Loudest voices don’t say smartest things

(January 26, 2021)

If you follow the news cycle, it is impossible to escape the fact we live in a time of strong opinions.

Every time I pick up my pen to reflect on the events of the day, words like “incompetence,” “arrogance,” “negligence” — even “stupidity” — immediately spill onto the page. Whether it is about politics, pandemics or pipelines, I feel angrier and more frustrated every day.

But I also feel like I’m at a wedding social (remember those?) when the party really gets going. As the volume grows, communication is reduced to yelling a few words right into the ear of the person sitting next to you. Everyone is competing to be heard, but no one is getting through. (I always wished there was some giant gong that could be struck when the decibel level got too high, some sign that would make everyone stop and reset their volume to a normal level.)

After all, in life and at wedding socials, it’s not the loudest voices that make the wisest observations. And if words matter as much as I believe, we also need to be careful which ones we choose to use ourselves.

When it comes to the pandemic, the quietest voice in the room is saying “follow the science” — instead of being blown about by the winds of political expediency or battered into accepting the demands of special-interest groups. Simply put, dead people don’t shop — and sick people don’t work — and right now, we have too many of both.

Every single time restrictions have been relaxed, anywhere, there has been a further wave of disease that makes things worse than before. As for the mental-health impact of lockdowns, it is worse to keep saying things might get better, soon, instead of being honest about the longer term. Whatever the public-health guidelines are going to be, put them in place for at least six months at a time, or people will lose trust in the judgment of those now making these decisions every couple of weeks.

For example, I have believed from the start that there won’t be a return to “normal” face-to-face classes at universities until the fall of 2022 — if we are lucky. If everyone adjusted to that more realistic timeline, instead of planning four months (or less) at a time, it would help us all make better decisions about how to live and what to do until then.

As for politics, if we learned everything we needed to know in kindergarten, the past four years have demonstrated that many current politicians were not paying attention to their lessons. Maturity and politics are words not often used together these days; instead, petulance, immaturity and tantrums are commonplace on both sides of the border. Of course, no one gets things right all the time, but mature leadership (however old you are) recognizes its mistakes and corrects them.

Looking at Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister has been hard of hearing throughout his entire political career, so it is no surprise to find it getting worse with age. Unfortunately, the ideological voice in his head has always been the loudest one in the room for him, especially when others start to yell. Admitting mistakes is never easy for any politician, but not admitting them can lead to a Trumpian nightmare that hurts a lot of innocent people, as we have seen.

For example, Bill 57 — the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act (PCIA), introduced without details on Nov. 2 ­— is effectively an authoritarian smackdown of people who protest against the immorality of government actions. The PCIA is guaranteed to inflame and antagonize, and probably will be found to be against the charter rights of Manitobans, too.

It is more in line with Trump’s version of America than with a progressive Canadian province, in which we need to live and work together toward a sustainable future for everyone, regardless of politics.

So, in light of how well that kind of divisive approach has worked in the United States, Bill 57 should be withdrawn, offering the reasonable explanation that there is already ample protection for the welfare and safety of Manitobans within existing legal frameworks. Coupled with an apology, this would go a long way toward setting the stage for the thoughtful public conversations we will need to have about managing the growing climate crisis, with all of its social and economic implications, as the pandemic eventually recedes.

Finally, in terms of ending our political addiction to doing more lines of pipe, the incoming Biden administration has thankfully already demonstrated more wisdom and maturity than our own government. The fossil-fuel industry is only an investment option for those with money to burn (such as banks and pension plans). Everyone else is already investing in green energy and sustainable development, instead, and so should we.

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A single light shining in a dark place

(December 24, 2020)

My favourite part of Christmas Eve church services in different places over the years was always singing Silent Night by candlelight.

There are many variations, of course, but it’s emotionally powerful to see a single candle, burning in the darkened room, and then to watch its light spreading out as all the other candles are lit from it. One by one, the room brightens into (literally) a blaze of light, as the song ends.

I don’t know why singing that carol and candle lighting has become such a western Christmas Eve tradition over the years — its words by Father Joseph Mohr, its simple melody composed by Franz Gruber, and first performed in rural Austria in 1818.

But the image of light overcoming darkness — even a single light — is rooted deep in ancestral memory. Humans have always been afraid of the dark. With eyes adapted to daylight, we are completely vulnerable to predators that see well when we can’t. So the light of a fire kept them at bay, and kept us safe and warm in the dark.

These symbols of light and warmth are most powerful in the northern hemisphere, as we pass the winter solstice on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year. It may not always be the coldest night, but the long darkness can certainly make it feel that way.

Close to the equator, there is little difference between night and day, all year long. But as you move farther north, to the latitudes where most of the people of Europe lived, the cultures there combined the winter solstice with the pagan feast of Yule (and no doubt a few others), the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and finally added the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Long before what we would recognize as math (or even geometry) in more southern climes, people measured and marked the longest night, the furthest distance away from the warmth and light of spring. The candle — or fire — lit at the winter solstice was a reminder that the sun would return, leading people toward the longest day and the first fruits of spring planting.

The famous passage grave in Newgrange I once visited — a megalithic mound built on an Irish hillside 5,300 years ago — precisely angled the entrance to illuminate the central burial chamber as dawn struck on the winter solstice. Similarly, 1,000 years later, the stone pillars at Stonehenge were arranged to have the light strike them at a unique angle at sundown, on the same day.

