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$21.95 hardcover · 224 pages
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The theme of The Great Divide is that the populations of the democratic world, from Boston to Berlin, Vancouver to Venice, are becoming increasingly divided from within, due to a growing ideological incompatibility between modern liberalism and conservatism. This is partly due to a complex mutation in the concept of liberal democracy itself, and the resulting divide is now so wide that those holding to either philosophy on a whole range of topics: on democracy, on reason, on abortion, on human nature, on homosexuality and gay marriage, on freedom, on the role of courts … and much more, can barely speak with each other without outrage (the favorite emotional response from all sides). Clearly, civil conversation at the surface has been failing -- and that could mean democracy is failing.

This book is an effort to deepen the conversation. It is written for the non-specialist, and aims to reveal the less obvious underlying ideological forces and misconceptions that cause the conflict and outrage at the surface -- not with any expectation the clash of values will evaporate, but rather that a deeper understanding will generate a more intelligent and civil conversation.

As an aid to understanding, the book contains a handful of Tables directly comparing modern liberal and conservative views across a range of fundamental moral and political “issues” so that curious readers can answer the book’s main question: “Where Do You Stand?” An interesting result in testing this exercise has been the number of people who find they “think” one way, but “live” another.    

 

Good Reading
Essays (37)
Wednesday
Apr122017

How Exercise Can Kill You

I am still in a bit of shock and disbelief that I am writing this blog. I have been a sport and exercise junkie for over 60 years, and I have lately discovered the new sport science that says I, and countless others who have done the same, may have been harming ourselves by training too hard for too long.

My running began at the age of seventeen with the ambition of one day making the Canadian Olympic Team. I was fortunate enough to have a famous Canadian sport and fitness guru named Lloyd Percival as my coach, at least for the first few years, and in the summer of 1959, he took me and couple of team-mates to Philadelphia's Franklin Field to watch the first-ever Russia Vs. America Track & Field Meet - a post-war event held in the spirit of friendly international rivalry. During the 10,000 metre run, an American, as well as a Russian competitor began to wobble badly from heat stroke in the very last lap, and both of them collapsed right there on the track. It was a chaotic scene, with fans screaming, officials and athletes trying to help them up, and confusion over who had lapped who, and so on.

But I asked Lloyd one question, the answer to which became a kind of template for my training ever after. As I watched the Russian fall prostrate on the track at the finish line, as if dead, I asked Lloyd: "Can you damage yourself by running that hard?"

His answer was, "No. The outer body will always give way before the inner body." In other words, before you can damage your heart or other organs, you will cramp, faint, throw up, tear a muscle, whatever, and that will stop you.  That answer became my MO as they say, for most of my athletic life, such that I could not describe the intensity of some of the workouts we did in the early, most competitive years, complete with my own occasional wobble, throwing up, or near passing out, or crazy cramping from exhaustion. All was good. I figured I could out-train the next guy, no matter how hard he tried, any day, and it might hurt a lot, but there would be no serious health consequences. I never had a lot of athletic talent. But I could out-train almost anyone.  So, I made it to the Pan American Games in the Decathlon (Silver medal, 1963), the Tokyo Olympic Games (11th place, Decathlon), two Commonwealth Games in the 400m Hurdles (1966, Jamaica, and 1970, Edinburgh - 6th place both times), and ... a lot of other international meets and Canadian Championships.  

But I was wrong. And so, it now appears, are countless thousands, if not millions of athletes who run, swim, cycle, or cross-country ski, or do other endurance sports intensely, the most dedicated of them middle-aged and older racers who, as God is my witness, are thinking, as they train: "Just imagine what I could have done if I had just started younger!" Marathons around the world often host 20,000 or more such athletes, and some Orienteering and ski marathon races in Europe host 50,000+ competitors!

And, like me, they all think: if some training is good, more is better. The outer body will give away first.

But that is not true.

Recently, in the middle of a x-c ski race, I had a bout of Atrial fibrillation (AF). I have always had a little cardiac arrhythmia, especially after a coffee or a coke. But AF is a chaotic arrhythmia.  So ... I got checked out.

An echocardiogram and a Holter monitor session revealed that I have so-called "athlete's heart": enlarged atrial chambers, and what looks like some scarring, stretching, thickening of chamber walls, and a few other unusual things not seen in the hearts of sedentary people (who have other issues!). Scarring of the heart muscle interferes with the normal electrical signalling of the heart. The electrical current has to go around the scar tissue, or is simply blocked by it. Some of this is due to aging (I'm 76 now, and still skiing and cycling a lot), and we know that older people experience more AF than younger. But the rest of the damage is likely a consequence of long-term intensive endurance exercise - like, over 60 years of it!

