When the internet finds out that ignorance is bliss it goes crazy!

Alright, so here’s my rant for the week. Nice clickbait title, eh?

Clickbait titles are a tease, of course. They want you to follow them because their income depends on the number of hits they get. Our natural curiosity makes us vulnerable to this tactic and we fall for it all the time. Well, I thought I’d try to get you to have a look at my blog by using this stupid title. Is it working?

The title is misleading, of course, as many clickbait titles are. However, accuracy is not as important as getting you to click on their bait. Ignorance has its cost and its consequences. Ignorance may not be bliss, but it is a necessary condition for all of us. We cannot know everything about everything. The trick is to recognize and accept that.  You can only do something about it by way of learning to be open minded, critical (as in dissecting ideas, values, political events, everything) and scientific. Even at that, you may part the curtain of ignorance slightly. You’ll never open it completely.

Ignorance is the normal human condition at this time in history, especially since the industrial revolution. We have dealt with it using division of labour and so far that’s worked fairly well. A division of labour means that we cannot know everything about everything so we depend on other people to help us out every day of our lives with tasks we have no idea of how to accomplish ourselves. All of us are entirely dependent on others just to make it through a normal day and the more we live in a technologically complex world, the more that’s true. Basically, we are completely ignorant of most of the systems we rely on just to get through each day. And we don’t sweat that. It seems normal. It’s all good.

You may be adept at some things and a klutz at others. You may be a wonderful carpenter, a great mechanic, a skilled brain surgeon or a gifted musician but you’re not likely good at carpentry, mechanics, brain surgery, and music. You’re probably not one of the very few people who know about electricity and how to get it into your home. You trust that there are people who can ensure that electricity gets to your computers, stoves, refrigerators and heaters. You probably know nothing about farming either unless you’re one of the specialists in that field. Oh, you may dabble in growing your own food, but you may not know how to grow food on a scale large enough to feed your family or your village. You depend on others to produce the food you need. With some exceptions you will never know any of them personally. It’s true that some of us get pretty handy with tools, can grow a few veggies, repair a broken piece of furniture, glue a toy back together, or sew a badge on a shirt. We can do stuff without being an expert. But for the big stuff, we must leave it to the experts. Of course, experts can and do make mistakes and we need to make them accountable for their mistakes. What we need in that case is a method to measure success or failure and agree on a system of accountability. That in itself is no easy task. Science is a method of creating models of how the world works. Science can create systems to evaluate just how accurately any idea, structure, method, process, etc., conforms to how the world works.

So, we are ignorant of most things and that’s okay. However, there are things that you will pay dearly for if you ignore them.

For instance, if you see a little warning light on the dash of your car come on that looks like an oil can with one little drip of oil coming out of the spout and you ignore it and keep driving anyway there’s a good chance that you’ll trash your engine in the process. Don’t ignore warning lights on your dash! Automakers put them there for a reason. Don’t ignore the flashing lights at a railway crossing! Sheesh. Don’t run red lights!

The fact is that we get lots of warnings in our daily lives that we must heed, some of them are metaphorical warning lights that light up in our everyday lives that we ignore at our own peril, like ignoring our diet, high blood pressure, or a cold silence emanating from our partner. This is all fine and dandy, but there’s a whole other dimension to ignorance that revolves around ideas, policies, values, and social practices. That’s where I want to go now.

I know nothing about brain surgery and I don’t think you should trust me to remove your appendix. However, I have studied society and history for decades and I would expect that you would recognize that and give me my due. At least hear me out and listen to what I have to say before thinking of what you will come up with as a rebuttal based solely on your own personal experience or hearsay.

Most of you will have no educational experience to even begin to figure out what I’m up to here any more than you can figure out what makes a computer tick. It’s not because you’re stupid (well, some people really are) it’s because you’re ignorant, unknowing. My use of the word ignorant is not pejorative or negative, it’s accurate. You are largely unknowing and don’t have the resources to really figure out the dynamics that drive your existence, not your ideas, your values, your wants and desires, your sexuality, your emotions, nor your very lives and how difficult it is to figure out what the hell is going on. You may have some idea of what drives the dynamics of your life, and in fact, ignorance is not an either or thing. It can be partial…and, of course, that can be dangerous. Every day when I went to work, I was paid to think about these things. How many people have that kind of privilege?

