Category Archives: Moral Humility

No monopoly on Truth

 

 

It is strongly implied from the analysis of John Stuart Mill, that whenever we are involved in a dispute we should remember it is very likely, though not certain, that there is some truth to the position of our opponent.  Most disputes between competing doctrines and opinions work exactly like that, but too often we tend to forget that. I know I have too often forgotten that. I need to see the other side of a question. I may reject most of it, but if I reject all of it, I am likely making a serious mistake. The truth is usually shared as Mill said. Looking for all of the truth on one side of a serious debate is short-circuiting the search for truth. That is why we must welcome diversity of opinion and listen to all sides. Only then will we find the whole truth and not just a partial truth. That is why free speech is so important for society. Free speech is a human right, but it is more than that. It is also a social good.

 

Mill gave one more example, which I also liked. He talked about liberals and conservatives. There is often truth on both sides, though perhaps not equally balanced. Mill said,

 

“In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away.  Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reasons and sanity. Unless opinion favorable to democracy and aristocracy, to property and to equality, to co-operation and competition, to luxury and to abstinence, to sociality and individuality, to liberty and to discipline, and all the other standing antagonisms of practical life, are expressed with equal freedom, and enforced and defended with equal talent and energy, there is not a chance of both elements getting their due; one scale is sure to go up and the other down. Truth in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of reconciling and combining opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners. On any of the great open questions just enumerated, if either of the two opinions has a better claim than the other, not merely to be tolerated, but to be encouraged and countenanced, it is the one which happens at the particular time and place to be in a minority. That is the opinion which, for the time being, represents the neglected interests, the side of human well-being which is in danger of obtaining less than its share. I am aware that there is not, in this country, any intolerance of differences of opinion on most topics. They are adduced to show, by admitted and multiplied examples, the universality of the fact, that only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth.  When there are persons to be found who form an exception to the apparent unanimity of the world on any subject, even if the world is in the right, it is always probable that dissentients have something worth hearing to say for themselves, and that truth would lose something by their silence.”

 

 

Even if there are few contrary voices (as in the case of Rousseau versus the Enlightenment above) we ought always to pay attention and respect to the voice of the dissenter. Otherwise there is, as Mill said, “not a chance of both elements getting their due.”  The rebel is critically important, even when we least expect it. It is virtually impossible for one side to capture 100% of the truth. Let the rebel help us to find what is missing for the winning side will always benefit.

 

This approach of always making room for the rebel opinion has a lot of worth. It is only if one side is infallible that we can escape this approach. Infallibility is unlikely ever to be found. I wish it were otherwise.  But one side rarely holds the entire truth. It can always benefit from some overlooked truth from the other side.

 

In today’s market place of ideas, acknowledging that the other side might have some truth is deeply unpopular. This is particularly true in the United States where to merely acknowledge the other side might have a point is considered traitorous. Members of the group are quick to jump on anyone who even hints at compromise with the wicked other.  In many places in Canada this is also all too common.

 

Mill also wants us to understand that this approach applies to all important issues, not just religious issues, because no side ever has a monopoly on truth. II really think Mill has found a key here in these 3 important propositions that all call for permitting—no encouraging—diversity of opinion. It is the closest we can come to a royal road to the truth.

I must admit that I find this amazingly well argued. How about you?

Surrounded by Fearful Sycophants

 

Did you see the cringe worthy (and binge worthy) scene where Putin lined up his advisors at a long table (always at a very long table to keep the riff raff away from the god) and asked them for their opinions about the war against Ukraine? When one of those advisors was insufficiently obeisant, Putin mocked him and made him retract his slight disagreement and replace it with absolute obedience.  Of course, the only advice Putin wanted was to be told how smart he was. And that is the problem that dictators have.  They cannot accept that they might be wrong. They have no moral humility.

 

Trump was the same way, when he demanded his “advisors” fawn over him.  The only advice he needed from them was to say how great he was. I wouldn’t call Trump a dictator, but he sure was an authoritarian. And authoritarians—by definition—tolerate no dissent. None. And that is their Achilles heel. And that is Putin’s Achilles heel. And that is the Achilles heel of many Republicans, because they too have given up on democracy. They have become authoritarians. They want to decide what we should do. That is made clear by their brazen attempts to rig the upcoming elections in the US. A real believer in democracy would not do that. And to the extent the Democratic Party in the US has also tried to rig elections, they are not believers in democracy either.

