The Swerve

January 7, 2018

I thought that a revisit of my 2013 review of “The Swerve: How The World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard would be an interesting read for a rainy Sunday.

The Swerve” tells the story of the re-discovery in 1417 of a long poem in Latin by Lucretius called “On The Nature of Things” which, the author claims, led to a flowering of the humanist movement, to a modern scientific view of reality, and to the disintegration of (or at least a serious challenge to) the accepted world view of the Catholic Church.  Enormous claims, and the author does a fine job of defending them.

Lucretius’ poem is a discourse on the philosophy promulgated by Epicurus (341-270 BCE), that life should be led without any fear of death, that the pursuit of personal well-being should be the prime motivator of one’s existence, and that all life and all things are composed of “atoms” that collide and coalesce and then disaggregate once again upon death.


The Epicurean belief that there is no creation, the universe is eternal, that death is the final end, that there is no afterlife would prove to be a major challenge for the Church, a challenge they met with both cruelty and disdain.  It is from their deliberate twisting of these teachings that most people today consider Epicureanism to be a form of gluttony and greed and little more.

The first half of the book gives an excellent background to the Europe of the late medieval period, discusses the growth of humanism through the re-discovery of Latin and Greek texts, and follows the life of Poggio Bracciolini, a Papal secretary who found, copied and circulated a manuscript of Lucretius’ De rerum natura.

The second half describes the Epicureanism of Lucretius in some detail and it is worth noting the major points:

  • Everything is made of invisible particles that are eternal, infinite in number and are in motion in an infinite void
  • Nature ceaselessly experiments
  • The universe was not created for or about humans
  • Humans are not unique
  • The soul dies; there is no afterlife; there are no angels, demons or ghosts
  • All organized religions are superstitious delusions, and are invariably cruel
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion
  • Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder

The book then travels forward through history to show the extent of the poem’s influence.   Early humanists, such as Giordana Bruno, were burnt at the stake for preaching its beliefs.  Thomas More wrote Utopia as a direct attack on Lucretian Epicureanism, while Lucretius was the direct inspiration of Botticelli’s Primavera.  Montaigne’s Essays are infused with epicureanism, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a materialist masterpiece, even mentioning “little atomi” in its description of Queen Mab. Gallileo was clearly influenced by the poem,and the Puritan Lucy Hutchinson wrote an early English translation.

Perhaps the most famous political influence was in the work of Thomas Jefferson, a self-confessed Epicurean, who added “…the pursuit of happiness” as one of the three inalienable rights of all people.

This was a fascinating read.


Making Space for Citizens To Act

December 8, 2017

Last night we attended a session called “Making Space For Citizens To Act on The Issues That Matter Most” at the Wosk Centre.  There were about 50 people in attendance, perhaps half of them from governments of various levels; none, unsurprisingly, from City of Vancouver. The purpose of the gathering was to discuss ways in which governments and citizens can work more closely together “to co-create solutions” to the difficult problems of city-making.

The main speaker was Valerie Lammie, director of exploratory research at the Kettering Foundation, who has been city manager in Dayton and Cincinnati.  She immediately noted a structural flaw in the current profession of city management; that city managers’ contracts rarely if ever encourage or incentivize work with citizens, and that citizens are these days generally considered to be consumers or clients rather than partners. This view tends to accentuate a mistrust between politicians/civil servants and the community.

I was unsure of what she was suggesting to solve this lack of cooperation. She showed a cartoon from England in which “squares” [government?] and “blobs” [citizens?] failed to cooperate until, perhaps, the “blobs” became more like small “squares”. It didn’t seem to suggest any obvious (or good) solutions to me.

The speaker asked us speak about “cooperation strategies” that had recently worked for us. A small number of “successes” were raised including — as the comedy portion of the night — someone suggesting that the Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Not an opinion I share.  See also.

The speaker also talked about elected/appointed citizen or neighbourhood councils and similar bodies that have been used in various cities to close the engagement gap. She was thoroughly opposed to them, claiming they “didn’t work”, mainly because, she said, over time they became mini-governments with their own engagement issues.

I disagree. There are neighbourhood councils in Portland, Edmonton, and other places that seem to work, and I would still like to try it here in Vancouver.  Issues of rigidity and institutionalism can be overcome by the methods of selection at the neighbourhood level, annual turnover of membership, etc.  It is worth trying.

