Category Archives: Polarization

West Side Story 

 

West Side Story is a remake of a classic film that I had never seen before. Let me confess, I have never been very keen on musicals. Is that actually pretty dumb? I admit I enjoyed this film a lot.

I found it interesting that this film is not unlike Belfast.  Both films deal with hate of one group against another coupled with demands from zealots in the group to amplify hatred rather than finding a resolution. Some people don’t want to find solutions; they want to fight. both films have a boy and girl from each group attracted to each other.  Both have outstanding production values.

The West side story is really an ancient oft repeated story, but it is no less important for that. It is a crucially important theme. Many times we have learned that we have not learned enough about it because we keep creating a trap for young lovers and others.  The background to the film is  is the enmity between 2 gangs in New York and the lovers caught in the melee.

The first line from Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliette, which explores the same theme,  makes a very important point in its opening paragraph:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

 

And that is the point—two groups that are actually very similar hate each other and draw blood, making unclean hands. And for what purpose? Very often as Shakespeare said, the two groups are alike. Sometimes the more alike the more vicious the fighting.

In that play it was the Montagues and the Capulets and the dynamite created when a young girl from one family and a boy from the other fell in love with each other.  The issue was the same as the issue in this film. Can the hatred keep the lovers apart? What is more powerful , love or hate? In this film it was the Jets against the Sharks, but it could just as well be the Catholics and the Protestants as in the  other film nominated for best film, Belfast. It could just as well be the Conservatives and Liberals, Republicans and Democrats, Russians and Ukrainians, Hutus and Tutsis, or Mennonites from Winker versus Mennonites from Steinbach, or vaxxers against anti-vaxxers. All groups can come to hate the “other.”  It is easy to fall into hatred. Getting out is not so easy.

After Steven Spielberg announced that he was interesting in renewing this old musical he explained why he wanted to do that. This is what he said:

 

“Divisions between un-likeminded people is as old as time itself. … And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides – not just territorial divides – more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957.”

 

The film has a lot going for it.  Great art design, excellent music with familiar tunes, well sung by beautiful young people, and one old person who starred as a younger person in the earlier version. Everyone should see this film and make up their own mind. I am just not entirely convinced that a musical with stylized violence is the best way to deal with such classic themes. But that’s OK. Every film does not have to be best in its class.

 

Tucker Carlson also likes Putin

I actually don’t care that Donald Trump likes Putin. After seeing him on television every day for more than 4 years that is hardly surprising. The same goes for Tucker Carlson. I don’t care because both of them are entirely corrupt.  They are irredeemable.  Even that does not matter. What does matter is that 55 million Americans voted for Trump and many of those continue to believe in him.  Many of them also believe in Tucker Carlson a Fox News Channel commentator.

 

Tucker Carlson is the most watched American conservative in the US. More than 3 million viewers watch him every night according to recent numbers. Trump and Carlson are the two most revered conservatives in America and that is important.  How can so many people in America have faith in them? It seems completely improbable, but it’s true. As a result, what Tucker Carlson says is significant.

This is what Tucker Carlson said about Putin just before the Russian invasion of Poland that he had ordered:

Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years?

 Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity? Does he eat dogs? These are fair questions, and the answer to all of them is no.

Vladimir Putin didn’t do any of that. So why does permanent Washington hate him so much?”

 

Carlson is really saying he likes Putin more than American liberals or Democrats.  That is  how polarized that country is. Many prefer a brutal Russian dictator, a modern Hitler, to Democrats!

First of all, the statements Carlson made are definitely odd. Was Carlson suggesting there is no reason to challenge or even dislike a brutal dictator, who uses his resources to disinform the public around the world, who orders the murder of dissenters, who has stolen perhaps from his people the largest fortune in the world, who has led an invasion of Crimea, and Ukraine (now twice).

