Category Archives: politics

The Monarchy of Fear

 

When I saw the title of a book, The Monarchy of Fear, I was immediately attracted to it. Then when I saw who wrote it, I had no choice; I had to buy it. The author is Martha Nussbaum, considered by some, to be the finest philosopher in the United States. I had read an article about her in the New Yorker, but had not read any of her books. In that article I learned that she liked to write about emotions. To me, a graduate in Philosophy some 5 decades ago, this seemed unlikely. I was wrong. Emotions are important in so many ways and it is good that philosophers opine on them.

For quite some time I have thought fear is an emotion that can have extraordinary consequences, particularly in the modern political context. Fear is a natural product of the age of anxiety or the age of anger. What could be more important than that?

Nussbaum had important things to say in the very first paragraph of the book. Here is what she said,

 

“There’s a lot of fear around in the U.S. today, and this fear is often mingled with anger, blame, and envy. Fear all too often blocks rational deliberation, poisons hope, and impedes constructive cooperation for a better future.”

This struck exactly the right note from my perspective. The real problem with fear is that it interferes with rational decision-making. And we see it everywhere. In Canada just like the United States, but I think it is particularly prevalent in the United States. That country is the richest in the world, has the best armed forces that money can buy, spends more on prisons and police than any other nation by a long-shot.  Yet it seems to me to be a country infused, no saturated, with fear. Americans like to call themselves the ‘land of the brave,’ but over and over again, from gated communities, to elaborate armies, the country is hobbled by fear to such an extent and with such intensity that it constantly surprises. And as Nussbaum suggests, such fear often “blocks rational deliberation.” Nowhere is the effect of this powerful more evident than in the election of Donald Trump. What rational deliberation could have ushered in his presidency?

Nussbaum boldly asserted the following:

“What is today’s fear about?  Many Americans, themselves powerless, out of control of their own lives. They fear for their own future and that of loved ones. They fear that the American Dream–that hope that your children will flourish and do even better than you have done–has died, and everything has slipped away from them. These feelings have their basis in real problems: among others, income stagnation in the lower middle class, alarming declines in the health and longevity of members of this group, especially men, and the escalating costs of higher education at the very time that a college degree is increasingly required for employment. But real problems are difficult to solve, and their solution takes long, hard study and cooperative work toward an uncertain future. It can consequently seem all to attractive to convert that sense of panic and impotence into blame and the “othering” of outsider groups such as immigrants, racial minorities, and women.  “They” have taken our jobs. Or: wealthy elites have stolen our country.”

How many of the important social problems of the day are encapsulated in that paragraph? There is a lot to chew over in that paragraph.

And of course with such fears rational deliberation is unlikely! It is hardly surprising as a result that the United States, in its moment of fear, has turned to a man who is probably more unlikely to solve its problems than anyone else we could consider. As a result of fear they made the worst possible decision imaginable. That is the monarchy of fear!

All our puny scandals.

Andrew Scheer: Thinking Small keeps him small

         Well the election is over and the Conservative Party who ran on a lackluster platform of ‘same old, same old’ gained the most popular votes. They had the weakest policies about climate change, which I thought was the critical issue in the campaign.  Is this a defeat for climate change advocates like me?

Not in my opinion. The Liberals spent a lot of time during the election campaign shooting themselves in the foot. First, many, like me, were disgusted at their performance in the SNC-Lavalin scandal. Though it was a puny scandal by American standards, it was real by ours. Many of us felt that our Prime Minister interfered with our rule of law by trying to unduly influence his Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould to step in a resolve, to his satisfaction, the corruption and fraud case against a Quebec corporation that hires a lot of Quebecers. The independent Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion rapped Trudeaus’s knuckles for the second time. But Trudeau got away with it.

Next, the black face/brown face demeaned Trudeau’s image even though most people I think were willing to cut him some slack because “back then” we were all less aware of how hurtful our actions could be. He was no worse than most of us.

Finally, many people, like me were very disappointed that after bringing in a carbon tax despite the opposition of most Canadian Premiers, Trudeau spent threw away the political capital he had earned, by purchasing a pipeline for $4.5 billion. Few wanted that, outside of Alberta.