This may sound harsh, but it’s simply true and there’s no way around it. We simply cannot know all things we need to know to live. Furthermore, we are all blinded by our institutions, those habits that drive our actions and thoughts. They prevent us from seeing the world for what it is. Why and how does that happen? Many scholars and scientists have spent their lives sorting out these issues with a great degree of success in my mind. To figure out how the social world works, you just have to know who these scholars and scientists are and read everything they wrote (or write). Then you have to think real hard about how their works relate to each other and build on each other. Who has the time or inclination to do that? The consequence of not doing that is continued ignorance (but don’t feel bad about that). The cost of doing it, unfortunately, in my experience is social compromise and intellectual loneliness (and I can live with that).

I really do feel that I have a fairly good grip on what drives us as humans in our specific cultures and how our cultures evolve. I got this grip from careful and systematic study at university and in private research. That makes me an expert, I guess.

In my next few blog posts I’ll explore various aspects of our lives and suggest models to explain them. That’s the scientific way. You can ignore what I say, of course. You may have particular expertise in a given activity or occupation. I’m sure I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to do your job.  If you want to know something about how society works, you might want to ask me or someone else who has spent a lifetime learning about these things. We each have our areas of expertise. Mine is society and history.

I’m a student of social and cultural life in a historical context. If you have anything you are curious about, ask me. See what comes out.

My next blog is about women and the way women have been portrayed and treated over history. A lot of what I write about will revolve around misogeny, sex, reproduction, patriarchy and seduction.

My mom died last night.

As a blogger, I will blog. That’s just the way it is. My mother died last night at around midnight. She lived for 15 years or so in a care facility called The Dufferin, in Coquitlam, BC. She was almost 94 years old.

Her room is quiet now, but really, it’s no longer her room. Soon, someone else will occupy it and there will be no trace of my mother’s time there except in the memories of the care aides and nurses who looked after her. I can’t say enough good things about the care my mother received at The Dufferin. Part of that is because of the dogged persistence of my sisters Lucille Haveland and Claudette Friesen but it’s also because of the caring attitudes of the people who looked after mom every day. They had way more contact with my mother in the last few years than I did. In fact, I rarely saw my mother over the last few years. We live on Vancouver Island, a 5 hour trip including a ferry ride from The Dufferin and when we did go to Vancouver over the years we always stayed with my daughter and her family. We just didn’t see my mother or many of the rest of my family either for that matter. For probably 17 years before her death, she carried a heavy burden of dementia and she was certainly not the woman I knew as a young boy growing up. It was hard to see her like that. I do wish I had made more time to see mom over the years, but I can’t change that now. Still, she was my mother, changed as she was. She was gentle, warm and tender. She loved her family. She loved all of us.

Over the last few days, her room at The Dufferin was anything but quiet.

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As you can see she was surrounded by family. Not all of us could fit in the room at the same time so we would leave the room now and again and spend time out in the hallway. At any one time there could be as many people in the hallway as in her room. That’s no surprise because she raised 15 children, only three of which could not make it to the Dufferin in the last few days to bid farewell to their mother(one being deceased and the other two living far away with health issues of their own). Husbands, wives, grandchildren, great grandchildren rounded out the group along with a steady procession of care aides.

My mother is gone. The people who do these things took her body away in the middle of the night not two hours after her last breath. That’s how fast and efficiently these things get done. What they couldn’t take away though was the laughter and the love that was palpable in the hours and days before her death and that saturated the room. We can be an irreverent group at times and we proved to be just that over the last few days, but that irreverence was always tinged with love and trust. Our mother’s death has brought us together again. We feel her in our love for each other.

I’ll have more to say in the coming days. For now, I’m home in Cumberland, on Vancouver Island, resting and awaiting news about when the funeral will happen.

Take care, all of you and hug your loved ones.

 

Growing grapes on the Beaufort Range.

I live on one of the main roads that lead out of Cumberland, BC. Cumberland is on the eastern slopes of the Beaufort Range at about a 500 foot altitude. Over the past few weeks we have witnessed at least a dozen logging trucks headed out of town every week day down the Trent River Main headed who knows where. That’s been going on for years but it seems logging activity is picking up around here. Certainly, the clearcuts are getting bigger and bigger just up the slopes from our little community and they’re getting more numerous.