 

Republicans in the US have lavished their praise on Putin. Trump called Putin “savvy” and a “genius.” Putin was his kind of strong man. A man who tolerated no obstacles to his relentless will.  Now many of us are starting to realize that Putin is no genius. Trump was wrong about that. The problem with Russia is precisely that “it is ruled by a man who accepts no criticism and brooks no dissent.” That is how Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman described him. That is what authoritarians do. It is part of their DNA and that is why it is so unwise of conservatives to bow before Putin.

 

Why is the American right wing so enamoured of brutal dictators? It is not just Donald Trump either.  This love affair began before the rise of Trump. Part of this comes from the love of strongmen. Paul Krugman described this in the following manner:

“Some of this dictator-love reflected the belief that Putin was a champion of anti-wokeness — someone who wouldn’t accuse you of being a racist, who denounced cancel culture and “gay propaganda.”

 

Many American conservatives despise what they call cancel culture, even though they are keen practitioners of it. Many of them also see acquiescence to acknowledging LBGTQ rights as an abomination ushered in by the devil. Many believe that it is weak and feminine to cede any rights to them. In fact, conservative attitudes are a product of toxic masculinity which they can’t give up. Putin is their hero. As Krugman said,

 

“Sarah Palin declared that he wrestled bears while President Barack Obama wore “mom jeans” — and the apparent toughness of Putin’s people. Just last year Senator Ted Cruz contrasted footage of a shaven-headed Russian soldier with a U.S. Army recruiting ad to mock our “woke, emasculated” military.”

 

That was one of the reasons Trump trusted Russian intelligence more than America’s. They were tough. Of course, many Republicans just plain prefer authoritarian rule. They lust for it. And there was no bigger fan that Trump. As Krugman said,

 

“Just a few days ago Trump, who has dialed back his praise for Putin, chose instead to express admiration for North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Kim’s generals and aides, he noted, “cowered” when the dictator spoke, adding that “I want my people to act like that.

 

Trump actually said that. But we must remember that what Trump admires is not strength, nor is it smart. First, by now it seems that the Russian army is not as powerful as we thought. They have a huge advantage in fire power, but are not translating that into huge gains on the ground. They might still get them, but not yet.

 

But the real problem for Putin is that he is surrounded by sycophants. Trembling yes men are never a reliable source of advice. No smart business man wants that. And that is what Russia has for political and military leadership. They have all learned to toe the line. None of them seems capable of independent thought. Even though Trump is impressed with meek obeisance it is not a ladder to success. It is a slide to oblivion. That means Putin has to make the important decisions on his own.

 

Krugman put it this way:

“The invaders were also clearly shocked by Ukraine’s resistance — both by its resolve and by its competence. Realistic intelligence assessments might have warned Russia that this might happen; but would you want to have been the official standing up and saying, “Mr. President, I’m afraid we may be underestimating the Ukrainians”?

 

We actually saw an example of such cringing meekness to the great leader when the lone advisor who did not automatically tell Putin what Putin wanted to hear, was immediately humiliated by the grand leader. Putin publicly made  him retract his doubts.

 

For example, Putin thought that his $630 billion war chest would protect the country from western sanctions. He did not believe that the western leaders had the guts to impose them. That was not an entirely unreasonable presumption, but it turned out to be wrong.  Now they have learned that  cutting off Russian from the world’s banking system was brutally effective. As Krugman said,

 

“It shouldn’t have required deep analysis to realize that Putin’s $630 billion in foreign exchange reserves would become largely unusable if the world’s democracies cut off Russia’s access to the world banking system. It also shouldn’t have required deep analysis to realize that Russia’s economy is deeply dependent on imports of capital goods and other essential industrial inputs.

 

But again, would you have wanted to be the diplomat telling Putin that the West isn’t as decadent as he thinks, the banker telling him that his vaunted “war chest” will be useless in a crisis, the economist telling him that Russia needs imports?”

