Alex P. Keaton: The Butterfly that Started this Raging Storm

Alex-P-KeatonI blame Alex P. Keaton.

Alex P. Keaton, I think, is the butterfly behind the raging storm of the business-first corporate agenda we endure today.

Alex P. Keaton, written as a karmic comeuppance for his former-hippy parents, was probably originally intended to be an object of ridicule. He was, after all, an adolescent rebel dressed in pinstripes, suspenders, and Reaganomics because it was the only outfit he could find that would shock his all too liberal parents.

Alex P. Keaton, stupid with rebelliousness, even might have been conceived as a critique of the new Right agenda. Only a foolish adolescent, the writers seem to suggest, could buy into that revisionist claptrap.   

Unfortunately for us and all of the politics that have come after, Michael J. Fox was too damn charismatic. The writers couldn’t help but re-imagine Alex in light of Michael’s charms.

Suddenly, accidentally, and unintentionally, the new Right had a human face. A generation of kids grew up thinking Republicanism, big business, and Wall Street might be best for them because it was best for their charming hero, Alex.

What might have come of Anglo-American society, I wonder, if Alex had been played by Kirk Cameron or Michael had played a social democrat?

I also wonder what other charismatic fictions, which beguiled us in our childhoods and youth, continue to shape and reshape our understanding of the way our lives ought to be.




Try a Vegan Diet for the Fun of It: I Double Dare You!

SunflowerI’ve been eating a vegan diet now for about nine months. Not surprisingly, I have neither saved the planet nor died of malnourishment. It has been, however, a surprisingly easy lifestyle change and quite a bit of fun.

When I finally decided I had no choice but to test the feasibility of making the switch to a vegan diet, I started with a bit of online research. I thought – maybe even hoped – the change in diet would be too complicated to warrant serious consideration. It turned out, however, to be surprisingly straightforward. I figured out what I needed to add to my diet, then, I went shopping.

Right away, the fun set in. My first trip to the grocery store was more like a scavenger hunt than a routine chore. Even now, when I know where to find the essentials, I still have my eye out for new and tasty options. As a result, my diet now has much more variety and pzazz than it did when I was eating animals. Also, both eating and cooking has become much more fun, as I experiment with a variety of foods that are new or unfamiliar to me.  

It also turns out that there is a vegan version of just about anything you can imagine. To test the claim, I googled and found a recipe for vegan veal. Of course, “animal-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy.” Fat, salt, and calories come in many tasty non-animal forms. On the plus side, a vegan diet doesn’t necessarily require a person to give up comforting junk foods like ice cream, chips, nachos and wings. Judging by my own belly, I should probably take a little less comfort in the vegan equivalents.

So, if you are like me and you like to learn, to embrace new experiences, and to do the right thing for yourself and others, give a vegan diet a try for six days, six weeks, or six months. Make a game of it, and see what happens.

If the vegan diet doesn’t stick with you, the worst thing that can happen, assuming you learn the basics about eating a complete and balanced vegan diet, is that you will make an important short term contribution to your own well-being and the well-being of the planet. You might even learn that you can be happy and healthy eating far less animals than you do now. Of course, if it does stick, you will be well on your way to making a huge and lasting personal contribution to the betterment of the planet.  

Go on. Give it a try. I dare you. I double dare you. You won’t regret it. 

A Tulip By Any Other Name: Facebook’s Market Capitalization Is A Symptom of What Ails Us.

Grey and BrutalImagine, for a moment, if Facebook broke — not for a few minutes, but for good. Like, forever.

How hard would it be for you to survive in the wake of its demise?

Certainly, the first few days would be frustrating, but, after a few days or, perhaps, a few weeks, your life – all of our lives – would carry on without any serious consequences.

Imagine now, if our drinking water and sewage systems or the electrical grid collapsed. How long do you think you would survive?

A few days? Sure. A few weeks? Probably, with a bit of careful planning. A few months? I’d guess no, especially if you had to survive Canada’s winter.

Don’t believe me? Think about it.

How would you get and store fresh water? How would you cook? How would you store fresh food? How would you avoid the cold of winter? Where would you safely dispose of your “human waste”? How would you work to earn a paycheck? In other words, how would you live?

In short, before long, you wouldn’t.

Now for the compare and contrast: The current market capitalization (Dec 22, 2015) of Facebook is about $CDN 410 billion. According to some estimates, it will cost about $31 billion to update and repair Canada’s water and wastewater systems. To upgrade all of Canada’s electricity infrastructure, it will cost about $300 billion.

Let that sink in.

