Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Brass Cannon

www.essaysbysean.blogspot.com
Prologue

“… the liberal believes in the permanence of humanity’s imperfection, he resigns himself to a regime in which the good will be the result of numberless actions, and never the object of conscious choice. Finally, he subscribes to the pessimism that sees, in politics, the art of creating the conditions in which the vices of men will contribute to the good of the state.”
Raymond Aron, L’Opium Des Intellectuals p. 292

The Brass Cannon

The Brass Cannon. …Such a simple title, for such a big concept.

In the lengthy novel, the title object suddenly appears in the middle, is seen only for a paragraph, yet the shadow remains to the final page.

The setting is an age when transport is so expensive that you generally bring only the clothes on your back. Hence the young viewpoint character is quietly amazed at the behavior of his traveling companion, his old professor. The prof doesn’t know if he will arrive alive, or, instead, suffer a heart attack from the escape of Earth’s vicious gravity. Yet, next to his body, Professor Bernardo de da Paz places a little brass cannon that he purchased on Earth.

I sometimes wonder what would have been the affect if, on coffee tables scattered over America, that title had been there since the mid1960’s, glaring in mute accusation. The title of another novel from the same author, Stranger in a Strange Land, had been on the table at the house of the “idealistic” organizers of the tragic Kent State riot. “…Four dead in O-hi-o.” At the time I remember a few students quoting Mao: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” (or rifle or cannon)

The idealistic title The Brass Cannon, chosen by Robert Heinlein was, alas, changed by the editor, who apparently thought fans of sf wouldn’t recognize it as science fiction. (Idiot!) As for the actual title, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it’s such a mouthful that I can’t bring myself to be critical of anyone who “disrespects” the book by calling it “Moon.”

An earlier version of Professor de la Paz would be the town doctor in Heinlein’s 1949  Red Planet subtitled A Colonial Boy on Mars. Like the Lunar doctor of philosophy, the Martian doctor of medicine was also a philosopher of simple things beyond the “biggies” like democracy and revolution. Once he reminisced about what television sets were originally intended for: His grandfather had witnessed TV sets in bars being used to show wrestling matches. I thought of this when the big expensive HD TV’s first came out: too expensive to be seen anywhere but in bars.

Another memorable line of the doctor’s, because he had been involved in local politics back on Earth, was (from memory) “Every law that was ever written opened up a new way to graft.”

Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps graft is as practical as a cannon. When my hometown of Calgary, Alberta was considering a “number of bags” limit on weekly garbage collection, an alderman disparaged the idea saying, “People will come out with bags the size of (the town of) Cochrane.” Money and practicality, not idealism, was again the deciding issue when City Hall considered the idea of changing all the residential speed limits from 50 kilometers per hour to 40 kph. I don’t recall whether the morality of subverting the integrity, the honest calculations, of the professionals of road engineering was even mentioned. What I do recall is that changing all those signs would cost one or more million dollars, and that, anyway, many drivers practically ignore their speedometers. The idea was dropped.

I enjoy driving. When I go cruising along in the good old U.S. of A. I am mindful of how, for an awake citizenry, the Constitution is a practical force: Hence I drive the “Military and Interstate Highway System” often shortened to “the interstate,” a road that needed the plea of “military” use to get around the law, written generations before Hitler’s autobahn, against ever building any such road systems in the US.

After opening the sunroof and singing “Do you know the way to San Jose?” I might try a 1960’s advertising jingle from the Saturday morning cartoons of my youth:
You can eat them on the run; eat them just for fun,
Eat them when you have a party,
When you want a snack, you can eat them from the pack,
Or warm and crispy, good and hearty,
Pop tarts, great new treat,
New-ew-ew from Kellog's,
Pop tarts.

Except they weren’t new.

And they weren’t from Kellog's.

Whoever had first started producing the tarts has gone the way of all unpersons.

Kellog's saw, copied, and then, to quote a confederate cavalry officer, got there “first-est with the most-est.” Maybe that’s not fair, not ideal, but that’s how things work in this world of Saturday morning tarts and toy cannons. As my friend, a religious fundamentalist small-business owner put it, “As long as you are within the letter of the law you are morally OK.” The executives at Enron did break the law, and were prosecuted. The men on Wall Street who plunged our entire planet into a recession didn’t, and weren’t.

It should come as no surprise that what happens within a practical democratic nation also happens between groups of nations. When I was with NATO I often went mountaineering in Switzerland. Along the mountain roads, quite blatantly, were inset rusty brown tank traps, still operational, these being a big part of the reason why Hitler’s autobahns were never extended into Switzerland. The point is not that the Swiss diplomats would sing songs of peace, in sweet harmony, with their cultured German counterparts, but, rather, the Swiss could give a sober accounting of the tank traps, steel cannons and so forth. It must have taken several days of diplomatic meetings to recite the entire military inventory.

As for the earliest brass or iron cannons, according to legend they often were inscribed with: “The final argument of kings.”

Any colony, whether on Mars or Luna, that builds their own cannons to enable them to safely open up their minds to be able to think, and then to argue “in favor of revolt,” is a colony that includes “dirty traitors” against the king. Unless they succeed. Then the former colony includes “founding fathers.” And the new state receives diplomatic recognition.

(Here in town a college stand up comic noticed that many a young student has had his father give recognition to having one’s “own roof.” He asked: What’s so magical about a roof?)

Sometimes cannons are set along the coast. My brother’s university dormitory, at UBC, “Fort Camp,” was an old barracks for the shore defense gunners. (Against the Japanese) Back in the old days of sailing ships the distance a shore cannon could project force was 3 miles. It is most assuredly not coincidence that for so many years the legal International Limit for territorial waters was also 3 miles.

Meanwhile, from the age of sail and on through the steam age, one of the best navies has always been the Royal Navy. I remember as a youth, back when the limit was usually 3 or 12 (depending on the country) miles, reading a British navy book where all of the ship-to-ship missiles, and all of the ship to shore missiles, had a range of 200 miles. While I was reading the book, world diplomats were meeting to discuss extending the International Limit.

I like cannons, and in writing this all too brief essay I don’t mean to discourage the idealism of any young students at Kent State or UBC. If the mass of men and women, unlike you and me, don’t voluntarily restrain themselves unless they are forced to, well, "it’s no biggie." In my own lifetime I have cherished seeing a goodly spreading of democracy and the furthering of international cooperation. For me, knowing the Rules of Human Behavior is like having rules for the writing of sonnets: it just makes things more fun. The Rules mean that good laws, whether in Calgary or internationally, will be practical, enforceable, and suggest a side effect of graft. “A force in motion continues until it meets an opposite motion.”

It all starts with taking people as they are: They mean well, of course, and, like my dear religious friend, they need forces both judicial and physical, even brass cannons, to help guide them to stay safely on the road. From a distance I can watch generations of people passing by as they keep trudging along the low road to morality.

The high road, lost in the misty uplands, is only for the angels.

Epilogue 

“In the course of the last forty years, the only part of the world that has enjoyed peace is the continent divided between two zones of political civilization both of them armed with atomic bombs.”