Moreover, is Tucker really saying there is no good reason to challenge Putin? After all he is a brutal dictator who uses his extensive resources to disinform the world, who orders the assassination of dissenters, while in power has amassed perhaps the largest fortune in the world, who has led an invasion of Crimea and Ukraine, now for the second time. Is not sufficient to discredit Putin? What more does Tucker want to denounce Putin? What more must Putin do to be worse than the Democrats?

 

Added to that,  it seems strange—very strange—to think that Putin is not evil just because he has not done anything bad personally and directly to you. Is that really the standard?  Do the lives of millions of people whom Putin  has harmed not count in this moral calculus? Is it all about Tucker Carlson? Well, actually it is just about Tucker Carlson. At least that is all that counts to Tucker Carlson. And that is exactly the attitude of the fascist. No one else matters. Harms to anyone else can be ignored. To the fascist, it is only about the fascists and his fellow travellers.

Jon Stewart said this in an interview with the New York Times, about  the right-wing in  America: “They view Putin as a defender of Western civilization. They view him as an ideological brother.” And of course, the implication is clear—i.e. western civilization to the fascists means white people. To many in the American right Russia have the right look—i.e. Christian, unfriendly to gays and lesbians, and white. Just like them in other words. That is why Jon Stewart said, “I think for years, it’s been pretty clear that they would much rather do a deal with Putin than Pelosi.”

 Those in the American right-wing movement who follow Trump and Carlson prefer to root for Putin  over Biden. It is now a little more comprehensible, but no less dastardly.  And no less shameful.

 

 

Patriot or Martyr

 

I understand that the jury has still not rendered its verdict in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse and will resume deliberations tomorrow.  Yesterday I posted about why I thought there was a good chance he would be acquitted and made a hero.  Today I want to talk about the less likely  chance that he will be convicted and made a martyr. If he is a patriot for his actions as his supporters allege and many on the right believe to be the case, then if he is convicted  he will be hailed as a martyr. Which is it?

Personally, I don’t think a young man who travels from out of state carrying an automatic AR-15 style rifle  to an area of heated dispute   that some call riots and others protests, depending on which side of the great divide in America (and Canada) they lie, is a hero so should not be welcomed as a hero if successful  or a martyr if not.  Instead, he was a foolish young man who took a dangerous chance while endangering the lives of many others that led in fact to the deaths of 2 Americans while injuring a third.  He was not trained for this job and took it upon himself as a vigilante to “help” the police to do their job. He made things much worse as the trail of devastation behind him made clear. It is part of their belief that “the system” cannot be trusted and only private vigilantes or warriors can be trusted.

I realize that many young American men have been raised in the Marvel FantasyLand where such actions are encouraged. They think they can stand up to the evils of a corrupt or inept system that fails to protect American citizens.

Rittenhouse should not be valorized. He was hardly a peacemaker. No one should encourage other young American men (and they are largely men who do this) to take such foolhardy and dangerous actions. Such actions are not helpful. They are pouring fuel onto an already raging fire.

Rittenhouse may or may not be guilty of murder or the other crimes he was charged with, but he is neither a hero nor a martyr.  And he might be much worse.

 

The trial in Kenosha

 

Kyle Rittenhouse in August of 2020 travelled to Kenosha from his home in Illinois during unrest that broke out after a white Kenosha police officer injured a black protester who was protesting the police violence against a black man.  The case has aroused the interested of the American public on both sides. The police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back.

Rittenhouse had heard online how Black Lives Matter and left-wing radical groups such as Antifa, were attacking white businesses in Kenosha and patriots needed to go their to protect them.  He brought a rifle and a medical kit with him. Rittenhouse’s ostensible goal, according to his own statements was that he went there to protect property after two previous nights marked by arson, gunfire and the ransacking of businesses. He wanted to be an “unofficial deputy”, which really amounts to being a vigilante.

 

Historically, in America, self-conceived patriots would come to the rescue of the government who could never be trusted to do the right thing. The vigilantes would come to the rescue to protect America. It happened over and over again, perhaps no where more regularly than the southern border with Mexico. Read, for example, a shocking book by Cormac McCarthy called Blood Meridian. You will never be the same after reading it. I have blogged about it earlier.

