Truth hath a quiet breast

All these years I have been naïve, I suppose; I did not question that democracy entailed giving those governed a say in their fate. Perhaps I was not thorough enough in my analysis of the matter, and assumed that this would be obtained when and if a sufficient majority agreed to a particular proposal. But as I grew older and more contemplative, I recognized that merely acceding to the majority’s decision might leave the remaining minority at a disadvantage – disenfranchise them in a way.

I began to appreciate the wisdom of a tripartite system of governance for at least attempting inclusivity. This consisted of the elected members of government to create and uphold laws, the courts to interpret those laws and ensure they were upheld, and a free and unfettered press to inform the governed whether that was indeed happening -holding truth to power, as we now call it.

The naïveté, though, was in believing that simply informing the public of the state of affairs would be sufficient -that the mere declaration of independently confirmed facts would allow people to decide whether or not things were proceeding as they had believed. But it seems I was wrong -starry-eyed, or at least dangerously innocent of the power of confirmation biases in this era of socially mediated information-bubbles.

I am older now, though; I have been left behind, and perhaps the mist of years is beginning to envelope me like a gauze winding sheet. But, every so often, I find a tear in the fabric so I can see the room in which I lie more clearly. And I can smile, and hope that there is a route from the labyrinth that does not pass the Minotaur -or that there is, somewhere, a modern Theseus…

An essay in the Conversation by Kamyar Razavi, a television news producer and PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University offered me a kernel of hope. https://theconversation.com/how-journalists-can-rebut-trumps-fake-news-claims-110307

He begins by outlining the problem: ‘The news media wield tremendous responsibility over democratic discourse. Yet all too often the media are blamed for fuelling mistrust… News reports typically identify a conflict (a war), diagnose its causes (ISIS) and draw on sources (military analysts) to shed light on what’s going on. But there’s a fourth frame, identified by journalism scholar Robert Entman, that is easy to overlook in news reports — discussing remedies to problems.’ This is so-called ‘solutions journalism’.

‘Solutions journalism tries to change the journalistic equation by giving more prominence to solutions… [but, it] is not about advocating for solutions. It’s about turning a light on the remedies by making them a more prominent part of the narrative… For instance, where a typical climate change story may report on the latest doom-and-gloom statistics about forest fires, a solutions-oriented piece might explore the simple steps you can take to fireproof your backyard and your home. The solutions story still gets you thinking about climate change and forest fires, but in a way that is far more familiar and accessible.’

While disasters capture attention in the news, they seldom help us to think about how they might be avoided -especially if the next day, or even the next column, there are reports of yet another catastrophe. In other words, there seems to be ‘excessive emphasis in news reports on chaos, conflict and all that is wrong in the world —as opposed to what is actually working… It’s this constraining dynamic that can drive people into echo chambers and filter bubbles. It also makes people cynical.’

‘According to McIntyre and Gyldensted [journalism scholars], one of the ways journalists can open up a discussion about solutions is by adding a future orientation to their story — by asking, and trying to answer, the question: “What now? For example, reporters can ask their sources how problems could be solved, how people could collaborate, or what kind of progress their sources envision.” Another technique for drawing out solutions is for reporters to ask questions that get at people’s reasons for thinking a certain way — or that tap into what “the other side” thinks’.

I like this approach, because as Razavi points out, ‘solutions journalism gives people more reasons to think there are ways out of difficult problems — because there usually are.’ Hopelessness does little to encourage solutions -sometimes we need a few flowers.

I will always remember the day that my father died. I was at work at the hospital when my brother phoned, and told me of his not unexpected death at home. I had just delivered a baby, and was sitting in the nursing station writing my notes. Up to then, it had been a wonderful occasion with the husband and their four year old daughter in attendance at the birth. But after the phone call, I found I couldn’t concentrate, and the words I wrote seemed to belong to someone else -seemed, in fact, to describe something that had happened in another life. Another place…

Close to tears, the timing of the two ends of life did not escape me, but the coincidence seemed purposeless. Unfair. The nurses noticed my obvious distress, and smiled encouragingly at me as they hurried about on their never-ending duties. Some of them stopped to ask me why I seemed so sad, but I had trouble answering without giving in to uncontrolled sobs and looked away with a shrug at the questions. I had already told them his death was imminent, so I think they understood.

But as I sat there, staring at the chart with inchoate thoughts swirling about slowly in my head, I felt a tap on my leg.

“Doctor?” a little voice beside me said.