AF can be very dangerous if not brought under control with drugs, or eliminated with surgery. But ventricular tachycardia (V-Tach - a very fast beating of the ventricle), of which I have had a couple of short instances, is even more dangerous if it mutates suddenly into ventricular fibrillation, whereupon the ventricle quivers a lot, instead of beating, so that it stops ejecting the blood within. The result is sudden death. That got my attention. And the attention of my cardiologist, too. So I am on a Beta Blocker, which is a designer drug that blocks the body's own supply of adrenalin to the Beta-1 cells on the heart muscle, thereby slowing it down.

Yesterday, when I went cycling on a beautiful hilly course, I couldn't get my heart rate over 110 beats per minute, on hills where it would normally hit 130 or 140bpm. That felt really strange. As for my research? Lots of surfing the web and watching Youtube videos on this topic. Here is a good one by Dr. James O'Keefe, of Kansas City, who specializes in these matters, which tells the story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6U728AZnV0

I have also been studying a new book by Case, Mandrola, and Zinn, entitled The Haywire Heart: How Too Much Exercise Can Kill You, and What You Can Do To Protect Your Heart (VeloPress, 2017). The subtitle is particularly arresting. The book is a fairly easy read, except for the section that explains the electrophysiology and biomechanics of the heart muscle (an incredible organ if there ever was one!), and it gives incisive commentary on all the most relevant recent research on how and why "The Dosage Is the Poison", so to speak. In other words, good exercise (mild to medim intensity, not too often) is very health-protective and good for you. Bad exercise (too hard, for too long), is dangerous and can, ummm, kill you. In short, exercise describes an upside-down U-curve: More is good for you for a while, and then it makes things worse. This means that exercise that is hurting the outer body, is very likely hurting the inner body, too.

I forgive my coach for giving me bad advice. At the time, it seemed true. And I have loved my sporting life. But now I have to learn to love slowing down a lot.

Tuesday
Apr112017

Can Democracy Be Moral?

 

 

This is a slightly edited version of a previously published essay I wrote in the last century (!) of the same title. I have been thinking a lot lately of the distinction that seems to have been lost between a democracy conceived as a corporate body of individuals devoted to the good of all, and a democracy conceived as a collection, or an aggregate of individuals concerned mostly for their own good. More on this theme to come...

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The most fundmental principle of direct popular democracy is that even if the will of the people runs dead against a Member of Parliament’s personal conscience, he or she must nevertheless express that will.

Such logic compels us to ask: So why not just pick a rep out of the phone book? For that matter, why pick anyone? Why don't the people just send a letter to a vote-counting parliamentary computer by overnight courier? The answer leads straight to a conflict between two irreconcilable views of truth under democracy.

For A Leader, Truth Is Permanent

Politicians who consider themselves leaders, rather than delegates, will take the classical conservative view, as outlined from ancients such as Plato to moderns such as T.S.Eliot. As distinct from their modern finger-in-the-wind counterparts, such conservatives believe that the greatest moral truths of life are absolute, permanent, and unchanging. There are enduring values that must be discovered through reflection and experience, and relied upon by wise leaders. Once discovered, and only then, the proper political and moral judgements can be made, unaffected by how many might vote this way, or that, on Monday or Tuesday. Moral truth, in other words, like 2+2=4, cannot be altered by voting.

For a Delegate, Truth Is A Matter of Popularity

The delegate, however, unlike the leader, sees him- or herself as empowered to express the will of the people, which is equated with what is desirable, with the good. Soon, pleasing the masses at every opportunity by removing all restraints on their will becomes the highest priority (and - not incidentally - the reaping of a corresponding popularity). Technical methods such as electronic town halls facilitate such direct expressions of mass desire.


The key to understanding the role of the modern secular-liberal delegate, is their underlying belief that there is no such thing as immutable truth - and probably should not be. For only if truth is relative can society be engineered toward perfection by way of continously updated "progressive" policies. That is why, instead of weighing values, the liberal prefers to count heads. Unfortunately, this essentially democratic process - equating the good with sheer numbers - is the dark side of democracy, for it opens the door to democratic tyrants.


That's why Eliot said in 1934 that "the forces of deterioration are a large crawling mass, and the forces of development are half a dozen men." This was just before a large crawling mass of utopian collectivists marched over a darkened, and soon bloodied Europe. They had been directly and enthusiastically voted into power by well-educated, democratic majorities. Hitler fiercely defended his national socialism as "the truest democracy" (Berlin, January 30, 1937), and described himself as an "arch-democrat."


