Monday, February 28, 2022

Finding ways to act in times of uncertainty

In this startling and dismaying year, three things have happened that I could not have predicted.  The first was that Omicron, arriving nearly two years after the Chinese admitted that there was a pandemic loose in Wuhan, would cause higher levels of illness than we had yet seen.  Watching the numbers skyrocket was surreal, especially since so many Canadians were vaccinated.  When Dr. Bonnie Henry said "There's always a second wave," I believed her.  But I thought that in a year's time--by spring of 2021--we'd be done.  COVID-19 has changed our world in ways we can barely begin to see.  I worry especially about what it has done to the performing arts and universities. And I am grateful to libraries  for dispensing quick COVID tests and showing their patrons how to access their health records for proof of vaccination.  I don't know about you, but libraries and bookstores kept me sane--or as sane as I've managed to be.

The second was the freedom convoy to Ottawa, where some Canadians were unspeakably rude and violent and others woefully misinformed about how democracy, and Canadian democracy worked.  Did they really think they could protest and honk their way into a government coup?  I try to think about each protester imagining they had the power and authority to undo a democratic election, and my mind boggles.  What role did hot tubs and bouncy castles play in their efforts to change Canada's constitution?  What has happened to the limits on the words "I want"?

The third of course is the invasion of Ukraine.  I knew, just as you and world leaders knew, that Putin was lying about the coming and the going of troops on Ukraine's borders.  But one of the things I've learned about the powerful from Rutger Bregman is that shamelessness of the powerful is unlimited, as is  their ability to lie shamelessly.  Nevertheless, I was a victim of what Viktor Frankl calls "the delusion of reprieve," something that Jews in the death camps felt in order to keep the will to survive.  "This is not really going to get as bad for me as I think it might," is an infinite loop in the mind of someone whose right to exist and whose humanity is under erasure.

Yes, the powerful are different from us.  Bregman identifies their disability as "acquired sociopathy." It arises, he tells us, "after a blow to the head that damages key regions of the brain and can turn the nicest people into the worst kind of Machiavellian.  It transpires that people in power display the same tendencies.  They literally act like someone with brain damage.  Not only are they more impulsive, self-centred, reckless, arrogant and ruder than average, they are more likely to cheat on their spouses, are less attentive to other people and less interested in others' perspectives.  They're also more shameless, often failing to manifest that one facial phenomenon that makes human beings unique among primates.  They don't blush."  Blushing is the human tell, out there for everyone to see, that we know we're being evil and unreasonable.  Pasty-faced Putin doesn't blush.

If this seems like too much to take in a mere two months into 2022 (Omicron identified toward the end of November 2021), that's because it is.  So I'd recommend that you visit Shawna Lemay's comforting blog, Transactions with Beauty:  "It's Hard to Concentrate right now."  The link is below.  I'm in more of a "Don't let the bastards get you down" mood.  In the face of such profound uncertainty, it helps if there are things we can do.

Putin has threatened every Russian journalist with fines up to $60,000 if they publish any thing about the war that they didn't find on official Russian sites.  They've shut down Facebook as much as they can so people can't gather or share accurate information.  Yuval Noah Hirari tells us that nations are built on stories.  (A link to his essay in The Guardian, "Why Vladimir Putin has already lost this war,"  is below.)  So you can support a thriving journalism culture in Canada.  You can support free speech.  Buy newspapers.  Join PEN Canada.  We know from what happened in Ottawa and what is happening next door, justified by the shout "fake news!" that the truth has become vulnerable in the cesspool of conspiracy theories and personal desires. Do what you can to keep it alive.  Support libraries, another form of literacy, the only public space where everyone, whether they have money or a roof over their head or not--is welcome.

What we see acted out by the Freedom Convoy and Putin's war is a belief that individual desires are sacrosanct, not to be questioned, debated, or thwarted--under threat of nuclear attack or attempted coup.  We need to call rampant individualism into question by celebrating "The Commons." What do we share that we can't do without?  Paved roads and traffic regulations. Public transit.  Clean air. Clean water. (Though unfortunately this isn't available to all of us. It's a file we seriously need to work on.) Health care and hospitals. Libraries, Schools and all post-secondary institutions.  Parks and other places of respite.  What we need, especially in Saskatchewan, is to shift the conversation away from individual wishes and actions toward a recognition that the things we hold in common--like information about how many COVID cases there are in a province with no vaccine passports or mask requirements in place--are crucial to our health and well-being.  

We can keep alive beauty and hope in our daily lives.  They lighten our hearts and nourish our souls and give us the energy to fight "the bastards."  We can keep kindness and tolerance alive.  Think of every act of kindness or smile of tolerance as counterweight to Putin and our homegrown protesters.  Anne Applebaum wrote in December's Atlantic about the fact that democracy is under threat and that the autocrats are winning.  It used to be that one in every two people lived in a democracy.  Now it's one in five. Beauty and hope and kindness and tolerance won't directly allow Canadians to effect the war in Ukraine, though we're hearing stories about people in Poland who are driven by exactly those values to help those fleeing the war.  We have to support their generosity and altruism by keeping those qualities alive here.  And who knows  how such ideals spread in the real world?  But they sure as hell don't spread if we aren't practicing them. 

And there are donations.  UNHCR is gearing up to give respite to Ukrainians fleeing the war.  Donations to the Canadian Red Cross, which is already at work, will be met, dollar for dollar, by the Canadian government. 

UNHCR in Ukraine 

Canadian Red Cross

The Commons during a pandemic

"It's hard to concentrate right now"

Why Vladimir Putin has already lost this war 

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