Archive | November 2015

Life Lessons from Academia

They say that no matter what you study – regardless of how irrelevant it might seem at the time – someday you’ll find a use for that stored-up knowledge. I’m not just talking about university, but about all kinds of other options for learning. The banquet table is groaning with wide and spectacular choices.
     When I decided to take a degree in Sociology, back in the mid-‘Sixties, it was locally considered a fledgling and rather wishy-washy field. The “real academics” took majors in History, English (I did that too), various languages and so on – and the heavy hitters went for the hard sciences, Maths, Engineering, whatever else had clout. Or they did a Business Administration degree, which was called “Commerce” back then. We also had Computer Science departments – without the internet. Imagine.
      Soc majors, and Political Science types as well, were kind of a fringe element. Our courses included research methodology and other assorted topics that were just as tough as anyone else’s courses. Still, who really cared, except us? We didn’t fit so well.
      I even have a university medal somewhere, which I received for highest standing in my major field. I put it away, which means I misplaced it, and ended up becoming a teacher. I taught everything from English Lit to Phsyical Geography to History to Drama. Anything but Soc! Eventually, when that discipline was added to the high school curriculum, I wasn’t the one assigned to teach the course. This seemed kind of strange: I think I was the only one on staff with a Soc degree. Then again, I didn’t even ask if I could have that course. I kept quiet; I was used to those I already knew. Inertia is a dangerous position. My minor was Psych and that was also considered “soft” so I ignored it, too. Now there’s even a Psych course in high school. I view this as a most positive step.
      So today I look around me, and I realize that a Sociology background can finally be made relevant. Social scientists work with human beings, not lab rats or chemical formulae. And it is human beings, at the moment, who are providing Mother Earth with some very awkward parenting moments. Who better to assess certain situations – including the volatility of the Middle East, the refugee crisis, and the challenges presented by disaffected recruits to gangs (military, ideological and/or street), than someone trained in this area? Who better to study the range of societal variables than people trained to look at populations as a whole, and how individuals relate to these populations? We do understand a bit about demographics, migration trends, ethnic and regional complexities, gender roles, educational and occupational distributions, social and cultural expectations and stratification. We’re no longer soft-core. We “know stuff”. We can even “do stuff”.
      My bucket list includes a return to university, because I love learning, and I thrive in that setting. I’d want to revisit Sociology first of all. This is probably a pipe dream; it’s expensive and demands a certain level of mobility. My degree was long ago and life has intervened since then. Would I get credit for any of my experiences in the interim? I might be a tad lazy these days as well. Call it “age”, I suppose. Other than more letters after my name, I wouldn’t gain anything except more knowledge. And then there’s the interaction with others of different ages. THAT is something I’d truly enjoy!

      Still, I can draw on those long-ago years and courses, at last. I feel rather good about that. They weren’t a waste of my time after all. And there’s the thing: nothing learned is ever wasted. The older I get, the more I believe this.                                                                                                                If you’re taking any particular program or school course or workplace training and someone asks, “Why on earth would you want to do THAT?” – just smile and say, “Someday, I might need it.” You might be surprised when this happens.

 

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Be Not Afraid

The merchants of fear are busy on social media in the wake of the Paris tragedy. ISIL has cast suspicion on every innocent refugee trying to flee its cruel regime. People are assuming that every one of them is a potential agent of terror. I feel sickened and saddened  – not only by the carnage in the City of Light, but also by the vicious campaign being waged against innocent people in a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable impact. Are there any quick solutions to this situation? No. It is a logistical minefield. However, the response to catastrophe should not include intolerance toward those caught up in it. Anti-refugee bigotry is being promoted all over social media. It touches people I know; it strikes locally and it strikes internationally.

We have opened the gates of our hearts – to let out compassion; to let in hate. And thus the terrorists win. Hatred is their currency. It is cheap to mint and readily-accepted by far too many of us. But the faces stamped on these coins are quite often our own.

