Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Story of Isaac

The door it opened slowly,
My father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
His blue eyes they were shining
And his voice was very cold.
He said, "I've had a vision
And you know I'm strong and holy,
I must do what I've been told."
So he started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
And his axe was made of gold.  - The Story of Isaac, Leonard Cohen

Atheists always bring up the story of Abraham and Isaac. What kind of God is that?

And they are absolutely right to do so. The story presents a serious moral puzzle.

How could Abraham have known it was God speaking to him? The Bible itself warns us that there are evil spirits. When we think we hear something from a spiritual entity, we are told we must always “test the spirits.”

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4)

What test? Here the passage in John is not obviously helpful. It goes on,

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.

This could not have applied to Abraham, living before Christ. But elsewhere, too, we are told how to recognize “false prophets”: “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” Which seems to obviously mean a moral test, although it might also be a test of beauty: if the spirit advocates anything obviously immoral, it cannot be God. And Jesus, aside from the particular incarnation, is eternally the way, the truth, and the life. Accordingly, for Abraham, the test is: did the spirit advocate what is morally good, did it tell the truth, and was it on the side of life?

The spirit he hears seems to have failed all three tests.

To begin with, it is obviously immoral to kill his son. And the spirit wants death, not life.

And another thing. God had promised Abraham that he would have many descendants, and that he would have them through Isaac. Now God wants him to kill Isaac, making this impossible. That would mean, if this voice is from God, that God is a liar. Bingo—voice cannot be God. Abraham should not have listened.

And speaking of lies, Abraham is described as lying to his retainers on the way to the sacrifice. He tells then all to wait, they will be right back:

He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Then he lies to Isaac:

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

If he really believes he is about to sacrifice Isaac, that is, he is lying. Now, what would be the sense of telling lies in aid of doing something out of piety? Disobeying God in order to obey God?

But then again Abraham is not actually lying, either, is he? He is predicting exactly what does happen: God himself provides an animal or the sacrifice. He does return with Isaac safe and sound.

The only logical conclusion, so far as I can see, is that Abraham knew all along that he was not going to sacrifice Isaac, and further God must have told him so directly. He was not just guessing or hoping. He knew what was going to happen.

It was all a bit of performance art.

Why? Seems to me there is an obvious explanation. Child sacrifice, specifically the blood sacrifice of a firstborn son, was standard practice among the Canaanite religions thereabouts. If Abraham were advocating a monotheistic faith that rejected these pagan gods in the name of a greater one, observers might easily suspect this was all bogus, done in an attempt to avoid sacrificing his own son. So he needed to demonstrate that he was perfectly willing to sacrifice his own son, but that Yahweh God did not demand it.

You might object, as an atheist friend objected, that this interpretation seems to be a stretch based on what the Bible actually says. But that is exactly wrong: it in fact seems the only possible interpretation based on what the Bible actually says.

Granted, the Bible does not say it all clearly. It is more like a murder mystery.

So the Bible wants us to think, to ponder, to meditate. Is that so surprising? Reading the passage, it is we who are being tested, not Abraham.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Lyme Disease and the Cold, Unsmoking Gun

Vampire Bambi. Screw your bloody tweezers; toss me my assault rifle.

There is currently something like an epidemic of Lyme disease in Eastern Canada. Now why is that? Remarkably, it turns out that the first case of Lyme disease was diagnosed only in 1975. No doubt it was around before that, but rare enough that it did not attract notice. Now it seems to be everywhere.

Yes, of course, it is spread by tick bites. But why are there suddenly so many ticks?

The answer is not obscure. Deer. The ticks that spread Lyme disease live on deer. What is more, reducing the deer population is proven as the best way to reduce Lyme disease.

Lyme and other deer tick-borne diseases can sometimes be reduced by greatly reducing the deer population on which the adult ticks depend for feeding and reproduction. Lyme disease cases fell following deer eradication on an island, Monhegan, Maine and following deer control in Mumford Cove, Connecticut. ...

For example, in the U.S., reducing the deer population to levels of 8 to 10 per square mile (from the current levels of 60 or more deer per square mile in the areas of the country with the highest Lyme disease rates), may reduce tick numbers and reduce the spread of Lyme and other tick-borne disease.

Are we shooting ourselves in the head with our silly romantic notions about ecology and nature? Might it be better to get some hunters out shooting deer instead? And using the otherwise wasted protein?

