Price and value are not the same thing

(April 14, 2021)

ONE of the challenges of teaching, like many other professions, is keeping up to date with the latest scholarship. For me, that means a lot of reading.

At the top of my end-of-term pile is former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney’s recent book, Value(s): Building a Better World for All. A quick skim confirms what convinced me to buy it: lines such as “Climate change is the ultimate betrayal of intergenerational equity” jump out at me — could Carney actually be thinking beyond the usual poker-chip economics that only cares about winning the game?

It seems so. These days, too many politicians (and their economist sidekicks) illustrate Oscar Wilde’s quip about knowing “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” To use Carney’s words, they instead need to learn that our “values” should reflect what is truly important, what really matters, in our lives together. After all, values lead to reasons, and reasons lead to choices.

Unfortunately, we have been doing a spectacularly bad job of making wise choices. This is why the planetary ecological balance is at risk, as human activities threaten our children’s future, and our own, too.

So, we need to work backward from the choices people make, first to figure out their reasons, then to figure out the values behind those reasons — and then change them. I am worried, however, by what this process reveals about political leadership in Manitoba.

I don’t care how many kitchen-table props and homespun homilies Premier Brian Pallister offers up at press conferences. What matters is what he actually does, afterwards. It is increasingly clear that the values Pallister demonstrates in his actions are different from the values that most Manitobans think are important. This is why the approval ratings of Canada’s most unpopular premier are in free-fall.

You might expect I will now focus on the ways provincial government money (our money) is being weaponized by him against unions, teachers, school boards, health-care workers, students, farmers, municipalities, First Nations communities, small businesses and environmental groups, to suit Pallister’s compulsive ideological agenda of budget cuts, no matter who gets hurt or what gets wrecked.

But this is way too easy a target. These are his choices, for sure, and we get offered rambling anecdotes as reasons for those choices that are easily dismissed as illogical or misinformed.

The real problem is what lies behind those feeble reasons and poor choices. While Pallister looks like a poster child for Carney’s critique of leaders who only measure value in terms of dollars and cents, there is a more troubling problem here: his values.

So, what can we discern about Pallister’s core values, from the choices he makes? Despite the media shtick, he does not demonstrate a big heart for the less fortunate. After all, no one accidentally buys a house on Wellington Crescent and a vacation home in Costa Rica; nor do you make a lot of money in any insurance business by discounting premiums and being generous in settling claims.

Yet apparently in Pallister’s worldview, this is OK, because we are all responsible for our own destiny — our success or failure. Government is supposed to get out of the way, and allow people either to reap the rewards of their labour or to suffer the consequences of their poor choices.

As a sop to conscience, occasional charity is bestowed on the less fortunate — such as $200 cheques for all Manitoban seniors, from a government simultaneously slashing (or off-loading) basic services and leaving some of those seniors to die, unprotected from COVID-19 in underfunded care homes.

This is not real generosity, nor is it the kind of compassion Manitobans consistently demonstrate to each other. We are often the most generous province, per capita, in charitable giving. The rural communities Pallister assumes will always support his PCs only survived their first 150 years because people cared more for each other than for themselves.

Money was a distant second to quality of life, for everyone; care and compassion were the expression of shared religious beliefs, or just of being a good neighbour. Yet, as the world spins into an uncertain future, we know that we need each other now more than ever. We are in this together, rich or poor, privileged or not, and the divide-and-conquer, slash-and-burn choices of Pallister’s government help no one — except, perhaps, Brian Pallister.

You see, I think the key value behind everything he chooses is Pallister’s desire to leave some political legacy behind him, some monument to his personal accomplishments. At the rate he is going, however, that legacy won’t be another Duff’s Ditch; more likely, it will be a smoking hole in the ground, one that will take a generation, at least, to heal.

Mark Carney says we should be “building a better world for all.” If Pallister would only read this book, too, perhaps his values — and therefore his choices — might change.

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Finding hope where the love light gleams

(December 14, 2020)

If there is a COVID-19 Christmas song this year, it surely must be I’ll be Home for Christmas. Written for those who were overseas in military service during the Second World War, its most famous recording was by Bing Crosby in 1943.

The emotional punchline comes at the end: “Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams. I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

I will never forget the first time I didn’t make it home for Christmas. That song echoed in my ears for weeks beforehand. All of the excitement of a new place, new beginnings, creating new traditions of my own, crashed on the emotional rocks of what, for the first time, was missing.

Christmas is the most poignant of Christian holidays, when whatever we do is measured up against the ghosts of Christmas Past (or Hallmark Christmas movies), and invariably seems to fall short. Especially as family ages and children grow up, there is also the mournful question about who — or how many — will be missing from that Christmas table next year. Every Christmas could be our last — there is no comfort in realizing that it always is, until the next one.

This year, more people than usual will only be home for Christmas in their dreams. Others will never again be able to make that journey, or to sit around the table sharing familiar foods and annual celebrations.

Yet this is not a new circumstance. Every year, many people experience a “blue” Christmas, instead of a “white” one. Like that other Christmas song (by Elvis Presley), they are “blue” because someone is missing. Grief may not wear an obvious face, but at Christmas, at least it has a colour.

Believers who bumper-sticker their Christian faith by proclaiming “Jesus is the reason for the season” miss the point of the Hallmark formula: the meaning of Christmas extends far beyond its religious expression, into the heart of Western society and culture. But that doesn’t mean Bing Crosby got it entirely right, either.

Singing “I’ll be home for Christmas” presumes you have a home, and someone in it who wishes you were there, too. And mistletoe is pointless, unless you have someone to kiss under it. As for the snow, in a climate-changing world, fewer and fewer places have a white Christmas — but none ever did in the southern hemisphere (except Antarctica), and nor much south of Minneapolis, either.

Every year our Christmas celebrations compete — and usually lose — against both the magic of Hallmark (do other people really decorate that much?) and the power of memory (“That’s nice, but I remember when…”). Christmas can too easily become a hollow celebration of inadequacy, of not-quite-enough, of not-as-good-as-before, at least until those hoped-for, magical moments in which all the flaws are swamped by the real feelings those movies try to capture on screen.

And when you don’t make it home for Christmas, or when someone you love never will again, those people and experiences you took for granted before become painfully present through a sense of loss, even grief, that the familiar songs somehow manage to make worse.

Yet the focus of I’ll be Home for Christmas is entirely personal. It’s all about me, and life often gets in the way of what I want for myself. For adults, therefore, Christmas can easily mean a personal sense of magic lost. But that can change in a heartbeat, by seeing Christmas again through the eyes of a child, by receiving gratitude from a stranger helped — or through the wonder of some stranger helping us, unexpectedly.

Growing up, that kind of unrequited generosity was key — giving, more than getting, was central to that feeling of being home for Christmas. With other relatives far away, Christmas dinner was just us — until one casual invitation for some plum pudding became an annual gathering of my father’s Jewish colleagues and spouses that overflowed our dining room.

Family at Christmas became who you chose, not who you were given. As people (like me) moved away and others passed on, that dinner table was filled with other faces and new family members, some celebrating their first Christmas in Canada.

Too many of those soldiers who heard Bing Crosby sing in 1943 were never home for Christmas again. But that doesn’t mean they were loved any less — then, or now.

As we make plans for a COVID-19-infused holiday season this year, in which our care for other people (not just public-health rules) means staying where we are, we need to remember this:

That lyrical “love light” will find each one of us this Christmas Eve once again, because it gleams as far as we need it to, in time and in space. Wherever we are, and whomever we are missing, that is a dream of home worth having.

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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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