Monday, 18 May 2020

The "We" Vote in Quebec

Les Patriots

Today is la Journée nationale des patriotes in Québec.   (Prior to 2003 it was Dollard des Ormeaux Day in celebration of the garrison commander who died fighting the Iroquois [Haudenosaunee]  at the Battle of Long Sault in 1660. Times change.)  In the ROC (the Rest of Canada) today is Victoria Day (in honour of Queen Victoria).

In popular lore, les patriots are remembered as French peasants battling their English overloads.  This version of history is at least partially true; however, some leaders of the rebellion in Lower Canada (today Quebec) were English (notably Wolfred Nelson and his brother, Dr. Robert Nelson), some members of the upper class--opposing les patriots-- were French Canadian seigneurs, and, at the same time (1839), a similar rebellion of English-speaking farmers was taking place against the ruling-elite Family Compact in Upper Canada for the same reasons--demanding representational government.

In Quebec, history is often retold as a battle between English and French

In this age of polarizing algorithms, viral conspiracy theories, fake news and internet trolls, it might seem like small potatoes that Canadian history tends to get rewritten from a linguistic perspective (not to mention the obvious, that it is written in two languages).  In Quebec, at a popular level and sometimes beyond, the stories of Canada tend to be told (or performed) as a conflict between an oppressive English elite and an oppressed, minoritized French-Quebec majority.

"Mon non est québécois"

During the 1995 referendum campaign on Quebec independence, a whisper campaign emerged suggesting that advocates for the "non" side ("no" to separation from Canada)  didn't have French-sounding names.  In response, the "non" campaign led by Claude Ryan, came up with a slogan punning on "non" [no] and "nomme" [name], which are homophones in French.  (See Quebec and the ROC.)

Since those days, I've thought someone needs to write an article entitled "The 'We' Vote in Quebec."  (Much as I hate to kill the pun with an explanation; to be safe, I should explain that "we" and "oui" [yes] are homophones.)

"We" yes; "ethnic nationalism" no

From a sovereigntist perspective, there are certain words that cannot be used to describe the movement for Quebec independence.  In 2013, Bloc Québécois member of parliament, Maria Mourani was expelled from the party for stating publically that many of her constituents viewed the Parti Québécois “Charte des valeurs" [Charter of Values] as ethnic nationalism.  "Ethnic nationalism" is verboten, but I think we can safely describe the sovereigntist position as being in favour of "we." "We" (in its various cases--us, our, ours) is a consistent presence in independentist slogans:  "Nous sommes un peuple" [We are a nation], "Maîtres chez nous" [Masters of our house], and the PQ slogan for the “Charte des valeurs":  “Parce que nos valeurs, on y croit” [Because our values, we believe in them].

"Nous et les autres"

Although it might be viewed as politically incorrect in recent times, the dichotomy of "nous" and "les autres" [the others] has always been a part of life in Quebec.  I grew up in a small town on the Quebec side of the Ontario/Quebec border.  From birth to retirement I spent virtually the entirety of my life and career in Quebec; as a bilingual anglophone, perennially perched on the divide between "nous" and "les autres."  Contrary to what you might imagine, most of the time, it wasn't a bad place to be.

Lord Durham's Report on the Affairs of British North America 

As the newly-installed Governor General of British North America, John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, was tasked with writing the (in)famous Report in which he claimed:
There can hardly be conceived a nationality more destitute of all that can invigorate and elevate a people, than that which is exhibited by the descendants of the French in Lower Canada, owing to their retaining their peculiar language and manners. They are a people with no history, and no literature.
[ . . . .]
In these circumstances. I should be indeed surprised if the more reflecting part of the French Canadians entertained at present any hope of continuing to preserve their nationality. Much as they struggle against it, it is obvious that the process of assimilation to English habits is already commencing. 
Despite (or perhaps, in some small part, because of) Durham's predictions, the language and culture of the people of Quebec are still with us 180 years later.

How has Québécois culture survived?

Asking how French Quebec has lasted so well for so long, you might credit the enlightenment of the British Quebec Act of 1774  allowing French inhabitants to maintain their language, social structure (the seigneurial system) and religion (Catholicism), or modern Canadian federal policies of bilingualism and multi-culturalism.  However, within Quebec, the long-term objectives from The Conquest onward--including the Durham plan as well as multi-culturalism and bilingualism--are understood to be the reduction of the French of Quebec to one of many minorities, the tokenization of their language, and ultimately their assimilation within an English federalist system.

The real answer to the question of French Quebec's survival is the willingness of individual Québécois to privilege the collective over individual ambition, to think in terms of "we" rather than "I."   Quebec's language law (Bill 101) is a constant target of attack as it restricts the use of English on signs and requires immigrants to educate their children in French. What is truly striking, and rarely discussed, in the context of English being the lingua franca of North America and global business, is the willingness of the French-speaking majority of Quebecers to accept that their children may never learn to speak English (See "Yes, no, toaster").

Individual rights versus collective rights

The conundrum of parsing perceptions of and from Quebec boils down to the distinction between individual and collective rights. (Personally, I tend toward a libertarian, live-and-let-live view though I remain wary of radical individualism.)  As a minority in Canada and the Americas, francophone Quebecers are entitled to claim the collective rights of their language, culture and identity.  However, as the majority in Quebec, they are compelled to respect the individual rights of citizens and the collective rights of minorities within the province. When the collective rights of the Quebec majority collide with the individual rights of persons within Quebec, whose values should prevail?

