Thursday, December 23, 2010

Treaties

Merry Christmas to the whole human race from the United States Senate, which ratified the new START treaty with Russia yesterday. Under the terms of the treaty, the total number of operationally ready strategic nuclear weapons in the American and Russian arsenals, already hugely diminished since their 1980s peak, will be reduced to their lowest levels since the mid-1950s. More crucially, the number of launch platforms will be reduced further still – to a maximum of 700 per side. This is far too many, of course, but since those two countries possess over 95% of all nuclear weapons in the world, the significance of the treaty cannot be understated. By the end of the decade, the total number of operationally deployed nuclear weapons in the world will have been reduced to under a tenth of what it was at its peak in 1986, when the United States and the Soviet Union had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons on a high alert. The new START is a straightforward and very good treaty – almost noncontroversial, in fact. It makes the United States and indeed the whole world a safer place. It is Obama’s first major foreign policy achievement, and goes some way to adding some post-facto credibility to his ridiculous win of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Which is precisely why twenty-six Republican Senators voted against it, why Senator Kyl of Arizona fought a desperate, almost hysterical rear-guard action to delay its ratification until the next session of Congress, when a somewhat different Senate with more Republicans might have derailed it. For anyone who has been following the debate closely, no other possible conclusion can be reached about what motivated those twenty-six Republicans. Their goal was to hand Obama a political defeat, regardless of the implications for American national security. The red flags they sent up were all false flags. Senator DeMint of South Carolina actually dismissed the treaty as part of “a continuing pattern of appeasement.” Appeasement! The favourite boogeyman word Republicans use describe whatever Democrats happen to be doing at the moment on the international stage, even if they’re waging war in Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, Somalia, or Afghanistan and Iraq. (And need the Senator really be told that, historically, it was his party that enthusiastically endorsed isolationism even after the Second World War began in Europe?) “Appeasement!” Obama’s last defense budget – a staggering $700 billion – was the biggest in American history in absolute terms and the biggest, adjusted for inflation, since 1946. Bigger than any defense budget at the peak of the Cold War. Bigger than any during Vietnam or Korea. “Appeasement!” And who are these liberal “appeasers” who supported this treaty? Well, in addition to the Democrats, of course, there were such famous bleeding hearts as former President George H.W. Bush, Condoleeza Rice and every other living former Republican Secretary of State, the admirals and generals of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military head of the Strategic Command (the branch of the armed forces that actually controls America’s strategic nuclear arsenal) and seven of his predecessors, and, notably thirteen Republican Senators, including Senator Corker of Tennessee, who as much as called the treaty a no-brainer. “This is not one of those votes where you wonder,” he said. “This is not even a close call.”

There are, of course, real grounds for concern about the manner in which this administration has conducted itself in terms of foreign and domestic policy. But that’s true of every presidential administration. The exigencies of holding high office in such an immensely powerful but also profoundly internally divided country as the United States probably fatally compromises the ethics of even of the most sincere office holder.

This morning, of course, the Tea Party blogs and websites exploded with predictable rage. Their whole conspiracy-driven worldview has received powerful reinforcement. This is yet another sign of what they already know to be true. The President is a Muslim and a communist and a foreigner and this is all part of his master plan to weaken America. Measure of Doubt does not play the race card lightly. But let us be clear about something. There are those on the Tea Party right who say that Obama would not be President if he weren’t black. Perhaps. But there wouldn’t be a Tea Party if he weren’t black, either. They have made that abundantly clear. So if you prefer to read what rational people have to say, there has been excellent analysis of this treaty on the venerable The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. If you prefer your political coverage with a dose of gun-shootin’, Bible thumpin’, Good-Ole’ Boy twang, well, you hardly need pointers from me about where to look.

There is, however, one foreign policy expert who opposed the deal, and whose views might give us a moment of pause, because they carry such immense weight, having been informed by years of dedication to understanding geopolitics. The former partial-term governor of Alaska, who obtained a U.S. passport nearly five years ago and who has been taking occasional trips outside of North America for almost four years now, Sarah Palin, called on the Senate to defeat the treaty.

On Twitter.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Satire

Note: As you might appreciate, the task of producing a bi-monthly column, written to the extraordinarily high standards my thousands of devoted readers have come to expect, is beyond even my literary talents, talents once described in glowing terms by a former professor as “generally adequate.” For fear of drawing too deeply from my well and coming up empty, I outsourced this week’s column to Toby Guffrey, a senior student at an Ontario high school. His essay, only the second to be written on Measure of Doubt by an author other than myself, appears below. GB.


"In order to understand why Christmas is important we must first try and understand it's origin's. Christmas began in the Year 0 in Isreal when Jesus was born to his parent's Mary and Joe in a manager by sheep and a drummer boy nearby who was one of three wives men who brought presents for Jesus and Mary who was immaculate.This means that she was virginal. Thus establishing the Christmas tradition of giving presents. Although Christians would rather give the present's to someone else they didn't know that yet because Jesus was very young and could not talk his language which was arabic yet. Next Jesus was killed by the Roman's; for trying to make everyone into Christian's the Roman's did not agree with this so Jesus was killed by them after he said "oh Lord why have you forgotten me?" on a cross before he was killed by the Roman's who used him as an escape goat. It was a very sad day but later he came out of his cave and sat on his father’s right hand. Jesus also walked on water that he turned into wine. Now that we understand the origin's of Christmas we can explain how Christmas has an influence today in Canada and Americain society. One problem with this is in Canada is Multiculturalism. This means that everyone get's to give there opinion about things like Christmas tree's and present's. One problem with this is that people like Indian's don't have Christmas but our Government can't make them because of mulitculturalism. Like you can't just stand there and tell people that they have to have Christmas because this would be an unfringement of they're rites and who would it be for then? But we have to remember that everyone has there own views about things like Christmas and also one problem is things like global warming can be caused from people buying too much One other problem s that many people like Christmas music so there has been many teen-agers buying Christmas music now because of inventions like iPod's and computer's. The problem with this is that more car accident's happen because people are listening to Christmas music on their iPod's while their driving car's and on their cell phones'. Also drinking and driving. "As anthropological relativism, once the province of a minority, gradually assumed the position of an organizing philosophy within the academy, the moral significance of religious observances declined proportionately among the professoriate." This quote shows that people don't like Christmas but because of the multiculturalism can't show it but this is unfair because of the Charter of Rights and freedoms. Next we should consider America where Barrack Obama is president after beating George Bush. George Bush was a Christian but Barrack Obama is Catholic. In America they have a melding pot not multiculturalism; because of this they have a Christmas tree at the Whitehouse. In conclusion its' important that every one in December remember Jesus because he died so we could have christmas but also one problem with this is at Christmas many African's and also in Nigeria are starving but because of global warming we should not by present's unless there green."


Postscript: As you can imagine, Toby is currently on his school’s Honour List and will be attending university next year. He plans to major in English and History and then become a teacher.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Poetry

Things were getting a bit serious here on Measure of Doubt, so I thought I'd inject a measure of levity with a blast-from-the-past, a peek into the mind of your author at age 15 (nearly 16), by posting my winning entry in the 1986 A.B. Lucas Secondary School Bad Poetry Contest. (A portrait of the artist as a young man is on the left.) All hail Mr. Watson, our enormously creative and patient Grade 11 Enriched English teacher.
------------


Rabid Rabbits, Or How Cam the Cannibal Learned to Make Rabbit Stew of Squirrels

Pretty soon there will be lots of rabbits around
Due to their natural multiplicative predilections
(That's how much they screw around
When showing their affections.)

Like a small furry floppy-eared herbivore
Rabbits boldly go where no man has gone before
Except other small furry floppy-eared herbivores
Which aren't really men anyway come to think of it

Clubbing a rabbit to death
Mercilessly with a carrot
The hunter shows his true colours
The way grapes do when you peel off the skin

Fortunately a hunting warden
Arrives to save the day
And clubs the hunter to death
With a baby seal
And eats him up, like breaded veal

It's not so bad being a cannibal
A pound of flesh
Provides more essential vitamins
Than good old fashioned oatmeal

Suddenly – from the door
Comes a loud banging noise
Rabbits lined up four by four
Like great big soldiers, only small like toys

Armed with guns and bombs and tanks and thermonuclear fusion weapons
The rabbits charge
Like a bull at the sight of a red flag
Like a football player at the sound of "hut"
Like a hell of a lot of rabbits trying to get inside a house

The warden makes a run for it
A brook is in his way
It's one small step for a man
But one hell of a leap for a bunny rabbit
This was his chance to get away!

