Thursday, December 26, 2013

Surrender

“And the day after Christmas, the whole family gathered into the SUV and drove to the big box plaza, which was FAR, FAR away from the core of the city where nasty hipsters and EVEN people needing social assistance lived. Then they returned all the crap they didn’t want and snapped up things they did at bargain prices!  And ran their credit card balances UP and UP and UP! The end.”  

For immediate release:

The War on Christmas, one of the least effective military campaigns in the history of the world, has been lost. Anti-Christmas forces, having been reduced to a handful of deviants muttering something about the winter solstice and Jesus not having been born on the 25th of December, surrendered unconditionally, their efforts having been proven futile for the 50th year in a row. 

Once again this year, the Christmas season returned on November 1st (some localities waited until November 12th out of respect for those who gave their lives in the early battles to save Christmas) and stayed for its customary seven weeks. During this period, multicoloured lights appeared on trees and rooftops everywhere, alongside the visage of the Great Leader – who, you will recall, has children under perpetual surveillance to ensure their compliance with behavioural norms – and variations on the same dozen songs played incessantly from speakers in every public place in the Western hemisphere. A minority even went to “church”, but most, as is the custom of the past half-century, went to shopping malls and spent themselves into oblivion, despite the cluck-clucking from a handful of Christian conservatives, who represent the last bastion of anti-capitalist thought in our society. Meanwhile, televisions bombarded revelers with hours of familiar but repetitious entertainment, including Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, The Charlie Brown Christmas, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and of course the annual mawkish, maudlin, mediocre and incomprehensible Dr. Who Christmas Special. As usual, the North American Aerospace Defense Command issued reports of the Dear Leader’s progress across the Northern Hemisphere on Christmas Eve, part of an ongoing disinformation campaign. On the day itself, "families" (groups of people associated on a biological basis but barely known to one another) gathered for stressful meals where they outwardly cooed over how very good everything tasted, but inwardly reflected that pretty much everything was overcooked and cold by the time everybody sat down to eat.
 

In other news, on a local street corner, one of the few surviving anti-Christmas cranks was heard to say,  “Political correctness has run amok. You used to be able to say 'Happy Holidays' and 'Seasons Greetings' to people without anybody getting offended. Now, if you don’t go around saying “Merry Christmas” they jump all over you." He has been evacuated to a nearby Toys ‘r’ Us where he will be required to listen to “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime” over and over until he is fit to rejoin society. 

-30-

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Commuting


Behold, my friends, the form of self-inflicted brain damage called the rush-hour commute. Is there any single greater waste of time, productivity, and money that our society has imposed upon itself?

Well, my wife and I have rarely had to contend with anything that bad, but we've spent our share of time accomplishing nothing but raising our blood pressure and the global temperature while sitting in an expensive automobile going nowhere. 

So we've made an important decision. This week, we’re getting rid of our car. It’s an experiment. It might fail. I doubt this will be our last car, and we’ll be renting occasionally, too. But there’s no harm in trying it for a while. We're three-quarters of the way there, anyway. In four years we’ve put a paltry 25,000 kilometres on a car that, all told, costs us around $500 per month. 

Still, people look at us like we’re crazy. Getting rid of the car! It’s like we told them we’re getting rid of our heads. Some people have told us that not owning a car is irresponsible: the automotive industry being one of the cornerstones of our economy, after all. And a couple of people have actually gotten angry. Actual anger. The problem, you see, is all that fancy book learnin’ we’ve done. Don’t know what the real world is like.  No common sense. Them degrees are just expensive bits of paper. Can’t see the forest for the trees.  One wonders how we function at all, boneheads that we are.

Speaking of forests and trees, they’re one of our major concerns. I’m convinced that the overwhelming majority of peer reviewed scientific evidence proves that climate change is real, potentially catastrophic, and that human beings are the major contributor to it.  So one way or another, sooner or later, we’re all going to be driving less, or at least driving vehicles that are less polluting. But there I go again, with my fancy-pants evidence-based thinking.

An interesting thing: for millions of people, there is an astonishing invention that offers inexpensive, reliable, emission-free transportation. It can hugely reduce urban traffic congestion if properly utilized. It can even help its operator lose weight. It’s called a bicycle, and in some cities it’s just taken for granted that it’s how huge numbers of people get where they’re going.

My wife and I are bicycle commuters for about nine months out of the year, and in snatches for the winter months, too. We're fortunate to live near bike paths and most mornings can beat the rush-hour traffic to work. People always ask about the rain and cold, but it’s a mild inconvenience next to the stress of the morning commute for drivers. Seriously: when is the last time you enjoyed driving to work? By contrast, our commute is stress-free and nothing quite matches that feeling of smug superiority when you ride up and your colleagues avert your gaze, simultaneously envious of you and humiliated about the hideous state of their own decrepit and decaying carcasses.

The bicycle has been a mature technology for a better part of a century now. This bike might look like a revolution in design but fundamentally it’s not that much different than sometime your grandfather might have owned. And yet there was a time in North America, not long ago, when bicycles were considered something for children and a small number of adult hobbyists. In the last three decades, however, a huge adult bicycle culture has emerged. For a while, the industry floundered around trying to find the right bikes for ordinary people. The bike shops are full of beautiful, featherweight carbon frame bikes that cost thousands of dollars, but for the average person looking to commute those are like buying a Ferrari to go to the mall and back. Thankfully, for a few hundred dollars now you can get a very good commuter bike (and I don’t mean some ten-ton hunk of junk purchased at Canadian Tire) that will suit your needs perfectly.

