Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Attawapiskat and the Aboriginal Service Industry

Aside from the despicable display of complete lack of empathy for fellow human beings on the part of the neo-cons as epitomized by Harper's partisan reaction to questions in the House of Commons, much has been made and said about the supposed oodles of money - $7 billion dollars, $90 million dollars, $300+ million from De Beers for the construction of the diamond mine - giving the impression that Aboriginals are swimming in money. This is just perversed and wrong.

Just as we never (or hardly ever) see the $illion dollars of our public health care system (where is that money, Canada?), much is the same truth with the money that is supposedly going to the people of Attawapiskat. Not only that, aboriginal communities usually have no choice but to lapse funding because they simply do not meet the criteria and/or funding arrangements set by bureaucrats in Ottawa, so it was not surprising to hear that the Attawapiskat housing had "surplus" of paltry $50,000 in their accounts when so much is going so wrong there.

The Aboriginal service industry - at $7 billion and change every year - should be made to account for the federal dollars spent on administration and active neglect and abandonment of duty: how much is spent in Ottawa itself; how much of it lapses because of airy-fairy criteria that no reasonable Canadian would ever accept as fair (well, maybe the teaser rates and weaselese fine print used by banks and financial institutions to swindle their money is roughly cognate to our chagrin and frustration with governments). Anyhoo, the money looks and feels real enough on paper, but look at our sad history! What is going here?

Then there are capacity issues (in both management and program design and delivery). Our academic achievement rates are directly commensurate with our participation rates in health, criminal justice and welfare systems - something about the father-knows-best and stultifying mothering instinct of distant power structures and their attendant bureaucracies (who are usually non-aboriginal even here in Nunavut, and, sadly, in Greenland as well - the Inuit Nunaat most Inuit envy) who think our lot of poverty and squalor is natural. Something happens to even the best of missionaries who soon forget when they come up here our humanity and rightful citizenship in this great country of our's and all that it supposedly entails. It's as if the recognition of our humanity would be too much to ask.

Harper's alienated reaction is sadly typical when questions of neglect and sin by omission are raised, but what strikes even us fellow aboriginals is that things got so bad in Attawapiskat even the International Red Cross had to intervene while our nation's leader and leadership continue to play the blame game.

Where is all that money? I would bet there are 1.3 bureaucrats for every single aboriginal at the federal and provincial/territorial levels. Do the math. Aboriginals do not run things let alone decide where money goes and how it's spent - all of this is done at the top where big "P" policies and programs are set. Think a couple of summers ago when Harper's government spent a quarter of a million dollars to tell some aboriginal community they had no money for the construction of a school.


Saturday, 26 November 2011

Weber's "iron cage" and Mill's "tyranny of opinion"

John Stuart Mill, one of the great philosophers of liberalism, warned that democratic societies' Achilles heel was the risk of creating a "tyranny of opinion" in which dessentient voices are quelled by the irresistible need to conform with "majority" views and interests. This "need to conform" is very much reminiscent with Weber's warning of the "iron cage" of rationalized interests and the disenchantment of the world.

In an uncanny moment of prophetic insight, Weber could just as well have written about our times of climate change and the bankruptcy of moral/ethical coffers of the Corporation in the lines below (in talking about the Protestant work ethic, which he viewed as the motive force behind the industrial revolution and expansionism):

"This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquistion, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter's view the care of external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the 'saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.' But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage." (page 181, 1953 Scribner's edition)

Though the two commentators on human societies were not contemporaries, and their impulse to write what they wrote were not the same at all, what one saw in the yet "enchanted world" the dangers of an uninformed and disengaged lay-populace's will to conform to majority views, the other saw the exact mechanisms of how this need to conform could and would be used/abused to serve the interests of any state/corporation bent on acquisition of political and economic power.

The "enchanted world" of religiosity which was the Victorian England informed Mill's ideas on economics and sociology. Alan Ryan writes:

"[Mill] thought Britain was socially oppressive in ways European countries mostly were not. He also thought that political tyranny was less of a problem in Britain than elsewhere in Europe; torture and corruption were not a British problem. In Britain, however, it had become clear that the rise of democracy - in this wide sense - was compatible with new forms of oppression, and these were consistent with the rule of law and an absence of political violence. Mill was at pains to remind his readers that he was writing about a new phenomenon, the rise of public opinion...

We should not exaggerate the unpolitical character of these thoughts. Mill's concern was with social conformity, but he saw that a government dominated by public opinion could hardly do other than enact public prejudice into law. If the public were to become agitated about the expression of anti-religious views, for instance, employees might find themselves sacked by employers who disliked their views; they would have a difficult time in court when judges and juries discounted evidence not given under an oath sworn on the Bible... ...All these things in fact happened regularly in Victorian England. The modern reader can substitute sexual, racial or ethnic prejudice in such examples." (xxvi to xxvii, Introductory notes, Ryan, Penguin Classics, 2006)

I would also include "socio-economic class" in our current political/economic climate, which the Occupy Movement is struggling to bring to the fore of our collective conscience. The insidious nature of this form of oppression is that it determines as within the pale "the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism" (ie, the middle-class (the largest sector of society) is economically/ideologically locked into, compelled by the interests of State/Corporation which often has gag orders built into employment contracts in "iron-clad" terms to preclude any hints of dissent from "malcontents" and "misfits"). Sad but true: the Occupy Movement is failing for these very reasons.