I don’t know much about what sustains a forest. I’m a sociologist, not a biologist nor an ecologist. What the ecologists tell me, however, is frightening. Logging and development are wreaking havoc with ecosystems and changing the landscape in very visible ways. I’m of two minds about that. Should we care?

But let me step back for a moment and ask a few questions some of you may have answers to.

  1. Given climate change and the report yesterday that increasing temperatures are accelerating, has anyone given thought to how a changing global climate will impact our forest and marshland ecosystems on Vancouver Island?
  2. Is there a tipping point where the amount of logging in any specific area will permanently change the local climate so that certain species of trees cannot grow here any longer?
  3. In the foreseeable future are we looking at the conditions ideal for growing grapes on the hillsides above Cumberland? Are we looking at a potential wine growing situation here?

I know that logging in the Comox Valley and in most areas on the eastern slopes of Vancouver Island mountain ranges is proceeding apace. I’m not at all against logging per se. After all, I’m a woodworker and sculptor in wood. We also still burn wood on occasion in our wood stove. I do, however, question the logic of the kind of clearcut logging we’re witnessing here. There are many ways that forests can serve the economic interests of communities and I’m not at all sure that what’s happening here at the moment is in our best interests. There are alternatives, but I doubt that they are given serious consideration.

Given that the mountain sides above us are all privately owned by logging companies who are themselves largely owned by pension funds, the current model is unlikely to change. Making pots of money is the name of the game and quarterly profits must increase or shareholders may look to invest their money elsewhere. I’m not sure pension managers know anything about logging or forestry, but they do know how to push for increased revenues. So, forestry managers must deliver the goods or risk losing their stake in the venture.

In some ways I grieve the loss of the wonderful forests that surround us, but I also realize that the land hereabouts was pretty much clearcut a hundred years ago to resemble a barren landscape. We live in second and third growth tree plantations, not forests. I’m quite shocked at the size of much of the timber I see leaving on the trucks by my home. I can’t image many of the logs on those trucks would be of much use except to make pulp or chips for strandboard, nor can I image you’d get as much as a 2X4 out of some of them.

That said, maybe I need to chill out and accept what’s happening. After all, I enjoy a nice Chardonnay. Maybe, soon enough, we’ll be a world class wine growing area with a balmy climate while California becomes a desert once again. Maybe we’ll have vineyards as far as the eye can see. Cheers! Maybe we can grow hops too!

 

 

What Will a Post-Employment Future Look Like?

One of my former students, a frequent commentator on my blog, commented on my last post about my disillusionment and the nature of capital. She asked two questions in particular that I will address in this post:

“Do you see hope for mankind’s survival after workers are replaced by robots and machines and software? If so, do you have an idea of how we humans will be able to sustain ourselves once traditional “jobs” have disappeared?”

These are both good questions. To answer the first one, I’ll say right off that I’m no utopian. I leave the musings about future worlds to the utopians, dystopians, novelists and science fiction writers. There are enough Star Wars and Star Treks to go around. Still, there are some things I can say about the future that are science-based and predictable. However, it’s necessary to first think about what ‘mankind’s survival’ means.

The word survival needs some consideration. Ultimately, none of us, nor any of our marvellous creations survive or ‘live beyond’. Science, especially palaeontology, archaeology and related disciplines, have made it clear that our planet has only been around for a few billion years and we, as a species, have only evolved in that last few million. Us modern humans are a very recent addition to the planet and as with everything else, we’re still evolving and will continue to do so until we go out of existence, and that’s a sure thing. I used to challenge my students to come up with an example of anything that was amenable to perception via our senses that had not or would not come into existence at some point and go out of existence at a later point. Everything comes and goes. Life is a process, not a thing. Of course, I’m sure you can come up with a lot of “what if’s” here as in what if we blow ourselves to bits with nuclear weapons before we get a chance to evolve more or less peacefully out of existence? That may happen. We may try to commit species suicide, but it’s highly unlikely that every human on the planet would be eliminated by nuclear war. I’ll let the dystopians speculate on that one.

Besides, species don’t always disappear completely. They often evolve into other species over long periods of time. So, ultimately, survival is not an option for us, nor is it for any other species. It’s not even  an option for mountain ranges and continents, or the universe, according to some scientists. Nothing ever stays the same. Our limited sensual and perceptual abilities and weak sense of time often prevent us from fully appreciating that.

