Friday, August 31, 2007

Is China Doomed?

I’m going on intuition here, but I think a tipping point may have been reached. China is going to blow.

This week’s Economist features a cartoon in which the American Pentagon fears a “Worst case scenario”: “Russian bombers dropping Chinese toys.” As I read this, on TV, the BBC features pictures of “Chinese chocolates” crawling with worms.

It looks like the world media has latched on to this image of China: the consuming world now will soon have a fixed idea that “made in China” means dangerous.

It is one thing to have, for a while, a reputation for making shoddy goods—Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea all survived that. People will accept poor workmanship and lower-quality materials as a fair trade in return for low prices. But how easy is it to get past a broad general reputation for making dangerous goods?

How’s thalidomide been selling lately? Ford Pintos? DDT? Zeppelins?

Granted, there is no sign of economic trouble in China yet. And people are saying China is too big a part of the world economy now for it to be allowed by others to go down, and so it will not. Investing in China is a sure thing.

That is what they always say. That is always the general line just before an economic collapse—that is just what might be characterized as “irrational exuberance,” in Greenspan’s famous phrase. It is investors all thinking it is a sure thing that makes economic bubbles possible.

Does the world really need China? Not as far as I can see, in any practical sense. China is now a middle-income country; more than half the world’s countries now have a lower GDP per capita than China at purchasing power parity. That means they have more room to grow; there is actually a lot of potential competition for China as a possible source of low-cost goods. This is not to say that the collapse of China would not be painful; it does not touch on how China has woven herself into the world financial system. But she is not irreplaceable. Accounts on paper do not supercede realities on the ground.

Yes, China is big—one fifth of the world’s population. But India standing alone is just as big, and less developed. Then there are many other quite large nations, currently poorer than China: Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, all of Central Asia, all of Africa south of the Sahara, most of Central and South America… cumulatively they are much larger than China. In theory, in order to be competitive, Chinese goods must be higher quality than anything this list of nations can produce; for they cannot compete on price. If they are not, we have a bubble, which is going to blow.

Are they? It’s starting to look as though the answer is no; and we do not know how many more revelations of defects and corners cut are to come.

As a result, I expect foreign clients as a group to tilt quickly now to preferring non-Chinese suppliers, even if they cost a bit more. It will actually be worth a premium to be able to claim no Chinese components.

And so investment and income will go elsewhere.

So the Chinese economy should suffer, as this loss of sales and investment is felt.

I have expressed my belief often, in this column, that the Chinese economy is a pyramid scheme, held together by perpetual growth and lack of transparency. It fits that historical pattern too well. The reports of annual growth have been too regular, too consistent, too high, not to look suspicious, and China has all the lack of transparency to allow a Ponzi scheme to occur. We know for a fact that the official figures do not add up.

The durability of the modern Chinese growth has never yet been tested by any major economic setback. It is a recession that exposes such things. If it is a pyramid scheme, any serious interruption in growth will bring it down. Quality control may be the least of China’s worries. We could have a general Chinese economic collapse.

This in turn raises special problems for China. Its “Asian tiger” predecessors, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, all segued fairly smoothly to an open, democratic system of government. Except for Indonesia; and Indonesia, once recession came, suffered the political upheaval of revolution, and mass bloodletting, as well.

This, or probably much worse than this, can be expected in China. A regime that operates openly and with popular consent can withstand an economic shock. A secretive regime without a formal mandate tends to collapse. A sudden dip in the economic expectations of the middle class is identified by Craine Brinton, in Anatomy of Revolution, as the classic prelude to a revolution.

China’s government is notable, in fact, for its lack of a popular mandate and of transparency; much more so than Indonesia in 1997. It has accumulated a lot of historical skeletons in its party closets, that the average Chinese has managed so far to overlook only by a kind of willing suspension of disbelief. It has made no moves or proposals to convert itself into something more open or participatory, nothing that might earn it more patience from the middle class. It looks a bit old and doddering from sheer longevity. It is justified solely by the “economic miracle.” If that miracle evaporates, it will, in its turn, collapse. Economic trouble will be matched, and exacerbated, by a sudden lack of organization throughout Chinese society as a whole.

Revolutions are dangerous things; they rarely improve matters. It will take some time for any new government to form, restore order, and develop the sort of popular trust to put through the painful measures that will be necessary to restore the economic structure. There will be a temptation to resort to a “strong man,” and another Ponzi scheme. The matter will be made more difficult because, to ensure its own hegemony, the Chinese Communist Party has been pretty diligent in preventing the development of any other strong organizations of any kind in the land. Chaos threatens.