As a result of these 3 issues I really think the Conservatives threw away a golden opportunity to take advantage of Liberal missteps. The Liberals were ripe for the plucking, but the Conservatives failed to do that because they thought too small. Instead of saying they were ready to tackle the greatest issue of our times, climate change, they asked us to vote for them to put more cash in our pocket. It was puny. They could have done so much more. Can  you imagine if the Conservatives, after decades of opposing all rational measures to combat climate change, they announced a big turn around? I think people have been stunned and thrown their support to these newcomers. Instead, the Conservatives gave us, more of the ‘same old, same gold.’

I really think Canadians were ready to make a big commitment to tackle climate change. If the Conservatives had realized that instead of wasting their time with chump change, they would now be forming a government with a large majority. Instead they let the Liberals slip in. They could have done better. So much better.

Thinking small begets small.

Money doesn’t Talk; it Swears

Last week, in his State of the Union address,  President Donald Trump said the American economy is booming, unless politics, foolish wars, or ridiculous investigations interfere. He was referring of course to the many investigations of him and his campaign, including the Mueller inquiry and numerous investigations launched by the House of Representatives now that the Democrats are in the majority. Really the essence of Trump’s argument is that because the economy is doing well no one should interfere with him no matter what he has done. This is the same attitude he has to the Saudi Arabian assassination of American resident and Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi. After all they Saudis have invested billions in buying American arms. Is that not reason enough not to interfere in anything they have done, no matter how despicable?  Because millions of people continue to support Trump, and even think his State of the Union Address was “presidential”, it shows to all that America is morally bankrupt.  Dylan was right, “money doesn’t talk it swears.”

Fear Porn

Fear Porn

 

In recent years many people in the west have characterized refugee issues as security decisions rather than humanitarian issues. This has had important negative consequences for refugees. As Jennifer Welsh said in her Massey lectures, “One implication of this ‘securitization’ of asylum seekers is the tendency to reframe the responsibility to tackle refugee situations as a matter of peace and security and to focus on immediate causes of displacement.”

This approach causes many people, such as my own current Member of Parliament, Ted Falk, to concentrate on the destabilizing effects of the presence of refugees on neighbouring country’s security, communal cohesion, and national identity. People like Falk believe that refugees are dangerous. They fear refugees and therefore make poor decisions about them.

Such irrational fears have spread around the world but particularly to the United States. Of course, as I have indicated elsewhere, the United States is a peculiarly fearful nation. They especially fear the influx of migrants and immigrants and refugees from the Muslim world and from Mexico. It is not an accident that many of these people that they fear have skin colours other than white. In my opinion this is the legacy of the American history of racism going back for centuries to its horrible treatment of indigenous people and importation of African-American slaves and their offspring.

President Trump himself was filled with venom and anxiety at the thought of the approaching brown hordes. Then he turned to filling his supporters with fear. That is something he has a unique talent for. Of course it is easy to mock absurd fears, but fears are important. They are used to generate hate against people seeking asylum. Stoking fear and hate in a democratic state is a very dangerous thing.

Donald Trump capitalized on these fears to get elected President in 2016. It did not matter that the United States had an extremely onerous vetting process of all such possible entrants to the country. It’s not a perfect system, but it is probably the best in the world.

Trump also tried again, with less success, to capitalize on such fears just before the Mid-term elections in 2018. He warned of the so-called “Caravan” of refugees and asylum seekers heading from Central American including Hondurans and others to the United States. Donald Trump and his close ally Fox News ratcheted up the fear to such an extent that millions of Americans feared this group of rag-tag people consisting by most accounts of a lot of women with young children.

The Republicans claimed the Democrats were organizing this crusade and that they believed in completely open borders. Trump was a master of manipulating this to his own advantage. He said he would send 5,200 troops. Later he increased this to 15,000 troops. Not just border guards, but troops. According to the Washington Post, “This appears to be the largest such peacetime deployment of active duty U.S. troops a the border in a century.” This was more troops than the Americans sent to fight super scary ISIS. The American troops were also ordered to secure the border walls (remember many already exist) with razor wire.