 

Democracies are incredibly inefficient but they have one incredible advantage over autocracies.  The leader doesn’t have to do it all on his own. As Krugman concluded:

 

“The point is that the case for an open society — a society that allows dissent and criticism — goes beyond truth and morality. Open societies are also, by and large, more effective than closed-off autocracies. That is, while you might imagine that there are big advantages to rule by a strongman who can simply tell people what to do, these advantages are more than offset by the absence of free discussion and independent thought. Nobody can tell the strongman that he’s wrong or urge him to think twice before making a disastrous decision.

 

Which brings me back to America’s erstwhile Putin admirers. I’d like to think that they’ll take Russia’s Ukraine debacle as an object lesson and rethink their own hostility to democracy. OK, I don’t really expect that to happen. But we can always hope.”

 

I am not saying the Ukrainians will defeat the Russian bear. After all the Russians have massive military  advantages and are led by a leader with no moral hesitations. I am just saying there are also some significant advantages enjoyed by democracies. And they might make a difference.

 

Tragic Wisdom of Cornel West

 

In my last post I talked about Cornel West’s tragic vision which was enriched by the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi who wanted to find truth for the sweet ship-wrecked mind. I also mentioned in that post that the philosopher Jeff Sharlet talked about his friend Cornel West. Sharlet talked about how West maintains optimism when, as West himself has said, “we are immersed in a culture of superficial spectacle that generates weapons of mass destruction?” That is a bleak view.

 

How can West remain optimistic in the face of it? West according to Sharlet said “hope is not predicated on the future getting any better. That is the difference between hope and optimism.” West reminds us that he comes from a people that were terrorized, stigmatized, and traumatized for 400 years! They have learned a lot about trauma and know a thing or two about dealing with.

 

West, who is proudly African American, pointed out that it would have been natural for slaves in such a position to lose hope.  He did not say there was an easy way out. As if there could be an easy way out of slavery. West said many of his people just decided they would live a life of honesty, decency and integrity no matter what happened. They took the position that this is what they are called here to do and said to themselves we will just do it. They had no choice. They were not “immigrants” to North America as Ben Carson suggested.  They had been brought to this continent in the most brutal way imaginable. This reminds me again of my mother who had a little framed saying on her wall in her small apartment she lived in before she died: “This is all I have so this is all I need.”

 

West says he tries to emulate that response to injustice even when it seems impenetrable. Sometimes there is nothing he can do about it.  Whether there are consequences that flow from that choice to make this a better a world or not is beyond his control. He will just do his part no matter what. What a great attitude. “There does not have to be a direct connection between being a decent person and there being more decency prevalent in the world,” West told Sharlet.  Sometimes In some moments in history things happen that we cannot control it. That does not mean we should not choose to live a decent life. We just dissent from the injustice if that is all we can do.

 

West said he learned a lot from the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who West calls the greatest literary artist of the late modern world. According to West’s interpretation, “Chekhov said it is just a matter of bearing your truth to the world and doing all you can in your brief journey from Mama’s womb to tomb. We should try to pass that on to the next generation.”

 

West also warned that we might be headed towards an environmental implosion. Corporate greed (fueled by individual demands)  makes it difficult to have a conversation about important issues. If there is no way to fundamentally overthrow or transform the greed of oligarchs and plutocrats, supported by their minions,  and if the patriarchy wants to continue to obliterate women, if straights want to continue to dominate the gays and lesbians and transsexuals, they will do that. I don’t have to be a part of that he says. I can resist. I might not change the world, but I can be a decent person if I choose to be one. The white world can continue to be hegemonic and racist, our mistreatment of indigenous peoples can carry on, but let them carry it on without us. As West said to Sharlet, “I still want to be a person who fights against the period, and I want to fight with others, and if we lose so be it.”  We have no guarantees. What an inspiring thoughtful man! As an indigenous woman at the University of Winnipeg where I heard West speak, told him, “you uplift my spirit.”

 

T.S. Eliot was according to West a right-wing ideologue. But he acknowledged, that even right-wing ideologues have to be right once in awhile. Eliot got it right when he said, in the Quartets, “Ours is in the trying. The rest is not our business.” We are only here to bear witness and to try as much as we can. Or as Samuel Becket said, “Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”

 

West, who also said he wants to teach people how to die, asked us to consider what people will say about us. At our funeral will they say we failed?  We made misjudgments. We made mistakes. Hopefully they will see we tried, we held on, we did the best we could. As West said, “We are not pure, but will we lead a trail behind us of integrity, honesty, decency?  If so we have not really failed at all.”