Raymond Aron, Les Dernieres Annees Du Siecle (The Last Years of the Century), p. 68



Sean Crawford
Calgary, at the ending of
The first decade of the second millennium

Footnotes
 ~ The man quoted above would be pleased to know that the European Union, instead of  an individual, was awarded the 2012 nobel peace prize

~The two quotes are from James Clive’s essay on Raymond Aron, from pages 32 and 39, quoted in Cultural Amnesia. ( a really exciting book)

~William Shakespeare did not invent the phrase “pot calling the kettle black” but he used the concept in one of his comedies, and he used a “cannon equivalent” in (I think) the comedy Twelfth Night. In Will’s day there was a problem with cannons: as they aged they weakened, and you never knew if one was going to burst into dangerous shards. So I laughed when a character retorted, “That was ill shot with elder cannon.”

Monday, December 13, 2010

Reading and Rushing

www.essaysbysean.blogspot.com


Prologue

CM: In The Laws of Simplicity you added a story about an insightful conversation you had with a former professor that seemed unrelated to the rest of the book. Why did you add it? 
JM: The whole point of that one page is that I believe that every moment you are alive you can learn something very deep. Whether you’re in a cab, or in a locker room, or you’re getting your tea, there's something that's always there that can move you. But you will never know it unless you're listening. So the point of that page was to say that I was listening that day.

…How exciting. You can’t rush listening.
The interviewer, CM, is Color Magazine on the Internet; (with writer Michael Chin) the person interviewed is Rhode Island School of Design president John Maeda.

Rushing

I was inspired to go to Amazon where they have the cover of Maeda’s book and a gizmo for “click to see inside.” So I did. Apparently the locker room story I hoped for wasn’t there: only a few pages were shown, and then the entire index. Call me a computer nerd, for I proceeded to read the index. Call me an old nerd, for I can remember sitting in the cinema for the ending credits of Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. Beuler appears in a bathrobe, gets milk from the fridge, and then turns to the audience and says, “Are you still here?” Well, Beuler's line appears after Maeda's index… and then comes the story! I’m glad I didn’t rush.

It was well before the Christmas rush, back in mid-November, that I flew back to my home town and got to see to a part of the terminal that, since the rise of cross-border (global reach) terrorism, I don’t ever get to see: the arrivals area. You may have seen on TV how ritzy US airports have a futuristic moving sidewalk. Our little cow town airport has one as well—sweet—with a silver railing on each side. It’s amusing how the railings start in the middle of nowhere and end in the middle of nowhere. The broad hall stretches onwards, regardless. Of course most people didn’t bother using the conveyer belt. At last the arriving pedestrians would walk into the public part of the terminal where they can wait at the carousel for the baggage to start arriving. It’s a long wait.

Although I’m a healthy middle-aged man the sci-fi nerd in me couldn’t resist the treat of a moving sidewalk. Besides, I deserved the pampering of a temporary rest for my legs. What amused me, and even irked me, was watching a few younger healthy people on the belt walk past me. Why? We had already passed the washrooms. By saving a few seconds they might lay eyes on, or telephone, their Aunt Zelda a few seconds earlier, but then they would also have to wait a few seconds longer with the rest of us at the carousel. What were they thinking? Perhaps they had never stopped to think…of how there is a difference between being smartly efficient and foolishly rushing.

I know efficiency. As a college student I could, when I wished, sit furthest from the classroom door yet be the first packed up and out of the room. It was a choice. As soldiers, in the land of the quick and the dead, we all had to be so very, very efficient. Not now. 


I learned another way of life when I was with NATO and took some leave, along with Corporal Burton, to stay with a retired British couple in Switzerland. The wife used to run guns to the Blacks in South Africa; the husband used to do high-level talks around Lake Geneva. Obviously they had once required a high level of efficiency. Now they were retired, but… Burton pointed out to me that although they would savor their last bite of crumpet they would also be going out the door at the precise second they said they would. They had chosen to have efficiency, yes, but without any panic or rushing. I can’t imagine them on a moving sidewalk saying,” Excuse me… excuse me… “ and brushing past innocent strangers.

While on holiday one or two people brushed past me on the long-g-g escalators for the Sky Train. It has robot-controlled cars, being built for the World Exposition of 1986 where the theme was “Transportation.” Cool. These poor folks—not how I imagined the future to be—rushed past me at mid-day, during leisure time, not rush hour. All I could do was stand to one side and reflect how some people had never thought through the engineering principle that a moving stairway, costing thousands of dollars, can save energy or time—but not both. If they hadn’t “thought” then maybe they were mere creatures of instinct, not self aware, merely cogs in a transportation machine.

Reading

It feels queer to reflect that over two thousand years ago a father wearing a toga took his son to the forum and advised the boy, “Gentlemen don’t run in public.” I think we have somehow, down the years, lost a touch of grace.

As for the exciting question that opened this essay, it was the very last question of the interview. It’s queer to think that a lot of readers would have missed any question answered that far down the web page. Such a pity. What Maeda said about “listening” surely applies to being present as you are reading.  “…But you will never know it unless you’re listening. So the whole point of that page is that I was listening that day.”

…Upon reflection, I just can’t call myself a computer nerd anymore. That’s because, reminiscent of my (November 2010) Fluffy Social Media essay, I can’t identify with those people. Not anymore. Based on their own reports, through their various web comments, they don’t “listen” when they read. So many believe in “skimming” everything they read on the web. Why? Don’t they realize that for the good stuff if you “scan” then you only get the words, not the music?

Or have they never learned the Greek value of “seeking out the good?” Too many computer guys who think they are surfing are only rushing. Such a sad way of life. Not like the true surfers, balanced on the pacific rollers, who have to "be here now." 

One guy thought he would brighten Roger Ebert’s journal by commenting that Ebert’s essays were the only things on the net he doesn’t skim. As it happens, Ebert is an avid reader, of both books and the web. He even puts international guest essays and reviews on his web site. And so I doubt he was totally pleased at a compliment that seemingly endorsed skimming.

If I seem more irked than amused it is because I know people could raise their consciousness and "change their life." But of course it’s their life and I "accept them as they are…" yet, as it happens, I’m still going through the “five stages of loss” because I have only just this month realized how so many computer nerds won’t “listen.” For now: anger. My acceptance stage is still to come. In the meantime I can chuckle at how the Greeks, in a bare forum, sans electronics, managed to think better than some of us so-called nerds.

For now, all I can do is lead by example. It was by using thought... that I changed my sartorial way of life. One day I resolved to buy only half as much but pay twice as much. Maybe the same thought could be applied to my life when reading on the computer, but this I haven’t quite worked out yet. (Or if I have, I’m too shy to share)

All I can say, for now, is I can’t imagine Ebert rushing when he reads, and so neither will I. Nope. I want my life to include a little grace.

Epilogue

Here's the interview with John Maeda. May you read it, not skim it; may you read it slowly enough to feel awe at the world that Maeda offers.


Sean Crawford
Calgary
December 2010

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Planned Responsibility

www.essaysbysean.blogspot.com
Planned Responsibility

Prologue
Sarah the director, the boss of my boss, said to me, “We need to meet some time today.” At the end of the day, after most people had left, we finally had time for me to go into her office. The nice thing about me being a long-term employee is I don’t get scared at the dreaded “come into my office” call. I scooted up a chair. She gazed at me and said simply, “The staff is not working as a team. What can you do about it?”