Of course all of these security people were being added to a border already hyper-militarized with 16,000 border guards, 5,000 ICE personnel, 2100 National Guards and many deportation agents. All this to oppose men, women and children who might throw rocks.

Many Americans interviewed on television said this was an invasioneven when they were more than a thousand miles away. It became a huge election issue and fired up his base of supporters. This was not surprising since Trump and his Fox allies relentlessly fueled the fears. Sean Hannity, watched by millions of Americans, repeatedly referred to this as “an invasion” as did other Fox contributors. He also referred to it as a “a mob of humanity.” Donald Trump himself repeatedly referred to it as an imminent “invasion of our country.”

All of this was done while the invading “army” without weapons was a couple of months away. What kind of invading forces give the target country a 3 months heads up?

Would young mothers take their children on such a perilous journey if they were not fleeing something they really feared? Like gangs that were to a large extent fueled by American deportees returning to their presumed homeland. These gangs were often fueled by drug money from American consumers. Should we not show some empathy for them? Or should we listen instead to demagogues? These people are suffering; they should not be demonized.

Even other stations, besides Fox, are getting on the bandwagon against these demonsapproaching the border? Trump tweeted, “the caravans are made up of some very tough fighters.” Later in the same day, October 31, 2018, 5 days before Mid-term elections he tweeted again, “Our military is being mobilized at the Southern Border. Many more troops coming. We will NOT let these Caravans, which are also made up of some very bad thugs and gang members, into the U.S. Our border is sacred Must come in legally. TURN AROUDND!”  Clearly he wanted to scare the crap out of people. Some have called it Trump’s scaravan.

Talking about the Caravan while helping a Republican candidate in Florida Trump said this about the Democrat rival,

 

“Andrew Gilliam wants to throw open your borders to drug dealers, human traffickers, gang members, and criminal aliens. That’s great. That’s what we want. Let those people pour in folks. Let them join come join you on your front lawn.”

 

Trump is a master of stoking fears.

There were actually 4 caravans that appeared to be heading toward the U.S. The Washington Postdescribed the situation this way,

 

Military planners anticipate that only a small percentage of Central American migrants travelling in the caravans U.S. President Donald Trump characterizes as “an invasion” will reach the U.S. border, even as a force of more than 7,000 active-duty troops mobilizes to prevent them from entering the country.

According to military planning documents, about 20 percent of the roughly 7,000 migrants are likely to complete the journey. The unclassified report was obtained by Newsweek on Thursday.

If the military’s assessment is accurate, it would mean the U.S. is positioning five soldiers on the border for every one caravan member expected to arrive here.

“Based on historic trends, it is assessed that only a small percentage of the migrants will likely reach the border,” the report says.”

 

It turned out the military planners were not as worried about the potential migrants as the American President. The military report was more concerned about Americanmilitia groups eager to lend their well-armed support. As the Washington Postsaid, “The assessment also indicates military planners are concerned about the presence of “unregulated armed militia” groups showing up at the border in areas where U.S. troops will operate.”

Trump was also quick to characterize the members of the caravan as scary individuals, even though most other reports, other than Fox News of course, said they were mainly women and children fleeing violence in their own countries often caused by gang members that had been deported there by American authorities. Trump described them this way at different times: “many young strong men,” “very tough fighters,” “terrorists from the Middle East,” “hardened criminals,” “lepers,” “people with small pox and TB,”  and “a lot of bad people.” Another Republican added, “pedophiles,” and “wife beaters”. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for anyone else. Added to that, according to the Washington Post, “He also insists the number of migrants heading north is much larger than estimates put forward by U.S. and Mexican officials.” Of course Trump has never allowed the facts to stand in the way of the hateful or fearful messages he wants to send.

Trump said similar things in April that everyone forgot about. Trump painted a picture of a large group of migrants near the border as rapists and pillagers. It turned out to be 400 people requesting asylum which they are legally entitled to do.

