Sunday, 19 May 2013

The system or the individual?

I just watched part of an investigative report on missing or murdered women in BC that have never been solved and it got me thinking about an article I read recently on Scientific American's Mind magazine (May/June 2013 edition) called, Why We Cheat, which talks about a phenomenon "copycat behaviour":

Seeing someone else cheat without apparent consequences strongly encourages others to do the same. One needs only watch pedestrians waiting at a crosswalk or passengers jumping a queue at a bus stop to observe examples of this phenomenon. (Mind, May/June 2013, p. 35)

Being an aboriginal male whose had his fair share of racism (from both the system and my fellow Inuit) there is another phenomenon of cheating that the Mind article talks about which the authors call "what the hell effect" as in "what the hell, I already blew my diet, so I might as well have the dessert." (ibid) that is also very familiar to me - as in "what the hell, he's just an Inuk..."

The copycat behaviour is very fresh in our minds right now because Harper's gov't seems especially prone to it. To wit: half-hearted attempts at hiding the gutting of environmental and labour laws by way of omnibus "budget" bills, and pretending that Canada's success in economic performance depends upon doing away with these long-standing laws of the land (never mind that there was no real public consultations - they have a majority, after all); the recent moves by the public safety minister to rein in communications policy of the RCMP already beset by various issues of public trust (perhaps a clumsy tactic to stave off further injury to the much-sullied image); the $90K "gift" from Harper's chief-of-staff to solve senator Duffy's problems; etc. etc. (BTW, the PM's chief-of-staff has since resigned over the $90K "gift"!)

Earlier in the Mind magazine article the authors muse: We believe that anxiety over loss [of money, reputation, careers, etc.] is a principle driver of cheating...(ibid)

I heard Andrew Coine  - a regular in my favourite weekly feature (At Issue) of the CBC's The National news broadcast - say that this type of unethical behaviour seems to pervade much of Harper's tenure especially in the majority he now commands and Coine wondered aloud whether all of CPC's value system was up for sale.

Disregarding for the moment the more dogmatic aspects  - the "what the hell," if you will - of the Christian faith that has done much to discredit it, the Christ says in more than one passage in the New Testament:

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’" (Matthew 25: 44-45)

In my career, especially as a policy analyst, I've tried to view (and constantly remind) myself that I'm an advocate for the fulfilment of fiduciary obligations in the Inuit-Governments relations. To me, this work is less an exercise in technical, legal, or constitutional well-formedness (though it is these for sure) but have tried, to the best of my abilities, to take back the "ownership" by re-posing the issues as open-ended questions of ethics: am I my brother's keeper? if so, how serious am I (or should I be) in my representation and advocacy (for "the least of these")?

My reputation as a "professional" has suffered over the years - some lost respect for me and stopped talking to me altogether, including some of my fellow Inuit (people I love and respect; people I can live without). But I always go back to a powerful comment one of my bosses said in talking about our grandchildren's historical assessment of our generation: What the hell were they thinking when they agreed to diminish our rights?

It may be that the very fabric of the system calls upon us to sometimes "sell out" and settle for something less. I can live with that. I ask not for perfection. The question is not that; the core of the issue, as far as I'm concerned, is how I deal with the ethical dilemmas invariably posed by the system we have no choice but to work within.


Saturday, 11 May 2013

Finding classicism in today's world

I must admit that I'm addicted to the HBO series, Game of Thrones. My nuliakuluk's brother, Jean, sent us the first two seasons of the show and the show just sort of grew on's not the sex and violence that interests me but the Borges-like (Jorge Luis Borges, whom I read from Eco's essay called, Between La Mancha and Babel) science of re-combination of the language and ideas of classical literature (in the essay, Eco talks about the idea of a theoretical infinite library (the "library of Babel") where every possible story and sequences of etyms are written - sort of like a literary, kabbalistic equivalent of the Turing machine).

Eco compares and contrasts James Joyce and Borges in the essay:

Why do I mention Joyce? Perhaps and above all because, along with Borges, he is one of the two contemporary writers I have loved the most and who have most influenced me. But also because we have now come to the point [in the essay] where we should ask ourselves about the parallels and differences between these two authors who both have turned universal language and culture into their playing field.


Obviously, Borges did not put language into crisis. You just have to read the smooth prose of his essays, the traditional grammatical structure of his stories, the plain, conversational comprehensibility of his poems. In this respect Borges is as far as it is possible from Joyce.