Rights versus privileges

Quebec's privileging of the collective rights of the French-speaking majority--most often in the form of language laws (Bill 22 and Bill 101)--is typically met with incomprehension in the ROC and by minorities within Quebec. Conversely, what Anglo-Quebecers might claim as "rights"--the "right" to a public sign in English, the "right" to educate offspring in English--are viewed from a French perspective as "privileges." Actually, parents who were educated in English in Quebec themselves maintain the "privilege" of having their offspring educated in English in Quebec.

English common law versus Napoleonic civil code

A typical criticism of Quebec legislation (beyond the infringement of human rights) is that it tends to be a solution in search of a problem.  Certainly, this seems to be an apt critique of the recent Bill n°21 : An Act respecting the laicity of the State.

Is the wearing of religious symbols by persons in authority a threat to the collective rights of the people of Quebec?  The English common-law approach to solving this question would be to allow a number of cases to be brought to court; that is, a number of plaintiffs claiming that their rights had been prejudiced by someone wearing a religious symbol (a police officer, a judge or a teacher).  This jurisprudence, these precedent decisions of various judges, would eventually become the "common law."  The French tradition, in contrast, is more top-down.  A code of laws is enacted, and future judgments are based on that code.  This legal tradition, together with the privileging of collective rights, adds to incomprehension in the ROC.

The Bouchard/Taylor Commission on Religious Accommodation

In 2007, Professors Bouchard and Taylor were commissioned by the Liberal government in Quebec to review, analyze and make recommendations on  "Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences in response to public discontent concerning reasonable accommodation."  In what might be taken as a "common law" approach (although, obviously, the Commission was not a legal body), Bouchard and Taylor did a substantial stock-taking of all the legal cases related to religious accommodation in Quebec--73 cases over 22 years prior to June 2007.  What emerged from their review was that an "accommodation crisis" was being provoked by a series of fairly minor, misconstrued incidents which escalated because of media attention:
40 cases out of 73, were brought to the public’s attention during the period March 2006 to June 2007 alone. The investigation of the cases that received the most widespread media attention during this period of turmoil reveals that, in 15 of 21 cases, there were striking distortions between general public perceptions and the actual facts
as we were able to reconstitute them. In other words, the negative perception of reasonable accommodation that spread in the public often centred on an erroneous or partial perception of practices in the field.

Bouchard's and Taylor's repudiations of Bill 21 

As the authors of the report upon which Bill 21 is ostensibly based, it is telling that both Bouchard and Taylor have publicly stated their opposition to the legislation.  Taylor has flatly declared that he has changed his mind.  Bouchard argues that the timing was wrong, and the bill should not have been passed in the current climate of polarization.

The Separation of church and state is a French idea

The concept of laïcité (or, more commonly, "secularism" in English) is rooted in the French Revolution and the political desire to undo the domination of the Catholic Church. When Durham claimed that the French of Lower Canada were a people "without a history," he was no doubt considering that between the settlement of New France and the publication of his report in 1839, there had been a revolution in France, cutting the Québécois off--practically, ideologically and culturally--from the motherland.

Catholic church domination prevailed in Quebec until the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s.  Bill n°21 : An Act respecting the laicity of the State, which prevents persons in authority from wearing religious symbols, is less broad than the law in France banning religious symbols which applies to all civil servants and to students in public schools and has been in force since 2011.  Bill 21 is less strident and overarching than the charter of values proposed by the Parti Québécois in 2013.

Individual liberty:  the ultimate shared value in Western democracies

In Western democracies, there is a presumption that individual liberty is our ultimate shared value--which paradoxically makes it a collective value.  Part of our belief in individual rights is respect for the collective rights of minority groups.  To further confuse the paradox, all individual rights, upon reflection,  end up being collective.

Rights versus freedoms

Nour Farhat, a young lawyer with aspirations of becoming a crown attorney in Quebec,  has become the poster person in the conflict between individual religious rights and the collective aspirations of Quebec's becoming a secular society.  The question being asked in Quebec is: "Should Nour Farhat have the right to display her religious convictions while she is prosecuting someone who might be Jewish or Hindu or Buddist or Sunni or Shiite or Christian or an atheist?"  But the underlying question which Quebec has raised, since the opening discussion of a charter of values, is:  Are religious rights individual rights?   Interestingly, both the Quebec and Canadian Charters of Rights and Freedoms identify religious expression as a "freedom" not a "right."  I have not, however, been able to find a succinct legal or constitutional distinction between a right and a freedom.

Freedom from Religion

The broader Freedom from Religion movement puts Quebec secularism in a slightly different perspective.  You might have seen Steven Pinker's endorsement of the Freedom from Religion Foundation television ads.  Pinker, himself an Anglo-Quebecer who studied at Dawson College and McGill University before moving on to California then Harvard, established his position as an avid atheist in his monograph Enlightenment Now.

While I have generally accepted the idea that Quebec has little to fear from the growth of Islam; not only is Islam the fastest-growing religion in the world but, as Pinker points out, its adherents have proven more faithful and tenacious in their religious beliefs than followers of any other religion.  In terms of (non)religious trends, the growth of Islam and of atheism have outstripped all other movements in Quebec in recent years.

It's about equality, stupid!