What is the answer to this conflict at the heart of democracy, and why do we see so many with conservative, absolute-truth instincts, promoting liberal, relative-truth techniques?
Perhaps the answer is that we live in a time when our elected representatives, rather than attending to remote national matters such as defence, fiscal policy, and foreign affairs, are intruding into the most intimate and detailed aspects of local, private, business, and family and sexual life, and plundering the energies of the people through taxation and debt to do so. And that is why direct democracy - a kind of bottom-up revolution against a top-down political system - seems the only solution to rid us of such tyranny.


In most practical matters, such as taxation levels, this is likely a safe device. But when it comes to moral matters, such as euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment, homosexual incursions on the family, and so on, I rather think an elected representative has a duty first of all to make his own conscience known before he is elected. After that, he should vote with his conscience - or resign if he cannot do so. As for democracy itself, the notion that deeply moral choices ought to be shaped directly by the emotions of the moment - whether felt by one voter, or a million - is the route to self-destruction.relativist world. That's why at such times, political power ends up dictating every outcome. The democratic dilemma will


That is because as often as not, the correct moral choices both in life and politics require us (quite contrary to the prevailing secular-liberal view), to choose not for, but against our own appetites and desires in the interests of a higher good. In other words, we should expect democratic citizens to be far more concerned for the next generation than for the next election, thus to vote for the higher ground even if this goes against their own personal interests. But there can be no higher good in a morally-relativist world. That is why this dilemma cannot be resolved until our civilization decides once again to think through these two conflicting notions of how democracy - of how the citizenry - is to be moral.

Wednesday
Apr052017

An Autopsy On "The Humanities"

Speaking as a one-time English Professor, I would say this essay by the American writer James Walker, recently posted online with Quillette Magazine, accurately exposes the intellectual rot in the so-called Humanities.

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Over the last three or four decades, the humanities have witnessed a shift so massive that it is barely noticed anymore. What was once an upstart movement has achieved the status of a truly successful usurper—normality. The leather arm patched ancien régime has been exiled to the land of past things. Horn-rimmed glasses, tattoos, and dyed hair no longer occupy the periphery, but the center. It is a revolution so thorough that it has completely painted over the canvas of our mental imagery. If you consider the stereotypical picture of a literature professor at a major university today, a myriad of images might come to mind—so many, in fact, that it might be impossible to conjure a single, coherent figure. However, what almost certainly won’t come to mind is a Byron-quoting septuagenarian in tweed.

This revolution has been political. Entire disciplines—Literature, Anthropology, Sociology, and the various interdisciplinary programs that end in the word “Studies” – have all become more strongly associated with a particular species of left-wing interpretation that now influences the broader discourse in journalism and on social media. In some departments, the social categories of analysis—race, class, and gender—have attained complete hegemony. The most recent convention of the Modern Language Association, the most prominent organization associated with the study of language and literature, hosted three times as many panels on post-colonialism as it did on Shakespeare. Like so many other areas of study, a consensus has been reached in English and Comparative Literature that the aims of one’s research should be about more than a body of knowledge or a disciplinary canon. Critique, as it is understood, is ultimately a criticism of the society (not the author) that produced a given text; all literary criticism reduces to social criticism. The contemporary literature professor need not even be an expert on any particular author or literary figure, but can be expected to be a master at applying a particular interpretive lens such as Queer Theory or Critical Race Theory.

The reality that the humanities and social sciences seem to be increasingly attracting one particular kind of person with one, very distinct, understanding of the world can be seen in other disciplines as well. Entire fields and subfields such as Diplomatic History and Military History are on the precipice of extinction, as more and more current and aspiring historians ignore or abandon these fields for the sexier (and more explicitly ideological) fields in Cultural and Social History.

What has happened in Literature and History departments as well as in other disciplines draws attention to something rarely considered in discussions concerning intellectual diversity in higher education. Conservatives will point to statistics such as the imbalance in the ratio between registered Democrats and Republicans as evidence of a political imbalance. Students it is argued are only getting one side of the story. While this sentiment is certainly understandable, it ignores an element of the current phenomena that might be even more deleterious to student learning and thus all the more intractable. The problem isn’t simply one of political imbalance, an absence of parity between Left and Right voices, but the extent to which humanities departments have become politicized.