Now have a look at these. They’re breathtaking, decadent, handmade titanium bikes from a company called Budnitz. They’ll cost you about $8,000. Seriously: have a look. The bike community has its share of snobs and on the message boards these have generated a lot of hate, mostly about the cost. But really it’s just expensive in the way that a luxury car is. Now, I’m not endorsing this particular brand, just using it to illustrate a point: even one of these sumptuous machines, the Rolls Royce of commuter bikes, is actually a pittance compared to what people spend on their cars.

In 2012, the CAA estimated that a car on average costs its owners $10,452 dollars per year – that’s the cost of payments, insurance, gasoline, maintenance, and depreciation factored in.  Consider, too, that after ten years most cars are hunks of junk ready to go to the scrap yard. By contrast, a good bicycle frame will last forever and a day. Maintenance and replacing parts on most commuter bikes will set you back a couple of hundred bucks per year.

So, we have a means of commuting that is cheap, environmentally sound, and makes us healthier: the bicycle. Why do more people not use it? Well, some people just can’t. I get that. It’s hard to haul your tool kit to the job site on your panniers. Or they have kids to get to soccer practice. Or maybe their commute is too long, or it’s just not practicable to show up at work and have to shower and change. And heavy snow is a big obstacle, though perhaps not to these. There are safety issues, because cities don’t often factor cyclists well into their transportation plans. But the biggest problem for people with short commutes is simply a psychological one. They can’t quite imagine getting where they’re going without their cars. But millions of people do, every day. The way I see it: we’re going to do what we’ve mostly been doing anyway, and get paid $500 a month to do it.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Atheism

The worst thing is when people try to talk me out of it, as if it’s just something soft I’ve gotten stuck in. "Stalin was an atheist," they say. Okay. And? What do they expect to me say? "Stalin was an atheist? I had no idea. In that case, I do believe in God." And yes, I’ve heard of Pascal's Wager, and Paley’s pocket watch on the heath, and every other variation of the argument from design. These things do tend to enter your consciousness after three decades of daily study and reflection.

And yet my personal progress towards disbelief involved no turning points, revelations, or eureka moments. It simply began with a gradual realization, in boyhood, that my school’s daily prayers and Bible readings were just white noise to me. I stopped believing in God by the time I was about twelve and this early, intuitive disbelief has been buttressed by three subsequent decades of study, all of which has deepened my conviction that there isn’t enough evidence to support the God hypothesis.

There’s no reason to get all uppity about it, but people tend to. This was the second or third column I wrote for Measure of Doubt, nearly five years ago, but it’s the 109th that I’ve actually posted. I keep hesitating for a simple reason. I've found it’s best to keep quiet about my disbelief because it’s a stigma. I'll say that again: disbelief is a stigma. I almost never discuss it with family or friends. This is the first time I’ve unequivocally professed my atheism in public, and I raise the issue now with serious trepidation. 

Oh, I know that some believers think of themselves as the persecuted minority, huddled around the flickering candle of faith in the encroaching darkness.  Well, maybe. But it must be crowded around that candle, what with ninety percent of the population elbowing for room. The assertion, made by some conservative believers, that atheists aggressively dominate the public discourse on religion is based on the worst sort of hyperbolic selection bias. 

And I really don’t see what the problem is. Why would anyone be bothered by my skepticism, let alone offended by it? I don’t think believers are delusional, I think they’re wrong. Why would anyone be offended by this? It's precisely what they think about me.  Moreover, I assume that most Christians reject most non-Christian beliefs. Presumably they don’t believe that God has taken human form on many occasions, that First Nations have occupied the Great Plains since the beginning of time, that we’re bound to an endless cycle of reincarnation unless we follow the Eightfold Noble Path, or that the Qu'ran is the final and perfect revelation of God. That being the case, they too are atheists – about other peoples' religions. Again, I fail to see what the problem is.

Admittedly some people are faithful in a more amorphous way, arguing that all religions are just different versions of the same truth. When they consider such things at all, they say that they believe in some sort of "divine spirit" a warm and fuzzy though sometimes disapproving God: a celestial Oprah. Confess your sins. Jump on the living room set sofa forever and ever.

 "Maybe God is just the word we give to love," I heard a liberal theologian say on TV one time.  "Oh, please!" I shouted. I nearly dropped my copy of The Satanic Verses. And yet the amazing thing was that this purveyor superficially conceived, cloyingly sophomoric ooze got a free pass from the fundamentalist on the same show. "At least she believes in something," he said. By contrast, the atheist on the panel, who professed a thoroughly considered, rigorously examined, and continuously re-evaluated disbelief was told he was going to Hell. The fundamentalist described how he himself had always suffered persecution for his faith. Incredible: he goes around telling people they’re going to be tortured for eternity but says he’s being persecuted when they defend themselves. Incredible.

Well, I don’t think anybody’s going to Hell. In fact, nothing follows automatically from my atheism, and certainly not any conclusions about religion as a social institution. I don’t believe that it "poisons everything" as the title of a recent book put it. Personally, as I’ve grown older, I’ve taken far more interest in religious studies and my respect for certain aspects of religious institutions has grown, even as my atheistic convictions have solidified. I was very irritated not long ago to hear someone remark with pride, "I’m an atheist and I’ve never been in a church in my life." That’s a shame: he’s missed out on some great architecture and a pile of history. Comparative religion is one of the cornerstones of a good liberal education and I insist that my students know something about it. But people often mistake the meaning of all this.  A few years ago, on a teaching evaluation, one student wrote, "Prof. Broad seems very religious." I should have framed it.

