Saturday, December 26, 2015

Dec. 26:This is very long but,.....

...blessedly, only a tiny bit is about the Irving press.

The Dec. 24 and 26 issues of the Irving press have only one item, whether news or commentary, worth reading. It's a commentary on our economic situation by Geoff Martin, a professor at Mount Allison. It's in the issue for Dec. 26, and it's on A 13. Professor Martin is the only person I've seen in the Irving press who is familiar with any economic thinking later than 1920. He's also a member of NB Prosperity Not Austerity Committee.

Austerity makes recessions worse, far worse, not better. That was the great lesson of the 1930s.

By contrast, I found two items, a column and a news story in the Dec. 24 edition that were on the same topic, but backward and even obnoxious.

One was a news story about The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a gang of grinches who want to fire and/or reduce the pay of civil servants and, probably, teachers in order to balance the budget. The other, sounding the same note was, surprisingly, Alec Bruce.

I note that neither of the above had a word to say about the immense salaries and bonuses paid to senior executives in private business. Even boards of directors can get huge bonuses just by going to four meetings a year, and nodding their heads. You think that's okay because it's their money? It isn't. We pay the cost of those salaries, whether it's by taxes or higher prices for the goods we buy. We also have to pay the taxes that they can avoid.

I don't think we have begun the understand how the rich have pillaged our economies over the last 40 years or so. When the president of Concordia University retired in the 1960s, his pension was $5,000 a year – about half the starting salary of a new professor of that time.

But universities, guided by a board of directors largely from the business world, began treating universities as a business operation so far as presidents and deans were concerned. When I was being courted, I was offered an almost sinfully high salary, an interest-free mortgage, all kinds of subsidies, and a guarantee of that high salary for life – even if I had to be fired for incompetence.

So I thank the Taxpayer's foundation for telling us about the high salaries of public servants. Could they now give us a list of executive salaries in the business world? Including the Irvings?

There is nothing worth reading in the paper. Even the Pope's Christmas message is a bit of a limp rag when the only terrorists he sees in this world are on the other side; and he mourns the dead of Paris – but not the millions we have killed or impoverished.

The Irving press just stinks of ignorance and triviality. So let's use today for a more general look at the world and how humans behave.

Rule by emperor in Rome began about the same time as Christianity. From the first, the emperors saw a need for elite troops who would be the guardians of the emperor, and who would also act as riot police to control a city population that was always poor, hungry and rebellious. (The other way of controlling the people of Rome was to offer them free entertainment of an increasingly brutal nature at the Colosseum. - but we'll come to that part later.)

The elite troops, usually numbering 5,000 or more, served in various trouble spots; But some 1500 were stationed in Rome. They were called the Praetorian Guard, the finest soldiers of the empire. Unfortunately, while they protected the emperor from others, they did not protect him from themselves. Early in their history, they murdered an emperor, then announced a public auction of the emperorship, with the proceeds going to The Praetorian Guard.

The wealthy, eager for the glory of being emperor, bid madly; and the members of The Guard themselves became wealthy. In fact, the auction was such a success that The Guard routinely murdered emperors and held more auctions.

The obvious question is why did the wealthy continue to bid when they must have known the danger they were putting themselves in. It's not even as though some had a cause, something they wished to do for Rome. They didn't. And they were, personally, already very, very wealthy. So – why?

They had money. But now they wanted status, recognition, glory, public fawning. That's why. And that's why Donald Trump is running for the U.S. presidency. He has no answers to the problems the U.S. faces. That's why he hasn't addressed any of them. The U.S. is collapsing into racial hatreds, mass poverty, social disarray as the middle class shrinks and as more money drifts from the poor to the very rich. Nor has he had much to say about climate change. (And he won't – because the U.S. has its own Praetorian Guard that would cut him off if he dared to go there.) Building the Great Wall of Mexico isn't going to change that. Nor will defeating ISIS change that.

The Praetorian Guard of the U.S. is a small group of the extremely wealthy. Nobody, including a TV upstart like Trump, is going to get past that guard. And Trump knows it. That's why he has appointed the most fervent agent of the extremely wealthy, a man who has been called, with reason, a neo-Nazi, to his campaign staff. Bill Kristol has been a major force in pushing for wars such as Vietnam and Iraq. But , like his boss that he advised ( George Bush), he avoided military service himself.
He was, however, a key advocate of the invasion of Iraq and of Afghanistan.