The possibility that one might read a manuscript or approach a cultural or philosophical question from a perspective that isn’t explicitly political is now often dismissed as either naive or not worthwhile. In this way, the humanities have constructed a sort of ideological prison house for themselves. One of the most compelling features of humanistic study is the inexhaustibility of interpretations—the capacity to engage a text, a cultural practice, or an age-old philosophical question and derive new meanings and new possibilities from it. As the humanities have become subsumed into a larger political project, the possible interpretations that one may entertain have become narrowed to explicitly politicized readings. An education in the humanities risks becoming nothing more than a political education—that is to say, an education that isn’t worth pursuing for anyone other than the already-converted activist.

Imagining the lack of intellectual diversity as an exclusively political problem—a mere injustice to conservatives—fails to grasp the real stultifying effect on our collective intellectual life. The consequences of the hyper-politicization of the humanities go much further than the silencing of opposing voices. The understanding of criticism and interpretation as a primarily political act—one that should “unmask” the structural machinations of power or inform activism—also precludes readings and perspectives from a much wider spectrum of human experience, most of which (despite the protestations of certain critics) is not inherently political. Some approaches to art and culture, such as the contemplation of a work’s aesthetic qualities independent of its political or social content, seem to have been retired along with their tweed-clad exponents. Other paradigms, such as an analysis of literature informed by the current scholarship coming from the cognitive sciences, are aborted before they see the light of day.

One definition of fundamentalism is the tyranny of a single interpretation—the insistence upon the exclusive veracity of a single reading of a text, of one lens through which to view the world, or of one way of existing in it. Much of the humanities have entered into a new theocratic age, unable to imagine an intellectual life outside of a narrow set of political concepts. Far from achieving human and artistic emancipation, the fallout of this political turn has resulted in a new captive mind lingering behind the bars of its own ideological commitments, bound by its own lack of curiosity.

The solution to hyper-politicization involves more than “affirmative action” for the Right, in which a Marxist-feminist reading of Middlemarch is balanced by a conservative-libertarian reading. Instead, the humanities are in desperate need of a perestroika that opens up the possibility for scholars and students to pursue the full range of intellectual interests, political or otherwise, that might lead one to embrace the life of the mind in the first place.

This is unlikely to happen anytime soon. As political polarization deepens, both sides are more likely to entrench themselves further in the institutions that they see as their turf rather than concede ground. Nevertheless, the first step toward liberating the captive mind is to believe its emancipation to be possible.

 

James Walker is an American writer and critic. You can follow him on Twitter @jamesdcwalker

Thursday
Mar302017

Why Communalism Can't Work

This Snapshot is taken from: The Trouble With Canada ...Still! (BPS Books, 2010).                      

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1) The foundational ideal is that all individuals and families should surrender their private ambitions for the common good, because private work is selfish, whereas common work is altruistic. In the beginning, “equality” is the core value.

 2) Practically speaking it is assumed that once stage 1) is achieved and all are working together for a common goal, machinery and costs will be lower because all work will be coordinated: ten families in a cooperative won’t need ten tractors, and so on. Each stage of work will be coordinated for real need, rather than for profits, resulting in less cost and less waste, therefore more production and wealth for all.

 3) So communal work begins, and as long as moral suasion is high, all do in fact cooperate and the “plan” seems to work. For a while. But soon the obvious problems of different workers attitudes, skill levels, work output, personal capacities, and different care of tools and machinery, and so on, raises its head.

 4) Workers begin to notice that because all the equipment is now held in common, it is not looked after with care and pride as it used to be because no one stands to lose personally. So machinery and tools break down. But as they belong to no one in particular, no one can be blamed. So repairs and costs for new tools musts be spread to all equally. At this point … more equality begins to look a little unfair. Some are being asked to pay for the carelessness of others.

 5) Soon, workers begin to notice that while they always used to work very hard and loved it because they and their families got ahead in life, not all workers are that way. Some are definitely slower than others, show up later, produce less, don’t tidy up as well after work, and grumble continuously about how hard the work is.

 6) The initial communal euphoria is beginning to wear thin, and the stronger and better workers are now resenting the fact that they are working twice as hard as others for the same reward. They begin to see that lazy workers have discovered they can “profit” from the system as “free-riders,” simply by doing less. Suddenly, things no longer look “equal.”

 8) So at this point, “equity” raises its head and workers begin to insist that equity (what is deserved) is a more fair and rational standard than equality (sharing equally, regardless of effort contributed).   