The so-called rational market thinks Facebook is worth more than the complete refurbishment of an entire nation’s water and electricity infrastructure.

Facebook’s market capitalization is absurd. It is also symptom of what ails us. One of the most influential measures of value in Western society is driven by considerations which are wholly irrelevant to the short and long term well-being of most people. 

A social mechanism that generates so much money for so few people is not a measure of value. It is a measure of class and privilege. 

Death Is The Only Consideration: Be Moral Because You Are Moral.

MoralityDeath, I’ve come to realize, is the only consideration. No reason for action survives its event horizon. Without immortality, a rational justification of morality, in the long term, is impossible.

Tomorrow, for example, I could choose to devote my life to the health and well-being of all other humans or, perhaps, only those most in need. Once I die, however, whatever good I experienced (and whatever hardships I endured because of my virtuous behaviour) dies with me. The people I helped will also one day die, and whatever good or hardship they experienced will die with them too.

Alternatively, I could choose to devote my life to harming all other humans or, perhaps, only those most deserving of such treatment. Once I die, however, whatever hardship I experienced (and whatever good I might have experienced thanks to my vicious behaviour) dies with me. The people I harmed will also one day die, and whatever good or hardship they experienced will die with them too.

Good and evil, hardship and suffering, virtue and vice, they are experienced and do not exist or perpetuate beyond those who experience it. We, of course, create conditions that will have an effect on future generations, but, even so, those effects will die with those generations too.

Effectively, on a long enough timeline, all our actions — moral or immoral — are inconsequential because they and their effects cease to be experienced. The total amount of happiness or suffering generated is inconsequential. The total amount of virtue or vice inculcated is inconsequential. The number of times people acted or did not act in accordance with a universal moral law is inconsequential. Even coming to understand or not understand the full meaning of death is inconsequential. It’s an experience like any other. It also won’t survive death.

Our genetic material, of course, will likely survive much longer than the effects of our actions. Nevertheless, even if we become self-consciously Darwinian, acting only in those ways that maximize the safe transmission of our genetic material, it does not seem likely that the species or its ancestors will survive forever. It’s theoretically possible, but it is too thin and tenuous a possibility upon which to build anything like a rational morality.   

I am, nevertheless, not terribly concerned by my revelation. I am moral or immoral because of an unknowable causal history over which I have exercised almost no control. Understanding that there is no rational justification for moral or immoral behaviour — really, any behaviour at all — seems unlikely to affect how I behave. At most, it may affect how I assess my behaviour and the behaviour of others. For me, it seems a bit silly to feel high and mighty about choices that weren’t made by me but, instead, have happened to me. Of course, that assessment is probably but one more happening that has arisen from the loose anarchical confederacy of environmental interactions for which my conscious mind takes credit.

I am reminded of a story I read in Zen Speaks. A doctor faces an existential crisis because he can’t see the point of practicing medicine when he inconsequentially saves the lives of soldiers who go on to die in battle. Whether in war or peace, death is the final end of all medicine. A doctor, at best, delays the inevitable, so why bother? The doctor returns to his battlefield medicine when he realizes that he practices medicine precisely because he is a doctor.

The universe is neither rational nor irrational, even if we humans have developed a rationality with which to make sense of it. Likewise, morality is neither rational nor irrational, even if moral behaviour has helped us to evolve into creatures capable of rationality. Rationality, I think, requires us to accept that there may be no rational justification for some of our most fundamental behaviour.

So, why be moral? Because you are.

Reminder: You Don’t Vote For The Prime Minister. Ever.

HouseofCommonsOn October 19, 2015, when you cast your ballot in Canada’s 42nd general election, you will not vote for the Prime Minister of Canada. You will not vote for a party leader or even for a particular party.

No, on October 19, you will vote only for the Member of Parliament [MP] for your riding.

Once the Members of Parliament for each riding have been determined at the ballot box, the Governor General will then invite a Member of Parliament — typically, the one who has the support of a majority of the Members of Parliament — to form a government.

This means:

  • A Member of Parliament does not become Prime Minister because she leads or belongs to the party that earned the largest percentage of the popular vote.
  • A Member of Parliament does not become the Prime Minister because she leads or belongs to the party which forms the largest block of MPs in the House of Commons.
  • A Member of Parliament becomes the Prime Minister, only if s/he earns the support of a sufficient number of the other MPs in the House of Commons, whether they belong to his or her party or not.

Why is this important to emphasize?

