MEH…

I can’t seem to write anything very serious right now. I’ve been researching democracy and capitalism for some time, reading like crazy, and I’ve come to a number of conclusions that I need to write about, but, it’s just not coming together for me right now. It will soon enough, but right now I have to entertain myself with something a little lighter.

Usually I write my blog posts in one go. I’ll research a topic for a while or one will drop itself into my lap…top (he,he) and I’ll sit down and write. Carolyn knows when I’ve been bitten by the writing bug because I go silent and withdrawn and my full attention is on the keyboard. When she tries to talk to me, I have to keep asking “What, Pardon me?” Then, she sometimes gets impatient. I can understand that. Problem is, I’m busy and concentrating on writing sentences, whole sentences that make sense. It doesn’t always happen, but I do make an effort.

I just finished writing an essay about Kurt Vonnegut and riding a ferry to Vancouver. It’s a two thousand word non-fiction piece. I’ve probably spent 40 hours on it all told. That’s an outrageous amount of time for me to spend on any writing project these days, since I’ve been retired from the work-a-day grind. I’m not sure what I’ll do with this essay yet, but I’ll decide soon. if you don’t see it posted here it’s because I’ve done something else with it.

I’ve read many of Kurt Vonnegut’s books. I’m re-reading Hocus Pocus right now then I’ll pick up Breakfast of Champions and read that again for the third or fourth time. The guy is fucking hilarious even if his novels are always tinged with at least a modicum of sorrow. Galapagos is one of my favourite novels of his. The premise of that book is that the human race has been infected with a virus or something that prevents reproduction so that the fate of humanity is sealed within a few decades. The only survivors are on the Galapagos Islands where they were safe from infection and a million years hence they look a lot like seals and live in the sea. It’s a fun read and I wouldn’t be at all too upset if the premise of this book became a reality. We as a species are right out of control.

So, what’s the connection between Vonnegut and riding the ferry to Vancouver? Well, ferry passengers often embody in a microcosm aa lot that is absurd about human life. Vonnegut would have a field day riding the ferry although I expect he might stay in his vehicle or take a plane instead of ever getting on a ferry.

I find ferry passengers highly entertaining most of the time. Sometimes I just find them annoying. Sometimes, I draw them, like these guys:

Mostly I don’t, because it’s hard to be discreet when I’m drawing. I have to look closely at my subjects at times and if they figure out what I’m doing, it could get embarrassing. It may be, of course, that they would be delighted and offer to buy my little drawings of them but then again, probably not. They’d probably just want me to give it to them and I’m not into that so much anymore. Oh, I do give away a lot of my drawings and prints, but not in the wintertime. Don’t ask me why.

It’s certainly true that a lot of ferry passengers are hugely entertaining, and mostly not deliberately, I fear. Invariably, there are people who are outrageously dressed, at least from my perspective, and there are others who are just plain silly like young people full of themselves and too self-absorbed to care about how their behaviour is affecting others on the boat.

Given enough time, I could write little stories about every single passenger aboard any ship on any trip just based on their appearance and demeanour. I could then weave those stories into a collage of silly speculation about what ferry travellers are up to when they’re not on the boat.

For example, the guy in the second picture above was checking out his cel phone. He was on that thing for a long time. I have no idea what he was looking at, maybe it was porn, maybe he was checking his dating site, maybe he was just surfing Facebook. Who knows. I didn’t ask him. I drew him instead. He never looked up so I was in no danger of him finding out that I was drawing him. His double chin really stood out! Mine does too when I look down like that. I wish he would have had a call from somebody while he was looking at his phone. I can make up a lot of stuff about somebody by overhearing conversations. I love eavesdropping. It’s just part of what makes me a social scientist.

So, enough of this silliness for today. I’ll get downright serious soon enough and then you’ll learn a thing or two!

So much to write about: death, sex, stupidity, ignorance and all of the above together! Oh, and political economy too.

I have been fairly quiet on this blog lately. I got a cold brought to me by my grandson. I grudgingly have to say it was worth it because I saw my family in Vancouver, but I’m not a great fan of colds. I rarely get one, but when I do, it’s usually a doozy. They seem to trigger my immune disease too. Bacteria, viruses and whatnot are having a party in my arteries and veins. Sheesh. 