It wasn't that long ago when writers like Kurt Vonnegut could say that they (Americans of his generation) grew up believing in the American Constitution and the civil society it promises. Things have gotten so bad in the Western World that our legislatures can now seriously consider the possibility that pizza might be a vegetable; that dangerous and unproven pharmaceuticals can be sold legally to Canadians without regulatory constraints while testing and proving take a back seat to corporate interests (tests are lagging behind up to two years from sales and availability - Health Canada officials suggest, disingenuously, that thousands of drugs come into market every year and they can't keep up!) - in fact, pick any corporate interest and surely you'll find a disconcerting loop-hole to go with it; that war-mongering is diplomacy; that corrupt politicians are normal for our democracies; and, that people who are poor have no one to blame but themselves.

Is this democracy? No. It is more like a backwater tribal land where the rule of law and decorum is determined by the powerful few who quell and oppress the many through ignorance and fear of the "unknown" (ie, rational superstitions).


Monday, 21 November 2011

The Inscrutable Stephen Harper?

I just read a piece in The Globe & Mail by Gerald Caplan entitled, Inscrutable Stephen Harper Baffles the Pundits. Here is the link:

where it talks about the many baffling, perplexing facts of Harper's tenure and his style of party leadership: fixing things that need no fixing; ignoring issues of importance; snubbing any and all "democratic" processes and accepted conventional wisdom.

I think his agenda is simple: to distract and divert attention from environmental, energy and other national/international policies/treaties that need public discussion in order to keep the policy environment at the federal level amenable to corporate interests. To wit: he has slowly distanced himself and the Government of Canada from international bodies like the UN, the Kyoto Protocol, the Rotterdam Convention, etc. Why?

There was a piece recently on CBC National about the Canadian mining companies in the third world countries where human rights are regularly violated and violent government crackdowns on any opposition to their interests are allowed to happen without any threat of legal action here in Canada. There is also growing criticisms by international and US policing agencies that Canada doesn't investigate let alone prosecute "white collar" crimes in Canada and allegations of corruption of other countries' laws.

The militarization of Canada's foreign policies, some expert warned recently, will only bring grief to Canada, which has always and up-to-now, had peace-making and diplomatic resolution to international crises as its philosophical directive. This militarization opens Canada to threats that never existed before. If Canada continues down this path I'm afraid "the threat of 'Islamicism'" is a self-fulfilling prophesy that only private security companies and the military-industrial complex (which our energy sector belongs) can benefit from.


Saturday, 19 November 2011

The meaning of "responsible government"

Do you remember that Canadian Heritage Moment clip on "responsible government"? If you haven't seen the clip here is a link:

One of the books I'm reading right now is John Stuart Mill's, On Liberty, that has got me thinking on many different issues but most importantly on how, in my view, the Western public institutions have slowly but surely been hi-jacked by monied lobbyists and corporate interests, to wit: how the deliberate absence of good public policies is being used against the long-term interests and sustainability of our Western democracies.

What I'm referring to here are examples like politicians in the US and insider trading piece that I saw recently in one of American investigative reportage tv shows (I forget which); the lack of a national energy policy in Canada (the oil companies in Alberta have an ideological allergy to the word "policy" and prefer "strategy" instead, but they would like it better if there was no discussion what-so-ever on the issue) and the "crisis" brought about by Obama's decision to hold off on a decision on the Keystone xl pipeline project; the deregulation of air travel safety in the interest of cost-saving initiatives at the federal level; the second- and third- chances for envornmental impact reviews of resource extraction like BC's prosperity mines; the perpetual inaction on the third world conditions in most aboriginal communities (provinces say that it is the federal gov't's responsibility and the fed.s say it is a provincial matter, while both suggest that the aboriginal issue is a fiscal black-hole); etc. etc.

John Stuart Mill talked about "oppression" through [unexamined] public opinion. I put "unexamined" here because I think he also suggested that "public opinion" itself is not an evil but the type that is not open to public debate and challenge. The lack of discourse on a national policy on energy is an example of a creeping in of sleep-walking through public policy by default. NDP sent its representatives to Washington but the neo-cons raised cain saying that NDP has no right to represent Canada on the matter - these "anti-pipeline, eco-socialist-nutcases". The NDP took pains to point out that it is not anti-pipeline but that the discussion should include and be side-by-side with "green energy" policy considerations.

Mill suggests rightly that the tyrannical impulse is best kept in check by active engagement in the political discourse not the silencing of divergent and dissenting voices: "The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken his position against all gain-sayers -- knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter -- he has a right to think his judgement better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process."

I think that public policies, especially of a "responsible government" as Canada's, deserve the same considerations as what a "wise person" actively subjects his thoughts and opinions to as above. The Harper government is a dangerous development in Canadian politics, the same as the rise of the Tea Party in the US, not because it is, in its own eyes, "militaristic", and "exceptional" and "privileged" in its place in history but because for the self-same reasons of tyrannical and oppressive opinions that is a corporate bubble of reality, self-justifying and self-reinforcing as it is. Even the catholic church "the most intolerant of churches" has a "devil's advocate" in the canonization of its saints: "The holiest of men, it appears, cannot be admitted to posthumous honours, until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed."