After a beat I said, “I don’t believe in team building exercises… because, as we say in the rehabilitation field, the learning is not generalized” (into the workaday life) Sarah agreed, reminding me about her own dreadful experience in team building. We laughed. Then we put our heads together.

She shared some recent observations. Some was trivial, like people passing by a growing stack of garbage, but some was serious indeed. As we swapped opinions, thoughts and old work stories, what was coming out of my mouth, I noticed, were mostly stories.

Sarah said, “ At the staff meeting I could give you 15 or 20 minutes.”

I said, “I think I could tell the staff stories…if done properly, it should only be ten minutes.”

“What ever you want to do.”

I smiled to see Sarah using Management 101: Tell the man what results you want, and by when, then let him decide how to do it. Still, I was pleased she felt safe in confiding and assigning this project to me.

So, after an introductory proverb, I told the staff stories from my life, then bridged with Stevey’s job candidate interviewing story, then applied the stories, still using “ ‘I’ statements” to some disguised not-so-hypothetical “what if?” scenarios at work. I tied up the package of stories by repeating the proverb. It all went well. I won’t relate, here in this essay, my job-specific stories of what I expect from a strong team, but here are some life stories about planned responsibility.

Planned Responsibility

 “The floor that is walked on by everybody is not swept by anybody.” – ancient Chinese proverb

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fluffy Social Media

www.essaysbysean.blogspot.com

Before I get excited about this new “social media” I have to ask: who are these folks being “social?”

 I’m not the only skeptic. In the last month two new Canadian mayors have been elected. In the aftermath of election night, lots of news stories have appeared about how their success was from using social media. For the new mayor here in Calgary, because he was a Mount Royal University professor, reporters harped on how his youthful supporters knew how to tweet and twitter. How gratifying, then, that a respected consultant, "liberal party spin doctor" and writer, Warren Kinsella, wrote a local newspaper column to say “victory from social media” ain’t necessarily so. There is no magic bullet for elections.

I’ve met Kinsella often, although he wouldn’t remember me: His last year at the University student newspaper was during my first half-year there. Small world. Yes, I’m feeling (small world) old, and yes, I have never once used my thumbs to “text” (verb) but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for “angry old me” to be cynical.

Here’s what’s happened:

One of my favorite essay\bloggers, Scott Berkun, has recently been asked to do an Andy Rooney style ending commentary for a TV series, from the University of Washington, called Media Space. The first episode was about a “lol (laugh out loud) cats” site. Berkun put his commentary on his web site. I liked it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Farewell Anime Figurines

www.essaysbysean.blogspot.com

Some day I will really appreciate abstract sculpture. I will feel the swirling lines, the effect of polished surfaces next to parts left rough, and the tension of blocky parts digging down that want to spring up and away. For now though, in the spirit of crawling before I walk, the only sculptures I buy are anime (Japanese animation) figurines. Are they art? Yes, you may be surprised to find they come with the sculptor's name prominently on the box.

Sometimes you may choose to buy these figurines pre-ordered from the factory, or else wait and hope to buy from the factory’s extra run. Often, though, with a prototype shown on the internet, “pre-order” is all there is. If, perchance, you had no cash flow this summer because first you finished your mortgage early, then paid a year's worth of property tax and then paid off all your visa and then paid off your powerful yet incredibly light Macbook Air computer then … like me, you will feel sad at the pre-order figurines that you never bought, gone now, gone forever except in memory.

There were three pieces that I appreciated. I had wanted to set them for display on points of a triangle. Let me recall them now to say farewell.

There have been many interpretations of the teenage girl Asuka Langely. In the series Neon Genisis Evangelion she often wears her uniform, her plug suit, to fight mystic ghostly aliens. (Not living humans) This year an artist pictured her away from battle, dancing for joy. She is wearing a monotone blue dress rather than, say, a schoolgirl’s sailor shirt over a dark skirt. This means my eye’s path down is not delayed. But my eye does not rush out along her leg: the leg is not extended with a straight foot like a proper ballerina’s. Instead, her knee is tossed out, her schoolgirl satchel is gaily swinging, dress swirling. Such a jumble of energy surrounds her. And her face! It makes me so happy just to see her.

Asuka’s girlfriend Rei has often been interpreted wearing her plug suit or a girlish blue dress or even as a gothic waitress. This year the artist must have imagined a prim cylinder within which to sculpt Rei as wearing a woman’s traditional Kimono. Energy is constrained. In contrast to her dancing friend of American heritage, Rei’s narrow kimono allows only short soft steps. It has gorgeous fabric, as part of how traditionally women were meant to be adored and put on a pedestal. The effect is matched by Rei’s usual not-smiling expression.

As any art becomes less abstract and more “real,” as with realistic figurines, the art becomes increasingly viewed in the light of the history of the viewer and what he or she brings to the art. For me, knowing the eventual fates of the girls, I am moved to see them as still unmarred and having a life.

The third figurine for my triangle, balancing the other two poles of joyful and serene, new and traditional, child and woman, is a girl named Kuniko from the series Shangri-La. I remember her sitting in a short pleated skirt, wearing not high heels but high action boots. She still wears her old schoolgirl sailor shirt, and, with her arms up overhead, she holds a steel futuristic boomerang. Cool! I immediately sense she is not “just another teen in the crowd.” Best of all is her expression, rare in figurines: a huge U-shaped smile. I can relate. I instantly want to know what adventures she has. So I did a google search for boomerang and found out Kuniko is a leader, fresh out of jail.

I won’t reveal what the dear girl tries to do: Anime differs from mundane U.S. television. For U.S. TV, which typically has ongoing shows such as police mysteries, you could accidentally expose the plot of only one episode at a time. Fantastic anime is different: The plot lasts for a full season, as the show is intended to terminate after a certain number of weeks. The stories for my two favorite shows, Elfin Lied and Serial Experiments Lain, are told in just thirteen episodes. At the end of the series the hero has won or lost, lived or died: For her it’s all over. This makes the figurines especially dear.

Had I bought my three sculptures I could have brought them to my favorite art gallery, the Stephen Lowe gallery. I would have brought them up to the counter, set them in a triangle, and then my friends the art experts, they who so deeply appreciate “real” art, would have ooh-ed and ah-ed been happy for me.

My lesson? Don’t be intimidated at the thought of “real” art lovers; buy what you like and if you really love it… snap it up before it’s only a memory.


Sean Crawford,
Calgary,
October 2010
Update: In summer of 2016, pre-order for September of 2016, is a "re-issue" of the Asuka figurine. They know what fans want, and what true fans will pay, for this time they are charging what the market (in Japan) will bear—quite a lot. Too much for us sensible North Americans. Yes, but I really want to have it.

So I've ordered Asuka, and I get free tracking of my parcel too, all the way from leaving Gunma prefecture, to Tokyo post office, to cross the ocean, to the port of Vancouver post office, to the transCanada highway, to my town. (Yes, regular post; I can't afford Federal Express) I've ordered through J-List.

