Murrant’s Rant: No cure for greed

Originally published in the Chronicle Herald – Cape Breton Star, October 7, 2015

We are taught the difference between right and wrong from the earliest possible age.  The Sesame Street ethics of cooperation, sharing, and honesty are indelibly etched into our collective consciousness.  It’s not a new concept.  Long before Mr. Rogers was teaching us about being neighbourly, the Golden Rule was the guiding principle of civilized conduct. Society grew and thrived because our ancestors realized than community mindedness was essential to our survival.  We need each other.

So how did it come to be that our laws were written in such a way as to reward greed?  Just a few weeks ago Turing Pharmaceutical CEO Martin Schkreli jacked up the price of the sixty year old anti-parasitic drug, Daraprim, by 5000% because he felt that it was good opportunity to “turn a profit.”  Daraprim was developed in the 1940’s and the research has long since been paid off, but Schkreli didn’t see a problem with price-gouging sick people.  The public outcry was fierce and Schkreli has since announced that he would revise the increase to allow for only a small profit.

Although Schkreli’s actions were reprehensible by most standards, they were legal.  Our laws make it perfectly permissible to turn a hefty profit from people at their most vulnerable.  Who better to profit from than the sick and dying?  They have no choice.  They either pay the market price for treatment or they face the consequences.   From our government’s point of view, it is normal and acceptable when people can’t afford their medication and die as a result.  For a drug company to demand a high price for a life-saving treatment, even when it costs pennies to produce, is sound business practice and keeps the shareholders happy.

Imagine you are inside your home, safe and warm, on a bitter cold winter day.  There is a knock on the door.  A child is on your step, freezing, and asks to come in from the cold. You ask for a fee; after all, it costs quite a bit to heat your home in the winter.  The child has no cash, so you turn her away, back out into the cold.  If she freezes to death, you are criminally responsible.  You had an ethical obligation to provide a necessity of life to a fellow human being. How is this any different than a drug company denying treatment to a dying patient?  To them, the drug they can’t afford is a necessity of life.

On the bright side, there are some commendable drug companies that will provide their medicines at a reduced cost for individuals that cannot afford their treatments.  This, unfortunately, is not the norm, and companies are not legally obligated to show this sort of kindness.  It might be worth studying the past television viewing habits of law makers and pharmaceutical CEO’s; to see if they watched Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers like the rest of us.

Kim Davis should have been a Caterer

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When faced with a religious quandary, Davis could have quit her job.  We all have the option of quitting if our job conflicts with our conscious.

In case you missed the headlines, Kim Davis, a United States county clerk in Kentucky was jailed on the charge of “contempt” for refusing to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. She claimed that issuing the license would conflict with her Christian religious beliefs.  Immediately, powerful Christian supporters began voicing their support for Davis. Mike Huckabee, US presidential candidate and former governor of Arkansas, is arguably the most influential of her supporters.

Huckabee tweeted the question, “Who’s next? Pastors? Photogs? Caterers? Florists?”, referencing the rights of citizens under the “God-given constitution”.

For starters, I’m not a theologian, but I don’t recall the chapter in the Bible where God gave the Constitution to the Americans.  I thought it was written “by the people, for the people”.

Secondly, Huckabee is a smart guy who has an exceptional understanding of US constitutional law, but he also has his own agenda.  He is playing to the wants of the majority Christian base.  As a presidential candidate, he needs these votes.

Kim Davis was a government official with a clear directive to issue marriage licenses to any couple who qualifies under the US constitution.  Davis had the right to deny the same-sex couple their marriage license, just as any any employee has the right to refuse any employer’s demands.  Likewise, employers have the right to fire any employee who refuses to perform their duties.

As a civil servant, employed by the tax payers to uphold all parts of the US constitution, Davis refused to perform one of the duties required by her employer.  A judge wisely sided with her employer, the tax-paying citizens, and ordered her to issue the marriage license.  She refused.  Refusing a court order is called “Contempt of Court”, and carries the penalty of jail time.

When faced with a religious quandary, Davis could have quit her job.  We all have the option of quitting if our job conflicts with our conscious.

As for Huckabee’s comment, “Who’s next? Pastors? Photogs? Caterers? Florists?”, Huckabee is ignoring the fact that civil servants like Davis are sworn in and “promise to uphold” the rights and freedoms of individuals as stated in the constitution.  I don’t think Florists and Caterers are required to take such an oath.  If Davis wanted to exercise her brand of “Religious Freedom”, then should have become a Caterer.