Anyway, I’m reading a few books at the moment, a couple on sexuality and one on universal myths around the birth of heroes in classical literature, including the bible. I’m a little slow reading right now. I tend to fall asleep after about 10 minutes, and reading in bed is a waste of time because I seem to forget most of what I’ve read by morning. Well, I do remember a lot, but not much detail. That’s fine. I can live with that. 

In any case, like I said, I have a list of topics I want to write about, but I’d sure like to hear from you about what topics you’d like me to address. If you’ve read any of my posts in the past you know that I’m all over the map. I’ve taught courses in introductory sociology, deviance, racism, love and sex, research methods, cultural and physical anthropology, Canadian history, Canadian Justice systems, study techniques, both basic and advanced. I’m an avid reader. I’ve done a lot of research in political economy, Marx, Veblen, Elias, Mills, psychoanalysis (Freud, Rank, Brown) , psychology, evolution, sexuality, nationalism, history, language, pain and mental ‘illness’, and classical studies including books on mythology, ideology, and heroism. Check out my archives. Anything you’d like me to explore further? 

I’ll tell you one thing. The post here that’s got the most hits by far is: Is Canada a Capitalist Country? Maybe I should comment on that issue a bit more. It’s one that is very difficult for people to figure out because it’s so difficult to break through the veil of ideology surrounding the relationship between nations (countries) and the capitalist modes of accumulation and production. Got any ideas?

My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 3: Writing

I write…obviously. I think I write fairly well for a French-Canadian kid from the wrong side of the tracks. That wasn’t always the case.

Of course I learned how to write when I was quite young, in elementary school. I learned early to write in French and in English. I still write in French and in English, but at the moment I write predominantly in English. However, in this blog post I don’t concentrate on the mechanics of writing. I’m more concerned here with writing as a craft, or as some would say, as an art.

I must say that I was fortunate to attend some good schools where the staff were sincerely concerned about the students and their success. I attended a French Canadian Catholic school in Maillardville*, BC close to New Westminster from 1952 until 1959. All the teachers were nuns. In 1959 I and about 40 other boys from Maillardville travelled to Edmonton to attend the Collège St-Jean. That was an excellent school where a classical education could be had. I, not being particularly brilliant at the time, failed to appreciate the good fortune I had being at such a school. Boarding with hundreds of other boys never really appealed to me, but I did okay socially. I was an especially mediocre athlete in a school that loved athletics. I pretty much failed at sports although I always participated and I failed to excel at my academic work too going from the top of my class to the bottom of my class in grade 12. I was always too self-conscious to be good at anything. Instead of going ahead and just doing things like score goals in hockey, I always had one eye on the coach concerned with what he thought of me. I had the brains and some skill along with some desire, but I was completely bereft of self-confidence. A couple of concussions I got from playing hockey probably didn’t help much either.

At Collège St-Jean students were expected to write a lot in both French and English. I managed to learn some of the basics and for some reason I loved verb conjugations in French. I studied them even when I didn’t have to. We studied Latin too and I loved Latin conjugations as much as French ones. I have no idea why. I still have in my library a book entitled 5OO French Verbs. I’ll bet you don’t have one of those. I also have a couple of Latin grammar books. Every once in a while I’ll pull one off the shelf and flip through the pages just for old times sake. I even go so far as to test my verb conjugations against the tables at the ends of the books. Now, Google has all of that online. It’s hardly any fun at all anymore. English verb conjugations are hopelessly unfun.

So, even though I was pretty much an utter failure in most of my college activities, I had some fun with language and did well in my literature and composition courses. It’s when I entered Douglas College in New Westminster in 1971 that I had to really buckle down and learn some writing skills. I struggled. Composition was not easy for me. I had to work hard at it. It seemed to take forever for me to write a term paper. At least that’s the way I felt about it. Of course, my fellow students were having as much trouble as I was, by and large, coming from the working class, but not many of us were too keen on broadcasting the fact. I busted my butt at Douglas College and ended my time there with a strong grade point average as well as eight general credits for attending Collège St-Jean in Edmonton. Douglas College was obviously impressed with the quality of the education I got at St-Jean. Simon Fraser University (SFU) went one step further than Douglas College when I applied to study there in 1973. It recognized fifteen general credits for my frankly shoddy performance at Collège St-Jean. That was the equivalent of one semester’s work. Bonus! Happy days!