At the end of the meeting, we were asked to discuss impediments to community engagement. This gave me the opportunity to re-state my position that governments are becoming too big and too far removed from the individual citizen. I noted that we used to have wards but now have a city-wide at-large system. On top of this we have Metro Vancouver, Translink, and other regional bodies none of which are elected. At each stage, power moves inexorably up to the top of the hierarchy, and ever further from the citizen.  My position was, and is, that useful community engagement is almost impossible until power is returned to the neighbourhoods and the citizen.

All in all, I was glad to have gone to the meeting though I have few illusions that it will bring forth any solutions.


The Most Extreme Negation

December 3, 2017

I have been a political animal all my life, mostly as an anarchist, and as such I have read a great deal of political and philosophical literature. Much of this literature would be on what many would consider the extreme ends of politics and philosophy, including the work of nihilists who would see the destruction of all organisational principle. But there is a philosophy that believes that even nihilists don’t go far enough.

David Benatar is an anti-natalist. He believes that life is so bad, so painful, that human beings should stop having children for reasons of compassion. As reported in this New Yorker profile, he says:

“While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.”  In Benatar’s view, reproducing is intrinsically cruel and irresponsible—not just because a horrible fate can befall anyone, but because life itself is “permeated by badness.” In part for this reason, he thinks that the world would be a better place if sentient life disappeared altogether.

He wrote the basic thesis in his 2006 book “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.” He followed this up with “The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions.

Benatar is no dummy. He is head of the philosophy department at the University of Cape Town, where he also directs the university’s Bioethics Centre, which was founded by his father, Solomon Benatar, a global-health expert. He disagrees with the viewpoint that life is good, that the benefits outweigh the problems.

“The quality of human life is, contrary to what many people think, actually quite appalling,” he writes, in “The Human Predicament.” He provides an escalating list of woes, designed to prove that even the lives of happy people are worse than they think. We’re almost always hungry or thirsty, he writes; when we’re not, we must go to the bathroom. We often experience “thermal discomfort”—we are too hot or too cold—or are tired and unable to nap. We suffer from itches, allergies, and colds, menstrual pains or hot flashes. Life is a procession of “frustrations and irritations”—waiting in traffic, standing in line, filling out forms. Forced to work, we often find our jobs exhausting; even “those who enjoy their work may have professional aspirations that remain unfulfilled.” Many lonely people remain single, while those who marry fight and divorce. “People want to be, look, and feel younger, and yet they age relentlessly”

An obvious solution for this viewpoint is simply to kill oneself.  But Benatar doesn’t think that death is any better than life, so what’s the point? Another “solution” would be to actively try to make the world a better place. But Benatar doesn’t think that works either:

“It’ll never happen. The lessons never seem to get learnt. They never seem to get learnt. Maybe the odd individual will learn them, but you still see this madness around you,” he said. “You can say, ‘For goodness’ sake! Can’t you see how you’re making the same mistakes humans have made before? Can’t we do this differently?’ But it doesn’t happen … unpleasantness and suffering are too deeply written into the structure of sentient life to be eliminated.”

I definitely cannot agree with Benatar on a lot of this. But the piece is a fascinating look at how one highly intelligent human being looks at the world and our place in it.

Joe Hill

November 19, 2017

Today is the 102nd anniversary of the murder by execution of the great Wobbly songwriter and martyr Joe Hill.

A minute’s silence, and then back to the work that still remains unfinished.

This Is Class War

November 7, 2017

It is not often that the rough edges of the class war show themselves on our consciousness; they are generally far better hidden than this. But the disgraceful rhetoric concerning homeless shelters — in Marpole, and GW, and elsewhere — is one such rough edge.

“Oh yes, we support these Warming Centres and longer-term homelessness solutions; of course we do,” declare the faux liberals, but then add: “But ONLY if we get extra security for our homes and our schools.”

Why do they think they need that? Why do they consider that a group of homeless people they don’t know requires additional security? Why do they think these homeless people are more criminal and potentially violent than any other group in the neighbourhood?

Where are the police statistics to show that these ideas are based on facts rather than just bloody-mindedness?  Are they basing their ideas on Trumpian “alternate truths,”  perhaps?  The Big Lie wins, is that the plan?

The only basis for this scaremongering is class war.  Somehow, really poor people shouldn’t have all the rights and assumptions of innocence that we should give to, say, a middle manager or storekeeper; and certainly none of the rights and privileges of the really rich should percolate downward. Moreover, the really poor — unlike any other economic class — need to be subject of intense surveillance and narrowing of opportunities even though the vast percentage of crime is committed by people resident in housing, against family members, neighbours, and the community: not by the homeless.