Kristol is a very, very far right-winger who has spent his life serving the capitalist Praetorian Guard of the U.S. He was highly critical of Trump, and even threatened to start a new party for extremists like himself. But now he's a major figure on Trump's campaign staff. So Trump has made his peace with those who are bigger billionaires than he is. So have most of the others in the running for the presidency, including – especially including – Hilary Clinton.

That's why all but one of them has had nothing of substance to say about the severe domestic and social crises facing the U.S. That one exception is Bernie Sanders who is the only one not owned by The Praetorian Guard. He is the only one who raised issues that have to be discussed.

So, if Trump has nothing to say, why is he running? His ego needs stroking. He needs to be admired, even worshipped. He needs to be the emperor. He got his first taste of glory with the TV show, 'The Apprentice'. He needs more. And he's making the only kind of speeches he knows how to make – as the tough boss on 'The Apprentice'.
The U.S. is in very great danger. Democracy has collapsed. And the American Empire is collapsing. And we live next door.
Then there's terrorism.

Terrorism is scarcely unusual. The U.S. killed millions, most of them civilians, in Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan. It kills more than we ever hear about with drones in countries all over the world. The U.S. is, and has been, the greatest creator of terror in the world for over 50 years. Now, we know there are millions of Americans, most by far, who wouldn't dream of killing helpless civilians and babies. So why do they kill so many all over the world? That bring us to a couple of things to understand, here, about human, group behaviour.

When people feel that their society is under threat, they turn to some institution remaining which is unquestionably theirs

New France, before the British conquest, was Roman Catholic – but no more so than it is today (which isn't much). But, as the British moved into positions of wealth and power, the French leadership went back to France. The people of New France were abandoned – and frightened. So they turned to the only social institution they had left – the Roman Catholic church. Within little more than a generation, moderately religious Quebec had become so devoutly Catholic that the church controlled hospitals, education, orphanages, even government. Almost all teachers in the French schools were nuns or priests. Until the 1960s, no bill was passed in the assembly until it received the approval of the Bishops. In the whole history of Quebec, there has been only one, Protestant premier.

The small, Protestant mission church I attended and the small, Protestant school were routinely stoned, and their windows smashed in our overwhelmingly Catholic district. I was there, once, when the Catholic priest shrugged his shoulders and said, “It's only a Protestant church.”

I don't write any of this with bitterness. I can well believe Protestant districts behaved as badly. That's the way humans behave. In a time of social fears, they turn to an institution which is theirs, commonly a religious institution. They become extreme in their devotion to that religion, and extreme in their treatment of other faiths.

All of that becomes reinforced by a mythical history. Children in Quebec were taught that virtually all the leadership of New France came from the churches, and the people spent virtually all their time in prayer. In fact, the colony was always desperately short of clergy, and the people were not notably church-goers, and they were notoriously slow to pay church dues. Even the Bishop commonly spent most of his time in France.

With a combination of religious fervour and mythical history, people invent a culture which, in fact, never existed. That became obvious in Quebec from the 1970s on as church power in Quebec collapsed to be replaced, in large measure, by the separatism of the parti Quebecois. That created a terrible problem for the separatists because many, perhaps most, had abandoned the church. But they needed a culture, one that justified and made necessary separation. So there was a fever to define Quebec culture.

But almost everything in Quebec had, for well over two hundred years, been attached to the church – and that was now unacceptable. And, so, despite decades of research, Quebec separatists have been unable to define the culture that they are struggling to defend.

When Poland was overwhelmed and controlled by the Soviet Union after World War 2, it turned to the church, just as Quebec had at the conquest. And it was church-centred groups that led to the revolt against the Soviets. In the same way, many Latin Americans have turned to the Roman Catholic church in their struggle against U.S. domination.

There is nothing unusual in the religious extremism of ISIS. Such extremism was prominent in Canada and the U.S. as justification for the destruction of native peoples. And God was commonly dragged into both world wars to fight on our side. (The same God was also invoked German leaders, including Hitler.)

When a society is frightened, it commonly turns to its perceived religion and to its (mythical) history, and uses them for support.