The purpose of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms is to create equality.  The problem with "being equal" is that it often seems to imply "being the same."  The challenge of our time is to honour equality and celebrate difference at the same time.  In Quebec, the interpolation to "join the family" and "become one of us" is frequently and reasonably met with wariness and skepticism.  As George Orwell pointed out in his allegorical novella, Animal Farm, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Ethics by Numbers

Ethics by numbers

We might imagine that numbers can resolve an ethical dilemma.  Faced with two inescapable ethical choices, A and B: A will cause two deaths and B will cause one.  B seems the obvious ethical choice.  In the real world, ethical choices are rarely so straightforward.  In fact, even in the hypothetical world the choice isn't so clear.

Ethics 101

When I was a student in Ethics 101, Professor Glass presented us with this standard thought experiment. You are on a boat cast adrift at sea with six other passengers. You have supplies enough for six people to survive. There is no hope of rescue. If you do nothing all seven people will die. What do you do?  How do you decide the ethical or moral course of action?  The scenario allows only four options:
  1. Do nothing.
  2. Save yourself.
  3. Sacrifice yourself
  4. "The greatest good for the greatest number of people."
I used this scenario in a number of classes for varying reasons: sometimes as a “values clarification” exercise; more often just to teach vocabulary. The experience of presenting this scenario has taught me that when it comes to ethical dilemmas the immediate response is a combination of avoidance and denial. 

Types of ethical behaviour

Option 1:  Do nothing and everyone dies seems the obvious worst-possible choice.  But the combination of religion and Hollywood movies has conditioned us to believe that some unlikely, miraculous, heroic event will save the day.  To take a life would be immoral, therefore God will save us.  The hero will come up with some unimaginable combination of trickery and courage to save us all because that's what always happens in the movies.  

Option 2:  Save yourself. "Anybody but me" is the ethical axiom of egoism.  The ethical thing for you to do is to guarantee your own survival no matter what. Whatever choice is best for you--enlightened self-interest--is what is ethical. This is the point of view upheld by Ayn Rand in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness, and by her acolyte Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve until shortly before the collapse of 2008.  This is the ethical position underpinning American capitalism.

Option 3:  Altruism.  Being ethical means putting others before yourself, operating in their interest rather than your own. Heroism?  A "messiah complex"? Naivety?  Wishful thinking?  The egoist loves--and feeds on--altruists!  In theory, this is the ethical basis of Christianity: "love thy neighbour as thyself" and "turn the other cheek."

Option 4:  "The greatest good for the greatest number."  This is the central maxim of utilitarianism.   According to Professor Glass, utilitarianism was the only viable, ethical position.  (Did I mention that Professor Glass was a Communist?) Young upstart that I was, I argued quite vigorously against the Professor's position.  The word "good" was synonymous with "moral" and "ethical"; therefore, the maxim "the greatest good" begged the question.  (This was back in the day when people understood what "to beg the question" meant.)  Actually, it was the worst degree of "begging the question" because it created a tautology:  "the most ethical" ("greatest good") is "ethical."  Well, duhh!

The COVID-19 boat

Here we are in the COVID-19 boat.  Of course, that's not quite true.  We are all in the same storm, but each of us is in our particular socio-economic boat. Still, the what-is-ethical scenario isn't just hypothetical anymore.  Governments, almost universally, have adopted utilitarian responses to the novel corona-virus.  Oddly the Swedes have proven outliers, adopting a laissez-faire, egoist ethical position.  Some gun-toting, Darwin-award-wining Americans have demonstrated against government-imposed restrictions in their state capitals.  And Donald Trump appears to have made getting back to "business as usual" his highest priority.  Egoism might be a credible ethical position but it can easily slide into the misguided notion that my privilege, comfort and convenience are more important than other people's lives.

"The Readiness is all"

The most common criticism of national governments has been the failure to adopt utilitarian measures quickly or strictly enough. China has been criticized both for doing too much and for doing too little:  imposing draconian quarantine measures on one hand and failing to provide information on the spread of the virus on the other.  Lack of preparedness is, as it should be, the prevalent preoccupation.  Bill Gates TED talk (2015) on the need to prepare for a pandemic and George W. Bush's speech (2005) on the same theme have circulated widely.  To the list of people who "told you so," we can add virologist Michael Kinch who is quoted in Bill Bryson's The Body, saying: “We are really no better prepared for a bad outbreak today than we were when Spanish flu killed tens of millions of people a hundred years ago."  In the modern version of the Cassandra effect, what people prefer to believe always trumps truth and prescience.

On Being ethical

Obviously, reckless disregard for human life is unethical. If your religion tells you reckless disregard for human life is okay, there is something wrong with your religion.  Reckless disregard for human life in favour of economics, politics or even pleasure is immoral.  Egoism, altruism and utilitarianism all direct us to the same recommended ethical behaviours:  quarantine, social distancing, and hygiene.  However, the numbers in themselves will not solve the ethical dilemma before us.

Where are we?

As Angela Merkel, German Chancellor and scientist, pointed out, in her speech to the Bundestag, we are at the very beginning, not the middle and definitely not the end, of the pandemic.  The novel corona-virus will be with us forever, the pandemic for years.  Best-case scenario, a vaccine will be developed in a year, production of sufficient quantities of the vaccine and getting it into human bodies will take at least another year.  And the "best-case scenario" is always, by definition, optimistic.  Research into the HIV-AIDS virus has been ongoing for 40 years without producing a vaccine.