 

To Cornel West resistance to evil is a religious imperative.  He always comes back to religion. He does not waste time talking to us about a personal relationship to Jesus. Instead, he says this is a world of overwhelming oppression, deception, insults, attacks, and brute force repression but will we resist? That is what it is all about for West. We have to rebel against it. But that’s enough. It is enough.

 

Statistics of the War in Afghanistan

 

Mark Twain once said, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” But there are also some statistics that are pretty darn telling.

Here are some interesting statistics about the war as of mid-April 2021.

The American war in Afghanistan cost a lot of treasure. At least a trillion and maybe more, but when it gets to figures like that my eyes glaze over anyway. Whether it was one trillion or two or three who really cares. But importantly, lives.  The war lasted 20 years. The longest war in US history.  And we must remember the US has been in a lot of wars.

2,442 US troops died in the war.  3,800 American private security forces died. I found it interesting that more private American soldiers died than regular military.  It “paid off” for Americans to outsource the war as much as possible. After all who feels sorry for private security forces?

20,666 Americans were injured in the war. Much of the suffering of war is caused by injury. People came back from the war with all kinds of injuries including, of course, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Even though no one in the west really pays attention to this, but 47,245 Afghans died in the war. This is really the most important number though people in the west pay so little attention to it. This of course followed the 10-year war with Russia.  The people have Afghanistan have suffered enormously. That much is clear from the numbers.

 

That is a lot of suffering.

Now for the question:  What was worth so much suffering?

 

Afghanistan: One of the Dumb Wars

 

I know some people can’t stand Bill Maher.  He is a comedian and often doesn’t allow his guests to speak. He likes to hear himself speak. Too much. But he does have some fascinating guests and interesting conversations. Recently, he had one with Craig Whitlock about the war in Afghanistan—a genuine debacle.

The war in Afghanistan originally had some semblance of a rationale. Not much but some. George W. Bush launched that war in response to the attack on the US on September 11, 2001. He like so many others thought Afghanistan was harbouring the terrorists who launched the attack on America at the Twin Towers on 9/11 and other American targets.

The US spent over $2 trillion on this war? What did it get out of it? Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan not Afghanistan.

Craig Whitlock was interviewed by Bill Maher on his TV show. He was the author of a book called The Afghanistan Papers.  He pointed out how the Taliban within about a week of taking over are banning music again. Women have been told to go home. As Maher said, “The Taliban have said the women will have all their rights within the limits of Islam–which is a great way of saying none.”  Maher says he is always surprised at how little liberals in America don’t care how women are treated in so many countries around the world. “We got into the mindset that Bin Laden is in Afghanistan so we gotta go there and stay there until we can say it will never happen again and which of course means we will be there forever.”

70% of the people in the country were not alive during the reign of the Taliban.  Do they know what they are getting in for?

One of the surprising and sad things about the war in Afghanistan is how similar it was to the War in Vietnam. As Maher said,  “It’s like we just did this shit and then we did it again,” One generation forgets what the last one did. In America they should start teaching history in school, that might help.

Whitlock’s book has a theory of the war that is like what happened in Vietnam. The leaders were optimistic in public and pessimistic (realistic) in private. They didn’t tell the truth to the American public–again. That is exactly what the American military and political leaders did throughout the War in Vietnam and then repeated it in the War in Afghanistan.

According to Whitlock this is what they did right from the start of the war. Donald Rumsfeld the Secretary of Defense  mocked journalists who asked if this would be another Vietnam. 6 months into the war he sent a memo to his military chiefs saying if we don’t get a plan to stabilize Afghanistan our troops will get stuck there forever. He ends the memo like this with one word: “Help!” Sounds a lot like Vietnam doesn’t it.

Should he not have considered this before he committed the troops to the invasion? According to Whitlock this went on for years. In public the leaders said things are getting better, we’re making progress, we’re turning the corner. In private diplomatic cables and memos they admitted things are a mess in Afghanistan–which is exactly what they were. The same thing happened in Vietnam. “They knew that gradually things are slipping out of their grasp and it’s becoming unwinnable.”