The United States, which is very frightened, is taking comfort in myths about the Puritans (who were NOT kind to native peoples) and about the civil war (which was NOT fought to free slaves). The U.S. and Canada both kid themselves that they are Christian societies – and this helps us to ignore the murders of millions of innocent people who are not Christians. No. That's not terrorism. That's doing God's work. But, oh, those muslims (who have killed fewer Americans than American police have), they're just evil.

Much of this occurred to me as I caught 20 minutes or so of a Christmas season movie about Jesus. The scene I saw was “The sermon on the mount.” You can check it out at

The meek shall inherit the earth? Come off it. The people who run our countries are not meek. Nor do they do any favours for the meek. We shall not kill? The American war industry is by far the biggest in the world. We should love our enemies? Really? Dropping bombs seems a funny way to show love. We shall love our neighbour? Oh, yeah. We give our hungry neighbours each a turkey - once a year. We love them so much we make them work for ten bucks an hour. (New Brunswick, by the way, is the worst province in Canada for charitable donations. Funny how the Irving press never gives that impression.)

Our economic system is built on pure greed (which we politely call 'competition'). It's a system that makes the rich and powerful richer by taking from the poor across Canada, and with corporations that exploit and impoverish people around the world – as so many mining companies do.

There is scarcely a trace of religious impulse in any of our political parties. (The old, CCF party was profoundly based on religious beliefs. But the modern NDP has lost much of that. The Liberals and Conservatives never had any.)

We kill people by the millions to please the wealthy - like oil barons. But the myths of our history and our religion make it okay for us to kill innocent people. We do it to defend freedom – which we have rarely allowed anybody to have; and we only kill people who are evil – like the Vietnamese and Muslim and Guatemalan children whom we bombed and burned to death. But when Muslims kill, that's because they're religions are evil. So it's okay to kill back.

In short, us humans react largely by animal instincts. We don't think. And our reactions are often based simply on emotions and the myths in which we were raised.

Thus, a very wealthy person may skimp on taxes and make money out of low salaries and lack of employment benefits. But it he gives a little bit of his wealth away (tax deductible), we call him a philanthropist and a model of Christian love.

We accept the values and ideas of those around us without thought. That's because us humans want to be liked and accepted. But we're scared of people who look different from us, dress differently, or have a different religion.

We say this is a Christian society. But I don't see much that is Christian about it – not even in the churches.

We have whole families that have never voted anything but Liberal (or Conservative) in the whole, family history.

We say, automatically, every Nov. 11, that Canadians died to bring democracy and equality to the world. Would you care to write down a list of the countries we 'gave' democracy and equality to? - China? Haiti? Cuba? Guatemala? Malaya? Kenya? Congo? Palestine? French Indo-China? Egypt? I could write a very long list of countries we did NOT give freedom to. And I would include India because Britain was forced to give it independence.

But that's the way us humans are. We don't think. We don't think because we're scared to think. And we don't think because we're not trained to think. We are not trained to think in our public schools because parents would raise hell if we were. We are poorly trained to think even in our universities because professors like to talk about thinking, but don't know much about how to teach it. Worse, some programmes like Business Administration, have little connection with thinking.

We don't think because we have news media that deliberately feed us with trivia and propaganda. They exist to discourage thinking. And it's not an accident that almost all news media are owned by very wealthy people. They want us to be ignorant. They don't want us to think.

That might be acceptable if the very wealthy were great thinkers. Alas! I see no evidence they think at all. They don't seem to. They just want. They have inflicted enormous suffering on the world because they want its oil and its mines and its lands. These are the people who have brought all of us to the edge of the greatest war.

I used to think they were immoral, and just didn't give a damn for anyone but themselves. But the story I wrote about some days ago – the one about how the major oil companies knew the causes and the dangers of climate change almost forty years ago, about how they kept it secret, about how they mounted propaganda campaigns when the news did get out – campaigns to way it wasn't happening – changed my mind. They're not immoral. They're just greedy and too stupid to realize that any damage done to us is done the them, too.

I can't pretend to have any magic formula, whether capitalist or socialist whether democratic or elitist, which we should follow. Any political or economic system I have ever heard of breaks down if we just conform and react. No. We have to think. We have to talk. And, above all, we have to learn to think. I suspect that almost any economic or political system will work if we think. I know that none will work if we don't think.

