Standing Your Ground

Over the past twenty years, the political landscape in many of the so-called free, democratic countries of the world has become more contentious, more rancorous, more partisan than I can ever remember it.

That’s not to say that the notion of rough-and-tumble politics is a new phenomenon, for it assuredly is not.  One need only read the history books to learn about such scandalous activities as, for example: the Profumo Affair, the Zinoviev Letter, or the Suez Crisis in Britain; the Teapot Dome Scandal, the Iran-Contra Affair, or the Watergate crisis in the US; and the Pacific Scandal, the Munsinger Affair, or the Airbus Affair in Canada.

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The playing of hardball politics has been with us for a long time.

Many of the examples cited here occurred long before my time as a mostly-passive observer of the political scene, so I have no perspectives on them that haven’t already been hashed and rehashed by pundits more astute than I.  Nevertheless, I think such scandals were more the exception than the rule—although I concede that may be more a commentary on my naïveté than an accurate assessment.

Today, however, regardless of whether or not political scandals roil the waters upon which sail the ships of state, there seems to be an especially bitter tone to the back-and-forth among the various political parties in each of these three nations, and even between the factions within those parties.  It seems that no one is prepared to listen to anyone anymore, so desperate are they to trumpet their own messages.

Stand your ground! is the order of the day.

Sixty-five years ago, in 1953, fighting in the vicious three-year war between North and South Korea—which also involved hundreds of thousands of troops from China, the US, and other allied nations—was halted with an armistice.  A demilitarized zone was created as a buffer between the two Koreas, and no formal peace treaty was ever signed to formally end the war.  In all the time since, both countries have fiercely guarded their borders on each side of the DMZ.  Neither side, until very recently, has even bothered to hold talks with the other, relying instead on the issuing of provocative, aggressive threats against each other.

Yet, earlier this year, for a host of reasons important to both countries, their leaders decided to sit down with each other to talk—and to listen.  That, in itself, was a notable and praiseworthy endeavour.  Even more significant, however, was the location they chose—the demilitarized zone that keeps them apart.

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After decades of standing their ground, the two men stepped forward, across their respective borders, to stand face-to-face on common ground, the DMZ.

Is there not a lesson here for the politicians who govern us?  The Korean peninsula, by some accounts, is the most dangerous place on earth, a tinderbox where even the slightest spark could re-ignite the long-ago war—but this time with even more disastrous consequences.  Nuclear consequences.

Still, the two Korean leaders managed to take that step on to common ground, even though the precarious circumstances in which they find themselves are infinitely more perilous—infinitely more—than any found in the halls of Congress or Parliament.

So why, I ask, can our elected representatives not do the same thing, ensconced in their much safer environs?  Why can they not forego their squabbling over issues that history will consign to the dustbin, and focus on finding solutions to the real problems confronting us?

Looming environmental disaster.  Decaying infrastructure.  Racial and religious intolerance.  Poverty and inequality.  Spiralling debt.  Food and water security.  To name but a few.

No one knows at this point where the discussions that have begun between the two Koreas will lead, whether to lasting peace or to a resumption of hostilities.  And no one knows, either, how successful a coordinated, bi-partisan, multi-national effort to address the world’s problems might be.

But, just as those two leaders have tried to find common ground across the border that divides them, so, too, must our elected officials do the same thing.  They must try to understand each other, and the opinions each side holds dear, rather than labelling each other as enemies of the people.

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In 1989, in his acclaimed book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote:  Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.  Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

To all our elected officials, I would add this:  Stop standing your ground, look for common ground, and have the courage to take the first step forward.

The ensuing steps will be easier.

People Who Know Everything

People who assume they know everything are annoying to those of us who do!

Thus spake a friend of mine (in jest I think) during a conversation about smarmy politicians who claim to have solutions to the ills that plague our society.  All we have to do is vote them into office and our worries will be over.  Or so they promise.

I confess I, too, become annoyed whenever someone presents as a know-it-all—not, as my friend joked, because I think I know everything, but because I think no one does.  Whenever I hear someone bloviating loudly on any subject, I remember a character from the Saturday morning cartoon shows of my childhood, Foghorn J. Leghorn.  I still picture him as a blustering, southern senator, speaking a mile a minute, pausing only intermittently to check with his listeners.

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“Pay attention to me, boy!  I’m not jus’ talkin’ to hear my head roar!”

“I keep pitchin’ ‘em, son, an’ you keep missin’ ‘em!”

“Any o’ this gettin’ through to you, son?”

The theory, I suppose, is that no one can contradict you if you won’t allow them a chance to speak.