Here I think are some undisputed facts about the present case as reported by the Associated Press:

“Rittenhouse fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, after Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse across a parking lot and threw a plastic bag at him shortly before midnight on Aug. 25. Moments later, as Rittenhouse was running down a street, he shot and killed Anthony Huber, 26, a protester from Silver Lake, Wisconsin, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 27, a demonstrator from West Allis, Wisconsin.

Bystander video captured Rosenbaum chasing Rittenhouse but not the actual shooting. Video showed Huber swinging a skateboard at Rittenhouse before he was shot. Grosskreutz had a gun in his hand as he stepped toward Rittenhouse.

Rittenhouse faces two homicide counts and one of attempted homicide, along with charges of reckless endangering and illegal possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18.”

 

I am looking forward to learning how the jury sees the evidence.

Rittenhouse has been charged with first degree murder but what is interesting to me is how differently he is viewed by those on the left or those on the right. As Scott Bauer, Michael Tarm and Amy Forliti reported for the Associated Press,

“Rittenhouse has been painted by supporters on the right — including foes of the Black Lives Matter movement — as a patriot who took a stand against lawlessness by demonstrators and exercised his Second Amendment gun rights. Others see him as a vigilante and police wannabe.

He is white, as were those he shot, but many activists see an undercurrent of race in the case, in part because the protesters were on the streets to decry police violence against Black people.”

The judge repeatedly reminded the jurors of what he believed, but what was palpably wrong, namely that “This is not a political trial.”  A political trial is exactly what it will has been, though understandably the judge is trying his best to make it otherwise. I believe that is be impossible.

The judge pointed out that both sides were making political hay out of the trial.  Both sides, as always happens in politics and particularly in the United States have tried to make it political. They both want the judge to say, “Hooray for our side,” to quote Buffalo Springfield.

The jury, though mainly white, from appearances,  does seem to be composed of many sides (both sides?). According to the Associated Press, “One of the jurors is a gun-owning woman with a high school education who said she was so afraid during the protests that she pulled her cars to the back of her house and made sure her doors were locked. She said she went downtown in the aftermath and cried.” The Associated Press said this about another juror: “Another woman chosen is a special education teacher who expressed anxiety about being on the jury: “I figure either way this goes you’re going to have half the country upset with you and they react poorly.”

Who can deny the truth of that? In a deeply polarized country like the United States that seems inevitable

Hate Club

 

Canadians often think they are immune to the craziness of American politics and life. Not so. Lately, we have experienced American style polarization fuelled by hate. In the past it is has led to serious violence in Canada and it might happen again.

In the 2021 Canadian federal election there has been a spike in hate. Most of it has been focused on the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who seems to be a lightning rod for hate. Recently in Bolton Ontario he was forced to avoid scheduled stops because the RCMP has said it was unable to guarantee the safety of the people attending his rallies. As the Winnipeg Free Press reported,

“Trudeau has been dogged by protesters throughout the campaign, most of them voicing angry opposition to mandatory vaccinations, masks and lockdowns that have been implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

 

Some of these protesters have got down right nasty. According to the Free Press this was caused by

“Conservative campaign workers were spotted among a crowd of raucous protesters who forced the cancellation of a Liberal event featuring Justin Trudeau in Bolton, Ont. At least four volunteers for local Conservative MP Kyle Seeback were photographed among the angry, obscenity spewing crowd, wearing blue “Team Seeback” T-shirts.”

 

The protesters are tweeting with the hash tag” #hateclub.” I think this tells you all you need to know about them. The last thing Canada needs, yet what is getting, are haters.

Showing their allegiance to right wing nonsense the Free Press reported,

“At least some of the protesters appear to share views with supporters of former U.S. president Donald Trump, seemingly importing many of the conspiracy theories prevalent among his followers that led to last January’s violent assault on the U.S. Capitol.

In a live videostream of the Bolton event, protesters can be heard calling Trudeau a criminal, a communist, a murderer and a pedophile and berating police for being “pedophile protectors.”

