Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Jan. 5: Just thinkin'

Norbert Cunningham, the noted columnist and education authority who writes for the Irving press, has read a book. I'm so happy. It's a book by Stephen Pinker on how the level of violence has been declining in the world for centuries. (Actually, Norbert, Pinker spells his first name 'Steven'.) 

Hitler wrote a book, too. So did Mao. I can't wait for Norbert's column on those.

Now, Professor Pinker undoubtedly has a first-rate mind. But even first-rate minds can have failings. That's why good newspapers have book review sections. People read those to get a general idea of how experts feel about a book. Pinker's book has some excellent reviews. It also has lots of quite critical ones. Read the book, Norbert. Read the reviews, good and bad. Then think about it all. Don't confuse publication with fact. (I have to admit that I am not an admirer of Pinker's theory about the decline of violence. Just for a start, there are not, even today, accurate and reliable statistics on war deaths. And for most of the wars of history, there are no statistics at all. And, even if violence is in decline, remember that these days just one act of violence could wipe out the world.)

And what is violence? It's not just war. It's also condemning people to live in slavery or under crushing poverty as is happening all over the world. Don't just read, Norbert. Think.

Then he thanks Pinker and Gwynne Dyer (regarding Gwynn's column of last week in the Irving press.) He congratulates both for 'noting the facts'. The fact, Norbert, is that neither of them noted what you call 'the facts'. Both expressed opinions, using information that might or might not be factual or complete. Life is not simply a game of true and false. (I also have to admit I thought Dyer unduly optimistic in that column.)

Then he quotes The Atlantic which carried a front page story about how the income gaps between the developed and the undeveloped world have shrunk. I'm not even sure what that means. Nor do I know what it means to the western world. The undeveloped world is still many, many years from providing decent life. And the income gaps in the western world have been growing.

Then he's critical of a CBC panel of what he calls 'so-called experts'. They were critical of the story on wage gaps that appeared in The Atlantic. (When he says 'so-called experts', all he means is that he doesn't agree with them.) The CBC panel said, for example, that the prosperity of China skews the world balance. Norbert says this is laughable because there were rises in countries like India, too. Then, a sentence later, he says later that we cannot disregard a China that contains 19.24 percent of the world's population. Read carefully. Those two sentences contradict each other.

And we need to look at the 'facts' about New Brunswick issues. His first 'facts' are 1. New Brunswick schools are inferior and 2. it is not necessary to have small classes.

Norbert – New Brunswick schools are rated among the best in the world – and not just in relation to the third world but in relation to the U.S. The fact that children are low in literacy is not because of the schools. It's because of the high proportion of parents who see no value in literacy, and who therefore tolerate underfunding of libraries, and who discourage their children from any sort of thinking at all. This is a province of parents who will gladly spend a hundred million – essentially for a hockey team – but will happily cut spending for public education.

Norbert, like most people, begins with his opinion (or prejudice), then cherrypicks the evidence to find the 'facts' that justify his opinion. There are lots of people all over the world who do that. For example, the Bible says 'Thou shalt not kill'. And you will see the devout bearing signs to that effect standing outside places that perform abortions.

Well, “Thou shalt not kill” is a fact ---- unless you're killing a foreigner for your government. Then you are a patriot and a hero. We are part of a section of the world that has killed over (some say over twice that many) fifteen million foreigners in the last 40 years. Most of them were civilians right down to babies. It has also dreadfully tortured huge numbers. It was all done by heroes. That's why we don't see our fundamentalist neighbours carrying signs denouncing that kind of killing.

How would you put those facts together, Norbert? How would you get past the contradiction in them?

Oh, I know. Most of the people we killed weren't Christian. We are patriotic. Fact. Conclusion? God wants us to kill non-Christians.

Fact. Mr. Irving built and maintains a chapel for all of us at his own expense. Conclusion? Mr. Irving is a man of God, motivated primarily by the tenets of his faith. (Do I have to explain the falsity of that argument?)

Norbert, the biggest problem in New Bruswick, as a province, faces is that it does not think. I don't know whether that's a hangover from rural days of fear of offending neighbours or of being 'different'. Or maybe it has something to do with the historic dominance of those who have always controlled the job market in New Brunswick.

Whatever the case, I have lived in four provinces, and three countries. I have never seen a society as lethargic in its thinking and as unwilling to engage in open discussion. Even the China of the 1980s was intellectually freer than New Brunswick is. And I see very little engagement of the universities with the general public. And the most popular churches actively discourage thinking by making people believe that religion is all about faith.

The whole world is changing rapidly – economically, politically and socially. But New Brunswick is still stuck in 1867, and with only propaganda newspapers to inform it. The lack of principle on the part of the major political parties is stunning – but people still plod to the polls to vote for the old parties. And even the NDP in this province is rapidly becoming just one of the old parties.

In discussing government or economics or the society, we don't start with the 'facts'. It's not a science like chemistry in which one can mix two tablespoons of hydrogen and one of oxygen, stir them in a glass, and then drink it as water. (I think.)

To think, we have to start with fundamental principles and values. That's not quite the same as starting with an opinion. We need to determine what principles or values we have or want to have; then we gather information, share it, discuss, maybe change our minds to a greater or lesser degree based on that information, sharing and discussing.