...If Joyce's linguistic experimentalism is to be considered revolutionary, Borges must be regarded as a conservative, the delirious archivist of a culture whose respectful custodian he claims to be. Delirious, I say, but also a conservative archivist. And yet it is this very oxymoron ("delirious archivist") which gives us the key to discussing Borges's experimentalism. (Umberto Eco, On Literature, 2002, pp. 110-111)

It may seem rather disingenuous of me to open this blog entry with these two "revolutionaries" of modern literature in talking about "finding classicism in today's world" but (much like Borges' Library of Babel) I'm talking about the "old" in the "new" after all.

Eco says in the essay I quote above that if Joyce played with words, Borges played with ideas. It is the Borges part that I'm pointing out here in finding classicism in the contemporary world. The classical tradition is like a rich, fertile soil of sorts - a womb - for people who ply their craft in language (whether writers, jurists of some standing, speech writers, literary critics, etc.).

Mind, in talking about the classical, I make no real distinction between the language of the Bible and the literary works of the ancient Greeks and Roman poetics - at least, there seems to be very little difference in the Jewish and Greek traditions when it comes to the presentation of the morality play. I like pointing out the fact that Socrates said that though human communities vary in form, the issues and questions that make us human are constant.

There are also classical elements even in Inuit legends because these are, after all, also Borge-esque plays on the archetypes - the configurations may differ but the elements and the matrix remains the same. But, I digress...

I was just blown away by the film by the Cohen Brothers, O Brother Where art Thou? when I saw it. The movie is based on Homer's poem, The Odyssey, but in a circuitous way because one of them admitted that they based the film solely on a graphic novel and had never read the English translation of the epic poem. There are many references to the Biblical archetypes in there as well:

(the scene where the fugitives pick up a hitch-hiker)

Pete: I've always wondered, what's the devil look like?
Ulysses Everett McGill: Well, there are all manner of lesser imps and demons, Pete, but the great Satan hisself is red and scaly with a bifurcated tail, and he carries a hay fork.
Tommy Johnson: Oh, no. No, sir. He's white, as white as you folks, with empty eyes and a big hollow voice. He likes to travel around with a mean old hound. That's right.

Tommy Johnson: I had to be up at that there crossroads last midnight, to sell my soul to the devil.
Ulysses Everett McGill: Well, ain't it a small world, spiritually speaking. Pete and Delmar just been baptized and saved. I guess I'm the only one that remains unaffiliated.

The results of the film shine through nonetheless because the US has a solid literary tradition of Classicism that is glaringly absent in Canada - I guess humour makes up for that but that Hollywood seems to prefer the asinine variety of our humour this is cold comfort indeed. At any rate, there are no enigmatic slips like what peppers Mel Blanc's work in Looney Tunes - there are no lures, no second takes, no momentary hints to deeper, darker allusions that necessitate the exact same humour to alleviate and give us respite from it (what passes now as "dark humour" is oftentimes just asinine, gratuitous cruelty).

In talking about symbolism Eco writes in his essay, On Symbolism:

This may seem contrary to our most cherished ideas, but all the centuries that have spoken to us about symbols knew little of the symbolic mode. Perhaps that was what the pilgrims at the temple of the god Delphi were seeking, where the oracle neither says nor hides but only vaguely alludes...Perhaps it was modernity that invented the notion of poetry, seeing that those who read Homer at the time or shortly afterward saw him as an encyclopedia of universal knowledge, and medieval readers used Virgil the way Nostradamus would be used later. Today it is we who demand that poetry, and often fiction, supply us not just with the expression of emotions, or an account of actions, or morality, but also with symbolic flashes, pale ersatz elements of a truth we no longer seek in religion.

Can this be enough? It will satisfy only those who have a cold awareness of the insignificance of the universe, a fervent will for redemption through the question, not through the supine acceptance of the answer. (On Literature, p. 156)

Eco goes on to say that, in this context, everything loses its meaning not through some form of psychological rending of a reality but because everything mundane has taken on a mistaken attribution of hidden meaning behind the obvious. I blame unmitigated and mindless postmodern critique (ie, deconstructionism and de Saussure' s analytics of language; oh, such bitter irony both have been precisely because, at the end of it all, after all we may have always needed the "messy dialectics" both tried to eliminate from analysis).