchestrate the plan; he was just the conspirator guarding the cellar that day, and he was was caught red-handed. The authorities tortured and broke him in a few days. He signed a formal confession dated November 8, and the other would-be terrorists were rounded up or killed in the following weeks. Guy Fawkes was publicly executed, along with some of the other conspirators, on January 31, 1606, before a large enthusiastic crowd. The prisoners were first bound and dragged behind horses through the streets of London to the gallows. Then, the plan was that each was to be hung by noose, to strangle them a little, but not to death, and then to castrate and disembowel each of them on a table set up in the square for that purpose, then to cut each man into four pieces, and then (finally) cut off each convict’s head and mount it on a spike for public display (traditionally on London Bridge). In the age of the divine right of kings, to be ‘hung, drawn, and quartered’ was the standard sentence of the time for treason. As well as being the first of the conspirators caught, Guy Fawkes also has the distinction that his last act was a public act of defiance. When he was on the gallows platform he jumped high so that when he fell, the knot of his noose broke his neck and he died instantly, disappointing, and maybe impressing, the gathered crowds.

Now the story goes that in the following years, Guy Fawkes, for his sins, is burned in effigy on the evening of November 5th. Traditionally, a big straw model is made in the shape of a man, and there is a community bonfire and some drinking and, in later years, fireworks. However, long before Guy Fawkes, long before there were Anglicans or even Catholics, people in northern European communities were making straw manikins and burning them in annual end-of-harvest celebrations. Maybe it was a re-enactment of the ‘death’ of the pagan Deity of Agriculture, who will be ‘reborn’ in the coming spring (our Easter celebration). Maybe it was mutual encouragement, a way for the people of a community to demonstrate to themselves that they had enough harvested to make it through the long winter ahead (Look, we can even burn some of it up! We aren’t scared!) And I expect there was usually some drinking and merry-making on the side. In the 1600’s, peasants in farming communities throughout Britain were still enjoying this ancient celebration, and the Anglican establishment thought to bring this activity formally into the state religion. The fires throughout the countryside were explained as metaphorically burning Guy Fawkes, as a celebration of order over chaos, of the monarchy over the Catholic conspirators. And the odd little poem at the start of this post was one feature of that campaign.

It’s always at about the same time, but this year Guy Fawkes Day happens to fall on the very day we are to set our clocks back 1 hour. Daylight Saving Time has ancient origins, maybe even as old as the end-of-harvest bonfires. It would have always made sense, in Agrarian societies in northern climes, to work longer days during the summer and into the harvest time. And then, when all the work was done, kick back and relax, and then hunker down to survive the cold winter. This seasonal routine long predated clocks. The industrial revolution brought modern clocks, artificial lights, time zones, and railway schedules to Europe and North America. In the 1800’s the exciting ideal – having every clock within a range of 15° longitude agree on the time – blinded many to the advantages of seasonal temporal variations. Modern Daylight Saving Time was initiated in the early 1900’s, for the same reasons as before, to give people more daylight hours in which to work during the summer, and the switch back to regular hours was made after Hallowe’en. Fall Back night is a modern version of that same ancient end-of-harvest celebration as Guy Fawkes night.

So, in the spirit of the season, set your clocks back an hour. Check your batteries in your smoke alarms and CO monitors, change the filter in your furnace, get yourself ready for a good restful winter. And remember that nothing much has changed.

I read  The Unbroken Machine by Dale Smith. I will post in detail about the ideas in this work shortly, but I strongly recommend that, if you read my website, you should read this book. In later posts I intend to challenge many of the ideas put forward in The Unbroken Machine; I do not agree with the central thesis. But I am very grateful to Mr. Smith for describing in clear language the broad strokes of the mechanism of Democracy in Canada. And, I appreciate his enthusiasm on this topic. His work deserves to be considered and pondered and, despite himself, can act as a catalyst for improvements in our ways of governing.  More to come.


if it ain’t broke…

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2017 at 5:12 pm

Well, I was trying to write about the mainstream media handling of the revelations of Minister Freeland’s family past and those nefarious Russians, and I find I have to unwind a bit. The layers of irony are so deep I get paralyzed. I want to do it justice so I am going to set that one aside for now.