Then Trump added that if any of these people throw rocks the troops should fire their guns. Reminds me of the Gaza strip. Is that what American has come to?

It was no accident that Trump made a huge issue of these caravans a few weeks before the American midterm elections of 2018. He did not want to wait until the potential migrants arrived as that might blunt the political message he wanted to use in those elections. Now he is doing it again to gain support for his big beautiful wall.

Trump, together with many of his supporters loves what Bill Maher called Fear Porn. Why is that? I think that Trump like populists and demagogues around the world uses fear to drum up support for his policies. He does that because his ideas have little rational basis. How else can he get people to support them? Porn sells.

A Big Beautiful Wall

 

Today,  I considered 2 reports on the border issues in Arizona.  First, I read a brief report in the Arizona Republic newspaper which I decided to subscribe to today for the balance of our visit. I think local news is important. We should not rely entirely on Comedy News.

The newspaper reported on a group of mostly Guatemalan asylum seekers that breached the U.S.-Mexico Border yesterday. A smuggler helped a group of 118 asylum seekers by providing a ladder so they could climb over the wall near Yuma Arizona. that sounds like a lot of people. They were caught on video surveillance scaling the wall yesterday. About 86% of them were families travelling together, Customs and Border Agency reported. The video showed a number of people dropping to the ground after scaling the fence that was about 18 ft.

As the members of the group dropped to the ground they huddled in a group. The person who supplied the ladder, on the Mexican side, was shown leaving the scene in a hurry. According to the report, the people were “brazen  A spokesman for Border Security said, “It shows how brazen these smugglers are and the fact that they’re unafraid I wondered, ‘were they brazen, or were they desperate?” This incident happened about a mile from where 376 asylum seekers dug  holes to tunnel under the border fence last week. That too sounds like a lot of people.

Is this an emergency as Trump alleges? Does it warrant spending billions on a wall? Does it warrant shutting down the American government? Some would say yes. That group in Yuma was the single largest authorities had encountered in the area.

Some say that the wall there is “only” 18 ft. high. We should build it 30 ft. high some say. Of course, if a wall is built 30 ft. high does that mean the next smuggler will get a ladder 31 ft. high? A border guard interviewed by the Arizona Republic said, it might not be so easy because the smuggler would need two  30 ft. ladders. One on each side of the fence (wall). The video showed that an 18 ft. drop was pretty high. Particularly for young children. There are always young children. We have to remember that. These were families with young children. Do we not care about that?

On the radio today I also heard an interesting interview with Santa Cruz Sheriff–Tony Estrada. He is 75 years old and was recently elected for his 7th term as Sheriff.  That county includes Nogales Arizona and Nogales Mexico where  Chris and I lived near  for a month 3 years ago.

Estrada  said he was  the longest running Sheriff in Arizona. He seemed very knowledgeable.

Estrada is not a fan of Trump’s proposed “Big, beautiful, border wall.”  In fact he thinks it is a fantasy. “The wall won’t help,” he said.  Estrada said that almost all illegal immigrants come through at points of entry. Those are the legal border crossings that people use when they cross a border. Those places all have border walls already! They don’t need more walls.

Estrada also said that illegal immigrants were not the big problem, illegal drugs were the main problem. Meth in particular had in recent years become the main problem. This reminded me of Manitoba. Meth is a problem. But a wall won’t help. Those drugs also come in through points of entry, according to Estrada. The real problem is demand! In the US demand for illegal drugs is extremely high. Estrada said, the US has 5% of the world’s population and more than 50% of the world’s drugs. Americans can afford to pay and they demand that they get them. That is the problem. It is not a wall or lack of a wall that is the problem.

Sheriff Estrada said the border authorities could use money in the new proposed bill that Trump insists be signed before the government is reopened. It could be used for better technology (even though they already have the best technology!) and more boots on the ground, but spending money one a wall would be a waste. (Other border guards agree with Trump that building a wall is a good idea.)

Estrada pointed out that once in a while people cross the border with ladders as happened in Yuma, but this is rare. It is also rare that some people dig under the wall. I think he was saying if we wanted stronger borders we have to be smart. Building a ‘big, beautiful wall’ is not smart. I agree.