Sure, deer are cute. But permanently disabling fellow humans is not cute.

The ecologically minded may be incredulous of the idea that there are more deer now in Eastern Ontario than there ever used to be. What about the encroaching of human populations and human civilization?

The reality is the reverse. Forest cover is growing throughout the developed world. Farmland is shrinking. More land is turning back into wilderness.

As human culture develops, less land is needed to sustain the same (or a far better) standard of living. Not long ago, just about everyone in Southern Ontario had to farm. Now only a few can feed all the rest, and export. Subsistence farmland is removed from agricultural production.

More habitat: more critters. All on top of our rapidly growing publicly funded park system.

What about before the arrival of the evil Europeans?

The same considerations apply. Even though the population of Ontario was miniscule at contact—maybe a couple of thousand people in all of Southern Ontario—the early Jesuits reported that the Huron lands were utterly hunted out of any game animals.

Perhaps ironically, any modern Indians who wanted to could probably survive far more easily in Southern Ontario today than they ever could pre-contact, using only traditional methods. At least for a few years, until the game ran out.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Bombing Syria

I see folks on Facebook lamenting that Syria was recently hit by US/UK/French missiles.

I don’t get it. Why the grief now, and not about everything else that has happened in Syria since 2011? War is only wrong if the US, Britain, or France get involved?

Many are saying that the casus belli, the Syrian government gas attack on its own civilians, seems likely to be bogus. The US had just announced it was pulling out. It was entirely in the Syrian government’s interest to lie low for a while.

I accept that Machiavellian logic. Regimes do sometimes do stupid things that are not in their own self-interest. But that would suggest some breakdown in command, so that local players are operating in their own behalf. It was more likely staged, a false flag, by the opposition.

I’m not sure that is important. Whether or not he was responsible for this attack, it is plain that Assad has been continuing to manufacture and to use chemical weapons. This is in violation of the deal by which the US did not intervene under Obama. Such things cannot be ignored. It is just fortunate to have a clear violation now in order to make the point. Now, I trust, chemical weapons are less likely to be used, and not only because the strike targeted Syria’s chemical weapons facilities.

Russia has of course protested, on the reasonable grounds that this was a plain violation of Syria’s national sovereignty. Not long ago, I would have agreed. It used to be accepted international law that one country did not intervene in another’s affairs without a formal request from the government, and this seemed wise. Until Rwanda. Everyone felt pretty bad afterwards about not intervening, and a new international standard emerged in time for the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo: foreign intervention was justified and called for if any government was violating basic human rights with regards to their own citizens. Gas attacks would fall under this rule.

Given that Russian military was on site, does it all risk starting some wider war? Yeah. By the same token, so does the US sitting on its hands. On balance, by convincing Putin to tread more softly, this looks to me more likely to prevent than to provoke a wider war. Russia has been throwing its weight around, here and elsewhere. The more it does so, the more it risks inadvertently provoking a big war. Rather like the German Kaiser sticking his finger in everywhere leading up to World War I. Putin has been swashbuckling for the sake of prestige. Suddenly it looks as though the big boys have come to play. Now this adventure begins to feel like bit of a humiliation. That may make him less eager to undertake the next one. If he risks a wider war in Syria, he is an idiot: there is no way Russia can match the US, Britain and France in any overseas theatre.

His own position depends on sleight of hand. Russia is in bad shape; worse with the collapse in the price of oil. He may need foreign policy successes to stay in power; but, by the same token, a serious humiliation could topple him.

A third issue is the presence of Iran in Syria, in support of Assad. Apparently John Bolton was previously opposed to any US intervention, but now backs it because he fears the growing influence of Iran. If the US leaves a vacuum here, and it is filled by Iran as a regional power, this is troublesome for allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Israel, and Kuwait.

Friday, April 13, 2018

What Montreal Needs

Someone on Quora asked, what does Montreal need? I lost the question. So what the heck; I’ll answer it here.

It needs to be the capital of Canada, in the first place. That’s a no-brainer. Everybody loses so long as it is not.

It needs a transparent canopy over St. Catherine Street from Crescent to St. Laurent to keep out the winter snow and cold. Perhaps we can extend this to other downtown streets as well. This is obvious for Montreal: cold, snowy, and with tight little streets downtown.

In needs a zoo, along the lines of the old Garden of Wonders in LaFontaine Park, but much bigger. It should feature mythological creatures from around the world.

