Friday, February 25, 2011

Determination and Conscience

In the eulogy that I wrote for my father, I said that while determination may make bullies of us all, conscience makes cowards of us all. The second half is from Macbeth, and while the character was hardly a reliable witness, I think Shakespeare was right. W. B. Yeats echoes this in The Second Coming: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst \ Are full of passionate intensity." He is almost certainly talking about conscientious people as the best, and ideologues as the worst. Ideologues are but the latest incarnation of men of certainty--the type that founded our religions and most of the major political movements.

Of course, there have been lot of bad religions and political changes. "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ to consider that you may be wrong", said Oliver Cromwell, yet he seemed to be immune to second thoughts himself, and scarcely ever considered himself wrong. Cromwell was one of the lowest points in English political history--he beheaded Charles I, became king in all but name, and employed his New Model Army to impose draconian policies both in England and in Ireland, even abolishing Christmas. If you are determined to change the world, the last thing you can afford is cowardice. If your intention is to be the overman, you cannot afford doubt, unless it is about the opinions of others. The conscientious, on the other hand, sometimes harbour doubts only about their own opinions.

And yet, if it is disastrous never to question yourself, it is equally disastrous, if not outright immoral, to be paralysed in the face of opposition. There is evil in the world, and opposing it requires that we take a stand, even if we cannot be certain of all the details. But certainty is an unrealistically high standard; human beings never really get to be certain about anything. Many try to finesse this certainty by invoking God, but this is no more than projecting their own beliefs onto the stars. For while they may convince themselves that they are acting upon the standards of their faith, it is they that choose the religion, the pastor, minister, imam, or guru, the interpretation, and they who choose which parts they like, and which doctrines they discard. All religion is a la carte. In the end, it's just us.

And yet, we are social creatures. We have evolved moral instincts which are shy on particulars at the outset, but are quite emotionally demanding, because they are instincts which encourage us to live harmoniously with other human beings--a minimum requirement for human survival. We despise injustice, cruelty, dishonesty, and selfishness, particularly when we suffer it, and we value truth, beauty, justice, and mercy. These are what we need to live, and we appreciate those who act in accordance with them, and will punish, even at our own expense, those who violate them. We are not rational self-interested actors, however much some economists might suggest we are. We will often go out of our way to punish those who transgress against these values. Through the medium of culture we have reflected en masse through the centuries upon these core sentiments and have arrived at principles which we believe best express and support them.

These advances are neither individually nor culturally relative. Human nature and human circumstances are real and non-negotiable. Years ago I read Satre and thought him great and wise; I recently re-read excerpts of Being and Nothingness and realized that, like much of late 20th century continental philosophy, it all hung upon the assumption of the blank slate, the conviction that there is nothing fixed in human nature. This is false, and so the whole edifice collapsed before my eyes. We are done with Sartre and the relativists. But that does not mean that anyone has the final answer, the perfect solution--nor should anyone be required to. Certainty breeds monstrosities, but neurotic perfectionism is a self-indulgence we cannot afford.

The West now seems transfixed in a state of moral cowardice. Embarrassed by our less than perfect past, we forget that other people in other cultures may be planning a less than perfect future. Many in the West are transfixed by the accusation of Islamophobia, forgetting that the egotism of Mohammud has held an entire culture locked in place for a thousand years that could have been better spent learning about themselves and the world. China and the Middle East have not given up on the idea of a colonial empire--they are buying up arable land in substandard Africa. What will the Africans eat? Nothing. We are on the brink of the worst genocide of human history, because millions of conscientious hand wringers cannot be bothered to look beyond their own navel.

The most assertive figures remain the ideologues; people who start out with a fixed idea and stick to it no matter what. When the facts come in, they are suspect, the work of a conspiracy; the more compelling the evidence, the bigger the conspiracy. Ideologues are at war with reality. In Canada, we now have a government that wants to shut down Statistics Canada, and is at war with our Public Service because they don't like their recommendations. They are convinced that these people have a liberal bias, but as Stephen Colbert quipped, the facts have a liberal bias. No one can win a war with reality, and not only is the cost of waging such a war prohibitive, but everything spent in it is lost.

In service to this war on reality we have a war on science, often justified by appealing to Thomas Khun's theories on scientific revolutions. But Khun was wrong. Science does not change by radical paradigm shifts, throwing everything away. Even Copernicus himself did not fit this pattern; he maintained the Ptolemaic idea of orbits, simply swapping the Sun and the Earth in the scheme. Galileo built on Copernicus, Newton on Galileo, Laplace on Newton, and Einstein on Laplace and Newton. The relativistic and quantum terms vanish on scales of the middle world--nearly all engineering applications still rely entirely on Newtonian physics. Only in extremely large or small scales do we need the mathematics of relativity or quantum mechanics. If we see far, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Khun implies that nothing needs to be known of the achievements of the past, because all can be swept away in a heart beat.