Moreover, I teach at an institution with a religious affiliation.  Why?  Well, for many reasons, not the least of which is because it is an excellent liberal arts college with a superb faculty.  But it is also because that institution is actually far more amendable to the serious discussion of religion than the secular university I graduated from, where legions of the self-righteously politically correct maintain that the critical discussion of religion is the exact equivalent of racism. Their position – that ideas have rights – is both insipid and insidious, and is one that, moreover, they do not themselves believe, as they are perfectly willing to hurl stones in the direction of the Catholic Church, for example, when its precepts on matters concerning abortion, the ordination of women, and same sex marriage differ from their own.  Let us be very clear about this: you hear that academe is dominated by atheists. It isn’t. I can count on my fingers the number of real ones I’ve met. It’s dominated by moderately secular liberals, most of them positively popping with New Age spiritual beliefs. They're just mad about organized Christianity. Criticize other religions and they’ll haul you before a human rights tribunal. I tremble slightly to type those words.

Friends among the faithful, it's not the nonbelievers you should worry about. They just think you’re wrong. It's the devout of certain other religions and denominations that should concern you. They think you're wrong and that you're going to Hell for it. Some of them even believe that they are retribution's earthly instruments.  And since even the largest single denomination can claim no more than a fifth of the world's population as even nominal adherents, it is undeniably the case that, regardless of what faith you profess, the majority of the world's population thinks you’re wrong, that you’re guilty of some degree of theological or liturgical malpractice, and indeed from countless thousands of temples, mosques, and churches there emerges an even stronger claim from millions of truly devout believers.  They know in their hearts that you are not just wrong, but are wicked, sinful, and destined to spend eternity in damnation.

 So I'll see you there

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Remembrance

The brouhaha about white poppies is back and boring again, this year exacerbated by a seething campaign of fake indignation mounted by the herd of hacks at Canada’s worst newspaper. Well, it gives them something to do in the brief period before they begin to seethe with fake indignation about retailers who say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” and all that portends for the imminent collapse of civilization. This year, Ottawa’s Rideau Institute produced something like 2,500 white poppies versus the Legion’s 18 million red ones and yet to read the populist piffle in the Toronto Sun (and its various unwilling progeny) is to get the impression that this insidious commie plot, well, portends the imminent collapse of civilization. Can’t make a living as an ideologue if you don’t have a crisis.

More and more each year I find myself discomforted by Remembrance Day, and especially by the efforts of some organizations to impose a singular interpretation on the memory of the wars and how we should feel about them.  As an historian of the home front, I find the most remarkable thing about Canadian society in wartime to be the disjuncture between propaganda that stressed unanimity and common purpose and the actuality of what went on. Political, social, and economic debates were not set aside for the common good in wartime: they intensified as virtually every group with an axe to grind surged forth to argue that their cause had greater urgency than ever before. Propaganda, persecution, and misty-eyed patriotism tended to to paper over the unpleasantness (and this time of year it still does), but the fact is that some of the most divisive social and political debates in this country’s history occurred during the world wars. The generation of Canadians that fought them did not agree about why they were fighting, how they should fight, and what they wanted when peace resumed. And so it is positively incredible that some groups seem desperate to fix the meaning of remembrance after the fact, as if we could find consensus where wartime generations could not.

On Monday, though, we will hear about how the generation that fought the world wars fought “for us” and “for our freedoms.” But did they? Fight for us? Fight for our freedoms?  Surely they fought for their world, and if they fought for freedom at all it was almost certainly not for our conception of freedom. We may grow misty eyed over the grave of a young man, cut down in his prime in 1918, but reflect that, were he typical of his generation, he would hold attitudes on matters of (for starters) gender, race, and sexuality that many of us would consider positively repugnant and indeed totalitarian today. What would a typical soldier, killed at Amiens, having died without ever having heard the radio or seen a colour photograph, think of the world a century a later? Think of our secular, smoke-free, multicultural, Canada? Think of women in Parliament, a black man as President of the United States, of same-sex and interracial couples, Breaking Bad, Twilight, and hip hop?  Even the idea of a fully independent Canada might very well repulse him.

An eminent colleague of mine believes that, on November 11th itself, such questions of politics and history should go by the wayside and instead the day should be dedicated to the simple act of remembrance of those who fell. But what does this mean? Remember who? Remember what? And how? The act of “remembrance” – and in the context of Remembrance Day that almost always means "veneration" – is not simple. Consider even the question of "who": am I just remembering Canadians? And what does that even mean, prior to 1947? A great many of the 65,000 “Canadians” killed in the First World War weren’t born here, and probably didn’t think of themselves as Canadians at all. What about those who fought badly, were cowardly, or who even betrayed their comrades? And am I remembering our allies, too? The French? The British? The Americans? All their wars? Even the cruel and stupid ones? Even the Red Army, which brutalized its way across Eastern Europe, the spearhead of a totalitarian state whose cumulative death toll exceeded Hitler’s?  And am I remembering the enemy fallen, too – remembering those who fought against  “our freedoms”? Tread carefully here.