That said, and moving on, mankind will easily survive the advent of robots and extreme mechanization. I think my student’s question was more in line with the question: “what are we going to do when robots do everything for us?” I really don’t know. Probably some of the things we do now. Work will still need to be done. It is on Star Trek’s Enterprise. (Do you think people get paid on the Enterprise? What would they spend their money on, especially when you can order an Earl Grey tea, hot, at the replicator anytime you want without putting a toonie in a slot?)

Marx actually speculated on a post-capitalist world in one of his books, The German Ideology, but lived to regret it because he was afterwards forever branded a wide-eyed utopian. Later in his life he focussed almost entirely on writing Das Kapital, a basically scientific venture. By then he had abandoned his youthful idealistic philosophizing and political pamphlet writing. But I digress.

What I argued in my last post was that employment would come to an end, not work. I should have made that more clear. Employment is a way work gets organized. Working for wages is only one of many ways work can get organized. Slavery is another way. Work can get done too by volunteers. The point is that employment will disappear but work won’t. To take this one step further: Marx concluded (not specifically in these words) that communism will come when we are all unemployed. Now, that’s not strictly true. Markets existed in ancient Egypt, they just weren’t the dominant means of creating wealth. In the future, if things continue as they are, some employment may still exist, but it won’t be the dominant social relation of production.

The truth is, businesses are rapidly eliminating employees in a number of critical large scale industries. Machines have been eliminating, at an accelerating pace, a lot of the more onerous and dangerous tasks we used to perform as a matter or course. Who would have thunk that lawyering could be automated. It can be and already is to some extent. There are research algorithms that can do away with a lot of the work previously done by junior lawyers and minions in law firms. Lawyers will still be with us for some time, of course, but they don’t have any long term immunity from elimination. Same goes for physicians and surgeons. Very few activities we now take for granted have a guaranteed future. That idea seems impossible at the moment, but could a person living when the Gutenberg press was invented have been able to foresee the use of computerized printing, freeways and skyscrapers?

The point here is that the historical trajectory we are on suggests that capital is replacing labour at a greater pace than ever before in the execution of work. The mechanism by which this occurs is the constantly shrinking margins of profit and the inability of the whole capitalist world (not necessarily individual capitalists) to exploit workers.* In practical terms, if a large scale fast-food chain manages to eliminate most of its workforce, it will have a harder and harder time making money. This is partly because in eliminating its workforce it would also be eliminating a major market for its products. Obviously, there is no direct equivalence between workers and their ability or not to buy hamburgers, but if enough businesses eliminate a significant part of their labour force, there is obviously less and less in the way of aggregate wages to buy commodities. It’s true that fast-food workers could go work elsewhere, but if most other large employers are also doing the same thing, there will soon be nowhere to go. Meet a huge number of American workers. That’s exactly  the situation they’re in. Some may ‘choose’ to become self-employed, but that’s just another way of surreptitiously eliminating employment.

Employment will not be eliminated next week, or next month or next year. Probably not in the next 100 years. But it will be. If that’s true, how will we then sustain ourselves? With no wages, what would we do to buy things? Well, the trick here is to avoid thinking about the future in terms of the present. That’s tough. We have stores full of stuff for us to buy. What would they do? Change drastically, that’s what. Can you imagine a ‘store’ where you walk in, take what you need and leave (legally, that is)? Hoarding? Why would anyone hoard if they can get whatever they need anytime they need it? Besides, we have to ask ourselves why we need all the ‘stuff’ we buy. Do we really need it to be happy, to be fulfilled? As I already noted, we can’t think about a future world by simply imposing our current institutions on it.

Wow, is this a utopia I promised not to get into? I don’t think so. The logical conclusion of the elimination of employment is the elimination of employer/employee relations, wages, salaries and the need for any kind of benefits.  Some countries are already moving toward a guaranteed income for everyone out of the pool of income produced nationally by way of industrial production and business profits. Their education and health services are already paid for by the state.

