Beginning on page 47. I am delighted this piece represents my first publication in a literary journal. My thanks to the editors at Shorts Magazine.
This Time the Government is Good for You
Relax, I’m a doctor. Of philosophy, that is. I hold a world top-40 Ph.D. in the human sciences and partly because of this people often ask me to ‘explain’ what is going on right now. I can’t cure the virus, so my skills are not front and center. But step aside with me for a moment, and I’ll attempt to tell you why I think that this time, the government is the right pill for the right job.
Needless to say, as a thinker I am no great fan of the state. Our official apical ancestor, Socrates, was executed by the state for ‘corrupting youth’, which remains a large part of my mission. Kant was ordered by his state to stop writing about religion, a particularly delicate theme in his time even more than in our own. He ignored the order and no doubt said something that wasn’t fit to print in return. So that’s pretty much where I come from in the day to day, when times are mundane and life seems long.
But for the moment, our times are neither. I recently published a new theory of anxiety and so one thing I can tell you right off is that Anxiety, capital ‘A’, is seen by philosophers as a good thing. It’s like an early warning system, an impetus to care, which Heidegger stated was the most fundamental aspect of our beings. This ‘concernfulness’, as he put it, orients ourselves to the most pressing of issues which underlie the day to day of living on. These include the condition of others to self, the future as ‘being-ahead-of-ourselves’, and our thrown and fallen state as beings who exist in the envelope of both ‘finitude’ – existential finiteness that cannot be located at a precise time, just as we cannot know the hour of our individual deaths – and ‘running on’ – moving towards our future deaths but in no conscious or systematic manner. Large-scale crises are certainly something to work against and around, but they also serve to distract and decoy us away from confronting the intimacy of our own deaths, which cannot be shared with any other human being.
So ironically, part of our anxieties regarding COVID-19 concerns how well this crisis will distract us from ourselves, our own lives as we have lived them, and whatever regrets we may have suppressed about them. Anxiety, on the other hand, alerts us to these more intimate aspects of selfhood and does not let us be distracted by the world in any inauthentic manner. Generally, the state is part of this decoy world, issuing this or that decree that appears abstracted from our daily life, even arbitrary. The State is one of theological philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s two examples of the ‘evil of evil’ (the other being the Church). The evil of evil is defined as ‘fraudulency in the work of totalization’. What does this mean?
Traditionally, only a God was omniscient and omnipresent. As secular political life elbowed spiritual life into the margins, indeed, sometimes into the shadows, the state replaced the church as the center of social power. Even so, as a human institution, government is flawed, not at all all-knowing, and not quite everywhere at once. It often pretends that it is both, and in this it is a fraud. Many modern institutions partake in this ‘fraudulence’ as they pretend to be everything for everyone. The university is another obvious example. But with the stern demands the state is placing upon us these days it is flexing its absolute power over civil society, in part, again perhaps ironically, to keep it thus. We are reminded of Lord Acton’s now almost cliché epigram, originally in epistolary form, that ‘power corrupts’, and further ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. So we might be adding this worry to our list of anxieties and generally and in principle, we should always be concerned about limiting the power of the state, lest more governments arise around the globe that lengthen the list of authoritarian regimes.
But this time I’m going to tell you that our governments, at least, are doing the right thing. Listening to real doctors, for instance, and following their advice to the letter. In turn, we as civil and unselfish citizens need to do the same. This does not mean that we shed our individuality for automata, slough off our would-be immortal coils of freedom for slavery and obedience, or regress to the status of young children. It is a choice we make based on the best of knowledge at the time, and one that the vast majority of us, myself certainly included, could not make for ourselves. We do not become thoughtless morons by acceding to this general will. Indeed, it is thinking that has brought us to this point and it is thinking that will see us through to its far end, however indefinite this may appear to be today. At both federal and provincial levels then, we should heed to the letter the demands of the day. So relax, take two governments, and call me in the morning.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of almost forty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.
Me Tar Sand, You Pain
On the general culpability of misogyny and self-hatred
With the confluence of International Women’s Day whose major theme was domestic violence and misogyny, and the appearance of a misogynistic cartoon of Greta Thunberg emanating from Alberta’s resource heartland, it would be sage to note that these kinds of events are not at all unrelated, as Hillary Clinton publicly did some days ago. Yet there is more to such a dynamic than vested interests and the conflict of gender iniquities. Men tend to keep their emotional resources locked deep inside a sediment metamorphosed by machismo, the shallow equivalent of honour, bravado in lieu of bravery, and paternalism instead of chivalry. Such patriarchy may indeed be ‘viral’, as the French protesters aptly suggested, but it is more than that. We men are the human equivalent of the tar sands. Costly to parse from our violent socialization, with dubious merit once so distilled. But if we carry the strata of another epoch within our spirits, women must appear to us as the painful perspective upon our own internal undoing.
