Parsing What Comes Between the Thanks and the Giving


by Roxanne Tellier

Americans celebrated their Thanksgiving this past week. Many families endured long journeys, traveling across the country, to spend time with the people they love. The lucky ones gathered around tables that groaned with heaps of delicious, fresh, and sometimes even healthy, food.

Norman Rockwell; Freedom from Want

Following in the tradition of the giving of thanks, families and friends joined hands and expressed their gratitude for those they love, for all that they have, and for all they hoped to amass during the capitalistic human centipede orgy known as Black Friday shopping.

Amen.

For the fortunate, it was a warm, loving, pre-holiday feast. Some families went to bed feeling loved, with full bellies, and visions of the sugar plums they’d enjoy next month.

Other families – not so much. Beyond worrying about how to pay for that groaning board, they had to deal with the ‘difficult’ relative – the aunt, or uncle, or son or daughter or in-law who, instead of bringing a sweet potato and marshmallow pie, brought their anger, fear, and their disdain for the political party that the rest of the gathering espoused.

All In the Family; Archie, Edith, Michael and Gloria

And that could be to either party. While I have my own bias, I’m well aware that a family that has an altar to trump is gonna have trouble with the family member who is a ‘never trumper’ – and vice versa. Think Archie Bunker, wrangling with son in law Michael Stivic, while Edith and Gloria tried to calm the troubled waters. Oh yes, it was ever thus. As then, so today, but oh my living lights and liver! It’s so much worse now.

Tell me,  how’d we ever get this way.

Not everyone experiences these unpleasant interactions. Maybe you are blessed with a Hallmark card family that never disagrees. And many people use social media sparingly, as a place to connect with loved ones, and to enjoy funny gifs and Youtube videos. That’s a perfectly valid – probably the most sensible! – way to enjoy the internet. What I’m talking about here is those of us who compulsively follow the news, with a fetish for politics. That’s a whole other experience. For us ….

” These are the days of miracle and wonder. This is the long distance call. The way the camera follows us in slo-mo. The way we look to us all, oh yeah”

Paul Simon – The Boy in the Bubble

Maybe we can blame it on social media, on our ability to reach out and touch every other person on the planet who enthusiastically agrees with our theories and preferences, but the truth is, a huge segment of society has somehow devolved into something primal and tribal. It’s no longer a disagreement or a difference in opinion; it’s outright war against anyone who doesn’t toe exactly the same political lines we hold dear.

And no matter how ridiculous. 

The level of insanity exhibited by the Mad King installed in the White House is only matched by his sycophantic court, who gladly traipse along behind him, carrying his water, and informing the people that his most insane pronouncements are only misunderstood by his subjects because the hoi polloi can never dream of attaining the level of ‘genius’ trump was born with. Sigh.

You know – the way North Koreans are taught from birth that their holy family in the Kim Dynasty are beyond human understanding, and must be worshipped as gods. Like that. 

The sad truth is that the rules of modern civilized engagement have been fundamentally changed, and many people have decided that they prefer these new rules. Why tell the truth, when the president, all of his administration, and apparently almost all those of wealth and power, no longer feel the need to do so? What kind of sucker tells the truth and takes accountability for their misdeeds, when there’s dirty money to be made, and a seemingly infinite number of lawyers prepared to argue that your fake truth is just as valid as someone else’s declaration?

The people in charge are making it up as they go. Reality is now whatever the 1% say it is, and the rest of you better ‘get over it.’

75% of Americans don’t trust their government and politicians, while 64% don’t even trust each other. And the response from their governmental spokesperson?

“This is the way it works. Get over it.”

Nick Mulvaney, Acting White House Chief of Staff, October 17, 2019

And why bother being civil to each other, when accusations, personal sniping, and the flinging of links to sites that trumpet your truth, is the new way to communicate? The loudest voice seems to rule the day, as those with softer voices and gentle demeanours fall by the wayside.  Even many of those that we may think of as friends and colleagues seem unable to stop themselves from snapping at our heels, unmoored from a frontal cortex that might stop their lips from voicing what might, in better times, have never been uttered, like so many stroke victims who have lost their verbal filters. 