Earned salaries and wages will no longer exist. Won’t that do away with human initiative? Yes, as we know it. But following the logic of the falling rate of profit to its conclusion suggests a number of consequences we cannot predict at this time. What will people do in a world without employment? Lots of things. Like I said, work will not be eliminated and may be more popular than ever. Most jobs will be eliminated however and, frankly, that looks like a good thing from where I sit right now. Many women who for a long time have not been paid for domestic work might also approve. If they don’t get paid for what they do, then why should the rest of us? Seems fantastical, doesn’t it? Well, it’s no more fantastical than the creation of employment in the first place. Jobs have not always existed, that category of labour was created in Europe starting around the 11th century,  but work has always been necessary because things need to get done. What may come of all of this is a much more equal distribution of the fruits of social production. How that would unfold politically I have no idea except to say that it would have to be a global affair. It may not come peacefully either.

As fodder for a future blog post, one thing I’ve always found fascinating is our love affair with our jobs. Maybe a topic for another post. It’s funny, though, why we seem to crave vacations and get lots of congratulations upon our retirement. Maybe we don’t love our working lives so much after all because we seem happiest when we don’t have working lives or when we ‘vacate’ them.

As a bit of an aside, but a point still relevant to make here, some of us were (in my case as a retiree) and are quite happy with the work we did or do. We were/are the fortunate ones. I loved teaching, but I didn’t particularly love my job. I liked the pay too, of course, but a paycheque is only one way that’s possible to reward a person for doing work. I’ll save this for another blog post too.

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*This statement itself requires much more elaboration, but I’ll save that for another post.

I’m disillusioned.

I spent my entire adult life studying, thinking about and teaching university courses on history, social relations and  social institutions. I researched how successive historical periods with their own set of class relations came and went. I was particularly interested in the nature of capital and how it relates to labour. I still am, I guess, but I’m not at all convinced that anyone wants to or can share in my knowledge. My scholarly trajectory has been unique. I’ve researched the ideas of a number of historians, political economists, sociologists, psychologists, semanticists, semioticians, philosophers, geologists, cultural geographers and anthropologists of the last two centuries and more. I can’t imagine that very many other people have studied the same constellation of thinkers or who have come to the same conclusions I have about history.

I’m quite active on Facebook, but I’m about to back away from any political discussion on that social medium. There is no way of developing an argument that is cohesive, well-developed and grounded in reality in a Facebook post. The trolls don’t necessarily dominate Facebook, but they often make the Facebook experience distinctly unpleasant. Even well-meaning people who don’t have the background in the social sciences that I have been privileged to acquire can make Facebook frustrating and annoying. This all may sound elitist, and there may be a touch of truth to that observation, but only to the extent that the knowledge I’ve acquired is very difficult to communicate to people who don’t share at least some of the background I have.

Take the concept of capital as an example. I’ve written about capital in the past. This blog has many posts that touch on the concept, if they’re not directly and entirely concerned with it and its relationship with other social institutions such as employment, business and the nation-state.

It’s my observation (I don’t have any scientific information to support this statement) that most people think of capital as money. It’s true that in accounting capital is considered money used to run a business. And because finance capital has become so important in the last 100 years, it’s also become synonymous with capital. Money is a social relationship but is considered a ‘thing’ in the modern mind. Capital, as I see it, and in classical economics, includes money and assets used in the production and reproduction of wealth. Marx, in Capital, distinguishes fixed from variable capital. Variable capital is the investment a capitalist makes in wage-labour. I’ve always considered capital to include labour, an idea that has gotten me in more than one heated discussion with colleagues. For me, if I hire someone to work for me, the work that that person performs is in fact an asset that contributes to my productive goals, and hence should be considered capital. If I’m a slave owner in Rome in 33 AD, my slaves must be considered my capital because they are a vehicle that allows me to accumulate more capital. In essence, for me, capital and labour are the flip sides of the same coin. Labour is always required to produce capital and capital is nothing but crystallized labour, that is, all the labour that was required to produce it. Another example going even further back in history: a bow and arrow, or spear created by a hunter must be considered capital. They embody the labour that it took to create them and they are used to create more wealth, i.e., meat for the family and community table.

Countries, businesses and individuals can have capital. In fact, it’s inconceivable that in this day and age a country or business could operate without capital. Capital assets including money, land, labour, tools (including buildings, machinery, software and that sort of thing) and knowledge, are a prerequisite of large scale industrial production.