Though he runs faster than a speeding bullet
With the agility of a Chinese acrobat
With the stealth of a real quiet person
Soon the rabbits are upon him

But here's a blessing in disguise!
These rabbits are really squirrels inside!
"Why go after me anyway? I saved you from
that hunter, just today!"

"True," at last, the squirrels confess
"But what's up, doc? With this puzzling mess:
How many roads must a man walk down?
Until he feels the thrill of victory?
Or the agony of the feet?"
-------------------

Postscript:

Alas, so much high school writing was lost when my Commodore 64 and all its floppy disks went the way of yesterday's newspaper — literally into the garbage — when my parents moved in 1995. Whole volumes of poetry, short stories, a radio play, "movie" screenplays, scraps of unfinished novels, countless essays...my own personal Library of Alexandria, hauled to the curb with empty bottles of Cheez Whiz and old copies of National Geographic. A little part of me dies to think of it.

Longtime friends can confirm that, for the same course for which I composed the Award Winning Bad Poem above, I wrote a full-length novel as some sort of project. I have no idea why I went to such extremes, though I should note that I was not the only one: my friend Dave Seguin wrote a longer and much better novel the same year. Looking back, it was fun, and certainly a more imaginative use of a teenage brain than the average 15 hour-per-week foray into hyper-violent video gaming that is the norm for male teenagers today. (And they wonder why boys are falling behind in school.)

Anyway, last week, I happened across the novel while searching for this poem. Having spent an hour or so with it,
I can confirm the following: 1) It is so very bad that no power on this earth can compel me to show so much as a single sentence of it ever again. 2) It is slightly better than Twilight. 3) I received a mark of 85. Can I say that again? I received a mark of 85. For a freaking novel I wrote in grade 11. Today parents call to complain if their kids get below 90 for successfully completing a text message while driving. 4) The teacher’s comments were brief but, I recall, filled me with joy. “A Michael J. Fox screenplay for sure.”

Well, it was the Eighties.



Sunday, November 7, 2010

Elitism

Let me put a case to you. Here are two athletes. One is measurably faster, higher scoring, has fewer injuries, and brings out the best in his team-mates. The other is demonstrably slower, lower scoring, has more injuries, and is a well known prima-donna on the playing field. Which of the two would you rather sign for your team? It’s not even a question, of course. In sports we take elitism, which is to say, a regard for excellence, for granted. Would it were so in things that actually matter.

Let me put a further case to you. Here is a political candidate. He speaks five languages, is interested and indeed well read in art, architecture, botany, biology, chemistry, classical music, comparative religion, constitutional law, engineering, geography, geology, history, literature, mathematics, the philosophies of ethics, mind, and religion, political science, physics, and zoology. He is a noted author, political theorist, and can correspond on more-or-less equal terms with some of the greatest minds of his generation.

But none of this, of course, would count in Thomas Jefferson’s favour were he running for political office today, and his enthusiastic Francophilia, his lack of military service, his irreligion, together with the certain-to-be-revealed scandal of an extramarital, interracial coupling that produced a child would sink him altogether. Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter would tell him to take his Godless, liberal, family-hating elitist butt back to France and to the stay there with the other book-readin’ peaceniks. We don’t like yer kind ‘round here, Jefferson.

Here is another political candidate. She speaks one language, but is famously inarticulate. Her books are ghost-written. She has never been to France. She thinks that that the world is six thousand years old. She claims to be Christian but demonstrates no knowledge of theology or scripture. She routinely condemns judges for misinterpreting the United States Constitution, but seems to have little conception of what the Constitution actually says, nor can she name a ruling she opposes except one. And yet she wishes to occupy the same office as the aforementioned Mr. Jefferson, and there are millions of people, including the three named above, who would like to make it so.

The problem, of course, isn’t with Sarah Palin, or indeed with any of hundreds of politicians like her. The problem is with the progressive diminution of the intellectual qualities of our political culture. For a great many reasons, expertly unraveled in a recent book by Susan Jacoby called The Age of American Unreason, even the merest hint of higher-order intelligence on the part of a candidate is now labeled as “elitist”, sometimes even by journalists who by any standard are card-carrying members of the elite themselves.

The fundamental problem facing our society is that most of our societal problems are too complicated for people to understand without considerable effort. Climate change, the rising costs of health care, global economic transformation – understanding such issues requires effort and careful weighing of evidence. The obvious response, that people are too busy to think about such issues, misses the point. The point is that most people aren’t even trying — polls demonstrate this very clearly — and there’s little excuse for that when nearly all of us have at our immediate disposal access to vastly more information than any generation before us. If you can find an hour per week for the hockey pool or Call of Duty or re-runs of The Simpsons, is it really impossible to find an hour per week to study issues that are of actual importance?

My own position is that, if it is, it is probably best to abstain from voting. Voting is a responsibility one has to one’s fellow citizens, and voting from a position of ignorance – or voting strictly on the basis of longstanding and unexamined party allegiances – is an abuse of that responsibility. Unfortunately, as it stands, a large percentage of our political leaders are elected on the basis of their ability to mobilize unexamined or pre-existing beliefs. You can go a long way beating the podium about “tax and spend liberals” even when you fully intend to tax and spend like mad yourself, because you count on the fact that a large percentage of people won’t bother to do any independent fact-checking. You can also go a long way in trying to convince voters that your opponent is an “elitist”: somebody who, by virtue of being thoughtful and reflective, can be said to not represent the “values” of most people out there. That claim, at least, would have the virtue of being true.

I’m not a big fan of Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, but there’s no denying he’s a serious intellectual with scholarly credentials that would put most academics to shame. So there’s something very sad about seeing the man reduced to wearing cowboy hats and chomping down hot dogs and calling people “folks” at rallies, all in an effort to solve what dozens of commentators have called his “image problem” – which is to say, his inability to “communicate” with the “common man.” Just once, I’d like to hear a politician say what’s demonstrably true: that it’s the “common man” who’s the problem. It’s his inability to put down the remote (or the video game controller) long enough to learn and think about issues that are of actual importance that’s the reason our democratic political process has now been reduced to the most debased and vulgar pandering populism.

Is education the solution? Certainly not: the progressive dumbing down of our societal discourse is occurring at precisely the moment when more and more people are going to school for longer than ever before. The issue isn't "education" as our school-system defines it (education as the accumulation of facts) but thinking. Above all, more than anything else, we need people to stop and think. This means acknowledging that problems of real complexity require careful consideration before we reach conclusions about them. But our political system is geared to go in to the opposite direction, and appeals instead to the basest and crassest gut instincts of people who prefer to have others do their thinking for them. Any candidate who tries to do otherwise is denounced as a spineless elitist, suitable only for the “ivory tower” and not the “real world”.

A professor of mine, recently departed, used to wander the aisles during final exams and quietly admonish his students, “More thinking. Less writing.” In other words, when you don’t know what you’re talking about, stop talking.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Teachers

Most parents say that they want the best education possible for their children, and that includes the best university education possible. What most of them don’t want is to actually pay for it, and teachers and professors have to endure an almost constant barrage of hostility from people who know nothing about our jobs but who think that we get paid too much. I had this very discussion over an interminably dreary dinner with a group of people not long ago, when one loudmouth parent began the predictable grunting about “you teachers” getting “two month off in the summer”, while blue-collar construction workers like himself were out there every day breaking their backs. (I certainly agree that leaning on a shovel while a machine digs a hole involves all manner of ergonomic compromises not conducive to spinal health.) Anyway, to this my reply was, excuse me, but, I am not a “teacher.” I am a professor. I attended graduate school for eight years to earn an M.A. and a Ph.D. and then earned a tenure-stream position in a job market where perhaps one newly-minted Ph.D. in ten can expect to get one. And, moreover, I don’t get “two months off in the summer”, thank you very much. I get four.