And then comes the next factor: historically, revolutions, in China, have not been quick or simple affairs. Largely because of China’s vast size, they have usually involved long and bloody civil wars. A governmental collapse, plus the lack of ready alternatives, could easily allow this to happen.

It could all easily knock China back another hundred years.

To prevent this, a great deal of international forbearance might be necessary—of the sort Russia, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin managed to get during the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Can China hope for that? With luck. But there will surely be a strong international lobby to insist on the independence of Tibet, and a strong Muslim lobby for the independence of Sinjang (Sinkiang). Mongolia would naturally desire the secession of Inner Mongolia; Korea, Vietnam, Central Asia, India, all have territorial claims of some sort on land now held by Beijing. Taiwan would, at a minimum, probably seize the opportunity to declare independence, as might Hong Kong and Macau as well. And the spectacle of “foreigners” biting off parts of “China” would not help any struggling new government to re-establish order and authority. Any more than it did for Weimar Germany, or the Qing at the beginning of this century.

This actually all seems to me the most probable path ahead. I would not want right now to be investing in China.

Nor would I even be counting on attending the Beijing Olympics. Believe it or not, even that is a bad omen. Such events tend to be the sort of big blowouts that mark a doomed regime, someone running on hype.

I do not refer only to the famous Berlin Olympics of 1936. Recall also that the 1940 Olympics had to be cancelled--they were set for Tokyo. So was the planned Roman International Exposition of 1942.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

50 Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong

Part of my vacation this summer was spent in France.

France cares far more about her own culture than Canada does. That much is obvious to even a casual tourist. Streets and metro stations are named for writers, artists, and philosophers, not to mention engineers and scientists. In Canada, I cannot imagine a “Kurelek” street or a metro station named “McLuhan.” We don’t even feature artists and thinkers on the banknotes—we’re the only country in the British Commonwealth that limits that honour to politicians. We certainly don’t bury our culture heroes in a “pantheon.” Indeed, the phrase “Canadian culture hero” sounds to me like an oxymoron.

But isn’t this a big mistake? Keith Spicer once observed in a formal government report, in reaction to a near-vote by Quebec to separate, that Canada badly needs poets extolling its sense of a nation. Where are they? Well, the government does precious little to help this happen, and it does seem to be something useful a government could do. There’s nothing obviously wrong with trying to keep the country together.

A sense of national unity, a sense of nation, comes, by definition, from a sense of shared culture. Most other countries know this, and actively promote their own culture. Britain has the British Council, Germany the Goethe Institute, France the Alliance Francais and Academie Francais. Where is Canada’s equivalent?

It’s not a question of money, surely. I’m not a big fan of government spending, and am not calling for a large outlay of money here. We currently, indeed, spend pots and armoured cars of money on “multiculturalism”—which is to say, on everyone else’s culture but our own. Let’s stop doing that, in the first place—it is obviously counterproductive.

Thanks to the Internet, and satellite TV, we could also be promoting Canadian culture overseas quite cheaply. Where is our equivalent of Korea’s Arirang TV, or the BBC’s magnificent web presence?

And it costs almost nothing to do such things as create an established list of “cultural treasures,” like Korea or Japan--costs nothing, and boosts tourism.

And even beyond tourism, and beyond national unity, the establishment and fostering of a Canadian “brand” is of benefit for all our exports. “Made in France” or “Made in Japan” or “Made in the USA” evoke clear and (generally) positive images. This is largely due to a fondness for French, Japanese, and American culture. So does “Made in Canada,” already. But advertising rarely hurts sales. And we are the world’s number one exporting country. We live or die on export sales.

So, on the whole, promoting culture would make, not cost, money.

There is surely no harm that it also has tremendous benefits that are not economic. The promotion of culture is a huge real boost to the quality of life of every Canadian. It makes Canada a more pleasant place to live; the arts consecrate the ground on which they virtually walk. There is a reason why Paris is a more desired address than, say, Indianopolis. And it is not for the service.

We do not celebrate our culture, I suspect, largely because most Canadians more or less openly feel Canadian culture is not worthy of such attention.

This is the sad residue of colonialism—when I was a child, we still all believed that anything from England must be better than the Canadian equivalent. Important things always happened elsewhere. Instead of growing out of this inferiority complex, Canada, with multiculturalism, has simply extended it to more mother countries.

Bad move.

In fact, Canadian culture is already huge, in world terms. People around the world are mad to listen to Celine Dion. They all know Shania Twain comes from Northern Ontario. They all want to pay big money to see Cirque du Soleil and IMAX. They all read Margaret Atwood, and laugh at Mike Myers. Canadian culture always looks more impressive from other countries; I have bobbed in a Philippine ferry to the tune of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Pussywillows, Cattails,” and heard Joni Mitchell’s “Carrie” on the Muzak system in France.

