It’s My Right!

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the worst such event in more than a century, a prominent political leader recently told her constituents, If you want to wear a mask, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

Really?  In the middle of the pandemic, does this not seem illogical?  The best scientific evidence indicates pretty clearly that, by wearing a mask while around other people, we can severely limit the transmission of the virus—thereby protecting those around us, our family, friends, and fellow-citizens.

For comparison’s sake, I’ve modified the woman’s statement to apply to other situations, to see if they would make sense—to see if they might impinge on another person’s rights.  You be the judge.

If you want to stop your car at a red light, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to stop, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the potential carnage?

If you want to wear seatbelts while driving, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to wear them, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the increase in personal injury?

If you want to drive while sober, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you want to drive while impaired by alcohol or drugs, don’t be ashamed about it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the inevitable devastation?

If you don’t want to smoke in a public setting, that’s fine.  You are free not to do so.  If you do want to smoke there, don’t be shamed by it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the outcry?

If you want to use the store’s escalator to go up one floor, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you want to push your way back down on the up-escalator, don’t be ashamed to do it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the confusion and anger?

Of course, there are all manner of situations where an individual person’s choice to do something, or not do it, will engender no meaningful effect on others.  For example, If you want to wear winter boots after a heavy snowfall, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to wear boots, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

Another example:  If you want to study for your final exams, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to study, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

And a third:  If you don’t want to wear a paisley tie with a striped shirt, plaid jacket, and check slacks, just don’t.  You are free not to do so.  But if you do want to, don’t be ashamed about it.  That is your right.

None of these three personal decisions is likely to have a profound effect on someone else’s autonomy, unlike the first statement and its five adaptations.  And that, of course, is the whole point.

A familiar maxim, first promulgated by an obscure legal philosopher, Zechariah Chafee, Jr., holds that a person’s right to swing his arms freely ends where the other person’s nose begins.  In other words, your personal rights are not allowed to impinge on mine.

John Stuart Mill, in his famous work, On Liberty, postulated:  The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct.

Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.

I have long been of the opinion that Mill’s work provides us with a near-perfect definition of the boundary between our individual rights and our societal obligations.  And when I apply that definition to the exhortations of public health officials during the pandemic that we all wear a mask when out and about in the company of others, I find their pleas to be eminently logical.

It seems to me, therefore, that if government determines the actions of some people are, in Mills’s words, prejudicial to the interests of others—in this case, the general health and welfare of the citizenry—the wearing of masks in public places should be mandated by government officials.  I further believe that scofflaws who flout the requirement should, also in Mills’s words, be subjected…to legal punishment.

The same controversy will arise, I’m sure, when vaccines against COVID-19 become available to the general populace.  Some of us will line up eagerly to get it; others will dig in their heels, perhaps proclaiming, If I don’t want to get vaccinated, that’s my right.  I am free not to do so. 

To them, I would say, If you don’t want to get vaccinated, that’s fine.  That is your right.  But if you want to present yourself in community settings where people congregate—such as malls, schools, churches, or city parks—don’t be surprised when you are denied access.  That is our right.

Like any chain, our society is only as strong as its weakest link.

Crazy-ocracy!

Apparently, there are more than 190 words in the English language ending with the suffix -ocracy.  We are perhaps most familiar with this one—

  • democracy – government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by  them, or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

We congratulate ourselves that we live in a country governed in such a fashion, seldom stopping to ponder just how precious and fragile the notion of democracy is.  But unless we, as a people, are diligent and responsive, the freedoms and liberties we prize could very well be snatched from us.

Do you doubt that?  Would you like some measure of proof?  Well, take a look at the following list of -ocracy words, each of which defines a sort of government different from that which we enjoy.

The words are arranged alphabetically, each followed by a mismatched definition.  Can you pair up the words with their correct meanings?

[the answers are provided at the end of this post]

1. aristocracy       

a) government under the control of a state-sponsored religion

2. autocracy         

b) government based on ability and talent rather than class privilege or wealth

3. bureaucracy     

c) government or state in which the wealthy class rules

4. ethnocracy       

d) government ruled by a thief or thieves

5. kleptocracy       

e) government by many bureaus, administrators, and petty officials

6. mediocracy       

f) government or power of an absolute monarch

7. meritocracy      

g) government hierarchy in which the unexceptional prevails

8. plutocracy        

h) government wielding political power for the preservation or advancement of slavery

9. slavocracy        

i) government ruled by an elite or privileged upper class

10. theocracy        

j) government in which a particular racial group holds disproportionate power

The democracy we enjoy in Canada is a parliamentary system cadged mainly from the British structure, divided into three main branches:  executive, legislative, and judicial.  The first consists of the government (Governor-General, Prime Minister, and Cabinet); the second encompasses the House of Commons and Senate; the third is a series of independent courts, at the top of which is the Supreme Court of Canada.

