Sixty-Sixty. Pass it on. Tell the rich. Tell each other.

We need more signs.

[UPDATE: This first appeared about a year ago, Jan. 9, 2013. I’d nearly forgotten what this piece was, exactly, until a reader included it on her “best of Howdy ’13”. This was a little embarrassing, since when I wrote it I’d been very moved by a dream and vainly hoped this inspiration might affect many more minds than just mine. (I can still find traces of this resolution-from-another-January in my attempts at mindfulness, but I’d lost the main thread. Pretty characteristic, I’m afraid!) It’s a short piece, and it contains an idea for you alongside my own reflections. It is on the long-ish short list for “Best Of”, which is coming soon.]

I had a dream last night, and it’s still with me this morning. Maybe it’s because I’m starting a holiday, and I have no plans. Maybe it’s because I went to bed early and slept almost as long as I wanted. Maybe it’s just time. This is for sure: I want to do a little something with what seemed to be uncovered to me in my sleep, and in the moved but unmoving minutes just after. Maybe you will, too.

Who knows where dreams come from? My wife travelled today, and among other adventures will retreat for an intensive period of Vipassana meditation. There will be no talk for nearly 10 days, just action of an extremely still kind. There’s that. Friends back home in Canada are paying more and more attention, the whole country is, to a grassroots movement of Aboriginal people called “Idle No More”, whose purpose (as I understand it from afar) is to mobilize the hopes and capacities of Native Canadians and those who respect them. Many Aboriginal communities live in shameful conditions, especially in the country’s vast north, and the prosperous wider society is being called to account. That’s been on my mind, too, though it may hold little interest for you.

The famous Sao Paulo disparity. How about your place?

Continue Reading >>

William Easterly (on global inequity and Harry Potter)

“On July 16, 2005, the American and British economies delivered nine million copies of the sixth volume of the Harry Potter children’s book series to eager fans….There was no Marshall Plan for Harry Potter, no International Financing Facility for books about underage wizards. It is heartbreaking that global society has evolved a highly efficient way to get entertainment to rich adults and children, while it can’t get twelve-cent medicine [to cure malaria] to dying poor children.”

William Easterly (b. 1957) is an American economist concerned with development and global poverty. I recently stumbled across his 2006 book The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. (I only had time, though, to read the opening chapter.) In it, he elaborates his response to the likes of Jeffrey Sachs (The End of Poverty), whom Easterly admires but labels a “Planner”, someone whose big-picture ideas for the elimination of economic injustice are just another example of patriarchal, top-down approaches to the needs of the poorest of the poor. Easterly argues that what he calls “Searchers”, with a grassroots and learning-centred way of thinking, will be more effective in this essential work. They will working directly with (or be) the local people themselves, harnessing their intelligence, experience and resourcefulness.

Two more books to read.

Abdu’l-Baha (on greatness and wealth)

At age 31, the exiled Abdu’l-Baha — son of the Founder of the Baha’i Faith and one of its central figures — wrote an anonymous plea to his homeland. He wanted Persia (Iran) to rise from its lethargy and backwardness; this sternly affectionate letter to a nation that had persecuted his community and rejected its call to progress was later called The Secret of Divine Civilization. The following describes the characteristics of the truly great, those who better their own countries or the whole world:

“The happiness and greatness, the rank and station, the pleasure and peace of an individual have never consisted in his personal wealth, but rather in his excellent character, his high resolve, the breadth of his learning, and his ability to solve difficult problems….

It should not be imagined that the writer’s earlier remarks constitute a denunciation of wealth or a commendation of poverty. Wealth is praiseworthy in the highest degree, if it is acquired by an individual’s own efforts…and if it be expended for philanthropic purposes….If, however, a few have inordinate riches while the rest are impoverished, and no fruit or benefit accrues from that wealth, then it is only a liability to its possessor…”

The Rich, the Poor, and the Playground

I have known for most of my life, at least in a shallow way, that extremes of wealth and poverty are toxic to world unity and peace. The Baha’i teachings have insisted on their elimination for something close to 150 years. I accepted the tenet as fact – alongside the necessities of defusing all prejudices, widening all loyalties, and rethinking all assumptions – as an idealistic young man, no more than a boy, really.

During my privileged, Canadian-born lifetime, the gap between rich and poor has only widened, and now I live in a country hell-bent on leading the world in this dubious marker of development. (My understanding is that the Excited States of America is still in front by a nose, but China and Brazil are

Sorry, this is a bit graphic. Yes, that is Chairman Mao on the 100-yuan note, China’s largest denomination (about seventeen bucks Canadian). Families live on that for a month.

closing fast. To the winner goes the spoiling, the rot, the instability, but the runners-up will know it, too.) Lately, I’ve been  brooding on the reasons for my steadily – sometimes violently – growing disillusion with sports, at least at the pro level.

Stratospheric salaries for the best horse-hide whackers and roundball  bouncers (and all their sweaty peers) are, of course, a cliché these days. Spaniard Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers will make $19 million next season, and he’s far from the highest-paid jock. I made a good and steady North American income for nearly 30 years, and my take was somewhere between a mil and $1.5 million, I figure. Such comparisons are so banal that nobody really talks about it anymore, which is why I just did.

Continue Reading >>

We’re Overboard on Bullying

Like most parents and as a former teacher, I’m concerned about bullying. Mainly, I’m worried that we’re worrying about it so much. The words of Barbara Coloroso, an American educator who’s one of our sanest voices on parenting and education, come to mind. “Rescue, rescue!” is her sarcastic reference to the desperate attempts of adults to save their kids from, well, what exactly? We all agree that we need to do what we reasonably can to protect our children from physical and moral danger. But in trying to protect every last kid from taunting, from falling off his bike, from having to actually walk to her school, we’ve surely gone over the edge.

It is amazing that, in among the safest parts of the world, affluent North Americans  are the most obsessed about safety. Sometimes, this is to our credit as a society. But too often, we mistake discomfort for genuine danger, and give psychiatric labels to the normal changes and chances of life. It’s as if we think our privilege extends to the point where no child of ours should ever experience difficulty.

Don’t mistake me. I’m not advocating carelessness or the law of the jungle. But, for example, Ontario’s Safe Schools Act and the millions to implement it do strike me as another example of what we were calling the “add-on curriculum” when I started teaching back in the 1980s. Schools have difficulty doing what they do best when they are responsible for everything, for what families and neighbourhoods and clubs and congregations and a child’s own resiliency were once expected to take care of.

I don’t mean to slag the initiative. I know it comes from noble intent and intelligent people. But imagine (he dreamily noted) if schools were funded so that student-teacher ratios were dramatically lowered, if class sizes never exceeded 12-15 in primary, or 20 in intermediate grades. A lot of the problems of bullying – and of illiteracy, and of poverty, and of alienation – would quickly be lessened if the bullies weren’t cloaked in the invisibility of large, factory-like schools where teachers have all they can do to maintain a shadow of order. Bullying is generally a symptom of a larger problem, and crowded schools is one of them.

The attempt to end bullying is also a symptom of a culture of fear, and our social compulsion to control. When this is applied to children beyond a reasonable level, its results are less dramatic but even more harmful than the ill we are trying to treat. We risk, in overprotection, producing children who are convinced of their victimhood, their need for protection. Kids are worth our attention, but they are also worthy of respect for their resourcefulness, not to mention the resources allocated to the schools that work with them.