Thursday, 17 November 2011

The need to revisit perennial questions

I've been thinking a lot about what the Occupy Movement actual means. I mean, not in the sense of ring-wing dismissive attitude, but, clearly, this is part of a historical process (perhaps in the sense of that much-used and abused phraseology: A Decline and Fall of...), and, as such, requires of us some reflection and thoughtful contemplation of what it means to be part of the human community in these (again, much-used phrase) times of trouble and unrest.

As an observer of social and political development here in Nunavut, I've always tried to advocate for thoughtful exploration of open-ended questions like, "Am I my brother's keeper?"; "What does it mean to be a responsible humanist?"; even, "Who's gonna drive you home tonight?" - to quote an old Cars song. As a lover of classical literature, I think there is much that these types of open-ended questions have to offer even if the challenge of answering them is a highly subjective process and their beauty is that there is no one right way of answering them other than involving and engaging others to explore them with you. They do not so much as answer definitively as inform our decisions so that we may account for and justify truthfully these difficult challenges of public policy.

I've also started reading the introductory analysis of John Stuart Mill's essays: On Liberty and The Subjection of Women which brought up some issues that I think are worth discussing: the question of what is "healthy", "informed" public opinion vs "oppressive" and "coercive" public opinion; what is the difference between "happiness" (ie, not the emotional type but as a state of being qua American Constitution) and "just" social responsibility; is the notion and practical consequence of "conformity" same as being a "law-abiding" citizen; is there such a thing as a "progressive" human nature, and, if so, what is the role and responsibility of legitimate government in ensuring that our public policies do not shut out future possibilities of discourse.

To quote the editor of Penguin Classics' John Stuart Mill, Alan Ryan, I think political thought such as what right-wing ideology and corporatist bureaucracies (such as what we have in Nunavut) entail should be made to answer and justify its imperative to "revolutionize" by repeal and deregulation of policies intended to safe-guard our political openness and undue hinderance and manipulation of social development thus:

"...that the mere fact that we do not like what someone else thinks and says is no reason for us to stifle him. This is the familiar liberal view that it is the hearer's business whether or not to take offence at what someone else says or thinks. Mill's aim was to prevent the 'likings and mislikings' of society being made the basis of what we all may say and think; insisting that those who wish to restrict other persons' behaviour should show what damage they will suffer if they do not get their way is of the essence. As Jefferson asked, 'what harm does it do me if my neighbour believes in sixteen gods or none?'"


"We need freedom of speech and thought not just to discover new truths about external reality, but also to discover new truths about what we might do with our lives. Because human beings and human nature itself change over time, we must keep the door open for new insights."

These are things and possibilities not afforded us (aboriginals) here in our own country, and as long as this prevails, it will be a black eye and true shame of Canada. Even more so, when the Westminster model of Canada allows for diversity and depth of political views, the neo-conservatives try and present other political parties as "socialists" of dictatorial/totalitarian persuasion rather than legitimate political parties worthy to partake in the Canadian discourse.


Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

The NDP MP for Winnipeg, Pat Martin, tweeted yesterday about the disdainful act of the Harper government shutting down debate yet again on their budget, using colourful words to show his frustration with Harperism: prorogation to forego democratic process in the interest of asserting arbitrary power, this with a majority in the House.

Going by the comments from readers in the Globe and Mail website, I'd say that Mr. Martin is not the only one who's frustrated with the demise of due process in the exercise of our "democratic" institutions. Almost all of the feedback emphatically empathizes with Martin's frustration.

The neo-cons are trying to paint Pat Martin as an aberration. Though, I'm somewhat dismayed by how far the political discourse has degenerated during Harper's watch, I completely understand where Pat Martin is coming from. He is standing up not only for Winnipeg but for all our rights which are not only theoretical ideals but require vigilance and on-going engagement from all of us to stay real.

Kudos to Pat Martin.


Never explain, never apologize?

Ever heard of this maxim of the powerful: Never explain, never apologize? It is what the people of power (advisors, bureaucrats, whole corporations, etc.) live by in the Inuit-government relations. Most Inuit advocates do not seem to know it, and when it impacts upon their work they start second-guessing themselves and their policy positions rather than hunkering down. It is because Inuit have this other philosophy that is the diametric opposite of "never explain, never apologize": that people in power are there to look after the interests of the community.

Marcus Aurelius said: "If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one's own self-deception and ignorance." This is pretty close to IQ philosophy.

The Occupy Movement is bumping against the unbudging "never explain, never apologize" philosophy. This unyielding position will not change as evidenced in the so-called Arab Spring. I'd say that the Tea Party movement of the right-wing was itself hi-jacked by the "never explain, never apologize" corporatism. Oh bitter-sweet irony. But if you dance with the devil you have to pay the price.

Someone will always find ways to benefit from political unrest and conflict like flies that feed on shit. The multi-national corporations thrive in such environment for their whole outlook tends to be that scarcity is a cash cow whose udders is a gift that keeps on giving. It requires a common enemy, a scape-goat, someone to demonize. This is unnatural for such a gregarious, social beings as humans. The "never explain, never apologize" worms would have us believe this is "social Darwinism" at work and is a natural state of humanity. But I ask you: are the Libyans, the Iraqis, the third world 99% really our enemies, our dehumanized inferiors, our cross to bear? Is China the frenemy? I don't know these individuals, and they have never given me cause to hate them.