I looked down at the sad face of the little girl who had just become a sister. She was holding a single flower from one of the bouquets in her mother’s room -a white rose, I think. She reached up and handed it to me as a tiny smile crept onto her face. Her eyes twinkled as they locked with mine, and long black curls of hair danced on her shoulders with the movement of her arm. She was dressed in a long white princess dress with silver sparkles that shimmered under the fluorescent lights, and in that moment she reminded me of a latter-day Shirley Temple come to visit.

“Mommy thought you could use this,” she said, the smile growing with each word as the nurses stood around to watch.

And yes, I needed that -it touched me more than I could guess. There is always hope when there is someone to share it with. There is always purpose, even when it seems to arrive like the shadow from a departing cloud.

Anarchy loosed upon the world

It was a warm and sunny afternoon -a wonderful day to find a park bench and read my book. I had the perfect place in mind, too: a lonely meadow surrounded by trees overlooking the ocean just outside the city. I could divide my face between book and breeze, birds singing in the trees, and ships passing quietly on the horizon -retirement pleasures.

It was the middle of the week and the park was almost empty, except for a couple sitting on a bench while their child played quietly in the grass in front of them. They looked up at me and smiled pleasantly when I sat on the bench beside theirs and then continued their conversation. Their little girl, who had been talking to a doll she was holding, stared at her parents for a moment, and then stood up and walked slowly over to me.

She spoke softly, and I couldn’t really hear what she said, but she was obviously more curious than afraid. She couldn’t have been more than two or three years old and her long black hair danced merrily over a grey sweatshirt that was only partially still tucked into her jeans. I had to chuckle at the earnest expression on her face as she examined me where I sat. Finally, after a quick glance at her parents, she raised her ragged cloth doll to show it to me.

I smiled warmly, delighted at the gesture, and nodded my head to show her I liked the doll. Her eyes twinkled with pleasure and she touched the doll’s hand to my knee.

The father seemed nervous though, and I could tell he was watching me closely. “Sorry, mister,” he said when our eyes met. “She and mother just here,” he continued in a heavy accent. He beckoned to his little girl, obviously embarrassed that she might be bothering me. “Haya,” he called, and the little girl ran over to him, laughing, and then began to play with the doll again on the grass in front of them.

I settled in to read my book, but found myself too distracted by the gentle breeze, and the sun glinting off the white collars of waves rolling in from the open sea. When I looked up again, I noticed that another man was sitting on the only other bench and staring rudely at the couple. He seemed upset, for some reason.

“Where are you from?” he asked -although it sounded like the demand a suspicious policeman might issue, rather than a question.

I suppose I am naïve, or perhaps too accustomed to different cultures from my years as an obstetrician, but it was only then that it occurred to me that his wife was wearing a hijab, although the husband was casually dressed in western attire.

The father smiled to diffuse the man’s tone. “Aleppo,” he answered.

But the man screwed up his forehead as if the word meant nothing to him.

“Syria,” the father added, his smile less certain now.

“And do you make your wife wear the headscarf?” The man’s tone was not friendly.

The father seemed at once perplexed, and perhaps offended that a stranger would talk to him that way, but he managed to keep the smile on his face. “I… Eva only just here…”

The man was scowling at him now, and I could see he was about to say something about that, when the woman raised her eyes from her lap and stared at him. “I choose to wear the hijab,” she said in flawless English. “Is that a problem for you, sir?”

The man clearly did not expect that, and his expression changed from irritation to surprise. He shook his head slowly, a little embarrassed I thought. “No…” I could tell he was trying to think of something to say, now that he realized the woman was fluent in English. “But you’re in Canada now… Why would you still choose to wear it?”

She smiled a patient smile -as if she were a teacher dealing with a slow student. “Would you choose to wear something different if you found yourself in Aleppo?”

The man was clearly taken aback, and looked at the little girl for a moment as he considered his answer. “But… But the scarf-thing makes you stand out here…”

Her smile grew as he spoke. “Is it the ‘scarf-thing’, or is it my brown skin, or maybe my husband’s accent…? “ She glanced at her husband and said something to him in Arabic that I couldn’t hear, let alone understand. “We are different, sir.” The man stared at his lap, and I think he was blushing. “So, would you like us to choose a different bench, or a different country?”

He looked up from his lap and stared at her. “I… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“Yes, you did, sir. And isn’t it interesting that when you actually talk to one of us, you find another human answering back?” She whispered something to her husband and he smiled at her. “You know, we’re grateful to be in Canada, but in truth, we would have gone to any country that was safe if it had taken us in. We were just the fortunate ones that got chosen by your country.”