The problem is, the world is a complex place where almost any issue has more than one truth attached to it.  Draining a swamp, for example, might be considered a fine idea by a developer who wants to convert it to a new mobile home community, but not such a good thing for the alligators, herons, and muskrats who already make it their home.  One’s perspective always plays a part.

If the swamp denizens are afforded no chance to speak on their own behalf, if they’re out-shouted and overwhelmed by those who know everything, by those who have the financial and political wherewithal to dominate the conversation, they are doomed.  In such cases, although both sides of the argument may have merit, only one side gets heard.  And that side usually prevails.

My experience with know-it-alls is that they seldom want to be confronted with facts or evidence that might support a view contrary to their own.  The flat-earth society comes to mind.  When presented with the famous ‘blue marble’ photograph of our planet, shot from an Apollo spacecraft, the society’s response was, “It’s easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye.”

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There are numerous other situations where those claiming to know everything reject scientifically-based information in favour of pre-determined positions: holocaust deniers, global-warming skeptics, and tobacco users are but a few.  The staunch refusal of these deniers to entertain an opposing point of view effectively cuts off any possibility of meaningful discussion, and imposes their peculiar world-view on everyone.  In the words of the Borg, from the Star Trek television series, “Resistance is futile.”

It is instructive to reference Susan Glaspell, a Pulitzer Prize journalist and novelist, who wrote:  One never denies so hotly as in denying to one’s self what one fears is true…

I don’t know the ‘honest truth’ (if there is one) about any of these controversial issues.  But I instinctively doubt those who claim to know it, especially in the face of possibly-contradictory evidence.  Surely both sides of any argument (or however many sides there may be) should be weighed and assessed before conclusions are reached.

And in cases where such rigorous debate has occurred, the resultant conclusions should still remain open to further examination and challenge as new information comes to light.  But certainty is the enemy of an open mind, and an open mind is the enemy of those who claim to know everything.

I’m reminded of a snatch of dialogue from a long-ago film that illustrates the point.  While arguing about something, one character states his opinion in no uncertain terms, clearly brooking no challenge.

“You really think so?” his companion asks.

“I don’t think,” the first one declares.  “I know!”

After a meaningful pause, the second character says, “Good, ‘cause I don’t think you know, either.”

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Indeed.

The Unwelcome Guest

For many years, my wife and I lived in a beautiful home on a lake.  We enjoyed having friends visit us, and always bent every effort to make them feel welcome and appreciated.  It seemed only right, given our previous experiences.

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You see, during the years before we owned our place, we had become perpetual guests, enjoying the vacation cottages owned by many of those very same friends.  We reveled in extended visits during the summer—always by invitation, of course.  But strangely, we were never invited to holiday at the same place twice.

And that was ever a mystery to me.  All our friends absolutely adore my wife, and appreciated that she brought food, drinks, bed-linen and towels, and an appropriate hospitality gift to thank our hosts for their graciousness.  As a person of some sensitivity and breeding, equally eager to be welcomed, I always tried to conduct myself as a valued guest, too.

That wasn’t as easy as it sounds, though, because it’s difficult to define what makes one welcome.  I tended to rely upon the timeworn standards; namely, go only when invited, make suitable noises of appreciation while there, and leave before being asked to.

On one visit, my host confided in me that, “Remember, guests are like fish.  After three days, they stink!”  On another occasion, a friend (out of earshot of his wife and mine) handed me a roll of toilet tissue, saying, “This is yours.  When it’s gone, so are you!”  I laughed heartily, sure he was being funny.  He wasn’t.

So over time, I came to realize that the things one host might require of me were not the same as that expected by another.  Consequently, my relief was immense when I came across a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ for people planning to visit friends at their cottage.  Some twenty-odd items long, the list was chock-full of wonderful suggestions.  I spent a good deal of time studying these, and made plans for putting them into practice.  My wife merely shook her head; she is prescient, that woman.

Tragically, I came to learn I had wasted my endeavours.  On most of our visits, nothing worked as it was supposed to.  And because I put forth my utmost efforts, I can only conclude that the list of suggestions was faulty.

Take, for instance, the one that said, “Don’t ask if you can bring some friends.”  That made sense to me, so I didn’t ask.  I just invited a few people on my own, figuring they’d all get along once they got to know each other.  Not so much, as it turned out.

Another suggestion advised, “If there is one bathroom, limit your time in it.”  I did.  I made a point of rising each morning before anyone else, so I’d be in and out of the bathroom in under half an hour.

One recommendation puzzled me at first, until I realized the limitations of septic tanks.  It said, “Do not flush the toilet after every use.”  Since everyone seemed comfortable with that, despite the obvious (and odious) disadvantages, I went along with it.  I found it necessary, ‘though, to flush each time before I used it.