Our government is a constitutional monarchy, at the head of which is the Queen (or King), who is represented in Canada by the Governor-General.  Each provincial or territorial government is a close replica of this same structure.

By contrast, the system of government in the U.S.A., our great neighbour to the south, is a constitutional republic—not a monarchy.  But it, too, features an executive branch (the President), a legislative branch (the Congress, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate), and a judicial branch composed of a series of courts, at the top of which is the Supreme Court of the United States.  Each state government is a close replica of this same structure.

Both governments are democracies, or purport to be, which conform to the aforementioned definition: the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them, or by their elected agents, under a free electoral system.

It is interesting, though, during such turbulent times, to examine the operation of these two governments—how they exercise their power, how they execute their duties, how they are held accountable to the people.

The great accountability comes, of course, during elections when we, the people, have the right to cast our secret ballots to determine who shall assume the reins of government.  The unfettered right to vote is the cornerstone of any democratic society.

Yet, how many of us take it seriously?  How many of us actually exercise that right, a right earned and protected over numerous generations, often at great sacrifice.

In the most recent federal election in our country, only two-thirds of eligible voters turned out to vote, and that was considered a strong showing.  Alas!

In the most recent presidential election in the U.S.A., just slightly more than half of registered voters actually bothered to cast their ballots, the lowest turnout in twenty years.  Egad!

As we examine these two experiments in democratic government, Canada and the U.S.A., it would behoove us to look again at the list of other –ocracies cited above, and their definitions, and reflect on whether some of them may be affecting the governance of our two nations.  Are we still, truly, democracies?  Or are those other -ocracies creeping inexorably in?

If we decide to ignore such incursions, we do so at our peril.  As John Adams, the second American president, wrote: Remember, democracy never lasts long.  It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.  There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

That would be crazy!  But I suppose we shall see.

Answers to the list of terms and definitions above:
1. i); 2. f); 3. e); 4. j); 5. d); 6. g); 7. b); 8. c); 9. h); 10. a)

Privilege and Reward

I remember a glib put-down I overheard a few years back, referring to a casual acquaintance, a self-important scion of a wealthy family, whose attitude conveyed to everyone that he deserved everything he had.

The jerk was born on third base and grew up thinking he’d hit a triple!

The speaker wasn’t so much resentful of the person’s privileged position in life as she was of the fact that he didn’t seem to appreciate the tremendous head-start he’d enjoyed.  Had he at least acknowledged the advantages he’d been born with, she might have been more forgiving.

Over the years, I’ve lost track of both of them, have no idea to what extent they may have succeeded or failed in their respective life-journeys.  But I’ve been reflecting on the comment itself during these troubled times of pandemic, economic woe, and racial upheaval.

In our society, wealth or the lack of it is not the only factor that bestows or denies advantage.  Other dynamic influences include quality of family-life, level of education, type of employment, housing, race/ethnicity, gender-identity, and age.

diversity1

Other than that last one (I am past my mid-seventies), I score among the most fortunate in those categories, in that my status lies solidly within the traditionally-accepted norms.

The key phrase in the previous sentence is traditionally-accepted.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

If you doubt that, consider the following hypothetical scenario.  I am arranging a footrace for fifteen young people, mid-twenties, all of whom will compete against me for the prize.  The course is the staircase of my condo building; the starting-line is at the first-floor level; the winner is she or he who arrives on the twenty-fourth floor first.  Given the width of the staircase, the runners will begin in five ranks of three, arrayed behind me, the septuagenarian.

As in many races and competitions, however, handicapping will be a factor.  When everyone is ready and in place, I issue a series of statements to sort the field prior to the gun.

If your parents are both alive and still married, walk up one floor.

Almost everyone obliges, putting them one flight ahead of me.

If you graduated from college or university, walk up one floor.

Perhaps half the group does so, including me.  Several racers are now on the third floor, but a few are still back on the first-floor.

If you are employed full-time, or retired on a pension, walk up one floor.

Although I can’t see them as I climb to the third-floor, I hear some people climbing to the fourth floor.

If you own your own home, walk up one floor.

I am almost the only one who moves, given the age of the group overall.

If you have never been racially-profiled or discriminated against because of skin-colour or religion, walk up one floor.

Those of the fifteen who are not persons of colour advance, including me.  I am now on the fifth-floor landing with two other racers.

If you have never been discriminated against because your gender-identity is straight-male or straight-female, walk up one floor.

Below me, I hear people moving, and I now find myself on the sixth-floor with only one other person.

If you are over the age of thirty, walk up one floor.

This is a sneaky one, because I am the only one able to benefit, of course (age discrimination-in-reverse?), and I happily trudge to the seventh-floor—alone.  After gathering my breath for a few moments, I lean over the railing and call down.

How many people on the first-floor landing?

Five.

How many on the second?

Three.