The atmosphere seems to favour the conceit that we are the most important and most knowledgeable person in the room, while simultaneously being the biggest, and most ignored victim, in history. Schrödinger’s Narcissist, demanding to be heard, no matter how inane and mundane our input may be. The shining lead in a reality show in which it truly is all about us, and the ‘little people’ are on their own.   

The trouble is, when everyone’s the boss, when everyone is too important to be of help, things get really dicey when you actually need help yourself. And we’re all so short of time. When we want something, we want it now, and the not getting of something we want the minute we want it leads to tantrums and tears over stuff that we might have brushed away as no big deal, just a few years ago.

Maybe our narcissism and self-focus is a by-product of the things we cannot control or change. Spending our time on self-soothing leaves little time for thinking about how the rest of the world lives. While we complain about how hard it is to get rid of stuff so that we can buy more stuff, there are millions of Canadians and Americans who are homeless. In truth, the average person is just two or three pay cheques away from being in the same boat. Maybe even just one.

” Millions of middle-class Americans are just one missed paycheck away from poverty, with 4 of 10 considered “liquid-asset poor,” or without enough money socked away to cope with even a sudden disruption in income. “

Despite the lowest unemployment rate in decades and solid economic growth, many Americans are on thin financial ice, Prosperity Now found. Minority households are particularly lagging on key measures such as income and wealth, the study found. Across the board, more than 1 in 10 American households fell behind in their bills in the last year, a signal that many are struggling with rising costs and stagnant incomes.  “ cbsnews.com

While blowhards rant about how ‘welfare queens’ pump out more mouths for taxpayers to feed, and claim with no evidence that the poor use their food stamps for steak and booze, the sad truth is that America can be a harsh and unforgiving place for those born to anything less than middle class. Many resent giving the poor and vulnerable ‘hand outs,’ but have no solutions as to how we should go about helping those less fortunate than themselves.  

This epidemic of poverty and homelessness is not new; society was ever thus. What is so startling about today’s wave of needy citizens is the glaring contrast between the haves and the have nots.

Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has 10 yachts, 12 private jets, 4 helicopters, a government job replete with perks and benefits, and pays no taxes.  She also has 24/7 security, at a cost to the taxpayers of $20 million to date, because she ‘fears for her life’ due to some teacher-led protests.

At 10:30 a.m., this Black Friday, I walked along Yonge Street near Bloor, picking my way through the hands held out for change, while avoiding the prone bodies in sleeping bags that hugged the curb. Across the street, the glittering shops of Yorkville were swamped with fur coated shoppers proffering their black AmEx credit cards to take advantage of sales.

Toronto‘s libraries don’t talk about it much, but they are often the only place able to provide a safe haven for those with no homes, and nowhere to go during the day. On any given day, it’s not unusual to see a bundle buggy heaped high with all of a person’s worldly possessions parked in a library foyer or washroom. And while it may be tempting to sniff that you are opposed to paying for this with your tax dollars, the question then must be what you are prepared to do to help with the situation instead. And that takes a great deal more money, courage and empathy, than kicking in a few pennies per year in your taxes.

Looking beyond our cities and nations, people all around the globe are dying by the millions, from war and neglect. In Yemen, 85,000 children under the age of five have died from starvation, along with countless adult civilians. In Syria, the Kurdish people, who just a month ago were American allies, are being slaughtered as the Turkish militia go door to door in search of ex-fighters. Russia illegally annexed Crimea, and is at war with the Ukraine.

Southwest Bangladesh

The nation of Bangladesh is frantically trying to bail out the waters that are threatening to sink this South Asian country, due to climate change. And it is not even an island nation. It’s population of over 163 million will soon need somewhere to live. Like the other countries facing imminent disaster, they will become climate refugees, searching for new homes, along with Comoros, Tonga, the Seychelles, Palau, Nauru, Kirbati, the Federated States of Micronesia, Tuvalu, and the Maldives.