It seems likely, at this point, when the ballots and the dust settle on October 19, that the majority of MPs who win in their ridings won’t belong to any one party. Party flacks, pundits, and MPs will then try to tell a story that justifies why their party leader should rightfully be asked by the Governor General to be Prime Minister and form a government. All of that sound and fury will be irrelevant: any MP who earns the support of a sufficient number of other MPs (typically, a majority) is entitled to be Prime Minister.

Moreover, party allegiances are fundamentally and constitutionally irrelevant. It is perfectly right and just for any number of MPs to cooperate and give their support to any other MP, entitling that MP to be Prime Minister and to form a government, whether all the MPs belong to the same party or not. The voters elect MPs to make exactly this kind of decision on behalf of the people of his or her riding. Formal and informal coalitions in the House of Commons can and should determine who becomes Prime Minister and who forms a government. A political party is, essentially, just one such coalition.

Looking beyond the election, it’s important to remind ourselves that the Prime Minister is entitled to govern on behalf of the Governor General only because s/he has the support of other MPs in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, party staff, MPs, party leaders, and the media tend to obscure this fact and often speak as if the political power in our parliamentary system flows from the party leader to his or her MPs. This is a perverse inversion of how our parliamentary system is meant to work. The constitution, for example, does not even recognize the existence of political parties. They only received formal recognition in our electoral laws in 1970.

Not surprisingly, then, it was right around this time that unelected and partisan political operatives began to centralize and consolidate power in the Office of the Prime Minister and, eventually, reduced MPs to the status of customer sales representatives for his or her party. This consolidation of power, which began with the Liberals and was perfected by Stephen Harper, has broken our parliamentary democracy. Our democracy will be restored only when our Members of Parliament exercise their political independence and free themselves from the dominance of unelected party staff and insiders.

You can help jumpstart this process by learning more about the candidates in your riding and their policy positions. If you get the chance, ask him or her what s/he will do personally to restore the effectiveness of the House of Commons. If he or she simply parrots the party line or the talking points of the party leader, s/he is unlikely to act independently once s/he is elected. In other words, s/he is unlikely to work to restore our democracy, which we are on the edge of losing forever. If that’s the case, s/he does not deserves your vote or support.

Meaningful Change Needed in Ottawa: Liberal Support of C-51 Proves It.

PETWhen Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau famously observed that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” he did not add the caveat, unless, of course, the state suspects there is a pressing national security interest to warrant slipping into bed with you and your partner. No, instead, Trudeau goes on to say, “what’s done in private between adults doesn’t concern the Criminal Code.”

Pierre Elliott Trudeau understood what his son, his son’s backroom handlers, and every MP who voted for Bill C-51 does not understand. A right — to count as a right — must also protect and defend thought, speech, and behaviours that the state deems or suspects to be threatening. The rule of law must apply equally, even when people are thinking, speaking, and acting in ways that give the state and other citizens the heebie-jeebies. Moreover, if a right can be invaded arbitrarily and in secret by the state because of its own paranoia, it does not, practically-speaking, exist.

And that, among many other things, is exactly what Bill C-51 does. It is so contemptuous of our moral and legal traditions, generally, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, specifically, that it empowers judges to authorize — in advance and in total secrecy — violations of a person’s unqualified Charter rights. Judges, who are normally expected to use the Charter to protect our rights are now being asked to authorize their violation. It’s a pretty cute trick from Harper, who has made no secret of his contempt for the Charter and the judges who have used it legitimately to check his single-minded agenda. It’s exactly the kind of Orwellian perversion of Canadian values Harper seems to take delight in.

And yet, unbelievably, Justin Trudeau and the other Liberal Members of Parliament stood in the House of Commons and voted for C-51 at third reading, despite publicly claiming to oppose it. In doing so, Justin Trudeau, his backroom handlers, and the other Liberal MPs demonstrated that they share Harper’s view that the House of Commons is an inconvenient sideshow that is good for little more than political gamesmanship. They also demonstrated that they share Harper’s perverted visions of democracy where anything can be said and anything done, if it is politically expedient. When the Liberals voted for Bill C-51 — naively or not — they proved that they’re not a genuine alternative to Harper and his shadow puppet MPs. They also proved they aren’t even genuine liberals.

The Liberals have not learned the lesson of their political exile. Let’s leave them there until they do. On October 19th, let’s vote for meaningful change in Ottawa.

An End to The Blame Game: Beyond Freedom and Will.

ToSeeTheLightOn August 1st, 1966, Charles Whitman went on a infamous murderous spree. He killed his mother, wife, and thirteen other people, before he was shot dead by police in the University of Texas Tower.