Because men have great difficulty in excavating their own human feelings and communicating their experiences in a richer language than that of the joint fascist aesthetic of desire and control, we have projected our still present curiosity and ingenuity into the world. An objectified nature can be subjected much more easily than can be the subject himself, and our subjection of nature is in fact a thinly veiled objection to ourselves. This projection of the will to life in carnal form using only carnival norms threatens to destroy the species. But more intimately, and with a greater resentment, we have also projected our inability to practice an examined self-understanding onto women. It is this that actually provides the clue to the more general problem at hand.
My wife astutely remarked, upon hearing of the Thunberg cartoon decal and the reaction to it, ‘forget about child pornography, this is a hate crime’. Quite so. Instead of listening with compassion and risk to the other who challenges us, who has another perspective, who is sincere but who also does not know us, simply assault them, rape them, beat them down. In doing so, men are once again projecting the violence they feel toward themselves into the world, this time not of nature, but of others. This in turn divides the question of who is human and who should be the steward of the world at hand. For humans, in general, a world in hand is less threatening than a world merely at hand. Women and children as chattel – in many countries yet today they are still defined in this manner; witness the elites of Dubai or the peasants of Afghanistan, the lack of legal deterrents against domestic violence in a Russia hell-bent on increasing its birthrate, the lack of protection against physical violence for children in the United States, the list goes on – are to be taken in hand. The similarity of phrases is not a coincidence.
Violence against women and children, as well as against other men, is the same thing as violence against the world. But women are not nature. The popular mythology of ‘mother earth’ is a distraction that pushes both men and women and all other genders away from truth of things: the world in fact is an anonymous set of forces which is not at all dependent on human life in any manner. It worlds itself without us, and we have, of late, made ourselves a danger to it mostly in relation to our own tenure upon it. Perhaps not only to this, but as well much of life as we have known it. The ‘male gaze’ which objectifies the world of forms and indeed helps to create that world as form and not as an unformed mass of unrelated sense and image, is one of appropriation. It seeks to possess but it also seeks to maintain possession. In this, it is in conflict with itself. For how can one attain the mastery over something and thence forth keep still in one’s mastery? What does it mean to be the master of all things when the attainment of which can afford no further means to satisfy one’s desire for mastery?
The fear of an anonymous and even uncanny nature led in part to the advent of civilization. It is Glacken’s (1967) uncommonly fine historical analysis that allows us such insights in our own time. Today, we hold not so much an antique fear within ourselves but rather resentment. With all our accomplishments, yet we must perish as unique individuals. This is an unquiet thought and men specifically are socialized to feel responsibility for it. We reach out from this disquiet towards an ungodly future; from the desperate quest to evolve the species artificially to the perennially popular fantasies concerning contact with other civilizations to the sense that stem cells etc. can prolong the lives we do have, we struggle with the new role we have assumed; we are now our own gods. Yet we also strain backward towards the all-too-godly past; from the recent resuscitation of the authoritarian family made manifest in ‘intensive’ parenting and strict control over children, to the idea that the family – an institution constructed during a time when women were chattel, hence the prevalence of contemporary violence now reported because in fact women are not chattel, and neither are our children – should even exist as a viable social institution, the return of young people to popular ‘religious-based’ organizations as if these could have any profoundly relevant meaning to the world-as-it-is, we as a species are challenged by the mortality of our condition as never before.
Yet we can ask ourselves, what is the loss of an individual future as against the loss of the future itself? Humans die, but humanity lives on. A man dies after all not as a man but as a human being, his reason suppressed, his soul unexamined and his heart enslaved to a vain desire. A woman dies before her time if she is forced to be less than her own future makes openly possible. A child dies before she even becomes fully human, sentenced to the unutterable violence of the chattel definition and the dictates of moribund institutional ‘life’. Can any of this be called a ‘future’?