Well, I don’t really get four months “off” in the summer, but it was a pleasure to say nonetheless. But to be fair: my dinner companion never attended university (and not much of high school for that matter) and so he doesn’t really have any conception of what my job entails. His comment was really aimed at “teachers” generally – the kind he knew and loathed as a teenager, those autocratic bastards who expected him to do things like read books and learn French and solve math problems. And, boy, did he ever show them, because he did none of those things.

For years now I’ve put up with this sort of thing in all manner of social settings. And it’s remarkable how often the people who attack our teachers demonstrate that they what they really needed at a younger age was to have paid more attention in school. The first sign you’re dealing with ignoramuses is that they mouth off about things they know nothing about. So it felt good to finally push back a little, and I took a certain pride in saying aloud to all assembled that if they were so concerned about teachers getting their summers off they should write to their MP’s and demand that their kids spend the summer in school, too. You can imagine how that went over. “But that would ruin our vacations!”

Check and mate, I think. The obvious counter-move, though, was for someone to say that the real solution is to pay teachers less, and somebody did raise this point. Again, they want the best education for their children, but not if they have to pay for it.

Well, there’s no way around this. They’re going to have to pay for it, and they’re going to have to pay more, in fact. If parents want to attract qualified people to the field of teaching they’re going to have to make it worth their while, and in a serious way. And if the Ontario government wants to keep insisting that it wants more students to go to university, it’s going to have to compensate the professoriate for the extra seven or eight years they spent, out of the workforce, getting their PhDs, and for the very real gamble they took in choosing to pursue that career path.

And it’s for this reason that I add my very small voice in support of my colleagues at the University of Western Ontario, main campus, who might go on strike this week. The fact that they already get paid more, on average, than most other people, isn’t the issue. The issue is that they deserve to, and that teachers generally deserve to, because there few things are more important than how we educate our young.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Polls

In September, the Pew Forum released the results of a poll which found that most adherents of most faiths don’t know much about their own religions. On what amounted to a quiz of general knowledge of religion, Protestants got an average of 16 out of 32 questions correct, while Catholics got an average of just under 15. The questions, it should be noted, didn’t concern complex matters of theology but were about very basic issues one would assume were part of any culturally literate person’s storehouse of facts.

For example, two-thirds of Catholics couldn’t name the four gospels and one-third couldn’t name the Biblical birthplace of Jesus. Less than half could explain the significance of communion. Meanwhile, half of Protestants couldn’t identify Martin Luther as a person of importance to their beliefs, a third didn’t know that Genesis is the first book of the Old Testament, and a third couldn’t identify Moses as the person who, according to the Bible, led the Exodus from Egypt. Meanwhile, half of all Christians thought that the Golden Rule is one of the Ten Commandments. And these are the same people who get all uppity about the Ten Commandments being removed from courtrooms and schools. Imagine how they’ll feel when they find out that somebody – Obama, probably – went and took the Golden Rule out of them.


When it came to matters of other religions, most Christians were pretty much hopeless. And they also knew very little about public policy and faith. For instance, most Christians knew that teachers can’t lead prayers in American public schools, but they also overwhelmingly – and wrongly – believed that the teaching of comparative religion was banned, and they even believed that the Bible couldn’t be the object of study in any context, which is also entirely false. That's what you get for listening to fear-mongering hyperbole disguised as journalism.

In some respects, the results aren’t particularly surprising. Polls show that a significant percentage of the population doesn’t know much about anything at all. Canadians tend smugly to assume that this is an American issue. But recent surveys here have shown, for example, that about three-quarters of Canadians have little idea how their own government works. Half think that the Prime Minister is directly elected. Fewer than one-in-four can correctly identify our head-of-state. Two-thirds cannot correctly name the provinces and territories in Canada. Approximately half perform below expectations on elementary-school level mathematics. A third of the adult population reads and writes at an elementary school level. And don't get me started on science. One poll found that 42% of Canadians believe that humans and dinosaurs co-existed (!), while a further 21% are “unsure”. In short, their knowledge of natural history seems to come from The Flintstones rather than school. Results in the U.S. on similar questions are about the same.

Where things get really disturbing is when we start to cross reference polls. To take just one example, polls show that somewhere between a third and half of Americans want the teaching of biological evolution, the cornerstone of the life sciences, removed from the classroom. We can be sure that their opposition is on religious rather than scientific grounds because A) there is no scientific opposition to the existence of biological evolution and B) because the people who want it out don’t know anything about science. But now we find that they don’t know anything about religion, either. So why are they part of this discussion at all?

Now, here's the remarkable thing. In that Pew Forum poll on religion, the group that did best overall, with an average score of 21 correct answers and a whopping 82% scoring higher than 17, was...brace yourself...atheists.

Needless to say, most atheists aren’t gaining their knowledge of religion in churches. Indeed, judging from the results above, hardly anyone is learning much about religion anywhere at all. So what accounts for the atheists' relatively high scores? Well, one possibility may reside in the well-established fact that while atheism is always very rare, it is nonetheless correlated with higher levels of education. You tend to find more atheists among PhDs than you do among high-school dropouts, which is one reason why so many social conservatives revile academia. But the point is that more years of education tends to lead to greater cultural literacy in general, regardless of your beliefs. For example, I don't share the metaphysical assumptions of Buddhism, but I know the difference between Theravada and Mahayana, because I took a course on it.

My own suspicion is that there is another reason, too. Despite much fear-mongering in the past couple of years about the dire threat to civilization posed by the "rise" of the "new atheists", and the "spate" or "deluge" of atheistic bestsellers (apparently three books constitutes a "spate"), the fact remains, as one poll after another has demonstrated, that atheists are a tiny and reviled minority in the United States, distrusted even more than homosexuals and Muslims.

Accordingly, it may be the case that atheists feel the need to arm themselves, metaphorically, against a society that, while declining in terms of religious practice, nonetheless remains very firm in terms of religious belief and its position that non-belief is inherently immoral. (Or, rather, that non-belief in Judeo-Christian religion is inherently immoral. Most people have no objection if, like them, your disbelief applies only to other people's religions.) So perhaps it’s not surprising that a typical atheist’s arguments in this regard are sharper than those of the great masses of cafeteria Catholics and suburban Protestants who go to church a handful of times per year but nonetheless get praised on the grounds that “at least they believe in something” – even if they don’t have the slightest idea what it is.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lotteries

I almost never “play” the lottery, although I admit that the prospect of a $50 million win, a few weeks back, was too much to resist. In a moment of weakness, I slapped down five bucks figuring that, what the heck, somebody has to win. And somebody did.

Stupid, really. Nobody has to win, unless every possible combination of numbers is played. And what if I had won? The fact is that I’m not sure what my wife and I would do with $50 million. A change of venue to a more interesting city would be a start, but I like my job and can’t see sudden wealth as grounds for quitting, so moving might not be practicable. I also find the typical material trappings of wealth to be of marginal interest. What point is there in owning a home with more rooms than you actually use? I don’t drive, so expensive cars would be pointless. Motor boats are polluting, and sailing takes too much time to learn. I dislike wearing jewelry. I already have a wardrobe of reasonable-looking casual clothes, indistinguishable from Armani at a distance of greater than six inches. I could buy more expensive wine, but my dilettantish taste buds can barely distinguish between any bottle over $15 anyway. I have no need for more household consumer electronics. I don’t even own a TV, because even the biggest of big-screens fails to provide quality programming. The only thing worse than five-hundred channels of "reality" TV is five-hundred channels of reality TV projected onto a space the size of your living-room wall. As for that hallmark of the leisure class’s daytime itineraries, golf, I agree with Mark Twain that it just spoils a nice walk. Oh, I’d travel more, but moderate travel isn’t beyond my financial means now. Maybe Oprah’s right: maybe wealth doesn’t make you happy.