Perhaps what is less well known is the fact that Whitman strongly suspected that his brain was not working properly. Not only did he seek medical treatment, he even tried to turn himself into the police.

Most remarkably, in many of the notes and writings he left behind, he expresses confusion and remorse over his actions. So strong was his suspicion that his violent urges had a biological origin, in one note, he even requests an autopsy.

After his death, a tumor was discovered in his brain, which had been impinging on those parts of his brain involved in the regulation of emotions like fear and aggression. Had the tumour been detected and removed, there is good reason to believe Whitman’s murderous spree might never have happened.

More recently, in 2000, an otherwise typical man suddenly developed uncontrollable sexual desires, including paedophilia. When his brain was finally examined, a tumor was discovered in the part of the brain which is thought to control impulsive behaviour. When the tumour was removed, the man’s behaviour returned to normal.

Months later, however, the aberrant behaviour returned. When his brain was reexamined, it was discovered that some of the tumor had been missed in the first operation and had grown back. Once the tumour was removed, the man’s behaviour returned to normal.

These are provocative examples, of course, but when they are buttressed by an ever-growing understanding of our brains, our genes, and how they both interact with the environment, it is becoming increasingly clear that criminal behaviour is often rooted in a failure of biology rather than a failure of will. Indeed, much like Whitman’s tumour, which went undetected and untreated, we’re probably blaming many people for biological problems that we don’t yet have the technology to detect and treat.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and writer, tackles the legal implications of our growing understanding of the brain in his book Incognito (and in this very readable Atlantic Monthly article.). Although Eagleman has his doubts about the overall efficacy of the human will, suggesting that our will probably isn’t as free as was once thought, he thinks the overall effectiveness of our will is largely irrelevant, when we examine the criminal justice system from the perspective of the best science currently available to us.

In Eagleman’s view, once the courts have determined that a person has, in fact, committed a crime, instead of focussing on the criminal’s blameworthiness, they should focus instead on a person’s biology and the likelihood he or she will reoffend because of it. In this model, the length of incarceration is set not by a person’s blameworthiness, but instead is set to fit whatever rehabilitation regime is required to fix the criminal’s biology and ensure he or she does not reoffend again. In some cases, however, Eagleman is prepared to admit, permanent incarceration might be the only recourse, if a person’s likelihood to reoffend is very high.

Eagleman’s arguments for this shift in perspective is motivated by cutting edge research and the intuition that the mere fact of criminality is a reliable sign that there is something wrong with the brain, even if we can’t yet detect, measure, or cure it. The shift in perspective he proposes and the intuition that motivates it, however, is not entirely novel and has much in common with the approach to aberrant behaviour that was most common in North America before European colonialism introduced the idea that humans are essentially evil and must be threatened, coerced, and punished into right action.

Rupert Ross, in his book Indigenous Healing, provides an important and accessible introduction to the traditional indigenous perspective on justice. Crucially, North America’s indigenous peoples begin with the assumption that people are intrinsically good and that an individual’s aberrant behaviour is a symptom of a breakdown in his or her social relations. A system of justice, in this model, focuses primarily on identifying and correcting the failed relations at the root of the aberrant behaviour. It involves “looking at how the crime came out of all of the offender’s relationships, and in turn affected the relationships surrounding both the offender and the victim, including those with their families and friends, and their places in the community.” The aim of justice, according to the traditional teachings of indigenous peoples, is to heal rather than punish.

Eagleman’s view, based on the latest science, and the indigenous view, based on traditional teachings, are nevertheless importantly different. Eagleman wants the justice system to focus on the biological health of the individual, whereas indigenous peoples want to focus on the social health of the individual and his or her community. On further reflection, however, the two perspectives aren’t so far apart, if one expands the notion of an individual’s biological health to include a person’s relationships with others and his or her environment. Eagleman, for example, suggests the latest science points to a “broader sociobiological” account of the person in which “the brain is the densest concentration of youness,” but not all of what you are.

Although this brief discussion is not sufficient to make the case that the latest science is, in fact, pointing to a conception of human nature more in line with the traditional indigenous perspective, it does highlight an important question well worth asking: how many of our social institutions begin and end with the assumption that humans are intrinsically evil and need to be saved by violent and coercive intervention? More importantly, how might our institutions be changed for the better, if we start with the assumption that humans are essentially good and need healing rather than punishment when one of us does wrong.

If this line of reasoning has piqued your interest, please take a look at some of my other posts that discuss our new and growing understanding of the brain.

I’m also in the process of developing a little (and free!) online course, which will explore the implications of the ideas discussed in this post.

If you want to be the first to receive what I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.