We seem to be the only ones who don’t appreciate it.

Another objection is that, being of two languages, our culture is necessarily not unified. But this is true, if at all, only of our literature. And even in literature, the matter seems marginal. There is, after all, such a thing as translation. We all know and love Carrier’s “The Hockey Sweater,” Anglophones as much as Francophones.

I’d like to see, as a start, a new order of merit, like the Order of Canada, established strictly for artistic, literary, perhaps scientific and philosophical figures--for those who can justly be called active contributors to Canadian culture. No politicians, no philanthropists, no bureaucrats, just artists and thinkers. This could cost effectively nothing—nothing but the price of the badge and the ceremony.

And this body could be a working shop. It would, at regular intervals—perhaps one a year?--induct some dead figure into an official Canadian pantheon. This would involve a bit more expense: the cost of a bust or a painting, and a permanent physical location in Ottawa to display them all. Heck, the sky’s the limit—let’s include rotating exhibitions on members as well. This would not require a large permanent collection—items could be borrowed for the duration. It would do schoolchildren little harm to learn more about Stephen Leacock.

I’d like the same group to be given the job of creating a list of Canadian cultural treasures, on the model of such countries as Japan or Korea. This could be a guide for educators, and a guide for tourists.

They could also choose figures and images for Canadian coins, stamps, and banknotes—avoiding the present over reliance on politicians.

And they could choose from among their ranks the Governor-General, elevating this figure once and for all beyond politics and making him or her a genuine representative, as she should be, of the Canadian nation.

Of course, the creation of such an institution could lead to an “academic” or establishment style of art. Fine; I’m ready to take that chance. If it does, given the nature of art, it will still inspire more and better art. The good artists will organize and produce more in reaction to what they object to in the academy.

Who would choose the members? That’s a bit of a trick. Politicians would, I fear, be too inclined to select on political grounds—quotas for region, skin color, race, religion, and so forth. Self-selection by existing members would be too cliqueish, and does not work well at present in academics. I’d propose a vote by members of recognized cultural organizations—publishers and editors are in the business, for example, of evaluating authors. Gallery owners and museum curators are in the business of evaluating artists. Put such groups to work nominating and electing this body.

In the meantime, being an active contributor to the culture is an alienating and impoverishing thing at the best of times. Artists create the culture for the sake of all of us, and get precious little for themselves in return. The least we can do is give them a little formal recognition in return. Besides encouraging Canadians to take more interest in the arts, it might encourage more talented Canadians to strive to make a contribution—the feeling that what they were doing mattered to the rest of us, and that we were listening.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Canada: The Home of the Free

I dislike Canadian nationalism; all nationalism is idolatry. But sometimes it is only legitimate to point to Canadian history with pride. Believe it or not, a case can be made that Canada, and not the United States of America, is the true historical defender of human rights in North America. And perhaps, by extension, in the world at large.

It has been observed more than once, that the most fundamental human right, next to the right to life, is the right to freedom of conscience. Some, indeed, would place it higher. Now, have you ever wondered why French Canada refused to join the American Revolution? After all, France itself was on the American side. Any diminution of British power in North America was good news for France. And it might even have ended with Quebec independence, or Quebec back with France—the United States of America was not yet a done deal.

Why wouldn’t the French of Quebec have leapt at the chance to revolt? Yet they were not merely neutral; they fought hard against the American revolutionaries when they sought to invade, or to “liberate.”

The answer is simple. At the time of the Revolution, Catholics had no civil rights in the Thirteen Colonies. They could not vote or stand for office, even in once-Catholic Maryland. In Canada, by contrast, they had full civil rights. This was rare enough, under a nominally Protestant government, that the Quebecois were not inclined to risk any rocking of canoes. Nor were they convinced otherwise even in 1812, when the Americans tried again to take Canada for the Republic. A Catholic running for US president was still a major controversy as recently as 1960—and no Catholic has, in fact, become president since. A Mormon running for president is still controversial. By contrast, the religion of a candidate has never been an issue in a Canadian election, with the sole shameful exception of the Liberal attack on Stockwell Day’s “fundamentalism” in 2000.

Meantime, in Britain itself, Tony Blair reportedly did not dare to convert to Catholicism openly while in office—because it was arguably still unconstitutional for a Catholic to be prime minister.

Is this because Canadian politicians are simply not as concerned with religion?