The human condition summons us in ways both threatening and non-threatening, says Heidegger. But however we respond, we do not avoid these summons. The climate crisis is a mere symptom, as is that geopolitical. Let us not be decoyed into becoming entangled by a symptomatology in the same way as we would not, disingenuously and with a transparent duplicity, allow ourselves to be seen to too publicly eviscerate courageous women or too harshly discipline equally courageous youth, though both conditions remain the desire of most men and indeed, perhaps most ‘adults’ as well. Instead, confrontation with compassion, heroism without hedonism, chivalry without paternity, honor within authenticity; these are the characteristics that make the noble character from which humanity has gained its only marque of self-respect. In our own time, when respect for others and for the world is at a premium, we must begin by staring not at the mirror, but staring it down, staring through it, until we reach some more insightful sensibility that does not rely upon the force of will alone.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of almost forty books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.
On Being Ignored: Some Advice for Prince Harry
With the news that Harry and Co. were hanging out in my home town perhaps with an eye to resettle there – a no-brainer given the Canadian climate – and with the recent understanding that he blames the low-culture media for the death of his mother – reasonable if incomplete – I have some advice: I’m an expert on being ignored. Indeed, I may be one of the world’s greatest. All one has to do is become a critical social philosopher and practice your craft. In an instant, all your wishes for utter privacy will be attained.
Considering that I am the most prolific scholar of my generation – true, Gen-X hasn’t accomplished much and never will; Tiger Woods is about it – and considering I have come up with numerous new discursive concepts including a new model of the afterlife, a theory of subjectivity that addresses prolonged adolescence in consumer society, a critical-ethical conception of political relations, an analysis of fascism in everyday life, a new theory of anxiety – uh, I could go on – not to mention having written an eleven volume fantasy-sci-fi adventure series that completely obliterates the previous canon and its moribund morality, one might think that I, or at least my work, would be of interest to somebody.
One would be mistaken. Though it is quite true that a retired academic might be imagined as having little to offer the world at large – aside from, in my case, public policy analysis in health, higher education and corrections and justice, pedagogic ability from the widest liberal arts down to the ability to teach ‘TOK’ in IB programs, social and institutional research experience of over twenty-five years, eight years of mid-executive management experience and publications in HR journals [hey, this is beginning to sound like a resume; it’s actually a white flag] and the ability to practice a form of therapy called existential analysis etc. – I had hoped, most naively as it turned out, to be of some use in my autumnal years. From the start of 2018 to the summer of 2019 I applied to over four hundred jobs. I got four interviews. I applied to dozens of volunteer sites, started my own consulting business, led writing workshops and had all of three takers combined. All I can say is thank the Gods for PRIFFs (as well as my brilliantly resilient and resourceful spouse). Perhaps I didn’t go the distance, perhaps I didn’t move to the right place (one executive headhunter I spoke with early on simply said I needed to move to Boston of all places, but as I grew up a Habs fan – my father had been drafted by them back in 1945 but with the returning hordes from Europe only played on their farm club – I had to turn that one down) or perhaps I missed my boat when my editor – ex Scribner’s, ex McClelland and Stewart – asked me to move to New York City back when I was ‘only’ forty-eight. Whatever might have been the case, I now couldn’t get a gig helping out free of charge at the lowest of the low.
I’m even mostly ignored by my friends, as well as those few I have actually helped, the media to whom I have sent oh-so-enlightening articles, small businesses to whom I have offered business, politicians – perhaps this is a good thing – and even Greta Thunberg herself who is, ironically, just as Mr. Putin characterized her: ‘kind, gentle and ill-informed’. She is kind and gentle. Far too much so for the mission at hand. And she is misinformed, though not in the way the Russian leader was perhaps indicating. Twenty minutes once a week makes her a darling of parents, schools and peers alike, not to mention the greater villains. Stating what actually needs to be done makes someone like myself into public enemy number one.
Hence my advice to the Prince. That and move out to an internally divisive thirteen municipality patently cultural backwater locally referred to as the GVRD. But he may have that part down already. So if Prince Harry, or anyone else for that matter, for whom a dubious fame is getting to be all too much – and when does it not if you have any conscience at all; even Hitler, who might not have had a conscience but did have a debilitating social anxiety, succumbed to it in the end – wants to become a true pariah, simply follow in my recently furtive footsteps. I guarantee instant results.
Social Philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty-five books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences in two countries for over two decades and in spite of all of that, has retained some nominal sense of humour.
A Caution Concerning Gender:
The question ‘why do we need men?’ has likely at least been framed on the lips of every Western woman post-war. Today, more globally, it has become a question that can at last be asked by all. Barring the advent of a human parthenogenesis, the basic function of men, reduced to their physical substrate by one sense of such a question, would be to help continue the species. But downloadable consciousness of the type Raymond Kurzweil is predicting would obviate even that biological fallback. We might not need men at all, which would certainly suit the tastes of E. Jean Carroll, for one. Just so, we wouldn’t need women either.