The loss of the letter

Thanks for the cat videos. Thank you for all the pictures of your protein smoothies and for letting me know that you worked out this morning. Thank you especially for inviting me to play Candy Crush Saga. And thank you, really, for your latest selfie — I almost forgot what you looked like.

Facebook, like the Internet itself, has a lot of promise. It has the potential to allow people to reconnect and share aspects of their lives with loved ones across great distances. It allows for a cultural exchange of ideas, art and information.

It provides a network through which millions of strangers can unite as one to accomplish what they cannot do alone.

Just like the Internet, however, Facebook is a cultural mirror. It shows us exactly who we are — what we like, what we desire and what we believe. For those willing to look beyond the trees to see the whole forest, Facebook is an unflatteringly accurate reflection of modern society — narcissistic, self-centric, superficial. There can be no other explanation for the volume and nature of the content we share. To look at Facebook is to see the world as the backdrop to somebody else’s selfie. Intelligent expression has been reduced to little more than an endless barrage of witty and sarcastic captions typed across photos of famous faces.

I recently came across a news story about a collection of letters that had been written by Albert Einstein to his friends and colleagues over the course of his career. I read some of them. Combined, they are the portrait of a man — fiercely intelligent, romantic, humorous, compassionate. In the age of Facebook, we have stopped writing letters, and in doing so, we have lost a gift of immeasurable value.

In this Facebook-ized society, we are having fewer and fewer meaningful conversations. As a result, we are not only depriving ourselves of the opportunity to interact on a deeper level with others, but we are also depriving future generations of something that our generation takes for granted — letters. Thanks to ink and paper, we presently enjoy a rich, historical record of insightful dialogue and the exchange of original ideas. It is highly doubtful that scholars in the next century will have the patience or inclination to sift through trillions of Facebook posts. And if they do, what will they find?

I have long believed that the greatest strength of the human species is our ability to communicate, to share complex and meaningful ideas so our accomplishments can be reproduced by others for the betterment of all.

By design, Facebook is the ideal tool for us to do just that — to express our creativity and share our intelligence. So, to that end, I’ll refrain from sharing a pictures of my breakfast and quotes from my cat.

Murrant’s Rant: The Sea of Bureaucracy

From what I am told, my grandfathers built boats.  Their fathers and grandfathers also built boats.  It was an essential skill and a tradition sixty or a hundred years ago in Port Morien and New Waterford.  I am sad to say that I never got to know my grandfathers.  If I had, I might have learned a thing or two about boat building.  It seems like such a Nova Scotian thing to know about.  We’ve been building boats for generations.  The instructions should be written into our DNA.

Since I don’t know about boat building, I won’t rant about the Bluenose II.  I won’t rant about the $21-million cost and how that money could have been better spent on education, healthcare, social services, or economic development.  Instead of ranting, I will just tell you what I learned.

The original Bluenose was built in 1921 with a wooden hull and wooden rudder, and as we all know, it worked really well until it hit a reef in 1946.  The Oland brewing company built the Bluenose II in 1963 to promote Schooner beer.  The province bought it in 1971.  It too had a reliable wooden hull and a wooden rudder.  This replica operated until 2010 when it was dry-docked for a complete reconstruction.  The newly rebuilt Bluenose II (which should really be called the Bluenose III) was also intended to have a wooden rudder.  That is, until the Texas-based American Bureau of Shipping had their say.

After hundreds of years of constructing ships with wooden rudders, the Lunenburg builders were told by the American Bureau of Shipping that wood was not acceptable.  For the iconic Nova Scotia schooner to receive “class certification” it needed a steel rudder.  I imagine the conversation went something like this: “Yes, we know schooners have always been made of wood, but super tankers and oil rigs are made of steel, so we’re afraid your wooden schooner will need a steel rudder.”  The modification delayed the launch of the Bluenose II by a year and put the project even further over budget.