The image of a single light shining in a dark place transcends the religious and cultural settings in which it is found. “Light One Candle” was a powerful idea long before Peter, Paul and Mary first performed their hit song, because its symbolism extends beyond the duality of light and dark. Whether it is the lights of the menorah, celebrating the miracle of Hanukkah, the celebrations of Diwali lanterns lit for Chinese New Year or any of the local (or family) traditions involving fire and light, all make their defiant contrast against some background of darkness.

Whoever first said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” understood the emotional relationship between light and hope. All it takes is that one first candle to defeat the darkness, no matter how large or strong it seems to be.

As that candlelight service always reminds me on Christmas Eve, we receive the flame from our neighbour to light our own candle. It is our choice to dip the unlit candle to the flame, knowing that when we do it, nothing will ever be the same again, as we then become light-bearers ourselves.

By our choice, and the choices of others around us, it spreads from that one flickering flame to light the whole room — and, once outside those walls, into the world around us and across the generations.

One of the individual lights that went out in 2020 was U.S. congressman John Lewis. Hero of the civil rights movement, because of his persistence in working for justice and equality right to the end, he set an example of hope that will continue to spread and grow.

Throughout his 2017 book, Across that Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Face of America, Lewis drew on that image of a single light in the midst of darkness. Bringing it all home, the last page began:

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim, or diminish your light.”

Whatever the darkness, Lewis’s words remind us that what is good, in ourselves and in others, is the fuel we need to keep that light burning.

This Christmas Eve, in a world darkened by pandemic, may we find ways to share with each other the light we all need.

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Moral, legal have different meanings

(November 20, 2020)

I’ve not been impressed by some of the recent antics of politicians. Instead of just fuming about their behaviour (and to help lower my blood pressure), I reflected on the tangled relationship between law and morality:

First, illegal doesn’t necessarily mean immoral. In fact, laws often lag behind morality by at least a generation — which means, of course, that there is at least one generation of injustice before the laws begin to catch up.

But things can change, and quickly. Once again, cannabis stores are on the list of essential services exempted from lockdown. My classmates perpetually dodged the drug police, fearing one arrest for marijuana possession would close the door on future careers. From prohibited to essential in one election cycle — makes your head spin, right?

There are many other examples. I also grew up being smothered by cigarette smokers, everywhere. If I had protested too vigorously, I would have been arrested for causing a public disturbance. Yet smokers are now banished outdoors to the circle of shame.

Laws work when they reflect the better (moral) angels of our nature — or, at least, those of the majority. Half-hearted legislation, however, means that our moral consensus needs improvement — which is why, despite changes over the years, laws against drunk driving are still weak, enforcement is erratic and punishments meagre — and why I still overhear people saying “I drive better when I’m drunk.”

The problem, of course, is that laws by themselves can’t create morality, though some governments seem compelled to try. Pierre Trudeau’s famous line “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” eventually led to changes in Canadian law on issues such as same-sex marriage. Yet too many other governments worldwide have done the opposite and tried legally to entrench discrimination on the basis of orientation, gender or race.

These efforts may be legal, but they are certainly immoral — and they won’t work. You can pass laws and publish decrees against the tide, but the water still comes rushing in, regardless.

Second, legal doesn’t necessarily mean moral, either. Laws, at all levels, too often reflect the power of those in control, not the moral consensus of a good society. This is why, in our collective history, slavery, apartheid, anti-Semitism, residential schools, and even genocide were sanctioned by the law, despite their obvious immorality. Overcoming injustice meant overturning the law, which is not easily done.

To be fair, however, it is not impossible for laws eventually to direct social change for the better. Sixty years ago, because the law changed and was enforced, a Black first-grade student walked by herself to a white school. Ruby Bridges must have relished the moment Kamala Harris became vice-president-elect, watching as a wave of first-time Black voters made the difference in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and elsewhere.

Yet it took 160 years after the battles of the U.S. Civil War for this to happen, because the United States still remains divided and unconvinced about the immorality of systemic racism.

All of these thoughts then brought me back to those recent antics of politicians:

Soon-to-be-former U.S. President Donald Trump’s post-election Twittering might be legal, but his refusal to concede and to enable a smooth transition to president-elect Joe Biden is certainly immoral. The subsequent spineless behaviour of many Republican congressional leaders in support of Trump’s delusions is an even bigger moral disgrace. Instead of capitalizing on the largest voter turnout in American history, the future of the nation’s democracy (and the country itself) is now more at risk than ever, as a result.

In Canada, the inept wrangling of opposition parties organizing their own twisted version of WE Day in Ottawa is matched to the pandemic opportunism of a Liberal government that continues to prefer pipelines over people, planet or profit. We can’t wait for another generation of injustice to roll by before the laws eventually reflect respect for the land, for the water, and for future Canadians.

We don’t have the money to waste on pipelines no one wants, to carry fossil fuels no one wants to buy, to guarantee a future in which no one is able to live. (Worst of all, in Alberta, and soon in Manitoba, anyone who protests against this fundamental immorality could be thrown in jail.)

Here, Premier Brian Pallister’s government persists with an ideological agenda — in the midst of a pandemic — that aims to slash essential services, undermine education at all levels, dismantle public utilities, abandon small business, ignore farmers, dismiss the youth, privatize public parks, antagonize public servants, fumble public health, erode public trust, and then will just wring its hands when the wheels start to come off.

Is it all legal? Absolutely. Is it moral? Not a chance. Is it just the premier? Or is it the Progressive Conservative Party, too?

The jury’s still out on that one.

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