Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Humbug

The day after Halloween I went to the supermarket to get a few things — including cheap candy — and I knew at once that it really was November, because overnight the plastic pumpkins, paper black cats, and cardboard witches had been discarded in favour of plastic garlands, paper ornaments, and oversized cardboard candy-canes. Who likes this sort of thing? My Christian friends say it's too commercial; my secular friends blame the Christians.


Benjamin Franklin once observed that guests, like fish, start to stink after three days. Christmas stays for eight weeks, and it stinks to high heaven by the time it departs. Go to any supermarket or shopping mall in the next month and you'll get a small taste of what it's like to live in North Korea. Joy! Joy! Joy! Joy! Joy! Joy! Joy! Joy! Joy! Merry! Merry! Merry! Merry! Merry! Merry! Merry! Merry! Merry! Merry! Merry! Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!


Don't even get me started on the fact that parents this time of year are encouraged to lie to their children ("Santa's coming!") and that the handful who don't are considered downright mean. ("What kind of commie parents don't wanna lie to children?") I was personally disabused of the notion quite early. I went to an elementary school with a moderately high number of Jewish students. In some cases, their parents told them the lie, too it's useful in terms of behavioral modification, after all but one Jewish friend of mine spilled the beans early in the second grade. "There's no Santa, you know," he told me in whispered tones. It was like somebody threw the doors of my prison cell open. Of course! It all made sense now! It's a conspiracy - and the parents are in on it! This touched off the first major theological debate of my life, as the class divided between believers, deniers, and agnostics on the Santa Claus issue. "The preponderance of evidence suggest that a fat man could not fit down the chimney." "So, you wish us to believe that the presents just appeared on their own?" "No, the presents were bought gradually, in a series of stages." "But if there's no Santa Claus, how do know when to be good?"


I'd like to say that we outgrew Santa Claus, but all societal indicators suggest that we didn't. Go to any supermarket or shopping mall in November and December and the sense of living in a totalitarian state is completed. There he is: the Jolly Leader, his red and plump and happy visage staring down from everywhere, his slight creepy impersonators whispering into the ears of children, and unremittingly we are reminded that he is watching us and assessing our behaviour. Even when we're sleeping.


It's a G-rated blog, so I'll spare you my real thoughts on seasonal television ("This week, on a very special episode, Dr. House learns the true meaning of Christmas") and the never-ending succession of vapid Hollywood films about dysfunctional families that, wouldn't you know it, learn the true meaning of Christmas. (If you can watch the second half of this trailer without feeling queasy, consider a career in political speech-writing.) But television can be turned off and movies evaded. In our wired world, however, music is omnipresent in almost any public place, and here at last we come to the crux of the matter.


Nothing so erodes the soul this time of year as the incessant repetition of the same songs. As everyone knows, there are only about sixteen actual Christmas songs, which explains why the Dixie Chicks' Christmas album has nearly the same lineup as Dean Martin's. The occasional efforts of past-their-prime pop stars to create new Christmas songs (think of Bryan Adams barking "there's something about Christmas time!" in your face nonstop for five minutes) are dismal and depressing. I don't mind the serious devotional music. I can handle (sorry) Messiah, but if I ever have to listen to Jessica and Ashley Simpson's duet of "The Little Drummer Boy" again, I'm joining the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada.


Last year, I noticed that the supermarket was still playing it in early January. I asked casually, and a psychologically broken stock boy you can see why military PsiOps units play the same song over and over before interrogating terrorist suspects told me that their policy was to "taper off" the music, because some customers (classic examples of the Stockholm Syndrome) complained when it ended all at once.


In high school, my friend Geoff, a veritable Mozart with the pun, used to help me create lyrics of our own for some of the more clich├ęd Christmas songs: "oh, come let us ignore him"; "chipmunks roasting on an open fire"; "oh holy knife"; "deck the halls with Buddy Holly"; and, my personal favourite:


Frosty the snow guy,

Was made of acid snow

He melted and died,

But nobody cried,

'cause he was just pollution, you know.


But this schoolboy fun was like standing against a tidal wave of imposed sentiment. For the secular, there was and is no means of self-defense that doesn't involve being socially ostracized. Joy! Joy! Joy! Merry! Merry! Merry! Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! Jolly Leader is Watching You.