Though journeying with a dog named after a man – this namesake was also a plausible child molester – Carroll travelled the United States in as precise avoidance of everything ‘men’ as she possibly could. And though we are not made aware if she drove on this or that street named after men, she did manage to shop only at stores that were either neutral – were they yet owned by men? – and visited only towns named after women or bearing women’s names, etc. This seemed a cunning enough stunt, and those words are used advisedly, that she must needs write a book about it, itself bearing the title of a close version of the question in question.
Here instead is a slightly immodest proposal: get rid of gender entirely. I am a person and a human being far before I am a man, white, middle-aged, heterosexual. But such ‘persons’ as I also am are themselves a category, and one fashionably much disdained. Yet I too have been solicited, assaulted, and stigmatized by women seeking to impose a toll upon my imagined sexuality or libidinal availability in order that I might further my career. That I have refused all such approaches, sometimes deftly, sometimes not so much, marks me as indeed less of a man, because a ‘real man’ would have simply either shouldered these opportunities as ‘notches on one’s belt’, so to speak, or fully taken advantage of them. What must I have been thinking?
I could simply say ‘#somethinguncouthmetoo’ and leave it at that, but my social role and the ethical dignity that both comes from it and is necessary to it does not allow me such a pat and narrow response. Instead, it would be more constructive to flesh out the viable and ethical critique of masculinity that is part – but only part – of the wider culture critique in which all of us must engage. ‘Toxic masculinity’ actually hurts men more than it does women. Women, of late, have been able to walk away from it, though not entirely and not without some consequence. But men cannot do so. It is a manifest danger, not only to the continuation of the species but to the Earth and its wider nature, to the future, to ethics, and to the nascent trust necessary for the extant genders to get along with one another as human individuals. Masculinity might itself be defined as wholly toxic if one generalized the archaic conceptions of loyalty, honour, dignity, rationality, and socialized for a more even distribution of lesser things such as the ability to read maps and not get lost in the woods. Femininity too has a compendium of aspects which are better left behind and thus there must also be present a ‘toxic femininity’ – though one never seems to hear of it – that also should be expunged from social and cultural relations.
And E. Jean Carroll and other writers in that vein are part of that other set of toxins. With a seething irony, these women ally themselves with the worst of their ’gender’ as they become most like ‘we’ men. She suggests war would end if men as we know them today were gone, masculinity overcome. Margaret Thatcher was a woman after all. Greed? Imelda Marcos. Torture and abuse? The members of the SS auxiliary units and the guards of the women’s camps. Domestic violence against children? Check out all the internet threads advocating use of physical assault against children under the guise of ‘discipline’, populated in the main by mothers. And so on. The problem in fact is not men, but the power relations of present-day genders and families and politics themselves.
In defining ourselves apart from our persons, in joining up with a category, we lose a vitally important aspect of our humanity; our self-understanding. We imagine we act ‘because’ we are a man, or Caucasian, or part of this or that demographic, and these ‘structural life variables’, as social scientists refer to them, are not simply to be denied. They do have a powerful influence over us. Indeed, it is these that need be overcome on the way to mature being. The person, as individual; self-responsible, attending to the call of conscience, being-ahead-of-itself in that it is future-oriented and is concerned about the world as it is and given its present, as it might become, this is a person who bears no allegiance to gender of any kind. The fact that one of Canada’s major chartered banks has no less than nine categories under gender should tell us that the move toward the dissemination and dissolution of the binary model of gender relations is entirely missing the point. Institutional acceptance is never reflective of revolutionary change, rather quite the opposite. What it tells us is that gender, however it is defined or redefined, does not matter.
In one sense, this is a good thing, as we are well past the point of needing to adhere to archaic social norms and esthetic forms. Even so, we must be cautious regarding our replacement values. Choosing an alternative gender does not exempt one from confronting the human condition, most especially, one’s own. The premise of vanquishing the dominant gendered definitions and their inherent toxins holds within it no promise of overcoming what are human frailties through and through. Yes, there is more than one ‘human nature’, and I would be the last to subscribe to the unthinking and wholly irresponsible response that the ‘person in the street’ oft gives to the challenges of our time. But no, it is not men per se who are the source of this patent unthought. Rather it is simple ignorance on the part of some persons, simple dishonesty from others, and a rather less simple calculation on the part of those with the most to lose if we actually did overcome such things.