Consider, if you will, the rifleman in the infamous photograph above, about to gun down a woman and her infant child and then, presumably, the others, huddled defenceless, terrified, and weeping, perhaps begging for their lives. Very probably he was killed or maimed in subsequent fighting on the Eastern Front. Should I “remember” him tomorrow, merely because he wore a uniform and fought for a cause he believed in, even though that cause was objectively evil? Even though the success of that cause would have spelled the end of European civilization as we know it? Is his uniform some sort of totem that grants him moral absolution, regardless of his actions or the cause in which he served?  I find the notion that it does positively fascistic – a sign that no small part of his ideological worldview has, in fact, not merely survived eradication, but actually emerged victorious from the war. I know some people reading this will disagree.

But that's my whole point. I object. I object, I object, I object. I object to the idea that there is single, simple meaning to “remembrance” – that there is a correct way to remember the wars that has been passed down to us from the generation that fought them. Above all I object to the idea that the worldview of the dead – even assuming that a unitary worldview belonging to the past generations could be located – must somehow determine our own. We impart meaning on the act of remembrance, we write history for our own purposes and for the benefit of our own society.


So there I will be, tomorrow,  with a red poppy on my lapel and a white one in my heart, unsure about what to think of any of it. And perhaps that’s the real reason why I’m there – because of that uncertainty. Because if the liberal democracies succeeded in accomplishing anything in the world wars, it was in defending at least one part of the world from consensus. 



Sunday, November 3, 2013

Leadership

The really absorbing spectacle in Toronto news over the last few days has not been the revelations regarding Rob Ford, as anyone who has been paying attention knew that was coming. No, it has been truly epic meltdown of Canada’s worst journalists at Canada’s worst newspaper, the Toronto Sun, where they have in the past seventy-two hours revealed hitherto undiscovered ways of back-pedalling, equivocating, deflecting, denying, and dissembling. What remains is a quivering pile of populist goo, oozing about the ankles of the “sunshine girl” du jour.

I try not to read this stuff for the same reason I try not hit myself on the head with a hammer. But it has the morbid appeal of a car wreck and ambulances by the side of the road – can’t look at it, can’t look away.

Anyway, they had a good run. Apart from elected office, journalism is about the only profession where you can be paid to spew at the mouth once a week on matters about which you have no expertise, so they’ll always have their memories of that, at least. And one or two of them have shown real integrity in the past few days, by which I mean, they’ve at least been consistent in their lack of integrity where Toronto’s absurd mayor is concerned. At least one continues to insist that the whole thing is a “left” conspiracy (how they love to throw that word "left" around), while another,  Anthony Furey – I confess to never having heard of him before – rose to the occasion and condemned not so much the mayor, but his critics.  “The left,”
(there’s that word again), he wrote, "is not outraged that Ford might be using hard drugs...no, the bottom line is they don’t like that a fat, red-faced football coach with a working-class way about him is mayor. They don’t like that he’s not “people like us.” That’s all it’s ever been about.”
 

Guilty as charged. Well, sort of. I actually don't want "people like me" as my leaders. I want people who are better than me. I don't want just plain ordinary good-ole aw shucks folks to be Prime Minister, Premier, and Mayor. I want the best and brightest in political office. I want people who are smarter than me. Better informed than me. More articulate than me. More literate and better read than me. I want leaders with vision. I want leaders who are people who set examples in all things – including moral behaviour. I want leaders who are truly exceptional, the kind of people who can inspire us and who we can aspire to emulate. And my question for people who want “joe average” as their leader, who want crude, crass, mean, mendacious, slovenly, stupid, rude, racist, and reactionary boors as their leaders is...why? What happened to our country, to our polity – and this question goes out to Americans, too  – that “elite” became a pejorative term and mediocrity became the measure of a man or woman aspiring to political office? 

As a society, we are faced with real and complex problems. We need serious people with serious answers if those problems are going to be solved. Electing populist hooligans who make you feel good about your own inferiority complex isn't the solution.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Re-runs

Author's note: our regularly scheduled blog post has been replaced in our programming lineup by a special repeat broadcast of Measure of Doubt's most read and most requested column, Hell, a 666 word rumination of the topic of damnation from 2011.

Hell

A parable.

So, there ’s Gordon. In Hell. His crime? Religious dissent. On Earth, we call governments that punish religious dissenters totalitarian, but he has long since learned to let that go — eons of torture and burning tend to take your mind off of things.

Gordon is holding a tray and is in a long, long line in Hell’s Cafeteria. The air conditioning is on the fritz again, and it's hot as Hell. Over the speakers, they're playing Muzak arrangements of Barry Manilow ("Mandy", 24/7, for eternity) and they're serving fish-sticks, again, for the hundred-trillionth day in a row. As he approaches the counter Gordon notices a small sign, written in blood. His blood. "Tomorrow’s special: fish sticks." Bastards: they think of everything.

Time has no meaning here, but Gordon keeps a day-planner anyway, because he’s always been a planner sort of guy. For today, it says:

8 AM burning
9 AM drawing-and-quartering
10 AM hanging
11 AM dismemberment
12 PM lunch (poisoned)
1 PM the rack
2 PM root canal
3 PM drowning
4 PM re-runs of The Golden Girls
5 PM buried alive
6 PM beating
6:30 PM dinner (fish sticks - poisoned)
etc.

He flips forward a few pages. More of the same, although on Thursday he has an hour of cardio-kickboxing. He makes a mental note to get that changed to burning.