The religious, by contrast, can find solace in the comparatively modest observances in their churches. On the way to work the other day, I saw an immense billboard, placed by a local church, that said, "Jesus is the reason for the Season." This has to be the worst recruiting slogan since the U.S. Army bragged about doing more by 6 AM than most people do all day, but it's nonetheless true that it's not the Christians who bother me at Christmastime. I actually attended a midnight mass once (a failed attempt to impress somebody's parents) and it was nice to go somewhere in December and not hear the words "Ho! Ho! Ho!" If the son of God really did come into the world to redeem us for our sins on or about 25 December 0001 AD, that would be something worth going to Walmart about. But a fake holiday manufactured by the toy industry is not worth suffering through crowded parking lots, long lines of grumpy people, and listening to the Bachman Turner Overdrive singing "Takin' Care of Christmas."


So, I quit. I quit. I hereby and henceforth resign. Last year was my last Christmas. In fact, I wrote the lyrics to my very own Christmas song about it. You can make up any melody you like:


Last Christmas, was my last Christmas

Please stop bothering me

I don't like Rudolf, I don't like Frosty,

I won't sit on Santa's knee.

Last Christmas, was my last Christmas

Please leave me alone

I don't want stockings, I don't like stuffing,

I hate all of Santa's clones.

Last Christmas, was my last Christmas

Oh, won't you just give it a rest?

Stop with Santa, stop with sleigh bells,

Just go to church and get blessed.


Okay. I know what's coming. People including ones who have never read a page of Dickens will call me "Scrooge", or remind me of the opening lines of Dr. Seuss's most beloved book:


The Grinch hated Christmas

The whole Christmas season

Now please don't ask why,

No one quite knows the reason.


Rubbish. We all know perfectly well. He was at the mall and heard "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime" once too often which is to say, once and said, "That's it. I've had it. Those smug little Whos are going down this year." His problem is that he caved in the end.


Altogether, now: "It's the most curmudgeonly blog of the year."


Now tell me that the tune of that stupid song didn't just jump into your head.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Speeches


Seven score and five years ago, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. A common myth about the famous speech is that Lincoln pulled what students call an "all-nighter", wrote it at the last minute, perhaps even on the back of an envelope, gave it to only a smattering of politely indifferent applause from an audience that had expected more, and, after returning to his seat, conceded to his friend and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon that it was a bad speech. In an important biography of the speech, entitled Lincoln at Gettysburg, historian Garry Wills positively waylays these myths. The speech, Wills demonstrates, was almost certainly crafted well in advance, and every word was precisely chosen, with Lincoln drawing inspiration from the major intellectual movements of the day. It was neither expected to be longer than it was, nor was it, on the whole, badly received.

The complete speech is here, and if you haven't read it, you should. It's about 280 words long (there are a few versions, with very small differences between them) and it will take you about two minutes to get through.

Now there are speeches, and there are speeches. Like all great works of literature — and great works of literature needn't be long — the Gettysburg Address rewards repeated readings. It reminds us, too, how much we have lost, for it draws into the full light of day the banal, consensus-seeking sloganeering of contemporary political speeches, and makes one pity all the more the political sheep who will bleat at anything mouthed by the mammal their party calls its leader.

One shudders to think what modern speechwriters might have done with it. "Now, after four score and seven years, change has come to America" or perhaps, "gave the last full measure of their devotion for our children, and for our children's children", not to mention the predictable, "that that nation, from the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, to the mountains of Colorado, from the cotton fields of South Carolina, to the fisheries of Maine, might live", and of course the obligatory "but, in a larger sense, we cannot and we shall not dedicate, we cannot and we shall not consecrate, we cannot, and we shall not hallow this ground."

Of course, Lincoln knew how to play a crowd, too. Consider the curious case of the words "under God", which some versions of the speech omit. Secularists sometimes claim that the version without them is the one Lincoln actually delivered, but they ignore the fact that Lincoln's other famous speeches always incorporate references to God and faith. I said "play a crowd" because many of Lincoln's biographers agree that he was the most irreligious of the presidents, but he also recognized that Americans' estimation of the religiosity of their leaders can make or break political careers.

Moreover, some of the speech is downright false. Government of, by, and for the people would not have vanished from the Earth had the Confederacy won the war, although H.L. Mencken's suggestion that it was the Confederates who were the ones actually fighting for self-determination conveniently ignores the forty percent of southerners who, in 1861, had no legal right to self-determination of any kind. Never forget that "states rights" was and remains a code word for the right to hold other human beings in perpetual servitude.