I was very good, too, about offering to “help with a few of the never-ending chores around the cottage.”  I was quick to clean up the wood-stain I spilled; I helped to re-install the screen door I accidentally walked through (the new netting had to be back-ordered); I accompanied my host in his boat to fetch a canoe that drifted away after I forgot to tie it to the dock.  The rocky shore it had washed up on scratched its painted finish, but it still floated (thankfully, since I was tasked with paddling it back).

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My most heroic effort was when I dove down a number of times, unsuccessfully, trying to retrieve the small outboard motor I inadvertently dropped into the lake.  (Damn thing was heavy!)  I only stopped because I didn’t like swimming in the gasoline slick that appeared on the surface of the water—although I thought the colours were amazing!  The last I heard, the motor was finally located, recovered, and junked.

Ever determined to pointedly follow the advice from my list of ‘do’s and don’ts’, I was hurt when my hosts would decline my offer to “help with barbecuing and barbecuing duties.”  I was stunned when they would tell me not to bother to “fill the gas tanks after boating.”  And I was positively shocked when they would literally scream at me to “exercise caution when using power tools.”   They actually relieved me of the chainsaw I had fired up to cut kindling for the campfire I was planning.

The most hurtful moment came after lunch, on what turned out to be the final day of one such visit.  My hosts showed me a piece of cottage etiquette not covered by my list.  It said, “If we get to drinking on Sunday afternoon, and start insisting that you stay over until Tuesday, please remember that we don’t mean it!”

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Being a person of some sensitivity, as I have said, I eventually came to realize that my efforts to please my hosts were neither understood nor appreciated.  Which explains why my wife is still invited to these cottage-getaways—but for what are called girls’ weekends now—while I languish at home.

I really believe someone should revise that misbegotten list!

 

The Message and the Medium

In 1964, long before the advent of the internet, Marshall McLuhan coined a phrase that has become iconic—or as it might be termed in today’s online environment, gone viral.

The medium is the message.

Today, more than fifty years after the publication of his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, it is amazing how prescient he was.  As I understand his thinking, he was positing that the form or method of communication was more significant to our evolution than the content being communicated.

The content is the easy part, that which our minds tend to focus on as we listen to, watch, or read something that sparks our interest.  It could be the latest album from a pop star, a television program, or a new book we’ve picked up.

The medium, and there are many examples—smartphones, tablets, televisions, movies, print media, recordings, to cite but a few—is the structure or framework in which the content is couched.  The medium is how, not what, we learn.

To see how important the medium can be, imagine learning about a massive earthquake, for instance, in one of three ways: by hearing the news on the radio, by watching video on a nightly TV newscast, or by witnessing live events as they happen on your mobile device.  Which would have the greatest impact on you?

It might be argued that the advent of television was one of the most unifying forces the world has ever seen, allowing populations from every corner of the globe to see everyone else.  It was the dawn, perhaps, of the notion of a worldwide village.  If that is so, then the emergence of the internet with its worldwide web immediacy has surpassed even that.  This medium, with its instantaneous online access, has brought far-flung peoples as close as next-door neighbours.

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All good, right?  For the closer we are, the better chance we have of understanding each other, of allowing for each other’s differences, of adapting to each other’s unique ways of living.  Or not.

In 1961, well before the publication of McLuhan’s book, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the USA, Newton Minow, criticized commercial television as a vast wasteland.  He was referencing both the calibre of programming available (the content), and the failure of the industry to utilize television (the medium) to its best effect.

A letter writer to a newspaper recently remembered how, in his childhood, he and his friends slew dragons, conquered armies, practiced games of skill, and played at sundry other activities, just as children today do.  But, he wrote, they did it without computers.  And they did it, for the most part, outdoors.

Those activities (the content), and the environment in which they pursued them (the medium), influenced their cognitive, social, and bodily development.  It made them, for better or worse, who they are today.

But what of tomorrow?  What effects will the media of today have on the intellectual and physical growth of young people?  There has never been more content to share, to learn from; yet it remains secondary to the manner in which it’s delivered.  Just as McLuhan stated.

How often I have seen when I’m out and about—at a restaurant, let us say—two people sitting opposite each other, each with attention focused solely on their smartphones.  Are they texting each other, I wonder, rather than talking?  Are they so disenchanted with their present company that they’d rather be with someone else, if only vicariously?  Or is it that the lure of the technology (the medium) has persuaded them away from human interaction (the content)?