Somehow I found Rei, a few years back. Hurray! Did you know her name means spirit? (Oooh)

Any Kuniko figurines out there? I will road trip to your house to buy it! She was created by artist Range Murota, who did the covers for Robot magazine.

Footnote: There must have been a number of people who missed out this summer, because this fall the term **pre-order** is being bracketed with two stars on J-Box, the Japanese import site I use.
Update: And this August, 2011, a big box has been added to each pre-order figurine page, spelling out what a pre-order is, and how you may easily miss out if you wait for the actual factory run before buying.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Reality Checks

www.essaysbysean.blogspot.com

While musing about Principles... for Life, and Iraq… I thought of Sheldon Cooper, the young theoretical physicist on the CTV hit comedy Big Bang Theory. The guy who plays Sheldon won an Emmy Award for best actor. Naturaly, Sheldon is very competent and very confident… so why is he a nerd? Easy: he trusts his own judgment: Completely. He never wonders, “If you say ‘tomahto’ but I say ‘tomato’ then who will end up with red on his face...?” Which means he never faces any incongruities in his life, which means any need for humor can be safely avoided: Completely.

If only Sheldon was comfortable in the messy world of human variables he might have harkened to the advice of Dan Kennedy, a brave extroverted entrepreneur. Kennedy stresses not depending on your own opinion. When it comes to advertising and marketing, he says, you must test, test and test again. I think that’s a good principle.

I wouldn’t want Sheldon, a true nerd, to conform out of fear, not like some overly fashionable teenager, but still, having an "awareness level" never hurt… Some principles for an individual to live by include reality-checks, perception-checks, checks and balances… anything but hubris.

What’s true for individuals is true for groups. Let me set the scene: Years ago I was part of a weekly self-help meeting of not-very-functional people. An even less functional person, call him Bozo, wanted us to give up an evening every month to his pet project: a guest speaker meeting. I was against it, but was “outvoted.” As time passed I was proven right. At first, as I began to suspect the speakers project wasn’t working out, I just didn’t feel comfortable talking with Bozo to try figure out what wasn’t working: he really didn’t like me. His chosen speakers were just aimlessly drifting around- they didn’t seem to be very useful to hear. Later, when my light bulb came on overhead, I knew precisely what change was needed: the principle used by speaker meetings in Alcoholics Anonymous is to say: “How it was; what happened; how it is now.” No drifting. However, I didn’t think Bozo would accept my feedback, admit he was wrong, and be man enough to do the needed work.

Today, looking back, I wonder: At that meeting where Bozo got the “go ahead” what could I have said to the group to prevent this stupid misuse of time? The others were unsure; Bozo got his way, as a minority of one, by emotional blackmail. (Anger and appeals to pity.) Since I was unsure myself I couldn’t have argued purely on the merits of the project. But I could have confidently referred to guiding principles.

I could have said, “Um, you guys, I’m thinking of ‘checks and balances’ and how in parliament, as a reality-test, if a motion does not merit a seconder, then it is not realistic to use the group’s time for discussion. If this idea of Bozo’s is indeed realistic then, in principle, there should be a “seconder,” a second person willing to team up to help him work on it… Because, you guys, what if I want to give Bozo feedback? It might be too much for him if he is responsible all alone.” But alas, I didn’t say that, and now I’ll never know.

In our everyday life we avoid being “responsible all alone” by appealing to people off stage. When a drab science nerd, as a perception-check, asks me, “Would this shirt be too colorful?” I can reply than “other people” would say it is quite fashionable, that “everyone” would like it. Of course Sheldon, growing up smarter than everyone else, has become comfortable with being alone.

What is true for groups is true for governments. When the U.S. government thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, AND claimed, like some New York City con artist, there was no time to delay the drastic step of an invasion, then what? …If only, instead of being a minority of one, they had done a perception-check as to why their peer groups in Japan, and Asia and Russia, and in continental Europe, and their own neighbor Canada, all disagreed. No, it wasn’t just a really big coincidence.

Of course we the people know that for every person in Washington with the ability to listen, for every Abe Lincoln or Harry Truman, there are unfortunately plenty of guys who put the “H” in hubris, guys like Defense Secretary Rumsfeld who over-ruled the generals, the state department, the economists and everyone else. Perhaps, to be charitable, the strain of their position forces such people into being as “overconfident” as Sheldon Cooper.

The check and balance, then, has to be we the people. For example someone too young to personally remember Vietnam could have recalled from history how some U.S. government departments conspired to orchestrate lies about enemy troop strength… right up until the Tet Offensive. Someone else could have pointed out how national hysteria, as in the time of Truman, (Truman himself stayed calm) can inhibit the media, inhibit everyone's brain from thinking… And then the media could have distributed such information and enabled public dialogue…

I know of an internationally syndicated journalist, Gwynne Dyer, who has re-printed his writings, starting with the day of 9/11, covering the months before the invasion, and also those months afterwards when the liberators still didn’t have the guts to call what they were doing an “occupation.” (Remember?) Not just as a citizen, but most especially as a journalist, Dyer feels deeply responsible for his failure to discern the U.S. government’s bad faith. And so between his old essays he has new “interstitials” as he tries to grapple with how he and all of his journalism peers could have failed so badly. His forward alone makes With Every Mistake (2005) worth buying. The principle here would be “Own your mistakes so you can learn.”

I know of no U.S. journalist, syndicated or otherwise, who has done the same as Dyer. Sorry Yanks, he lives only in Canada. (And Britain) Such a pity.

Despite the gloom of Iraq, I now have something to be excited about: reality checks. Before I close by grappling with what I could have said, about a reality-test principle, to those Bozos in Washington, let me share something.

Last week I read a Reuters (September 29, 2010 Calgary Sun) article about a chief executive officer (CEO) responding to an oil spill from a pipeline in Kalamazoo River system in Michigan. The main headline: Embridge CEO played it smart. In smaller type: Stark contrast with blundering BP boss Tony Hayward. I was struck by the contrast between CEO Pat Daniel and the sort of Bozo politicians who would blandly expect a mere weekend conference of the G-20 in Canada this summer to cost “millions upon millions” of dollars to the taxpayer.

From reading The Ugly American I know that many people, if they set foot outside the U.S. border into, say, South Vietnam or Iraq, instantly turn ugly. They forget about trying to even understand the villagers, let alone to “win their hearts and minds” for democracy. Instead they stay at fancy hotels, in Saigon or the Green Zone, and mingle with the native elite. But not Pat Daniel.

He stayed in a mere motel in the area for two months. Like many of the locals Daniel was an avid fly fisherman, and he told the folks he wanted to return to fish when the tributaries were cleaned up. They liked him. Michigan State University PR instructor Robert Kolt said, “If you’re affected, it’s really hard to understand how an executive could be both respectful and humble in Michigan, but we kind of saw that. I think people gave him high marks compared to Tony Hayward.”

I only wish that politicians in Washington could be as capable as that businessman. In Canada they are apparently as capable as business CEO's, or so the Canadian government claims: The excuse given by the Ottawa politicians for increasing their absurd salaries was “they had to compete with the business world.” Did the Canadians bother to reality-test this perception? During Vietnam I would have said their excuse had a “credibility gap.”