When it comes right down to it, the high and noble ideals of the West prove just hollow, empty words - double-speak at worst, usurped and raped by the powerful interests who are by definition without nation-state allegiance. "Never explain, never apologize" is held by the venal in consonant search of conflicts to manage and profit from. Flies never complain about decaying corpses and shit holes. They've never found reasons to apologize for such things.


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A lesson from Fraggle Rock

The problem I see with Traveling Matt (of Fraggle Rock fame) is that he passes judgements on things he has no real experience of: he applies what he knows without really thinking that there might be more to what he sees, that he might not be aware of other possibilities. He is a "wise fool".

The problem with a "wise fool" is that all lessons are lost and precluded from his ken; what he offers is not afforded him. The "wise fool" is a literary device and his lessons are intended for the audience, but not for him.

The "trickster" archetype is a different creature entirely. He may be mischievous, even seen as evil, but his mischief ultimately leads to justice and rightness. He is a transformative force.

In keeping with the Traveling Matt character (as a trickster this time), Gregory Bateson was not only an anthropologist and husband of a famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead, he was a polymath: a social scientist, linguist, semiotician, a systems theorist/cyberneticist, an author and thinker. He was a modern Goethe, that species of human who appreciates and celebrates his sensual humanity and sees beyond the empirical measure and equations and, therefore, sees the proper proportions of science - ie, as a toolkit and not the end in itself.

Directed thinking is more important than applied knowledge; thinking thus is the mother of knowledge.


Tuesday, 15 November 2011

An Education: self-improvement and self-mastery

I bought a book recently, an English translation of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, which I thought was timely in this my program of sober living and self-improvement. I mean, I used to enjoy drinking alcohol and smoking dope; or, I didn't know better, is a more apt description.

I do not advocate for soberiety per se as I think each and every single one of us should decide for ourselves whether we want alcohol in our lives or not. Like most users, I used to think that change in perception could be equated with change in perspective. But this wrong-headed.

It is the same kind of wrong-headedness as thinking that "education" is a consumer product and that without it people are somehow doomed to be stupid. I know many people of high intelligence but have never step foot in a classroom, and I know many people with university degrees who seem incapable of thinking for themselves: I'm sorry to say that there is no remedy for stupidity the same way that intelligence cannot be bought and sold - stupidity and intelligence are inherent in us, only deliberate cultivation or neglect can realize and manifest them.

Ever since I've been interested in "education" I've always maintained that it is not enough to merely learn how to read and write. Learning how to read and write is only the first step: it is being able to understand and engage in thought at the conceptual level where original insights and (for lack of a better word) pleasure can be gotten. This understanding and engagement further drives one to seek out. Northrop Frye called this blessed state of being "being taken up by the subject rather than 'taking' a subject".

I've tried to talk about the "Great Conversation" but I don't know if many people knew what the hell I was talking about. The Great Conversation is a by-product and reason for the whole of a liberal arts education. To quote Wikipedia:

"According to Hutchins, 'The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of [literary] history and that continues to the present day.' Adler said, 'What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in variety of ways."

But, of course, this line of reasoning does not only apply to literary arts but to all of human knowledge and humanist ideals.

Now, the reason why I started out by saying about trying to lead a sober life is that this desire has much in common with our contemporary notions of "education", or an assumption that both can be gotten or prescribed externally as we consume products.

I think that, instead of insisting that a vague and undefined "culturally appropriate" approach is the way to go, we should examine closely how language is taught in the classroom, whether in the school or outside of it. Inuktitut and English are taught and really regarded as if they can be divvied up and prescribed in neat little modules: "Hello"; "Qanuippit"; "I am fine", etc. as if memorization rather than comprehension was actual learning. Or, to carry the sober life analogy: state of well-being is just another form of "altered state of mind"; that to "quiet the mind" rather than critical self-examination is a path to "enlightenment" and an effective way of meditation.

When I instructed a class of adult learners, the curriculum outline stated that its philosophy was that in order to learn how to read and write one has to read and write. I'd have added that words and passages in isolation are not how teaching and learning a language should be approached. The teaching material has to have a deliberate direction and opportunities for analysis and discussion (for the group) of its contents should be built-in to the curriculum. This is to try and engage the student rather than leaving them to fend for themselves, to preclude rote memorization as a "learning" strategy.

Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations talks a lot about the notions of self-improvement and self-mastery as the basis of his philosophy, that human beings, being rational, thinking beings, are capable of greatness and fulfillment of potential but need deliberate direction, commitment and engagement [in the great conversation] for guidance. His Meditations have little to do with "quieting the mind" but are bits of a program for self-improvement through self-examination and ever aspiring for ideals and principles.


Inuit Nunaat amma Isumaat from Fraggle Rock perspective

Do you remember Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock? The "muppet" TV show centered around Gobo Fraggle and his uncle, "Traveling" Matt, who is exploring "outer space" - or, the human world. I used to love the show. It was, as this Wikipedia entry says:

"While the program was accessible to audiences of all ages, it used the fantasy creatures as an allegory to deal with serious issues such as prejudice, spirituality, personal identity, environment, and social conflict."