Like heck. Both JS Woodsworth, founder of the CCF, and Tommy Douglas, founder of the NDP, were ministers. Georges Vanier, the former Governor-General, is in line for Catholic sainthood.

Within the US, the first declaration of religious liberty seems to have been in Catholic Maryland, where the “Act concerning Religion” proclaimed in 1649 that “no person or persons whatsoever within this province… professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth be any wise troubled, molested, or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof.” Sadly, however, this relative tolerance was rescinded when Protestants gained control of the colony from 1691. When the US Constitution was adopted, in 1791, twelve of the fourteen states still had religious tests for state office. Indeed, extending civil rights to Baptists or Quakers was still almost as controversial in most parts of the US as extending them to Catholics.

Meantime, the right to freedom of religion for both Catholics and Protestants was guaranteed to all residents of Britain’s Acadian possessions—the Canadian Maritimes--by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Toleration was also extended to all varieties of Protestants, and to Jews. This religious toleration was reaffirmed and extended to the balance of Canada, newly won from France, by the Quebec Act of 1774.

Canada—both French and English Canada—was also significantly more respectful, throughout its collective history, of the human rights of Indians and blacks. The Catholics of New France, like the Spanish, were active evangelizers of the Indians. Nowadays this is considered somehow illegitimate; but the truth is it showed a concern for the Indians as fellow human beings. The Protestants of the British colonies were quite late in comparison to take any interest in the enterprise. Similarly, while the French (and later the Scots of the Hudson’s Bay Company) intermarried with the Indians and largely formed one nation, the English-speaking settlers to the South passed laws making interracial marriage illegal. The Indians were somehow irredeemably “other.” As a result, when the Thirteen British colonies went to war with New France, it was, from their perspective, “The French and Indian War.” In other words, the Indians generally favoured and identified with the French.

Among the Protestants, it was the Moravians who first thought to try to save Indian souls, in Delaware, beginning in 1748. Unfortunately, it did not go well. The Indians were eager to convert, but local hostility both to ethnic Indians and to the Moravians forced them to flee their lands, ever further west. First they went to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, but encroaching white settlers who would not recognize Indian land ownership kept pushing them on. By the American Revolution they were in the Ohio territory, intended by Britain as a permanent Indian reserve. Unfortunately, Ohio was ceded to the New United States in the peace settlement. The lucky fled, with the Mohawks and other Loyalist Indians, to Upper Canada. Those who remained in Ohio were all clubbed, scalped, and burned to death by the triumphant revolutionaries.

For whatever reason, the French tradition of accepting Indians as their fellow men was continued by the British in their Canadian territories. Hence most American Indians were British loyalists during the American Revolution, and fought for Britain—i.e., Canada--again in the War of 1812.

Throughout the further history of the two countries, Canada has most often been the sweet land of liberty for the Indians. The Sioux and other Indians of the Great Plains referred to the US-Canadian border as the “medicine line”: past that point was peace and safety.

Similarly, and no doubt for the same reasons, as Mark Noll--an American--writes in his History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, “Barbot in 1682 and Bishop George Berkeley in 1731”—both Protestants—“contrasted the somewhat greater concern for the spiritual life of blacks that was found in Catholic regions, New Spain and New France, with the widespread indifference among English settlers” (Noll, p. 78). In the American Revolution, the British commanders as a class disapproved of slavery, and often gave freedom to all black slaves in areas they held—long before Lincoln did it in the Civil War. As a result, when the British withdrew, many blacks who could fled with them as loyalists to Nova Scotia.

Slavery was, it is true, once practiced in Canada—it was a custom picked up from the Indians. But the total number of slaves was always small, in the tens or hundreds of persons, and slavery was effectively outlawed in Upper Canada in 1793, in Lower Canada in 1803, long before the US. From that time on, Canada gained significance for American slaves as the terminus of the Underground Railroad—the true land of the free.

True, democracy is older and more deeply ingrained in the US than in Canada. But democracy and human rights are not the same thing.

And, true, Canada in more recent years has not, under stiffer competition, been living up to its history in the area of human rights.

Perhaps a reminder of that proud history will inspire us to do better.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Life Cycle of an Idealistic Organization

Catholics should be aware that Amnesty International, which once did admirable work on behalf of prisoners of conscience, primarily by organizing letter-writing campaigns, has become a rogue entity. It is now an “advocacy” organization with a specific political agenda. This agenda includes the promotion of abortion. It now also discriminates between human rights and “women’s rights,” reserving a special interest in the latter. It also firmly opposes the death penalty. I do too—but this is surely a matter on which reasonable people can differ, and well beyond their original mandate of defending prisoners of conscience. Indeed, Amnesty ought to allow others their conscience on this matter, if they are to practice what they once preached.