Mortality in Ontario

The Government of Ontario (the Canadian province where I live)  has forecast between 3000 and 15000 deaths from COVID-19 over a two-year pandemic with the current measures in place.   We will never know the exact death toll from COVID-19.   In each of the last three years, over 100,000 people have died--of various causes--in Ontario.  These numbers do not tell us that we should be blaisé about lives being lost, but they do tell us that the numbers alone will not dictate ethical behaviour.  Over the last three years, we have gone about our "normal" lives, taking the typical risks of contagious diseases, traffic accidents, and lifestyle-provoke heart disease and cancer, while thousands of people died around us of exactly those causes.  What has changed is a question of degree:  the degree of contagion of the COVID-19 virus and the degree of public awareness.  What remains is the ethical dilemma of how to behave in the face of a life-threatening, contagious disease.

What is and what should be

The last four chapters of The Big Picture--although the book is largely about physics and the author, Sean Carroll, a physicist--are dedicated to ethics.  Carroll's theme is captured in the maxim:  "You can't derive ought from is."  In other words, physics, the rules which describe nature, cannot provide the rules of morality, cannot tell us how people should behave. In his critique of utilitarianism, Carroll points out that "The attractive idea of 'quantifying utility' becomes slippery when we try to put it into practice."  One of the problems we can see in our present circumstance is that in practice, utilitarianism means decisions about what is good, moral and utilitarian are left to a handful of politicians.  To return to my objection to utilitarianism from decades passed, what is "good" is left unanswered let alone unquantified.

Finding serenity

Obviously, saving lives is "good."  However, surrendering everything that is "good" about life in order to preserve life is no answer.  We are still a long way from that ethical dilemma but it is before us.  In the immediate term, egoism, altruism and utilitarianism all tell us to remain vigilant, to keep a distance and wash hands.  Carroll's conclusion is that we "construct" morality as circumstances present themselves.  Making it up as we go along isn't very reassuring, but when the time comes we need to be able to tell ourselves that we did the best we could.  A version of the "Serenity Prayer" has never seemed more apt:  we must grant ourselves the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

The Grapes of Wrath

Number 10 on the list of top 100 novels

John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath is number 10 on the Modern Library's list of the 100 Top Novels of the 20th Century.  After a couple of years trying to convince my students of the virtues of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (#6 on the list), I gave up and substituted the more accessible, single-third-person narrative, not-stream-of-consciousness Steinbeck novel.  In the process of teaching it, my admiration for the novel grew.  But what does "Grapes of Wrath" mean?

The title was suggested by Carol Steinbeck

It is widely reported that the title was suggested by Faulkner's first wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck. The expression “Grapes of Wrath” comes from the Bible: Revelation 14:19–20 (New Testament) and Isaiah 63 (Old Testament). The expression was re-used in the lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” written during the American Civil War.

"Wrath" means anger 

In the simplest of terms, "grapes of wrath" suggest “anger,” a violent, bloody, vengeful yet just anger.  The expression is ambiguous because it is an oxymoron, combining “grapes” which are a sweet and highly desirable fruit and “wrath,” meaning extreme anger, which we metaphorically think of as “bitter.”

Decoding the meaning of an oxymoron

Oxymorons tend to be ambiguous, and we have to look at the context of their use to understand them. We understand what Juliet means when she tells Romeo that “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” and what Othello means when he talks about Desdemona’s “cruel tears.” Out of context it is pretty hard to say exactly what “sweet sorrow” and “cruel tears” mean.

The Angel of Death at the Apocalypse

The Bible describes the Angel of Death with his sickle cutting down the grapevines at the end of the world (the Apocalypse). The reference to “grapes of wrath” is a metaphor (or conceit, meaning extended metaphor) for what happens next. All the people that God is angry with will be put in a winepress and their blood forced out of them just as wine is pressed from grapes.

The Joad family

It makes sense that when we think of the expression, we think about how the migrants from Oklahoma and, in particular, the Joad family were treated by many of the people they encounter. They were having the lifeblood squeezed out of them. But “grapes of wrath” also implies the need for punishment and even vengeance in order to serve justice. This is the way the expression seems to be used in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Supply-side economics

In the novel, the expression “grapes of wrath” is used only once, in chapter 25. Here is the context:

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.

The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” (Chapter 25)

What is being described is the destruction of food (part of what is known as supply management economics) in order to maintain higher prices, even though some people were starving. The people are getting very angry and frustrated; they are being filled with wrath, but the novel remains ambiguous about what happens next. Does “grapes of wrath” mean there is about to be a revolution with the people rising against their oppressors? Or does “grapes of wrath” mean that these people are simply going to be destroyed, the lifeblood being squeezed out of them?

The Irony of "grapes"

At this the midway through the novel, we know that “grapes” are used to create a bitter irony. In the earlier chapters of the novel the characters repeatedly talk about the wonderful, delicious grapes they are going to be able to eat when they reach California. The only encounter with grapes they have is when the kids eat green grapes and develop “skitters” (diarrhea ), and then we are given the above reference to “grapes of wrath.”

Roman Charity

It is important to recognize that the final scene of the novel is directing us away from Apocalyptic images, to something other than “grapes of wrath,” to human kindness and charity. There was an attempt to censure the final paragraph of the novel which was inspired by famous images of “Roman Charity.”

