The Straw

My intention in creating this blog was mainly to start conversations about great stories, the myths that shape our realities and celebrate all it means to be human, with human failings, triumphs, loves, losses, questions and answers.  It is supposed to focus on the positivity of humanity- there is far too much evidence of the opposite in the media on any given day.  Despite such good intentions, I do have a tendency- partly nature, partly habit- to sit back and observe, offering occasional commentaries on the ways of the world and the politics of the day, without being stirred into action to affect change.

I am not a politician.  I have little respect for most of the people who call themselves ‘career politicians,’ but I have never really been motivated enough to speak publicly and directly against any one political party or person (dinner or cocktail party discussions are a different kettle of cod).  To do so seemed like little more than a support of partisan divides in ideology and approach.  Tilting at windmills that are powered by blowhard, reactionary rhetoric.  I am generally slow to anger and inclined to view all sides of an argument before rushing to judgement and condemnation.

That changed recently.  The Prime Minister of this great country that I am proud to call home has, admittedly, never been a favourite of mine.  I think he is little more than a career politician who is looking out for his own power base and pandering to the opinions of the elite of the country, while taking far too many pointers from his conservative compatriots in the US about such things as the usefulness of attack ads and the need to keep the majority of the people in ignorance about what is really going on in the halls of power.

I don’t like him.  I don’t understand how anyone of conscience could have voted for his government.  I was disgusted by his attack of the new leader of the federal Liberal Party when Mr. Trudeau had the gall to suggest that we need to look for the root causes behind such acts of terror as the Boston Marathon bombings.  I was complacently resigned in my belief that we just have to ride this out, that he, and his lackeys, both in Parliament and the Senate, would continue sounding their own death knell, because Canadians HAVE to be seeing what I am seeing.  I had hope, like many fellow Canadians, that come the next election (which can’t arrive soon enough) the government would be replaced and repairs to our social fabric and economy might begin in earnest, under the reins of people who are looking out for the interests of more than a minority of the population.

Then this happened.

Yesterday, in the context of the recently exposed terror plot to derail a VIA train between Toronto and NYC, the ‘leader’ of our country said that we have to avoid ‘committing sociology’.

I’m sure that he, or his speechwriter(s), thought that he was turning a witty phrase, paraphrasing W H Auden’s poem “Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times.”  Too bad he used it incorrectly.  The poem, with its wonderful use of mythic language and themes, was a reflection on World War II, and a commentary on the tension between the practical realities of the post-war environment and the more abstract benefits of higher education.  The former would see “Truth replaced by Useful Knowledge”, and Auden ironically described the pursuit of a university education as following the free spirit of Hermes.  If he had actually read the poem, Harper would see that he falls on the side of Apollo’s “Official Art” and “fat figures in the public eye,” and that Auden was advocating the cultivation of higher education as an adventurous end in itself, and not simply a means to a job and ‘proper’ position in a ‘properly ordered’ society (a philosophy that runs in diametric opposition to that of the Harper government).

The deeper political ideology behind his comments, and the use of a quote taken entirely out of its intended context, has me enraged.  Completely ‘Hulk Smash’ enraged.

His comments are in keeping with destructive, fear-mongering language that encourages punitive rather than preventative responses, and a disingenuous anti-intellectual agenda.  This is not new(s).  But enough is enough.  No one suggested that, in the midst of the drama following the Boston tragedy, any resources should be taken away from law enforcement seeking to capture the perpetrators of the horrific crime so that ‘intellectuals’- sociologists, psychologists, or anyone else- can attempt to establish the ‘roots’ of the radicalization of people that leads to such horrible acts of terror.  American law enforcement was successful in killing and/or capturing the accused perpetrators of the bombing.  Canadian security officials prevented the train derailment and placed two accused conspirators in custody and, by all accounts, are keeping a close eye on the rest of those suspected of complicity in the planning of the act of terrorism.  Security and law enforcement are doing their jobs.  There will be discussion and debate regarding whether more could/should be done with respect to prevention, and this is something to which our security agencies will have to respond.

A significant, responsible part of prevention HAS to also involve the examination of social, economic, religious, historical and political factors that CREATE an environment in which radical ideologies can develop and recruit the young, the disenfranchised, the marginalized and the desperate.  The truly cynical person could say that politicians don’t want those social, economic, religious, historical and political situations examined too closely, since they may be found to be the originators, or perpetrators, of those conditions and therefore make the ruling elite complicit in the acts of terror that are enacted.  I am starting to reallyreally fear that politicians like Harper (and his conservative American bedfellows) are simply determined to continue the insidious dumbing down of society, keeping us mindlessly watching our ‘reality’ TV after we come home from excessively long hours, working on contract, in the trades, for minimum wage with no benefits.  Physical and emotional exhaustion and disconnection from community cause stress, anxiety and what sociologists call anomie.  Historians know that periods of sociological anomie lead to the development of apocalyptic ideologies.  And apocalyptic mentalities (for all that they create some of the BEST myths), when acted upon, do not generally lead to happy endings.