It needs back both the Expos and the Montreal Maroons.

It needs to lose the requirement for all newcomers’ children to be educated in French. That’s a serious head office killer. Let the parents decide.

Thursday, April 12, 2018


Some years ago, Paul Hellyer, former Canadian Defense Minister and perennial leadership contender, made a bit of a splash by declaring UFOs to be real, and claiming an international coverup. I took little notice; sounded like a guy used to being in the public eye trying to attract attention one last time. In fact, Hellyer has always been like that.

A friend turned out to be a UFO buff. Again, I took little notice. He spoke of multiverses. My problem with that was Occam’s razor: it is the worst possible violation of Occam’s razor. It is much simpler to assume the existence of a spirit world.

Now Tucker Carlson on Fox News has apparently been won over to the idea that UFOs are real.

They might be. Certainly there are UFOs in the literal sense: unidentified flying objects. The only question is, what are they? Are they alien visitors?

I am skeptical for several reasons. First, the vast distances of space. The nearest planet with possible life, let alone intelligent life, let alone intelligent life with such advanced technology, has to be light-years away. I am under the impression that the laws of physics prohibit travel at faster than the speed of light. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps our present physics is wrong. But if not, that means it would have to take anyone years to get here. More likely hundred or thousands of years.

The obvious next question is, why would it be worth their while? What could be here for them that they could not get at home, and needed so badly?

I could see visiting out of curiosity, to have a look around. Fine; but then they surely would send robot craft, not come themselves. There would be no need for that, and it would be a big sacrifice. So perhaps that is what we are seeing.

I am also more skeptical than most about the inevitability of an intelligent life form developing such advanced technology. The fundamental belief that the physical world is real, and so worth paying much attention to, is rare among human cultures. It is pretty much a Judeo-Christian thing. You need that before you get very interested in physical technology. It seems to me that a non-human civilization could be highly intelligent, and last for many centuries, but concentrate more on issues of spiritual and emotional, not physical, well-being. And then, if they decide to concentrate on physical, I can see them focusing on things like eliminating disease and poverty rather than exploring space. The number of even highly intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations, if any exist, who would think it worthwhile to have a space program might be quite small.

If what we are seeing is robot visitors coming to look and study, it is not really an alarming or earth-threatening event. It is not as if, as Tucker Carlson or Paul Hellyer suggest, we need to develop some plan for defense against alien attack. The logic still holds that there is very unlikely to be anything here worth their while to come and get. If there were, somebody somewhere would have probably come and gotten it centuries ago, when we could only defend with longbows or assegais and were easy pickings.

Might it be possible for someone to invent a device like the old transporter in Star Trek, that immediately beams something to any distant place, by dissolving and re-forming them at a molecular level? There are a few problems with that concept. In Star Trek, the thing or person always dissolves at the point of departure, as it or he reforms at the destination. But that would obviously not be necessary: one could just as well create an exact duplicate while leaving the original intact.

Now we have a problem, if we are transporting sentient beings. Where would the consciousness reside, in the original or in the duplicate?

I think it has to be in the original. There is logically nothing in the act of recreation at the molecular level that would unplug the consciousness connection from one body, and insert in in the other. And if in the original when there are two, then also in the original if there is one. The consciousness would not be transferred. If conscious, the transported body would be a new and separate person. Meaning that any such transportation would mean death for the subject, subjectively speaking. Kind of unattractive.

Those who are religious have a possible alternative explanation: these lights in the sky are angels, or demons, or sprites. Yes, they are visible to the eye and to radar; but according to our ancient sources, angels and demons can be too, if they choose to be. And these craft do, after all, violate the known laws of physics. That might after all suggest something.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Toronto Mediocrities

Historic ancient castle--Toronto

Growing up in Montreal, I always thought of Toronto as a cultural desert. This perception is common among Montrealers. In the 2009 Montreal film “The Trotsky,” the protagonist must move to Ontario, and is consoled by his mother, “I’m sure Ontario is more than just Alice Monro stories.”

Not at all to knock Alice Monro; but the perception was that she was all they’d got.