I suppose the people in Washington, like their counterparts in Canada ("millions upon millions") have their fantasies of being excellent at managing and organizing. As it happens, the historical record of Iraq proves otherwise. In Washington they were Bozos, and we enabled them to function as Bozos. There is a great line at the end of a book on Iraq. (Either Fiasco or Chain of Command) Throughout the book the writer names the insistent manipulators. I won’t steal his thunder by giving his exact figure, but he ends by saying, in effect, that history will wonder how (exact figure) men were able to get an entire nation into a war.


National Correspondent James Fallows, in his Blind Into Baghdad, (2006) names the same over-confident individuals as Hersh does. Fallows adds, 

“On the basis of all available evidence, it appears that the very people who were most insistent on the need to invade were the most negligent about what would happen next.” 

Such an obscenity: It seems that, after dragging the rest of us into a war, each of the very men responsible walked away and lost interest, fell asleep, leaving our boys to fight and die. As they were dying by the dozens, then the scores, then the hundreds… The boys with merely military training must have wondered weakly, helplessly, how the Americans were to teach democracy and peace. The (exact figure) with their extensive pre-war Iraq knowledge and their broad university education, as the U.S. casualties reached one thousand, then thousands, never gave the boys any help or guidance. 
I said “obscenity” and I meant it. I’m angry. When I was chairman of a board of directors we never tried to micro-manage the executive's decisions, but by God we never failed to enforce principles. (see my Olympics and Boards essay of Feb 14, 2010)

My thought experiment, my daydream, is that I am controlling my temper at a meeting at a big long oak table in the White House. This is well before any official decisions to invade Iraq. Not wishing to argue with close-minded people about the merits of the invasion I would look to principle.

“Gentlemen, no one doubts your ability as leaders and managers. If the president dies the vice-president can step up to the plate; if he dies then the secretary of state is certainly capable.” I would remind them that by their very own words the invasion and security of Iraq was Extremely Important.

“Will the secretary of state, or of defense, for example, resign to go to Iraq and be in charge? Will any of those very few who have been pushing so very strongly the “Iraq agenda” be willing to be in charge over there until the last American leaves? Will no one ‘bell the cat?’… Gentlemen! In principle, if this motion to invade, no matter how “Extremely Important,” does not have even one “seconder” willing to take full-time long-term responsibility, then... surely... it is not worth doing!”

... ...

... Principles are like proverbs: they help people to manage their lives and they are difficult to argue against. I'm thinking of the failed U.S. invasion during my childhood, which I studied in management class, that gave the world the lesson of “group think.” Next time a group is planning to invade the Bay of Pigs I could recite the resulting proverb: “If everyone is thinking alike then no one is thinking.” From  what I've read, for Iraq, persons with hubris ordered everyone in the White House to think alike, and publicaly crucified the first man (a general) who dared to disagree.

The Bay of Pigs invasion provided a bloody "reality test." At  least we learned something. Today, when no one has been reprimanded for Iraq, let alone fired, we are obviously not yet ready to learn. I hope that one day, as Fallows believes, the mistakes of Iraq will be owned and studied.

Just now, I’m a little angry, and in no mood to be musing about hubris. I think I will go escape into laughing at Sheldon and those other lovable nerds on Big Bang Theory.

Sean Crawford
On the Great Plains
October 2010

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Art or Business

www.essaysbysean.blogspot.com

They say life is lived in a spiral. How queer that I am once again faced with the choice of art or business…

A life devoted to making art? Or, instead, a straight job? Every year this choice is faced by a surprising number of young people. As a youth I read a lot of pre-war W. Somerset Maugham stories dealing with exactly that issue. Stories, for example, of a hero never minding what parents and sane people would say while striving to become a poet, painter or concert pianist. And then sometimes admitting defeat.

Maugham himself originally trained to be a doctor. Dan Kennedy, a successful Canadian entrepreneur, has said in one of his little Self Counsel Press books (which I recommend) that he had considered becoming a novelist, but then he took a moment for a visualization: He didn’t want to be starving in an attic! Based on his writings, I’m sure he’s pleased with his high-powered life. As for me, back in my youth I decided that if perchance I ever felt a compelling urge to make art then I could do so just on weekends. That was my choice.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Lobbyists

www.essaysbysean.blogspot.com

When my world was young, and so was I, we longhaired students would do cartoons to express our displeasure with the Establishment. In our hippie newspapers we would portray capitalists, politicians and, if we thought of them, lobbyists too, as having porcine features and satisfied expressions while their buttons nearly popped off their vests. The trick was to acknowledge the existence of the Establishment but not despair, not be intimidated. One day I graduated. Then I lowered my nose to the grindstone: learned to work really hard. And one day, when I lifted my nose again—Hey! We’re all middle-aged! Meanwhile the cartoon-caricatures have vanished along with the underground newspapers.

Today my leftist friend Jan, in theory, would be quick to tell me not to speak disparagingly of politicians and capitalists. Jan would tell me that since I am not one myself it wouldn’t be Politically Correct for me to speak for them... in theory. (What? Does this mean I can't do cartoons?) As for lobbyists, I think Jan still despises them: Hence I think he’s still youthfully uninformed.

"To be informed or not to be informed, that is the question..." rather, that is the key to deciding whether to be "a citizen or a civilian." Is it right  for Jan to be uninformed? Who knows? While most of us back in my longhaired youth were energetic and idealistic about the future, maybe those other students were correct, long ago, they who despaired of ever being informed citizens. In their despair they would say, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!” and say, “The media is all lies, you can’t believe anything, and so what’s the use in even trying?”

Maybe I should be amused at how certain students, the ones who would be sharp-eyed while reading books over two years old, keen to document and footnote, keen to critically compare and contrast… would be drained, despairing at the thought of ever trying to critically read this week’s media. I can’t blame them, in theory: Why should they take a grown up interest in the news when they could escape into, say, listening to that British invasion band the Who and watching the rock opera Tommy. If the media is totally useless to them then why not figuratively, like in that opera, sit around wearing earplugs, blindfolds and plugs in their mouths? Why not give in to despair?

No... This I believe: “Our greatest enemy is despair.” So said a boy while receiving A European Education, as reported by future diplomat Romain Gary while on operations (fighting) with the Free French Air Force. The boy went off into The Forest of Anger (1944 title) to be among the partisans. He was always looking around wide-eyed and taking mental snapshots of scenes of his youthful comrades around the campfire. I can relate. As it turned out, most of them never made it home from the forest. Nothing Important Ever Dies went the title of the British edition. Unfortunately the beautiful young men and woman, whom the boy admired in the forest, died by hanging and shrapnel and bullets and even by a simple lack of medicine.

Do I digress? Not really. I think a little perspective on the price of democracy is always helpful. Incidentally, on a lighter note, as a student I always enjoyed getting a laugh by declaiming dramatically to my peers: “I’m proud to be a member of society!” Lately I’ve been pleased to get a little more perspective on lobbyists, therefore being a little less despairing.

Sure, lobbying can be a force for ill. This summer there was concern expressed in the Ontario legislature as to whether the transparency laws, regarding the self-registration of all lobbyists, were being evenly enforced.

