Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Death of Dignity

So the good people of Valley Stream, New York, now have a dubious claim to fame: they are the world's deadliest shoppers. News reports around the world reported that Jdimytai Damour, an employee at the local Wal-Mart, died after a crowd smashed the door and trampled him as they rushed to find holiday bargains. This, at 4:55 am, 5 minutes before the store was set to open. As authorities struggled to close the store, shoppers were indignant. Even when told a man had died, some insisted they be permitted to continue shopping. Noone is being charged in the incident, but union officials and police are blaming Wal-Mart for having insufficient security.

Seriously? The fault is with the store for not stopping the crowd from becoming a deadly mob in the first place? Maybe, it's just me, but I'm inclined to blame the people who, you know, TRAMPLED A MAN TO DEATH.

To be sure, many were likely tired and frustrated by a long wait. Perhaps some were obsessed with finding the toy that -- in its absence -- would ruin Christmas for their children. And I'm sure that none of them meant for anyone to get hurt. There are plenty of excuses. Still, what line of reasoning compels not a few, but two thousand people to line up outside a Wal-Mart in the middle of the night, so that they can go shopping at five am? I wouldn't do it. You know why?

It's beneath me.

This sort of thinking is too rare these days. In our egalitarian world, the idea that certain things are beneath one's dignity seems like snobbery. Thus that which is crass and embarrassing can be undertaken without second thought. And if we feel no embarrassment over lining up at 3 in the morning to be the first to get a stuffed toy or MP3 player, what's wrong with pushing someone out of the way to get it. And if we're not ashamed to push people, why not step on one or two as well. And if someone dies, well, at least I have my new TV.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Fast Talk: Inappropriate

I read in the news today that Carleton University's student's union has embarrassed itself by canceling its annual cystic fibrosis fundraiser on the grounds that the disease affects mainly white men, and why should they get any help? But what interests me most is the university's response. The President expressed "regret" over the decision and said the student union used language that was "inappropriate."

Leaving aside the issue of how one can regret something that someone else did, I'm really starting to chafe at the overuse of the word "inappropriate." To be sure, there are times when appropriateness of language is important, but it has become commonplace to reject any statement one objects to as "inappropriate." It's a nasty little trick, though. Nasty because it tends to head off any debate over the original utterance. One can't defend the original statement because it was never attacked as wrong, just inappropriate. And since what's appropriate is usually a matter of taste, the conversation typically ends there. Meanwhile the university president (or whoever) seems to take a thoughtful moral stand without having to actually take a stand on anything at all.

What the Carleton President should have said was that the student union's motion was wrong in its facts and shameful in its mean-spiritedness. But then I suppose I'm expecting too much for a leader of an institution of higher education.

Such courage would, I guess, be inappropriate.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Universities and Democracy

I have voted in every federal and provincial election in Canada since I was old enough to legally do so. This past election, though, I seriously considered not voting at all. My reasons were perhaps predictable, and all went to a growing sense that electoral democracy was an exercise in futility. To wit:

1. A great many, if not most, voters are woefully under-informed about the issues.

2. A great many, if not most, voters vote based on things other than the issues, such as who their parents voted for.

3. Modern politics features very little debate over substantial matters and leans instead of ad hominem attacks and generic “messages” that ignore the serious and complex problems that we face.

In response to this, I could only feebly invoke the old saw that democracy is the worst system of government except for all the others. Shouldn’t there be a better way? I found myself frequently thinking back to the suggestion made by H.L Mencken that legislators should be chosen like jury members: at random and against their will.

But my thinking on democracy may be changing, and my inspiration came from a strange place: David Mamet’s play about university politics, Oleanna. In the play, a pompous professor, who has made his career by criticizing higher education as, among other things, a form of torture, is attacked by a student for various abuses of power. Her attacks are unfair, but he is finished before he even begins to defend himself because he has already refuted his own defense: which is the system itself is a fair one and justifies his exercise of reasonable power over his students.

In other words, what he should point out is that professors should have authority at universities because they have earned PhDs, and because they have won their positions over those less qualified, and because they have been reviewed repeatedly prior to earning tenure. But, comes the reply, does it not happen that poorly qualified candidates are hired? Yes. Do not some incompetent or mean-spirited professors earn tenure despite the reviews? Yes, they do. But the system itself is not a bad one, even with its imperfections, and it’s probably better than the alternatives.

Democracy is this way, too, I think. If a member of parliament were asked what gives her the right to enact laws, she would rightly say that being elected by her constituents gives her the right. Do some foolish and venial people get elected? Of course, but the system itself is a good one, and better than the alternatives. And not just better than the alternatives (as the old saw has it) but noble: the people choose who will rule on their behalf; the governors are responsible to those they govern.

All great endeavours are compromised daily by the quotidian reality of human life. But we persevere because the ideas themselves – justice, democracy, education – are worth holding onto.

Next election, I will be voting.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Wonderful World of ISDY: Seattle

Recently, a staff member at a Seattle Mariners game asked two women in the stands (one of whom apparently was a minor celebrity following a stint on a reality TV show) to stop kissing because it was making other patrons uncomfortable, even though other heterosexual couples were making out nearby. The supposed reason the women were singled out? There were kids around.

Now, I can understand it (though not condone it) if an overzealous usher does something stupid. Stupid happens. But what has amazed me is that in a town that I thought would have roundly condemned this obviously discriminatory act, an enormous debate has broken out as to whether or not gays and lesbians should be treated like everyone else.

According to one Seattleite: "I don't think it's right seeing women kissing in public. If I had my family there, I'd have to explain what's going on.'' Right. Why on Earth would anyone want to explain something to a child? Where would parents be if they had to explain things to their children? Good lord, what if they start asking why the man running for President is black?