Maher was very upset with President Barack Obama.  Obama said he was not against all wars. Some are justified. I would add–not many. Obama said, but I am against dumb wars. That was smart! We all should be. Too many are not. After Maher heard Obama say that  he said, ‘that’s my guy.’ Yet Maher also asked, “How could a guy that was that bright do what we were trying to do? Surge? Take over the country? Flood it with money and that would change things around, when really it was doing just the opposite?”

When Obama ran for office he said Iraq was the dumb war. That was true. It was dumb. Even dumber than the ear in Afghanistan, but that does not diminish the fact that the Afghan war also stupid. The Americans soon forgot their goal which was to get bin Laden and somehow switched to nation building. Obama said Afghanistan was the just cause. And that made some sense, because bin Laden launched his attack or at least trained soldiers in Afghanistan. It was originally a war of self defense. That was why Canada and other NATO countries joined in as they felt they had to do under the NATO Treaty. Canada under Chretien wisely declined to participate in the second Iraq war. The first Iraq war, again, made some sense.

Why did the war not end when bin Laden was killed?  Instead the Americans allowed the war to morph into this idea that they would build the democratic nation of Afghanistan. As Maher said, “It morphed into nation building. It morphed into this ridiculous idea, as in Vietnam, that we could change hearts and minds when by the things we were doing there, you only lose hearts and minds.”

As Whitlock said,

“Each president–Bush, Obama, and Trump–said we are not nation building in Afghanistan., even though at that very moment that is exactly what we were doing. The United States spent more than $100 billion nation building in Afghanistan. That’s more than we spent in Europe on the Marshall Plan after World War II and now it’s all gone up in smoke.”

That was dumb and many lives were lost on its account.

Time for some humility

 

I seem to have been on a bit of a high horse lately. I have an excuse. A poor one. I was set off by the anti-vaxxers in Steinbach. None of them showed any humility, but that is hardly an excuse for me to do the same. A good friend told me  how often I had used the word “idiot” lately to describe those who don’t agree with me. It wasn’t pretty.

 

Then on the way home yesterday day I drove by a church that had a sign out front of the church that read: “Imagine how much you could do today with some humility and listening.”  Wise words from a local church. Those words stung. It was time for me to take note.

 

Name calling is rarely useful. My excuse (again a poor one) was that I was not trying to convince those who disagreed with me, but rather trying to persuade others that we had been too kind and gentle with anti-vaxxers. It was time to give them a shorter leash, I thought.

 

A cousin of mine—a wise cousin—reminded me recently we had to be kind in this time of pandemic. I agree entirely with her. We always have to be kind. I don’t think I was kind. Kindness is important. Rudeness is bad and counterproductive.

I am not renouncing my positions on vaccines and the anti-vaxxers. I continue to believe that they are profoundly mistaken and they need to be called out for their opposition.

I also think we have to make judgments. We must make clear where we stand. This is, I believe, is one of those times, but we can make judgments with kindness. Kindness is always important. So is humility. It’s time for some humility. It is time for all of us to do better. Especially me.

Not as Smart as Horses?

 

I have been criticized by some for my use of intemperate words such as “idiots.” They say this doesn’t help to have respectful dialogue.  They are no doubt right. But sometimes it is hard to do the right thing.

Yet, we must face the problem of vaccine resistance firmly and up front. We can’t pussy foot around the issue either. Frankly, we are facing a serious health pandemic that is driven now by some very poor choices—namely the decision not to take vaccines that are obviously helping and beneficial. Such choices are unwise. I would say they are largely ignorant choices though some people cannot take vaccines for good reasons. We must accommodate them.

The evidence now based on actual experience and not just scientific studies is very clear. As Canada’s Chief Public Health officer said, speaking of the Covid-19 approved vaccines: “unvaccinated people are 12 times more likely to be infected and 36 times more likely to be hospitalized if they get infected.” Is that not enough evidence? What more does anyone need?

Surely now, one would think, people would be flocking to take the vaccines?  If one thought that, one would have thought wrong. Again, as I have been saying, it shows that anti-vaccine beliefs are as unshakable as religious beliefs.

Even though new scientific evidence, shows that

“New Modelling released by Tam Friday showed if the current rate of transmission of Covid-19 remains the same, Canada would see more than 15,000 new cases Canada was seeing on average at the height of the third wave, through so far hospitalizations are not rising as quickly as they did in spring’.