SFU was mostly great but being a natural contrarian I wouldn’t see it that way most of the time I was there. I got depressed. I got anxious. I got angry. I got scared. Same as many of my fellow students. At Douglas College I found that sociology was my favourite subject so I decided to enrol in the Sociology and Anthropology Department (S&A). That was a great choice on my part. I finally did something right. I loved it and did very well in terms of grades. I still had to work hard at writing, but that was something I was willing to accept as a likely prelude to the work I would have to put into writing at any job I was to get in the future. I wasn’t happy with it, but I was resigned to not being a good writer. Still got a BA though. Grades were good too. Good enough to get into grad school, no problem. Thankfully, it was in grad school that I finally learned how to write with some fluency and ease. It was about time. Writing my dissertation proved to be the impetus for me to completely change my attitude and practice towards writing. I could not have done it without some help from a couple of amazing professors I had. I live in perpetual gratitude to Noel Dyck for working with me as a member of my committee for pushing me hard to figure out the process of writing. He’d tear my essays apart. They’d be covered in comments: “Signpost that!” “Complete your thought!” I still love him for that. Richard Coe from the English Department was also instrumental in getting me to understand the dynamics of paragraph structure and the organization of narrative. I still have his great book Toward A Grammar of Passages.

Now, writing is enjoyable for me. I can sit down and compose a thousand word blog post in an hour or two. Of course, a big part of being able to do that is to have something to write about. I think I’ve proven that I do have something to write about given the 280 blog posts I’ve put together over the years. Add to the numerous blog posts I’ve written the scores of television scripts I wrote in the 80s and 90s, a number of research reports, magazine and newspaper articles and I have a fairly impressive body of written work.

Learning how to write well has not been easy. I write now with a fair bit of ease, but that ease was birthed in anxiety and self-doubt over many years, decades even. Finally, I can say that I’m quite pleased with myself for having survived the process. I don’t look to the coach anymore to see what he thinks of me.

 

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* The history of Maillardville is interesting. It was a community of French Canadians who, for the most part, came from western Québec, close to the Ontario border, around 1909. They were brought to BC from Québec as strike breakers in a long racially-charged dispute among forestry mill owners and their white workers against an increasingly strong Asian presence in organized labour.

My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 1.

I haven’t written in these ‘pages’ for a while because I’ve been working on my ‘art’ blog and getting ready for a printmaker’s show on October 27th and 28th in Cumberland at The Convoy Club where 10 printmakers including me are showing our works and offering them up for sale. Check out my other blog at: https://rogeralbert.blogspot.com. There’s a page on it that includes most of my prints.

[Just a note about printmaking: the works offered up in this show include relief prints (woodcuts, linocuts), intaglio prints (drypoint and etchings), collographs, and serigraphs (silkscreening). All of the prints are hand made. No digital prints allowed. All of the work is complex, but some is more complex to execute than others. For example, one of my pieces called Van Duesen Dead Ivy is multi-stepped in its making. It starts with a drawing I did of ivy that I was particularly struck by on a trip to Van Duesen Gardens in Vancouver. It had been growing up a large fir tree and got very large before someone cut the vines off at the bottom of the tree in order to save the fir tree from being choked by the offending ivy. My pencil drawing was then transferred to a 15X20 inch copper plate that had been coated with resist. Resist is a material that prevents the areas covered by it from being etched by ferric chloride. I had to transfer every line, every feature of my drawing to the copper using a variety of sharp metal tools. It’s not necessary to dig into the copper at this point, just remove the resist from selected lines and areas so that the ferric chloride can etch the copper. Once the copper has had its bath in the ferric chloride, it’s ready for printing. Printing itself is a very physical activity. It requires spreading ink on the plate then wiping all of it off again. Well, not all of it. Only the ink that has not settled where the acid has etched away the copper and where the plate needs to remain white. The ink is wiped off the plate with newsprint, a physically demanding task for a plate this big. Once that’s done, the plate is placed on a press bed, paper is placed on top of the print followed by a sheet of newsprint than three blankets. If all goes well, a print is born. If all does not go well, it’s back to the drawing board… The ‘art’ cards I’ve made for this show are very simple linocut prints but each is still made by hand. I should do a YouTube video showing the process of etching but there’s a lot of them out there already. Still, that’s no excuse. There’s a lot of blogs out there too yet I still do this.]

