Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Compassion

The ways things conspire to bring forth small epiphanies...

Yesterday, I get a call from my former partner, who tells me that my son has fallen at the park and needs to go to the hospital. The park is nearby, so I go and pick him up from her. As I'm walking toward Dundas Street, I realise that in my haste I forgot my buss pass. A streetcar approaches, and the hospital is just two stops away. My son says that he hopes the driver will let us on anyway.

He does, without fare, and he takes us over to the hospital. We arrive, and sit down with a group of other people - there are four people ahead of us. My son is still sobbing and screaming. Everyone ahead of us goes into triage and comes out, except for a man, dressed as a woman, who tells us to take their place. I say, "are you certain?", and he replies that "it's fine, I'm alright."

So we go in, get registered, and he is behind us. The other two ahead of us are there for an eye problem, and to get a broken wrist checked again. As we are waiting, the man who had graciously offered up his place in Emergency for my son is ushered in and seen immediately. I note the irony.

We are finally sent in to see the doctor, and I am placed across from one of the people who had gone before my son. It turns out that the only reason he is there is that he wanted a second opinion on something that wasn't really bothering him at that time, and to which the emergency doctor basically told him to go back to his physician because there was nothing to do, no emergency.

So you can see how one's thoughts would naturally to the idea of how we, here in Toronto, treat each other (I'm not going to extend this to anywhere else, although I'm pretty sure it's similar) and how supremely bizarre it is. The person most in need of assistance is the only one who offers to switch places with my son.

Now I am sure some of you who read this are thinking, "why should they switch places with a little boy who is crying? They got there first!" But what I am asking is, why is that instinct so prevalent, that this other person, in that moment of compassion, feels utterly compelled to suppress it?

We see this all the time - how often have I sat on a streetcar as a pregnant women steps on, and no one offers her a seat, until I, who prefers to sit near the back, offers. Or that the people who usually offer to stand are themselves old and infirm? And why is there a peculiar universality to this suppression of compassion?

***

One of my favourite "academic" bloggers, Ads Without Products, has written recently around a similar strain, which turn around mindfulness and compassion.

His first piece, which happens to be the more recent one, discusses Raymond Carver. I haven't read any Carver, so I am just going to note a peculiar aspect of my own reaction to that post- the literary critic in me agrees with Ads that the revised version of Carver's story is the better one, but...given my experience last night, there is something about the parents' encounter with the baker, that exposure of the petty injustices we all perform for the sake of our own "skull-sized kingdoms", as David Foster Wallace puts it in a quote from the latter.

But here's the thing - the baker didn't know the boy had died. He saw his own labour evaporate on the whims of some bourgeois couple, and it spurred him to action, to call, to vent. The good thing, and the problem with the original ending of the story is that it settles on the basic decency of people to change their perspectives when confronted with the truth.

The people in emergency yesterday sitting next to a screaming child, and the people on the streetcar in front of the pregnant woman who stare into their Tom Clancy novel or change the song on their iPod, they did know, didn't they? And I ask you why your first response is to think "why shouldn't they go first?"

***

This all ties together in my sleep-deprived mind to Toronto's mayoralty race, and the fact that the current leader is the right-wing populist Rob Ford. In him and his popularity I see the general mood of the city, one which, when pollsters ask them about what's important, they say "taxes and city finances", I think what they really mean is something closer to "I want a guy who doesn't make me feel guilty about keeping my seat on the bus".

Sound nuts? Hear me out. Last year, Toronto experienced a long, drawn-out garbage strike, the 2nd since I've lived here. By my own reckoning, the city was vastly more prepared this time to starve out the union. Local parks that got pretty disgusting last time had their garbage mysteriously picked up, and there was an overall efficiency and orderliness to the strike that was in stark contrast to the rotting piles of garbage of the last strike.

But the anger around the 2nd strike was far greater. Forced to collect their own garbage, to be responsible for a task usually left to others, Torontonians acted with an irrational, universal rage that I cannot recall ever seeing before.