This tends to happen to such organizations:

First, an organization becomes significantly successful, through their sincerity and idealism.

Then, their resultant prestige and reputation for fearless honesty makes them extremely attractive to those who have hidden agendas, or to careerists, or to hypocrites. For them, it becomes the perfect vehicle.

And so they are over a fairly short time perverted into something more or less the opposite of what they were intended to be. It is almost the normal progression.

George Orwell traced the process in his novel Animal Farm, not to mention his non-fiction accounts of the Spanish Civil War. His classic phrase expressing this perversion of principle: “All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.”

Craine Brinton traced the process in his brilliant Anatomy of Revolution. All revolutions follow this same script. The French Revolution, born in idealism, calling for equality, democracy, and brotherhood, ended in the ultimate careerist, Napoleon, in eternal war, and what amounted to a doctrine of radical inequality. The Russian Revolution, born in idealism and calling for democracy and equality, ended up with Stalin. Born in internationalism, it became the epitome of nationalism. The Chinese Revolution, born in idealism, ended up with Mao. The English Revolution got Cromwell. The second Russian Revolution is getting Putin. And Marxism as an intellectual movement got Lenin.

Some other examples: Harvard University was founded by the Puritans as a theological college. How comfortable do you suppose a Puritan minister would feel there today? For that matter, how comfortable would a Puritan feel in Massachusetts?

The ACLU used to be a model of non-partisanship; it once defended the right of neo-Nazis to march through a Jewish neighbourhood. Now it supports liberties only for the left, and for the secularists against the religious. It is rather less supportive of the right to free speech, freedom of conscience, or the right to bear arms, for example, than it is, say, of the right to privacy.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and most other recent “human rights” codes, similarly invert the original human rights doctrine of Locke or the US Constitution. Originally, human rights restricted governments by reserving certain areas to the individual. Now, they restrict individuals by reserving certain areas to the government.

The civil rights movement of the Sixties, which called for an end to quotas and for judging people, in Martin Luther King’s fine phrase, “not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character,” has also been co-opted into the opposite: a system of racial preferences in employment and education. And these quotas have mostly been in aid of middle-class white women, rather than blacks.

The Canadian foreign service up through the Fifties was justly celebrated as a collection of the best and the brightest, doing much with little, selfless and idealistic; Lester Pearson’s Nobel Prize was the seal. Nowadays, most Canadians with experience abroad complain of how much harder it is for them to deal with their embassy than it seems to be for Americans, Brits, Australians, Filipinos, and so on.

So too with religion. The same process can be traced in almost every Protestant denomination. Once upon a time, the Congregationalists split off from the Anglicans as a ginger group who took their religion more seriously. They are now part of the United Church. Somewhat later, again, the Methodists split off from the Anglicans as a ginger group who took their religion more seriously. They are now also part of the United Church. Meanwhile, the Pentecostals have split off as a ginger group who take their religion more seriously. Again and again, enthusiasm and doctrinal consistency lasts a generation, then the new denomination falls away into dull respectability as another “mainline Protestant denomination,” their theology, ritual, and even ministers, interchangeable. If anyone cares.

The Buddha, for his part, made no bones about predicting that his teaching would be hopelessly corrupted within 500 years. He was, indeed, a wise man. As John Powers, a Buddhist and Buddhist scholar currently with the Australian National University, cheerfully pointed out to me, Chinese "Zen" Buddhism teaches more or less the opposite of everything in the Pali Canon.

So it goes with nearly everything fine and noble in this fallen world.

With, it seems to me, one uncanny exception: the Catholic Church. Alone among all organizations, it seems to have managed to preserve its essential principles and essential good name for almost two thousand years—longer than any other organization has even managed to exist. (Some would argue the United States has done pretty well too—but if so, only for two hundred years or so).

Yes, some allege there were periods in the past when it did not keep to its better nature; perhaps so, though Catholic historians can argue quite convincingly that it is not so. We are not talking here of individual failings, mind, which are inevitable, but failings of the organization.

But even if we allow this claim, it surely does hold to its principles now. The proof is that this is the very criticism laid against it even by its enemies, that it has not changed course to suit the times. And what other organization of any kind in history has managed to do even this much, to fall completely away from idealistic founding principles, and then restore them without any break in organizational continuity?

This seems almost impossible; it would almost by definition require a Napoleon to surrender power voluntarily.