Instead, I went to read Dale Smith’s blog Routine Proceedings. Mr. Smith is a parliamentary press gallery journalist and he writes short insightful posts about the nuts-and-bolts workings of the government in Ottawa. I wanted to get his take on the Freeland vs. Russia issue.  While there, I learned that he has just published a book, The Unbroken Machine.  The theme of The Unbroken Machine is that our Westminster Parliamentary system of governance is good as is, and it is a lack of understanding by the average Canadian that makes our government seem broken. Don’t reform it!  If we behave differently, then it will behave better.

On the one hand, I agree; educating youngsters in the workings of Parliament is very valuable. We would be better governed if we understood our system better. The events of December 2008 would not have unfolded as they had if the Canadian public were better educated about our governing traditions. And I would say that Mr. Smith probably understands our system considerably better than I do. The book is probably also a response, and challenge, to the Fair Vote Canada electoral reform campaign for proportional representation, a cause readers of this site will know I don’t support. I will certainly be reading the book (and probably blogging about it).

On the other hand, the whole 2008 fiasco just flagged the profoundly undemocratic nature of the Westminster Parliamentary system and especially its Canadian variety. I really believe all the stuff on the 7 pages on this website! All the blah-blah theory, as one of my readers once kindly put it, is solid. So, I am keen to take on a well-thought defense of our current system, a system I find democratically indefensible. I will certainly be reading Dale Smith’s book (and probably blogging about it).





zen liberalism

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2017 at 9:11 pm

Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.

Zen saying

Continuing with what I started in the previous post, to connect the two themes of biology and democracy; the 1970’s were seminal. Back then, liberalism was the dominant western philosophy. The wild eccentricities of the 60’s were receding into the past; science seemed ascendant. In southeast Asia, and in the US, the madness of the Vietnam war raged on. But back then people thought it madness, said publicly that war was morally wrong. It was an American war, and Canadians and Europeans were stridently proud not to be part of it. In the US, the Civil Rights, Feminism, and the Peace Movement were in full gear. Everyone watched M*A*S*H and All in the Family on TV. We used to openly laugh at socially conservative people. We wrote them off as dinosaurs, unable to adapt, doomed to extinction.

And this open, progressive, free society was what distinguished us fundamentally from our military adversaries with their closed, regressive, controlled societies, what made us the good guys in our manichaean struggle. The threat of nuclear war hung over us, and truly no one knew what to do about that, but somehow the immediacy of that horror was being rolled back. For one thing, we started playing hockey with Soviet teams. They were really good, but we were sometimes a little better. (Again, a group effort thing.) And Russian crowds cheered the best Canadian players and after a while Canadian crowds cheered the best Russian players. It was still scary to think about the unthinkable, but somehow, those tensions were easing and if both sides kept humanizing each other, rather than demonizing each other, maybe things would keep getting better. We seemed to be on a good path.

Well, somehow we wandered far off that path. Before the Soviet Union collapsed, western liberalism was in full retreat and conservatism was the dominant philosophy. It was our hard line conservatives that broke the Soviets, exhausting the Evil Empire in Afghanistan. True, destabilizing Afghanistan was the initiative of a fairly liberal US administration, but President Carter couldn’t even win a second term, and it was his successor, the deeply conservative President Reagan, who reaped the credit for saving the world when the wall came down. Today, it is liberalism that is openly mocked, and rightly so. The once compelling ideologies upon which liberalism was built have devolved into disturbing parodies. Scientific research now serves the marketing needs of its funders, feminism is now misandry, egalitarianism is now identity politics, and politeness, which once served as a framework for civil discourse, is now the paralysis of political correctness. It is not that liberalism has nothing to offer humanity. It is not that there are no good people on all those fronts still doing good work, for there are. It is that liberalism is in retreat, has lost society’s high ground, and its practitioners are disparate and desperate, clinging to straws.

Here’s a theory. I think this happened because liberalism could not learn from ethology in the 1970’s. Science was showing us a side of humanity that was dark. And liberalism could not embrace that dark side. Liberalism would not adapt in the 70’s, and today we witness the consequences of that failure. Well, the horse has left; let’s close the barn door now. Prejudice, xenophobia, bigotry, these are not evil. There; I said it.