Another reconstructed schooner, the Columbia, is sailing in maritime waters this summer.  It was built in Massachusetts around the same time the Bluenose II was being reconstructed in Lunenburg.  A couple of weeks ago, in late August, the Columbia and the Bluenose II had a chance to sail side by side.  To me, because I don’t know anything about ships, they look almost the same. Below the water, however, there is at least one critical difference: the Columbia has a wooden rudder.  According to a report by the Auditor General of Nova Scotia, the new Bluenose II likely could have kept its wooden rudder too, if Bluenose II project managers had simply appealed to the American Bureau of Shipping.

I can’t help but wonder what my grandfathers would have said if a bureaucrat from Texas tried to tell them how to build a wooden boat?

It’s Time for a ‘Human Day’

Rainbow_humanYou won’t find rainbows on my Facebook page.  Before you get angry and call me nasty names, let me explain … I fully support gay marriage and have tremendous respect for the members of our LGBTQ community. The recent decision to legalize gay marriage in the US is a win for human rights and I am genuinely happy for all those who will benefit.  So why won’t I adorn my FB profile pic with a rainbow?

If we are sincere in our desire for universal human rights we need to celebrate our humanity. We need to stop celebrating our differences, and start celebrating our sameness.  We are one species; homo sapiens sapiens (yes, two ‘sapiens’ – it means the “wisest of the wise”).  We must resist the urge to draw distinctions.  We must avoid the exclusivity that arises when we identify ourselves as being a member of an ideologically unique group.  This means a complete rejection of the cultural practices which prevent marriage between people of different races, religions, and castes; a complete halt to barbaric cultural practices like female genital mutilation and other ‘rites of passage’.  We need to openly and fearlessly address the hypocrisy of our religious institutions.  We must demand the re-writing of public policy to abolish poverty and homelessness and to improve the quality of life for all.

Racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, and the myriad variations of discrimination are alive and well around the globe.  It only takes a moment to peruse the daily headlines and realize that world wide, we devote most of our resources to protecting ourselves from one another.  In the United States, gun Control is a more contentious issue than child-poverty.  Military spending among the G20 nations eclipses the combined spending on education, social services, and healthcare.  Let me rephrase that: G20 nations spend far more on killing humans than on helping them.

Social media is a chronicle of our ideological differences.  It is a snapshot of our species’ state of mind. On my Facebook feed this morning I can see that Christians are afraid of Atheists, Jews are afraid of Muslims, Creationists are afraid of Science, and Americans are afraid of almost everyone and everything.  One thing they all have in common is that they claim to belong to a group.  They are holding their virtual hand in the air and declaring, “I am Christian”, “I am Atheist”, “I am Canadian”, “I am Republican”, and so on.  It is these implied-declarations that are tearing us apart by driving ideological wedges between us.  If religion hadn’t bred homophobia into the collective human psyche, would we need to pass a law legalizing gay marriage?  If twentieth century American foreign policy hadn’t contributed to the marginalization of half the world’s population, would ISIS ever have formed?

I propose a Human Day.  Pick a day, just one day this year, where we collectively step back and examine the ideologies we identify with and say, “Today we, as a species, will not murder, enslave, mutilate, subjugate, exclude, ignore, malign, impoverish, or otherwise cause suffering to any other member of our species. Today we are Human.  Today we are all the same.”  Make a flag for that, and I won’t just put it on my FB page; I’ll climb a mountain to wave it in the wind.

Murrant’s Rant: Mother Canada

mothercanadaI was fortunate as a boy to have lived for a few years in Ingonish.  Like all kids, I was a sponge, and I soaked up every ounce of the experience.  My father was the General Works Manager for the Cape Breton Highlands National Park; he was my personal Park guide.  Over countless hikes along the Highland’s  wooded trails and rugged shorelines, I came to understand (insofar as a child can) the importance of National Parks.  As he explained it to me those many years ago, the “National Park” system was, and is, intended to protect the natural beauty of the Canadian landscape from human development; to ensure that certain small regions of this country’s wilderness would survive the onslaught of a resource hungry species; to provide Canadians with a means of temporarily escaping the shackles of urban and suburban modernity.