Saturday, 21 March 2020

How the World Ends

"This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper."
                                            T. S. Eliot  "The Hollow Men"

Asteroids and comets

The world will end.  The only questions are how and when.  On average, the earth is struck by an asteroid big enough to reshape if not devastate the planet every 100 million years.  The last major impact was 66 million years ago.  You might want to keep an eye on the sky for the next 34 million years or so.  Sudbury was hit nearly 2 billion years ago, so maybe we in Ontario, Canada, will be spared next time.

The Grapes of Wrath

Even if you are one of those people who believe that the speck of space dust we all live on, and everything else, was created by a fair-skinned old man with a long beard who made us "in his image and likeness" (though vice versa seems more likely to me), you must still accept that his Angel of Death will eventually cut us down with his sickle and cast us into "the winepress of God's wrath." The Biblical Apocalypse does promise heaven for some, the endless euphoria of "being with God," which, I have to admit, sounds like a drug-induced coma to me.  Descriptions of hell are a lot more motivating.

Galaxies in collision

The sun, which we depend upon for everything, will burn out someday.  However, before that happens it will get hotter, making this planet uninhabitable in about a billion years.  However #2, before that happens we are scheduled for another ice age in 50 thousand years--which might be delayed by another 50 thousand years by the build-up of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Whether the prognosis is burning or freezing, we need to be looking for a new place to live.  So far, astrophysicists have their eyes on one of the moons of Jupiter.  Unfortunately, long term, our galaxy, the Milky Way, is predicted to collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in about 4 billion years.  Eventually, we'll have to look for a gated community in a more distant galaxy.

Based on data from the Hubble telescope this image of Andromeda colliding with the Milky Way was produced by NASA.  So much for Eliot's claim of the world ending "not with a bang."

The Covid-19 paradox

Every year, in round numbers, 60 million people die on planet Earth.  As the mortality rate increases, with an aging population, and the birth rate declines, a zero global growth rate is being predicted.  Good news for the planet, but bad news for the stock market. Despite or rather because of the Corona-virus and the steps being taken to mitigate its impact, the morality rate for the year 2020 is likely to be lower than average.  With business, sport and entertainment venues closed, social distancing and heightened awareness of basic hygiene like hand washing, cases of Covid-19 will be reduced, and so will many of the other top causes of global mortality:  the flu, automobile accidents and tuberculosis.  Unfortunately, precautions against Corona-virus seem unlikely to affect the planet's 9th-leading cause of death, lack of clean drinking water, but we can anticipate a reduction in the number of airplane crashes and mass murders.

Political will

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has belied the typical claims that we cannot solve global problems like man-made climate change, pollution, or poverty, or tuberculosis and malnutrition which are products of poverty.  The Covid-19 response has demonstrated what is possible when there is political will--and by "political will" I don't mean just the "will of politicians" but the will of the media, institutions, businesses, groups and all the way down the line to individual citizens' willingness to cooperate.  The response has demonstrated that we, as a species, are collectively better at avoiding self-annihilation than had previously been predicted.

There is no word for killing a human species

I was struck to learn from Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind that millennia ago there were numerous species of humans, and a hint that we may have done away with our siblings--including the Neanderthals who had bigger brains than we did.  Quick and brutal beats brainy and reflective, apparently. There are many words in the English language to categorize types of murder--genocide (a race or nation), omnicide (everyone) and xenocide (others)--but no word for killing a single human species.  Of all the ways the world might end, doing it to ourselves is obviously the worst--and has always seemed the most likely.

Nuclear war

When I was ten, students at my elementary school were given instructions to crouch under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack.  A punch line to the instructions began to circulate that once in position to "kiss your ass goodbye."  In the small town where I grew up we even had a a super-loud siren to warn of an incoming nuclear-missile attack.  At the height of the Cold War, some genius decided it would be a good idea to test it.  I remember I was alone at the tennis courts where I was paid a healthy salary of 10 dollars a week to do the basic maintenance on three clay courts.  For about six and a half minutes, I believed the end of the world was imminent. I felt strangely calm.  I thought I should run home to be with my family.  Upon reflection I knew there was nobody home and our little A-frame house would provide no protection against a nuclear blast.  I just stood there until the siren stopped and the end of the world did not come.


Since that day, I have thought and assumed we would get better at avoiding self-destruction.  On the contrary, we humans seem endlessly creative in coming up with ways and reasons to kill each other and ourselves.  Religions, cultures, states, nations, identities, ideologies, wealth, power, and plain old short-term self-interest provide endless justifications for mutual destruction.

Is Corona-virus the common enemy we've needed?

It has long been hypothesized that what the human race needed was a common enemy to unify us all.  Maybe this Corona-virus will do the trick and we will finally turn the corner away from planetary suicide.  To paraphrase the poet, Fernando Pessoa, we are on the cruise ship Earth without knowing its port of departure or its destination.  Our only certain obligation is to take care of one another.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Why Is the Coronavirus Getting So Much Attention?

Coronavirus disease versus the flu

According to the Johns Hopkins Medicine web site, as of February 6, 2020, the Coronavirus disease has caused 2, 810 deaths worldwide.  In comparison, the flu kills between 291,000 and 646,00 people every year.  Why has the Coronavirus gotten so much attention?  According to Dr. Bonnie Henry, a BC Health Inspector, the objective is to contain the virus.  In theory, once it has nowhere to spread, it will be restricted to the animal population from which it first emerged.