I quickly learn there are two people on the third-floor, two on the fourth-floor, two on the fifth-floor, and one on the sixth-floor.  The staggered-start to the race is complete, and I have a six-floor advantage over one-third of the field.  That’s equivalent to a one-lap advantage around a 400m track in a 1500m race!

track1

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Remember, though, this race was merely hypothetical; it never took place.  But had it been run, it’s likely that some of the fifteen racers would have overcome my advantage over them, my age being too crippling a factor.  I’m sure I would not have finished first—or maybe at all, alas!

But the unfortunate racers who started on the lower levels would have faced an insurmountable obstacle against whomever did win, someone who started perhaps from the fifth- or sixth-floor.  The disadvantages pressed on them by their life-experiences (as represented by my seven handicapping-statements) would have allowed them no chance against their more-advantaged competitors.

One of those racers starting at the first-floor might have been able to climb twenty-two levels in the same time-period the racer who started on the sixth-floor climbed eighteen levels to the finish-line, yet that person would still have failed to win.  Better effort is not always enough to surmount inborn advantage.

Someone starting on the sixth-floor—if they resist the urge to think they deserved it through their own efforts, if they apply themselves—will almost surely attain the prize over those starting on the lower levels.

track2

That’s life in a nutshell, as we know it.

That’s privilege and reward.

As we read in Ecclesiastes 9:11, …the fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.

Still, for those fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, it behooves us to listen, to try to understand, and to support the cries of those who would seek to change the imbalance of the status quo.

That’s equity.

 

Hall of Infamy

In times of distress and uncertainty, many of us turn to respected leaders from days of yore to find solace or encouragement from their words.  A number of their declarations deservedly occupy a place in the hall of fame for inspiring messages.

But I have often wondered if there might be a hall of infamy for utterances that do just the opposite: reveal hateful philosophies that denigrate and belittle the spirit of humankind.  Goodness knows, there is no shortage of despicable characters from our history to whom we might turn for such messages.

We might think, for example, of Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Al Capone, Mao Zedong, Lenin, even Caligula.  All men, they made many dystopian claims during their respective reigns of terror.

A small sampling of these follows—

What good fortune for governments that the people do not think.

To read too many books is harmful.

A lie told often enough becomes the truth.

Make the lie big [and] simple.  Keep saying it…eventually people will believe it.

The victor will never be asked if he told the truth.

Politics is saying you are going to do one thing while intending to do another.

Vote early and vote often.

Death is the solution to all problems.  No man, no problem.

One death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic.

It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed.

Religion is the opiate of the masses.

I don’t care if they respect me, so long as they fear me.

despots

Any search on the internet will turn up dozens and dozens of such statements by these men and others.  And it’s interesting to note that those who said these things might have actually believed them.  Even if we find their sentiments monstrous, they could have been telling the truth as they saw it.

Or, conversely, they might have been deliberately making such utterances, knowing they were false, to further their own ends.

But what of today?  Are there statements like these being made in our own time, perhaps believed by the person uttering them, even if misanthropic and obviously false?

Let us consider this next sample in the context of the coronavirus pandemic currently sweeping the planet—

Looks like the story was an exaggeration…Fake News…

It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control.

One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.

We’re doing a great job with it.  Just stay calm.  It will go away.

I felt it was a pandemic before it was called a pandemic.

If somebody wants to be tested right now, they’ll be able to be tested.

I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute…is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?

We’ve taken the most aggressive actions…the most aggressive by any country.

Cases, Cases, Cases! If we didn’t test so much and so successfully, we would have very few cases.

Now we have tested almost 40m people. By so doing, we show cases, 99% of which are totally harmless.

Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won.

We’re on our way to a tremendous victory. It’s going to happen and it’s going to happen big.

How likely is it, do you suppose, that the person who made these statements truly believed them at the time they were uttered?  Could anyone in a major global-leadership position be that deluded?  That ignorant of science?

Or perhaps he knew what he was saying was false, but did it anyway to advance his own agenda.  Could that be so?

Each of us must make of it what we will.

us map1

The bigger problem, of course, is that the person who has spoken these words is the democratically-elected leader of more than 330 million people—just a tad more than four percent of the planet’s population—whose nation is presently being overwhelmed by almost twenty-five percent of Covid-19 infections in the world.

More tragically, at the time of writing, the number of deaths is almost one-quarter of the worldwide total.  One-quarter!

All this from a country ranked first in the world in 2020 in GDP (gross domestic product)—presumably the best-equipped nation to deal with such a crisis—yet only the fifty-eighth safest nation in the world in the face of the pandemic.

So bad is the situation that four of the fifty states of the union occupy spots in the list of top-five world nations for Covid-19 infections.

When future generations seek an explanation for all of this, they may well focus on leadership—or its absence—at the very highest level.  And they may study carefully the statements made by the man at the pinnacle, some of which were listed above, to ascertain how effectively he grasped the dire situation, owned it, and set about to vanquish it.

