Category Archives: The Commons

No Comic Relief


You know things are bad when we look to comedy writers for wisdom.  But that is what I want to do today. Recently, John Oliver began his television show by setting aside his regular introduction and speaking from the heart without making any jokes. That is not like him. So he did not offer any comic relief. In fact he didn’t really offer any relief at all, but he did offer some wisdom. More than many of our political leaders. So I want to turn this forum over to him. This is what he said soon after the horrific violence committed by Hamas in its attacks on Israeli civilians on October 7, 2023:


“I want to briefly talk to you about what has briefly been a horrible day. The immense suffering in Israel and Gaza has been sickening to watch and we are not going to be covering in the main body of our show for a couple of reasons.


First, it was horrific and I don’t really want to tell jokes about carnage and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear them. And second, we are taping this on Saturday afternoon and you’ll be hearing it on Sunday evening or on Monday through an illegal VPN. I do know who I’m talking to. Given how fast things are moving a lot could change between the time I’m saying this and the time you hear it. I do have a few broad thoughts that I still think will still apply. They have to do with sorrow, fear, and anger.

Sorrow is the first and most overwhelming feeling. The images we have seen this week and onwards have been totally heart-breaking. Thousands dead in Israel and now Gaza will be devastating not just to the people in the region but to diaspora communities across the world. Whatever thoughts you have about the history of this region or the current state of affairs, and I have shared mine in the past on this show, it should be impossible to see grieving families and not be moved. So there has been sorrow this week and lot of it. And also fear. Understandable fear of further attacks in Israel, and those taken hostage, and fear about what is to come in Gaza, as Israel’s leaders seem intent on embarking on a relentless bombing campaign, mass displacement, and a potential ground invasion.

I don’t know where things stand in Gaza right now, but all signs seem to be pointing towards a humanitarian catastrophe. Israeli official announced plans to cut off food, water, fuel and power. Hospitals are running low on generators. This has all the appearance of collective punishment which is a war crime.

I think many Israelis and Palestinians are feeling justifiable anger right now. Not just at Hamas whose utterly heinous terrorist acts set this weeks’ events in motion, but also the zealots and extremists across the board who consistently thwarted attempts at peace across the years. Israelis and Palestinians have been let down by their leadership time and time again and I don’t have a great deal of faith in the current leaders in charge to steer us toward peace. But I do still have some hope because the easiest thing to do in the world after a week like this is to engage in blood-thirsty rhetoric. And there has certainly been plenty of that from those in power, but I will say I have been struck by the ordinary citizens, both Israeli and Palestinian, who have called for restraint this week and not revenge.


Just listen to how Noy Katsman, whose brother Heim was murdered by Hamas last Saturday, ended this interview:


“I just wanted to say one more thing that is the most important thing for me and I think for my brother was that his death not be used to kill innocent people. I don’t want anything to happen to people in Gaza like happened to my brother. And I’m sure he wouldn’t want it either. So that is my call to my government—stop killing innocent people. That’s not the way to bring peace and security to people in Israel


Right! People want and are entitled to peace. I’m not going to tell either side how to get it. Certainly not in this accent [English] which has done enough damage in that region to last a fucking lifetime. But just know that all the people who want to live in that region are going to keep living there. So peace is not optional and will require some tough decisions. I can’t say where a peace process ends but it just has to start with that kind of an ability to recognize our common humanity.




The Common Good in a time of pandemic


In talking about vaccines, there is another significant and extremely interesting issue. I think we in Canada would acknowledge, unlike perhaps our neighbours to the south, that if you live in a society where only people of wealth and privilege have access to the vaccines that is unjust. I think the Americans have come to realize this too.  We and they  really are in this together, and that if everyone, or most people at least, don’t get vaccinated, we  will never achieve herd immunity. I think as a result Americans too have decided to make vaccines freely available to everyone. I guess they would call it “socialism, at least  for vaccines.”

In Canada this was never an issue, and we early on made the decision that the cost of the vaccines will be born collectively. I think we have made, through our elected political leaders, the right decision. Everyone who wants the vaccine should be able to have it at public expense.  Vaccines are a public good. In some countries that is not so clear. Then, I would submit, the case for justifying restrictions only on those who did not “voluntarily” take the vaccinations would be an uneasy one. It would be harder to justify the restrictions in such a society. Thankfully, that is not an issue in Canada. That shows the advantage of doing some things for the common good.

Most of us have come to appreciate that, except for some religious groups like the Church of God Restoration. They don’t appear to believe in the common good. They want to exercise their religious rights whether that is good for everyone or not.