Gordon looks up. Ahead of and behind him, queuing with their trays, are the teeming billions of the damned. They are of every race, ethnicity, social station, and period in human history. Some are warlords, murders, rapists, and thieves; some are adulterers, some are liars, some liked the new Star Wars movies better than the old ones. But the majority are quite ordinary people who never hurt anybody. The ones from Gordon’s time lived their lives, went to school, read a few books, watched TV, cooked meals, raised their families, drove their kids to soccer practice, gave some bucks to charity, some even went to church now and again, but, wouldn’t you know it, they were improperly religious and consigned to Hellfire for eternity. There are also countless millions of truly, deeply, sincerely devout followers of literally thousands of different faiths that turned out to be false, and even devout followers of the Right Religion who were guilty of theological or liturgical misconduct.

Gordon hears different things about what the Right Religion is, about what he should have believed or how he should have behaved. Some say faith in a certain prophet alone. Some say sacraments. Some say accepting that a particular iron-age book was the final and perfect revelation. Some say that there are four truths and an eightfold noble path, and they can’t quite figure out what this eternal damnation business has to do with them. Some even say there was nothing to be done – that the game was rigged from the get-go. There are all sorts of ideas. He even heard that the correct answer was a life led in conformance to the will of the Goddess Maat, which would explain why pretty much everybody except ancient Egyptians seem well represented here. Who knows? Inwardly, Gordon shrugs. What does it matter now? There’s no reprieve. There are billions of people here who knew in their hearts that they were right and then — poof — fire, brimstone, perpetual torture, fish sticks, and Barry Manilow. Sucks to be you. Forever and ever. Amen.

Anyway, directly ahead of Gordon in line is Adolf Hitler. But Gordon has been in hell for a million trillion billion years already— that’s zero percent of his sentence, incidentally — and his memories of Earth mostly have faded. So while Hitler seems somehow familiar, especially with his postage stamp of a moustache and swastika armband, Gordon can’t quite place him. He’s about to ask him if they’ve ever met when Hitler looks over his shoulder and decides to strike up a conversation first.

"Gootentag," Hitler says. "So: what are you in for?"
"Skepticism," Gordon replies. "And you?"

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Texting

Something has changed. You’ve noticed it, too. Ten years ago, I was irritated that people were talking on their phones everywhere I went. Now they’re on their phones but not talking into them. It irritates me more. 
My classes used to be full with happy chattering when I entered. I would tap the podium to get things started, usually having to ask two or three times to begin. Now it’s dead quiet. Everyone’s texting. In the morning, people get on my building’s elevator, texting. Sometimes they don’t press the buttons or get off at the right floor.

Teenagers in malls, walking in groups, looking down, texting. People on exercise bikes at the gym, looking down, testing. Couples in restaurants, looking down, texting. Academics at conferences, looking down, texting. People in cars, looking down, texting. People. In cars. Looking down. Texting. One nearly killed me the other day as I was cycling to work. At the last second she looked up, slammed on her breaks and, of course, honked at me.

The good news is that I can die happy now anyway, because yesterday – I swear I am not making this up – I saw a guy walk into a tree while texting. It actually happened. I was eating my lunch on a bench and saw it coming. I should warn him, I thought. And then I thought, no. I wanna watch this. Then it happened. Wham. Tree. I clapped my hands with glee. He was okay. Just sort of looked around, embarrassed, then saw me sitting on the bench, staring right at him. We made eye contact. Understood one another perfectly. “Dude, you’re not going to tell anyone about this, right?” “Dude, I am going to tell everyone about this.”

So I had exactly one day to produce an entirely different blog than the one I had intended to post. And I know what you’re thinking. “This is so 2009.”  Yes, yes, yes, Broad. We know that “time saving” technologies don’t really save us time; we know it’s rude not to pay attention to the people you’re with (especially when they’re trying to teach you something); we know that the Internet is rewiring our brains and giving us shorter attention spans; we know that…uh…just a sec...

Anyway, enjoy all that. Because I don’t own a cell phone.  Well, I do. An old flip-phone that’s a hand-me down from my wife, who is newly equipped with an iPhone 5S. But I’m not sure where it is, and I don’t think I can send texts on it anyway, and I don’t really take it anywhere because it weighs as much as a hand grenade.

People gasp at this. No phone! “What will you do if there’s an emergency?” they ask. I dunno. Die, I guess. Or hope somebody else calls 911. Or texts 911. Or Tweets 911. Or at the very least records my death for posterity on Instagram or Youtube.

I can see it now. I have horrendous crash on my bike. A bystander whips out her iPhone.
“Siri, dial 911!”
“Searching the Internet for Nine West. There are five Nine West locations near you.”

And that will be my epitaph. “Made the supreme sacrifice so that others could have shoes at a discount.”

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Commemoration

Today is the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, in which three thousand people perished in flame. Judging from the many hostile e-mails I received to my blog post about visiting La Cambe, many people will be spending a portion of the day in quiet commemoration of those nineteen terrorists who made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause they believed in. After all, they must say, in order to be consistent, who are we to say that what they did is wrong?

Q.E.D. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Eating

Those of you who read comic books back in the 70s and 80s will remember those ads, written in the very best tradition of hyperbolic circus-show fanfare, that promised to transform you overnight into a master of the martial arts. Hidden secrets of the dark arts would be revealed; effortlessly you would be remade into a man both feared and respected. And girls would like you. What red-blooded twelve-year-old Spiderman reader could resist?