I'd say in the best tradition of "Western" theatre, the best of liberal arts pedagogy. There was an innocent quality of "Traveling" Matt and his observations on the human world (the world of the "silly creatures") which served the purpose of irony and the "wise fool" - ie, insight of the accidental kind.

This "Traveling" Matt is somewhat a familiar character in Inuit Nunaat amma Isumaat (Inuit world and mind) but without the sense of irony nor even a willingness to admit ignorance in the often wrong-headed observations and prejudiced contempt for the strangers in strange land. I'm not talking about the smallness we human beings are so naturally capable of, but that something about us that is ignorantly at-odds with reality and stays there, it seems, permanently. Even Knud Rasmussen, the great Inuit explorer, was not immune to this "Traveling Matt syndrome" (in talking about the spirituality of Inuit men who spend most of their time in endless, featureless ice):

"This it is which always gives their accounts that delightful originality which is the peculiar property of those whose theories are based on experience of life itself. Their naturalness makes them philosophers and poets unawares, and their simple... orthodoxy gives their presentment of a subject the childlike charm which makes even the mystic element seem credible." (quoted from Kenn Harper's column, Taissumani, in Nunatsiaq News, 2011-11-03)

This "childlike charm" of Inuit is a leitmotif - along with "drunk indian" - in the history written in books where the subject is largely silenced and made ignorant of how it's presented. For instance, whether the Eskimo dog slaughter issue of our recent times happened (or not happened) the way official documents are/were written is made more real than the need for serious reflection on human short-comings that come into play in the exercise of pride and prejudice. The Inuit side is "pure crap" to quote a long-time "northerner"; or as one RCMP officer said: "not fair to have on his record".

This unbreakable resistence to self-examination is what keeps us from seeing ourselves and the silent other for what we both really are: humans being. Whether "childlike" or "drunk", the other is and was never asked what they thought and why they thought so. History, which they say, is written by the "conqueror", though no war ever happened in the Arctic and the "conquerors" tended to perish in the Arctic environment without the help of Inuit themselves. Flags and ceremonies were made much of to ritualize the "conquest" and to document it in far-off courts. Had the Inuit, the original occupants of the Arctic, known of this, it would seem not only silly but utterly insane.

Going by the recent Qikiqtani Truth & Reconciliation Commission on the dog slaughter issue, and the Nunavut experiment in general, this insanity of pride and prejudice still afflicts the Christian West, and it seems not even ready to fill in the shoes of civility and enlightenment it so professes most loudly. It seems content and intent on playing the "Traveling Matt" role while the subjects of its study see it for what it really is: idiotic, powerful and a dangerous threat to the survival of our planet (Traveling Matt's "outer space").

I saw recently in the Discovery Channel an examination of what would likely happen if an alien race invaded Earth. There was a long and detailed segment looking at "guerilla warfare" tactics to spurn and resist the "aliens" using our recent history in the West's military excursions into the Muslim world. The presentation had no hint of irony in its unconscious projection of guilt, shame and displacement (a Wikipedia entry says of "displacement": "Displacement operates in the mind unconsciously and involves emotions, ideas, or wishes being transferred from their original object to a more acceptable substitute. It is most often used to allay anxiety; and can to the displacement of aggressive impulses or to the displacement of sexual impulses.").

If I sound unduly harsh, it is only because I admire and love much of what the West can and should be, and because I want to be treated as a human being, not a caricature of other peoples' making.


Friday, 11 November 2011

In defense of the dialectic method in IQ/Science discourse in Nunavut

I recently bought a book called, Plato: the last days of Socrates - a collection of Plato's works that cover Socrates' life from the accusations against him of heresy and corruption of young minds to his trial and to his death.

In the introduction by Harold Tarrant, the scholar and translator wrote:

"[Plato's] works have the qualities which allow them to be interpreted, and reasonably interpreted, in many ways and from many points of view. This has much to do with the fact that they take the form of dialogues, rather than treatises addressed to the reader. We are not directly asked to believe anything; we are not required to take anything on trust. We are asked to be spectators at an occasion, whether historical or fictitious, when life-like characters talked on real issues, issues which are sometimes remote from us but which we can feel were pressing ones for them. We are asked to react to human experience and human ideas, for which we, as human beings, have some understanding. We are asked to listen to the arguments critically; we are also asked to respond to the personalities of those participating. We may be encouraged to learn certain lessons and to form certain conclusions as a result; but many of the problems superficially seem left unresolved, and we are not bullied into taking the author's line. Consequently, Plato's dialogues have continued to have appeal over the ages, and have survived numerous changes of intellectual and religious fashion, for somebody has always found something of value within them."

The dialectic method itself (if there is such a thing) changes from one "intellectual and religious fashion" to another but, since it forms the basis of "classical education" (and I don't mean just in the Western sense for IQ pedagogy, I think, appeals likewise), it remains the basis of teaching critical thinking skills and how to be human in the best of times and in the dark hours of tribulation when the moral high road seems such a costly virtue to pursue.