Contra-wise, lobbying can be a force for good. This summer the cover of time magazine, for a story on lobbyists, showed lots of cash cascading from the capitol dome. The illustration was just like something out of my old student newspaper. Nevertheless the accompanying story was quite favorable to lobbyists. A little graphic showed stacks of paper, of various heights, from various decades, dramatizing how the sheer number of pages for any modern legislative bill has grown to mind-boggling mammoth size. How could a politician ever read all of it, let alone understand it? She needs help… help from her staff and from lobbyists. I learned that just as any print journalist is ethically bound to present both sides, so too will a well-meaning politician consult lobbyists from all sides of an issue. Of course the lobbyists will have poured over the fine print and considered how to explain and interpret things.

I am sure that even when I was a university student, at the top of my game, I would have groaned trying to read complex legislation. Surely if I was doing the hiring for a lobby firm—and there are such companies—then I would hire some one who was not only a young graduate but who had also spent a few years carefully reading while employed as a young congressional staffer. According to Time, this is what actually happens. My old longhaired peers will be glad to know that these new hires are indeed under the age of thirty.

Not having wimped out, I still retain the energy of youth. Rather than lower my shoulders in despair, I will raise my arms to cheer. I'm still an involved citizen: Hurray for democracy!


Sean Crawford
Still reading newspapers,
Now using reading glasses,
September 2010

Footnotes:
~ Fox “news,” on TV, avoids the industry standard for journalistic ethics by saying they represent not the news section of the paper, but the editorial section… Too bad I feel I have to point this out.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Backfire, a Book Review

Backfire, Ballantine Books, 347 pages
 www.essaysbysean.blogspot.com

Prologue
Regarding liberal arts:
Besides helping nation-building efforts, liberal arts degrees are good for helping individuals to manage to stay out of terrorism. 

According to “… Tarek Fatah. The outspoken and controversial critic of Islamist extremism…” as reported by Bryn Weese, for the Parliamentary Bureau, for the Calgary Sun, p. 10, August 28, 2010. “You would never see a history major, a sociology PhD, or someone studying philosophy or anthropology as a jihadist," Fatah said.

“I’ve been dealing with these (people) for 40 years, and I have never met folks in the study in the humanities who ever indulge in this fascism."

As you know, home-grown terrorists are trained in things like hospital technology, medicine and engineering.

“They have no time for the grey area of issues," Fatah said, and are “inclined to regimented ideas, fixed solutions … and follow prescribed rules.” 

Backfire
Perhaps the finest moments in academia are when one relates an actual event to an unexamined premise of society, thus producing a higher social awareness level.

Earlier in our age the pain of Vietnam prompted Terry Orlick to isolate competition, something normally taken for granted, as a negative factor in American involvement. Today camp counselors all across the continent use co-operative games, certain little leagues no longer keep score, and probably every physical education professor’s library contains Orlick’s New Games textbook.

Now University of Massachusetts Provost Loren Baritz’s latest book shows promise of similar far-reaching effects on our society.

Backfire, subtitled A history of How American Culture Led Us in to Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did, is a searing look at the pattern for tragedy built onto the very warp and woof of our society. The book is exciting, informative, and extremely moving.

Since the Truman years most of the U.S.’s decisions regarding Vietnam have been wrong. In part this is due to beliefs peculiar to the American culture. (To illustrate: The January British edition of Cosmopolitan contains the line “foreign (movie) audiences had become tired of American idealism,” something they would not say of Canadian or Mexican films.)

Baritz sees three facets to the question of understanding Vietnam: myths, political processes (Baritz includes an analysis of the President versus his bureaucrats) and bureaucratic systems. “Bureaucratic man…

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Polite Blogs

www.essaysbysean.blogspot.com


Prologue

U.S. writer and citizen Robert Heinlein once gave advice on how to chair a series of community meetings. As you know, regular people can feel involved and follow what is being said for the big motions. These motions, debated at length, are the main event. At the same time, ordinary people are not well versed in the intricacies and procedures of Robert’s Rules of Order.

Heinlein said not to be embarrassed to always explain in full, for the crowd’s benefit, the consequence of every little procedural motion they are being asked to vote on. Do so each time. It only takes a minute, a minute that feels sooo long when you are under the spotlight. But it has to be done. Otherwise, some people won’t “get it” and over time they will end up feeling bamboozled. And then they drop out.

Likewise, I thought “better too long than too short” as I wrote explanations to help us all to help out those few who “don’t get it...” My fear is that over time, as regular people are bothered by some “desensitized barbarians” at our blog "meetings," they may get fed up and drop out. And then we all lose.



Polite Blogs

Call me mean and cruel, if you wish, but I am not going to give people a free pass anymore to be barbaric in public. By this I mean strangers on the world wide web. Or even my “Uncle Albert,” who is a shrewd high school drop out who seldom writes on a page or a screen. If he is impolite then I will correct him too.

I like going to a pub with my uncle. There we will shout and pound the table and indulge in all sorts of careless messy logic. And we’ll call people names, too, behind their back. It’s all good face-to-face private fun. But in print on a screen, since it is public, we are not just a couple of yahoos: we are citizens. This means due care… and no name-calling.

It’s a mistake to assume that every blogger can go from reading Peanuts cartoons to reading print in high school to automatically knowing how to talk and write among grownups. Sure, sometimes learning is semi-conscious, or unconscious, but it’s not automatic. And so if we allow foolish faults to pass uncorrected then we end up being burdened with fools.

I dimly recall a 1950’s Peanuts strip where Charlie Brown and Linus are arguing. Then one abruptly name-calls, saying something like, “Oh yea? What about your stupid old coonskin cap?” The other one replies “Yea? What about your silly shirt?” … It was funny, way back then, to see a cartoon version of ad hominem attack: criticizing the man to escape the effort of criticizing his argument. It was ugly, just last month, to read of a poor disfigured surgery survivor, on his own blog, being attacked by a commenter as “looking like an abomination…” This was because the commenter disagreed with the blogger’s opinion on art.

What if, as a fellow commenter, I accepted my responsibility to rebuke such behavior? I could comment, “(Person’s name) don’t be rude. In our group discussion we are all playing with words, like passing a ball around, to help our whole team move closer to the goal line of truth. In soccer you play the ball, you don’t body-check the man. A cheater merely mars the game, but to blatantly attack a man, to be a spoil sport like you were, is to ruin the game for all of us.”

Despite my being more of a lurker than a commenter the quality of public blog forums concerns me because, as Marley’s ghost said to Scrooge, all of mankind is my business. While I hold to a value of “Freedom! Freedom for individual commenters,” I also hold dearly to a value of “Citizenship! Responsibility for the community.”

Once, at the rosy dawn of history, in a little desert community, a shepherd asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” …Yes! ... Because, today, the sum of our hours and days on the Internet, and the quality of our written web dialogue, becomes a measure of our democracy. “Democracy! Power to the People!” Yes because a blog has power, a power to help and to harm. Not like in a pub. Yes because there is a higher standard of care for permanent words than for spoken words. 