So one time I scraped together the requisite two bucks (cash – I crammed American quarters right into an envelop) and sent away.  What came back four-to-six weeks later was a little booklet, printed on cheap paper, made up of dark and grainy black and white pictures of attacks and defences. You know the kind. Panel “A” would depict the stupidest criminal in the world. He would do something dangerous like grab your shirt, and then, very helpfully, stand there waiting. Panel “B” would show your response, typically: chop him on the neck, poke him the eye, and kick him in the nuts. That was pretty much it. Grabs your wrist: chop him on the neck, poke him in the eye, kick him in the nuts. Grabs your throat: chop him on the neck, poke him the eye, kick him in the nuts. Asks for the time: chop him on the neck, poke him the eye, kick him in the nuts. I was ecstatic.  No wonder these deadly secrets had to be hidden away! Knowing them was like carrying a concealed weapon around. Go ahead, punk. Grab my shirt. Make my day. Your nuts have my name on them. Or your name. Whatever.
 

Anyway,  I'd forgotten all about this until recently, but lately those ads have come roaring back into my memory. Let me explain. Lately, I’ve become interested in fitness and nutrition. I’ll write more about this later, because I’ve found a very good gym and in the past year I’ve progressed from tub of lard to medium-size convenience pack of margarine instead, which is pretty good for me. I can do a pull-up. I have a six pack, too, although I had a couple last night so I’m down to four. Zing!

And, ooops. I’ve revealed something terrible about myself. I’ve consumed alcohol, which, according to innumerable nutrition websites, I’m never supposed to do.  You’ve probably seen the ad for websites of this kind. There’s a “five foods you should never eat” banner ad that has been chasing me around the Internet for months now. So earlier this week, with nothing on my plate except a pile of marking and a tenure application, I decided to Google “five foods you should never eat” and see what's up.


The precise phrase returned 43,000 hits. I clicked on a few at random. The remarkable thing was how much these pages sounded like those 1970s martial arts ads.  “Nutrition secrets they don’t want you to know!” “Transform your body overnight with super fat-burning foods!” “Hidden information revealed!” "Earn respect and be sexy!"  Increasingly this involves hormones. (Hormones are big these days.) “Put your hormones into overdrive!” one ad for a nutrition system said.  One home-and-garden type website even presented “five foods your doctor doesn’t eat!” I’m not sure how they know Dr. Baker, but there you go.


I discovered quickly, however, that in this community of nutrition experts, boldly revealing the secrets of their profession to the me, personally, for the first time, there is no consensus about which five foods I shouldn’t eat. For example, Cosmo suggested the following:

Artificial sweeteners
Margarine
Soy Protein Isolate
Diet Foods
Frozen Meals

While another fitness and nutrition expert suggested strawberries, butter, white bread, processed meat, and orange juice. My confusion mounted. More clicking ensued, more foods followed. In fact, after  visiting about half a dozen sites I had a list of twenty-five different foods or kinds foods I should never eat. These included: white chocolate. White sugar. White rice.  Beer. White bread. White wine. Red wine. Brown bread. Canned tomatoes. Processed meats. Meat. Fried foods. Eggs. Microwave popcorn. Butter. Margarine. Vegetable oil. Olive oil. Table salt. Orange juice. Salad dressing. Strawberries. Peanut Butter. Non-organic produce. Soda.

Measure of Doubt has long insisted that it is not merely the second best blog of that name. It is also an indispensable public service. To that end, your noble author, heedless of mortal peril and thinking only of the well being of humankind, followed in the footsteps of many a hero (and super villain) and performed an unauthorized scientific experiment on himself.

In a single weekend, I ate eighteen of the five things you should never eat, some of them simultaneously. I ate strawberries, had processed deli meats on white bread and scooped peanut butter right from the (plastic) jar. I had fried eggs and ham on brown bread and washed it down with orange juice. I snacked on microwave popcorn and Coca Cola. I stir fried non-organic produce in vegetable oil and ate it over white rice. Above all I drank beer. Lots of it.

Result? Well, let’s put it this way. Visitation will be held between 2-4 and 7-9 this evening. Memorial donations can be made to the Canadian Armed Forces "Save the F-35" Fund.

Pah. I’m fine. Barely even burped. These are beginner “never eat” foods for posers.

By contrast, after having conducted MINUTES of research I have compiled my own list of five of MEGA DESTRUCTIVE CERTAIN DEATH FOODS that you should NEVER eat. Some of these will SHOCK you, because THEY have told you that these things are good for you. But they're NOT.  I reveal this here to YOU for the FIRST TIME.

Measure of Doubt’s "Five Foods You Should Really NEVER Eat"

People. Never eat people! The average American, for instance, contains over 500,000 calories – more than 30% of them from fat!  (People from places like Africa might have fewer calories from fat, but why take the chance?)

Ninja Throwing Stars. Ever wonder why you don’t see many Ninjas around?

Water. Not only is a water a chemical substance (never eat anything with chemical substances in it!), water can sometimes contain sharks, poisonous blowfish, and even Nazi U-Boats!

Glutten. I have no idea what this is. But don’t eat it, whatever you do.
 

Food.  Food is the number one cause of obesity and a choking hazard. Avoid temptation by not keeping it in the house.

Send $59.95 for the video. I will show you how to avoid the agony of food preparation and meals with family and friends. I'll reveal the hidden secret I used to lose 30 pounds in one night, just by sawing my own leg off!  And, as an added bonus, I’ll throw in the sixth food you should never eat, yours to not eat for free! (It’s black liquorice. Shudder.)



Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Desecration

I used to teach Kurt Vonnegut’s funny, sad, and important novel Slaughterhouse Five in my American history classes, but gave up after being met by seas of incomprehension and even outright hostility. Why was I teaching a novel in a history class, they wondered, as if novels weren’t written in the past or in historical contexts. In this, the most expansive of disciplines, students too often have been straightjacketed into thinking that history is merely a bill of facts about war and politics to be committed to memory. And there is no shortage of historians who want it that way.

Above all, I was distressed by the inability of history students to think coherently about the very thing that almost invariably is most important to the people we study – morality. Slaughterhouse is about an American POW, Billy Pilgrim, who in 1945 witnesses the firebombing of Dresden only to be abducted by time-travelling extraterrestrials called Tralfamadorians, beings whose response to every moral catastrophe in the history of the universe — including the entire universe’s eventual destruction at their own hands — is the same: they intone the phrase, “So it goes.”

Unwittingly, I had handed my students what many of them thought was an ideal philosophy of ethics. “So it goes.” A way to shrug and say, “Oh, well. Can I get back to Facebook now?”  Vonnegut himself later said he was distressed by the ease with which so many readers accepted the legitimacy of what is self-evidently a hideously immoral proposition. “So it goes” – not stoicism in the face of history’s cruelties, but indifference; not acceptance, but apathy; “so it goes” – the proposition that we are not moral agents, that we make no choices, that we bear no responsibility for the consequences of our actions, whether it’s firebombing Dresden or blowing up the universe, or, at the very time Vonnegut was writing, waging war in Vietnam. 

On Measure of Doubt and its briefly extant sister blog, Suspended Judgment, I wrote on several occasions that the biggest problem with our education system is that we’re good at getting students to memorize facts but not good at getting them to think about facts. Despite all our protestations to the contrary, most of our education system consists of telling students stuff and getting them to regurgitate it, what one colleague of mine inelegantly calls the "binge and purge model of education." Even in universities the lecture – a tool for conveying facts – remains at the core of our methodology, although students who steadfastly refuse to read anything are partly to blame for this. 

Over the years, I have attempted on many occasions to initiate conversations in class concerning the great moral questions of the Second World War: the Holocaust, Japanese atrocities in occupied China, Allied area bombing, and so forth.  Year after year, these discussions take on a predictable and depressing sameness. They run the usual gamut from soft moral relativism and all its attendant confusion (“our side was just as bad”, they would say, as if this empirically false claim were somehow relevant even if true) through to the positively fascistic view that military service must automatically be accorded the deepest reverence, regardless of the cause in which one served. But at least those students articulated a coherent worldview. The relativists basically said: “Who am I to judge? Not for me to say what’s right or wrong. Everyone has their own way of looking at things. We shouldn’t be biased.” Blah dee blah blah blah. So it goes. Generation meh. 

All this brings me to the case of the German cemetery at La Cambe, in Normandy, France.  It is the resting place of many young men who were caught up in the lunatic asylum we call the Third Reich, teenagers forced to fight for a totalitarian regime that sought to redraw the racial map of Europe through war. Their graves are important reminders that few countries suffered so much because of Adolf Hitler as Germany itself.  But La Cambe is also the burial place of a large number of straightforwardly wicked men who were enthusiastic supporters of the Nazi program. Among them is Sturmbannf├╝hrer Adolf “Otto” Diekmann, an SS officer who ordered a hideous crime against humanity at Oradour, France. Diekmann’s troops massacred 642 men, women, and children – the men were shot in the legs and then burned alive – for no military purpose whatsoever a few days after D-Day in the summer of 1944.

In early June, I visited La Cambe, not certain if I should. I’m not sure what possessed me, on that cold and damp morning, to venture off, alone, into the far corners of the cemetery in search of Diekmann’s grave. It might have been morbid curiosity. Or perhaps it was a desire to gloat slightly over another exemplar of the absolute failure of the worst system of governance ever devised. Anxious and distinctly unsure of myself, I stumbled about for ten minutes, looking for the marker, half-hoping not to find it, when suddenly it seemed to appear before me, flat and rather disappointingly innocuous against the ground. 


I reflected at once on the words of A.J.P. Taylor: “I come to history not as a judge, but to say what happened and why” – outright hypocrisy from one of the 20th century’s most judgmental historians. What do historians do except judge? The whole enterprise is a process of gathering, evaluating, weighing, assessing, in short, judging evidence for one position or another. Above all, to say “I cannot judge” is itself a moral judgment of the very strongest kind. Not one moral relativist, while themselves being murdered, would calmly accept death with a shrug and say, “Who am I to judge this murderer?” but they will do it when other people are being or were murdered. Appalling. Appalling.

I reflected, too, that historians are wary travelers in the realm of moral philosophy, not because they know it to be dangerous, but because they’re lost.  We pass our moral confusion onto our students. The problem isn’t that most historians are abstaining from engaging their moral sensibilities – that would be a considered position. The problem is that their training has left them unprepared to assess moral issues at all, even from the perspective of the period they’re studying. With nearly three thousand years of moral philosophy before them, the best most of them can do is shrug and mouth, “Well, who’s to say?”  So it goes. 

I also found myself thinking about the firmest conviction I have as a teacher: that education, like physical exercise, should hurt a bit. It should destabilize the intellect and force it to adjust to new demands. It’s not a teacher’s job, of course, to tell students what to think – even if the teacher actually knows what to think. But it is a teacher’s job to get students to think. This involves more than just holding up a mirror to youthful vanity and awarding gold stars for sharing. Good teachers make students understand that extracting knowledge from information takes serious effort. 