Printmaking, particularly intaglio printmaking, requires heavy presses so I didn’t start printmaking until I had access to a printmaking studio at North Island College. Most of the ‘art’ work I have done over the years involves painting. I have done many paintings and drawings over the years. I make prints now, but I also draw using pencil and pen, I paint in oils, acrylic and watercolour and I’ve done a bit of sculpting in wood. I’ve been drawing and painting since the 1970s; printmaking and sculpting are more recent additions to my repertoire. I’ve been printmaking for a mere 30 years or so and sporadically at that. Art work has not been a central part of my life until recently.

My main adult occupation was as a college sociology instructor. That paid the bills. Writing has been a large part of my career too. I wrote television scripts for two Knowledge Network telecourses for which I was the instructor. I wrote all kinds of research reports and manuals. My ‘art’ has been with me a long time, and now that I’m retired from teaching I can spend a lot more time at it, but I could never have made a living as an artist. I’m mostly self taught although I have taken courses over the years in the art department of my college and with independent artists. I don’t hesitate to call myself a sociologist (I have the credentials). I do hesitate to call myself an artist even though I do a lot of things that artists do. I need to explain this further in another blog post. I’ve read many books on art and art history but the nature of it still eludes me. It’s clear to me that looking at a painting I’m not always looking at a work of art. Oh, I have some sense of what it is, its origins and connections to other aspects of culture, but I’m still not convinced I fully understand it.

I was not destined to be a teacher, writer, and artist. In fact my social class at birth almost precluded access to those adult pursuits. My father was functionally illiterate although highly intelligent and capable. My mother had a grade eight education in a rural school at a time when academic achievement was not considered very important for girls. As she entered adulthood, she was too busy raising children (I have fourteen siblings) to engage in any sustained artistic activities even if she had wanted to. We had very few books in the house as I was growing up. We got a television set in 1956 and that became the centre of family life after church and cards.

My grandparents migrated from Québec and New Brunswick in the early 20th Century to homestead in north-eastern Alberta. They weren’t farmers by training, but free land had its appeal. They were tradespeople and entrepreneurs. My paternal grandfather was an accomplished blacksmith and my maternal grandfather was much more inclined to start a small business than farm. He eventually ran a bakery in Bonnyville, Alberta and later, after moving to British Columbia, he owned a grocery store. Later, he returned to agriculture to some extent with a quite successful blueberry farm in Abbotsford. My father, in spite of his illiteracy, was able to rise to management positions in the lumber industry, nothing high level, but still, he became a foreman and operations manager of a fair sized wood remanufacturing plant. More important, he was a virtuoso with tools, both creating them and using them. I have no idea how he did it, but without any formal math or engineering skills, he could grind planer knives to very demanding specifications and in a variety of profiles.

I grew up in a small three bedroom house in Coquitlam. I never felt poor but I knew that we weren’t rich either compared to our doctor and dentist or even some of our neighbours like the mayor (reeve) of Coquitlam. Of course, they weren’t wealthy either on the order of a Jimmy Pattison or other corporate magnate. As I grew older, however, I came to fully understand my class position. More on that later.

So, in terms of employment my family life did nothing to prepare me for my life as a college teacher. Higher education was not a consideration in my early teens. In fact, I actually started working in the lumber industry during the summer when I was fourteen years old when my father got a job in a picket fence manufacturing plant in South Surrey, BC. and continued to work in mills and lumber yards for a few years. In a sense I was much better prepared to work in the lumber industry than at a university or college. Partly what turned me away from the lumber industry was an industrial accident requiring lower back surgery. Fortuitously, after I recovered from my surgery, I undertook a one day occupational and psychological testing program as a means of figuring out what my aptitudes might be. A couple of weeks later I got the results of the day’s testing and one of the results was that I had the aptitude to become a writer and maybe an anthropologist. Well, then, I had something to go on. I applied to attend Simon Fraser University but was turned down because of my poor high school record. So, I turned to Douglas College in New Westminster where I was accepted. I did very well there in terms of grades and after a couple of years applied to SFU and got in. Both of my degrees are from SFU.