To begin to do so is to ask the question with the greater critical and reflective leverage: ‘why do we need gender?’ Its interrogative is fully portable to ethnicity, class, nation, creed, poverty and war, amongst others. Given that we have already asked that same question about God, long ago, one would think we would have the simple and unassuming courage to ask it of ourselves.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty-five books in ethics, aesthetics, social theory, social psychology and religion, as well as metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.
Canada does not have a clear cut constitutionally defined separation of church and state, unlike our American cousins. This reflects our sense that a nation can be, or should be, more of a mosaic than a melting pot. It also reflects the history of our immigration, also rather different than that of the USA. There, Europe’s unwanted found new lives and often wished to dispense with the old ones. Here, disinherited second sons aped their European betters. More recently, there, marginal labor seeks to improve its lot, while here the developing world’s elites ramp up real estate prices.
And also start up private schools based on ethnicity and religious credos. What are we to make of the fact that the rest of us – the vast majority of us who neither send our children to elite wealth and network based private schools or to those ethnic or creed based – witness that the state helps pay for these institutions to exist? Without government funding, most simply would not survive. Those that are religious based have legal exemptions from certain basic human rights laws, which no other organization may flout. That apparently only ten of some 640 transparently use this exemption is beside the point. Or is it?
The article linked above seeks to explain this situation but in fact it merely describes it. Journalism doesn’t really have the mandate to explain things, because any explanation could be seen as being generated from a specific point of view. Even philosophy is grounded in both the experience of the tradition and our historical consciousness thereof and therein. It holds certain kinds of values to be inalienable much like religions do. And for those who send their children to private schools based on ethnicity and/or religion, this is the key issue. They want their values to be taught, alongside provincial curricula. It is interesting, to say the least, that while such schools have human rights exemptions they have no such out for curricula. One would think that the former supersedes the latter by some light years. This points to another kind of explanation, one that is only partly related to the cost-savings that private schools bring to the state. Indeed, one could see a rather simple solution to the face-value issue: absorb the added costs of those ten offending schools with the dubious policies, change the law and shut those ten down. The other 630 or so would be presumably unaffected, and the vast bulk of the 430 millions saved each year would be secure.
In fact this is not the essential issue. What of the definition of the state itself? What is it for? What does it do for its citizens? The mission of government in Canada is, as Dr. Weaver put it, not to favor one group over the other. No doubt he is thinking of Rwanda and many other such cases. Canada has at least a self-image of being a tolerant society, where one lives and lets live. We do not have overt ‘culture-wars’ here – the term has been quite rightly criticized by Sontag (2007) and others as being vacuous – and it is ironic that the constitutional separation of church and state in the USA has in part fostered this schism in that country’s social fabric. However smug we tend to be about comparing our land with theirs, the upshot of this current situation is that we show much of our vaunted tolerance to governments who, from some other vantage point, might appear nothing less than cowardly.
Though we are getting warmer, the needs of the state to preserve social tolerance by allowing various communities and other cultural groups to have some distance from the public education system and conveniently saving a lot of money while doing so, is also not of the essence. In fact private schools increase social division. Ethnic and religious based schools are not as dangerous to this regard as are the straight-up wealth-based elite schools, which, though they may receive correspondingly less public funding, nevertheless presume upon its continuation. Children are sent to these schools not for metaphysical or even cultural reasons but because they are the children of existing social and political elites. They need to find appropriate marriage partners so that the family and lineage wealth is not dissipated. They need to be ingratiated into networks so they can attain employment and thence authority suitable to their family status. Only in this way can both be maintained over the generations. Our tax system is supposed to mitigate the first, but nothing can alter the second, and it is through these networks that elites reproduce themselves over time, at our expense.
The credo and ethnic based schools attempt something similar, but insofar as it is a half-baked attempt they are not to be hoisted on the same ethical hook as are the class-based institutions. Given that private schools are essentially anti-democratic – simply due to costs; this is why we have a public system in the first place – the reality of general revenue tax dollars being used to officially ‘crowd-fund’ these organizations – also essentially helping the rich preserve their wealth and reproduce their networks at our expense – is yet closer to the key issue here. In turn, we must ask ourselves what kind of democracy are we content to live within. One in which class differences are exacerbated by publicly funded institutions which are not in fact public, or one in which there is a single system that teaches in its curricula everything one could ever want to know about ethnicity, religion, and class etc.. Wherein all children are given the same opportunity to develop and learn, funded by all tax-payers, share and share alike. This is my definition of a viable democratically inclined education system, and not one wherein social tensions due to wealth disparities, dissassociative trends due to social enclaving, and the simple issue of individuals existing in a society that is made up, not of their peers, but of a few superior beings and a great many inferior ones continues unabated. It is this final and fatal flaw of Western liberal democracies that allows for elites, or ethnicities, or soteriological acolytes to have the confidence – to express it diplomatically – to ask the rest of us to pay for their continued sense of betterness, of self-worthiness, of superiority, of elect status, not to mention the reality of better opportunities.