I realize that some people “think by speaking,” and some can “touch-type speak” as fast as they talk. I myself think more by talking than by reading or writing. In fact, once I was conducting a small group seminar at university when a nice classmate burst out, “Hey! I've just realized- You’re an oral learner! You talk like my LD (learning disabled) kids!” The trick is to talk but not impulsively hit the “post” button. The harm to myself by having to “think before you post” is far less than my harm to others if I forget to “never post without politeness.”

I could write, “(Person’s name) gentle Einstein never devalued a person. He didn’t even devalue ideas: he focused on presenting positive replacement ideas for people to consider. Disrespect doesn’t help the community.”

Part of the problem, of course, is that some commenters are “inexperienced” in life. As a student I used to ride the #13 Mount Royal College bus with a college English teacher, Diane Patterson. Unfortunately, as Diane noted, MRC was a “commuter college.” “No (typical student) late night talks in the dorms.” Diane found that when she put her class into small groups to discuss things… the students could not accomplish anything. They would be awkward and silent.

I could write, “(Person’s name) instead of being rude, you might find it helps to remember “boundaries.” If I am with a group trying to solve a problem, seeking the Truth, then, whether the group is in person or in cyberspace, once an idea leaves my mouth it belongs to the group. My boundary means I do not own the idea, nor feel any need to defend it. I only offer it to the others as another piece of the puzzle. Rudeness to me, or to anyone, is seldom helpful to everyone.”

Of course it is common sense that, in theory, after their first semester, “everybody knows” how to “appropriately” discuss. A nice theory for those who have been to college. As for me, a graduate of Vancouver Technical School, I think of my unknowing Uncle Albert: Some people attended a trade school to “learn the answers,” not an academic college with discussions to “learn the questions.” And so I prefer the journalism theory, as taught by Strunk and White, “There are babies being born every minute who do not know.” (how to  discuss)

Judging by what I have read, on certain forums for gathering together pages from various computer nerd blogs, some of those babies can grow up, graduate with a university degree in computer science, and still not know: I find nerd commenters using swear words, sarcasm and other sorts of blatant disrespect.

Perhaps I could respond, “(Person’s name) don’t be disrespectful. Being passionate is no excuse. Even the most passionate people are accountable for having enough self-discipline to show respect. For example Ben Franklin and Socrates were passionate about discovering truth, even risking death by hanging (for treason) or by hemlock. They surely felt some passion when encountering “foolish” ideas from people. ... 


Especially Franklin, a man utterly determined to persuade the French to believe in the “noble experiment” of a republic. He wanted them, at best to believe in, and at worst not to oppose, this fragile new thing called democracy. Both Franklin and Socrates, whether in a dainty French salon, or a marble Greek forum, mastered their passions. They kept the atmosphere polite and nurturing. Never poisonous. All of us today, we who are risking so little compared to those giants, could do likewise."

Much of my talking these days, which has furthered my understanding of web culture, is done at my toastmasters (public speaking) club. My old club’s culture had two distinctions: "tough love," and being a "jeans and T-shirt" place. Jeff was a young member who always wore a blazer and necktie. When he left to start up a new club I said, “Whatever culture your club starts out with will be carried on for years.” He grinned and said, “The tie stays on!” … Soon afterwards I joined a second club, a kinder, gentler non-competitive club. When my new buddies proposed something "tough," such as dinging a bell every time someone said “uh” or “um” I felt bi-cultural. I said, “I would really like that proposal in my other club, but I wouldn’t like it here.” Later I dropped my first club; I assimilated into my new club. My preferences changed; I changed. But my two clubs have never changed. Culture endures.

I think Internet culture is still like fresh cement: it’s been poured, but it hasn’t set. There is still some uncertainly. For example, we still don’t quite know yet whether to correct someone who comments impolitely: usually we let it pass. I have finally decided to go with my old slogan from the Canadian Airborne Regiment, "Never pass a fault." Needless to say, there is nothing wrong with a specific site being expressly for witty yahoos. But whenever we first come across a new blog… what should we normally expect? In computer terms, what is the default?

To paraphrase resistance leader John Conner, “The default is not set, our culture is what we make.” Right now it takes only a few courageous civilized people to make a difference.

There are precedents. For example, at the local armory the vast majority of reservists are young guys, passionate and impulsive. Nevertheless, it takes only a few tubby middle-aged people, civilized warriors, to set a tone of excellence. They lead by example, and they give swift rebukes. And they’re respected. They have the moral authority to rebuke because they have credibility and, equally important, because they are not afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeve: They care.

I care: A democracy needs civilized Internet dialogue.

Unhappily, rudeness short-circuits thinking, which makes barbarians happy.

Not thinking is not good. A few years ago, the previous U.S. president, to paraphrase a sentence about war, after going into Iraq, found out the hard way: “Thinking is too important to be left to the generals and their friends.” We the people are accountable.

Thirteen years earlier, overseas, the problem with Hussein’s Iraq was not solely that Saddam Hussein’s relatives in the palace couldn’t be accountable to each other, and to Hussein, but also that they were inexperienced in thinking at all. It’s hard to think aloud, “Maybe we should pull out of Kuwait…” Not when some jerk does a scornful “Oh yea? Why?” If you are unpracticed at discussing, how can you suddenly learn to do a chain of reasoning to explain national self-determination, especially when your extremist partner is unskilled in having any attention span, unskilled in politely listening? Barbarians think their lack of skill is their strength.

You might as well answer, “Uh-… Because!”

“Oh yea? What about your stupid old baseball cap?”… I would hate for rude people to destroy the web as a place for practicing democratic discourse.

At this point, I have carefully composed some thoughts of what I could write to rude people; I do not yet know exactly what I will write. I only know I have to try.


Sean Crawford
Humble before the challenge of cyberspace
August 2010
Footnote: Of course my kitchen journal is a private (not public) space, and so I see any Live Journal blog as a sunny private place too.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sarcasm and Lies

www.essaysbysean.blogspot.com

Last week,  in the middle of his comment on Scott Berkun’s blog, (July 29, 2010 Why Does Faith Matter?) a man named Zug said something negative, never mind what, about the Reverend Martin Luther King. I’m sure some would agree with the comment, and I’ve read far worse about MLK in a book published when the reverend was still alive, but still…. So I politely disagreed and gave my reasoning. Zug politely wrote back that maybe he could have expressed himself better, and that he had been sarcastic. Oh.

I’m sure Zug meant well. I don’t think he was being “sarcastic,” not precisely. I think, rather, he had sidestepped into someone else’s shoes, said his sentence as a method actor, and then hopped back into his own shoes. In person, that’s cool. (Except when folks don't get it) In print, that’s hard to do.

I don't think people who mean well use sarcasm. To me sarcasm is a lie, spoken with intent to initially deceive and then hurt. It’s aggressive. And it’s unworthy.

Although I’ve never been to New York City, that exciting place of writers, art galleries and museums, I picture sarcasm as being a “big city” thing. Novelist John Gardener, in teaching The Art Of Fiction, uses a scene in a New York art museum. Two people are standing before an expensive painting donated by the Chooser family. If one person turns and quips, “Beggars can’t be Choosers,” then you know the speaker, in terms of emotion, was not truly involved in the painting. He could not fabricate his pun unless he was emotionally "a step back" from the experience before him. Poor fellow. In contrast, says Gardener, a writer must never hold himself back. Being a writer myself, and being determined to be “here and now,” I won’t fabricate sarcasm.