In the video, posted on Facebook by a self-identified American woman, a woman can be heard saying that if Trudeau wins the election, it will be because it was “rigged.”

 

 

Trudeau responded by saying,

“I think this is something that Canadians, all of us, need to reflect on, because it’s not who we are,” he said, adding that everyone has had a difficult year and that “we need to meet anger with compassion.”

 

How do comments like that trigger such hate? I am not so sure that Trudeau is right about such conduct being un-Canadian. It seems to be more and more prevalent in Canadian society but he did hit the right tone. The other political leaders were also quick to denounce the antics of the protesters and that was good to see as well.

 I am still worried about the rise of hate in Canada. We don’t need vaccine unreason spiced with conspiracy theories and right wing lies. Is Canada ready for the storm? That’s what Qanon calls the return of Trump.

 

Going to the Worst Places in the World

 

Often I hear people say the pandemic is nothing. I find that hard to understand. Recently, I heard an astonishing interview with an astonishing person on Amanpour & Company. The interviewee was a travelling crisis nurse called Chelsea Walsh. She travelled around the United States to many different states when they were in the worst crisis ever. She went to New York, Arizona and Texas when they were all at crisis stages. If a Covid crisis was spiking in one state that’s where she went. She went to the worst places, at the worst times, and she did it deliberately and intentionally. She must be crazy.

Why did she go? “I knew that people needed help and I wanted to help them,” she said. This reminded me of the Russian union men who went to Chernobyl and then went right into the contaminated centre of the storm, knowing they would die, because they were Russians and Russians suffered and they were asked to help they helped. That’s it. Crazy heroes.

Walsh went at great personal risk to herself. Many health care workers in the US have contracted Covid-19 and have died. Yet she did it anyway. She had the support of her fellow professionals, her supervisors, the hospital, the management, and most important the people. The Communities supported her. Until they didn’t. First some stopped listening to her and her colleagues. They thought they knew more than the professionals. They “knew” Covid-19 was no big deal. This over confidence led to more cases than there should have been. This nearly overwhelmed her and her fellow professionals.

The US at this stage when Walsh talked had more than 260,000 deaths from this disease. 12 &1/5 million people were infected. What do people think is unreal about this illness? Why do they not take this seriously? Walsh compares these people to people that have been warned by meteorologists that a lightning storm is on the way and it can be dangerous, so be careful and stay out of the storm. Some people run into the storm with a lightning rod in their arms saying “we don’t believe in lightning.” How is that possible? Walsh asked, “How do you convince people who don’t believe in lightning that lightning is real?”

One day Walsh ran out of the hospital at the end of her day exhausted and crying. A young woman had come into the ICU with Covid-19 “bleeding profusely from her nose, her eyes, her vagina. Everywhere. Then you realize this is something that is contagious. When you leave the hospital you might have it.” The woman had bled out. Screaming. Walsh said, “Whatever she had I don’t want that.” Whatever it was, it was real.

When she sees a young woman in such horrific condition and she realizes that could be her lying in that bed it is deeply disturbing. She pointed out that nurses like her develop a bond with their patients. Neither of them can go home to their families. They are alone in the hospital as is the nurse. They are together all the time. “It is like watching a friend die,” she said.

Then when she talks to the family they often have panic attacks. Some of them did not believe Covid was real. They did not realize how serious this illness is. Some have significant guilt because they gave it to the patient who died.

Walsh has therapy once a week now because of all she has seen, said and had to do. She is suffering from “Covid PTSD” as she calls it. A lot nurses of nurses are developing it. The nurses talk about it all the time. They have empathy with their patients. Now all around them patients are dying.

Walsh said,

“A lot of these places don’t have enough support staff anymore. They have all quit or been fired. It’s now mainly doctors and nurses on the ground floor. In some places the doctors won’t even help anymore; they won’t even go into the rooms anymore. It’s still up to the nurses, and we felt from the very beginning most of us that talked about it we’ve pretty well been sacrificed. Our lives would be worth less than everybody else from the beginning by being told only we could go in to see the patients. So there is a constant fear of ‘why us’? And again, when it going be to our turn to be in that hospital bed?”