As I said earlier, the government must justify its restrictions and the onus of proving that the restrictions are in fact justified is on the government. If the government is not able to prove the restrictions are justified on the basis I have shown, those restrictions cannot survive a challenge. Some people have argued that because it is estimated that it will take between 6-8 months to vaccinate everyone it is not a good idea to usher in a phased opening up of restrictions for those who have got the vaccine, because this will erode public trust and confidence in the system. People will feel resentful at what they believe is inequity. As a result, social cohesion is being jeopardized by such an approach. Social solidarity is a very valuable common good. That has been amplified demonstrated over and over again during this pandemic. We need social cohesion and trust. Without that we cannot have good government or good social and health policy. We must be careful not to jeopardize this important social good.

This is an argument worth considering. My own view is that this is a risk worth taking.  I recognize that social solidarity is common good that must be included in our weighing and balancing of those goods. I think those of us who are not at the head of the line for vaccines have to learn to suck it up for the common good. Those of us who do that must not be consumed by resentment. For the greater good, we have to learn to accept that. Then, if we do that successfully, we will have achieved greater social solidarity because those who got the advantages will be forced to acknowledge what those who got their benefits later agreed to allow others to go first.

Added to that, we must also consider that opening up the economy on a phased in basis, rather than waiting until everyone is safe, will bring about substantial economic benefits to which we will all have access. Then this would make economic and social sense. That would also be a common good.  The common good is very important.

I hope I am not being a Pollyanna a here. I would like to know what others think.

Clean Air


When we were in Paris a couple of years ago we noticed that there were places in the city where the government had provided electrical sites to charge their electric cars. Manitoba does this as well but to a very limited extent. In discussions with an American he asked me, “why should the government pay for that? ”Why should I have to pay for someone else to charge his car?” I would say in response that we should all pay for that because we all want a clean environment. Clean air is a public good and we should all pay for it. Besides, the government spends billions (many billions) subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. Surely it can spend a little to subsidize cars that don’t pollute the air and don’t increase our greenhouse gas emissions. Though I recognize that electric cars are not all good either. Life is rarely that simple. We all have to realize that there are many public goods that are important to a good life on this planet. We must all pay for those. The French have learned this. Canadians and Americans not so much.

One good thing about the Covid-19 pandemic is that we are starting to appreciate (not nearly enough of course) that the common good is important. Often more important than private goods, no matter what those who hoard the private goods tell us. It’s time to start thinking for ourselves.

E pluribus unum



Ken Burns has produced some magnificent television documentaries for Public Broadcasting in the US. Burns likes the traditional Latin motto of the United States E pluribus unumwhich means  “Out of many, one.” I like it too.  It appears on the Great Seal of the United Sates. Arthur Schlesinger complained that the United States suffered from too much pluralism and not enough one. It was adopted in 1782 but since then another motto has been more popular: “In God we Trust.”  I don’t like that one quite as much. In 1956 Congress adopted it as the official motto of the country. What ever happened to separation of church and state?

Ken Burns said that too often we think we connected and we are actually disconnected from each other. There are no more town greens. PBS is part of the commons. It is part of the public square. Burns says it is one place where we can have rational discourse in difficult times when the tapestry of the commons is frayed. Times like these. I think that is a pretty good motto.

The Commons: Where you don’t have to be rich, to be rich


It was nice to a visit from 2 friends from Steinbach. Ken Loewen and Rudy Nikkel. It felt strange to get together in Arizona, but it was most enjoyable. We had a convivial evening of food, wine, and friendship mixed with jovial conversation.

Ken and decided to go on a hike on the Hieroglyphic Trail in Gold Canyon. I had hiked it a few years ago and loved it. The 1.5-mile trail follows a fairly gentle slope covered with many cactuses in the canyon and terminates at a lovely almost dry pool that persists for much of the year. I actually thought there would be no water in this dry year, but Rudy had said there was still some water in the pool. Not much, but enough to make the trip worthwhile.

Ken Loewen reflected in the pool


Ken Loewen and John Neufeld at the top of the trail

Surprisingly we met Rudy leading another group of Steinbachers when we reached the top.Amazingly, Rudy told us he had run up the trail earlier in the week. Even when I was young I was never able to run up such a hill. Today, being an old man in sorry shape, running was out of the question. Walking was plenty of challenge for Ken and I.

Rudy Nikkel at the top of the world

I heard an interesting comment on National Public Radio (‘NPR’) recently. NPR here is a bit like CBC Radio. Great in other words and like CBC radio without commercials.

The commentator commented on the marvel of Arizona’s trail systems. You can go hiking on countless trails in the area. Some of them with spectacular scenery. All worth the trip. The person said, “Arizona trails are where you don’t have to be rich to be rich.”

Then I thought about this statement a little more. That statement really applies to much more than the trails. For example, it applies to the wonderful national, state and municipal parks. It applies to public education. It applies to publically sponsored art galleries. It applies to public health services. It applies to all of the commons. Often common “property” is much more valuable than private property. The only flaw was a complete absence of wild flowers. You can never have it all.

Life is good. The commons is good. Friendship is good. Sometimes you don’t need much to be rich. .