Saturday, December 27, 2008

2008.12.27 - Death by Freezing

I wrote 'Death by Freezing' in the mid 1990s. I was prompted to blog it now in part because of someone posing the question "Collapse of Capitalism?" in a on-line discussion group, for which I wrote an extensive response. Within it I refer to this article. Here is the link to my response to the query: Collapse of Capitalism?.

"Death by Freezing"
Question: When is an ideology worth dieing or killing for?
Answer: When it is invisible.

I thought that I had rejected ideologies which kill, but I was recently shocked and embarrassed to discover that I had unwittingly accepted one which does just that.

I became conscious of this thing alive in me (and Canada) when I examined my intense reaction to two books critiquing Canada's current economic policy and the media. Reading Linda McQuaig's Shooting the Hippo:  Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Myths and The Wealthy Banker's Wife:  The Assault on Equality in Canada was an emotional roller coaster!  I felt despair, anger, bitterness. I wanted to write letters everywhere — but did not. I wanted to hide my head under the covers and wait for a perfect Sunday morning — but re-read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy instead. I wanted truth and broad integrity from my politicians and news people — but got media endorsed political and economic double-speak.

The intensity of my reactions surprised me because I have for various reasons long since stopped trusting the integrity of most political and economic rhetoric, especially that disseminated by the corporate media. So, after I had cooled off a bit, I asked myself why I had taken McQuaig's rhetoric so much to heart. Why were her words not just empty rhetoric to me?

To begin with McQuaig's writing and subject appeal to me: I root for anyone who powerfully questions the integrity of the media's presentation of economic "truths." McQuaig does this exceptionally well. However, despair and anger are not the reactions I associate with a confluence of ideas! So what was going on?

The seed of my understanding begins with McQuaig's interview of a Swedish sociology professor about food banks. McQuaig wanted to know how Sweden handled them, but was surprised at how difficult it was to convey to the professor what food banks were, despite the professor's excellent command of English. When McQuaig eventually made herself understood, the source of the communication problem was determined: food banks do not exist in Sweden!

While the professor was surprised to learn of the existance of food banks in Canada, she was shocked to learn that Canada has "homeless people." The professor asked McQuaig where, in such a cold country, they slept. McQuaig described shelters, overpasses, steam vents, etc., and added that a few do not, in fact, survive, and that such a death "makes a small item in the press." In the process McQuaig experienced "anew the horror of what [she] was saying" (Wealthy 70-1).

I mulled over this exchange, unclear as to why it seemed central to my emotional upheaval. Eventually there bubbled from my unconscious the memory of another death, an infant's death, in Thailand.

I had read about it several years ago, in Don't Fall Off the Mountain by Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine was canoeing on a river near Bangkok. About 200 feet from her she saw an infant of about three months fall from its parents' canoe. She wrote: "I strained my eyes to find the child. Its parents heard the gurgle and turned around. Neither made a move to go after him. The child disappeared. With static expressions they watched their baby drown. I could see that their lack of reaction was genuine. I was stunned. I had learned that many Buddhists will not interfere with what they believe is preordained fate. But to witness such as thing was staggering. This death was the will of God.... To a Buddhist, death is only another form of life. Life and death are not viewed in terms of individual people — it covers a broader philosophical spectrum. Fate is their religion. The fate of the drowned child was not to be interfered with. It was accepted" (140-1:my emphasis).

MacLaine was shaken by the manner of that infant's death in a foreign country. Yet the reality for MacLaine and most other North Americans is that we witness and participate, dispassionately, in many scores or more such deaths every year. MacLaine ascribed to the Thai parents' behaviour religious belief. In North America such an act could lead to charges of manslaughter or criminal negligence, as it has with some Christian Scientists or careless parents. On the other hand, a homeless person's death by freezing, for example, is shrugged off and ascribed to Economic Fate and the personal failure of the individual. In this instance, like the Thai parents in Thailand, such a death brings with it little more than "static expressions." And because Economic Fate is our religion, there is not any retribution nor, sadly, even the notion of retribution — whimpy finger pointing and some "heartfelt" head shakes and muttered "isn't-that-a-shames" from the media not withstanding. (It is curious that recent laws make the owners/managers responsible for the environmental toxins they create, but not the employment toxins downsizing, for example, creates.)

The minimalist reaction by the public and the press to a death by freezing in Canada is no different than that of the Thai parents' reaction to their infant's death by drowning. However, whereas the Thai parents were living their Buddhist faith when they "accepted" their infant's fate, what faith are we Canadians living which accepts with an almost complete "lack of reaction" another Canadian's death by freezing? I suggest that it is an ideological faith in an "Economic Truth."

Read the Oxford definition of "ideology" (see below) and it is plain to see why I say that our faith in modern economic principles has become ideological. It is being huckstered from all media outlets as the saviour, as if it were some kind of god. The lives of people have become less important than acceptance of the Truth as dictated by this cruel god. It uses circular logic to rebuke all criticism which suggests that it is not working as well as advertised. (In a country as wealthy as Canada, the tolerance of homelessness, let alone its justification by people driving BMW's, is a madness little different than that of the French aristocracy before they lost their heads.)

At the time I was reading McQuaig, I was "presented" with an opportunity to put money in the can of a beggar who had hanging from her neck a terse sign describing her troubles and need for money. (She looked like someone recently "let" into the community from some kind of care home in the name of integration.) By my action I revealed my unconscious adherence to the ideology of Economics: with a static expression I did not part with "my" wealth. I "let" her face the consequence of her economic fate and personal choices alone, and thus mirrored exactly the Thai Buddhist parents inaction: if she was to drown then, like the infant in a Bangkok river, that would be her fate — her Economic Fate.