Looking for the reasons behind the growth of radical, destructive ideologies is NOT the same as ‘justifying’ or ‘legitimizing’ acts of terror.  Conversely, burying our collective heads in the sand in the belief that ignorance makes us blissful, keeps us blind, and susceptible to getting our asses kicked from all directions.  Since he obviously misinterpreted Auden’s use of irony in his poem, how DARE the putative FIRST minister of our country equate the search for cause in the aftermath of terrible effect with an unethical, if not criminal, action.  People commit adultery.  They commit murder.  We commit those people who have psychological issues to facilities in which they can be helped.

But we also commit to positive things.  To relationships with one another, causes in which we strongly believe.  So I am going to commit.  I am going to commit, and to support others who commit, sociology, history, psychology and to any and all other tools at our disposal to get to the root of the societal problems that lead to levels of anomie that, in turn, lead to unspeakable acts of terror against each other.

The idiom the straw that broke the camel’s back has its origin in an Arab proverb.  One small, light, otherwise inconsequential piece of straw can render a sturdy beast completely incapable of dealing with any more.  This latest, in a long history of unacceptable straws, is the one that has taken me down.  Time to shed the whole bale and say and do something in reaction to idiocy such as that offered by the Prime Minister this week.

My friend, a talented, intelligent, socially conscious SOCIOLOGIST (the HORROR!), posted a thoughtful reflection and battle cry last night as her response.  After some reflection, she took it down.  She is a federal employee and feared possible repercussions (another indicator that ‘Harper’s Canada’ is something we have to speak against).   Like her, I promise to make something happen that will lead to positive change in this country that I love.  Even if it involves committing suspicious and seditious acts of sociology.

And in case Harper truly wants to follow the ‘Hermetic Decalogue’ he should obey all the commandments given to those who refuse to adhere to the ‘official’ party line:

“Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,

Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis

On education,

Thou shalt not worship projects nor

Shalt thou or thine bow down before Administration.

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires

Or Quizzes upon World-Affairs,

Nor with compliance

Take any test.  Thou shalt not sit

With statisticians, nor

commit a social science.

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms

With guys in advertising firms,

Nor speak with such

As read the Bible for its prose,

Nor, above all, make love to those

Who wash too much.

Thou shalt not live within thy means

Nor on plain water and raw greens.

If thou must choose

Between the chances, choose the odd;

Read the New Yorker, trust in God;

And take short views.”

– W H Auden, 1946

Pope and Circumstance

Last month the Roman Church elected a new Bishop of Rome.  I know, I know.  We call him the Pope these days, but I’m still a little bitter that Valentinus didn’t win the election back in the 2nd century.  Oh how different the Western world might have been if there’d been a gnostic on the throne… Sigh.  Okay, getting past that little history geek idiosyncrasy of mine and back to my point… I admit that I watched, for the sense of pageantry and history if nothing else.   And I also admit to being moved by the first words of Pope Francis I, partly for the obvious humility (and almost shock) he displayed at being raised to such a position of prominence and celebrity after a life among the poor of Buenos Aires, but also because of the reaction that marked the change, in front of our (technological) eyes, of Jorge Mario Bergoglio into an instant media personality.

The crowd in St. Peter’s Square was like that of a Rock n’ Roll audience- if you ignore the preponderance of black and white habits and clerical collars- and despite the fact that, as one friend posted on the Facebook, “it’s not the return of the Beatles” – with the heavy implication that to truly warrant that sort of reaction the two absent Fab Fourians would have had to have returned from the dead- and not as zombies either (although Zombie Lennon and Zombie Harrison might well lay down some interesting jams).  The excitement and anticipation that gave way to tears and screams when Francis I finally appeared was something to behold, even for this non-religious cynic.  It was evidence (and hard evidence is required in the irreligious circles in which I tend to travel) that organized, institutionalized religion is still a big ol’ factor in the world.

Despite the advent of Science, the openness of philosophical and spiritual discourse (at least in some places in the world) and increasing exposure to atheistic writers and dialogue, the institutional Christian religions of the world still retain a firm toe-hold in the practices and imaginations and, seemingly, day-to-day lives of enough people that this story took up the first half of the CTV National news that night, and then more time at the end of the half hour as ‘experts’ weighed in on the event and its importance.