The lottery serves us mainly as a useful reminder of the remorseless logic of a universe that operates according to constant physical principles that we are powerless to alter. It just goes on, inexorably, and that LottoMax number you play every week will come up, on average, once every 85,900,584 draws – or about once every 1,651,934 years. It could be this year; it could be in a million. It doesn’t matter if you play your mother’s birthday or your lucky numbers or pray for divine intervention. The machine that randomly selects the seven numbers doesn’t care.

Admittedly, that particular game gives you better odds than that, since it generates three numbers on every $5 ticket, increasing your odds to a can't-miss 28,633,528 to 1. Put it this way: write down the names of every person in Canada. Put them in a hat. Draw your name at random. That’s about the same odds.

Unfortunately, statistically, you’d also have to spend, on average, about $150 million to win the grand prize, which never exceeds $50 million and might have to be shared. It’s for this reason that billionaires, looking for a fast buck, don’t simply buy 28,633,528 unique tickets every week: winning would be a bad return on investment.

Most people don’t believe this, of course. They believe that there are other forces at work. Toss a coin ten times. It comes up heads the first nine times. When polled, most people will say that tails is most likely to come up on the tenth toss, because they believe that tails is “due”. Things have to even out, right? Well, no, they don’t, and for a simple reason: the coin doesn’t care. But this “gambler’s fallacy” is nonetheless a very commonplace belief. Our cognitive equipment evolved to seek patterns, and sometimes will find them even where they don’t exist. We aren’t by nature rational – we have to force ourselves to be.

I recall a math teacher, circa the 10th grade, who taught this lesson in a dramatic fashion. He bought three lottery tickets. On one, the numbers were selected at random. On the other, the numbers were the same as last week’s winning numbers. On a third, the numbers were 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. When asked, the class overwhelmingly agreed that the numbers selected at random were the most likely to win, and we were divided on which of the other two tickets were least likely to win, with a slightly greater number doubting that the same numbers could come up twice in a row. Even after the teacher explained that the draw is completely random, that the computer selecting the numbers doesn’t care what numbers you choose, and that therefore any combination of numbers is as likely to appear as any other, most of us retained grave doubts. Surely 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 can’t happen.

Polls show that most regular lottery players don’t really understand how long the odds are. They also tend to believe that their wins and losses even out, think that their chances of winning on any given draw increases over time (just like they believe that “tails” is more likely to come up after a run of “heads”), and most of all are convinced that the numbers they choose is consequential in the outcome. A disturbing poll in the United States even found that a significant percentage of people believe that lottery winnings will be a significant factor in their retirement savings. I have no doubt that many Canadians think the same way.

It’s at this point that I wish to raise the issue the government’s involvement in all of this.
Back in the day, gambling and booze were the province of organized crime. For some time now they have been the province of the province – the province of Ontario, that is, and indeed every other province in Canada that runs lotteries, casinos, and liquor stores. I’ll leave aside the fact that we pay taxes so that the government of Ontario can sell alcohol to us at inflated prices for another occasion. For now, let’s consider the Ontario Lottery Gaming Association, whose website, overflowing with photographs of smiling, happy people, positively gushes that lotteries and gambling generated $3.8 billion in economic activity last year. But they say this as if that activity wouldn’t exist if the lottery didn’t, as if the $5 that I spent would disappear into a black hole if I hadn’t taken a 28 million to 1 spin of the roulette wheel that week.

Moreover, a closer look reveals that $1.8 of that $3.8 billion (what the website calls “support for communities”) is spent just keeping the lotteries and casinos running, while $1.9 billion of the remainder goes to “hospitals, health related programs, and other provincial priorities”, meaning that it goes into provincial coffers generally to be disbursed as the government sees fit.

Our casinos are jammed to the rafters with gambling addicts shattering their own lives, and the same government that will eventually pay for social services (or jail cells) to pick up the pieces is content in the short-term to help them in the process. As for lotteries, Ontarians spend an average of $550 per year on tickets, with the lowest income bracket spending an incredible and truly depressing 4% of their income on them. The same government that is telling Canadians to save more for retirement spends our money to encourage us to play games of chance from which we will almost always emerge as losers.

State-run lotteries are a form of voluntary communism. Put your money into a pot, and the government will redistribute it for you. It’s a legal, socially sanctioned, massively promoted weekly pyramid scheme in which millions must lose in order that, on occasion, some random individual will win. Here’s an idea. Don’t play. Don’t gamble. Want to support our hospitals? Give directly to them, and get a tax receipt. Want to generate economic activity? Spend some of your lottery and gambling money at local shops and stores on Canadian-made goods. Want to support your community? Save more for retirement, so that the community doesn’t have to support you when you retire. But don’t play. Don’t gamble.You won’t win anyway.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mosques

Electoral politics – and in the United States the majority of political effort is devoted to getting either elected or re-elected – is a nauseating exercise in hypocrisy at the best of times.

The Founding Fathers of the United States devised a political system that they intended to be insulated from the whims of vulgar popular opinion but the result two centuries later is a massively dysfunctional government that seems to do almost nothing but pander to vulgar popular opinion. Two centuries ago, political leaders publicly debated the form that their government should take through such epoch-shattering works of literature as the Federalist Papers. Now crass and boorish charlatans like Sarah Palin sell out stadiums by publicly rejoicing in the petrified state of their own intellects.


Well, elected hypocrites have one very great advantage over the unelected kind: they tend not to murder their own citizens, at least as long as they have to keep getting re-elected. I once asked a renowned scholar of the Presidency how many citizens of the United States had been literally murdered by the order of American presidents in the 20th century. He thought about it for some time and said, "I would have to say that, as far as I am aware, the number is zero." Now ask the question about past heads-of-state of, say, the Soviet Union, Germany, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, or Iraq. Given that, it's probably best to learn to live with the infantile sloganeering, the unthinking enthusiasms of the party faithful, and the depressingly predictable mudslinging from all sides of the political spectrum.

Still, it does get mighty tiresome. One terminally boring refrain made by Republicans in the United States is that the Democratic Party seeks to leave America toothless and defenceless in the face of its enemies. A prominent American comedian, Ann Coulter, even says that for this reason Democrats are uniformly and literally guilty of treason. This is easily contested by a ten-minute search for freely-available figures on American defense expenditure since the 1930s, but it's not necessary to do that, even. The most cursory examination of 20th century history will remind anyone that it was liberal Democrats who led the US into World Wars One and Two, who dropped the atomic bombs, who started and escalated the Vietnam War, and that Obama's last defense budget was larger, even accounting for inflation, than any since the Second World War. But, then, facts don't matter when there are electoral points to be scored.

Still, there was something particularly perverse, during the last presidential election, about the Republicans' argument that Obama would not "keep us safe" from the terrorists, when the Americans who actually were attacked on 9/11, the citizens of Washington and New York, voted overwhelmingly for him. And there is something equally perverse today about the way in which millions of Americans who have never been to New York – and who hate the city from afar – have taken a far dimmer view on the question of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" than have most New Yorkers themselves.

Last week, I visited Ground Zero, and saw the great chasm (now a major construction site) where, nine years ago, a small group of religious nihilists murdered three thousand people. St. Paul's Chapel, adjacent, holds a deeply moving display of photographs, placed in the succeeding days by hopeful loved ones of the missing, that went unclaimed as hope faded. The Church has retained them in the form of a makeshift memorial, one that I found far more touching than the memorial planned for the site itself when construction of the new World Trade Center is finally complete. It occurred to me that day that if anybody has a right to adjudicate on the question of the Ground Zero Mosque it ought to be New Yorkers. I don't agree with but I can at least comprehend the sentiment of the two-thirds of New Yorkers who have said that, while they agree with the legal right of the proposed center to be there, they would prefer it to be elsewhere. If anybody has a right to an irrational fear about this sort of thing it is them. Why the folks at Sarah Palin rallies in Armpit, South Dakota, or Bible-Belt fans of Rush Limbaugh suddenly care so much about issues of public safety in a city that they have never visited and detest for its liberalism and multiculturalism is easy enough to see: they actually don't care. But they do care about making political hay out of a non-issue, and all the better that they should do so at a time when fully a quarter of Republicans profess that they suspect their President is a Muslim. (We need hardly speculate about the percentage of those people who have even the foggiest notion of what Islam is.)