War was never part of that dialogue; perhaps I was too young, or perhaps it was still too soon after Vietnam to be comfortably discussed at the dinner table.  After all, the Highlands were a refuge for many Americans seeking to avoid conscription.  Likewise, the Highlands were home to Canadian veterans who had risked their lives in active duty; memories were still too fresh and scars had yet to heal.  Now, almost forty years later, conversations about war are still unpleasant and uncomfortable, but are also unavoidable.  A century of horror and loss demands reflection and contemplation; sacrifice demands recognition

When Toronto businessman Tony Trigiani proposed the erection of a ten storey high, war memorial in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the reception was understandably mixed.  “Mother Canada” would be an elegant, granite statue of a woman peering out across the Atlantic in the direction of Vimy Ridge; an inspiring symbol commemorating the sacrifices that have been made to ensure our freedom from tyranny.  In all likelihood, the site would become a destination for tourists from around the world; a place where they could find closure, lay their memories to rest, and seek solace in the quiet permanence of the cliffs at the edge of the continent.  To accommodate large crowds at peak times of year, the venue would  include the necessary parking for up to three-hundred vehicles.

As would be expected, there is much debate over the design of the Monument.  Beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder.  For many, myself included, it is not the appearance of the monument, but rather the proposed location that raises eyebrows.  Green Cove sits on the northwest shore of the The Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The location is picturesque, with its pink granite boulders rising defiantly up from the sea.  This type of shoreline is not uncommon in Cape Breton.  Safe within the boundaries of the National Park, it should be assumed that Green Cove would have some immunity from the impact of human development.  Though some man-made structures are necessary to facilitate and support Park visitors, these structures are purposefully constructed to be as unobtrusive as possible with a purpose that reflects the original intention and philosophy of a natural park.

With utmost respect to our men and women of uniform, past and present, the proposed monument is simply out-of-place within the boundaries of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The north coast of Cape Breton is dotted with coves very similar to Green Cove.  The monument could just as easily be built with the same resolute solitude in one of a dozen other unprotected coves, open to development, on either Crown or private land immediately north or south of the National Park boundary.

 

Anti-Bullying PR: Lots of Smoke, but No Fire

When I suggested to Charles Sheppard, of the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board, that recurring suspensions were ineffective and that more serious steps had to be taken, he replied, “That’s just the way we do things now. I don’t know what else you expect from us.”

 

“At the end of the day, in all but the most extreme of cases, bullies are welcomed back into the schools with open arms while the victims are left looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives. – GM”

I was bullied from my first day of school to my last; physically, verbally, psychologically.  I was the quiet kid, not very good at sports, shy around girls.  I was the awkward kid with the fuzzy hair, who  listened to the wrong music, and wore the wrong clothes; a prime target for bullies.  I managed to survive and I moved on, but not without scars: twenty-five years on and I still suffer from depression, anxiety, and a host of social phobias.  You could say that bullying, in part, made me who I am.

Bullies, too, have their reasons for being who they are.  There may be psychological causes, abuse, or other factors behind the behaviour.  In many cases the bully is also a victim in their own right, equally in need of support. The underlying reason for the bully’s aggression has to be taken very seriously.

So when my child told me he was being bullied, I reported it to the school and the bully was suspended for three days.  The offending child is now on his fourth three-day suspension and will, in all likelihood, continue the cycle of bullying and suspensions in the weeks to come.  According to the school, this troubled youth has been reprimanded numerous times for verbally harassing other students with sexually explicit taunts, in addition to the anti-Semitic insults directed at my child.

When I suggested to Charles Sheppard, coordinator of school services at the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board, that his solution of infinitely recurring three-day suspensions was ineffective and that more serious steps had to be taken in this matter, he replied, “That’s just the way we do things now.  I don’t know what else you expect from us.”

What I expect is the same thing all reasonable and responsible parents expect: a safe and welcoming learning environment for my children.  I expect my children to be afforded the opportunity to learn and grow, free of fear and anxiety.  To that end, I expect the administration of the school board to provide adequate support and counselling to children who exhibit aggressive antisocial tendencies, but more importantly I expect the school board to enforce policies that are meant to protect the general student population from the harmful actions of bullies.

The school board does not appear to recognize the long term effects of bullying.  A child who suffers ongoing harassment throughout their school years will most likely become a fearful adult, always watching their back, always anticipating the next assault, robbed of the freedom to enjoy adult life to its fullest.  It’s an exhausting way to live and it exacts a heavy toll not only on the victim, but also on the victim’s families and friends.

We cannot assume that simply reporting the problem will result in any resolution.  As I have seen first hand, the current system of laws and policies are written in such a way that they protect the rights of the offender more-so than the rights of the victim.  The recent public relations campaigns around bullying and cyber-bullying do little more than instil a false sense of security.  At the end of the day, in all but the most extreme of cases, bullies are welcomed back into the schools with open arms while the victims are left looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives.

