by Geoff Olson

“Gang colours include clothing, accessories, or tattoos of a specific color or colors that represent an affiliation to a specific gang or gang branch.” – Wikipedia

Last week’s nation-wide media commemoration of the Vimy Ridge battle in France can be summed up in one word: overkill.

There’s been plenty written and said about Canada’s enormous sacrifice at Vimy, but virtually nothing about for what purpose and to what end. The Great War of 2014 to 2018 was essentially a street fight at state level. Through interlocking alliances, the nations of the western world behaved less like rational agents than gang members spiraling into mutually destructive madness.

Supposedly Canada “came of age” at Vimy Ridge. That trope came from author Pierre Berton by way of Stephen Harper’s Tories, who dropped it like a dud grenade into the government citizenship guide.

We weren’t fighting for our democracy, or anyone else’s, in the trenches and battlefields of Europe. As a dominion of the British Empire, Canada was pressed into service like a juvenile shooter recruited by the Crips. We didn’t “become a nation” at Vimy; but you could say we won our gang colours through participation in World War I.

In a three day span, the casualties at Vimy numbered at 10,602, including  3,598 killed. Yet there’s been little mention that the battle was actually an empty gesture; German forces quickly regrouped after Allied forces failed to capitalize on the Canadian breakthrough. Little mention that Vimy involved 19th century battle tactics against industrialized warfare, with machine gun fire mowing down young Canadians armed only with bayonets.

The soldiers were extraordinarily brave, but their leaders were pathologically stupid. The Canadian losses at Vimy, like the British losses at the Somme, were pointless.

Pointless at the level of the conscripted men, most from the lower classes and barely out of childhood; sensible at the level of the bankers, industrialists and speculators who slept soundly in their beds at night. The moneyed class made out like bandits – as they always do in wartime.

War is not a glorious pursuit; it is organized butchery. From the time of Agamemnon to Halliburton, it has involved extended periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. Rarely do soldiers euphemistically “fall in battle.” They are usually are blown to bits or shot to pieces. That is the fate of the unlucky. For the unluckier, there is an unceremonious return home crippled in body or mind.
One definition of the state is that it is the largest gang to lay claim to the monopoly on the legitimated use of physical force. It is unthinkable to honour the fallout from mass murder – unless it’s done at the state level, when it’s all poppies and pomp afterwards.

What’s most disturbing about last week’s necrophilic ballyhoo over Vimy Ridge is that it coincides with global patterns that echo the months before the Great War. The rhetoric between Washington and Moscow has become increasingly belligerent. With Trump’s cruise missile attack on Russian allay Syria, the Flip-Flopper in Chief is now fully aligned with the neocons who supported Hillary Clinton’s aggressive international brinkmanship.

And what about the April 4th sarin gas attack on Syrian civilians that elicited the US military response? More than two dozen former ex- US intelligence operatives recently signed a document questioning the claim that the incident was a deliberate attack by Bashar al-Assad’s forces. (Many analysts now believe a 2013 gas attack first attributed to Assad originated from antigovernment forces.)

The latest gas attack story has a stench reminiscent of the Bush administration’s cooked intelligence about Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction – a fable that The New York Times and other respectable media outlets peddled to a credulous public prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Except this time we’re peering into the abyss: not just a wider conflagration in the Mideast, but the possibility of thermonuclear war.

“This is a war crime and the international community must stand firmly against such things,” said prime minister Justin Trudeau earlier this month of the chemical gas attack. He hinted at future Canadian military involvement, adding, “ the long-term future of a peaceful Syria no longer includes Bashar al-Assad.”

A few days later in France, Trudeau said that Canada was born at the site commemorated by the Vimy Ridge memorial. Looks like our young prime minister got his gang colours this month.

The Vancouver Courier, Apr. 20


by Geoff Olson

Have you heard about the ‘morality pill’? There’s growing buzz in the press about a chemical upgrade to ethical thinking.

The notion of pharmaceutically-ennobled consumers has a long pedigree. “If it is within our reach to [chemically] increase man’s suggestibility, it will be soon within our reach to do the opposite, to counteract misplaced devotion and that militant enthusiasm, both murderous and suicidal, which we see reflected in the pages of the daily newspaper,” wrote Arthur Koestler in his 1967 book, The Ghost in the Machine.

The author’s musings about a magic pill for what he called “Homo maniacus” was roundly derided by critics of the time. Since then there’s been an explosion of mood-altering drugs – both legal and illegal – yet Koestler’s pharmaceutical silver bullet remains vapourware to this day.

Hopeful speculations came and went, and then came again. Since 2011 editorials about a possible morality pill have been popping up with growing frequency in the mainstream media’s opinion-shaping portals.

“If continuing brain research does in fact show biochemical differences between the brains of those who help others and the brains of those who do not, could this lead to a “morality pill” — a drug that makes us more likely to help?” wrote ethicist Peter Singer in a New York Times editorial.

Yet morality isn’t reducible to straightforward empathy (a state of mind that can be amplified by so-called “empathogens,’ which are illegal drugs with tightly prescribed research use).  Any given ethical quandary usually depends on deciding among two or more difficult alternatives. Such decisions involves a host of complex personal and cultural variables, channelled through the brain’s association areas, language areas, frontal cortex and emotion-mediating mid-brain. The self, in effect.

Just because this extraordinarily subtle process is mediated through neurotransmitters doesn’t mean it will be ‘improved’ by molecular tweaking.