The proposed Mosque is not, incidentally, a Mosque at all, but a community center with a basketball court, a swimming pool, and a prayer room. And as many commentators have observed, Muslim worship is already going on in an old building at the site, as indeed it does daily at the Pentagon. Again, facts are the not the point.

Obama's response – which was that, as President, he ought to have no opinion on this matter –has been called typically clinical and academic, but you can bet that it was the result of a fairly lengthy discussion with advisors about how different response scenarios would "play" with various voting constituencies. (I suspect that it has been eons since any President has genuinely spoken his mind about an issue.) But it was also, coincidentally, the correct position for him to take. One of the fundamental principles of the American constitution, defended by its earliest and most important presidents, is that the state is secular and its citizens religiously autonomous. The same people who howl that Obama is a power-mad dictator and profess that they want "small government" now want him to exceed his constitutional authority on a very small matter that's no business of theirs.

On TV the other night some Fox News mercenary stated that the Mosque might be a breeding ground for terrorism, and "less than a mile" from the new World Trade Center, too. Does he believe that this danger is negated if the center was two miles away or ten? Does he think that terrorists are incapable of taking the subway? But what really caught my attention was something another commentator said: that the site was "sacred". Perhaps it is, but like many sacred things the believers themselves do not agree on what the significance of it is.

Next to St. Paul's, there is another temple, to the real religion of America: Century 21, a vast discount department store, where acreage of "designer" clothing, most of it manufactured in China, is marked down to something resembling its actual worth and set upon by throngs of people seeking salvation through middle-class conformity. I suspect that, when the history of the 21st century is written, the supposed clash of civilizations will have been deemed to have been decided in favour of that faith and none other.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Hitchens

I met Christopher Hitchens about five years ago when he spoke at my university. I was at dinner with him later that night, and was elated when at random he chose the seat next to me – I was there to meet him, after all, and not engage in the usual doldrums of conversation between academics, which usually involves griping about students.

I had been teaching earlier that day and had missed his talk, but knew his writing and his reputation. I admired his eloquence, the breadth of his learning, his consistent libertarianism, his revulsion for abuses of authority, and above all his abandonment of all political allegiances except one. Echoing Robert Conquest he had described himself as a member of the United Front Against Bullshit. Sacred cows of the left (Chomsky); the liberals (the Clintons); and the right (Reagan, for example, and more recently Sarah Palin) all have suffered under his incisive pen and tongue. And he has given so many years of service to this great and noble cause, that perhaps we should forgive him for having produced a reasonable measure of bullshit himself. He has been called arrogant and egotistical, and Alexander Cockburn went a step further and called him a “sack of shit”, as I recall. My first impressions, when I met him shortly before dinner, however, were very different. He seemed quiet and rather unassuming. We chatted for a bit about his recent volume on George Orwell, and over dinner I found that he was a generous conversationalist and a good listener. He went out of his way to include everyone at the table – I think there were seven or eight of us – and he had more than enough intellectual horsepower to keep us engaged on our home turf. He spoke with great authority on topics ranging from Thomas Jefferson to the politics of India and South Africa to the life and writings of John Buchan, and, for my benefit, the twenty-volume “Aubreyiad” of Patrick O’Brian.

But I reflected that, to this journalist who had traveled the world, witnessed wars and revolutions, wrestled with saints and presidents and dictators, who could count three of the greatest living novelists as close friends, we must have seemed an unimpressive bunch, and I, poorly traveled and depressingly monolingual, most unimpressive of all. He was outwardly convivial (we shared an appetizer, which he said was an essential part of “cementing a friendship”) but I couldn’t escape the feeling that he was bored. As the evening wore on, he made various efforts to start an argument, professing at one point his great relief that Bush had beaten Kerry the previous November. I knew that this was, at least in part, his contrarian streak emerging, for his own support for Bush in the week before the election had been so attenuated that his editors at Slate had initially marked him down as supporting Kerry. (He clarified that he had made no pick.) But there were no takers at all, no one up to the fight. “Everyone here is so nice,” he said, and I don’t think it was a compliment.

The reputed alcoholic, incidentally, did not show up. His intake that evening was decidedly moderate: a scotch and a couple of glasses of wine, I think. Several of us at the table did rather better than that. The enthusiastic and unapologetic smoker was present, however, and he excused him on several occasions to brave a very cold February night in Canada to go outside for a puff.

His defenses of this addiction were disappointingly ordinary: nobody likes a quitter, he said. I recall an older classmate who used to say the same thing, and who used to add for good measure that he’d rather die in his 60s from cancer than succumb to Alzheimer’s later. When, at age 63, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer (he survived just a few weeks), he professed that, given the opportunity, he’d roll the dice against Alzheimer’s now. Hitchens, I understand, did in fact quit smoking a few years back. Too late, apparently.
Earlier this month, in his regular column at Vanity Affair, he revealed that he has been diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer. The five-year survival rates are not good. On television, at least, he seems stoic, philosophical, and realistic.

No one would ever think of asking a serious Christian if he planned to abandon his belief merely because he was diagnosed with cancer – on the contrary, he would be urged by fellow believers to cling to his faith all the more tightly, and to be accepting of God’s mysterious “plan”. But almost immediately after Hitchens’s diagnosis had been made public, some people started to ask if a deathbed conversion weren’t imminent, as if the malignant mutation of cells was somehow evidence that, yes, there’s a God, and he wants you to change before it’s too late. This is unsurprising, perhaps; especially to those on the political right who thought, mistakenly, after 9/11, that Hitchens had become one of their own, his atheism has been observed not so much with anger as with disbelief, as if they want to say, “Come now, you supported the invasion of Iraq. How can you not accept Jesus?”

And it’s worth noting, too, that there are at this moment a good many people who are positively rubbing their hands with glee, that the bigmouth atheist, the foremost spokesperson for the most reviled minority in America, is getting his comeuppance. To Hitchens, of course, this will only serve to prove his larger point that among those who claim to be morally superior there are a great many bad people and, what’s worse, bad thinkers. The premature (if it comes to that) death of one atheist is no more evidence for the existence of God than the extreme longevity of another proves that there isn’t one. Yes, Hitchens has been unkind to the faithful. But he has never said that they deserved to be punished for their sincerely-held convictions, never said that what awaits them in the afterlife is a fate far worse than anything any terrestrial dictator could inflict in this life.


Well. There's no need for an obituary just yet. He is, as he once said of another famous contrarian, a useful citizen in ways that many of his detractors are not, so long may he live. Any oncologist will tell you that remarkable – I certainly won’t say “miraculous” – recoveries do occur, and that a 5%, five year survival rate means that thousands and thousands of people so afflicted do survive that long and much longer. Certainly there's a much, much better chance of that than a book entitled God is Not Great becoming a bestseller in a country where nearly half of the population believes that the Bible is literally true and inerrant.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Statistics

The phrase “lies, damned lies, and statistics” has been attributed to various people, most notably to Mark Twain, and some variation upon it gets trotted out every time somebody doesn’t like the direction a statistical line of argument is going. I spent the summer of 2005 in Toronto, three months that the media referred to as “the summer of the gun.” An usual number of gun-related murders occurred in the city that year, and the media (most notably the local commuter rag, The Toronto Sun) took every opportunity it could to prove the old adage that what bleeds, leads. Worst of all were the pundits and radio jocks, both left and right wing, who positively rubbed their hands with glee at every new killing, because every death reinforced, or so they believed, their thesis that society was going to hell (and sometimes quite literally to Hell). The only thing they differed about was the root cause of it all. Some said it was because of a decline in "values." Others said it was because of rising poverty. Some blamed it on guns and the United States. Others, on TV and video games. The consumer culture. Drugs. Alcohol. Masculinity. Rap music. Hotter summers. In more whispered tones some said the culprit was multiculturalism and immigration.