 

That tempering of bad news of course is because of the effectiveness of the vaccines. We would be doing much worse if it were not for the vaccines. It could also be much better if more people took the vaccines.

People who don’t believe in the vaccines are stubborn—as stubborn as horses. Are they smarter than horses?

So, what have people who don’t believe in science taken instead of the scientifically approved vaccines that have been shown safe and effective by the actual experience of more than a billion people?  The answer is astoundingly unbelievable—a medicine used to kill parasites in horses! Ivermectin. No science fiction writer could a have invented something so insane. Does this not qualify as stupid?

As reported originally in the Washington Post,

“Doctors and public health officials say they have spent the pandemic fighting rampant misinformation on top of a deadly virus, but the ivermectin craze is one of their strangest battles yet. Promoted by conservative talk show hosts, politicians and even some physicians as an effective treatment for COVID-19, the medication has soared in popularity this year despite having no proven anti-viral benefits — and also some clear harms when abused. Prescriptions of the anti-parasitic medication, used to treat river blindness and intestinal roundworms in people, have spiked during the pandemic and especially this summer, jumping from an average of 3,600 weekly prescriptions in the year before the pandemic, to more than 88,000 in one week in August, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

 

Who would take anti-worming medication approve for livestock instead of vaccines approved for people? Is it not fair to say ignorant people?

The Washington Post article reported the Food and Drug Administration was reported as saying:

“Health departments are warning of spikes in ivermectin poisoning and hospitalizations as people snap up feed store products meant for large animals. “You are not a horse,” the Food and Drug Administration felt compelled to declare last month. “You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.”

Can you imagine, some of the people were surprised that they got sick from taking the medication designed for horses and cows?

Is language that these people that are making choices that are “ignorant” or even “stupid” too strong?  I believe in humility and kindness, I really do, but sometimes it is difficult.

The Plague: A Little Hero

 

 

The first book I have selected as a classic to be re-read is one I read a lifetime ago. Perhaps 45 years ago. I noticed the price tag on the back. I paid 85 cents for this book and have kept it for about 50 years. Not bad. It is high time to return to it.

The Plague, written by Albert Camus, is of course a highly appropriate choice as I and so many others are at this time basically in quarantine facing a plague of COVID-19 that is spreading around the world filling people with dread.

In the novel Camus tells the story of Oran, a city in Algeria, and its people, as they suffer through an epidemic—a plague. Like us they were quarantined in their town amid fear and trembling. Now that many of us have been sequestered in various ways already, for many of us, for more than a month with no end in sight. So we know how the people of Oran felt. We feel like that now.

On one level the novel is a book about that plague and how the people of the town are afflicted by it, resist it, and help each other through it. That really is enough, but there is more to it than this. Much more. It is a novel of ideas. Many ideas. Too many to cover in a short review. I will confine myself to just a couple in this review.

Some critics have suggested that the plague of the novel is a symbol of Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War and the French resistance to it. I have no doubt it is that, but that is not all. It is a symbol of all totalitarian regimes and those who revolt against them around the world. In fact it is a symbol of all oppression and the people who fight it.

Camus was famous for saying he believed in limits. Oppression had to be resisted with limits. He was opposed to politics without limits such a totalitarian dreams which he firmly believed led to the gallows or the guillotine. As a result, he said the hero of the resistance was not the great revolutionary.

Camus basic belief is it was best to be modest and humble. He was deeply suspicious after the rise of totalitarianism in Europe after World War I. He thought it was grand designs that led to totalitarianism or murder. Like Bob Dylan said, “You don’t count the dead with God on your side.” If you are about to bring about heaven on earth, as Marxists believed, any actions, no matter how horrendous were justified in the name of that magisterial distant goal.

Camus rejected all that in favour of humility or modesty. He is satisfied if he can accomplish small good. That is good enough. He doesn’t expect to be a Saint. 

In the book Tarrou used to have grand schemes to be saint, but he gave those up.  He has no grand design any more.  He just wants to help without doing anything to assist someone else in being killed.

Tarrou earlier said he was working towards being a saint. That was his goal. He never achieved it. As a result this is what Tarrou said about the plague to his friend Dr. Rieux:

“That, too is why this epidemic has taught me nothing new, except that I must fight it at your side…each of us has the plague within him: no one, no one on earth, is free from it.”