“I… I really didn’t mean to…”

The woman shook her head vehemently and the floral patterns on her maroon hijab jumped back and forth. “Yes, I think you did…” But at that point her face relaxed and her eyes softened. “I think we needed to have this conversation, you know. Sometimes you have to confront things head on, don’t you think? Clear the air…” She stood up and walked over to the man, her husband in tow. “I’m called Eva,” she said as the man rose to greet them. “And this is Rifat.”

Rifat extended his hand in greeting.

The man finally smiled and shook the proffered hand. “And I’m George. I’m so sorry I’ve been rude…” He was about to say something more when he noticed a tug on his coat. As he looked down to see what it was, the little girl stared up at him and touched his leg with the doll’s arm. Even from my distance away, I could see his eyes brighten and his entire face become a smile.

Are we unreasonable? I’m not a sociologist, but the recent upheavals in the public domain certainly do not reassure me. When the falcon cannot hear the falconer, things fall apart, as Yeats came to believe. And yet, although incivility seems to be spreading like a virus, does this really signal something bad? Something untenable?

I cannot say that the populist trends in societal discourse cause me to fear Armageddon, but I am old now; History is my companion, and Time has perhaps dimmed the consequences that may hide ahead. I was, however, both heartened and intrigued by the essay of Steven Klein, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Florida, in the online publication, Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/against-civility-or-why-habermas-recommends-a-wild-public-sphere

‘In democracies around the world, anxious commentators exhort their fellow citizens to be more open-minded, more willing to engage in good-faith debate. In our era of hyperpolarisation, social-media echo chambers and populist demagogues, many have turned to civility as the missing ingredient in our public life.

‘So, how important is civility for democracy? According to one of the greatest theorists of the democratic public sphere, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, not very. For Habermas, the function of public debate is not to find a reasonable common ground. Rather, the public sphere ‘is a warning system’, a set of ‘sensors’ that detect the new needs floating underneath the surface of a supposed political consensus. And if we worry too much about civility and the reasonable middle, we risk limiting the ability of the public sphere to detect new political claims.’

‘Consensus is not the highest good… Democracy, according to Habermas, requires a vibrant political sphere and political institutions that are able to respond to and incorporate the energy that arises from debate, protest, confrontation and politics.’

The more I think about Habermas’ contention that argument and disagreement are necessary bricks in societal progress, the more I understand importance of challenging what we have come to believe. We are all unfinished paintings, and unless we step back from the canvas from time to time, we lose perspective; we lose the ability to see what others see. We become the pentimento we are trying to cover up.

The Dark Night of the Canadian Soul

I hesitate to refer to the 16th century mystic Spanish poet St. John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul, but I am troubled by the political process in which I feel engulfed. Swallowed… And yes, powerless. And it’s not so much that I disagree with the ideology expressed or dislike the personalities of the leaders and their approach to solving what they feel are the problems confronting the country (according to their polls) –that is politics and universal. If it were only that, it would then become merely a matter of taste or confirmation bias that determined my vote. I might feel disappointed if I didn’t get my choice of government, but not angry.

But I feel angry now –already. Or is it helpless? I find myself powerless to change what appears to be happening around me. Mutating around me as I watch. Party after party seems to be willing to debase itself for votes, pandering to the fearful in one population and the ignorant in another. It is not a principled approach and it does not provide equality for all –or even most.

It seems to me that in a democracy –especially one that espouses multiculturalism as does Canada- it is the rule of law that must be equitable: laws that apply to all -and equally, no matter whether it is a small minority whose ethnic or geographic culture pulls it in an awkward direction, or an elsewhere-maligned religious group who chooses to dress differently from our current norm. Democracy –at least as I imagine it- is not simply the rule of the majority; intrinsic to it is an obligation to protect the minorities within it because it is the right thing to do. And because the law applies to everyone –even minorities.

The rights of all should not be subject to arbitrary or capricious revision without exhaustive and careful consultation from all those who might be affected. It should not be so much a majority decision, as an examined and consensus-driven decision. One side should not be pitted against another. As in international relations, the ideal would be for all sides to talk to each other. Communicate. And while a decision need not be unanimous, it should at least meet with the general approval of every side. Polling –no matter how cleverly conceived- canvasses only those who are polled…

But you wonder why I am angered and not simply disappointed at the political process? I seems as if I can no longer vote for the principles I hold important. Perhaps I have retrospective falsification of my memory, but I can’t remember as much divisiveness in federal politics before -as much negative advertising, as much pretended obsequiousness and crawling for power. As much casting aside of principles in a desperate grab for control. I am appalled that we, as a nation, must tolerate this fawning pretense of servility. Appealing to the lowest common denominator may seem fair to some, but it is certainly not the way to run a country for all.