Here was a teachable moment, but there was no one teach. So I must have stood there for five minutes or so, above Deikmann's little plot, wondering what to do or say. I do not believe that the dead are conscious of the living, so having words with the man seemed rather pointless. It was, moreover, getting on, and there was a schedule to keep. I walked off, briskly, troubled by all this. Then I surprised myself.  Well, hell, I thought. Why am I debating historical theory with myself? I’m an historian for maybe forty hours a week. The rest of the time I’m a human being. And my human obligations come first.

So I stopped. Turned around. Returned to Deikmann’s marker.

And spat on his grave.

May he not rest in peace.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Anniversaries

Do you hear that? That ticking sound? Of course you do. That’s the sound of the clock running out on the human race, and it began winding down 69 years ago today.  On the 16th of July, 1945, at 05:29 local time, the world’s first nuclear weapons test occurred in the New Mexico desert. They called it “Trinity". That’s it there, in the corner, a few milliseconds after detonation. It’s probably the most written about of all the 2,084 or so known nuclear tests, and there are breathless descriptions all over the place about the size and power of the explosion, invariably capped off with Robert Oppenheimer’s now quite cliched reminiscence of how a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” occurred to him at that moment.

In fact, the bomb was a baby as nuclear weapons went, and less than ten years later the Americans were testing nuclear weapons with quite literally a thousand times the explosive power. In the early 1960s the Soviets tested ones with two or three thousand times the power. For a couple of decades, in the 50s and 60s, both countries were popping them off in the atmosphere like kids with fireworks.
In the early 1960s, a study found trace levels of Strontium-90, a rather nasty radioactive isotope that affixes itself to bones in the human body, in the teeth of every baby they could find who was born in 1963. Babies born in 1950 didn’t have that. That was one reason why some protesters gently suggested that if the superpowers wanted to screw with a planet maybe they should get their own. 
 

Admittedly, the Americans built the bomb in the first place for a good reason – they were afraid that Hitler’s Germany was building one, too (it was) and they dropped it on Japan to end a terrible war that the Japanese started and refused to end. But the nuclear arms race that followed the Soviet Union's first test in 1949 demonstrates the normalization of a genocidal mentality that gripped the leaders of the great powers in the postwar period. Around the time that I was contemplating just how much hair gel would be required to produce a satisfactory mullet every day (a lot, so I never did it), global nuclear arsenals peaked at around 60,000 deployed weapons, which was enough to kill, well, everybody. They called this “national defense”, but really it was a suicide pact that great powers made with their enemies. And everybody else, whether they wanted in on it or not.

Every culture has had apocalyptic myths, stories about the end of the world and how it will happen. But the nuclear age is different, in that we possess a certain means of making it happen, so over the years we have vested control of apocalyptic weaponry in the hands of wise men like Leonid Brezhnev and George W. Bush. The good news is that there are far fewer nuclear weapons in the world today than thirty years ago, and fewer still actively deployed. Serious strides towards nuclear disarmament in the great powers has taken place, despite the best efforts of Republicans. But there are still a lot left. Even a small, regional nuclear war would have devastating global consequences. Just a few hundred would probably suffice to kill a billion people or so, and their continued existence makes a mockery of so much intellectual activity in the community of military theorists and civilian defense experts. By all means, have your wargasm about your F-35s, protecting Canada’s high arctic from the incursion of obsolete Russian bombers. And if the war comes, they can knock those bombers down and then fly back to the radioactive pile of rubble left by ballistic missiles.

We’ll probably never go to war with Russia, of course. But the basic problem isn’t Russia, or China, or North Korea. The problem is that the nuclear genie can’t be put back in the bottle. Nuclear weapons are the technology of the mid-40s and early 50s, older than colour TVs and Elvis records. Sooner or later, any country that wants them can have them, so trying to enforce non-proliferation is a pipe-dream in the long term. Arms control can only delay their eventual use, while deterrence is just an utterly absurd delusion that strong countries are left at peace.   We were lucky to avoid a nuclear war in the 20th century. What will happen in the 21st? The 22nd? The 23rd? It is incredible to think that we can avoid eventual nuclear armageddon by the present means of trying to do so.  But there is a solution. It’s one everyone has to agree to, so people will say that it’s a phantasm. Well, okay: enjoy the fallout. It will be pretty, like snow at Christmas. Anyway, here’s the solution. You won’t like it, but I think it’s the only way we’re getting out of here alive. 


Pacifism. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sequels

Invariably are a disappointment, the last refuge of the creatively dead. Some are worse than that even – more like forms of vandalism against our hopes and dreams. Lucky for me that Measure of Doubt never embodied anyone’s hopes and dreams, so there’s no chance of that.

But I do take a certain sense of pride in the first one hundred. I work in a profession where writing badly on obscure topics published in journals that nobody reads is considered the gold standard of excellence (if you don’t believe me, try making your way through an issue of the Canadian Historical Review some time – seriously, I dare you) so the blog served as an important outlet for me, and I look back on the one hundred with some satisfaction. I worry about sullying it with another fourteen or so, spread out over two-and-a-half years, gradually petering out.  On the other hand, I have a great deal to complain about, not least of all because Christmas is just over six months away...

Another hundred, shall we? Look for the first one tomorrow.