This alternate narrative is followed relentlessly by the media: local crime buys eyeballs, and eyeballs buys advertising dollars and thus produces profits. Commerce is simple. Human interest is profit-driven.

This is class war.  It almost invariably leads to authoritarian, and sometimes totalitarian, regimes.  It is time the real liberals spoke up against the Big Lie narratives, and in support of the Warming Centres and other homeless remediation strategies, however imperfect they may be.


Surviving the Reformation

October 31, 2017

Exactly 500 years ago today, a German priest named Martin Luther is said to have nailed a statement to a church door in Wittenberg. That seems doubtful. What he did do on this day was send his 95 Theses to his Bishop. They were a detailed list of complaints about the Catholic Church doctrine of his day, complaints that would have him excommunicated three years later.

Luther’s basic position was that salvation came solely from the grace of God — from simple faith and belief — and required no good deeds on the part of the believer. His other important statement was that the Bible needed to be read and understood by the common people in their own language rather than interpreted by the priests.

Over the next few hundred years, hundreds of millions (without exaggeration) of human beings were killed in an effort to prove one side of the argument was more right than the other. We see the same things still happening today in the doctrinal disputes between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. And that doesn’t even count the countless millions more killed in disputes between different religions.

Looking back over these terrible and terrifying centuries, I am ever more convinced that “religion” began as, and has always continued to be, an effort to control others and take power over them. It may be that some sects started with generous desires but always — always — they devolve into political struggles for power.

It is very hard to argue that “religion” is a worthy end in and of itself.

Why I Oppose Proportional Representation

October 27, 2017

I wrote this soon after the last Federal election. Given current discussions in Victoria, I think it a good idea to republish it.

* * * *

Pressure to change our electoral system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation grows immediately after each election. And it easy to see why those with a hierarchical bent complain.

  • In the last Federal election, the Liberals scored 40% of the vote but gained 54% of the seats, while the Greens took 3.4% of the vote and were rewarded with just 0.3% of the seats;
  • In 2011, the Tories achieved 40% of the vote and they too took 54% of the seats.  The Liberals, with 19% of the vote, received only 11% of the seats. In that year, though, the NDP got 30% of the vote but 33% of the seats.

Those in favour of proportional representation argue that the number of seats in the Federal parliament should be, more or less, equal to the proportion of votes received. The results under such a system would have been as follows:

  • 2015 (338 total seats):
    • LPC 135 seats (184 taken):
    • CPC 108 seats (99):
    • NDP 67 seats (44):
    • GPC  11 seats (1)

So long as one is not opposed to coalitions (which I certainly am not), these results — which could be repeated for all the elections  we have had — seem to cry out for proportional representation to make the system “fair”.  But wait. There is no such thing as a free lunch, so what are giving up to create “fairness” in a Federal parliament?

What we give up — and the key reason I oppose PR — is the right to choose our own local representative. And here’s why.  Under a Federal PR system, each party (party not electors) creates a list of 338 candidates (one for each available seat), numbered from 1 to 338.  When the votes are cast as in 2015, the top 40% of the Liberal list are declared elected, along with the top 32% of the Tory list, the top 20% of the NDP list, and the top 3.4% of the Green list.  Note that none — repeat NONE — of these candidates is attached to a riding.

It is probable that regional (or provincial) lists would be part of any PR system chosen. In other words, my vote in Vancouver East would be combined with all similar votes in the region or province, and seats are then allocated on the basis of the parties’ regional or provincial lists.  Still, once again, there is no local representation.

This is OK only if you believe the abstract Federal level is the most important. However, if you believe like me that true democracy is being able to choose the actual person you want to represent your neighbourhood, then your rights are stripped completely away by PR. Thus I oppose it.

The creation of party lists takes power away from the individual voter and puts it ALL into the hands of party executives; their friends and cronies will always appear at the top of the lists, and the risk of corruption (say, getting a high number on the list due to one’s wealth rather than one’s desire for public service or ability) will always be just around the corner. Thus I oppose it.

I believe that the first-past-the-post system (with all its faults) more closely matches local opinion to representation. I also believe that many of the issues with the current system would be resolved or mitigated by introducing a preferential voting system. In other words, no-one can be elected without achieving 50% of the vote in the riding. This would be achieved by allowing voters to label candidates with first and second preferences.  If a majority is not reached on a first ballot, the lowest vote getter is eliminated and his/her second choices are distributed. This continues until one candidate reached 50%+1.

So, let’s amend the current system to fix errors, but keep the fully local basis of election,