City garbage collectors became pariahs (they were not the only workers on strike, but they were the near-total focus of the rage). Our current mayor, David Miller, decided not to run again. The rage was so great that one felt that it was existential, that people were, as the old saw goes, mad as hell and not taking it anymore.

But what, or who, were they mad at? The garbage collectors, or more accurately, their benefits. What most of it centered around was the ostensibly appalling idea that garbage collectors might have dignity, and history has allowed them to fight for it through collective bargaining. That people would prefer see private garbage collection to keep their taxes low is a ominous, as well as All the vile, nasty things people said about the people who collect their waste for them as they attempted to stave off further roll backs because those same people don't want to believe that their taxes go to anything but lavish lunches and cushy jobs.

Toronto is becoming more mean-spirited, and this new mean Toronto wants Rob Ford as its standard bearer.

This I believe is the key to the fact that the people least in need to treatment felt perhaps most justified in walking past a screaming child, a look of pity in their mouths, but with the self-righteous countenance of the consumer everywhere else. The triumph of Rob Ford is the triumph of a citizenry no longer experiencing a political or ethical relationship with their peers, only an economic one.

But why I don't end with this, but with a reminder of the man who let my son go first, is that, like Carver, I recognize the need to unceasingly push back, even though there seems less and less point. The literary quality of indeterminacy is matched only by its insufficiency in everyday life.

To supress the urge to be mindful, to be compassionate in those most banal of situations, is to accept that the uselessness of modern life also entails that we behave inhumanly. It is also to recognize that mean-spiritedneess has a place, just perhap not on the political stage (I say this because I am also one of the nastiest people I know)

Such is the reality of my own skull-sized kingdom.

Friday, June 11, 2010

C'mon, everyone else is doing it!

Canada is in full finger wagging mode on the "issue" of government debt. If one read today's Globe online, they would find themselves confronted with a column about how France is "afraid" to make massive public sector cuts, presumably because they did so badly in World War II or some other reason, while all these other countries have jumping off the cliff because some investors may, at some point think that all this debt it a problem, you know, the debt that's in part there because of governments giving money to a bunch of banks who are now concerned about government debt...

And then there's this. I'm not really sure how this guy gets away with this - if countries don't cut spending on whatever it is they spend their money on (read poor people) then the markets will react angrily. This lecturing comes from a man who reminds us that Thomas Jefferson was a Republican.

With this kind of historical sense, who could possibly bet against him? Note to the rest of the world - Canada got lucky, please stop listening to us now on this issue, although feel free to continue to listen to us about gay marriage and other things.

Apologies

In taking a look at the new Blogger templates, Blogger somehow made it impossible for me to go back (Note to Blogger, I did not click apply to blog and my blog still wond up different - why is that?).

Expect a lot of fiddlng around for the next little while as I settle on something that suits the new space!

In the News, plus Kant and Rousseau!

Air Canada snaps Professor's Lute in half.

This is horrible. As a lute owner (note I don't say player...) I can totally understand how horrible he must feel. I think something people often don't understand about musicians is that they develop rather strong attachments to their instruments. This intuitively makes sense, but I many of those commenting I think see this as something easily replaceable - it's not.

One can talk of essences here, where losing an instrument you have gotten to know, to love, has a massive impact. Suddenly, all those zen-like aspects of one's playing, the way in which one knows how to produce a particular sound without knowing how, is suddenly lost, and one must relearn, develop a new relationship.

Perhaps one of the strangest aspects of our consumer culture is that we greatly desire things, but we remain deeply alienated from them.

***

Toronto is slowly becoming a police state in preparation for the G20. Although media focus has been almost entirely on the cost, Rick Salutin today reminds everyone of the real costs (you mean economic costs aren't the real ones?) . It seems that pretty much everywhere around me is slowly, inexorably being locked down.

I now go through a number of security checks, all designed I guess to make sure that the same pass I show the first person doesn't morph into something else when I get to the second one...when you ask security, they, like nearly everyone it seems, shrugs their shoulders and says I don't make the rules...