Another admission?  I was pretty surprised.  While religion, faith and beliefs have been my particular obsession study for longer than seems possible, I have become pretty much singularly focused on the stories that are expressions of those things, stories that come from human imaginations and so reflect the best- and sometimes worst- aspects of the human experience.  The ritual, doctrinal/dogmatic and experiential aspects of religion interest me somewhat less- I’m all about the stories, Baby (as it says on the tagline “Made of the Myth”).  But whoa back.

There was something pretty powerful happening on that there television screen, and the emotion in the Square was palpable- even at a technological remove.  People never cease to amaze me.  I really can’t understand that level of involvement and personal investment in the institution of a church (Roman or otherwise), but watching that day I was a little sad for myself, that I don’t have that connection with a belief system and its trappings and traditions (a feeling that does hit periodically- when there are Christmas hymns being sung in a candlelit cathedral with snow outside and gentle light though stained glass windows, for example).

Personal revelations aside, what surprised me even more than the outpouring in favour of the whole pope and circumstance, was the amount of vitriolic anti-pope, anti-church, anti-Christian postings on various social media time-wasters that I’ve been wasting time with monitoring with academic interest.  Wow.  It eludes me how can people can, on the one hand, post inspirational stories about loving and respecting one another and then respond with such viciousness at the sight of others expressing genuine emotions as an historical event touched them deeply.

Why the hate?  There are reasons, of course.  Good reasons, some of them (institutionalized pedophilia is a biggie).  The issues lie, I’m afraid, at the root of the institutionalization of any belief system- once it becomes a ‘system’ it has codified such things as hierarchies and rules and pro- and pre-scriptions.  And those things lead to people looking for power and ascendency within the system.  Any ideological system faces the same challenges- political, religious and philosophical- because people continue to look for ascendency and power that can be gained through money, social position or political power (putative or realized).

The stories that lead to the development of belief systems are not, generally, inherently good or bad (exceptions prove the rule, of course).  They are reflective of the time in which they were first used to answer questions.  That the myths are then used- or misused- to support the seemingly unsupportable is tragic pisses me off regrettable, but are we somehow ‘blaming the victim’ when we disagree (often rightfully) with the trappings of an institution and include its myths within that censure?  Any story can be interpreted to help confirm any agenda- if the ones doing the interpreting try hard enough to make the story stretch to accommodate.

I refuse to blame the stories themselves for what people have done in their name.  Not all stories have an altruistic or even positive origin, but most of the ones I see out there come from a place that seeks answers and communion with other people (or beings) outside of themselves.  We connect through our stories, and to use them for selfish, self-serving, power-mongering, political purposes generally ends up resulting in our collective detriment.  Unfortunately the most selfish purposes are the ones that gain ascendency, most of the time.  And with power, inevitably, comes abuse of power.

The blatant, repugnant, constant abuses of power that we see in the media don’t mean that we can’t stop for a moment and appreciate the beauty, fleeting and seemingly superficial as it may be, of some elements of those institutions of power, while still calling them out on the abuses that they perpetrate.  But as we take the perpetrators to task we have to remember that most of the adherents of one faith or another believe sincerely/innocently/naively, or for reasons having to do with culture or environment, or because of private insights that have shaped their individual personality and reactions to the world around them.

We take for granted that to believe or disbelieve is a matter of choice.  This is, arguably, the case in the cultural context of North America in the 21st century (although there are certainly places even here where this is decidedly NOT an accurate assessment).  That choice is not, in some environments, a realistic option or even anything that requires thought or reflection, continues to be lost on many detractors who see faith- in institutions or gods or stories- as ‘irrational’ or ‘deluded’.   Faith can be blind, and sometimes destructive, but hatred is always blind and leads us down roads of destruction and intolerance it is best not to travel.  Can there not be a balancing of the two extremes?  In the myths of the Ancient Near East, balance was everything as people negotiated an existence between the dichotomy of chaos and order (rather than good and evil).  We still have things to learn from their stories, and those groups/cultures that came later but picked up on the same concepts.

That same day I saw this link in a news feed.

‘New’ stories, or interpretations of old stories, are always being discovered.  That one made it into an interworld news link makes me optimistic that we haven’t become so cynical and superficial that there isn’t room for interest in rediscovering the myths that seek to inform about the human condition.  The world remains a big, mysterious place, and our stories help to make sense of it.  In the coming months we will begin to see the development of the myth of Francis I, and I, for one, will try to separate that story from the corruption of the larger institution, just in case Jorge has something to positive to tell us, about being human and living in the world.