Seriously, what is so hard about saying to little Courtney or whatever her name is, "Well, a lot of men like to kiss women and a lot of women like to kiss men. But some men like to kiss other men and some women like to kiss other women." It's not like the kid is asking about the infield fly rule.

Of course, it's not that the outraged fans can't explain it. They don't want to. Why not? First, because if they have to explain it, they can't pretend it isn't real. Second, if they explain it to their kids, the kids might not disapprove.

People of Seattle: I'm so disappointed in you.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

From the Mailbag: Not Single?

Q. I've heard that you're not single anymore and that you have a girlfriend. What was the dating scene like?

A. The thing that no one emphasizes about dating is that it's largely spending time with strangers, and I have never been good with strangers. It takes me a while to get to feel comfortable with people. I kept imagining first dates filled with sparkling and witty conversation, and maybe that happens for people if they are really lucky. And if they are lucky enough to go out with someone more instantly charming than I.

As for my girlfriend -- and I have to say, I love saying I have a girlfriend -- she and I kind of stumbled into a relationship. For a while, I thought I definitely did NOT want to end up in a relationship that way. I wanted to meet someone out of the blue and be absolutely dazzled and all that jazz. But now I see that the old saw about the journey and not the destination does not apply here. With love, it's where you end up, not how you get there.

Friday, May 30, 2008

New Feature: Mailbag

Every once in a very long while, someone tells me that they want me to write more on this blog. I'd like to help out, but I've been a little tapped out in the ideas department lately.

So help me out: what have you been dying to know about what I think?

Email me at and mention that the question is for the blog. I won't reveal your name to the blog-reading public in general, I promise.

Age and Respect

A little while ago I came across a list of things that one was supposed to do to make the local community better. I remember two of them, one I thought was smart -- "Fix it even if you didn't break it" -- and one I thought was stupid: "respect your elders."

Now, in case anyone older than me reads this blog (I doubt it, but just in case), I'm not calling for a campaign against the elderly or anything like that. But I hear this "respect the elders" thing a lot and it never fails to bother me. When I was more directly involved with the Green Party I used to hear a lot about how we should be tapping this valuable resource that was the elderly; they were the ones who could guide the younger generation and so on and so on. In some churches, I understand, the board of directors is actually termed "elders."

But is it really the case that the simple fact of being advanced in years lends one a great store of wisdom and gravitas? I doubt it. Certainly, those who have been around the sun a few more times than the rest of us may have had the chance to acquire wisdom and no doubt some have, but as far as I can tell, age is just as likely to bring prejudice and bitterness as it is to bring compassion and wisdom.

The whole appeal to respect for elders is an instance of easy self-congratulation by those who make the appeal. If I look to the silver-haired old sages for guidance, I myself must be wise and thoughtful since I recognize the dignity and insight of the older generation. Don't fall for it. Judge people as they ought to be judged, on their own character and behaviour, not on their membership in any group. The young may be distinguished by their energy or burdened by naivete; the old may be enlivened by sagacity or weighed down by self-righteousness. Take your human goodness where you find it.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Fast Talk: Alphabetical Order

Sometimes I get an idea for a blog entry but it doesn't really blossom into a fully formed entry in my head, so the darn thing never gets written. But then I thought, why should these little gems lay buried in the deep ocean of my mind, unseen by the masses hungry for my insights? Then I thought I was full of myself.

Nevertheless, I am instituting a new feature here on the blog. At first I was going to call them "Quickies" but hey, this is a blog for all ages, so I settled on "Fast Talk." These entries will be short and sweet but every bit as odd and charming as the full length versions. Enjoy.

Alphabetical Order

Every once in a while someone notices that my books and CDs and DVDs are arranged in alphabetical order and they chuckle at me with the look that communicates sympathy for my obvious OCD. Sometimes there is even a patronizing, "You put these all in alphabetical order?"

But I like alphabetical order. For one thing, there are often delightful little ironies that emerge when things are arranged alphabetically. My movie collection finds Finding Nemo right next to A Fish Called Wanda. How wonderful!

But even more wonderful is the profound elegance of it. A few easy to remember rules and any mass of information -- the titles of every movie ever made, let's say -- can be put into a useful arrangement with due diligence. I get a thrill putting a new title in it's proper place knowing it is in its proper place, Superman modestly moving aside to make way for Spiderman, 50 First Dates and 10 Things I Hate About You sliding in nervously next to 12 Angry Men (in my system, numbers go first before letters, though I could have treated them as if the words were spelled out -- these are judgement calls).

So when my friends snicker at me for putting things in alphabetical order, I snicker back with an equally patronizing, "how else would you do it?"

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sleepy thoughts on Foghorns

I live near the coast, and when it's foggy I hear the plaintive cry of the local foghorn.

I like the sound of the foghorn, when it's foggy at least. And the other night, as foggy a night as it gets, as I drifted off to sleep I wondered what it was about that sound that seemed so comforting. And I think I figured it out.

It has to do with the foundations of civilization. I'm not kidding. The foghorn blows so passing ships have a warning and don't crash into the rocks near shore. The foghorn doesn't know who's out there, but it blows loud and clear just in case. I suppose some tiny slice of my tax money goes to pay for that foghorn, and I think it's money well spent.

You see, the very idea of the foghorn is a recognition that we are all in this thing together. We all need each other sometimes and, sometimes each of us gets lost. The foghorn sounds across the waves and tells anyone out there: though the mist and the darkness are all around, we are here, and we'll help you find your way.

So sleep well, my friends, and when you seem adrift, listen. Someone is out there -- you don't know who -- just beyond where you can see, and they don't want you to crash into the rocks.