Capital does not refer exclusively to assets in a capitalist mode of production. Capital exists whenever and wherever humans create the means to increase their stock of tools, machinery, etc., as a strategy to ensure their material survival. Capital accumulation exists wherever people can produce and stockpile more than enough assets to ensure their immediate survival.

For a number of reasons that are beyond  the scope of this short post to explore, modern capitalist production aims to replace labour as much as possible in the productive process. There is a historical dynamic to capital accumulation that leads inevitably to more and more replacement of labour by capital in the productive process. So, tools, machinery, robots, etc., (with their load of crystallized labour) are constantly in the process of replacing labour. Careful to note that I use ‘labour’ here and not ‘work.’ Work is a unit of measure of the amount of energy required to perform a given task. Labour defines how work is to be conducted. Employment, just to refine the possibilities a little, refers to a particular relationship between labour and capital in the context of a labour market,  where a person’s labour-power (their capacity to work and create wealth) is bought and sold.

Currently, global capital accumulation is the culmination of a process whereby workers are becoming less and less of a factor in production and when they remain part of the productive process are devalued to the point where they are unable to even reproduce themselves. Yes, we are not yet at a critical stage in this process, but the last 3 or 4 decades have clearly shown how corporations have moved commodity production around the planet to areas of cheap labour and lax labour and tax laws. They’ve also replaced workers ‘at home’ with mechanized systems. McDonald’s, as well as other fast food chains, is in the process of replacing front line staff with automated order taking software and hardware processes. Their initiate in this is not unusual and is in fact the goal of most corporations in all fields of production, from agriculture to mining to food and clothing production. Everybody is in on it. There are many consequences of this process and I’ll tackle those in future posts.

Suffice it to say here, that unless one has done a serious study of the dynamics of capital and labour in historical context, how can it be possible to understand one’s relationships to capital? People confuse labour with work with employment. They see these concepts as interchangeable. They’re not. Does that matter to the average person on this planet? Not at all.

Thus, appealing to a person’s rationality is useless on the grand scale of things. It’s not, however, in some immediate and personal ways. It seems the farther we get from daily life, the harder it is to understand the relationships that control us. So appeals to reason might work for some people some of the time, but people generally don’t have the knowledge and information required to apply reason to larger geopolitical events and situations. This may seem elitist, and maybe it is, but I’m not happy about it, no matter what it is. I often feel that my entire life of thought and research has been for naught because I can’t share it in any meaningful way, at least not with the social tools we have at our disposal most of the time, especially the social media.

More to come on Trump, trolls and half-truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A repost from December 2012: A commentary on a book called Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.

 

I’m reposting this post from 2012 because it’s so relevant today as is Goldhagen’s book. This book is high controversial, but I find no grounds to dispute its central thesis which is that many Germans willingly participated in the persecution of Jews, the mentally and physically challenged, the Romany and others. Read on.

In 1996, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.  This book, from the back cover on my edition, “…lays to rest many myths about the Holocaust: that Germans were ignorant of the mass destruction of Jews, that the killers were all SS men, and that those who slaughtered Jews did so reluctantly.  Hitler’s Willing Executioners provides conclusive evidence that the extermination of European Jewry engaged the energies and enthusiasm of tens of thousands of ordinary Germans.”  Goldhagen systematically addresses many conventional explanations for The Holocaust: 1) the perpetrators were coerced, 2) that they were merely following orders, 3) that they were under very severe psychological pressure, 4) that they were petty bureaucrats needing to perform whatever tasks assigned them for the sake of their own career advancement, and 5) that people performed isolated and fragmented tasks so that they couldn’t appreciate the significance of their actions.  He then addresses each of these explanations and rejects them categorically.  He argues that a great deal of horrifying brutality and genocide was exercised not by insane people, but by ordinary people carrying out their sacred duty to The Fatherland.  This may be hard to believe, and the only real antidote to this scepticism is a thorough reading of Goldhagen’s book, but he is very convincing in his argument.  His book is carefully researched and highly insightful.