Last week, koalas became functionally extinct, joining the more than nearly 500 species that have gone extinct in the last century due to continued human degradation and destruction of natural habitats.. Your grandchildren may never see a koala, polar bear, rhinoceros, lion or tiger other than in a picture book.

And yet .. and yet .. and yet ….

The wealthiest people on earth increased their combined personal fortunes by about $1 trillion dollars last year. The poorest person on Forbes Richest People List, at number 20, is Jack Ma, who has a personal net worth of over $41 billion dollars. Mr Ma, alone, if he wished, could end world hunger. 

I know that it is difficult to cope mentally with all of these issues, of climate change, man’s inhumanity to man and animals, wars, populist politicians, societal division, a lack of civility and decency, inequality, and the disparity of income and the ill treatment of our most vulnerable that we see around us. How do you justify these things, when so many of these problems could potentially be ameliorated by the very people who compound the issues in their quest to amass and hoard more wealth than most of us can envision?

If you allowed yourself to really feel the despair of all of those who are afraid, hungry, cold, or in pain – how would you be able to get up every morning and go to school, or work? How do you keep the wheels of the world turning, if you are grieving for people you don’t know, and are unlikely to ever encounter?

I don’t see a lot of happy people these days, on the streets, in the stores, in their vehicles or on transit. I see a lot of angry people, a lot of frustrated faces, and people rushing to be somewhere that doesn’t seem like a place they want to be. I see beggars on the streets of a wealthy city.

“How can you tell me that you’re lonely? And say for you that the sun don’t shine.”

Ralph McTell, Streets of London

Maybe we need to re-examine how we engage with each other. These days I hear so many more raised voices, and so much less laughter. Maybe it’s time to encourage and reward civility and good humour, rather than making heroes and celebrities of those who delight in disrespecting and brutalizing their fellow human beings.

And with the holiday season nearly here, and the cold of winter encroaching, maybe we can all just take a minute to be truly grateful for what we have, and to help those in need. Not a single one of us can save the earth – but all of us together could make a start.

An Immodest Proposal (with apologies to Jonathan Swift)


swift Modest proposalIn 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal  (for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.)” His answer to the “Irish’ problem was to advise the poor to sell their children as ‘food for rich gentlemen and ladies’, and came complete with techniques for slaughter and mouth-watering recipes.

His satirical essay was meant to mock society’s lack of empathy towards the unfortunate, and in particular, to make clear the contemptuous attitude the British aristocracy held of the Irish people.

As outrageous as Swift’s essay may seem, his point must be taken; when people are overwhelmingly seen as commodities – be they the poor, the disabled, the elderly, migrants or refugees – it’s only a small step to conceiving of humans as being little more than meat, which then, logically,  becomes only worth what the market will bear, per pound.

While the idea of cannibalizing the poor may seem shocking, in truth, we’re little different now, three centuries later. Our media is filled with assaults, deaths, and murders being committed every day, all around the globe, most of which rarely elicit more than a few seconds of our disapproval, before our thoughts move on to something less disturbing.

Hence, my proposal, which I hope will interest those questioning how society should deal with the physical assault or murder of its citizens.

In the last several years we’ve seen Justice using a sliding scale for the punishment of apparent and actual wrongdoers. A young black child alone in a snowy playground, for instance, apparently poses an enormous threat to armed officers in police cars, and is therefore executed before their fears can be realized. On the other hand, a young, armed white man who opens fire in an Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina during a prayer meeting, can kill nine people, and still be arrested in an orderly fashion, and indeed, be treated to a Burger King meal by police officers as they chauffeur him from the church to the jail.

Or we can look to the case of the young, white male Stanford student, who, despite being caught in the act of assaulting an unconscious fellow student, received a six month sentence (now somehow dropped to three months) to be served in prison – not jail – rather than the six years the prosecutors had requested,  and despite white rape v black rapethe twelve pages of the victim’s statement, which outlined in searingly heartbreaking detail what she has gone through, during and since the rape.

Contrast that with the case histories of hundreds of young, black males serving much longer prison sentences for the same or similar offences, as in the case of Vanderbilt football player Cory Batey.