It’s always better to be smart.

Something Nice About Trump

 

As some of my critics have pointed out, I don’t often say something nice about Donald Trump. That is true. Today is an exception.

As everyone knows, the American government has been partially shut down for more than 4 weeks. Not everyone knows this has caused serious problems. It causes serious damage to the American economy as many things can’t be done, that should be done. Even more important, it has caused serious damage to many Americans. About 800,000 American government employees are not being paid. Many of them are still expected to go to work. That is inherently unfair.

I blame both sides. Not just Donald Trump, but certainly including him. Trump has said he won’t approve spending that does not include money for a wall on the southern border. This is an absurd position. It is highly unlikely that a wall will do any good. It is just window dressing for his ego. He is asking for about $5  billion at this time. This is small  beer in terms of American political spending. The Democrats say they were elected on the basis of opposing the wall. But Trump also got elected on the basis of promising a wall. Both sides should get over it.

This stand-off  shows how crazily dysfunctional their system of government is. This keeps happening over and over again, particularly as the chasm between Americans deepens. I damages the American international reputation. Extremism is on the march. This should be resolved. That will required either statesmanship or compromise or both. Since statesmanship is conspicuously absent, that means the parties must compromise. That means both sides have to agree to a settlement that is less than ideal from their perspective. So be it. Politicians willing to compromise in America appear to be a species on the endangers species list.

I listened today to  a small part of an interview with Joseph Stiglitz a respected American economist. I really just heard one small part of his talk. That was enough. He said there were figures out there that indicated that 40% of Americans have less than $400 in their accounts. 25% have less than $1,000 That means such a shutdown has serious consequences for these people. I have heard that Air traffic controllers have been working over time at second jobs with Uber so that they pay their portages. Americans need to be fair to their civil servants (even though many of them don’t respect civil servants). Many other people have lost their jobs because they depend on working with government employees. All of this is a serious drag on the American economy.

Today Donald Trump offered to approve a temporary extension of protection for people facing deportation on the basis that they are undocumented, so that both parties in Congress have more time to come up with a solution for this serious problem, but only if Congress approves a spending bill that includes money for the wall. In the circumstances Trump has made a reasonable offer. This will help thousands of people in America who are anxiously awaiting a return to work so they can feed their families and pay their bills. It will  postpone many deportations for at least 3 years. This is good. Not perfect, but good. Democrats should not let perfection be the enemy of the good. The Democrats should compromise, even though that will be painful for them. It will be good for the country. It will be good for many individuals and families. That is more important. Much more important.

The Sleep of Reason

 

Goya, the famous Spanish painter was well known for dark art.  No one ever accused him of seeing only the sunny side of life. Goya inscribed one of his works with the following words: “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.” I find that profoundly true.

Voltaire the child of the Enlightenment, one might say a Fundamentalist Enlightenment thinker, said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Our species has impressive powers of reasoning. It is what sets us apart from most species. Yet we give up our advantage all the time. Why do we do that? Why do we allow reason to go to sleep? More importantly, why do we do that when it is clearly against our own interests to do that? That is a very big question. One I would like to answer.

One of the worst things that we can do is to abdicate our power of reasoning. If ever—ever–we give up our rationale for beliefs we are doomed.  We must always insist that all beliefs are based on reason and evidence.

Our reasoning power may be weak. It is certainly far from perfect. For each and every one of us our power of reasoning is flawed, but we never have a better tool to justify belief. Any belief. Beliefs based on evidence and reasoning are not guaranteed to be true. They are not certainly true, but they are the best-grounded beliefs we can have.

Reason goes to sleep whenever we don’t base our beliefs on reason and evidence.  The bars to reason are many and varied and include the following among many others: faith substituted for reason, indoctrination, fear, prejudice or bias, laziness, ignorance, herd instinct or wish to conform, wishful thinking, ideological blinkers, and advertising or propaganda.