"The Truth about PHEICs" (Public Health Emergency of International Concern)

Containment is a nice idea, but it has become obvious that containment and quarantine haven't been working and generally don't work.  In an opinion piece on the Ebola crisis, entitled "The Truth about PHEICs," Professor Emeritus Johan Giesecke, writing on behalf of the WHO [World Health Organization] Strategic and Technical Advisory Group for Infectious Hazards, observes that the "declaration of a PHEIC for the current Ebola outbreak would add no clear benefit  [. . .  .]."  Giesecke points out that "The public health community must recognize the close link between disease and trade [. . .]."  Although "WHO director-general Margaret Chan advised against imposing travel restrictions on Western Africa, saying they would worsen the crisis by keeping medical experts out of impacted areas," the Ebola crisis eventually became one of the five instances in which the WHO issued a PHEIC.

Why did the WHO issue a PHEIC for the Coronavirus?

Part of the reason Coronovirus has received so much attention is that the WHO has issued a PHEIC.  Given the predictable (predicted?) economic impact and the relative inefficacy of PHEICs, why did the WHO issue it?  According to WHO regulations, a PHEIC is
 “an extraordinary event which is determined, as provided in these Regulations:
to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease; and to potentially require a coordinated international response”. This definition implies a situation that: is serious, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border; and may require immediate international action.
Diseases, in particular viruses, rarely respect national borders and the seriousness of Coronavirus relative to the flu and other viruses is in question.  What remains as an explanation for the issue of a PHEIC and perhaps the global panic which has ensued is that the disease is "unusual or unexpected."

The "Perfect storm"

For the news media, bad news is always good news.  A disease that is "unusual or unexpected" is motivation both for the WHO and the media.  Additionally, the virus offered another opportunity for China-bashing in Western media. Sometimes conspiracy theories are just irresistible:  Anyone with advanced knowledge of the WHO's intention to declare a PHEIC would have made a fortune by shorting the stock market.

Comparing SARS-CoV-2 and HIV-1M-AIDS

Like HIV ( Human Immunodeficiency Virus), the Coronavirus has numerous strains.  Of the eight strains of  HIV, HIV-1M is responsible for the AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) pandemic.  Of the five strains of Coronavirus, most create symptoms of a common cold.  CoV-2 causes the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) now threatening the world.  (Why the WHO decided to call the disease COVID-19 remains a bit of a mystery.)  Like HIV which was transmitted from animals (monkeys, therefore, SIV; that is, Simian Immunodeficiency Virus), the Coronavirus virus responsible for "Covid-19" is believed to have begun in a fish market in China.  For some time, HIV-AIDs was thought to have started in 1980 with a flight attendant from Quebec but, as Jacques Pepin  establishes in The Origin of Aids, the fatal virus first entered the human population in Africa in the early 1920s.  CoV-2 is currently assumed to have begun in China in December 2019, but we may eventually establish a new origin and chronology.

This Year 40 to 70% of the world will be infected with Coronavirus-2

Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch predicts that "within the coming year, some 40 to 70 percent of people around the world will be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19."  No, the end of the world is not upon us.  As this Atlantic article outlines, the reason quarantine and containment have not worked with this virus as they did in other cases, like H5N1 ("avian flu"), is that the fatality rate for COVID-19 is relatively low--less than 2%.   Not only are there more live carriers of Coronavirus-2, but people infected with the virus may experience only minor symptoms or no symptoms at all, making it all the more likely that they will be walking around and spreading the disease.

How many viruses do you have now?

Ultimately the COVID-19-causing virus will join the 380 trillion viruses that already occupy the human body.  The virus will prove fatal for some people with chronic illnesses and the elderly (people like me, I guess). The virus is highly infectious and will cause a pandemic.  Stop and consider the definition of a "pandemic":

The Snowball effect

When talking about the loss of human life, no one likes to compare numbers.  Every life is sacred, right?  However, at some point in the midst of global panic, we need to remind ourselves that every time we get into a car or board a plane or go to a hockey game or church or synagogue or mosque or have sex or visit a hospital or simply step outside, statistically, we are taking a risk that might cost us our lives.  Ultimately, the reason Coronavirus has been getting so much attention is that the Coronavirus has been getting so much attention.  

The Counter-Argument

Here is a strong counter-argument to the theme of this post.  (Thanks Dr. B.)  This article argues that the real issue is that global health services aren't nearly prepared enough to face the degree of contagion of COVID-19.  The article also crunches the numbers on the number of fatalities resulting at least in part from the under-preparedness of hospitals.  The article concludes by saying something I perhaps should have written:  "taking steps to protect yourself and your loved ones is the responsible thing to do."

Monday, 24 February 2020

Do the Money Men Really Run the World?

Can't have a war without money

In Johnson's Life of London: The People Who Made the City that Made the World, Boris Johnson writes that NM Rothchild's "role in financing governments was so crucial that it was said that a war could not be begun without the consent of the Rothschilds."  It is an obvious fact of our time that the world runs on money.  No war can be declared, no university inaugurated, no church established, no hospital or bridge or building or monument built without money.  Nothing can be imported or exported, bought or sold without money.  Charities, volunteer organizations, political parties, families and individuals require money.  The health of your offspring and the attractiveness of your spouse will be affected by money.  It has never been more true than it is today:  if you want to understand the world, "follow the money."

Just because it's a conspiracy theory  . . .