As if that is not bad enough in some places they don’t have the PPE they need or the supplies they need. They are not getting the support they need. Sometimes they are running out of medications or supplies they have to rationed. Imagine the decisions they have to make!

At the same time the nurse/patient ratio is going up and this is what kept them alive. That means they have less time to spend with each person.

Added to that, “a lot of risky things have happened and are happening that make the entire situation very unstable and very unsafe right now.”

These are all things that make it very different from seasonal flu spikes. Those are bad and they stress hospitals and care workers too, but nothing like this. This is different!

Walsh was asked what hospitals should be doing:

“Right now what people should be concentrating on is protecting their nurses, because once we’re gone there is no more hospital standing, because without us there is nobody to do the skills. These hospitals are already turning into these ghost town situations where there’s not enough staff to take care of a hospital. And we’re doing our best. In some places I’ve had to do housekeeping; I’ve had to be the secretary; I’ve had to be the pharmacist. I’ve had to do every job in the hospital because nobody else is working. And then the doctors still won’t go into these rooms and we have to do doctor’s assessments. So nurses are literally picking up all the fields that are leaving the hospital and if we’re gone and we’re not protected the hospital can’t stand. So right now the highest priority hospitals should have is protecting their nurses, because we’re keeping the hospital standing.”

This is what an overwhelmed hospital looks like. People who won’t wear masks or wont’ wash their hands or won’t believe in Covid-19 should really pay attention. People who don’t think the pandemic is a big deal should think again. This is real.

As Hari Sreenivasan asked, “why is it that nurses are telling us that people are literally dying without believing the very thing that is killing them?” Walsh, I believe has the right answer, “Because everything became politicized. Politics invited itself into medicine and then divided everything.” When politics came in it caused people to choose sides. They say, “my side” does not believe in Covid. So I will stick to my side no matter what. That is the way polarized politics works. People choose sides rather than the truth.

Walsh says that instead of listening to their doctors and nurses, people listen to their political leaders who don’t care about them and, even worse, don’t know what they are talking about. The nurses also also hate wearing masks at all times. They also care about the economy. They also want to go to the bar after work. But they also care about their patients and want this thing to be over. No one wants it to be over more than him or her. Listen to them. As Walsh said, “If anyone wants an unbiased opinion ask your nurse or doctor.”

Puritans: The First Extremists

 

Many of us who know and love America as I do, have been perplexed by the all out mania of their extremism. Americans do nothing halfway. It is all in or all out. No medium in between. That may be a product of their birth.

The first settlers to the New World found fertile ground for their extreme beliefs and ultimately for the imposition of those beliefs on others. Many were fleeing religious persecution in Europe so that they could impose religious persecution on others in that new world. Kurt Andersen in his book FantasyLand described early American religiosity this way:

“Yet unlike Roman Catholicism, with its old global hierarchy and supreme leader, the new Protestant Christianity was by its nature fractious and unstable, invented almost within living memory by uncompromising rebels who couldn’t abide interpretations and rules issued by expert super clergy. It was an innovative new religion successful at a time when innovations were transforming the rest of Europe’s cultures and economies. Protestantism was thus part of an exciting tide of novelty, along with the printing press, global trade, the Renaissance, the beginnings of modern science, and the Enlightenment. It’s unique selling proposition was radical. When official leaders lose their way, pious anybodies can and must decide the new improved truth on their own—that is, by reading Scripture, each individual determines the correct meaning of Christian fantasies. The Protestants’ founding commitment to fierce, decentralized, do-it-yourself truth-finding and spiritual purity led to the continuous generation of self-righteous sectarian spin-offs.”