Strangely enough, although my family had no way of relating to my career choices, it did prepare me for a sensitivity to art. Some of my siblings are wonderful at drawing and painting and one of my uncles was a brilliant artist but made a living painting street signs for a couple of different municipalities. What my family did for me without doing it deliberately at all was show me that art could infuse my life even if I couldn’t make a living at it and that artistry can be found in the studio, in the darkroom, but also at the forge, in the garden, and in the woodworking shop as well as in the kitchen.

In many ways I have had an idyllic life. I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to do so many things. Of course I’ve had my share of trauma being human and all that, but I’ve also had the privilege of learning and studying with some very fine teachers over the years and my years of teaching have been a wonder. I’ve read thousands of books, mostly in sociology and related disciplines, but I’ve also read many books on art and art history as well as novels and stories from which much learning can be had. I’ve been able to travel, canoe and hike in some of the most beautiful places on earth. I have a beautiful home. I have my family. What a gift my family has been. Nothing I say about my family can be enough. No words can express the love I feel for everyone, Carolyn, my children, their children, my brothers and sisters, their children and their children. We don’t always agree on everything, but that’s okay. Everyone’s road is different. Sometimes we do share the road. At other times not so much, but that doesn’t diminish the deep connection I feel for everyone in my family. They give meaning to everything that I do every day. On top of all that, I have my community in the Comox Valley, especially in Cumberland. I feel firmly connected to it and the natural environment here. I know about evolution and the temporality of life; I know that my life is meaningless in the cosmic sense, but I don’t live in the cosmos, I live here and now. I know that it’s a bit of a waste of energy, but I get angry at the utter disrespect some people show towards others and the natural world in which we live. Yes, I do feel love but I also feel anger. I’ve thought about this a fair bit because sometimes I feel anger welling up inside of me and I have some trouble explaining why. Anger is a very complex emotion and it is not easy to explain or dissect. I’ll give it a try though in a post coming soon to a computer near you!

Finally, in future posts I want to explore teaching, writing and art in turn as aspects of my life. I want to explore the processes involved in each activity and my journey in learning how to teach, write and ‘do’ art. As well, I will reflect on the philosophical and social underpinnings of each activity. I’m basically embarking on a bit of a retrospective examination of some major parts of my life but, like a good teacher, I expect some of you might just learn a little something by reading my work. It’s a hope I always had as a teacher with respect to my students, and that hope hasn’t died just because I’m no longer getting paid to teach!

 

 

No Post. No Cry.

I’m tired. I’ve done a lot of reading and writing in the first six months of this year and I’ve done some paintings and other kinds of art work for an auction or just because I wanted to. I’ve also spent time with my family and carry on with my volunteer work with various local non-profit societies. So, I haven’t published anything on this blog lately and I’m not apologizing for that. I haven’t been idle but nor have I felt compelled to write more words here, particularly after the blitz of writing on misogyny I carried on in the past few months.

I’ve been reading some work by Jordan Peterson and have written some commentary, but it sits unfinished. My verdict on Peterson is still out. He obviously is a guru to some and an evil misogynist to others. I can’t deny either view of him. I can, however, challenge him on his shallow analysis of people like Karl Marx, his straw man and ad hominem attacks. Peterson seems to know very little about Marx beyond textbook treatment of him yet is quite prepared to be highly critical of the man.

I’m reading a 2016 biography of Karl Marx by Gareth Stedman Jones at the moment. It’s quite good, not without its flaws, of course,  but I won’t comment on it just yet. I’ll save my comments for after my book club has read it. Should be by the end of July, beginning of August. Like all historical figures, Marx was vilified and glorified without much justification in either case. Certainly, Marx was used. More later on that.

I’m feeling myself drawn back to my long standing interest in morality and its roots. After a bit of a break I’ll get back to writing about it again. One thing is certain, I feel very strongly that the way we live determines the way we think, what we think and our general value systems. I don’t mean this in an individualistic, but in a cultural sense. We aren’t generally aware or pay attention to these things any more than fish wonder about the nature of water. Criticism, meaning the practice of dissecting a perspective, an idea, a philosophy, etc., is not something we come by naturally. Criticism and science are kin. They involve the same process. They also are considered a threat to social solidarity for some. A lot of people don’t take kindly to too close a scrutiny of their values and ideas or of their favourite organizations like their country. Sorry, folks, but that’s what I’m all about.