The best of classical literature (which here I also include Inuit legends and myths) has in it heroes and villians that are complex, and messy, and whose acts blur the lines of virtue and vice much like real human beings; these characters suffer the consequences of their mistakes as much as they celebrate the best of the human spirit even if they don't get the girl in the end. In a word: they are nothing like the one-dimensional ideals that double-bind religious and ideological fundamentalists of our times.

St. Exupery's Little Prince, for example, is not only an innocent but a learning character who is able to gauge and revise his judgements and praises on the human condition as he becomes aware that things are not always what they seem: he is open to even the most banal and outrageous characters he meets along the way, and forms opinions about them through experience rather than prejudice and idealized notions of what the real should be.

The great Galileo used the dialectic method to present his ideas in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, and Two New Sciences. I personally think that we should use this form to introduce not only science but philosophy, politics and notions of "civic duty" to an Inuit audience, to not only educate them but allow them to form their own thoughts and ideas about such things. Not only that, we should create the discourse concerning and integration of IQ and Western Science in such form. This form has in it opportunities to not only introduce but also define new concepts even as it clarifies thoughts and ideas of importance in ways that are lost to the more modern forms of the Treatise method.

Giambattista Vico is also a humanist thinker that I admire much. For some reason I think of him as a contemporary of Galileo, but Vico came quite a bit after him. To quote a Wikipedia entry, Vico, the great humanist also relied upon the dialectic method:

"As Royal Professor of Latin Eloquence, it was Vico’s task to prepare students for higher studies in law and jurisprudence. His lessons thus dealt with the formal aspects of the rhetorical canon, including arrangement and delivery. [...], Vico chose to emphasize the Aristotelian connection of rhetoric with dialectic or logic, thereby reconnecting rhetoric to ends (or topics) as their center. Vico's objection to modern rhetoric is that it cuts itself off from common sense (sensus communis), as the sense common to all men. In his lectures and throughout the body of his work, Vico's rhetoric begins from a central argument or "middle term" (medius terminus) which it then sets out of clarify by following the order of things as they arise in our experience. Probability and circumstance retain their proportionate importance, and discovery – reliant upon topics or loci – supersedes axioms derived through reflective abstraction. In the tradition of classical Roman rhetoric, Vico sets out to educate the orator as the deliverer of the "oratio", a speech having "ratio" or reason/order at its heart. What is essential to the oratory art (as the Greek rhetorike) is the orderly link between common sense and an end commensurate to it—an end that is not imposed upon the imagination from above (in the manner of the moderns and a certain dogmatic form of Christianity), but that is drawn out of common sense itself. In the tradition of Socrates and Cicero, Vico's real orator or rhetorician will serve as midwife in the birth of "the true" (as a form or idea) out of "the certain" (as the confusion or ignorance of the student's particularized mind).

Vico's rediscovery of "the most ancient wisdom" of the senses (a wisdom that is "human foolishness" or humana stultitia), his emphasis on the importance of civic life, and his professional obligations remind us of the humanist tradition."

My point in all this quoting is that I think the marriage and reconnection between Indigenous Knowledges and Western Science should start out by the use of this tried and proven method. There is, I think, much that can and should be done in the advancement of IQ and Western Science discourse. The nay-sayers and poo-pooers should be silenced with reason and well-constructed, mature arguments rather than be allowed to determine what happens and, thereby, rob us of riches that the two forms of knowledge have to offer for the simple want of awareness of other possibilities.


Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The tremendous power of paradigms: as a means of delimiting and transcending process

I recently got an email from one of my readers that made me think about the power of prevailing paradigms of North American scholarship: namely, that of structuralist/phenomonological paradigms in the interpretation of historical processes (especially in eskimology - if there is such a thing, and I happen to think there is such a thing whether it be history, linguistics, anthropology/sociology, administration and health care delivery systems).

This type of scholarship/research approach tends to delimit its discourse without much thought given to other possible alternative views, and proceed as if its arbitrary signifiers and templates were as "real" as Ferdinand de Saussure treated his. FdeS is considered outdated and too literal/concrete in linguistic studies, but he is tremendously influential still in the humanities and the social sciences because of his semiotics. Though I'm a great admirer of Umberto Ecco and Jacob von UexkΓΌll as far as semiotics go, I had a less than pleasant experience with a prof of semantics at MUN who took great offense to my questions and comments on FdeS.


There is an alternative philosphical perspective to what North American scholars/researchers come from: dialectics, Hegelian or otherwise, which I think is better by far in the process of searching and enlightenment. Take for example Hegel's notions of Measure:

"The identity between quantity and quality, which is found in Measure, is at first only implicit, and not yet explicitly realised. In other words, these two categories, which unite in Measure, each claim an independent authority. On the one hand, the quantitative features of existence may be altered, without affecting its quality. On the other hand, this increase and diminution, immaterial though it be, has its limit, by exceeding which the quality suffers change. [...] But if the quantity present in measure exceeds a certain limit, the quality corresponding to it is also put in abeyance. This however is not a negation of quality altogether, but only of this definite quality, the place of which is at once occupied by another." (Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. 1874. The Logic. Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences. 2nd Edition. London: Oxford University Press. §§108-109)

-hear, hear. I couldn't have said it better. I mean, something so subtle as the identity between quality and quantity is not really something that would even occur to structuralists and phenomenologists (quantity is the only real factor to them) but certainly is something that grounds the thesis, antithesis, reconciliation/synthesis of a dialectic process.