I have cited Paul Ricoeur (1993) on more than one occasion: ‘The love we have for our own children does not exempt us from loving the children of the world.’ Indeed, this is very much an ethic that descends to us via religion, specifically Christianity, but also Buddhism and Islam. That is, the historically more recent agrarian world systems. It is this idea and those like it which eventually led to democracy in the manner we idealize it to be. Caste-based world systems, ethnic based religions, social contract cosmologies, and cultures which maintained their wealth and limited citizenship through slavery – our much vaunted Greeks and Romans come to mind here – do not favor democracy in any essential form. You can do the math.
It is now time to respond to the question in the title: if the religious based schools are teaching about love your enemy, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, favoring the concept of the neighbour rather than that of the socius (the role based persona of modern society), and that all of us are children of some abstract creation whose actual cause can generally remain occluded, then the answer is perhaps a surprising but nonetheless resounding ‘Yes!’ Religious ethics in this form are invaluable, especially in today’s fractured world. So it may be rather than being concerned about social cohesion, the state is actually worried that if these radically democratic ideas get out into the public system and our young people are convinced of their ethical superiority, then everything we know and most of us suffer from would be altered. Now you can do the higher math: it is not the state being nice to the church in the way one would be kind to a defeated party or a victim of history, it is rather the state working, as surreptitiously as possible, to save its own skin.
G.V. Loewen is the author of three dozen books in religion, education, ethics and aesthetics, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the human sciences for two decades.
The Importance of Writing in a Visual World
The ‘thousand word image’ is something we all have heard about. It is, ironically, only understandable as a series of words, and not truly as an image. For which image, precisely, entails an exact number of words of any count? And which word does not provoke for us countless images from which we must choose based on our own experience? It is, in fact, language that both represents and defines the world. We describe and interpret our experience to ourselves not in images, but in words.
And we also communicate these experiences to others through language. We can share the imagery of our lives with another, but there will inevitably be questions: how did it feel to be there? And no further set of images can tell of this experience. Visual imagery is a document that provides a frame for further discourse. It may direct the beginning of such expression, but it cannot foresee its ends. Humans are through and through beings of language, and one may say with confidence that our linguistic facility, our literacy, is an aspect of our essence as conscious and thinking beings.
Just as we are historical beings, so we are beings of words. Though we live in a world often dominated by the image – advertising on the instrumental side of things and nature on that sublime – any kind of purely visual experience is inherently limited by both the media and the perception involved. The latter limitation is mitigated by our ability to communicate, in words, what we have experienced. The former is itself constructed through the use of words,; an exchange of ideas, whether practical or profound.
Coming to understand ourselves through writing is, then, a fundamental enterprise for any human being. Writing is arguably the greatest gift bequeathed to us by our own history, and its advent transformed human consciousness from an oral memory to an archival one. Storytelling became less abstract, more detailed, and lasting in a very different manner than before. More importantly, writing allowed the invention of discourses that no longer were sourced in myth. From bureaucratic records to the sciences to philosophy, discourse remains the most potent tool that we have at our disposal in attempting to understand both ourselves and the wider cosmos.
We cannot be said to be fully literate unless we have a nominal comprehension of the major discourses of our culture and of world culture. Primarily, it is the applied sciences that dictate to us their discoveries and their advantages, but at the same time we are moved yet more deeply by poetry, prose, and argument. To refrain from encountering any of these forms of discourse is to limit one’s very humanity.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty books. He is an internationally recognized writer in ethics, religion, aesthetics and education. Please join him May 17-19 for The Haven’s retreat, ‘Writing and Thinking for the Human Spirit’.
“Now there are times when a whole generation is caught [ ] between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standards, no security, no simple acquiescence.” – Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf.
We cannot let 2018 pass on without noting that it was the fiftieth anniversary of the now obscure social movement known as ‘The Weathermen’, an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). While SDS itself was a large movement dedicated to structural change – and incidentally, the name of an Iranian metal band before all such music was banned in that country – the Weathermen were small, more radical, and advocated violence. In their manifesto, the striking statement occurs: ‘kill your parents; that’s where it starts’.