But it is as promised by Jesus himself in the Bible: “I name you Rock (Peter), and on this rock I will build my church. And the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

Two thousand years is pretty good for testing the truth of that statement. By contrast, AI, and most of the other movements cited, held to their guns for no more than a generation.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Real World of Abuse

I do not, as a rule, give money to beggars in Canada. I know too many who need help far more in other countries; and Canada has a good welfare system. I do give to buskers. It seems to me that artists offering their work free to those who cannot afford it are worthy of support. And I do often give to the vendors of street papers.

There is less logic to this: if they want to work instead of beg, why not sell the Globe or Toronto Star, rather than a newspaper specially printed for the purpose?

But the truth is, I am curious to read the papers. Because nobody takes them seriously, they tend to be outlets for eccentric views. And, in a world that is mad, anyone considered mad by the world is worth reading.

Usually they are dreadful. Most people cannot write very well. From one column in a recent example, though, I got an interesting insight. It was by someone who claimed to have been abused as a child, who had set up her own agency, “Lovecry,” to help other abused kids or adolescents she found on the streets.

She maintained that the official channels and official agencies were mostly useless for the truly abused. For two reasons: first, because the original abusers were often on their staff. Second, because abusers tend to be socially prominent. Therefore, mainstream society is almost automatically on their side and against the abused child or adolescent. Courts and agencies will routinely, she says, deny the problem, try to make it out as something else, or blame the victim.

This seemed pretty unlikely at first reading. After all, we hear a lot about abused children these days, and so get the impression that much is being done. I saw a big poster on the Toronto Metro the same day, warning of the scourge of elder abuse. If the powers that be really wanted to avoid the problem, why publicize it?

But on reflection, I think her claim is quite probably true. And it actually tallies with my own experience.

If a person enjoys abusing others, where would they most want to be? Why, working as a counselor of the abused, of course. First, it is the perfect cover—sheep’s clothing for the hungry wolf. Second, those who come to you are utterly vulnerable, already proven abusable, and with nowhere else to turn. Third, as a society we have set up absolutely no mechanism to prevent this. Fourth, abusers are manipulators. They are therefore, as a group, especially skilled at appearing to be what they are not.

It simply stands to reason, therefore, that some significant proportion of those who choose to work professionally with the bullied and abused will be bullies and abusers.

As to abusers being prominent citizens, this is also, on reflection, quite likely. Many studies show, for example, that those holding managerial positions, positions of authority, are much more likely than the general population to be “psychopaths.” This is probably true in all fields. The formula is simple: bullies crave power over others. Those who crave a thing will work harder towards acquiring it, and are therefore more likely to acquire it. Hence, bullies will normally rise to the top.

Psychopaths, aka bullies or abusers, more or less by definition also have strong “EQ”: they are able to control their own emotions well, and to manipulate the emotions of others. This skill, as many psychologists assert, is the key to success in the social world.

Someone who can, and likes to, manipulate the emotions of one person is an abuser. Someone who can, and likes to, manipulate the emotions of many people, is a worldly success. It is overwhelmingly likely that this describes the same person.

On top of this, there is the probability that Lord Acton is right in his famous aphorism, that power corrupts. Even those who achieved power with no intent to abuse, may learn to find the pastime pleasant. It would, sadly, be no more than human nature.

Put these two factors together, and it is probably fair to say that the proportion and level of abuse perpetrated will rise steadily with any rise in social class and position.

As a result, the truly abused are indeed unlikely to get any help from society as a whole, and from those assigned by society to handle the problem. They are more likely to get further abuse. Society’s natural bent may well always be to help the abuser and harm the abused—though the overall level of abuse may be greater in one society, less in another.

This is of course exactly what Jesus says in the New Testament. The powers of this world are the scribes and Pharisees whom he condemns as abusive. The abused are cited as blessed in the Beatitudes—along with the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted.

Are all those in positions of power and authority bad people? Not at all; I know many folks who are fairly prominent, and many, probably most, have high personal moral standards and are sincere in wishing to do good. But the problem is systemic, or rather, ingrained into the nature of the world.

As to the stereotype most of us have, of abusers being working-class men, "rednecks," or Catholic priests, this is just a convenient cover for abusing working-class men, or Catholic priests. In Nazi Germany, similarly, the targeted “abusers” were invariably Jews. In the pre-civil-rights-era US South, they were invariably black men. I recall a doctor not long ago in Canada saying the only evidence of physical abuse of a child he would consider significant was cigarette burns. To him, somehow, abusing was apparently necessarily tied up with smoking; for everyone knows smokers are bad people. And that poster I saw in the Toronto subway? It defined abuse, in so many words, ignoring facts that should be obvious to all, as the “mistreatment of women and children.” Men, it seems, are never abused; men are always abusers.