Murder and sexual assault is against the law regardless of social class, race, gender, sexuality, or other factors. Inserting prejudice and bias into the process of sentencing renders the law farcical.

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, which gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, on the grounds that race is life or deathracism is no longer an issue, I am very aware that racism, sexism, and bigotry are enormous problems, and that pretending they do not exist is as foolish as denying gravity. This is our reality, and wishing it away demonstrates the naiveté of a child.

(And according to polls, the majority of Republicans in America believe that ‘reverse racism’ is a worse problem than racism.)

Therefore, I tender my proposal. People are citizens of their countries. Although they cannot be enslaved, they are nevertheless in many ways the ‘property’ of their country, in that they are expected, by birth or through acquired citizenship, to obey the laws, while receiving the rights and protection available. They are simultaneously a country’s asset AND liability.

bst051

So I propose that citizens of all countries be defined as what they really are – property of their governments.

There is a provision in most countries’ military agreements that outlines what constitutes abuse of government property. In the United States, that provision is Article  108 – Destruction of Government Property – which describes as criminal, “Any person subject to this chapter who, without proper authority (1) sells or otherwise disposes of; (2) wilfully or through neglect damages, destroys, or loses; or (3) willfully or through neglect suffers to be lost, damaged, destroyed, sold, or wrongfully disposed of, any military property of the United States, shall be punished as a courtarticle 108 US-martial may direct.”

And some overzealous NCOs have been known to threaten the rank and file for wilful personal damage, even going as far as issuing a letter of reprimand for the sin of getting a sunburn that prevents a soldier from going on a mission.

In Canada, Department of National Defence employees and Canadian Armed Forces members are “Crown servants.” They too are, in a sense, property of their country. Strictly speaking, any assault of a member of the armed forces is an assault of government property.

But if citizens of all countries are defined as the  property of their governments, then assault, rape, and murder can be immediately reclassified as physical damage or destruction of a country’s property. Rescind the gray areas subject to bias, and assign a punishment that fits the crime.

Strongly held beliefs of a physical or moral superiority of one race or sex over another cannot be eradicated in a generation. Indeed, the popularity of  those who consider Donald Trump merely ‘an honest guy that says what the rest of us are thinking ’ proves that there are millions in the United States alone that see themselves as superior beings , and that they see those that are not like themselves as inferior.

Rather than argue with stubborn mindsets, it seems far more sensible to deem citizens as property of their country. With this as a guideline, it then becomes a simple matter of assigning value. value of a human lifeWhat is a life worth? Should men, women, and children have separate values, or can we agree that the assault or murder of any person is grievous? Since  racism is supposedly a non-issue, do we then assign the same value to people of all colours? In a court of law, can we agree to an equality of all members of society, independent of their circumstances of birth?

Rather than the lip service of equality granted by charters and constitutions, lay out the terms of the perceived worth of citizens. What is the lifetime value of your citizen, after taking into account both the costs and benefits? If that is pro-rated over an estimated lifetime, should the potential of a child’s life, nipped in the bud, be a factor in higher penalties?  Where then does that leave legalized abortion?

If a mother can be forced to give birth, is she not then entitled to ongoing support for the child? And if we now hold that all citizens are of equal value, can we then withhold the necessities of life to those who are caught in cycles of poverty or addiction? Can we, in good conscience, subscribe to cuts to benefits to the hungry, the homeless, disabled or elderly? Property must be maintained!

What of the wounded veterans, who served their country in good faith, but have returned from combat, damaged physically or mentally? Should their rehabilitation – the cost of repairing damaged property –  not be considered a vital part of the calculation of the cost of continuing conflicts or new acts of aggression?

justice is conscienceIn order to purge real or perceived prejudices in the courts, each and every citizen must be first and foremost recognized as a unique and valuable entity in his or her own right. If the law, lawyers, and judges are unable to see people as such, perhaps the only solution is to tack a label upon the people, signifying ownership, with the attendant penalties enforced upon those who damage governmental property.

My immodest proposal only seeks to level the judicial playing field, and avoid judgments that strain our belief and fervent hope that “Justice is Blind. “