What starts? Well, on the one hand, the revolution begins at home, certainly. But as well, all that denies change also begins there. Heeding one’s parents makes the new into the old, the younger generation into the one that is past rather than directing it to its own future, and condemns us to reproduction rather than creativity. Metaphorically it is well known that each of us must kill one’s parents, from Freud’s imaginary ‘primal horde’ to Greek tragedy and all the rest of it. We desire to be our own persons, and no one over forty can be said to be truly mature if they have not substantially let go of their parent’s ways and means, waylays and meanings.
But the literature of everyday life was not what the Weathermen intended by their pronouncement and accompanying truncated protests. No, they exhorted their generation to literally kill its parents. What can be made of such a statement today, fifty years on? It does seem plausible to suggest that the generation which gave birth to the baby boomers had lost a significant amount of its humanity during the Depression and World War 2. The twin shocks, from which we are still trying to recover, of both Nuremberg and Hiroshima resounded like a thunderbolt of darkness in the sunrise of victory. One could be forgiven for thinking, perhaps, that if the adult who had witnessed these world-defying events as well as having endured their wider pedigree thought lightly of the concerns of his or her children and responded to them with patent violence of which the baby boom was all too familiar. The Weathermen were hardly alone in their criticisms, and in the succeeding years many other groups kindred to them would arise in diverse nations, most infamously, the ‘Red Army Faction’ or RAF, sometimes known as Baader-Meinhof, in West Germany. But it takes more than domestic tyranny to suggest a revolution that must needs nonetheless begin at home.
Social control as we know it today is not itself out of control, though there have been disturbing trends over the previous twenty years that this sensibility is again on the rise. The migration to private schools is one symptom, as is the virtual paranoia surrounding digital media and young persons’ use thereof. Now that my generation is well into their own child-raising years, I am all the more disconcerted by such trends. I recall Gen-X being an anti-institutional and anti-authoritarian bunch. But I have to accept that it is my demographic peers who have become not so much sheep, but sheepdogs, ever on the alert to strays and overtly concerned with marking and maintaining boundaries. Surely the Ohio father who made his ten year old daughter, Kirsten Cox, trudge eight kilometers to school in near freezing weather represents a new low to this regard. Apart from being poor parenting, one wonders at the motive, though now we know where the youngster learned to bully others. (Just as one is taken aback by the whims of punitive adults who imagine their own bullying to be scrupulous, I was also unmanned by the petty detail that because ‘Kirsten’ happens to be my favorite name for a girl I felt that I myself was more concerned than if she had happened to have been named ‘Lucille’ or ‘Sophronia’, for instance).
We are fortunate, on the one hand, to have difficulty imagining what life for a young person was like in 1968, though many of these people are of course still with us. Their tales of heroism are a poignant and sometimes still pregnant mix of nostalgia and righteousness. Certainly as this demographic remains a huge and wealthy market, entertainment fictions that are dedicated to them seem to increase yearly. All of this wealth and power held by the once revolutionary generation that in one short year went from the summer of love to the summer of hate does suggest that more time in front of the television is the safest bet. But this would be to annul both the gift and the task with which the 1960s presents the present day. Fifty years on, there was no summer of anything much in 2018. People now take to the streets regarding fuel prices, sports team defeats or victories, trade agreements and the like. None of this is particularly inspiring. In a world concerned with boundaries and their maintenance, from the petty territories of family to international borders alike, perhaps even the power of the metaphor is lost to us.
So if the Weathermen, or any other kindred movement were extant today, what might they say to us, and indeed, how would they say it? I imagine that they would be more or less speechless, fatalistic, resigned, aghast. More or less, in other words, what the once revolutionary baby boomers actually are. Having long since been parents themselves, one wonders how a good proportion of them, reactionary neo-conservatives by the 1980s, avoided the fate their radical peers once suggested.
However that may be, does the exhortation, the call to arms, have any merit for the youth of today? Metaphorically, always. Literally? What one can say to this more palpable reveille is this: we need to be very cautious, consistently critical, and readily reflective regarding anything that tastes of the misuse of authority, the desire for the control of others for its own sake, and also the sexual undertones of familial dynamics, including the rule of metaphoric thumb, the assertion of dominance and the occluded thrill of coitus cloaked in actio distans. The more taboo a topic is, the more serious is it a threat to human freedom. Speaking of television, as the irascible and critical Inspector Morse once said, ‘As soon as a person says that they do not wish to talk about something, I do.’