In reality, of course, a generally disliked group is actually the group least likely to ever get away with abusing anyone, and so the group least likely ever to try. They are also of course the group most likely to themselves be abused.

The world is indeed mad. Abusers are most often called abused, and the abused abusers.

What advice, then, can we give the abused?

First, it is probably safest to avoid all official agencies claiming to offer aid.

Second, read the New Testament. Start with the Sermon on the Mount.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Funding Religious Schools in Ontario

Warren Kinsella and Robert Fulford both argue that the Ontario Conservatives’ plan to fund all religious schools is unworkable. Kinsella asks “what will you name the new government ministry that will determine what is a bona fide religion deserving of funding, and what is not? And, then, how many lawyers will the Attorney-General need to hire to fight the decades of constitutional challenges you will immediately face?” Fulford writes: “Have they any idea of the theological and bureaucratic nightmares they are inviting? We'll need armies of officials to negotiate with those who say they want support -- Hindus, Copts, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Protestants. Which of the many Protestant sects will be supported? Which Muslims? Which Jews?” Fulford actually implies the whole Enlightenment is at stake.

But this is a false problem. First, we already make this determination—for tax purposes. It is therefore manifestly possible, and it would cost not one penny more nor one more hour of work, to simply recognize the same organizations for school funding.

Even were this not so, the matter would still be simple. If any group of, say, fifty families in a given municipality requested a school on religious grounds, why would it even be any business of government to decide whether they have a real religion? Isn’t that their own business? Don’t their children need schooling in any case?

News Flash: Mother Theresa Lacked Faith

I am sad to read of the spiritual struggles Mother Theresa suffered, as revealed in her letters to her spiritual director, now published as a book titled Mother Theresa: Come be My Light. But I am not surprised. I would have been surprised were it not so.

Mother Theresa apparently suffered a crisis of faith soon after she started her work in the Calcutta slums, the work for which she eventually won a Nobel Prize. She actually questioned the existence of God. She certainly had no sense of his presence. She spoke of her life as “torture” and “hell.”

And this terrible spiritual darkness apparently continued until her death. By then, she had even ceased praying. All the time the world was celebrating her as a great model of faith and love, she felt none.

Welcome to the real world. It is not what you read in magazines.

Mother Theresa chose for herself a very hard road. Recall the Beatitudes. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of right; blessed are you when people abuse you.” None of this describes Mother Theresa: instead, she was celebrated by the world, and set herself up as a leader.

Jesus advises that we do our good works in private. Mother Theresa’s were not just public, but world famous.

Jesus says it is barely possible for a rich man to enter heaven; that one must build up one’s riches in heaven, not here, for where one’s wealth is, there one’s heart will be. Mother Theresa was not rich, personally, but had power, fame, and the command of great sums of money.

So God’s silence. The proper attitude towards self and this world becomes increasingly difficult so long as this world keeps telling us we are wonderful and giving us what we ask. As that other sainted Theresa, of Lisieux, argued, it is altogether better to be a little flower. It is better to leave only tiny footprints in this world.

And yet, the work that Mother Theresa did was wholly commendable. She saved many lives, prevented much suffering, and, most importantly, brought many people to faith, and even to vocation. And, in order to do this, she really did need to set herself up as a leader and as a celebrity. People need this.

This then becomes Mother Theresa’s martyrdom, and the seal of her sainthood: that she laid down her own spiritual life for others. That she suffered a private hell so that others would not suffer.

Was she a hypocrite? Certainly not: for, as these letters prove, she revealed all, and in all humility, to her spiritual director. And her actions belie her claim and her own impression that she had no faith nor love within her. Hypocrites claim to love, but their actions belie this. Theresa claimed not to love, but her actions belied this. She was the opposite of a hypocrite.

Had her life been happy, even if Spartan, amid fame, respect, and general approval, where would be the great merit in that? As Jesus said, she would already have had her reward. This much any of us might have managed.

But, knowing how she suffered to do good, we can be sure she has her reward in heaven. This was something well out of the ordinary; something like sainthood.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Conspiracy Strikes Again

In A Culture of Conspiracy, Syracuse University professor Michael Barkun writes that "a conspiracist worldview implies a universe governed by design rather than by randomness." He finds three principles in virtually every conspiracy theory: "Nothing happens by accident." "Nothing is as it seems." "Everything is connected."

This is also, importantly, the essence of “paranoia,” or “paranoid schizophrenia.” “Paranoia” means, more or less literally, “meaning everywhere.” Whether this is considered normal or hopelessly insane largely seems to depend on whether you accept the same paranoid delusion as do a fair number of your neighbours.