Later Tarrou says,

“I’ve learnt modesty: All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t judge if it’s simple, but I know it’s true. You see, I’d heard such quantities of arguments, which very nearly turned my head, and turned other people’s heads enough to make them approve of murder; and I’d come to realize that all our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language…there are pestilences and there are victims; no more than that…That’s why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victim’s side…”

Rieux asked Tarrou if he knew the path to peace? Tarrou replied “the path of sympathy.” Again no grand designs, no plan to save the world, just follow the path of sympathy and use plain clear language to get there.”

The path of sympathy or fellow feeling seems simple. Camus tries to make it so. But he knows it is not always simple. For example, throughout the book Rambert, a newly wed, was trying to get back together with his wife who was stuck on the other side of the wall surrounding the town. He tries a few times and fails. Then near the end, it is arranged. He can escape. But Rambert changes his mind and stays back to help Rieux to help the victims. Did he do the right thing?

Rambert says no, “For nothing in the world is it worth turning back on what one loves yet that is what I’m doing—though why I don’t know.” To this Rieux responds, ‘a man can’t cure and know at the same. So let’s cure as quickly as we can. That’s the more urgent job.”

Dr. Rieux and Paneloux, the Catholic Priest have a discussion on similar lines:

Paneloux say to Rieux, “Perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.” It is the typical religious response but Rieux does not buy it. He replies, “No Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day, I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” Paneloux then thinks Rieux wants grace. Rieux does not accept this either. He wants a simpler more clear answer. “We’re working side by side for something that unites us—beyond blasphemy and prayers. And it’s the only thing that matters.” Paneloux jumps on this and claims, “Yes, Yes, you too are working for man’s salvation.” Dr. Rieux won’t have that either. He says,

“Salvation’s much to big a word for me. I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with man’s health and for me his health comes first.”

Later Rieux adds this: “I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is—being a man.”

Rieux did not want to be a saint. He believed,

“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”

Camus always fears the logical murderer that he found in his book The Rebel. That is the person who comes up with a big plan and then kills to bring it about. That is what the totalitarians did  in Russia and Germany.  Rieux looked for no grand designs for they could lead to such colossal murders as in the camps of the totalitarians. He wanted more modest goals. He believed the hero was the man with humility.

The man the narrator in the novel looked to as an example or ideal was called Grand. But he was not grand. He was modest. He was “a little hero.” And to Camus that was always the best kind. The Saint with grandiose goals often led to mass slaughter.

Grand was the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups. He had said ‘Yes” without a moments hesitation and with the large-heartedness that was a second nature with him. All he asked was to be allotted light duties…When Rieux thanked him with some warmth for his contribution Grand seemed surprised. ‘Why, that’s not difficult. Plague is here, and we’ve got make a stand, that’s obvious. Ah, I only wish everything were as simple!’

In Camus’ world as in Rieux’s world, the humble man of virtue is the hero not the one who creates the grand designs to save the world. As the narrator said of Grand, “a hero…this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth it’s due.” We don’t need heroes or saints when we have people like Grand.

2 Popes

 

 

This is a movie about something that could never happen in American politics–2 leaders with deep disagreements finding something elusive–common ground.

In 2005 Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and was summoned to Vatican City in Rome after the death of Pope John Paul II so that the new Pope could be selected. The process of picking a new Pope is arcane.  The people have no say. The decision is made by a group of old men, Cardinals of the Catholic Church. No women vote nor ordinary people. One would think such a system could never work. What could be more undemocratic than that? Yet the Roman Catholic Church has survived for 2 thousand years. Any institution that can last that long deserves some respect. In any event, the Cardinals selected German Cardinal Josephy Ratzinger, and he become Pope Benedict. Cardinal Bergoglio, who later became Pope Francis  came second in the vote. The two priests could hardly be more dissimilar.

7 years later Bergoglio has submitted his resignation, but the Vatican has not responded. The resignation cannot be completed unless Pope Benedict approve its. And he hesitates?The Pope and perhaps his biggest critic from inside the Church meet at the Popes grand Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of Popes.

Like American politicians the two churchmen quickly find things to disagree about. But unlike the politicians they debate severely without corrosive rancor. When they are unable to find a way out, they gently agree to disagree.