 

I am going far beyond religion now. Beliefs based on something other than reason, like faith, or feelings, or wishes, can have dangerous consequences. This can lead to crazy beliefs. No where is that more obvious than the United States. There is a good reason for this. America is in my opinion the most religious country in the west. At least by conventional definitions of religion. Kurt Anderson described this phenomenon this way in his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire(2017): “Unlike the Earth’s other moderns, we have rushed headlong back toward magic and miracles, crazifying some legacy churches, filling up the already crazy ones, inventing all kinds of crazy new ones.]Because the US has given itself over to beliefs without reason to such a fantastic extent for so long it has become vulnerable to believing all kinds of crazy things. Americans have become vulnerable to all kinds of crackpots from the ludicrous to the deranged.

For example it is astonishing how many Americans believed, without any evidence whatsoever, that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizzeria that had no basement. Or that there is a government conspiracy to spread toxic vaccines. Or that Satanic child molesters are everywhere.  That Obama is the anti-Christ, a  Muslim and was born outside the United States. That the massacre of elementary school children in Sandy Hook by a lone gunman was a scam promulgated by paid actors. That climate change is a hoax. That the high school students at Parkland Florida who were terrorized by a gunman were also paid actors.

The gullibility of millions of Americans is truly astonishing. Where did this come from? I believe that it is the result of checking reason at the door for decades if not centuries.    When reason sleeps monsters are indeed brought forth.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court and Trump’s Muslim Ban

 

On January 27, 2017, within a week of his inauguration, the American President Donald Trump tried to fulfill a very popular election promise to implement a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”  That was one of his famous promises that he made during his campaign. This was all part of his design to “Make America Great Again.” He tried to fulfill this promise by issuing Proclamation 13769 that was swiftly turfed out by lower courts. Instead of appealing those decisions Trump came back with a new Proclamation 9645 in September 2017  that he himself called a “watered-down version” of his original proclamation that he actually preferred.

To those of us who always believed the United States was the epitome of religious freedom this was shocking. A number of Human Rights groups immediately launched legal action to stop the second Presidential directive as well and the case ultimately arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court. There were 9 judges who heard the appeal and 7 of them upheld the President’s proclamation.   While this surprised many, the opinions of the court are lengthy and complicated, and many judges weighed in, but I want to comment on the decision of the American Chief Justice Roberts speaking for a large majority of the court and an interesting dissent delivered by Justice Sotomayor. I will comment first on the decision of the majority and then the dissent.

Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that the proclamation claims to be seeking to improve vetting procedures for foreign nationals travelling to the U.S. by identifying ongoing deficiencies in the information needed to assess whether nationals of particular countries present a security threat. The American agencies developed a “baseline” for the information they required in order to confirm the identity of individuals seeking entry into the US and to determine whether those individuals posed a security threat.

The American agencies determined that 16 countries had deficient information sharing practices and presented security concerns as a result. During a 50-day period in which Homeland Security made diplomatic efforts to encourage foreign governments to improve their practices it determined that 8 countries remained deficient. Eventually Trump determined that 1 country had improved enough to be taken off the list.

The Proclamation placed varying entry restrictions on the nationals of 8 foreign states whose systems for managing and sharing information Trump deemed inadequate. Most of these countries were countries in which a majority of people were members of the Islamic faith.

The President’s directive caused all kinds of chaos and harm to people around the world since it was implemented without warning, catching travelers and their families unawares and stranded.

The State of Hawaii and 3 individual Americans with foreign relatives who were prohibited from entering the US, argued that the Proclamation violated the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and the Establishment Clause of the Constitution which prohibits the government from establishing or favoring any religion.

The majority decision was actually fairly straightforward. It held that the President is given broad discretionary authority to suspend the entry of “aliens” into the US. Courts should defer to the President who is given the power to suspend entry and for how long and under what conditions. The word “aliens” may seem harsh, but that it the wording in INA. It vests the President with “ample power” to do what he did.