I was born and raised in Steinbach. We had Mennonites and even more radical Pentecostals. Wild and whacky beliefs were in the air we breathed. In America the first extremists were the Puritans who built a society in the New World in their own image. They were given that name by the established Christians. It was not a complement. Many of them were Calvinists. They were nothing if not true believers. They came to establish a world of true believers. They wanted to be separate from the established Church of England. Soon they wanted to separate from England itself. First they tried the Netherlands but there was too much heresy there too so they sailed to the New World.  As Anderson said, “Ferociously believing every miracle and myth wasn’t enough.”

Steinbach was not that different. The Mennonites wanted to keep themselves separate and apart “from the world.”

As Andersen said,

“What really distinguished the Puritans from the mainstream were matters of personality, demeanor. To be a Puritan was to embody uncompromising zeal. (They were analogous to certain American political zealots today, who more than disagreeing with their Establishment’s ideas just can’t stand their reasonable-seeming manner. Moreover, a good Christian life, the Puritans believed, was one consumed by Christianity…In other words, America was founded by a nutty religious cult.”

They were sort of like Mennonites on steroids.

The natives the Puritans found in the New World did not matter. Those people were just not civilized. The people who mattered were the religious zealots. As Andersen described it, “The myth we’ve constructed says that the first nonnative new Americans who mattered were the idealists, the hyper-religious people seeking freedom to believe and act out their passionate, elaborate, all-consuming fantasies.”

And America has been hyper-religious ever since. And it shows. Welcome to FantasyLand.

 

The Smoking Gun

 

I will never forget how as a young lad going to law school the Watergate case was unraveling. Watching the hearings on television was mesmerizing. even when things started getting rough for Nixon, I thought he would survive the onslaught. There was evidence leading to deep suspicions that he had been involved in a cover-up, but there was never a smoking gun. Never that is until the tapes were discovered. President Nixon had amazingly tape-recorded for posterity all his discussions with his henchmen. When that was discovered the sharks starting circling. When people listened to the tapes there was a smoking gun. Nixon’s gig was up. He was done.

I got exactly the same feeling this week when I heard parts of the tapes released by Bob Woodward as a result of 18 taped interviews with President Trump. I thought this was the smoking gun. Trump was done.

Donald Trump admitted that he did not tell the truth to Americans as thousands were dying. They could have avoided thousands of deaths had they known the truth. Yet, since then has there been an uprising as there was for Richard Nixon? Not yet.

Why have more Americans not called this out? Frankly I am stunned. How could Americans countenance their president lying to them about the dangers of Covid-19 while people—particularly young people—were going out and taking chances they should not have taken and likely would not have taken had they known the truth that their president already knew, but had assiduously hidden from them for the sake of protecting his own political fortunes at the expense of American lives? Surely this would do it! The people would rise up in fury. Even his own supporters would abandon him. I really felt that last week. Yet it did not happen. Now I feel like a fool (again).

Why did that not happen? With some introspection I think I know. The critical difference between now and 1972 when Nixon was under examination consisted of two facts.

First, in 1972 the American political world was not as strictly divided into 2 polar opposite camps as it is today. In 1972 when Republicans looked at the damning evidence against Nixon, a couple of Republican Senators visited Nixon at the White House and said he had no alternative but to resign. Nixon’s support among Republicans had vanished. The game was over. That could never happen now. Today, most believe, “our side” can do not wrong.

Secondly, in 1972 Nixon was originally a popular president. He had won the election in a landslide. But—and here is the critical difference—Nixon was not worshipped. Nixon attracted no theological devotion. That is not the case with Trump. Trump was right when he said he could go to Times Square, commit a murder, and loose no support! This is not absurd; it is the truth. That is devotion that only beloved religious leaders receive. Trump attracts true believers!

Just like no free-thinker, no matter how wise, smart, or profound could ever hope to defeat the resolution of a religious followers of Christ, or Mohamed, no one could persuade a Trump follower to forsake him. His position is secure. Theological devotion is rock solid. Political support is far from that.

That is a pity. Truth does not matter any more. The world has changed. That means a leader like Trump can do almost anything and still count on the support of his devoted followers. That is a terrible thing for democracy and freedom. Truth should still matter.