Murrant’s Rant: Greed and the Senate

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the “Greed Gene”

To justify $16,800 in travel and living expenses, which you and I payed for with our taxes, Senator Nancy Ruth complained that on her frequent Toronto-Ottawa commutes she had to endure “cold Camembert with broken crackers”.  The senator’s comments are disturbingly reminiscent of the infamous and inflammatory words, “Let them eat cake”, spoken by Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, when she was informed that the French peasants were starving and could no longer afford bread.

And who can forget Pamela Wallen?  Or Mike Duffy?  Or Mack Harb?  Or the ever-growing list of elected government officials who feel entitled to a lavish lifestyle on the taxpayers’ dime.  Oh wait … sorry.  My mistake.  Did I say elected?  I meant Appointed, since citizens do not have a say in who becomes a senator.   But let’s be fair.  If the prime minister called to inform you that he was appointing you to the senate, would you refuse?  Of course not.  That would be like telling Atlantic Lottery that you weren’t interested in cashing in that winning 6-49 ticket in your pocket.

The fact is – and let’s not confuse facts with opinions, here – the fact is that senators are humans. Humans have an unwavering propensity for greed.  Greed is everywhere.  There is greed in monasteries and mosques, boardrooms and bus-stops, corporations and yes, even in governments.  There is greed in each and every one of us, but not in equal measure. I admit, I’ve reached for the biggest slice of pizza from time to time, but I’ve also given my slice away.  I like to think that most people are like me; we look out for one another.

Greed, like wealth, is not equally distributed.  I’m not a geneticist, but I strongly suspect that there is a greedy-gene.  Like so many other human characteristics, greed would have been advantageous when we lived in caves and were driven by an underlying primordial need to ensure the survival of our familial DNA.  By their very nature, certain professions and institutions undeniably attract individuals still driven by these ancient, self-serving tendencies.  Greed tends to coagulate in pockets at the top of the economic food chain, while generosity and altruism settle into the crowded strata below.

It is almost impossible to find one year in Canadian history when there has not been a scandal involving unscrupulous behavior or abuse of privilege in Ottawa, so, as taxpayers, it is easy for us to paint our politicians with only one brush, but we must resist the urge.  I applaud the men and women who choose to enter politics for all the right reasons.  I have the highest regard for those individuals with integrity and conviction who are willing to submit to the scrutiny and pressures of public life because they believe they can improve the lives of their fellow citizens.  It must be made doubly difficult when those good people have to work side by side with others, in whom the greedy-gene is so fully and completely expressed.

 

I am Human

“I am not distinctly different from any other human.  My beliefs are no more or less valid than any other person’s.  My hair, eye, and skin color are random and meaningless.  I am not white or black, I am not strait or gay, I am not christian or atheist.  I am human.”

We all bleed Red.I was hit right between the eyes by a paradox this morning.  I’m still reeling, which is why I’m writing.  For well over a century we (i.e. rational, sensible people) have been exerting tremendous effort to create equality among all individuals.  We have been working toward the elimination of discrimination based on race, religion, and gender (to mention only a few of our differences).

Part of our strategy to overcome discrimination has been to celebrate our variety with events intended to accentuate to our differences.  What?  Did I just say that? Let me re-phrase it so it makes sense.  We are trying to end discrimination by drawing distinctions.  Nope.  There is  definitely a hole in that logic.  It’s like trying to extinguish a house fire with a propane torch.  We cannot end discrimination if we continue to subscribe the notion of “us and them”.  Ending homophobia, racism, and other forms of discrimination cannot be achieved by celebrating our differences; we need to celebrate our sameness.

Therein lies the paradox:  Celebrating our cultural differences proliferates the sense that we are not the all the same; which by extension leads us to believe that we are different from on another; i.e. not equal.

As long as we continue to classify ourselves based on the color of our own skin or the god we worship (or don’t), discrimination will continue. Ending discrimination must start with changing how we view ourselves.  So let me begin by proudly declaring, “I am not distinctly different from any other human.  My beliefs are no more or less valid than any other person’s.  My hair, eye, and skin color are random and meaningless.  I am not white or black, I am not strait or gay, I am not christian or atheist.  I am human.”