My role models for being "present" include Gardener and a lovely young lady at church, Miriam. Here on the prairie, on the porch after church, I might find myself talking to Miriam. She has a good heart. If I lie, if I use a “just joking” lie or a sarcasm-lie or an irony-lie, then her face will cloud over… until she figures out I’m lying, then her face clears again. The cloud may only last a few microseconds, but I feel bad. And I should.

Heaven forbid I should ever say something to Miriam that requires a follow up “Can’t you take a joke?” That’s just further aggression, an aggression I associate with children. Now, suppose I was a child growing up out in big New York City, and suppose out there they do indeed have lots of sarcasm and other lies… What would become of me? I think I know.

As a writer, to figure this out, I could use a metaphor: There's a light-speed delay in talking by radio to men on the moon; there's a delay built into the so-called “live” broadcast of the out-spoken hockey announcer Don Cherry, a delay to allow the TV authorities time to stop anything controversial he says from getting out. And then I could refer to that poor fellow in that gallery who was a step back from life... If I was raised in cruel New York then I might need to “step back” by having my own “delay,” or filter. And then my face would never cloud like Miriam’s... because I would always be self-protected.

In terms of the Doonesbury cartoons, I would end up as one of those guys with a little bit of darkness around the eyes. The darkness suggests my eyes being kept stiff during some delay while my brain processes whether or not someone is lying in order to hurt me. And then, only after using such a filter, finally allowing the words in, and then, at last, allowing myself to react and feel. Is that any way to live? Maybe in New York it is.

Luckily, here in “Cow Town,” I find that big city “sophisticates” are few and far between. Strangely enough, they are repelled from wide-eyed guys like me. I grate on them. So I don’t need to get hardened.

“Not-lying” is a part of keeping my word, of integrity, which in the working world is the basis for effectiveness. Call it a life style choice. …For any fiction lovers who want to read more about “integrity” that is the theme of the Chtorr War series by David Gerrold, told in the first person, where the hero starts out as a spoiled student and then models off of effective people as they try to work together to weed out an ecological infestation, the Chtorr.

“Not-hardening” is a part of keeping folks like Miriam in my life. My favourite role model for being present is a character not fictional but from my boyhood: Clinton Duffy, “the warden” at San Quentin prison. Duffy's wife reports how Duffy would come home so very tired after the “long walk” of an execution. In all his years this never changed. The warden never tried to make it easier by hardening his heart. He never tried to tell himself, “Ah, who cares, they are only convicts.”

Surely the warden was a caring man without stiff eyes. In the main yard of San Quentin there would be a throng of impulsive convicts, some of them crazy, many with “nothing left to lose.” The warden, with not a single guard, walked out among them… because he wanted to know how they were doing… Never, not before or since, have I heard of such a miraculous thing. I think the warden had “the perfect love that casts out all fear.”

I can’t picture the warden ever using sarcasm. He was a strong and honest man.


Sean Crawford
Calgary
On the Great Plains
August 2010

Friday, July 23, 2010

On Gratitude Lists

www.essaysbysean.blogspot.com

As a young man I knew a young lady who had grown up in a home where both parents, sadly, were terrible alcoholics. Without taking a drop of alcohol she ended up as a sad case herself. Happily, she found tools for “recovery.” What she passed on to me was something that had really helped her down the years: making a “gratitude list.” So I tried it too, and yes, this tool sure works for me.

How? My answer depends on “why do you want to know?” If you are as desperate as my friend was then wanting to know “how it works” before you will try it, is merely a convenient way, as they say in England, to “put it off.” In Rome: to “procrastinate.” In California: to “self-sabotage.” If, on the other hand, making a gratitude list sounds trivial then it sounds like you are “fully recovered.” Congratulations. Now you may make a list.

To me a gratitude list is a way

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Culture And Human Rights

In late June I took a day off work to attend a morning seminar, held at the downtown library, on “Human Rights and Aboriginals.” A man I used to work with, Ed Yuen, told us that human rights, as declared by the United Nations after the last world war, are worldwide. He said, “You don’t gain human rights by coming to Canada.” You already have human rights everywhere on the planet.

I suppose universal rights, back before we entered the atomic age, were not as urgent. And now? Urgent! “Beneath the spreading mushroom tree there is no time for apathy.”

Some slow-moving elderly men at church once pointed out a biblical passage in Genesis, the passage once used to deny human rights to persons of Negro heritage. These men were old enough to remember a time when there was no U.N. Now, no longer racist, they pointed out this passage as a curiosity, like ice boxes and buttonhooks. These elders may seem straight-laced and narrow-minded but truly I say: They won’t use religion to deny human rights. If I would quote the Bible to justify my crime of “uttering death threats” against a woman, then they would surely rebuke me, and notify the police. For me to quote, “Thou may not allow a witch to live” is no excuse.

Furthermore, if I would put Biblical law, or Muslim religious sharia law, above human rights, then I would be putting scripture above God: I would be idol worshipping. Like my Muslim classmate, I too believe the Lord, Allah, is a “living God.” Life is change. To me this means that as I “live and grow” I become able to realize that God has always believed in human rights. God wants all children to exist. It is I who have been slow to see.

Some would say that culture trumps human rights… at least, that’s what I’ve read. Some people approved when the province of Ontario was considering bringing in sharia law. These people reasoned Arabian-Canadians would “choose” sharia as their “culture.” One problem, of course, is that by this reasoning logically it follows: Before the tumbling of the Berlin wall, we should approve of the Yugoslavians, as their culture, having communism and then, after the fall, having ethic cleansing. Instead we rebuked them for ethnic cleansing, rescued Muslims in Yugoslavia, and now cleansing is gone.

For years we rebuked South Africa, and now apartheid is gone. For years even the Dutch, who shared blood-ties and religion-ties with South Africa, joined in the international outcry. Now it is time to rebuke the government of Iran… Yesterday, Friday July 9, I read in the Globe and Mail there is a petition to save the life of a young woman in Iran, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. She has been condemned, under sharia law, to death by stoning… slow, painful and barbaric. She has already been whipped 99 times. Her crime was adultery.

Now is the time for those who share religion-ties with Iranians to rebuke Iran. I would hope that Muslims in the cities of the eastern U.S. seaboard, and, to the east of those cities, on the prairies of Canada, and, even further east, across the vast ocean to the jungles of Indonesia and Malaysia, will raise their Muslim voices to join in the international outcry.

The prairies? Yes, there are Muslims here on the prairies. And yes, they play hockey. And, however quietly or shyly, they do believe in human rights. They do. And, if not today, then some day they will achieve the self-confidence to cry out across the world to Iran. This I believe.


Sean Crawford
Calgary
July 2010

Footnotes
~The Calgary Sun for Sunday July 12 has a reuters story that the stoning has been suspended for the time being, "... and it might still carry out the sentence later."

~The “mushroom tree” quote is a paraphrase of a line in the song Who Will Answer?
For the complete lyrics, type the title, all in quotes, into a search engine, then type lyrics, and then hit search.