I still actually think this is true. Toronto has no culture in comparison to Montreal. Toronto is charming in its agricultural, Main Street way, but it has no sense at all when it comes to art or literature. Growing up, visits to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMBA) were a favourite pastime. I lived ten years in Toronto, and rarely went to the Art Gallery of Ontario. In recent years, I again visited both. The MMBA still exudes something the AGO does not. The MMFA collection, although smaller, seems well-chosen. The AGO collection feels more like a jumble. “Okay, we need something here by Emily Carr.” Not anything of special merit; the point is the signature.

Even the donations differ. The MMFA has the Weider collection of Napoleonic memorabilia. The AGO has a sampling of shrunken knock-off busts collected by Ken Thompson. Perhaps no important art in either, perhaps just businessmen trying to buy a cultural pedigree, but the Weider legacy at least has a theme and a vision. It is not just stuff.

Toronto itself is of the opinion that it has no culture. That’s why it is so big on, and so proud of, its multiculturalism. Culture is always something from somewhere else. It is some quaint foreign thing. Entertaining every now and then, like visiting the zoo. Hey, let’s do a Greek restaurant!

Montreal, by contrast, has its own food: poutine, Montreal smoked meat, Montreal bagels, St. Hubert chicken, spruce beer, Oka cheese, Vachon treats.

In Montreal, the arts are central to the city’s sense of self, central to the city’s life. When Leonard Cohen died, the city quickly threw up two massive commemorative murals; Leonard Cohen expressed something to Montreal of the real Montreal. Even though he was an Anglophone poet in a Francophone city. The art gallery launched an exhibition in his honour, even though he was not a visual artist. In Toronto, b contrast, art is always an add-on, something people vaguely feel they need to have to be a proper grown-up city, but take no personal interest in. Kind of like vitamin supplements.

A distinctly Toronto phenomenon that has no Montreal parallel is that of the famous mediocrity. Artists or entertainers quite commonly become big names in Toronto without actually having much talent. And in Toronto, nobody seems to notice. They just needed an artist in this slot, and nobody actually looks or listens. Such a thing would be unthinkable in Montreal.

A few examples of the classic Toronto mediocrity:

The Group of Seven—absolutely nothing there but hype.

The Royal Canadian Air Farce—with a special shout out to Luba Goy. If they even heard a good joke, they probably would not get it. Dave Broadfoot was the exception; but he did not last with them, did he? Not to mention that he was originally from Vancouver, not Toronto.

Peter Gzowski. For a time, he was everywhere and did everything in Canadian journalism. He even passed as some kind of intellectual. By why?

Ben Wicks. Could never draw, and was never funny. Compare Montreal’s Aislin: da Vinci versus childish doodle.

The Irish Rovers. Always going for whatever’s cheapest and easiest. The first of Toronto’s cute ethnics.

Murray McLaughlin. Out to rescue the neglected working class. Apparently nobody else ever noticed them…

Casa Loma. No history, no special architecture, no connection with the arts or even some culturally meaningful business enterprise. Just ostentation. And an imitation of foreign models.

The CN Tower. Wow; it’s high. So what? Nouveau riche.

“The Henry Moore.” Hey, look how sophisticated we are!

To be clear and to be fair, there are also some legitimate talents who have come through Toronto. Glenn Gould; Marshall McLuhan; Northrop Frye. But even there, there is sometimes something off. Robertson Davies, for example, wrote one great novel, Fifth Business; but he also was also guilty of a lot of posing and hype, with his wizard-like beard and his Jungian mystic prattle. He was trained in drama, and he was an actor to the end. Margaret Atwood really is a fine poet and a better literary critic; but she also lived on hype with her feminist politics, as if the writing was secondary.

Perhaps not their fault. In Toronto, talent and art does not count. You need an ulterior motive to justify it.

This is, in the end, I think, the difference between Catholicism and Calvinist Protestantism. Montreal is more or less the Paris of North America. But not so; Montreal would not settle for being an imitation. In the old days, Toronto was known as the Belfast of North America. It still is, in its soul. “Toronto the Good.”

To Catholicism, beauty is one of the three key aspects of divinity, along with truth and the good. To Calvinism, beauty is from the devil, and not legitimate unless it serves some practical, earthly purpose like selling dry goods.

As a Catholic, I never could reconcile with that attitude.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

What Makes a Narcissist?

Narcissus, Cave, 1890.

What makes a narcissist?

The official answer is that nobody knows. Mayo Clinic’s web site says “It’s not known what causes narcissistic personality disorder.” WebMD says “The exact cause is not known, but there are several theories.”