Occasionally, some courageous fool would attempt to inject some rationality into the discussion. On one talk-radio show, up against a notoriously fickle gadfly of a host, a visiting criminologist threw a series of haymakers that should have positively demolished the sense of crisis. He pointed out that, while the individual deaths were often very tragic, it was nonetheless the case that Toronto’s homicide rate was only about average for Canada as a whole, very far below the average when Toronto was ranked alongside American cities, and – this is the crucial point – actually much lower than it was a generation ago, back in the hallowed past when men were real men and families went to church and TV was inoffensive and Canadians didn’t let all these foreigners in. On average, he said, a typical Canadian could expect to be murdered about once every fifty thousand years. As if on cue, the host replied, “You can use statistics to prove anything", which is what people usually say when they can’t.

A few years ago, a scholar named Barry Glassner wrote an important though admittedly rather commonsensical book called The Culture of Fear, in which he pointed out that people are afraid of the wrong things. Take, for example, school shootings. The statistical fact of the matter is that children are safer from violence in school than just about anywhere else you’d expect to find them, including their own homes, and are more likely to die getting to school than in it. And yet Glassner found that something on the order of three-quarters of television media coverage of children concerned incidents of violence. Another example: people are unafraid to drive to the airport but take all kinds of drugs to get themselves calmly into the air, even though the total number of deaths in the history of commercial aviation – that’s globally – is about half of the annual death toll from car crashes in the United States.

We could go on and on. On a basic level, my point is that the media has a way of amplifying the significance of individual tragedies. I don’t think there’s anything conspiratorial about this – not at the level of basic reporting, at any rate. As a famous Monty Python sketch reminds us, it would be absurd for the media to report that nothing happened. Nonetheless, there is something askew about the fact that a single school shooting will produce days of coverage, while the fact that tens of millions of schoolchildren make it home safely alive every day is ignored. Similarly, in 2007 and 2008, commercial airlines in the United States carried 1.5 billion passengers without a single fatality, but that fact will receive far less attention than the next statistically improbable but nonetheless inevitable commercial air disaster.

All this brings me to an appallingly bad column I read in The Globe and Mail on Saturday. It was a small, rather hysterical article about a serious and emotional issue – drinking and driving, in which the authors did what authors of that sort of column always do: put emotion before reason. The authors began by reporting with alarm that drunk-driving citations had increased by nearly three percent the previous year. (We’ll leave aside the fact that the population increased by a little over one percent last year, since the authors did, too.) Very briefly, the authors acknowledged the possibility that this might simply be the result of the police citing more people, and then, having stumbled over the truth – quoting Churchill now – they picked themselves up and carried on as if nothing had happened. What is the source of this alarming increase of drunk driving they asked? The usual suspects were rounded up, and an assortment of experts with hobby horses were quoted. Youth culture is the problem. Alcohol advertising. Tough economic times. (I'm surprised they didn't blame video games and the Internet.) "Social engineering," the authors write, "stops at the bar counter." Uh-huh. Ask the owner of any of today's blessedly smoke-free watering holes if he thinks that statement is true.

The basic fact of the matter is that the authors failed entirely to prove to drunk driving actually is increasing. We have no idea how many drivers are drunk behind the wheel at any moment. We only know how many citations police hand out. These are two entirely different things, and they might not even be related. For all we know, the actual numbers of drunk drivers could be plummeting. Thus did Canada's national newspaper run a column about the cause of something that might not even exist.

Want to make the world a better place? The first step is to suspend judgment before the facts are in. Debates over momentous and complicated issues such the economy, health care, public safety, climate change, and so forth, are extraordinarily complex. Understanding these issues – let alone finding solutions to the problems that attend them – requires careful thought and consideration. In some cases, such as the issue of climate change, it may even require major study. Yet to read the newspaper or listen to talk radio or watch TV pundits is to encounter people who are paid to do opposite. Their job is to express views on matters about which they seldom have expertise, and to do so through the prism of ideology in order to attract comparably minded audiences, and to reassure them that, yes, not to worry, everything is going to hell.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Protesting

That will show them. We burned two police cars and smashed the windows at American Apparel. Now they'll dismantle the whole apparatus of the capitalist system and then we can...uh...become farmers and start growing our own food. Except I don't know how to farm, so I guess I'll buy my food from...oh, wait...

We elect our leaders (well, some of us do) and it’s good that they meet, but judging from some peoples’ reaction we shouldn’t have leaders at all, and, if we do, they shouldn't have meetings. There’s a certain appeal to this, I admit. Government is too big and tries to do too much. A large percentage of our elected leadership has a very marginal mandate, is demonstrably incompetent, and is almost entirely self-interested. These facts tend to discourage people, but it’s actually precisely because of them that it’s so important for people to get involved. Politics, by definition, involves the exercise of power, and it’s vital that people use such influence as they have to ensure that governmental authority is exercised by consent, justly, and with restraint.

As citizens of a liberal democracy, we have the right to alter the calculus of costs that go into governmental decision making. We can make our views known, we can vote, we can get involved in politics, we can peacefully protest. In ancients Athens, they had a word for people disinclined to do so: the politically uninvolved were called “idiots” - hence the origins of the word. So I have no objection in principle to those who demonstrated at the G20 summit, inexplicably held in downtown Toronto last weekend. I doubt that the marches had an particular impact on the decision making that went on within (the leaders didn’t see the protests and the media didn’t report on the agenda of the various peaceful demonstrators) and I doubt, too, that many of the marchers were particularly well informed about the issues about which they were marching. Indeed, something is seriously bonkers with the leader of a major union who says, “Working people have never been given anything” when the rank-and-file union membership he represents earn, on average, nearly $60 per hour when pension and benefits are factored in.

But let me put the following case to you: supposing that you’re a member of an organization that’s concerned about the ecology or the women’s rights in developing countries. Here are two courses of action open to you: in one, you can go to the G20 summit and peacefully demonstrate, in the small hope of making your views known, or you attend the same demonstration, don a mask, and throw bricks through windows and at the police. Which of these two actions are more likely to garner public sympathy and support for your position?

It’s not even a question that needs to be posed. Tim Horton’s franchises were vandalized in downtown Toronto over the weekend, and to most Canadians that’s an act that falls below spray-tagging the exterior of a cathedral on the list of things that are likely to get you sent to hell. And the acts of violence committed by various thugs claiming to be demonstrators reveal rather conclusively that the members of the “Black Bloc” aren’t interested in politics at all. They’re interested in pointless violence. Oh, they claim to be “political anarchists.” Very well: take ten of them are random. How many of the ten, do you think, could engage you in learned discourse about the philosophies of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, Pyotr Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, and Rudolph Rocker?

“We’re living in police state!” I keep reading on internet chat boards and hearing on Youtube. Was the police response overzealous at times? Of course it was. The police are an organization like any other, and amongst their ranks there will be a measure of bullies. There are also bullying garbage collectors and mail carriers and librarians and teachers. Given a slightly different trajectory in life, they might have been members of the Black Bloc. The difference, of course, is that your typical librarian doesn’t have legal powers of arrest and an assortment of weapons with which to take out their grievances on others. But for my students with a head full of steam and inclined to be more in sympathy with the Black Bloc and their ilk than with the police – who are themselves working people, remember – here’s something to bear in mind. The first sign that you’re not living in a police state is that you survive the experience when you say that you are.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cycling

We’re from London, so Amanda and I spend quite a bit of time in Toronto, which is where the culture is. In fact, I propose that Tourism London should adopt the motto, “London: Just Two More Hours to Toronto.” About the only thing we dislike about the place is the traffic, and anyone who has ever driven on the Gardiner knows the tedium of interminable gridlock on a road that is incongruously called an “expressway”. They will also have fantasized about what it would be like to go hurtling down the Gardiner without any other cars in sight. As I don’t drive, I picture myself on my bicycle, instead. On Saturday, I realized this rather modest dream. Let me explain.