For Goldhagen, The Holocaust was not the result of aberrant individuals, bureaucracy, indifference, ignorance or individual pathology of any kind and it was only possible because Germany and Germans, ordinary Germans, were systematically changed  into anti-semites in very large numbers well before the war started. It was, he argues, the culmination of a process by which the German people, ordinary Germans, were convinced over decades that the biggest impediment to Germany’s apotheosis, its rise to true glory, was the Jewish people.  Over decades before the war, Jews were portrayed as the greatest evil that Germany faced as a nation.  So, it seems that Germans in their passionate love of The Fatherland were not only willing executioners of Jews (and other groups of people seen as a threat, either to The Fatherland, as in the case of Jews, or the Aryan race as in the case of people with mental or physical disabilities, the Romany, etc.), but enthusiastic, gleeful, inventive, proud and patriotic perpetrators of unbelievable brutality towards Jews.  There is a photograph in Goldhagen’s book of a German soldier, an ordinary German soldier, shooting in the back of the head a young mother while she holds her child in her arms.  He did it in front of the camera, proud of his patriotic deed.  Obviously, human beings are capable of incredible personal barbarism but that barbarism is more often than not released against ‘the other,’ the perceived source of all evil and danger to the group, whether it be the marriage, family, community, town, city, province, country or ideology (pick any one).  The soldier who shot the young mother did not see his deed as barbaric, but rather as patriotic, as one more step in the elimination of the Jewish evil infecting glorious Germany and threatening to weaken the Aryan race.  From this viewpoint, every time a German kills a Jew, man, woman or child, Germany gets stronger.  Essentially, the Jewish people were offered up as a sacrifice to ensure the future prosperity of the German nation. From here on, my argument gets a little complex and much of it arises in Ernest Becker’s work summarized in his posthumous book Escape From Evil (1975) in which he writes:

…the psychology of the Nazi experience, […] served as a grim refresher course on the metaphysics of mass slaughter.  Leo Alexander, in his outstanding paper on the SS, points out how much the Nazis were animated by what he calls a ‘heathen concept’: they had a whole philosophy of blood and soil which contained the belief that death nourishes life.  This was ‘heathen’ indeed: we recognize it as the familiar archaic idea that the sacrifice of life makes life flow more plentifully…Goering, for example, made a statement early in the war that ‘with every German airman who is killed by the enemy our Luftwaffe becomes stronger. (p.103)

So the logic of mass murder becomes clear. The ‘cleansing’ of Germany of the ‘dirty’ Jews was supposed to make Germany stronger, an idea that had been brewing for a long time in the German mind.  In essence, Goldhagen’s insistance that Germany was infected long before the Nazi era with a profound antisemitism fits in perfectly with Becker’s observation that The Holocaust was not an ‘event’ in history, but a consequence of a profound and longstanding insecurity that ordinary Germans had regarding the state of Germany.  Relief from this insecurity culminated in the execution and torture of masses of Jewish people.  It became the duty of all right-thinking, patriotic and heroic citizens to participate fully in the elimination of the Jewish evil, an evil inherent in every sub-human Jewish man, woman and child, the evil that threatened, in their minds, the very source of their life and power, The Fatherland.  Of course, the whole enterprise was a lie.  No amount of killing could save the German nation.

So, what can we now make of Goldhagen’s contention that it was ordinary Germans who were the perpetrators of Hitler’s program to eliminate Jews from Germany (and everywhere else given enough time)?  What we can say is that most evil in the world is not the result of the actions of aberrant individuals -although they definitely express their aberrance when permitted  to or encouraged by the state – but of ordinary people expressing their love for country or idea (racial purity, the uselessness of the poor, God, the glory of money, etc…).  As Becker states it, “…evil comes from man’s urge to heroic victory over evil.” (p.136)

What lesson can we learn from Goldhagen (and Becker – but more on that later)?  That blind nationalism and unquestioning faith in God and country have, and can still, lead ordinary people into committing the most atrocious, genocidal actions possible.  The Rwandan massacre of 1994 is an example of just such a thing and let us not think for a moment that it will never happen again.  From the vitriol I’ve been reading in comments following articles on the Idle No More movement, I expect that ordinary Canadians could be led into the same genocidal frame of mind as ordinary Germans were during the Nazi era.  Canadians are not anywhere close to becoming genocidal now, but systemic racism, scapegoating and a profound ignorance of the actions of their own government towards aboriginal people can set the stage for popular descent into crass racism and incivility.  When the government’s agenda are dominated by the private accumulation of capital, any perceived impediment to economic growth such as treaty negotiations will be seen by some as a threat to Canada as a nation and it’s sovereignty.  Once aboriginal people are openly scapegoated and blamed for a poor economy we will have to be doubly vigilant to ensure that the situation does not get out of hand and degenerate into widespread and open hostility towards First Nations.