To publicly shame our children because of this or that passing infraction is to seek the sanction of the mass. Driven in part by a rancid resentment – newly ripened youth are placed on our cultural pedestal so that we can then throw the over-ripe fruit of embittered half-dreams and lurid fantasies at them – this very mass sounds off in a frenzied expression of child-hating heat. This is also symptomatic of our digital days when at the same time we feel the imminence of some kind of ending. Kipling’s poem ‘The Fabulists’ says it well:
“Even in that certain hour before the fall,
Unless men please they are not heard at all.”
Yet we also know that most of us go utterly unnoticed, so there is also a sense that within this loathing, stigmatizing, and vindictive moralizing, there must also be present a desire simply to be recognized as a human being amongst others; in short, a desire for the freedom that only the call of conscience can provide.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty books in ethics, education, religion, social psychology, aesthetics and social theory.
I was recently placed in the unenviable position of agreeing with an interpretation that was subsequently enforced by Draconian and anti-democratic measures. When Peel School District in greater Toronto announced that from here on in, the official manner of teaching Lee’s famous novel To Kill a Mocking Bird would be lensed through an ‘anti-oppression’ rubric, I was both disconcerted and delighted. That the text appears to be some kind of ‘white man’s burden’ propaganda, dear to all liberal hearts who imagine that heroism comes from taking up a cause due to irrevocable deficits on the part of those so benighted – from the cognitively disabled black defendant to the obsequiously slatternly and slavish servant; are these characters not metaphors for how white persons imagined blacks at the time and beyond? – that they require their very oppressor to free them from their bondage, and on his terms, presents a problem. The bravado masculinity of the lawyer and the cliché naivety of his daughter round out most of the narrative stage. In a word, the book stinks. And yet it still speaks to us. It is, if you will, a ‘talking turd’.
But to still its voices, to narrow the interpretive lens to such a degree that other things that just might be in this book somewhere, or any book, is to step uncomfortably close to the very social frameworks that are sourced in the attitudes the book seems to represent. One correct way, one lens. Beyond this, to attempt to enforce this through official suasion within a set of institutions dedicated to learning, consciousness, knowledge, and ultimately, human freedom, is ironic at best. Teachers who were interviewed fear that this is but the opening salvo in a war against the written word, cannons versus canons. I think this at least is premature. There is no evidence Peel SD is out for the lifeblood of the Western literary world. But their actions still presented a puzzle. Why not simply issue a statement regarding the text itself? It could contain what I think is a strong argument that the book is a piece of internecine colonialism and a decoy against structural change. That it was recently voted as the best American novel of all time is not, as one journalist had it, an indirect indictment against Peel SD, but rather is suggestive of the plausibility that racism in the USA has not altered much since c. 1960 as well as of a general illiteracy throughout the American public.
It is the scandal of art that evidences its relevance and its radicality. But popular art can play at scandal while in fact defending social institutions as they currently are. Much popular music charts this duplicitous course, its apparent critiques commoditized and glamorized in a way that serious art eschews. Not that we do not try to assuage the world in the face of thought and art. The art market, especially for paintings, has never been more lucrative. Even so, the effect of art, the aesthetic object, is to provide a consistent and even constant objection to the way things are. In short, it is its own lens. Very often, the content of such lenses are in themselves vulgar – Lolita comes immediately to mind – or they are sentimental – Romeo and Juliet – or are yet updates on ancient parables – East of Eden. Lee’s content is secondary to its quality as a cultural artifact, like these other works. But just here, we have to confront the bad conscience that the book avoids so scrupulously, just as Lolita, for instance, avoids the wider issue of age-related lust simply by having the protagonist, if he can be labelled such, a criminal.
The thoughtful response to any sign of the halting process of species maturity is to open these questions up as radically as possible. Works of would-be art that provide rationalizations for wider iniquities and disquiet can serve such a purpose, perhaps at most. Nevertheless, it is a noble purpose. This or that work can always be reduced to a precise if narrow editorial, popular or serious. Harry Potter? Arthurian romance meets the tuck shop. Narnia? Not-so-cunning soteriological sop. Or yet my own Kristen-Seraphim; X-Rated Enid Blyton. Surely there is more to it, and it is up to educators to discover that more, just as we charge our scientists to discover more of that cosmic truth in which all of us remain enveloped. So as with other discourses, the duty of educational administrators is to radically encourage their pedagogic colleagues to open up the texts at hand and to never shy away from scandal, even evil, for within the realm of the arts, both of these effects are salutary to an enduring human freedom.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty books and is one of Canada’s leading contemporary thinkers.
I am delighted to invite one and all to the first installment of the writing retreat at The Haven, a resort for transformational learning located on beautiful Gabriola Island, BC, Canada.
You will find all of the necessary information to register at their site through this link.
warmest regards, Greg