It was on Saturday that me, my wife Amanda, my friend Alison, and her brother Colin (that's us, above) participated in the Ride to Conquer Cancer, a 200 KM bike ride from Toronto to Niagara Falls in support of the Princess Margaret Hospital. We departed the CNE around 8 AM with 3,100 other cyclists, and headed for the Gardiner Expressway, closed for the time being in order to accommodate the riders. About four minutes into ride, Alison and I were side-by-side when we both heard the unmistakable sound of her tire blowing. A flat, after four minutes! We pulled over. Within a few minutes, an official Ride support vehicle arrived, and the ride volunteer, a remarkable fellow named Don Ryan, trailed that day by a CBC news-crew, went through one faulty tube after another trying to get the bike fixed. (An aside: for our first-ever television appearance, Alison and I will be seen wearing form-fitting bicycle shirts and shorts, and I’d like to remind everyone that the camera, as is well known, adds thirty pounds.) After about twenty minutes or so, I was told that I should ride on, while Alison would be taken forward to the first rest stop with her bike in the truck.

I therefore was the last – the very last – of 3,100 riders. I positively hurtled down the Gardiner, propelled by a hefty tailwind and by the sudden and rather terrifying realization that, behind me, they were starting to let cars back on. But for about four or five minutes, it was just me and the empty lanes, and as I left onto Lakeshore (also temporarily closed), it occurred to me that I was experiencing something that very, very few of Toronto's perpetually frustrated commuters ever have. Then the terror started – fast cars re-entering Lakeshore (a vehicle ahead of me was picking up the pylons that they had laid down to demarcate where riders should be), and I actually went through a tunnel with a very considerable dump truck beside me, the driver no doubt puzzled and angry as to what I was doing out there, where no cyclist should be at all.

After another minute of frantic pedaling, a police-car pulled up beside me. The officer said, “You are last. I will be your escort.” Last! Last of 3,100. There was no time for explanations. I felt quite humiliated, and did my best to put in a credible performance for the next fifteen minutes, or as creditable as a rather dumpy middle-aged academic can be expected to put in. So, while I pedaled furiously to catch up with the back of the pack, I was followed by this slow-moving police car, its lights going the whole time, in what bewildered onlookers must have thought was some sort of bicycle-car equivalent of the O.J. Simpson “car chase”.

But it was there, at the back of the pack, that I had my most humbling experiences of the weekend. It was not the gifted competitive cyclists who impressed me the most that weekend (on Sunday, one such rider crossed the finish line in Niagara, then, announcing he was from Hamilton, turned about, and headed back). The people who impressed me most were a variety of differently-abled individuals, at the back of the pack but undaunted. There were no fewer than two one-legged cyclists, and several who were legally blind, accompanied by other cyclists as guides. And there were an assortment of people who did not meet the expected standards of what distance-cyclists ought to be: elderly, riding beaten-up bikes, they nonetheless pressed on, motivated, no doubt, by some personal grievance against the most dread of all diseases.

Those first moments of the first day were frustrating, at times humiliating, at times scary, and above all humbling; the last moments of the first day, as we ascended the Niagara Escarpment at Hamilton in the driving rain, were cold, wet, exhausting, and actually painful. In short, it was everything that a ride against cancer ought to be, and in the many moments that I felt like quitting on that steep, long, and winding hill, I thought of my mother, who never, never did.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Blasphemy

My students tell me that Judeo-Christian ethics are at the root of our legal system, but are they really? I can convert to Hinduism, on Sunday, lie to my parents about, and then say, “Goddamn, I covet my neighbor’s wife – and his ass, for that matter,” and the police don’t care, even though seven or eight of the Ten Commandments have just dropped before me like so many bowling pins.

The process by which religious precepts gradually become private rather than public observances is called secularization, and even highly observant followers of most faiths would probably agree that, up to a point, at least, it’s a good thing. Imagine, if you will, a society where it was a criminal offense to dishonour one’s parents. The courts would be teeming with teenagers. Conservatives would howl that we need to get tough to deter future dishonouring; liberals would whine that we need to get at the root cause of the tendency to dishonour; and lawyers would clean up, as usual. We needn't imagine the horror of societies where "thou shalt have no other Gods before me" is enforced by the power of the state, because religious fascism has existed throughout human history, and still does.

Yesterday, thousands of people took part in “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day”. Measure of Doubt did not. I’m not Muslim and therefore Islamic moral and ethical precepts do not apply to me except where they overlap coincidentally with laws and moral and ethical codes that do. But I chose not to participate in the day anyway. There are millions and millions of non-violent Muslims who consider the depiction of their prophet to be offensive, and I see no reason to offend people who are doing me no harm. Deliberately offending others is a weapon of second-last resort.

Having said that, I would very much like to digitally thumb my nose at the minority within every faith who believes that blasphemy ought to be punishable by law and perhaps even by death. Get a grip, people: you’re not the ones going to Hell. As I’ve said to religious friends many times over the years, it’s not the atheists you need to worry about. They just think you’re wrong. It’s the fanatically devout of other faiths who should concern you. They’re think you’re wrong and that you’re going to Hell for it. Some of them are even willing to expedite the process.

We need to get past all this. Our societal discourse on matters of religion is positively infantile, worse even than the dreary and depressing state of public discussion of electoral politics. It doesn’t help that books by nonbelievers tend to take the form of shrill diatribes, but there is little opportunity for sensible discussion when so many of the faithful themselves argue that religious beliefs ought to be exempt from criticism.

Sarah Palin was almost certainly the least impressive of major political candidates to come along in recent memory. But she had one quality that the Senator from Illinois did not have: she was consistent on the matter of religion. She was unapologetically evangelical and said that, you betchya, her faith would influence her decision making in office. For this, secularists and liberal Christians jumped all over her. But why? What did they want? For a ridiculous woman to be a hypocrite on top of it all? It is absurd to suggest that a politician should “keep her faith a private matter” when in political office. Either her faith has meaning to her, or it does not. If it does not, she should abandon it. If it does, we should expect it to influence her decision making. But our political culture practically demands religious hypocrisy, and in all sorts of ways. I trust everyone saw Laura Bush, very recently, confessing that she’s pro-choice and a supporter of same-sex marriage?

So I had a small flicker of admiration for Palin for a moment or two, for at least having the consistency of her beliefs (that’s how the low the bar was set). But it passed. Because when some of the weirder aspects of her belief hit the fan, and some people started to ask whether, for instance, a woman who believes that the world is 6,000 years old should be involved in policy making on scientific and educational issues, Palin and her supporters ran for the customary but hypocritical defense that religion was a private matter and therefore off limits.

No, no, no. A thousand times no. Politicians can do one of two things. They can do what the liberal secularists demand of them, and keep their faith to themselves and out of their politics, or they bring their faith into the public sphere and accept the fact that it’s going to be subject to criticism, just like every other aspect of their decision making.

The same goes for everybody. You don’t get to use your religion to adjudicate on all matters of truth and morality, up to and including speculating upon the disposition of the immortal soul of others, and then demand immunity from criticism in return. In short, if you tell me I’m going to Hell, I get to tell you to precede me there.


From the very beginning, this blog has been a defense of the principle that people should be free to do and say and think and read whatever they want, provided they’re not stopping other people from the doing the same, and provided that they’re not harming other people in the process. Blasphemy does not, can not, and never will fall into that category. No prophets were harmed in the making of this picture.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Posting

Do you want to be really, really frightened? Deeply and truly terrified about the state of the world? Do you want to experience the long, dark, night of the soul, paralyzed with fear for the future of humanity? Forget global warming. Put nuclear terrorism out of your mind. Worry thee not about declining potable water supplies. If you want to be truly afraid, spend an hour trolling through posts on Internet message boards, the ones that follow virtually every news-story or video clip. Then consider: these people have the right to vote. Here is the electronic community’s infinite equivalent of obscene scrawls on the inside of a public bathroom stall: people at their most nasty and cowardly and illiterate and crass. In a recent column, the outgoing editor of the local newspaper gushed that reader input of this kind could “democratize the news”, as if what’s factually true and worth presenting was a matter of majority opinion. Can you imagine? “Next on News Now, the stars of Twilight discuss why they think Bush planned 9/11.” It would happen.