And, my, it would be nice to see the Christian churches learn to think.
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Finally, we have the question of what it is that puts us into such a stupor that we won't think. They just sit back with a glazed look. Partly, it's our fear of seeming to be difference from other people, our yearning to be accepted. But it's more than that.
The Romans used the Coliseum to induce stupor, and encourage reaction rather than thinking. It went so far from thinking, that those performing didn't need any skill at all. Pure brutality carried the day. Many of the performers just had to be able to sit there while being clawed and chewed to death by lions.

Now think of the corny brutality of professional wrestling and “martial arts” fighting. To follow boxing or football or hockey requires at least some understanding of what's going on. But pro wrestling and “martial arts” fighting demand that one have no brain at all. And sheer brutality is especially gripping if it is carried out by women.

Film has become much the same. It's market is increasingly made up of films that have no connection with reality. Last night, I briefly watched a western. Typically, it was a shoot 'em up western, the story of a west that never, really existed. In a typical scene, two gangs, hiding behind rocks were shooting at each other with Colt. 45 revolvers. The distance between them was a good hundred metres, and they were shooting from the hip. Anyone who has used a revolver will understand the idiocy of all that. Even if they had taken the time to aim, any hit would have been pure luck.

Films that examine real life are getting fewer. The trend is to escapism – escape from this world, escape from thinking. In our escape world, we just react. That's why people who go to war and kill are automatically heroes (if they're on our side. If they're on the other side, they're terrorists.)

Star Wars is the ultimate escape from reality and from any need to understand reality.

Fifty years ago, Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan burst on the world with his analyses of media – radio, TV, film. (He would now have to include computers and cell phones.)

Radio was a very effective means of encouraging thinking. That's because listeners had to imagine the appearance of the speaker, and had to become involved with him or her. In years of radio, I had many reminders of that. People who heard me talking to a friend while walking along the street would recognize my voice and, frequently, were convinced I knew them because through my voice I had been in their home every day. And I knew Uncle Paul who wasn't feeling well. They remembered things I had talked about, and wanted to discuss them with me. Radio encouraged thinking.

(That kind of radio is disappearing, though, as radio simply becomes an endless repetition of the top 100 songs.)

Something like the radio connection with thinking used to happen with films such as “How Green was My Valley”, “ Citizen Kane”, or “The Seventh Seal” by Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. But that's rare in modern film.

TV, from the start, has been a 'cold medium'. People watch it in a sort of stupor. That's why camera angles on TV change every 20 seconds or so. My own experience of TV was that people really don't think about much while watching it. They are more likely to notice on TV that your necktie is crooked than to remember anything that is said.

And that brings us to computers and cell phones. Watch any group of teenagers sitting around in your living room, or walking through a park or even eating together at a birthday party. Chances are they'll all be playing games on miniature computers. There is almost no human interchange. And no thinking.

Increasingly, we are growing up with no capacity for thinking. In its place, we simply react.
Does Moncton need a hundred million dollar 'events centre'? Well, that takes some thinking. For a start, what are Moncton's priorities of needs? Will some important needs be lost to us if we spend a hundred million on a hockey rink?

But I haven't seen any thinking from our politicians or news media. They just react. “Yeah. It'll be good for tourism.” Actually, I haven't seen any credible reports that it will be a hundred million dollars worth of good for tourism. Nor have I seen a list of priorities for the needs of this city. There has been no thinking, just reaction. The closest to thinking I have seen is the obvious decision that having a new hockey rink is more important than education and more important than a skilled civil service, more important than food for the hungry and more important than shelter for the homeless. Onward, Christian soldiers.

And the cultural development of a society? New Brunswick will happily spend money for a singer who sings through his nose while playing guitar and jumping into the air doing splits and wearing a costume covered in flashing lights while fireworks go off around the stage. And that would be sure to get ecstatic reviews in the Irving press. But, with few exceptions, that is all the musical education that is available. So I guess that's not a priority.
My, this has been a long blog. The point is we are living through a process the world has known before. We have strong similarities to ancient Rome in the years of its decline. We are living through the same maldistribution of wealth, the same encouragement to be trivial and unthinking, the same greed and vanities of the very rich – and its made worse by TV, film and computer media that discourage thinking even more.

It reminds me of a sign I saw in a gift shop. Take what you want, it said. Take what you want; but pay for it. That sign would have been quite appropriate for the Empire of Rome in its final days.

Take what you want. Take anything you want. But pay for it.

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