Tragically, this all should be self-evident. The reason why the conspiracist or paranoid worldview is so compelling is simply that it is true. God exists; and he really is pulling all the strings beyond our sight. And so is the devil. God designed the universe; it is designed. It has a plan. This design is called, theologically, the Logos.

There are, therefore, no accidents. Nothing happens randomly, and everything is connected. Because of “the Deceiver,” the “Father of Lies,” that is, the devil, and with the willing cooperation of our egos, who want to see things as we want them to be, few things are as they seem. Appearance and reality usually do not correspond. This is doubly true because the world is largely invisible--largely spiritual.

Because this is so, sooner or later this becomes apparent to us—to at least the brightest of us. Sooner or later we realize that the “official” explanation of things does not fit the facts. Things that are not supposed to be connected plainly are. Improbable things happen often. Things seem to be acting purposefully all around us.

This should not be a problem; this should be our salvation. It should call us to faith. The truth sets us free.

And indeed, the existence of God is always the most obvious and most logical explanation for these things. This is true purely by Occam’s Razor: it explains everything by positing only one, or perhaps two, beings. By contrast, any conspiracy theory must posit an ever-expanding number of ever more devious and clever conspirators to remain plausible. Moreover, the existence of God can more or less be logically proven; the existence of a really widespread and efficient conspiracy defies common experience and common sense.

Nevertheless, there are two things fighting hard against the religious hypothesis. First, we are commonly conscious of having sinned, and we do not wish to believe we will have to stand in judgment for it, as the existence of God implies. If God exists, he sees us with our trousers down. Every time. We want license, too, to continue to sin, to do what is our will regardless of the right and wrong; though we probably hope they apply to others. Accepting that all is in God’s hands (as opposed, say, to ours) argues that we cannot. Second, the powers of the social world, certainly at the present time, and probably in most or all times, also wish to deny and suppress the religious understanding of the world. For, if it is true, it also stands in judgment of them, individually and collectively. They too, like the rest of us, wish to sin boldly when it suits them. They will promote formal religion only if it is entirely under their own control.

Many of us, therefore, miss the obvious religious truth, and resort instead to elaborate conspiracy theories. As Chesterton said, those who will not believe in God will believe in anything. Things are being invisibly controlled by the CIA. Or by alien beings. Or by the bankers. Or by the Jews. Or witches, or the capitalists, or Big Business, or the oil companies, or the CPR, or the Trilateral Commission, or the bourgeoisie, or the Catholic Church, or the neocons, or the British, or the Americans, or the straight white males, and on and yawn. At a pinch, it might even be the neighbour’s dog.

Of course, some organizations really do attempt conspiracies: Al Qaeda, the KKK, the Nazis, the Mafia, the various Communist parties. But they generally do not amount to much in practice, succeeding, when they do, mostly by sheer coincidence in their own terms, and always, almost necessarily, disproving their own founding thesis by succeeding. Moreover, they are usually formed defensively, the idea being to protect their members from some larger imagined conspiracy that threatens them. Al Qaeda defends its members and clients against the worldwide conspiracy of the infidel forces, represented most clearly by the USA. The KKK in its own mind defended the South against the carpetbagger conspiracy to destroy their native culture. The Nazis of course protected the German nation against a supposed worldwide conspiracy of cosmopolitan Jews. The Mafia originally protected Sicilians against a mistrusted foreign government—the same condition many Italians perceived, as immigrants, in the US. And the Communists, of course, protect the masses against the evil capitalist bourgeoisie.

To summarize:

When one begins to think in a “paranoid” way, and chooses the same explanation as one’s neighbours, it tends to lead rather swiftly to the persecution of some designated group.

When one begins to think in a “paranoid” way, and chooses a different explanation from one’s neighbours, it tends to lead rather swiftly to persecution by one’s neighbours. One is judged “insane”—literally, “unclean.”

When one begins to think in a “paranoid” way, and accepts the religious explanation, it tends to lead rather swiftly to a sense of general contentment, even joy, in this world, let alone the next.

When one has never thought in a paranoid way, one is probably just not very bright.

I'm Back

Apologies to those who have become accustomed to visiting this site, for posting nothing for a month. I have been on vacation. It had been my intention to keep posting from the road, but one thing and another prevented this. It turns out, for example, that there are now very few Internet Cafes in either France or Canada. Everyone is now set up for wireless. But my laptop died on the road.

Anyway, I hope everyone had a good summer. And I note that Andrew Coyne is worse than I am on this. He has posted nothing on his (recommended) blog for ages.