Sleep now.

 

 

Now, back to writing. Do you have any themes you’d like me to address here?

Time to get back to writing. Several ideas have come to mind as themes for blog posts. One is mapping. In the 1980s and 90s I taught mind mapping, a note making method created by Tony Buzan, and that spurred me to research mapping in general as a means of understanding the world using line and metaphor. That, in turn, motivated me to look into language, semantics and semiotics. That led me to the work of Alfred Korzybski and especially his book, Science and Sanity (I have a copy). He coined the famous phrase: The Map is not the Territory. It is one of the most complex books I have ever read on mapping and metaphor and destroys the myths we have about sanity, insanity, science and reality. It also dissects the idea of science. I also discovered many books by the likes of Umberto Eco (The Theory of Semiotics), Mark Johnson and George Lakoff. Lakoff and Johnson wrote one of my favourite books. It’s called Metaphors We Live By. I used all of these books – and hundreds of others, of course – extensively in my lectures. Words are metaphorical by their very nature as are maps and all representations. Dictionaries are essentially closed systems of metaphors. There’s lots more to be said on this subject, making it a strong candidate for future blog posts.

 

Another theme, one that I’ve already addressed quite a lot, is the relationship of nationalism and capitalism, especially as they relate to the rise of global finance capital and what we call globalization. The rise of global finance capital was bound to produce the kinds of backlash among the working classes of the world as labour becomes an increasingly smaller component of capitalist production. The general public tends to cling to the notion that the nation-state is a means of controlling and promoting economic production and jobs in the face of growing finance capitalist expansion. People don’t think using highfalutin terms like I use here. They do, however, know that their world of work has become more and more precarious, tenuous and fragile. They know that little by little jobs ‘Canadian’ jobs are being eliminated by automation and exportation. They don’t know that there are no “Canadian’ jobs, just jobs in the capitalist world. They have also been convinced that having a job is the way to happiness. Anyone in their right mind knows that ‘work’ is not often a means of acquiring happiness, whatever that means.

Employment is alienating, no matter how we cut it. Work, however, is a different thing and humans by their very nature are producers of goods, makers of things (homo faber).

As we get squeezed between the need to pay our rents and mortgages and the increasingly insecure labour market, something has to give. The tension brought on by ‘austerity programs’ and ‘structural adjustment programs’ imposed on debtor countries by the World Bank and other transnational organizations in cahoots with national governments will be released somehow. Can you say ‘open rebellion’ and ‘violence in the streets’? Trump’s disaffected followers are just the spark that could ignite and then fan the flames of violence in America. People will find scapegoats upon which to heap their fears because they have no idea who their real enemy is.

Part of this theme revolves around the nature of capital and the evolution of social, economic and cultural systems. This form of evolution has been a major theme in my teaching practice.

I just might pick up this theme again in future blogs.

How could I leave out sex? Of course I will deal with sex and its role in our lives in future blog posts, but I want to also consider aspects of our language around sexuality and the pornography industry in particular. Why do we so often refer to sex as dirty? And what do we make of the fact that we are born between shit and piss? How do we  culturally and psychologically address the mess that happens in labour with the wonderfulness of babies and their eventual and necessary deaths?

Contradictions abound in our cultural creations around sex and sexuality. We love the act of sex and lovemaking, but we are supposed to do it in very prescribed ways between approved partners. Tell that to teenagers with sex pheromones bleeding out of every pore of their bodies and it becomes ludicrous. Bodies will trump social rules more often than we would like to consider. Of course, sexual mores have become increasingly lax over the last few decades, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve completely vanished.

The power of what we think we know or: Marx was a dumbass, we know that!

The power of what we think we know or: Marx was a dumbass, we know that!

by Roger JG Albert

[I published this post in November of last year on another one of my blogs now defunct. I thought I’d publish it again, because I think it is relevant now.]

I write. I used to teach. I suppose that in some individual cases I may have even convinced a few people to change their minds about the way they perceived the world. Mostly my efforts are and were in vain.

