Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Pessimist's Perspective

When I was in my mid-teens a prefect at my high school derided me as a pessimist. Since then as an adult I have been described by friends as too trusting of others i.e. someone who is too optimistic about human nature. Sounds contradictory perhaps, but in my mind there is no contradiction between anticipating individual people will generally behave well, and questioning the reasoning in collective popular enthusiasms.

In a nice blog piece called "When Hope Tramples Truth" British philosopher Roger Scruton looks at what makes it difficult to be a contrarian around popular perceptions. Yesterday I saw another news-writer claim that gay marriage in Canada, unlike the US and the UK, is a done deal and off our radar. Scruton warns us that this change might not be so simple: "..Gay marriage. What could be more sensible than to extend marriage to homosexuals, granting them the security of an institution devoted to lifelong partnership? The result will be improvements all around – not just improved toleration of homosexuals, but improvement in the lives of gay couples, as they adapt to established norms. Optimists have therefore united to promote this cause, and, as is so often the case, have turned persecuting stares on those who dissent from it, dismissing them as intolerant, “homophobic,” “bigoted,” offenders against the principles of liberal democracy. Of course the optimists may be right. The important fact, however, is that hope is more important to them than truth. 

People interested in truth seek out those who disagree with them. They look for rival opinions, awkward facts and the grounds that might engender hesitation. Such people have a far more complicated life than the optimists, who rush forward with a sense of purpose that is not to be deflected by what they regard as the cavillings of mean-minded bigots. Here in Britain, discussions on gay marriage have been conducted as though it were entirely a matter of extending rights, and not of fundamentally altering the institution. Difficult issues, like the role of sexual difference in social reproduction, the nature of the family, the emotional needs of children and the meaning of rites of passage, have been ignored or brushed aside."

My doubts about homosexuals legally marrying have always been focused on, in Scruton's words, "fundamentally altering the institution (of marriage)".  Not long ago in the early days of this country's debate on the issue, two homosexual intellectuals wrote a prominent front page op-ed taking the same line as Scruton. Nowadays in Canada no gay writer would dare suggest that same-sex marriage fundamentally alters the nature of a time-honoured institution that has formed the bedrock of nearly all human societies over our species' existence.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Burden of Too Much Information

We older folks get a lot of unsolicited lifestyle advice. We are, after all, the biggest market segment in most Western countries. Among the many areas of our body that don't work quite as well as they used to are our bowels. Our parents were encouraged to keep them 'regular' by the makers of patent medicines. We are exhorted to do the same by ingesting lots of fibre by the makers of grocery products. And today's medical profession gets to weigh in by laying on us a guilt trip about submitting to an unpleasant process called a colon endoscopy, or colonoscopy for short, to check that we don't have cancer polyps.

After many years of ducking yet another invasive body intrusion I finally succumbed to my GP's pleas to try it 'just once' and booked in for one. She insisted I would henceforth be too old for another to be done. I gave in because a family pal just got diagnosed with advanced colon cancer and it's the second most frequent killer disease nowadays. In addition there is some suggestion that bowel cancer did in my grandmother (when she was 94).  As the newspaper article I link to above infers, the 'prep' is tough on an old person. The day after I still feel like I've been hit by a truck.

My test found two polyps, one of which might be cancerous, plus a diverticulitis. I know about those things, having spent years in the drug biz. I know too that my bowel is the one thing about me that seems to have always worked just fine. Now I have a couple of months to sweat till the surgeon can see me in our overstretched no-private-medicine government-funded medical monopoly.

Most old folks die of something else than a gut cancer starting at my age.  Worrying that this just might not be true for me is yet another psychic burden in an era of too much information.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Balance of Empire

For a few years Paramount lost the US copyright of the famous British 1964 movie 'Zulu' which starred Michael Caine in his first ever film role. I recently came across a home video produced in that gap period in copy protection. 'Zulu' features the Battle of Rourke's Drift of 1879 during the Zulu Wars in South Africa. This battle probably ranks with the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War as one of the greatest feats of bravery in C19th British Imperial history.

Rourke's Drift has an unusual little family connection for me. In my possession is a notice cut out of a Scottish Border paper, the Berwick Advertiser of that year, an ad in which my grandfather, one Sydney Watson-Watson-Weatherburn, announced to the world that he was dropping the first Watson in his lengthy surname. On the back of this page is the first journalistic dispatch from South Africa on the Battle of Rourke's Drift.

Eleven mostly English and Welsh soldiers won the Victoria Cross for their participation in saving this small hospital and missionary station from massacre. The Hollywood-funded film does a nice job of not patronizing or demonizing any of the Natal Province cultures portrayed - Zulu, British or Afrikaans. Indeed the grandson of the Paramount Chief who fought the war lent many of his magnificent tribes-people to the film's producers as actors. Yet the South African secret police of the Apartheid regime of the time were on set to, among other things, make sure the Africans didn't get any pay!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Memories of a Romanized Childhood

I studied classical Latin from the age of six to sixteen, an eon by the standards of today's school curricula. Though I can't say I'm in any way an adept at it, the language of the ancient Romans has come in handy from time-to-time for things as varied as winning a car rally as the only participant who could translate an inscription over a gate, to knowing what the many medical terms I met in my health care career probably mean.

I've had something of a Latinate turn of mind ever since my upbringing in one of the great river valleys that lead into London. During the first Roman invasion of England the region where I lived was the western edge of the lands of a powerful and sophisticated tribe of Britons known as the Trinovantes.  Visible across the valley from our house was the River Lea, the most storied tributary of the River Thames. When I was of primary school age, archaeologists excavating in the water meadows where we played unearthed weapons and armour from a battle that had taken place between these local Britons and the legionary invaders. We inquisitive kids got some great up-close looks at these exciting finds.