I blame the current government for acceding to those who would divide the country to satisfy their agenda. I blame the political system for allowing those who stumble first past the post (FPTP) to be elected even if they have not earned the majority of votes. And I blame us all –you and me- for not demanding a more representative way of electing the government. As much as I dislike using quotes from Wikipedia, one of their summaries does seem to illustrate my frustration with FPTP: Wasted votes are votes cast for losing candidates or votes cast for winning candidates in excess of the number required for victory. For example, in the UK general election of 2005, 52% of votes were cast for losing candidates and 18% were excess votes – a total of 70% wasted votes. This is perhaps the most fundamental criticism of FPTP, that a large majority of votes may play no part in determining the outcome. This “winner-takes-all” system may be one of the reasons why “voter participation tends to be lower in countries with FPTP than elsewhere.”

In other words, in Canada, I have no option but to attempt to vote strategically -and for someone with whom I do not necessarily agree- simply to make sure that the one I disagree with even more, does not get elected. If I vote on principle, or electoral platform, my vote may be wasted.

So why do I vote? Perhaps because the devil I know may well be worse than the devil I don’t… Help me St. John of the Cross, because I find it truly dark out there.

 

The Tampon Tax

I have to admit that I am sometimes puzzled. Not, you understand, to suggest that I am omniscient at other times, but merely that I, too, am apt to get lost in the various back alleys of our government. They seldom come with maps; they are not meant for untroubled navigation. In fact, I suspect they are purposely labyrinthine –not to encourage questions, but so you can be misdirected more effectively.

I recognize that to run a bureaucracy, decisions have to be made that may not be popular with some, and that for the sake of continuity and efficiency these should not be subject to change on a whim. But sometimes their perusal in daylight reveals egregious errors in judgement, wisdom and even fairness. I also realize that in a caring society, those less fortunate than the majority, those with unmet needs, and those who are unable to access the ears of government should be folded into its bosom. For example, items necessary for health or daily living are usually exempt from extra taxation –value-added taxes (Goods and Services Tax –GST in Canada). It is an assurance that those with special needs –incontinence products, for example- will not be unduly penalized. Admittedly, it is only a small concession, but at least it is an acknowledgement that we are all part of a community, an affirmation that we are all noticed and our differences accepted, if not totally underwritten. There are benefits accruing to membership in Society.

Of course in a democracy the majority will derive the most benefits, if only because it has chosen the government. As long as the minority is not oppressed, ignored, or denied the benefits offered to the rest, I think this is reasonable –or at least the most ethical compromise short of requiring them to abrogate their identity, or leave the country if this is not possible. No, Canada is a multicultural mosaic as we are fond of saying; we cherish difference and relish the weft and woof of our societal fabric.

And yet it seems a discrepant appreciation -an arbitrary one still rooted in attitudes so deeply ingrained that they are visible to those in power only through a public outcry when it threatens their incumbency.

I have long wondered about society’s attitude to menstruation: https://musingsonwomenshealth.wordpress.com/2014/11/26/menstrual-taboos/

Admittedly, we in the West have come a fair way already. The topic is no longer taboo in our public media and, except for the more provocative advertisements for menstrual products, barely provokes an eyebrow. Necessity is the Mother of conversation. And yet the Canadian Government –and the governments in several other countries as well, it would seem- has yet to hear it. If, as I have said, items necessary for health or daily living are granted a tax exemption, then what has it been thinking all this time? Or do Governments think?

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/02/18/no-tax-on-tampons_n_6705022.html

Why menstrual products should be ignored as necessities is beyond me. It can’t be that the issue is a minority one that can be conveniently hidden, or assuaged by a few photo-ops like those assuring a small northern community that the government is indeed looking into building a skating rink for them; this is a 50% issue. Nor could it be construed as a definitional discrepancy: if contact lenses are covered by the dikat, then there’s certainly no argument to exclude menstrual products. Except…

Well, except that those taxes are probably a rich revenue source, for one thing. But, more troubling, is it a remnant of a long-buried attitude towards women and their place in our society? The previously ignored tip of a huge iceburg? A sleeping tiger that government would rather step around –ignore but not arouse?

There are braver souls, however. Individual colours that have managed to disengage themselves from the wallpaper we all wear. Patterns previously unappreciated as they slept undisturbed and unprovoked in the background:  http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/tampon-tax-petition-collects-more-than-50-000-signatures-1.2974155

It would be well for those in charge to walk carefully. The tiger is huge. Feed it. Nourish it. Befriend it.