We are all instruments of the law now. This struck me forcefully last night as I read Dieter Henrich's Between Kant and Hegel, based on a suggestion from here.

An admission - despite the fact that my interests as a Germanist span the period between Goethe and Heine (with DDR film as a kind of randomizing interest), my background in German philosophy of the period is sorely lacking. Indeed, it is the one significant lacunae in my philosophical schooling, and I find myself struggling to immerse myself in part because I'm not sure if there is another time where the literature of the day is so entirely steeped in the philosophical issues of the day - it would be as though Zadie Smith et al. were writing books on vagueness, and Saul Kripke were reading them! Utter madness!

Anyway, I am really enjoying this book so far. His philosophical readings of the texts, as opposed to the ahistorical overview one often finds in introductory works, is illuminating.

Henrich points out at the Kant's deep, deep indebtedness to Rousseau. In courses I took, Rousseau was mentioned as an influence, but it was always Hume's influence that was emphasized. Hume is presented as the philosopher who transformed Kant from a neo-Wolffian rationalist into uh...Immanuel Kant.

On Henrich's account, it is Rousseau who really turns the knife into Kant's philosophical back, forcing him to rethink the entire aim of his philosophical program. Fascinating stuff, if for no other reason that one can even espy here the analytic/continental divide that no one thinks exists but that we can all pretty much discern.

So, back to Toronto - when I read Kant's desire to ground humanity's freedom, and I note our current total lack of desire to build a movement in Canada that strives to emancipate ourselves from our own benevolent consumerist/barely democratic despotism, it is difficult for me not to conclude that the Romantics did indeed win the political struggle, and that this is not a good thing...

To the barricades, then? Or perhaps, at least, to the coffeehouses?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

World Cup Selections

The World Cup is probably the only sporting event I pay attention to, or dare I say it, get involved with. Don't ask me why, although I think it has something to do with living in between Little Italy and Little Portugal, and that the area turns a little bit crazy.

Not an angry crazy, more of a gentle insanity, medicated by live sports and alcohol. It's also summer, and the fact that it's focussed on one sport (unlike the Olympics) makes it easier to feel for a team as they make their journey towards the final match.

This year, I've decided to root for a team in each group, and see where that leads me. The choices are partly arbitrary, of course, but I basically looked at each group and went with my gut. Whether any of them stand a chance at winning is another story, although the inclusion of Spain on the list is pretty much a hedge against some of my other choices.

In that spirit, here's my list:

South Africa
North Korea
Algeria
Germany
Denmark
Italy
Portugal
Spain

The Day So Far

I wondered if anyone else thinks that if the Federal Liberal and NDP parties merge, it is due not to the triumph of social democracy in Canada but to its death.

I spent the morning listening to Elanor Watchtel interview Isabel Allende discuss her family and Chile, and, when I arrived to work, turned it off and overheard recommendations of moisturizers and belts.

I wondered if Heinrich Heine, if he lived today, would have made an excellent blogger. I decided the answer was yes, but that he would have a tab page, and that he would likely move to a country where libel laws were weak. I would definitely read him.

My son told me that they listened to Beethoven's 5th Symphony in his music class yesterday, but he was upset that he'd told the teacher that it was Beethoven's 1st Sonata. I told him not to worry about that kind of stuff.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Question

Is Apple leading well-off technocrats back to the days of AOL? Never let it be forgotten that people desire their own repression.

Kind of seems that way to me.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Catharsis

I have deleted 4000 e-mails today. I somehow feel lighter. If only I could do this with actual paper...

Follow Up

You all know I wasn't going to follow up on my last post, didn't you? It really didn't need following up, truth be told.

This blog is getting pretty stale. I have no one but myself to blame, except my muse, curse her! But she hasn't been around, no, or maybe it's that I haven't been around her. Anyway, I am not following up, no, I am moving forward instead!

In August, I will be in Germany, and we can finally get this blog off the ground. Deep down, I always wanted to blog Mitteleuropa, and now I'll finally get my chance. Beyond that I have little to say...