Bergoglio comments that the churches of Europe are beautiful but empty. Pope Benedict, a traditionalist, opines that “change is compromise.”  It is attitudes like that which make the Church so rigid. How can you improve on perfection? At the end of their first discussion, Pope Benedict says, “I disagree with everything you say.”

Yet, again, unlike so many politicians, they have more respectful discussions. For example, Bergoglio also complains, when seeing refugees on television that we are seeing the “globalization of indifference.” He also says, “Mercy is the dynamite that breaks down walls.”  If only more of our political leaders had such wisdom.

How can you make a good movie out of respectful discussions? It seems impossible, but I would suggest that is what people actually crave and get so rarely. I must admit I found it a great pleasure. I must admit I also enjoyed watching 2 Popes watch a soccer game on television while Pope Benedict drank Fanta.

They even argue about truth. If these were politicians neither would admit any truth in the other’s position.  Pope Francis takes a different approach. He says, “Truth may be vital, but without love it is unbearable.”

Eventually despite a deep chasm between these 2 men, common ground is found. Pope Benedict says to  Bergoglio, that although he was waiting for the voice of God, he heard that voice through him. These 2 men may have been selected by a process that makes about as much sense as the election of American Presidents through the Electoral College , but yet they managed to see more than a devil in the other. I wish more of our leaders could do that. I also wish more of us could learn from these 2 elders.

Social Democracy v. Socialism

 

We heard some Conservative Americans on the radio complaining about the rise of socialism. To them “socialism” is a very dirty word. It is about on par with child molester. I really think the issue of socialism will be very important in the next Presidential and Congressional elections.I hope so.  Many Conservatives think the Democrats are handing them the next election because they are going so radical. Is that true?

I know Trump has already been active in referring to the Democrats as leftists, or, even worse, radical socialists. They point in particular to Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and worst of all–the Green New Deal. Talk about a bevy of boogey men. Republicans think they are being handed the next election on a platter. As a result I think it is a good idea for us to be clear about what a socialist is and is not.

What is a socialist?  This is not as clearly defined as one might like. When I went to university we defined a socialist as a person who believed that the means of production should be owned by public. That does not mean there should be no private property, but I still think it goes too far.  I thought the definition had changed since then, but I have not found a better one. According to this definition, a socialist believes the infrastructure of production–such as factories, businesses, and the like should be socially owned, not privately owned.  In this sense of the word I have never been a socialist. Even in the days of my misspent youth.

I have been more attracted to the term “social democrat.” I would say that a social democrat is one who believes that the public should have significant control (not ownership) of the important private property, such as the means of production, but including other things–that can have a substantial impact on society.  Social democrats don’t want to own all these things. But they do want society to have social control exercised in a democratic manner over the vital instruments of social influence. This includes the means of production but many other things as well. “Democratic” means are important to distinguish Social Democrats from Communists. Communists clearly demonstrated how things go awry when democratic means are abandoned. Without democracy the apparatchiks are as bad as the capitalists.That control must be used for significant social goods, such as greater equality (not absolute equality), greater freedom, and greater fraternity. These are really the goals of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Some aspects will have to be controlled fairly tightly. Others hardly at all. The amount of control will vary greatly depending on how influential the instruments are and how pernicious their effects.

Social democrats don’t have a strict ideological position on what needs to be socially controlled and what not. As a result social democrats don’t have a principle such as ‘that government is best which governs the least’—the principle of libertarians and neoliberals.  Nor do Social Democrats believe by rote that people should be allowed to do anything provided it does not harm other people–classic liberalism. The people will democratically decide from time to time, how much control to exercise in particular circumstances and this can always be debated freely in each case under consideration. Social Democrats, unlike Socialists, Communists, or neo-conservatives are not governed by rigid ideology but by rational decision making on a case by case basis based on evidence, data, and careful thinking.

Social Democrats will not hesitate to use government as the means to their social democratic ends. Social Democrats do their best to keep out bias in decision-making. Social Democrats don’t have a recipe; they have a technique–i.e. reasoning based on the best evidence, analysis, and logical reasoning. These goals are humble and modest. That is one of the reasons I like them. Those are some of the reasons I call myself a social democrat.