Epistemological relativism is attractive because it allows the ignorant to claim equal footing with the educated. It's another form of the blank slate; everyone starts from scratch, so anyone can spin theories to their heart's content and demand equal time. But reality is no myth. "I am who am" says the God of the Old Testament--in other words, I am reality. Note that this is not the same as saying God is real--that is an invitation to invent reality, rather than taking it as it is and understanding it. To say that something is real is simply to assert the reality of something regardless of its essence, but to say that something is reality is to define that essence. Religion was an attempt to put a human face on reality, but the mask won't stay put. What has not changed is that reality is still as cantankerous and destructive as ever when ignored, as vengeful as Old Jehovah. Any attempt to create your own reality, however determined, will fail if you ignore the truth.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Eulogy to My Father

It's hard to believe that Dad is actually gone. I just didn't think old age was up to the job. A meteor strike, an earthquake, a bolt of lightning maybe. The man was more durable than Keith Richards. And now that he is gone, I find myself surprised that there are were no headlines to mention it: "H. A. Dead at 92" on the cover of the New York Times, or at least the Citizen.

Dad was large and in charge. Even in old age, when most people shrink and become frail, Dad just got bigger. And he wasn't exactly diminutive to begin with. A worker in his father's warehouses since the age of 14, Dad would spend 18 hour days tossing 120 lb bags of sugar, flour, salt, or whatever up to the top of 12 foot stacks. One of my favourite stories of his took place when he and Bud were in their late 20's or early 30's. God Almighty Fournier had left for a mover's convention in Detroit, and Dad and Bud discovered that there was not enough money in the bank to meet the payroll at Fournier Van and Storage. The old man had told Dad that a good businessman was a good collector--and then apparently forgot his own advice. The books showed numerous accounts owing. So Dad and Bud set out to collect debts, with the clock ticking urgently.

Now, can you imagine the reaction of their clients to the sight of these two irish gorillas, shoehorned into suits, knocking on their doors and very firmly asking for the money owed to them? They must have looked like the Kray Brothers."Hello. We have been reviewing our accounts, and we have discovered that you owe us this amount of money. We would like to collect it. Now. In cash.... Nice place you have here. Here's a picture of our Mum." By the end of the week, they had money to spare. It would only be years later that Dad found out just how much he had terrified these people. Dad didn't do subtle.

As for being in charge, Dad liked to plan projects. Under Dad's guidance, we would move a mountain two feet to the left on Saturday, and two feet to the right on Sunday. I would eventually discover that it had less to do with moving the mountain than with playing foreman. During the building of Chris's cottage, Don Blakesly took a picture of Dad, scowling at the camera, and framed it, with a caption that was a refrain we'd heard often during that summer: "Well, if you'd done what I told you..." Chris's cottage was fine, except for the roof. Dad was impatient, and decided that we didn't need to do extra measurements to square it. Chris gave in, and the roof has waves and troughs in it. I have to say that Dad always got the job done though. Not always the right way, and sometimes the job didn't really need to be done, but he made sure it got done.

Still, the results could be spectacular; an acre lot, clawed out of rumpled mud and rocks by my father and my brothers, that became a magazine perfect lawn, fringed with lilacs and apple blossoms whose scent was ecstasy on a spring morning; a bay of dead fish, debris, and scrub trees that became the site of the most magnificent chalet on Lake Pemichangan; hundreds of flawless roses, arraigned along the back of Des Pommiers or on the slope of the hill of the cottage. Those who bought the cottage in the interim could improve the building and buy bigger boats, but they could not sustain or equal Dad's daily efforts.

Dad had a good life. Varicose veins in his legs spared him from going to war and left him to raise his family in peace, but never much inconvenienced him otherwise. He worked for his father at Fournier Van and Storage until he partnered with his brother Bud at Moloughney's Van and Storage. As his family grew, he worried that he would not be able to provide for so many children--in most pictures taken of him during the 50's and 60's, he has a worried expression--though maybe he was just worrying about his camera in the hands of someone else. But by the time I was a child, steak was a fixture on the table on Saturday nights, he built the house on Des Pommiers and the cottage on Pemichangan, and even the steaks got bigger and better, with sirloin eventually giving way to filet mignon. He sold his business when he was 57, just before deregulation made the moving business go sour, spent every summer of the next 25 years at the cottage, and often travelled to warmer climes in the winter. And still he managed to party like it was 1949. If you'd told me a man with his lifestyle would make it in good health to age 92, I would never have believed you. And this is the same man who has been telling us for the past 40 years that he would be gone soon. We all hope to inherit his constitution, if not his habits.

I have heard it said that old age is not for the timid. Old age for dad came suddenly at crucial milestones: when he could not pull the motor off the boat, when he could no longer hear his beloved music (and we will always be grateful that he passed this love on to us), but most of all, when Mom died. In the days that followed he became a babe in arms, handing all control over to his children. From this point on he was often rudderless. In a retirement home, widows sought him out; he was a catch, but he would never give up the torch he carried for Gladys. His solution was to help Ann buy a house with a granny suite, a new place he could call home. And so it was for seven years, until late December, when he went into sudden decline, stopped reading his daily newspapers, and then collapsed. All he wanted at the hospital was to go home. The final milestone was reached when Ann had to tell him that it was no longer possible for him to come home. The care he required could only be given in a nursing home. "Oh, no." was all he said, and then he set out to die. And that he did, and quickly.

So I'm glad he's gone, because that's what he wanted. I can only hope to live and die as stubbornly as he did. Fortunately we are a stubborn family, on both sides. If your intent is to be a force of nature, like my father and grandfather, you spend little time in self-reflection and a lot of time in bulldozer mode. But while determination may make bullies of us all, conscience makes cowards of us all. There is a balance to be struck, and Dad was never entirely one or the other.

Goodbye, Dad. I shall always miss you and keep you.