The pursuit of this question led me to Henry Makow who, as it happens, was a friend of mine in graduate school.  Henry is a very smart guy.  In fact, he was a syndicated columnist and best-selling author at the age of eleven.  He has become, according to Tabetha Southey in the Globe and Mail, Canada's leading conspiracy theorist.  In Illuminati:  The Cult that Hijacked the World, Henry claims

The New World Order is a hydra-headed monster. The bankers work through many fronts such as Communism, Socialism, Liberalism, Feminism, Zionism, Neo conservatism and Freemasonry. Unknown to most members, these "progressive" movements are all secretly devoted to "world revolution" which is a euphemism for banker hegemony and Satanism.  

Should auld acquaintance be forgot?

Old acquaintances notwithstanding, Henry's rhetoric is obviously over the top and his claim that unnamed extant bankers are responsible for all the ism's Henry doesn't like is less than convincing.  Like all conspiracy theories, Illuminati is an eclectic cache of facts, observations and quotations.  The data isn't the question.  The question is how it is all woven together.  (As the linguist de Saussure observed, meaning [and therefore truth] does not reside in words or letters but in the spaces between words and letters--that is, how we connect one to another to create meaning.)

Conspiracy theory versus chaos theory

The world may obviously run on money, but "do money men run the world?" is a separate and different question.  We've been here before (see The Chaos Theory of International Trade):  the choice is between conspiracy theory and chaos theory.  Things happen.  Things that happen might even be predictable within a significant range of probabilities.  However, that Person X or Mr. Daddy-Big-Bucks banker made everything happen is a leap to another level of cause-and-effect determinism requiring another level of evidence.

How banks make money? (disambiguate "make")

However, the unrefuted fact is that the monetary system, which underpins the financial system and the economy, begins and ends with private banks.  Private banks (according to the Parliamentary web site I quoted extensively in Central Banks and the Bitcoin Experiment) create 80% of the money in Canada (and I surmise that this percentage is true for all money creation worldwide).  Private banks are legally empowered to create money out of nothing with a few clicks of a computer mouse.  So what?

So what!?

Do you or I have any reason to be concerned or care about how money is created and who is creating it?  This DW documentary offers a clear and succinct explanation of How the Rich Get Richer though  The Deluge of Money.  The general theme of the documentary is that the money-creation system which allows banks to exponentially create money is guaranteed to exacerbate wealth inequality.  As the economy is flooded with money, if you have a little bit of money, your money will lose value over time.  However, if you already have billions, you will be able to access billions more that the banks are creating at low-interest rates.  Risking little of your own billions, you will be able to buy real estate, businesses, factories and even billion-dollar companies.  The documentary offers specific examples but the common feature is that the money men aren't producing anything, they are simply making more money with these transactions in borrowed, bank-created money while degrading the condition of workers and the savings of the middle class.

To create money the government must sell a bond to a bank

The documentary follows a research project which demonstrates that most people, even some bankers, simply don't know where money comes from and how it is created.  Henry Makow quotes the inventor Thomas Edison who said "It is absurd to say our country can issue bonds and cannot issue currency. Both are promises to pay, but one fattens the usurer and the other helps the people."

The paradox of money:  a private bank created the money, so why am I responsible?

Most people (myself included until recently) believe in the illusion that our national currency is created by the government.  It is worth stopping to take note that every time a bank creates money, those dollars or euros or pesos create a debt owed by the national government to whomever holds the currency and a promise to pay which is ultimately the responsibility of you and me, the citizens of that country.  There is a fledgling group in Switzerland, as revealed in How the Rich Get Richer, campaigning to prevent banks from being able to create money and advocating a system in which only the government can produce a national currency.

Who's in charge here?

Back to the question:  do the money men run the world?  For Henry Makow and advocates of the Zeitgeist movement the answer is beyond obvious that an unnamed they/them fronted by the world's central banks are running the world, and what we typically call "world affairs" (politics, business and religion) are but smoke and mirrors. Boris Johnson notes that successive kings of England had to borrow money from Dick Whittington, and when the British Government wanted to buy the Suez Canal they had to borrow the cash from Lionel Rothschild.  However, Johnson writes that "Today a young Rothschild can still make the headlines with a knock-out yacht-based party on the coast of the former Yugoslavia.  But no one needs his permission to go to war."

Perhaps.  But How the Rich Get Richer concludes with the observation that Brexit and the election of Donald Trump promise even less regulation of private banks and an even greater flood of unregulated, low-interest, private-bank-created money.


Two thoughts remained in my mind as I was writing this post.  I feared they were tangential to the question, but I have decided to include them as an afterword/afterthought.

It seems a predicable human tendency to always imagine that someone is in charge, a powerful someone is pulling the strings to make whatever happens in the world happen--the Wizard of Oz fallacy.   As I wrote this post, I kept thinking about a remarkable documentary I saw on CBC television in 1983.  Produced and directed by Allen King, it was promoted as an exposé on unemployment.  In fact, as an example of his proto-reality-show filming, King invited a number of unemployed participants to sit on a bleacher in front of a bank of television cameras.  The participants were given no instructions, and there was no script.  What emerged was a series of assumptions from the participants about the objective of the film, and vitriolic outbursts of blame and counter blame for whatever emotions the participants were feeling.  The show was entitled "Who's in Charge Here?"  Participants launched a court case to block the presentation of the production, but the injunction was not granted.