Among the presidents there have been moral and intellectual giants, and moral and intellectual microbes. Very few escape scandal or the need to make ethical compromises that you and I would find appalling to even consider. Barack Obama will have to decide whether or not to extend political, economic, and military support for major human rights abusers who happen to be American allies; he will have to weigh when, if ever, he would be willing to unleash the forces of nuclear armageddon; if he escapes scandal, he will be one president picked out of twenty. Who would want such a job? We have reason to be suspicious of anyone who does.

Lincoln, too had flaws and made his compromises. Most troubling, to our modern sensibilities, was his attitude toward race. He was born February 12, 1809 — the same day as Charles Darwin — and he retained many of the prejudices expected of his generation (and indeed, of most generations until our own). But we are too quick, I think, to condemn past progressives for what they didn't do, rather than to recognize them for what they did. Lincoln did something that none of his predecessors did, and which none of his successors would have done for a very long time if he had not. He struck the blow that ended the slavery in the United Sates. The Emancipation Proclamation, which preceded the Gettysburg Address by nearly a year, was imperfect, but it could not have been otherwise, for the Constitution did not grant the President the authority to free slaves. Lincoln issued it nonetheless, knowing full well it would be the most unpopular act ever undertaken by a President, that it would foreclose all possibility of negotiated settlement in the Civil War, that it might further divide the Union, and that it would imperil his chances of victory in the coming presidential election. It did all those things, and cynics note that, initially at least, it freed no slaves at all. But by the spring of 1865, under its terms, the advancing union armies had already freed 1.5 million slaves, and it was the immediate cause of the greatest act of human emancipation in history at war's end – an emancipation to be finalized with the passage of the 13th amendment.

In 1963, when the 100th anniversary of the Proclamation was being celebrated at the Lincoln Memorial, JFK, invited to speak, declined to do so, afraid of losing southern votes in the forthcoming election. Who has greater moral courage - the President who actually issued the Emancipation Proclamation, or the one who declined to speak about it, a hundred years later?

Historians claim that we study the past in order to know how to act in the present, in the face of renewed crises that resemble those faced before. But the problem is that historians themselves seldom agree on what the lessons of the past are, and so it is difficult to see how, precisely, history can be a guide to action. It may be that the lessons of the past are of a more general kind. In the case of great presidents and great speeches, they remind us that greatness is possible, and that citizens of democracies today should expect nothing less from our own leaders.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Conspiracies

Among my students there many who believe that George W. Bush is not what he seems to be: a rather plain, simple-minded man, famous for his verbal gaffs and bungled policies. Au contraire, I am duly informed, Bush is, in fact, a megalomaniacal super-criminal of a James Bond movie variety, an evil mastermind who, along with his inner circle of scheming minions, conceived of, planned, plotted, and presided over the execution of the 9/11 attacks. The United States armed forces, intelligence agencies, various branches and levels of government, the airlines, and the entire media system — including foreign news agencies — were recruited as well, and the conspiracy runs so deep that not even one whistleblower has emerged.


The election of Barack Obama presents a serious challenge for the conspiracy theorists. In January, Obama will inherit an awful mess: an economy on the cusp or even in the midst of a serious recession; a half-trillion dollar budget deficit; an unpopular war in Iraq and a failing war in Afghanistan; and it is very unlikely that his administration will have cleaned it up prior to the 2010 midterm elections, or even before he stands for re-election in 2012. Moreover, Obama's electoral victory last Tuesday was narrower than it appears to have been. He defeated John McCain by only 6.5 percent of the popular vote — and this in a year when the stars and planets were very much aligned against the Republicans — and he claimed just two-tenths of one percent more of the voting age population than Bush did in 2004. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Obama's future electoral success, and the continued domination of Congress by the Democrats, is by no means assured.


Obama surely is aware of the various 9/11 conspiracy theory claims, and as President of the United States he will have vast intelligence-gathering resources at his disposal, including new heads of the intelligence services who he himself will appoint. One way of guaranteeing his re-election and, indeed, the total decimation of the Republican party, would be to reveal that his predecessor willfully murdered thousands of Americans on September 11th, 2001. Of course, no such revelation will be forthcoming, and the conspiracy theorists will have to explain why. One possible explanation is that the conspirators have covered their tracks too well, and that the incoming President, the most powerful man in the world, will not be able to prove what various professional conspiracy theorists, a handful of failed academics, and a couple of amateur filmmakers have already revealed to be true. Another possibility is that Obama himself is in on it - part of the vast and ever-growing conspiracy. And the third possibility is that Obama won't speak on the matter because, quite simply, the matter is already long settled.