Sure, it’s appealing to think of premier Christy Clark popping a capsule before bedtime and waking up in the morning sick with the knowledge that it’s very, very wrong to turn the BC legislature into a big, gothic whorehouse for corporate benefactors. It’s uplifting to fantasize about prime minister Justin Trudeau, goofed on a martini and morality pill combo, turning with teary eyes to his lovely wife and saying, “why did I ever go back on my promise to voters about electoral reform? I must introduce a bill tomorrow.”
Yet I doubt such medication, assuming it “works,”  will be marketed for, or consumed by, the uppermost tiers of society.

And whose morality? For what purposes? The greatest horrors in history weren’t perpetrated by amoral monsters but by the opposite: morally upright ideologues, prepared to convert others at the barrel of a gun or by turns of the rack. From the Inquisition’s witch hunt to the Khmer Rouge’s murderous agrarian reform and beyond, civilized people don’t suffer from a shortage of moral certainty, but an excess of it.

Guy Kahane, deputy director of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, has some doubts about psychocivilizing a population into ethical excellence.  “It would be self-defeating, or worse, to try to promote morality through brutal coercion,” he observed in a 2011 Globe and Mail editorial.

Ya think?

Last week on CBC Radio’s The Current, a series of experts touched on the moral question of leaders in business or government dictating morality by medication. Koestler acknowledged this ethical Mobius Strip a half-century ago: “I am aware that ‘control of the mind’ and ‘manipulating human beings’ have sinister undertones. Who is to control the controls, manipulate the manipulators?”

Exactly. Will drug researchers, marketers, lobbyists, and legislators beta-test morality pills on themselves, and suddenly realize they might be constructing an ethical Pandora’s Box? And proceed anyway once the effects wear off?

That’s assuming such medication works as advertised. Decades after SSRI antidepressants became the stock-in-trade of psychiatric health care, a meta-analysis of peer-reviewed studies revealed the drugs “significantly increase the risk of both serious and non-serious adverse events.”

Once again, I smell “junk science” softening up the public for a whole new line of highly-profitable, dangerous manipulation by the usual suspects. A “morality pill” belongs in the pages of sci-fi novels, not in on physicians’ shelves or in the public water supply.

The Vancouver Courier, Apr. 6


Somehow I ended up on the contact list of the “Kevin O’Leary Media Department”. I’m not complaining, I’m big on Internet humour.

“O’Leary Government will end corporate welfare,” reads the press release, quoting the man himself: “The days of corporate handouts and free money is over. If a deal doesn’t stimulate growth, create jobs, and provide a return on taxpayer’s investments it won’t get supported under an O’Leary government.”

That’s a good one. Does anyone seriously believe that a guy with a scorched earth routine and matching ideology will upset the old boy’s game of privatizing profit and socializing losses? With this claim, the reality TV fixture and Tory leadership hopeful might as well be a housewife from Sudbury pitching a multilevel marketing scheme on Dragon’s Den. As O’Leary himself might say,  “I’m out. Get lost, you’re an idiot.”

I shared this press release with one of my contacts. “It’s the death of expertise” he offered. Exactly. And it sounds awfully familiar. In the US, a lack of background in public service is not considered a bar to higher office, but rather a mark of distinction. Ignorance is rebranded as the blank slate of beginner’s mind.

The political rise of celebrity over substance was heralded by Ronald Reagan, a b-movie actor who snitched on Hollywood associates during the McCarthy era’s red scare. He won the Republican governorship of California in 1967 and was swept to the oval office in an eighties wave of evangelism and militarism.

Reagan – the “acting president” in the words of author Gore Vidal – was no more hands-on than George W. Bush two decades later. Post-JFK, the oval office has seen a succession of showroom dummies, frozen in place for photo ops and signings like a Macy’s window display.

Trump is not an outlier in the presidential mannikin trend. He’s its peak expression.The Casino Owner in Chief reportedly has very little working knowledge of government, and he doesn’t care. His organizational interests are limited to his own brand, and his malignant narcissism makes him ripe for manipulation by advisors scarier than him.

In Canada we have a self-promoting deal-maker of a similar stripe. “Elect me as prime minister for 15 minutes. I will make unions illegal. Anybody who remains a union member will be thrown in jail,” O’Leary said in 2011. A  businessman who has leveraged his confrontational TV persona into a political brand, he’s our discount Trump. And nothing so much demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of the Conservative party than it’s acceptance of leadership bids from the likes of O’Leary and Kelly Leitch.

All this reminded me of Ronald Wright’s observations on the historical patterns of societies in decline.

“The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general population begin to suffer,” the historian observed in his 2004 Massey Lecture series, A Short History of Progress.

When empires enter their terminal phase, the upper reaches are populated by opportunists. Out for personal gain rather than principled governance, these smiling cynics are quite prepared to ride the train downward, – as long as they have seats in or near the front cabins (I owe that last image not to Wright but the dystopian film Snowpiercer).

Canada has long been junior partner in the American empire. So it’s not so strange that electoral sideshows on both sides of the border feature pitchmen for the monopoly market wrecking ball. Whether they hail from the world of television, film, real estate or pro wrestling, the lack of public sector expertise is no hindrance. They’re shills for the true rulers, with the freedom to go off-script as long as they don’t challenge the almighty buck once in office.

That said, O’Leary’s leadership of the Tories, to say nothing of the nation, is hardly a foregone conclusion. Last year, the oil-friendly tycoon publicly offered offered Alberta premier Rachel Notley $1 million to quit as premier. She responded by telling O’Leary that the last time a group of moneyed magnates tried to instruct Albertans how to vote, she trounced the incumbent to become the province’s first NDP premier.

Keep me on your humour mailing list, Kevin O’Leary Media Department.

The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 23