The second thought that kept coming to me was "Why am I writing about money again!?"  I started this blog, some years ago, thinking I know something about something (roughly university education).  However, over time it has evolved (or devolved) into a study of all the things I don't know--the things that make me wonder about the depths of my own ignorance, that provoke me to ask "How could I not know this?"  I'm not that modest, so I assume there must be a lot of people who don't know what I don't know.  Here is a list of my blog posts on money, just in case you want to follow the slow meandering process of my self-education on the subject:

When Should You Repay Your Student Loan? How about . . . Never!

How Did University Degrees Become Subprime Mortgages?

What Is Money?

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Understanding Time . . . and the River


When I was a kid, every spring there would be a massive invasion that looked like a snowstorm of big floppy-winged snowflakes.  We euphemistically called them "Mayflies."  When I was told that these flocks of shadflies only lived for 24 hours, I remember thinking "why bother?"  If you are only going to live for 24 hours, why bother living at all?

Other "Creatures of a day"

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I'm reading Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound.  Prometheus is being tortured for giving fire to mankind (bound to a mountainside, an eagle comes to eat his liver every day).  The gods ask him, "Why did you give this property of the gods to creatures of a day?" Wait a minute!  "Creatures of a day"--that's us; we human mortals.


Another couple of decades later, I'm watching the television series Cosmos:  A Spacetime Oddessy and Neil deGrasse Tyson is explaining that the history of our planet is barely a blink of an eye in relation to cosmic time.  The history of humanity is so minuscule there is no word in the English language to describe its brevity.  Okay, I get it, time is a matter of perception.  My apologies to the Mayflies.

What is time?

But I still don't get, I still don't understand, "what is it?"  What is time?  Like everyone else, I use the word and, like everyone else, I always pretend I know exactly what it means.  "Spacetime," oh yeah.  "The spacetime continuum," got it.  "The beginning of time," "the end of time," time's up," "on time," "overtime," "once upon a time"--sure, sure.  Is there anything more important to a mortal than time?  Shouldn't I know what it is?

A Brief History of Time

I've even read Steven Hawking's Brief History of Time. It was interesting to learn about black holes and quantum theory and time travel, and to get confirmation that "there is no unique measure of time that all observers will agree on." Yet, I was left to wonder, "What is this thing that everybody measures differently?"  "Brief history of time" is a cute title, but isn't there a paradox here?  Or is it redundant? Isn't "history" another word for "time"?  The "time of time"? I'm reminded that physicists escape answering what came before "the big bang" because "the big bang" was the beginning of time, and there can be no "before."  I just find this answer irritating.  (Probably why I'm not a physicist.)

Physics versus philosophy

Sean Carroll argues that physicists and philosophers have different kinds of answers to "what is time?"  Once physicists have an answer that works, they stop asking the question.  Only philosophers keep digging.  Julian Barbour is a physicist, and he offers a description of time that almost makes sense to me.  According to Barbour time is change, and if there is no change, time does not exist.

Time is an arbitrary system of measurement

I'm going to go one step further, and if I'm right, someone please contact the Nobel committee. What?  There's no Nobel for philosophy?! Okay, I'll accept the Nobel for physics.  Time does not exist as a thing that is measured.  Time is primarily a system of measurement, various arbitrary units of measure that we use to describe and calculate movement, change and velocity.

"Time" is a word

As I make seemingly bombastic, counterintuitive claims like "time does not exist," I need to remind you (and myself) that "time" is first and foremost a word.  It is a common error in thinking to assume that if a word exists, there must be some thing (an essence) existing in the world that corresponds to the word.  (The error even has a name:  it's called essentialism. Deconstruction is the fairly simple project  of displaying how words/concepts are "constructed" over time rather than being "essential."  See The Postmodern Hoax and Deconstruction and "Ways of Talking.")

Where do words come from?

In answer to the question "Where do words come from?", I would typically invite my Introduction to Literature students to create a new word.  The first steps were for them to give me a sound or series of sounds that were not a known word, then we would agree upon a series of letters that could represent the sound.  (The linguist de Saussure called these sounds/letters the "signifier.") Then I would invite the students to use this new "word" in a series of made-up sentences.  For example:  the students might give me something like "ugghwamp."  Then they would create a series of sentences:

"People with ugghwamp are always more attractive."

"I got drunk and lost my ugghwamp on Thursday night.'

"Ugghwump is the source of social inequality."

After we had created enough sentences, I would point out that the concept of "ugghwamp" was beginning to emerge.  (De Saussure called this the "signified.")  Ultimately, I would ask the class "Does 'ugghwamp' exist?"  The existence or non-existence of ugghwump in the world (de Saussure's "referent") would have no effect on the meaning or our usage of the word.  (This fact inspired de Saussure to postulate a new, independent science of signs called "semiology.")

There are many phenomena that we perceive and talk about--duration, sequence, pace, rhythm, persistence, history, movement.  From this collection of perceptions and statements, we have come up with the word "time."  

Heraclitus:  "You can't step into the same river twice"

In the very first philosophy lecture I ever attended, the professor presented Heraclitus's claim that "you can't step into the same river twice."  We live in a river of ever-changing particles on a planet swimming in a changing universe.  In terms of relative size, we are 7 billion souls living on a dust mite. We invented the concept of time to preserve the illusion that we can call "time out" and make the world stand still, and, like shadflies, to imagine our 24 hours of existence is an eternity.

"I Didn't Know What Time It Was"

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