The Swedish professor's reaction mirrored MacLaine's in that what in Sweden is unthinkable has become in Canada (and North America) an acceptable "truth."  The professor saw a Canadian's death by freezing as the consequence of a chosen course of (in)action in the same way that MacLaine saw the Thai infant's death as the result of a chosen course of (in)action. (There is bizarre irony in the comparison between Buddhist faith and Economic faith: monastic Thai Buddhists beg as their sole means of support.)

And so I came to understand my reaction to McQuaig's books:  my rage and despair at the media and the body politic was my way of avoiding personal responsibility for holding, unconsciously, an economic ideology which promotes an emotionally cold and isolating society. My anger at politicians and the media for manipulating me with misleading reports on the importance on the deficit, or downplaying the significance of record banking profits, for example, while extolling upon us the virtue of hearts hardened to the cries of fellow citizens, was at least equally anger at how my unconscious beliefs contribute to both that hardened heart and suffering. I was angry because I had unconsciously bought into an ideology which kills.

To whom am I responsible? To my self, to my family/community, to my country? I think the answer is to all of them, since I am a significant part of them all. However, today's "pundits" of economic "sense" and "truth", i.e., the wealthy bankers, corporate agents and their government and news media mouthpieces, are verbally pummelling me in ways which seem designed to displace all complex feelings and thoughts of responsibility for community and country with a simplistic and cold notion of personal economic responsibility to be selfish.

To the extent that the corporate world and its chosen ideals of free markets and globalized corporate capitalism come to be held as truths by me, is the extent to which my community and my emotional connection and empathy for all members of my community can be sacrificed and displaced by the mandated "truth" that corporate and personal greed is good for the economy. Notice that this widely accepted phrase does not read "... good for people"! For example, the "pundits" say that the wealthy who bought up and built over the lands of the metro-Vancouver were good for the economy — and they probably were, but just about every "working" person I know is poorer for it as Vancouver housing prices now take huge percentages of disposable income. Government debt continues to increase at about the same rate, it seems, as the banks' record setting profits — profits which are at the expense of disposable income as consumed by service charges and bank's interest rate spreads.

It seems to me that once I have accepted greed economics as an idealistic conviction it becomes a religion which gives me the "moral" and emotional sanction to garner to myself as much of the wealth of Canada I can, even at the expense of my community and country. From there it is a microscopic step to ignore or fail to see the poor, the homeless, the sick and the dying behind my back door, let alone those in the next neighbourhood: I can, like the Thai adults, with "religious certainty" sit impassively and watch members of my family drown. And it is an even easier step to come to believe that corporations do not have a long term economic responsibility to their community. Religious belief in Economic Fate has become our indulgence and excuse. But perhaps worst/best of all it blinds us to the "reality" that most North Americans are increasingly impoverished while the few are becoming increasingly wealthy.

What truly terrifies me, and angers me, is that this makes me in kind, if not in scope, no different than those in Germany who distanced themselves from the Jews as they were marched from their homes to meet their fate.

I have not come to terms, yet, with this discovery in my self and my community. It brings a strongly felt ambivalence and raises in me many questions as I re-examine some of the "truths" I once accepted with little question or thought. At what point does "personal responsibility", which has many obvious benefits and strengths for the individual and community, become a poisoned ideal which impedes the ability to see that the community is dying because of the lack of communal effort and sense of Communal Responsibility? How can I be charitable without that charity destroying both me and the other by becoming institutionalized? Is the size of organized charity a compensation for the lack of economic largesse? Who benefits most when a strong sense of community is sacrificed for an ideal of personal greed? Why is it that huge corporate profits do not have a corresponding reduction in unemployment levels and poverty? Why does the business community descry government presence, then criticize it for its inability to create jobs or educate us "correctly"? Is it not truly the business community's responsibility to its "grass roots" community to create jobs and educate its workforce, rather than the governments? Why does the media criticize government programmes when they are abused by unethical and destructive business practices, such as the high tech industry grants of a few years ago, but do not equally criticize the business community for unscrupulously ripping off the public in the first place? Why are not excessive multi-national corporate profits criticized for being a tax on the community, given that such corporations are loyal to the community of share holders and not the community at large? Are not monstrous "Iococan" wages for a few in fact a tax on the many?

Question: Why do we accept with relative equanimity a death by freezing but feel outrage when a child dies as the result of religious belief or government "error?"
Answer: we are ideological.

Once, when I was younger than I am now, this scared me. But I fear it no longer, for it is what it is. Now it saddens me, ideology's seeming irrepressible power to dull intelligence, foster ignorance and blinker perception.

[1996, slightly revised here Dec 2008 egajd.]


MacLaine, Shirley. Don't Fall of the Mountain. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1988.

McQuaig, Linda. Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Myths. Toronto: Viking/Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 1995.

McQuaig, Linda. The Wealthy Banker's Wife:  The Assault on Equality in Canada. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 1993.

Definitions from The New Oxford Shorter Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993:
(3)  Belief in or sensing of some superhuman controlling power or powers, entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship, or in a system defining a code of living, esp. as a means to achieve spiritual or material improvement;  acceptance of such a belief (esp. as represented by an organized Church) as a standard of spiritual and practical life, the expression of this in worship, etc. [My emphasis.]

(3)  A system of ideas or way of thinking pertaining to a class or individual, esp. as a basis of some economic or political theory or system regarded as justifying actions and esp. to be maintained irrespective of events.

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