Notice I did not mention facts. It's too easy (as Norbert unintentionally shows) to believe in 'facts' that are not facts at all, or are only partial facts, or are just the ones we choose to be facts.

The problem in New Brunswick (and in some other places) is very, very serious. This society is not functioning very well even as it is. In a very few years, we shall watch a massive rise of robots in industry. What will happen then?

Will big employers retain their human work staffs at livable wages and benefits, but with much shorter working hours?

Or will they hire much smaller numbers of humans – and also cut salaries and benefits because the high rate of unemployment makes it possible to do that? And will that give us another book on The Edge of the Cliff that advocates even more austerity?

What will be the effect of trade treaties that make it possible for companies to ignore our laws? That's what's happening now.

With our aircraft in Iraq, we may well find ourselves trapped into an escalating war in the middle east. Why is Trudeau so slow to honour his election promise to recall those aircraft ? Six aircraft are scarcely crucial to the war effort. Nor it is any business of Canada. (It must be of no business to Canada. That's part of what Canadians decided when they elected the Liberals. It's exactly like the situation when Harper recalled Canadian troops from Afghanistan.)

And if Canada enters a war, do we appeal to young people to fight for God and country? If you believe in God, do you seriously believe He wants us to kill people? In World War Two, Canadians fought for God and country. So did the Naziis. Hitler was a devout Christian. Harry Truman, who dropped two, nuclear bombs on Japanese, civilian cities, was also a Christian. And in all countries, the churches and other religions largely supported the war.

God and country. But you can't serve two masters. That's what Norbert would call a 'fact'. So, sometimes, we have to choose – one or the other.
Alec Bruce has written a column suggesting that fracking can be quite safe, and would create jobs. Obviously, he has not heard about the monstrous natural gas spill that's still happening in Texas. It's been going on for two months pouring billions of litres of greenhouse gas into the sky. And the engineers still don't have any answer to it.

Apart from that, there's the problem of cleaning out wells filled with poisonous chemicals mixed with the water. How do you keep those chemicals from leeching into the soil before they've been pumped out.? And where do you dispose of all that poisoned water that is pumped out?

And why are we putting another fossil fuel into our atmosphere when the ones we have are already causing enormous damage? In fact, in a country that has made pledges in Paris, I see little action on renewable resources in Ottawa or Fredericton or any place in New Brunswick. We probably (almost certainly) spend more on hockey than we do on renewable resources.
In the Seniority Rules column, Louise Gilbert orders us seniors to walk 10,000 steps a day at say, our Coliseum arena. Can you imagine the horror of having to walk 10,000 steps a day in a circle just to live longer with TV that has become really boring?

Tell you what, Louise kid, what if I just cut down a bit on bacon and chocolate bars? What are you? Some kind of a sexual bondage freak?

Okay. I'll try the walking.

The Canada and World section is, as always, slim pickings. Again, there is no mention of the killing and starvation of the people in Yemen – most of it by the Saudis with the thoughtful help of U.S. bombs. But there's an even greater problem.

News stories are not very good at conveying the meaning of the news. To understand what's happening, we need informed opinion. The columns by Gwynne Dyer were good. But they were only once a week – and I suspect we're going to see even less of them. The Irving press should have comment on foreign affairs every day. It should also have a good commentary on the federal government every day. (Trudeau, for all his charm, doesn't seem to have any idea of where to take this country.) We need reports not on just what's in the news, but also what ISN'T in the news.

A news story does not give us much understanding of what events mean to us. You need some good columnists to do that. And you need some variety in the outlooks of the columnists – something that is now painfully lacking.

The most important news stories of today are probably the two about the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. What the stories tell is true enough – but they leave an impression that I think is misleading. Saudi Arabia executed a cleric from the minority Shiite group in Saudi Arabia. The impression, then stated, is that Saudi Arabia did it to warn Iran (with its, large Shiite population) that it was losing patience with Iran. That's pretty simplistic.

I suspect it was warning all right. But more than a warning, it was intended to get the western world behind it for a Saudi attack on Iran. As the Muslim world falls into chaos, the Saudis seem determined to conquer as much of it as possible. The public execution of a Shiite cleric is intended, really, not to warn but to be an excuse for a war. Like Turkey, Saudi Arabia is using the disarray within Islam to crush the “wrong kind” of Muslims, and to make Turkey and Saudi Arabia the dominant powers (until they fight each other.)

So far, it's working. The U.S., Britain and France have, predictably, rushed to the side of the Saudi royals.

Oh, the story also mentions that infuriated Shiites in Iran attacked Saudi embassies. Well, of course they did. The Saudis executed the Shiite cleric to provoke exactly that reaction. Iran immediately apologized for the attacks. But the apology was ignored and the Saudis and the US and Turkey cut diplomatic ties with Iran.

This is all a display of drama to justify a war on Iran by countries that want to destroy it – notably, the U.S. and its chief sucks, Britain and France.

And Canada?


  1. Canada sold Saudia Arabia 15 billion in weapons...


  2. You're right. I just caught the story in time to get it in for the Jan. 6 issue. Thanks for sending the site. I didn't have that.

  3. You're right. I just caught the story in time to get it in for the Jan. 6 issue. Thanks for sending the site. I didn't have that.