9)  By now, the plan is heading for moral and economic collapse. Some people start to recommend breaking up the commune and going back to private work and care of self and family. If the people are lucky, things simply revert slowly to normal traditional ways, the ideological wounds are licked all ’round, excuses are made, losses counted, and people go their own way, a little wiser. However, if the whole plan has been coercive from the start, the government’s planners start fining people, passing production quotas, and so on. In then end, they bring out their machine guns to force the desired result, and forced communalism continues until it rots from the inside out, as it did in the USSR. The lesson learned?

Equity works better than equality.

Monday
Mar272017

What "Euthansia" Is, and Is Not

If you ask most people to define "euthanasia", they will pause a little, then say it has something to do with helping someone who is old, or sick, or suffering, to die. They rarely consider the various complicated scenarios that crop up.

Here is a terse set of distinctions sent by a physician friend with whom a few of us were having a debate surrounding Canada's recent law legalizing euthanasia.

Before reading, I think it is useful to keep in mind that euthanasia is not about "letting" someone die of natural causes, keeping them as pain-free and comfortable as possible along the way,  with nursing, food, water, etc., as distinct from keeping them alive artificially.

 Rather, euthanasia is always about "making" someone die by the administration of life-ending drugs, injections, etc. 

Note: MAiD = Medical Aid in Dying

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Euthanasia = making someone die (with the intent to end suffering, or for some other cause deemed compassionate by those who have legalized the killing procedure and those who administer it).

Voluntary Active Euthanasia (VAE) = patient consents, doc/nurse does it.
Non voluntary Active Euthanasia (NVAE) = patient can't consent, doc does it
Involuntary Active Euthanasia  (IAE) = patient doesn't want it, doc does it
Assisted Suicide (AS) = patient given means to end own life (patient self-administers)
MAiD = VAE for the most part.
AS often requires VAE if the AS isn't successful (eg, person not quite dead).
Issues:
MAiD changes the ontology of medicine. No one want to debate this very much.
Giving patients the right to universal access to MAiD creates a duty for others to offer and pay for it.
Finally, "Hard cases make bad laws". No one need die in pain. Terminal sedation means we can all pass quietly. Intent to relieve suffering by "turning up the morphine" often hastens death. It's been done forever. This is very different from giving meds with the intent to cause death.
Wednesday
Mar222017

Libertarianism is a Handmaid of the State

What follows is my response to a group of friends in our discussion of the Pros and Cons of Libertarianism:

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The libertarian argument, put plainly, would seem to be: do whatever you want as long as you don't harm me.  

Problem? There is nothing of the Good of all in it. It is purely a negative. My argument has been that libertarianism is in fact a form of co-operative statism.

  Can no one else see this? 

 Once you have a State that seeks to impose it's programs on all equally ("free" medical care, or, now, "death care" as euthanasia, for example) and society has been reduced to just a mass of free individuals (do what you want as long as you don't harm me), there is no common public vision of the Good upheld by the people to oppose the State‎. In fact, I would argue, there is nop longer "a people" - if by that term we mean a corporate body united by their vision of the common good.  

 This why I say that Libertarianism is the real handmaid to Statism, because it conceives of "society" as a fiction. But society has always been considered by Conservatives as a real entity bonded by a voluntarily upheld public philosophy that alone has the authority to resist the coercive powers of the State. 

 It is true that society, so conceived, always imposes it's "authority" on its members‎. But... 

 KEY POINT: "authority" is not "Power". 

So, a distinction is essential: 

 The moral "authority" of your parents, pastor, teacher, coach, friend, etc., can be escaped, at a price (shunning? Exclusion from a group? A spanking? Expelled from school?). 

 But "Power" is coercive (laws of state, police, threat of jail, compulsory taxes, death penalty, etc), and cannot be escaped‎. 

Libertarians, from the start, have always failed to make this distinction. And this is their Achilles heel.

 J.S. Mill, for example, argued (in his booklet On Liberty), that what he called "Public Opinion," (his Caps) is a form of coercion. But that is false. Your parent, pastor, boss, or coach may play a huge role in directing your life. But they cannot tax you, throw you in jail, or execute you. 

 Anyway, give it some deep meditation, and when this point hits you, I think you will see that to do its insidious work of destroying all voluntary group Authority in the interests of replacing it with Power, the all-powerful State absolutely needs a libertarian public philosophy upheld by what have become the morally-disconnected masses (we can't say "the people"), this mass conceived solely as ‎a mere collection or aggregate of individuals (in a now thoroughly atomized society) upholding as its highest Good, only a pathetic, and selfish negative (don't harm me).