Why are mittens and soup so superior to affordable and social housing?

This is an addendum to my last post. Please Share.

So, in my last post I defended Ronna-Rae Leonard, NDP candidate for the riding of Courtenay-Comox, against ridiculous and scurrilous partisan attacks published in The Comox Valley Record by people clearly associated with the Liberal campaign in that riding. I wasn’t wrong in doing that, but then I thought about it again and realized there was just something not quite right about my approach because the letters to the editor by Clancy and Murray were right in a sense and I hadn’t really addressed clearly why and how they were right. During a wakeful period last night I finally put it all together and figured out what the issues really were (and are).

According to the letters to the editor by Clancy and Murray, Ronna-Rae’s failing was that she, or rather the Comox Valley Housing Task Force that she chaired, “didn’t provide one pair of mittens, bowl of soup, pair of socks or shelter for one needy or homeless person.” (this quote is from Murray’s letter in the May 4th edition of The Record). Well, that’s true. And there’s a good reason for that.

Charity does not solve the problems of homelessness and poverty. It perpetuates them. Over the last decade or so municipalities all over North America have come to realize that and have moved to an entirely different way of tackling the homelessness issue. It’s called Housing First. I’ll get back to that, but for the moment I need to address the issue of charity.

So what’s so appealing about charity? Why is charity so important to Murray? Well, to put it simply, charity is about the giver and not the receiver. According to Christian morality, a morality that’s infused in all of our culture whether we believe or not, charity is a way of buying our way into heaven or in secular terms it’s a way of making us feel better, a way of dealing with our guilt. This is all very complicated and requires a whole other blog post. For now, suffice it to say that charity by way of soup kitchens and shelters is fine because soup kitchens and shelters provide givers with a place to give and feel good about it. Affordable, supportive housing doesn’t do that at all so, for some people, it’s useless. The implication is that the poor are morally corrupt. We don’t want to provide them with too much help because they are responsible for their own misfortune. Mittens and soup are as far as we want to go in helping out.

I concluded some time ago after years of research that the solution to homelessness and a lot of its related consequences in mental illness, drug abuse and alienation lies not in charity but rather in a program called Housing First (Google it) that puts homeless residents in homes first where they can experience some security and peace and where they can work on their personal issues in safety with support from health professionals as needed. I’m sure Ronna-Rae Leonard agrees with me in this. Of course, in the Valley there is a huge shortage of affordable housing making the Housing First model difficult to implement.

The reality is that charity costs a lot of money. The Salvation Army Pidcock House is not cheap to operate and receives some public money. Hundreds of hours of volunteer time go into providing meals for the homeless at Saint George’s church. From what I know, most, if not all, Maple Pool residents receive government subsidies in the form of social assistance. It’s my understanding that the housing allowance of $375 per month they receive goes to the operators of Maple Pool. Hypothetically, if there are 50 residents in the Maple Pool campground that amounts to $18,750 per month. That’s money that essentially keeps residents in substandard, unsafe and unsanitary conditions with little in the way of support for addiction or mental health issues. I swear that if I had to live in conditions like those at Maple Pool I’d want to get drunk or stoned every day. What other means of escape are there? You tell me. The cost to the health system of dealing with the homeless is very high. We know that Housing First substantially reduces those costs.

As I noted above, one of the major problems we are experiencing these days is the fact that there is precious little affordable housing available in the Valley. It’s a crisis according to many front line social workers. Shelters and soup kitchens aren’t going to do anything to alleviate that problem. Because the market has not been able to build affordable housing, it’s up to the federal, provincial and municipal governments to step in and do it. We need all kinds of housing in the Valley, not just fancy, single family homes for the relatively well to do. We need affordable, supportive housing and we need it now. If we don’t do it, the cost to all of us will soon be overwhelming with social unrest, increasing crime and poor health taking more and more effort and money to manage.

People who advocate charity over supportive housing just haven’t thought the problem through carefully enough. Maybe it’s time to get serious about real solutions and not just perpetuate ways to allow charitable givers a vehicle to feel good and buy their way into heaven.