The dialectic or Socratic method of examination and reflection is an ancient Greek method of teaching and learning that has at its core the diminution of the ego as a deliberate program and that makes no definite claims to the truth of things, but seems to come much closer to it than the sophistic and disingenious approach of structuralism/phenomenology, which seem completely ignorant of its own short-comings but presents its interpretations of facts with great authority and hot-air.

Jessen Williamson's timikkut, tarnikkut, anersaakkullu has similarities with the dialectic method, at least insofar as in considering the veracity of its interpretations. Consider this passage:

"...since cultural paradigms play a significant part in constructing the answer... From one cultural paradigm we understood that that women were secondary to men, with their economic, spiritual, and social contributions evaluated in relation to men and colonial institutions. In that framework women seemed powerless, passive, secondary, compliant, dependent, and even mindless. They had no say, and in many instances their actions were omitted. On the other hand, viewed from a different cultural paradigm, we gained understanding that kalaallit women were at least on an equal footing with their men. They worked hard and delivered goods in trade and contributed greatly in matters dealing with spirituality. These insights were gained through the notion of genderlessness and the application of timikkut, tarnikkut anersaakkullu. Each perspective is obviously dependent on the eyes through which the situation is seen. For the purposes of this study, it is clear that in order to see the true picture, rather than impose a European, Western, or colonial view on Inuit life, examining this life from an Inuit perspective is far more effective." (p. 137, Inherit my heaven)

-and more respectful and fair. As we can see clearly here, ideology creeps in very easily and is often a blinder (in the guise of delimiting process) of North American scholarship/research, especially in the IQ discourse.

Don't get me wrong: I have many friends from academia and I value their friendship very highly for they have been nothing but enrichening to my life; and, I certainly am mistrustful of revisionism and try and avoid romanticization like the plague. But the structuralist/phenomonological interpretation of reality is often proved unable to deal with counter examples and quickly becomes passive-agressive when so confronted, whereas the dialectic method embraces such things in the process of discovery and in the spirit of integrity and honesty (ie, dialectic methods consider such personal and egoistic tendencies as rather too small and immature to determine the discourse).


Saturday, 5 November 2011

IQ from the perspective of Timikkut, Tarnikkut Anersaakkullu

My aippakuluk (ma femme) recently bought me a book called, Inherit my heaven: kalaallit gender relations, by Karla Jessen Williamson an Inuit (Kalaaleq) scholar par excellence. The "timikkut, tarnikkut anersaakkullu" part of this entry's title is taken from her book. This book is a must-read for anyone who's interested in Inuit Knowledge and circumpolar issues, and one I highly recommend.

I first met Karla when she worked at Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami in Ottawa. And I've always enjoyed our rather rare exchanges and conversations. I'm somewhat of a recluse but when she asked me to call her I did. I'm glad to have called her because she made me and Danielle aware of her book, which D bought for me the last one on the Arctic Ventures book section.

Much of what she says in the introductory section about the recently history of Greenland is familiar and applicable also to the Canadian Arctic, from the relocation to centralized "settlements" right down to the ubiquitous qallunaat bureaucrats who yet hold all the important positions of legislative and regulatory power (ie, power that matters).

Her experience of the resettlement policies, for example, differ only in place:

"I was born in a small settlement called Appamiut, north of Maniitsoq, in 1954. In Danish these places are called udsted - 'out-place' - in Canada such a settlement might be decribed as an 'outpost camp'. During the 1950s and 1960s Greenland underwent enormous economic, cultural, and social changes. As colonial status was officially curtailed, Danes and the local Greenlandic politicians agreed to a concentration policy (koncentrations-politik[...]). The plan entailed the closure of essential services (schools, churches, trading and transportation services) in those 'outpost camp villages'. Many of the families were forced to contemplate moving. Enticed by promises of new, modern houses and better economic chances, my parents decided to move to Maniitsoq, and the rest of my paternal family joined us later.

The move may have been convenient for economic and administrative purposes, but socially and culturally such moves had terrible effects; socio-cultural disintegration in various forms created a number of abusive behaviours."

These effects still resonate throughout our respective societies as every generation of bureaucrats come up to the Arctic to inflict themselves upon us "poor Inuit" running the whole gamut of good intentions of the missionary zeal persuasion, dangerous indifference, and unvoiced assumptions/prejudices informed by preceding ones.

The only way to address this long-standing problem, I believe most strongly, is to try and engage the gentiles with reason and dialogue, to build up some semblance of inter-cultural understanding (if not empathy). Though my hot-headedness in Nunavut policy discourse would seem to suggest otherwise, this is rather more indicative of my personal frustrations with the intransigent autism of all forms of bureaucrats. My blog icon is not there by accident at any rate (taken from a Pink Floyd album, the division bell).

But having seen the cold-trukey decolonialization of some African countries and the internecine ideological strife in some Latin American countries, I highly doubt that anyone really wants a repeat of those types of ugliness here as well. And this is the major reason why I've tried to educate myself and those who'd listen of our humanity and everything that this humanity entails.