George, Steve and Woody

I couldn’t sleep last night.  Not an unusual situation for a chronic night owl/insomniac and, in light of the events of the past week and a bit, perhaps even more understandable given my propensity to think and think and think until my brain circles upon itself so much there is no possibility of quieting it down enough for slumber.  I opted for my standard solution when sleeplessness rears its frustrating head but responsibilities the following day mean that I can’t just throw on a pot of coffee and try to get some work done.  I turned on the TV, hoping to find something that would lull me into sleep as quickly as possible so I could face the fast-approaching day.  Good plan, in theory, and one that usually works.  But I made the mistake of turning on the CBC and the time-shifting replay of the day’s ep. of Strombo just as he was introducing Steve Earle.

I have always loved Steve’s music, and followed his rise and fall and rise again, with interest and admiration.  He is a storyteller, fashioned in the mold of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, and his politics and opinions resonate strongly with my own.  In the interview he discussed how his latest tour across the States has brought him more understanding of the realities that informed Guthrie’s compositions.  He commented that the current state of the country reflects the same bleak reality that Woody witnessed and recorded for posterity in the 30’s Depression and Dustbowl, a bleakness to which those who came after him were not exposed.  Until now anyway.

I have my own experiences of the ‘economic downturn’, including watching friends, who have been without work or terribly underemployed for extended periods of time, struggle as they knock on doors without response or acknowledgement of any kind.  One such friend describes her experience in the same manner she described her divorce; employed friends backing off from communication and support as if the ‘condition’ of un/underemployment is contagious.  Another has told me quite definitively that if he hears ‘well, you’re lucky to have any job at all’ one more time (either out loud or implicitly), he cannot guarantee that his response will remain in the realm of socially acceptable behaviour or language.

While neither of these friends is riding the rails and doing chores for food and lodging in a convivial family’s barn, the depth of frustration and despair about the inability to support oneself and/or family is being felt on a larger scale than at any time since the Depression.  Steve Earle has written and spoken about the 99% movement, for example, in the same way that Woody Guthrie’s songs are concerned with the conditions of the working class people searching for work during the Depression.  Guthrie’s fight against complacency- as promoted by the government after the years of Depression- prompted him to write ‘This Land is Your Land’, and continue in his support of migrant workers and the production of a body of work that was as much about social commentary and change as it was about music for its own sake.

Both Steve Earle and Woody Guthrie use mythological language and themes in their songs, since poverty, wars of ideology and struggles with what is right are timeless.   And, sadly, recurrent, as those who don’t know their respective histories continue causing them to repeat.  Guthrie’s ‘Mean Things Happenin’ in this World’, about World War II, could have been written today.  The song is about soldiers being sent overseas without any knowledge or understanding of what it is they’re fighting for, while people are killed ‘for a greenback dollar bill.’  His ‘Jesus Christ’, completely in keeping with the biblical and extracanonical mythology, depicts Jesus standing in opposition to the wealthy and power-seeking and suggests that he would have been crucified for the same reasons today.

Likewise, Steve Earle employs themes of justice and story to respond to contemporary social issues.  I’ve always loved ‘Justice in Ontario’ with its juxtaposition of historical and contemporary stories of injustice here at home.  His album ‘Jerusalem’ employs biblical mythology throughout, discussing the tensions in the region as he hopes that ‘one fine day all the children of Abraham will lay down their swords forever.’  (From the song ‘Jerusalem’).  In ‘Ashes to Ashes’ Earle plays with the themes of the ‘giants in the earth’ (a personal favourite mytheme) and the science of evolution before reaching the conclusion that, with or without a god, humanity seems determined to persist in seeking power, and ultimately self-destruction, at the expense of others.

I spent most of the remainder of the night thinking about all these things and listening to songs that call our attention to matters of great and consistent importance.  Despite the caffeine headache and complete lack of concentration that I’m dealing with as a result, I don’t regret the lost sleep.  Great conversations, even those that are witnessed through the medium of television, should encourage thought and reflection as they prompt further dialogue that might lead us to solutions to the eternal issues that we address through the constant writing, reworking and revisiting of our collective myths.  Like great stories, such conversations demonstrate one of the best uses of the varieties of communication outlets and availability of information that we are privileged to have at our fingertips in the 21st century.  Thank you, George.  I hope the Americans appreciate your conversations (as we loan you out to CNN this summer) as much as we do here at home.