Our dominant ideologies around possessive individualism, the nature of countries and what we value in life are so powerful as to frustrate and flummox the efforts of the most competent of teachers to get people to change their minds about anything. 

I’ve changed my mind a number of times in my life but generally in line with added knowledge gained from reading and researching writers and authors who compelled me to see beyond what I had previously accepted as true. I came to understand fairly early in my career that there is no absolute truth, only tentative truth which must be abandoned when confronted with superior ways of explaining things. 

For the first few years of my career as a sociologist I was a Marxist through and through. That early dedication to Marx’s work was soon tempered in many ways by the works of Harold Innis, Thorstein Veblen, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman, Ernest Becker, Otto Rank and many others. It’s been a ride. Although I’ve gone beyond Marx in many ways, I still often come back to one of Marx’s aphorisms about history in which he said (and I paraphrase): Human history will begin when we stop being so barbaric towards one another. 

He was an optimist who actually believed that this would come to pass with the eventual eclipse of class society, a time in which there would no longer be any reason to kill and exploit because of the rise of technology and the elimination of labour exploitation. 

 

Faced with the litany of accounts of death and destruction perpetrated by groups of people over the face of the earth going back millenia and it becomes difficult to accept Marx’s promise. I also being an optimist agree for the most part with Marx on this especially given globalization, the concentration of capital, the erosion of national sovereignty and the degradation of the natural world. These aren’t particularly uplifting processes for me, but they all point to a time in the future where capital will do itself in by increasingly attenuating the profit margin. 

Strangely, I write this knowing full well that the vast majority of people who on the off chance might read this will not have read Marx and will have no idea of what I’m writing about here. People are generally quick to dismiss ideas that don’t agree with their preconceived notions about things. That’s certainly true when it comes to Marx’s work. People can easily dismiss Marx (and most other fine writers in history) by thinking they know what Marx (and most other fine writers in history) argued and can therefore cheerfully scrub him (and the others) from their minds. Or they think of themselves as anti this or that, in Marx’s case ‘anti communist’ so that anything that Marx argued just cannot be ok. Mind shut, let no light enter. 

One of Marx’s most important ideas was that the division of society into classes would inevitably be relegated to the dustbin of history and along with it barbarism of all kinds. I like that idea, but ‘inevitably’ in this context will probably still be some time in the future. There’s plenty of time left for ignorant, highly suggestible “cheerful robots” (a term from C. Wright Mills) to commit mass murder or other kinds of atrocities in the name of eliminating the evil that they feel is blocking their prosperity or their road to heaven. 

Probably the most influential writer for me over the last 40 years of my career has been Ernest Becker.  His little book Escape From Evil published in 1975 after his untimely death in 1974 of cancer at the age of 49, has most profoundly influenced my way of thinking and seeing the world. Escape from Evil, in my mind contains all the knowledge one would ever need to explain the bloody massacre in Paris on November 13th or all the other atrocities ever committed by us towards others and vice-versa over the last 10,000 years, or for the time of recorded history, and probably even further back. It’s all there for anyone to read. But people won’t read it and even if they do, they will read it with bias or prejudice and will be able to dismiss it like they dismiss everything else that doesn’t accord with their ideology or interests. And there’s the rub.

It’s people’s interests rather than their ideas that drive their capacity to change their minds. Change the way people live and you just may change the way they think. It doesn’t work very well the other way around. 

Given Marx’s long term view on barbarism and senseless violence we cannot hope for much in the short term. We just have to wait it out. Of course our actions speak louder than our words, so within the bounds of legality, it’s not a bad idea in my mind to oppose talk that can incite some unbalanced people among us to violent action. It’s also a good idea to support peaceful solutions to conflict rather than pull out the guns at the first sign of trouble. Violence can easily invite violence in retaliation. We can resist that. It’s tough when all we want to do is smack people for being so ignorant and senselessly violent, but we can forgive rather than fight, tough as that may be. Turn the other cheek as some historical figure may have said at one point a couple of millenia ago. 

We will be severely challenged in the years to come to keep our heads as globalization increasingly devalues our labour and the concentration of wealth makes for more and more poverty. Sometime, somewhere we will have to say enough is enough and mean it in spite of the forces trying to divide us. We can regain our humanity even though it’s tattered and in shreds at the moment. It’s either that or we won’t have much of a future on this planet.