Anyhoo, going back to the Jessen Williamson model of Timikkut, Tarnikkut Anersaakkullu that I find so insighful and familiar as an Inuk, I'd like to say that I think this is one of the important books to have been written on Inuit by our own, not only because it's a sociological study/analysis of the first order, but also because it offers profound insights as to why there has been this disconnect between Western rationalism and indigenous knowledges.

Breaking down the Timikkut, Tarnikkut Anersaakkullu: timikkut means 'through or by way of the physical body' (or the empirical); tarnikkut means 'through or by way of the spiritual' (or the umwelten); and, anersaakkut means 'through or by way of life essence' (or the psychological/physiological). These are all aspects of being in which Inuit knowledge is encapsulated, and where wisdom or phronesis intersects with knowledge or sophia a la pre-the age of scientistic materialism.

Jessen Williamson writes a very cogent and beautiful passage about her enlightenment process in realizing her Western-trained mind impinging upon her understanding and actual hearing one of her informants' discourse, which came out as jibberish to her at first.

The phrase, Timikkut, Tarnikkut Anersaakkullu is part of an ancient Inuit maxim to encourage understanding and reconciliation in being confronted with something perplexing (sort of like a rough-and-ready Hegelian dialectic for Inuit children - so as to not act rashly and out of fear and prejudice): Timikkut, tarnikkut anersaakkullu silattorsarit, which means: "try and attain wisdom/understanding through your body, soul and life essence".

Much of the Western scientific/economic discourse has an incompleteness about it (and I don't mean Godelian 'incompleteness') in that it has arrested itself in the Timikkut aspect of being, having been frightfully horrified by existential/phenomenological philosophy in extremis without really thinking about the consequences of its crippling fright.

This is where Western scientific/policy discourse and such a thing as Inuit Qaujimaningit must initiate mutually respectful dialogue and where each can productively inform and learn from the other in a Hegelian dialectic and pragmaticist exploration, to try and transcend all these self-imposed obstacles to understanding (of what it is to be human).


Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The nature of Inuit Knowledge

I sometimes get emails from friends who talk about or ask questions of Inuit Knowledge (IQ) that make me really think - in ways that make me go: aha!

One of the biggest obstacles to understanding, I think, is the apparent differences between scientific knowledge and IQ (one is "reductionist" (so they say) and the other is "anecdotal" (so they say) - whoever "they" are). But that is a wrong-headed argument.

The epistemological differences are closer than what is apparent: IQ (or any indigenous knowledge) treats knowledge in the gestalt, and significant factors (the environment/flora&fauna, its integrity) are regarded as a whole (that each is part and partial of everything that affects and sustains it); whereas, scientific reductionism derives its knowledge by deconstruction and how the whole is affected by deletion/absence of particular elements - usually until the thing dies or loses its integrity and can no longer be considered as such.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "gestalt" as:

"a structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts".

- I would say "with [its particular] properties comprising its treatment as a whole" instead of "with properties not derivable by summation of its parts" for the simple reason that the M-W definition (as it stands) carries a heavy unvoiced ideological assumption rather than being a productive logical element of an argument.

Gestalt, seen in this way (ie, mathematically), is no longer an ideological/phenomenological stance but an actual working postulate of epistemology proper more amenable to testing and constructing and sustaining a discourse. It also comes closer to the sense in which IQ regards its knowledge of flora/fauna and ecology/environment, social/spiritual relations (with people, with environment), etc.

Reductionism, for all its inestimable power, is the science of pathologies and in extremis (which I distinguish from mathematical knowledge which is the science of abstraction rather than reductionism, per se). Hence, reductionism tends to be Malthusian and prescriptive in outlook, and inherently mistrustful of that which it cannot control (ie, is neurotic). It is ideological rather than scientific.

Gestalt outlook is not anti-scientific. Far from it: it is the science of Bateson, Darwin, of Whitehead and cybernetics, of Jung for that matter. And, of IQ. It has pragmaticism (in the Piercesque sense) at its core, being informed by (from a Wikipedia entry): its commitments to the spirit of strict logic, the immutability of truth, the reality of infinity, and the difference between (1) actively willing to control thought, to doubt, to weigh reasons, and (2) willing not to exert the will, willing to believe.

In IQ, this "willing to believe" is based upon an organic network of knowledgable individuals which make up the community of its users and generators of its contents (and continuously spans thousands of years). It has in it also that unwillingness to talk about things that Inuit themselves have not seen or experienced themselves or vouch-safe from people they can trust. "The immutability of [its] truth[s]" is rather more a moral than ideological notion that drives social and ecological relations as opposed to purely economic/egoistic interests. The "reality of infinity" bespeaks of humility and recognition that our knowledge is limited and contingent upon factors necessarily outside of anyone's control and purview.

Given that the Arctic environment makes for scarce and little margins for error, again in the Piercesean sense, IQ operates on "the idea that belief is that upon which one is prepared to act" - an act not something so much based on superstition per se, but that whose proven efficacy bases that superstition or taboo originally: human beings, being reasoning beings, have their reasons for everything.

A true scientific spirit would seek out how and why things are the way they are, or the reasons why such beliefs exist rather than poo-pooing things which stodgy, old men (and their timid sycophants) cannot or are unwilling to countenance amenable to human reason and understanding.