Monday, January 30, 2017

First Contact

The first hands that ever touched me, directly, were the hands of an immigrant.  For all the times my mother may have caressed me through her belly and my father reached for the thud of my feet or heart, the first person to touch me in this world was the Islamic doctor who delivered me 50 years ago.

Whatever else I might say about the wonder of my parents meeting each other despite the odds that can bring two people together at the right time or keep them apart, the baffling coincidence of being given the names Patrick Henry on the exact anniversary when the American Revolutionary of that name gave his "liberty or death" speech, the less considered reality of my arrival is that the doctor who delivered me was a gentleman of Turkish heritage who had landed on the remote shores of Canada and went on to a length career as a successful physician.  Dr. Nejat Coskun delivered me and was one of a general practice in Dartmouth that looked after our family throughout the time we were there.

Any suggestion that the man's touch has had a lasting impact on me is a matter of rather poetic speculation - something that I may regularly be given to, but ought to forego at a time when pragmatics, no matter how badly deformed or baseless they may be, reach further than poetry, compassion or an appeal to collective humanity.  Throughout the time that my family knew him, he tended to our health and that of countless other families that were served by the practice he shared. The fact most often overlooked in the assault on the rights of minorities is that they have been here for an exceptionally long time and the contributions that they have made to the countries that have welcomed them outweighs the perceived threat they are accused of posing.

Dr. Coskun also built his community.  He and his wife contributed to the establishment of the first mosque in Dartmouth. I can only guess the extent to which he contributed to the sense of community and home that he provided to the people whom he shared that mosque with and the newcomers who arrived by boat or plane he welcomed throughout his life.

At this point, I ought to part from Dr. Coskun's story as there are people who would know his accomplishments and character far better than I could attest.  I am not sure if it was him or another doctor in the practice who responded to my brother's overreaction to a spot of blood after a vaccination with a flippant wipe of his finger across the spot of blood.  Dr. Coskun remains, however, a brilliant illustration of the people who immigrate and the efforts that they make throughout their lives in their new homes.

I have been exposed to the brief chapters of immigrant families throughout my life. From having Maria from Portugal in my elementary school, to standing in front of Reza in Grade 5 whenever we lined up in alphabetical order to playing street hockey with Nishan and Bruce as a preteen.  It goes on and on through school and into university when my circle expanded with international students who came to remote old Antigonish.  All of this took place in apparently homogeneous Nova Scotia.

Throughout my life, time and again, I have come in contact with individuals and families who broadened my horizons with the stories of holidays to farther-flung relatives than I could imagine and a recognition of what Canada offered and what they could offer to this country in terms of the commitment they made there.  They knew, far better than those born in Canada, that they would be rewarded immensely for hard work and that their aspirations and hope here only knew the limits of their confidence and their effort. I do not know where all of those people have proceeded to in their careers and their lives but among those I am still in touch with their are doctors, lawyers, engineers, PhD's and other professionals.

As time has gone on, I have become familiar with the stories of other newcomers who have staked their hopes on coming to Canada and they have patiently and diligently devoted their lives to their families, both here and in their respective homelands. They have withstood the culture shock and the challenge of adapting to a country that is not as welcoming as it could be. In the vast majority of the cases they have thrived and contributed to their new homes. It is their commitment to their dreams, their humble lack of entitlement which has made such a substantial contribution to the life, and success of this country. They have contributed to the economy too despite the obstacles that now hinder the efforts of professionals to work in the areas they have trained in.

When weighed against the evidence of the contributions that newcomers have made throughout history, not only in Canada but in the United States, as they so dearly know but may not know widely enough, the actions that President Trump has introduced are defined by a pragmatics of hate. Apart from the economic impact that can be calculated in terms of the inefficiencies generated by such an impulsive and completely uninformed decision, there is the further damage caused by the hatred that will be repercussions of these actions and the discrimination that is targeted at a group that possesses far, far more potential than threat.

Such hateful discriminatory behaviour will only foster more hatred, distrust and uncertainty when the possibility of trust and understanding is so close at hand. If people take the simple challenge of reflecting on the diversity of people who consistently touch their lives and strive to make an effort to understand the possibilities of the lives that have lead them to cross paths with us at a given moment. The asinine decisions that have such immeasurable consequences on individuals are made by the entitled with an eye to gaining favour among a group of people who may feel threatened by the unknowns that newcomers pose but lack the motivation to master their own destiny.  The malignant white nationalism of the Trump administration is a tragic mark on the United States and hopefully people will pause long enough to look within and recognize the benefits of living in truth and trust in the decency of all mankind.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Challenge of Tolerance

As women march the streets of Washington, New York, St. Louis, Calgary and throughout the world,
the first peaceful, defiant salvo is being brought to the agora.  There is no firing or violence as was the unfortunate and off-key case yesterday in Washington during the inauguration. The new normal and all of its uncertainty and anxiety is officially on.

Those of the stripes we refer to as liberal, left-wing, progressive, and moderate are steeling their spines to respond not only to the actions and messages of the new administration but also those with whom they ought to engage with to make the case against the new president's decisions. After years of the right expressing their disdain for the decisions that have been attributed to environmentalists, President Obama, moral relativists, tax-and-spenders, pinkos, and anybody else whom right-wingers, Tea Partiers and Republicans have opposed and obstructed going back to the rise of Newt Gingrich, it is now the left's turn to activate and make their case.