The Supreme court noted that President Trump had first ordered Homeland Security and other governmental agencies to conduct comprehensive evaluation of every single country’s compliance with the information and risk assessment baseline and then based on that review he found that restricting aliens who could not be vetted adequately by American officials on account of failures of their own government, was in the national interest. The Proclamation made it clear that the conditional restrictions would remain in force onlyso long as necessary to address the identified inadequacies. Finally, the class of aliens identified were a group of people linked by nationalityand not religion.

The majority of the Supreme Court rejected the claim that the President’s statements showed that the President’s stated concerns about vetting protocols and national security were only pretexts for discriminating against Muslims. The Proclamation was expressly based on legitimate purposes so the court should not interfere with the President’s legitimate exercise of his powers under INA. It really was that simple in the view of the majority of the court.

All of that seems simple and almost unassailable. One might wonder what all the fuss was about. But wait until you hear about the opinion of the dissent. I will cover that in my next post.

Whisper words of Wisdom

I am still struggling with the concept of moral humility–an elusive but important goal.

A good friend of mine, much smarter than me, told me that he does not feel he can do more than ask gentle questions. He is very effective at avoiding excessive arrogance. He practices moral humility. I aim to move in that direction.

That does not mean I should be silent. I think that if we see someone acting badly, particularly if that person is in power, we should speak. We should do that respectfully, but we may and should do that. I am trying to teach myself to criticize gently, without pontificating. That is not easy.

Today I learned something valuable for a fellow walker in our walking club.  He is a strong Christian—even an evangelical Christian I would guess—and said he had learned something valuable recently.  He said when talking to someone he never tried to convert the other person. Rather, he said,  “I ask questions,” he said, “all I want to do is leave a stone in the other person’s shoe”.

I know that I have been pontificating too much. For example, I have been very critical of capitalism.  I have never denied that capitalism has done a lot of good. It has pulled hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty into poverty. That is a momentous achievement. We need to do even better, but that is not nothing. It is a lot. I doubt that I have converted anyone.

Yet that does not mean we must give capitalism a free pass. We cannot allow capitalists free rein to destroy life on the planet as sometimes they seem bent on doing. We must criticize, but do so with humility always remembering that we mightbe wrong. Recall the uncertainty principle. Act as if we might be wrong.

As the Beatles said, “Whisper words of wisdom. Let it be.”

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Like the Republic of Imagination that I read last year, this book, Reading Lolita in Tehran that I read this year in Arizona, was brilliant. Both are written by Azar Nafisi. This one is an odd little book. It is written by a young Iranian professor of English literature who now teaches at an American University, but tells us about her first years as a professor in Iran during and after the time of the Iranian Revolution. She started sort of a book club at her home when she felt suffocated by the oppressive regime while teaching  in the University of Tehran. She went home to escape and took some of her female students with her. The professor and her students rebelled. They rebelled not with guns, bombs or conspiracies. They rebelled by reading American and English literature! In their hands that was a revolutionary activity.

All of the women lived in a totalitarian society where officials were wary of the Professor but didn’t really know what to do about her. Some of them learned how to resist. Some of them suffered serious consequences, but that is not really what the book is about. The book is about literature as rebellion.

Nafisi denied that a book was in the ordinary sense moral. She did say this, “it can be called moral when it shakes us out of our stupor and makes us confront the absolutes we believe in.”

One of the most amazing scenes in the book is when her class at the University decides to put the book The Great Gatsbyon trial.  Her students play the roles. The prosecutor is a strict straight-laced Muslim regime supporter. The defense counsel is one of her more radical female students from her book club. It is a remarkable achievement. According to Nafisi, “a great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals , and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.” It is a revolt against moral hubris in favor of what I have come to call moral humility or restraint.

The Iranian officials tried to prescribe what all the people should do, how they worship, how they love, what they read, and what they think. It tried to restrain them totally.  The women became revolutionaries not by any overtly political acts, but only by readingand thinking. None of them fired a gun. Yet, the women learned how literature can defeat ideology. This is what Nafisi in her second book called “the Republic of Imagination.” Nafisi sees literature as revolutionary force opening the mind to possibilities. Imagine please, Jane Austen as a revolutionary!

Its books like this we should read when we are forced to confront authoritarianism. Times like now.