WebMD cites two: narcissism is caused by “parents who put their children on a pedestal,” and “children who are ignored or abused.”

There is an obvious contradiction here: if we accept both theories, that would mean that opposite actions can produce the same result. Moreover, we have seen, and it has been generally confirmed by studies, that children who are ignored or abused tend to develop depression in later life. This is an opposite condition, involving low, not high, self-esteem. So we are also positing here that the same action can produce opposite results.

The obvious conclusion is that option two is false: narcissism is not caused by childhood neglect or abuse.

Our best source for understanding the psyche is literature and legend. So the best place to look for clarity is the original Greek story of Narcissus.

According to the story, Narcissus was an unusually handsome youth, who fell in love with his reflection in a pool—an image of complete self-absorption.

However, in the story, Narcissus’s narcissism was not cased by seeing his reflection in the pool, and it was not caused, directly, by his good looks. He was self-centred and callous before this. “Many a youth, and many a damsel sought to gain his love;” writes Ovid, “but such his mood and spirit and his pride, none gained his favour.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 3. 339 – 509, trans. Brookes More). This cannot have been because of his own opinion of his looks; he had not yet seen his reflection. Had he, the effect of seeing it later could not have been so mesmerizing. Falling in love with his reflection was divine punishment for his lack of empathy in spurning the nymph Echo—not its cause.

He was basing his essential narcissism, then, on the adulation he was receiving from others. This would seem to confirm excessive praise in youth or childhood as the cause of narcissism.

This is again confirmed by the tale of Tantalus, another narcissistic figure, and an archetypal child abuser. He was, according to legend, first especially favoured by the gods; from this he developed insatiable expectations.

It is important to note that neither legend, Narcissus or Tantalus, attributes narcissism directly to upbringing or to the actions of others. In both cases, although such circumstances are a temptation, the narcissism is shown as a moral choice, and a moral fault, deserving of punishment, not something that has been done by others to the narcissist.

This being so, it is possible that an abusive or neglected childhood could lead at times to narcissism, and a pampered, spoiled childhood might not. This may be one reason the roots of narcissism are mysterious for psychiatry. It is predisposed to see things as diseases, not choices, and it rules out ethical considerations a priori.

Where does the idea that narcissism comes from childhood abuse or neglect come from?

Pretty plainly, it comes from the clinical testimony of narcissists.

Beginning with Alice Miller. We have seen that she was herself a narcissistic child abuser, and we have seen that she attributes narcissism—which she lumps in with depression—to parents who did not love unconditionally, but instead set standards for the child, in order to “earn” their love.

In a way, this rings true, and one can see how it works. A young child is raised being told they are absolutely wonderful. But sooner or later, in the natural course of things, the outside world will require them to prove themselves. They will, for example, be marked at school. Sooner or later, they will not get the top mark in some subject. Sooner or later, they will fail at something. Sooner rather than later, for the narcissist: being innately wonderful, they are less likely to have made that initial effort. Sooner or later, their parents will need to direct some of their attention elsewhere—to a new child, to their own needs, to making a living.

Because their expectations are infinite, the narcissist will find this traumatic. At this point, they have a choice. They can revise their distorted opinion of themselves, buckle down to improving, and grow up. Or they can decide they have been tricked or betrayed—by their parents, by the system, by any others who have done better than they. The latter is the easy, lazy option. A narcissist is born.

The same equation works of the narcissist is confronted by some moral choice: should he grab the candy from the store, say, or waive his desires until he has the pocket money to buy it. Any kid might give in to such a temptation; a spoiled kid more than another. Then conscience begins to trouble the narcissist. He can either admit to himself his fault, and amend, or he can deny, blame the Jews or the capitalist system or the Catholic Church and their nagging morality, and double down.

Then it is in the nature of a narcissist, once confirmed in their path, that they will never again accept personal responsibility. If they are being told they are mentally ill, or for that matter have done wrong, they will then as a matter of course blame their children. Hence the tendency to abuse them. But failing that, the next obvious line of defense is to blame their own parents. Confronted by an analyst, it is the natural line to take.

A friend of mine had a father who drank excessively. He was distant from his children, by their report; he ignored them. At one point, oppressed by his own unspecified problems, he had an analyst come in on house visits. After several sessions, the psychiatrist assembled the family in the living room and announced to the children, “the problem here is that none of you love your father enough.”

The analyst was being manipulated by a narcissist. Narcissists are good at that.