But the most subliterate, irrational, and mean-spirited message boards anywhere are to be found on Youtube. People there find ways to start vitriolic (but illiterate and uninformed) fights about Obama on clips of otters holding hands.
Just to see, I selected a video at random from Youtube’s main-page. It turned out to be a clip of a UFC fighter, “talking trash”, as they say, about his opponents. You can imagine the kinds of messages that followed. Even the profanity is spelled wrong. So it’s not necessarily to click the following link. But, if you do, be aware that there’s swearing and racist epithets being thrown around:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmfquIjKmJo&feature=topvideos


Now, admittedly, there was some selection bias here. Click on your typical link of, say (I sense the sports fans starting to rise from their seats already), a UFC video or an NHL game or a even Tiger Woods these days, and you’ll get decidedly less literate commentary than if you clicked on a link of, for instance, a performance of Mozart’s Great Mass in C or a replay of a famous chess match.

Anyway, it’s of no particular consequence what the average person thinks of last night’s game or who is a better fighter in the UFC (or what they think of the Great Mass, for that matter.) It is of importance what the average voter thinks about politics, and the posts in response to events of actual importance on most Internet message boards actually leave me rather thankful that most people don’t vote.

Issues such a climate change, the threat of fundamentalist religion, the global economic downturn, etc., are extraordinarily complex problems. Understanding them requires study and careful consideration. Solving them will require serious people who have a clear mandate to act on behalf of a properly informed citizenry. Reading message boards on CNN.com, Youtube, Slate, and, well, almost anywhere, one gets the sinking feeling that tens of thousands of people are totally ill-informed but, what’s worse, nonetheless think that they’re right. They are exemplars of Russell’s famous adage that the whole problem with the world is that smart people are full doubt while the stupid ones are sure of themselves.


So what is going on here? I mean, apart from the fact that the most educated generation in the history of the world has apparently resolved itself to do nothing with that gift? I have a theory, and it has to do with human nature.

After World War Two and until the 1980s at the earliest, many cultural anthropologists, sociologists, cultural theorists, feminists, and others, argued that the World Wars had demonstrated that the problem with humankind was not a lack of civilization, but civilization itself, or at least the racist, sexist, militaristic, environmentally destructive civilization we’d built over the last 10,000 years.

By contrast, prehistoric humans, they contended, including various indigenous peoples prior to European contact, lived noble lives in harmony with nature and one another. The biological anthropologists tended to argue that this was the natural outcome of our evolutionary heritage. Just look at our nearest biological cousin, the chimpanzees, after all: they’re fun-loving creatures who spend their days cuddling and grooming one another and learning sign language.

Well, it’s not that simple, of course. Today many anthropologists and archeologists tell us that the death rate from violence in hunter-gatherer and early agriculturalist societies (including those of most pre-contact indigenous peoples) was probably about 25 or 30 percent. Just by way of comparison, about 4 or 5 percent of Germans died from violence in the first half of the 20th century, and that was after losing two worlds wars and suffering through one genocidal dictator. For Canadians, the figure is probably something like a quarter of a percent.

An important Israeli political scientist, Azar Gat, says that the reason for all this is simple. Contrary to what was once believed, our natural, evolutionary predispositions are exceedingly violent. Consider those cousins of ours. In the early 1970s, Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees do, in fact, wage war, commit murder and rape, and that nearly every female chimp who survives to adulthood loses at least one offspring to infanticide. That’s what evolution conditioned us for, Gat argues. We’re a grisly species that likes to fight. Fortunately, we don’t just obey the dictates of our genes. Civilization, is, well, civilizing. It encourages us to build hospitals and give Mother’s Days cards and write symphonies and get to work in rush hour without killing anybody. Our weapons are more lethal, true, and there’s more of us to kill these days, but in proportional terms the average European — even accounting for Hitler and Stalin — or North American living in modern times, is far less likely to die in war or by violence than the average person in medieval Europe, antiquity, or prehistoric times, when wars were smaller but far more frequent and death by murder was an everyday event. Life back then was, as Hobbes famously put it, nasty, brutal, and short. By historical standards, modern liberal democracies are practically Heaven. Today, the average Canadian can expect to be murdered about once every 54,000 years, and more Canadians die from accidental falls every year than have died in war in all the years since 1945.

And what on Earth has this to do with Internet message boards? Well, it’s simple, really. Civilization – and liberal democratic civilization in particular – encourages us to restrain ourselves. But the Internet is an uncivilized place. It is not liberal and it’s not a democracy – it’s anarchy. The restraints of human solidarity that keep you and me from pelting each other with bananas (or arrows or spears or stones) are not in place when people log anonymously onto Youtube or CNN.com. And night after night, on the message boards, the chimps return to stake out territory and fight. You can read their grunting for yourself.

In fact, I admit that some primal part of me desperately wants to go to that Youtube clip of Mozart’s Great Mass and leave a message saying “Mozart sux. Beethoven rulez” just to see what would happen.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Aging

Well, this won’t do at all. I awoke this morning to discover that I’ve turned forty, and I haven’t the slightest idea how this happened. Last I remember, I was nineteen, and setting off to choose my courses at university.

Forty! The most shocking thing, perhaps, is the state of decrepitude into which my body has fallen in the past ten years. Always prone to rather substantive fluctuations in body mass, I now find that the fluctuations have ceased. In their place comes a pattern of steady change, and all in one direction. Hairs sprout from alarming places, except in the one place where I want them to be. My teeth? Worn down to nubs and now crowned with porcelain. I have a six pack, true, but I bought it at the LCBO. I get tired walking up stairs. My feet hurt and my hips ache. Were I a dog, and were you a farmer, it would be getting to the point where you’d be thinking, yup, pretty soon we’ll have to take the ol’ feller out back of the barn and shoot him.

Well, maybe not just yet. The 90th Psalm grants us that the number of our years shall be “threescore and ten” or, “by reason of strength” fourscore, which I rather prefer. (Must do those push-ups.) Still, this upper extreme constitutes a mere twenty-nine thousand days, and by virtue of pure mathematics alone, I am confronted with the rather depressing possibility that there are fewer days ahead than behind.

If there’s one thing that has, for me, indicated the passage of time, it is the growing incomprehensibility of the world that my students inhabit. More and more I find myself asking why they dress that way (why wear the ball cap and the hood up while you’re inside?); why they seem to have been genetically engineered to be one with their laptops and cellphones (what could be so important that you must text at this moment?); and why they call that crap “music” (back in my day, songs had something called “a melody”). In short, I’ve begun to wonder what every generation in the history of the world has: what’s wrong with the kids these days? So, there it is. I’ve become a grump. A middle-aged fogey. A curmudgeon.

Still, the passage has time has not been without its advantages. There’s a famous line in Tennyson, “Though much is taken, much abides”, but this implies a steady erosion against which we, like Ulysses, must strive and not yield. But surely there are qualities of mind that only come with age. Knowledge easily is gained by anyone willing to crack a book (“Lend me an hour a day,” Will Durrant once said, “And I will make a philosopher and a scholar out of you.”) Wisdom, on the other hand, is something that comes with experience. The difference? Knowing that, too, is the product of experience, and it is something I did not know when I was 30. Knowledge is when you know something. Wisdom is knowing when to say it.

I mentioned before, how I biked up to the university shortly after my 19th birthday to meet the registrar at the college where I had just been accepted. Everyone who attended Huron in those days remembers the registrar – a formidable woman who left an impression upon a generation of students as great as any made by any faculty member of that era – and I still recall retreating backwards into my chair as, with crooked finger jabbing the air, she recited Shaw’s dictum that youth, a wonderful thing, is wasted on children. “You’re not here to socialize,” she said. “This is about your life. Don’t miss out on this opportunity.”

Indeed. Well, I’m not sure I would ever tell my students that they ought not to socialize. My own happiest moments as a teacher have been the result of seeing lasting friendships form among students – that is something that will outlast every lesson taught and even those few that actually are learned. But it is also true that, aged 18 or 19, my students do not yet realize that time is the most precious asset they possess, and that the world of learning is too fertile to mark time.

So, forty. I will embrace thee with all the enthusiasm of embracing an in-law. And it is tempting to quote Tennyson again: “Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” But I think my grandmother put it best when she that the thing about aging is that it’s better than the alternative.