The Women's March on Washington (let me acknowledge that the branding was no reflection of the scope and extent of marches throughout and beyond the U.S.) has hopefully been a peaceful, non-confrontational step forward and the model of peaceful dissent as it will be demonstrated in the weeks and months ahead. (Note my unbridled optimism in limiting myself to those two measures of time.)  Apart from demonstrating the sheer size of this opposition to what Donald Trump has stood for throughout his life and his rather unpresidential campaign, there is the task of making the case for opposing him.  It seems anathema for me to state that there is a need to make a case against him, but there are people who support him, among them elected Republican senators and congressmen who will not only strive to support him and keep him safely ensconced from the threat of impeachment, but indulge in their own shenanigans while the red-hot focus of the world is on every keystroke Trump indulges in on Twitter.

There are mechanisms of voter suppression, both legalistic and strategic, that will be abused to retain power and their are cohorts of voters who will be relied upon to ensure that power is kept in the hands that assume to currently wield it from the padded benches of the branches of power that reside in Washington, DC.

Apart from those powers, there are also voters who strongly believe that Trump will restore America to the Rockwell-era purity and power that they are so nostalgic for.  The desire to regress to that era is, in 2017, an expression of intolerance. Many of the social and security policies that Trump has expressed and won support for are going to compromise the rights and freedoms that have been hard-won over the last 50-60 years and they are target women, Muslims, immigrants and the handicapped. I limit myself to this list in a rare effort on my part to keep a sentence brief.  Apart from those targets, it has not been ruled-out that free speech and assembly will be undermined during this administration. A simple demonstration of this would be a highlight reel of Trump demanding his minions ejected those of different opinions or even infants from his events.

The challenge for the left is to resist the temptation to indulge in a similar rejection or oppression of opposing viewpoints - to essentially squash the free speech of the right and challenge their right to assemble.  Despite the infuriation that the left might grapple with when hearing opinions that are (rightly?) perceived to be misinformed sloganeering from the right or the conduct of shills or sheep for Trump and the establishment, that option cannot be ponder because of the prime commitment to tolerance.  After the left's commitment to the countless minorities who have been discounted and oppressed and held back, it may still be tempting to make an exception in the case of those who have done the oppressing, but that option must not and cannot be exploited. That will make the task of bringing down this government a rewarding one in the end, because it has been done properly and by legitimate means.

The values that liberal democracies stand for, free speech being the key one to protect in the immediate future there must be a commitment to tolerance and beyond that a desire for dialogue.  It will be difficult to convince those of the right to listen and risk the threat to the apparent certainties that they want to cling so dearly to, but it is necessary to commit to that give and take and to the careful, calm committed and trusting listening that has to take place in order to make the case that the changes that Trump has implemented and wishes to add to his regression thus far are ultimately threats to the comforts, security and well being that Americans long for.

A reminder of how this tolerance must be embodied dates back just to November as President Obama was stumping for Hillary Clinton in North Carolina. Obama strived to bring the crowd under control and remind the audience of the values that Americans want to stand for and tolerance for dissent is among those values.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

On the Eve of the Trump Interregnum

1. Uncertainty is a consequence of taking things for granted. In this case, the shape and requirements of democracy have been neglected by millions of people who have chosen not to vote, or be informed or expect better of their electoral system.

2. The changes which are about to occur in the United States and beyond are, in part, the result of a significant number of American people being uncomfortable with the uncertainty that has come with tolerance and the recognition that America is not as exceptional as she thinks. The people who were uncertain about the things that went against their values system took to the streets to make their voices heard.  There may be an inclination to denigrate them for having an opposing few but the gaps between the various thems and "us'es" needs to be closed.

3. In his book Dangerous Animals Club, actor Stephen Tobolowsky says, however, that certainty is like "Fritos: a comfort food best taken in small doses while drinking a beer and watching the game." The quest for certainty is underscored by contradictions, hypocrisy and oversights that ultimately make its pursuit fruitless or delusional.  Much of the certainty that people strive for is rooted in the protection of their religion, and occurs at the expense of the words "love thy neighbour."

4. Beyond the conspiracies and the misogyny and other directions people are aiming their fingers at, there is the simple fact that people disengaged from the process of voting for their leader.  It is not unique to the United States.  In the end, the collective indifference of millions of Americans has made their nation vulnerable to the decisions that will be enacted in the days ahead.  Trump is not entirely to blame - he is an egomaniacal loose cannon.  As advertised.

5. Those who took comfort in the luxuries of hard battles won will have take up causes for the most fundamental human rights. Defending the (formerly) self-evident for the first time will challenge people's courage, dignity, patience and countless other virtues but these battles will be rewarding in ways that cannot be foreseen.  They will also be heart-breaking and puzzling in ways that cannot be expected.  The frustration of a challenge to logic and faith cannot be cause to walk away.

6. The period we are heading into is a stark reminder that the world is subject to cyclical change. There are ebbs and flows rather than an unhindered story of linear progress.  If people want to restore the progress or minimize the regression they must stand up for the things they believe in.  It will be challenging and ultimately progress will be most certain in the dialogues where cases are made and trust is hard-earned.

7. We are not in a post-fact world, but one where the appetite is nothing more than the superficial take or the junk food equivalent to clear thought.  Even those of us who have grounds for claiming a degree of wisdom forego the task of reading beyond headlines or tweets and getting to the heart of the story or an issue that we read about. The means of discerning truth from fiction or not gone, we just have to dedicate ourselves to making use of them again.

8. The challenge ahead is to wean ourselves from having our way and striving to be right. There seemed to have been a degree of vengeance among those who voted for Trump, a "take America back from [insert your villains here]."  Again it is a matter of engaging in the difficult dialogue to arrive at what is right and move away from the positions, opinions and beliefs that many people because they are so intrinsic to their sense of self.

9. The remaining question is whether or not people have the inclination to grapple with the difficult discussions with the respective "other" that they attribute the problems of America to.  I think too many people are too out of practice for this.  We'll wait and see.