And, of course, it is settled. There was no Bush conspiracy, the attacks were planned by the people who gleefully admitted that they planned them, and meanwhile the conspiracy theory community is serving to discredit the activist left at an historical moment when the left's fullest attention needs to be directed to real humanitarian and ecological problems.


Conspiracy-theory belief is widespread amongst my students, and I consider this fact to be an indictment, not of them, but of the educational system generally. I count myself among the party of the guilty. We teach students to be good at accumulating information, but we are not as good when it comes to teaching to them how to think about information; we teach them to regurgitate raw data, but not so much to distinguish between raw data and actual knowledge; I myself pay lip service to the idea that the purpose of education is to produce independent learners — and incorporate hours of discussion into my classes — but I roll over and play dead when confronted with the demand that the single largest component of my students' marks be determined by the outcome of tests and exams that establish nothing more than their ability to memorize curriculum. Small wonder that so many of them are ill-equipped to assess one truth claim against another, and I will say nothing of academic relativists who teach their students to believe that one truth claim can't be assessed against another.


Historians could improve the quality of student learning overnight if we stopped teaching history as a bill of facts about the past. As historians, we understand history as a series of arguments about the past — as historiography — and it seems very strange that we should delay letting our students know this until they are in their upper years or graduate school. Make no mistake: a dialectical approach to teaching history needn't carry with it the implication that both sides in every dispute have equal — or any — merit, nor even that the professor need adopt the phony pretension of objectivity in the sense of adopting a position equidistant from two competing truth claims. Far from it: done well, it would reveal to students that some truth claims are better than others, and that as historians we adopt certain positions not because we lack objectivity, but precisely because we are objective - in the proper of sense of being willing to change our minds when confronted with evidence that we should.


Admittedly, the conspiracy theorists among my students insist that they are applying the principles of critical thinking, but critical thinking involves more than just skepticism. It requires doing the hard work of carefully weighing evidence for and against a given argument. In the case of the highly technical claims made by 9/11 conspiracy theorists, this would necessitate spending hours reading journals of civil-mechanical and structural engineering, but this is something that doesn't even occur to most of them. In part, this is a consequence of the relativist position that it is elitist and undemocratic to teach students that expert knowledge is generally better than unschooled gut feeling.


But it may be that the whole problem with conspiracy theorists is that no amount of evidence will ever persuade them to change their minds. Counter-evidence only confirms, to them, the depths of the conspiracy and, as we shall see, they will in time accuse Obama of being a conspirator himself. As teachers, we probably can't do anything to shake the conspiracy theory base. But by placing less emphasis on what students should think and more on how they should think, we might be able to help sway the undecideds.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Hope

Oh me of little faith. "The hope of a secure and livable world," Martin Luther King wrote, "lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood." I had prepared a column very lengthy about how the exigencies of actually being President of the United States probably require fatal compromises with personal ethics. But after eight years of the self-interested, self-serving, and terminally self-righteous Clintons; and after eight more years of "W", who, until the arrival of Sarah Palin, represented the apotheosis of the crass, crude, and transparently pandering populism of the modern Republican Party, I find that President-elect Barack Obama offers something that no political leader has for a long time: a glimmer of hope. Hope that he might be the Real Thing. One of those disciplined nonconformists, dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood. And he just might be. We shall see. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Races

When Barack Obama is elected the 44th President of the United States later this evening, there will be no end to the self-congratulations from liberals and even from some conservatives; for months now, they've been calling this election "historic" (the headline on CNN this morning read "Polls Open as America Makes History") and in a sense it is. Barack Obama's candidacy would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But a society is not emancipated from racism until a candidate's skin colour is as irrelevant as his or her eye colour.


Of all the manacles that humanity has forged for itself over the eons, the belief that the human species is organized into a caste system called "race" has been the most damaging and the most destructive. Our generation is uniquely privileged: we need no longer be burdened by this belief if we choose to let ago; we can now demonstrate for certain what ought to have been obvious all along: that race is a manacle forged in the mind and not in our natures, that there is one race: the human race.