Human brains are evolving organisms, constantly adapting to conditioning stimuli from the environment.  Hence, the brain of the indigenous New World person who spied the first European sail on the distant horizon more than five hundred years ago, and the brain of the erstwhile seafaring explorer, would have functioned quite differently than that of today’s urban dweller.  None of them would likely survive for long in the others’ world.

Yet we, the people who descended from both aboriginal and interloper groups, do survive today, proof that the brain has responded to the information discovered by subsequent generations, and to the forms in which that information was presented.

Should we despair that future learning, and the means in which it’s delivered, will be different than the past learning with which we are familiar?  Or should we celebrate the change as progress?

Should we criticize the infernal internet, that vast wasteland, and its array of technology that seems to isolate people from one another, even as it brings us together?  Or should we embrace it as the surest way to advance our global civilization?

In search of answers, I decided to consult a medium.  Alas, she had no message of comfort for me.

Perhaps I’ll do a Google search.

Is It Still?

Even at this late stage in my life, there are still so many questions and so few answers.

For example, is golf still golf if one doesn’t walk the course?  Since retiring, I have devoted countless hours to flailing away at a little white ball, following it down fairways that are too narrow, poking and prodding it close enough to the hole that I can pick it up—a gimme in golf parlance.

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But I almost never walk the course.  Instead, I ride a golf cart along paved pathways, across swaths of mowed grass, stopping too often by bunkers full of granulated sand.  The only exception is when I fail to hit a rider—more golf parlance for a shot that doesn’t travel far enough to warrant climbing back aboard the cart to ride to the next shot.

Golf is a game invented to test one’s physical, mental, and psycho-emotional endurance, and it has forever involved walking.  If one drives the course, is it still golf?

Another question concerns an issue that plagues me in moments of idleness, of which there are many.  Is it still okay for a gentleman to hold a door open for a lady?  And if one does, should one expect a ‘thank-you’ as the lady sweeps through?

More often than not, I rush ahead when in the company of ladies to man the door.  Being not the most graceful of people at my advancing age, I frequently bang into someone in my haste.  Or regrettably, I approach the door from the wrong side, making it necessary to push in front of my companions to open it.  Once in a while, I’ve even been known to let go of the door too soon (usually because the strength in my arm gives out), which provides a none-too-gentle bump on the derriere of the unfortunate lady caught on the threshold.  I rarely hear a smiling Thank you!

A third example has recently become a concern.  Is it still acceptable for one such as I to look at pretty young women?  During a lifetime of doing so, I’ve gone from being considered precocious in my pre-teens, to flirtatious in high school; from admiring in my early working years, to bold in middle-age; from cute in my early senior years, to…what?  Lecherous?

Now, when so many pretty girls are the age of my granddaughters, is it still okay to appreciate their youth and beauty?

Despite the fact I’m a grandfather, I continue to be plagued by these questions.  For instance, there’s the matter of leaving one’s bed unmade after getting up in the morning.  You know, as long as no one is expected to drop by.  Or is one supposed to honour the teachings of one’s mother even now, so many years later?

Though she’s been gone many a year, I still imagine her tread on the stairs, coming to inspect my bedroom before breakfast.  The stripes on the bedspread had to be straight, from the pillow to the footboard; the hem had to be off the floor, and uniformly so, along the length of the bed; and, although I never had to bounce a dime off it in military fashion, the top had better be smooth, with no wrinkles showing through.

Is it still necessary to make one’s bed every morning?

There are so many questions!  If it doesn’t have a hole in the middle, is it still a doughnut?  Is it still correct to say one dials a number, now that there’s no longer a dial on the phone?  Is it still de rigueur to doff one’s hat in an elevator, when so many around us eat in restaurants with their hats on?  Is it still the Olympics with no truly amateur athletes extant?

I know there are folks who could not care less about such questions.  Political correctness has mandated the answers in many cases, anyway, and general indifference often covers the rest.  But how else might I occupy my time, except by considering such weighty matters?

Is it still Sunday if not everyone goes to church?  Is it still winter if there’s no snow?  Is it still cream if it’s made from petroleum products?  Is it still my car if I’m only leasing it?  Is it still democracy if hardly anybody votes?

I don’t remember having the inclination in years gone by to ponder these questions.  Or perhaps I thought I had all the answers back then.  Regardless, I now regale friends—those who hang around long enough—with rhetorical queries and enquiries, in hopes they’ll engage with me in the pursuit of answers.  I’ve chosen to interpret their glazed eyes and pained expressions as a devoted effort to help.

The greatest barrier to learning, I read a long time ago, is the failure to ask.  And so I do.  Endlessly. Repetitively.  Annoyingly, even.

Is it still okay?