Xenophobia is part of our heritage. It goes a long long way back. Rats are xenophobic, geese are xenophobic, howler monkeys are xenophobic, wolves are xenophobic. If a rat from one colony happens upon a group of rats from a neighbouring colony, the rat gang members, driven to fury, will tear that lone rat to bits. Xenophobia is a widely distributed behaviour throughout the natural world. A liberal infers that therefore nature is bad. But ethologists would point out that xenophobia is a behaviour that enhances survival, that xenophobia is part of the human package that got us where we are today. In prehistoric times, xenophobia kept us in geographically isolated tribes. So, we did not clump together and over-hunt one area and then all starve. We did not over-pollute one area with our refuse and then die of illness. When plague did strike, it could not carry far because each tribe kept physically apart from others. Plague would not even be the right word; the consequences of a serious communicable disease would be tragic for one tribe only, but not for the adversaries on the other side of the hill. Xenophobia is part of what makes rats and us so successful. And just as surely as a person feels pain or hunger or joy, they can feel xenophobia. That was the lesson ethologists revealed, and liberals rejected.

Now, let us be fair. I am not a rat, you are not a rat, and none of my other readers are rats. We are all super primates in this discussion. And, not to disparage our equally successful fellow travelers, but we super primates have far more complex behaviours, far more choices, than rats have. There’s not much to be gained for ratkind, or for an atypical rat, were that rat to try bucking xenophobic behaviour. But there were huge advantages for human kind, and for a prehistoric human, were that human to not be xenophobic. See those folks over there? They do some things differently, and better, than we do here. Their food smells great. They have stuff over there that we don’t have here, and I could trade them for some stuff we have here that they don’t have. And, the girls over there are not strange looking; they are exotic! These are not murine (ratly) considerations; they are very human considerations. Our behavioural suite includes xenophobia with a significant smattering of xenophilia. Most humans feel genuine uneasiness around ‘others’. Some humans, just as genuinely, do not. Throughout prehistory most of us stayed in our tribes, and strangers were our demons, and a few of us wandered off in search of cool stuff, fine dining, and exciting new sexual encounters. And I am pretty sure that this is what’s still driving us super primates today.

Liberalism lost its dominance because it could not make a place for the majority of humans in its ideology. How’s that for a serious flaw? If you happened to fall on the xenophobe side of our biological divide, liberalism demanded you feel ashamed. That you cared for your kids and your parents, that you worked conscientiously for your livelihood, that you were a good neighbour and good friend to those who looked and sounded like you, that you were kind to animals, all of that counted for naught; in the liberal universe you were condemned to hide your true feelings or face social rejection and live in shame. Yes, there have been gas chambers, lynchings, residential schools. From a liberal perspective, extremes of xenophobia needed to be reigned in. So, taking a page from old-time religion, xenophobia got defined as evil and everyone was advised to repress themselves when they felt it. Easy for a xenophile. But a relentless blanket of shame was not a policy destined to keep all the well-intentioned xenophobes on side over the long term. Sometime early in the 1980’s a critical mass of people just decided they didn’t need to be ashamed of themselves anymore. Can anyone blame them?

So, liberalism today faces a big problem. It is rejected by a now self-confident majority. Despised as elitist by people who really know how to hold a grudge, it circles the drain of history, a cluster of gross mockeries of the principled ideals for which it once stood. What is liberalism to do? Because, you know, in itself, it’s not really a problem that liberals are not socially dominant anymore. We can all get over that. It’s even poetic justice because it’s where liberals tried to put conservatives. No, the real problem is that xenophobes, now in charge, can’t lead us on a path of survival. In the conservative universe ‘might makes right’ is the only conceivable path. That means eventual environmental collapse and nuclear war. The only way forward for us all, to keep living healthy primate lives in a functioning biosphere, is some new robust intellectual structure, with accompanying societal behaviour standards, that can serve the animal ‘all humanity’. It will be conceived by xenophiles, because only xenophile minds can conceive something like that. Call it zen liberalism. It’s a vision that encompasses what we once had and that also has a place of respect, and healthy restraint, for our xenophobe brethren. Maybe democracy is part of that new vision. Maybe.