A number of these refugees – Syrians, at any rate – are professionals in various fields. Contrary to popular belief, there IS an education system in Syria. These folks read, write, study, have hopes of a better life. They’re not warriors of any sort. They lack access to arms – unlike the forces to whom certain more powerful nations are quite willing to sell weapons. Since 2011, as of this past September, American munitions makers have sold $7.7 BILLION dollars’ worth of arms to Syrian forces! Sadly, the US has accepted only 1434 refugees from that country. Canada has provided $718 million worth of weaponry. We’ve accepted 2300 refugees. So-called “military aid” doesn’t always fall into the hands of freedom fighters. And a considerable stockpile of US-made weapons constitutes a legacy of the Iraq war. “Many of these same countries fueling the slaughter have also been some of the least willing to grant amnesty to Syria’s refugees.” (US Uncut, Sept. 4, 2015)

I read a poignant interview a couple days ago by a pharmacist who wanted to come to Canada. He’s not unusual. He just wants to be safe, with his family, and work toward a decent future. The majority of Syrian refugees are women and children of both genders, despite what some would have us believe. 50% are under the age of 17! Not even old enough to graduate from our Canadian high schools. 24% are women aged 18-39, and 22% are men in that age range. So to those who try to spread the disinformation that most refugees are males of “fighting age” – you are WRONG. Refer to the UN Refugee Agency. Updated statistics are always available. Here’s the link to their figures. Don’t take my word for this; check for yourselves. http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php

These refugees, contrary to popular misconception, are mainly families – and they’re powerless to stand against the kind of weaponry that ISIL has at its disposal (often provided by Western countries, as noted above). They cannot simply rise up and fight back. They would be slaughtered – creating a nation of widows and orphans, worse than it is now. There’s bravery and there’s futility. Big difference. Yet I keep reading posts that the men ought to “go back home and fight.” With WHAT? Sticks? They’d be facing assault rifles and explosives and whatever else ISIL has managed to acquire. Purchased, captured or stolen, these weapons can easily fall into merciless hands.

“Ah,” you might say, “But ISIL has infiltrated the refugee camps and planted their agents among these people.” Probably true – as far as it goes. However, those agents would most likely constitute a small percentage. One Syrian passport found near a suicide bomber’s corpse does not equal four million terrorists. Two, or five, or a dozen passports still don’t signify that most refugees mean to do harm. But people bent on inflicting devastation are very good at disguising their intentions. They learn to blend in. Otherwise, it would be too easy to spot their presence. They surround themselves with innocents, knowing full well that when they do act, those innocents will be instantly burdened with their wrongdoings. Suspicion is terror’s constant – and in some ways, far more insidious – companion.

I did some fact-checking and discovered that right here in Canada, 10% of us have criminal records. While some of those crimes may have been minor, I’d guess that maybe 3 out of 10 – at least – were not. Canada is the home of Clifford Olsen, Robert Pickton, Paul Bernardo, Marc Lepine, Alan Legere and a whole collection of other brutes. We’ve spawned the FLQ. We failed to prevent Babbar Khalsa from planting a bomb on Air India Flight 182 out of Toronto/Montreal and killing 329 people – 268 of whom were Canadian citizens.

Our collective Canadian hands are NOT clean! If we believe otherwise, we are lying to ourselves. And for every hateful word or deed, for every hopeful human being denied a chance to realize that hope, the stains spread and darken. We cannot distance ourselves from the bleeding. We cannot close our borders and turn away the victims of brutality and repression. This isn’t who we are as Canadians … is it?

We – together with the US and Cuba – denied SS St Louis entry to a safe port in 1939. We sent hundreds of Jewish passengers back to Europe, where many of them died in Auschwitz and Sobibor. Surely we’ve grown more civilized since that terrible time? Surely we have …

Reading Facebook this weekend, I’m no longer convinced of our Canadian cohesion in the face of fear. But I can’t generalize. That would be unfair. I’d be guilty of the same narrow-mindedness as those who try to generalize about Syrian refugees. I think most of us are still kind, altruistic, reasonable, humane. I just wish those of us who lack these qualities weren’t quite so loud about it. But in the end, we must inevitably reveal our true character, for good or ill. May the good assume the upper hand. And may we not be afraid, because this is what terror networks aim to do – make us afraid. And then will come other emotions. Fear makes us turn on each other. It fractures our unified stance against a common enemy. No wonder ISIL is pressuring us to do this. “Divide and conquer” is an approach as old as humanity.

But division can never bring peace. That has to start from within. We can’t let go of each other. We can’t break our own civil society into fragments. There will always be someone waiting to take advantage, poised and ready to hide in the spaces between. We must not allow this. Not ever.