If so, they may have to look no further than this remarkable statement from that very man—

I don’t take responsibility at all!

For the Hall of Infamy, I nominate…

trump2

The Benighted States of America

As a boy and young man, I was fascinated by tales of derring-do and feats of glory by heroes, both real and fictional.  Among the earliest of these were the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table; to this day, I can name my favourites without a fact-check—Sir Kay, Sir Gawain, Sir Bedivere, Sir Tristan, Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad.

arthur4

Arthur and his knights, according to Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory—one of many writers who wrote of their exploits—swore to uphold a code of chivalry, which included:

– never to assault or murder,

– never to commit treason, and

– to provide succor to those in need.

I was too young, of course, to understand the clashes that arose between Arthur and Sir Lancelot, and later between Arthur and his son, Sir Mordred, which stemmed from their illicit love for the faithless Queen Guinevere.  Those led ultimately to the death of Arthur and the end of his glorious reign, and I mourned their failed quest.

A lasting effect of this Arthurian fascination was a propensity as I grew older to favour the underdog in any conflict, to root for those attempting seemingly-impossible pursuits—the Don Quixotes of the world, engaged in Sisyphean tasks to which they would not surrender.  I was an incurable romantic.

So it was unsurprising, I suppose, that a major focus for me in university would be Russian and American history—to wit, the demise of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, and especially the U.S. Civil War from 1861-1865.  In both cases, I found myself on the side of the lost causes—the Czarist regime and the Confederacy—despite knowing the outcome for both.  And like my younger self, who didn’t understand the Arthurian contradictions until much later, it took a long time for me to realize the root causes and lasting implications of those cataclysmic events.

The Civil War, in particular, captivated me.  I read as many as I could of the chroniclers of the period—Bruce Catton, Allan Nevins, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Shelby Foote, Douglas Southall Freeman, Henry Steele Commager.  I favoured the gallant Confederate commanders—Lee, Jackson, Stuart—seeing them as descendants of the Arthurian knights of old.  I was taken by their tales of heroism, their masterful military maneuverings, and dismayed as the tide turned inexorably against them.

civil war

Even still, the names of the battlefields (hallowed grounds for both sides) strike a chord—Manassas, Shiloh, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and of course, Gettysburg.

As I sit here now, however, I have long since come to view things differently.  The young man I was had absolutely no concept of the evils of slavery, the forced subjugation of an entire race of people; the unfettered privilege of landed, white, male gentry, determined to maintain their autocratic position; the venality of elected politicians (again, all male and white) who put their personal interests and the fate of their political party ahead of their vision of a nation of freedom for all.

That young man, the beneficiary of white privilege, had no idea what being white and privileged meant, either for him, or for those to whom it was denied.

But as I said, I have come to view things differently.  And following the killing of yet another unarmed black person in the poor Benighted States of America, it is impossible not to cry, “Enough!”

In a post on this blog a few years ago, On Being White, I wrote:

White privilege explains power structures inherent in our society that benefit white people disproportionately, while putting people of colour at a disadvantage. 

White nationalists believe white identity should be the organizing principle of Western civilization.

White supremacists believe the white race is inherently superior to other races, and that white people should have control over people of other races.

In another post, Of the People, I wrote (quoting Joseph de Maistre, a nineteenth-century writer and diplomat):

 [Such] false opinions are like false money, struck first of all by guilty men and thereafter circulated by honest people who perpetuate the crime without knowing what they are doing.

And to that I added:

Many of us, alas, have no idea of the origin or veracity of the so-called truths we champion.  We simply echo them, as if truth can be created through the repetition of a lie…

racism

I realize now that, because that young man I was did not understand the roots from which sprouted those underdog causes he once supported, he accepted at face-value their false opinions.  It was only as I began over time to see them through the eyes of those who were suppressed that I realized their falsity.

Although I decry violence and vandalism, I endorse the legitimate protests of a people who (to excerpt a song from Les Misérables) declare they will not be slaves again.  It has almost always been so, that the downtrodden and oppressed will eventually rise up and seize what they have not been granted, their freedom.

In one of those previous posts, I also wrote:

…[sometimes] we decide not to act, thereby abrogating our democratic opportunity to choose the [society] we prefer.  And when we do that, we leave the right to choose in the hands of others—others whose opinions and beliefs we may not agree with. 

When those others are entrenched in their high positions, they are never eager to surrender their privilege.  But a righteous cause cannot forever be stifled, and many of the American people are deciding in front of our eyes, not to refrain from acting, but to take action to bring about change, despite the decades-long reluctance of those in power to do so.

It will be interesting, indeed, to see what emerges from this latest round of justifiable insurrection against the white bastion of entrenched power and privilege.

History is watching.