Category Archives: radical politics

The Rise of the Far Right

By Dr David Laing Dawson

In the 1988 presidential debates Mike Dukakis was asked whether he would support the death penalty should his wife, Kitty, be raped and murdered. A long time opponent of the death penalty, Dukakis responded to the startling question from CNN’s Bernard Shaw, “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.”

It struck me at the time that Dukakis missed a moment in which he could be human, present himself as fully human, and at the same time as worthy of being a president.

He could have answered, “Of course. If a man raped and murdered my wife I would want to disembowel him; I would want to kill him in a manner that caused him maximum pain and suffering. Which is exactly why we have laws, and courts, and due process. Which is exactly why it cannot be my choice as victim or survivor to decide in the heat of the moment what should happen to the accused or convicted. Which is exactly why, to remain a civilized people, we must decide on appropriate penalties that will keep us civilized, that will not harden or poison our souls, that will not undermine our social contract. If the state does not value life, why should its people?”

And herein lies a human dilemma. We are biologically not far removed from chimpanzees and great apes. Our instincts, our immediate emotional responses, have been honed for years as jungle tribes. We guard our own watering hole. We are reluctant to share. We distrust the other. We are greedy. We are vengeful. We are easily brought to rage.

But, at least since the second world war, with many attempts before then, we have managed to overlay our primate instincts with a social contract that includes the rule of law. We have elected many leaders who could see beyond their primate selves and form alliances, be inclusive, share watering holes. We have created international forums, unions, agreements. At least in much of Europe and North America.

But those primitive instincts remain, the ones that led to the Holocaust, the massacres in Bosnia, the plight of the Rohingya, the destruction of Syria, the building of walls. They lie not far beneath the surface of each human. It is our collective that can overcome them, and that collective must have leaders and lawmakers who can see beyond their immediate fears and desires. Leaders and lawmakers who appeal to our better selves.

We always have had would-be leaders who could reach in and stoke our fears, fire up our distrust and hatred, get us ready to pick up torches and weapons, defend our watering holes from thirsty strangers, set upon those unlike ourselves in our villages. But, for the most part we have rejected them and chosen instead the Merkels and the Obamas. Trade has flourished. Europe has seen a long period of peace, cooperation, and open borders. Overall the people of this planet live longer and healthier lives than ever before.

I am writing this because a cousin asked me to write about the current struggles in Austria, where a far right fascist party has gained enough support to become part of a coalition government. This is happening seventy-two years after the death of Adolf Hitler, 90 years after the early Nazi’s received only 779 votes in a general election in Austria (1927), and 79 years since Nazi Germany annexed Austria.

I know little of the intricacies of Austrian life and politics. But this resurgence of the far right neo-fascist movement is occurring nearly everywhere in the west. Its leaders are appealing to our primate instincts, our rat brains. And this time, just as in the years between 1927 and 1938, they are finding more and more people responding to their simple message.

They stoke our fears and our grievances. Some of these are real. Most are manufactured or displaced. They point the finger at the other, the cause of our trouble. We respond and chant “Lock her up.” “Build a wall.” “Divorce Europe.” “Stop Immigration.”

We should have learned, especially Austrians, where this can lead. But apparently we didn’t.

Neo-fascism, jingoism, isolation, the breaking of alliances, the undermining of cooperation and the weakening of our international institutions will not fix our problems. And from recent history we know exactly where this trend can lead.

Our instant access of unfiltered world wide information, some truth, some fake, has us grossly exaggerating our risk. We find ourselves afraid of events that have a miniscule chance of occurring. We fear a terrorist attack more than we fear riding a motorcycle, when clearly death by motorcycle is far more likely than death by terrorist. Donald Trump can make us fear illegal immigrants when that, statistically, should be the least of our worries.

We do have real problems, problems big enough to spell the end of a habitable earth.

Paradoxically, these real problems can only be addressed by the unified, cooperative, inclusive, citizenry of one planet. These real problems cannot be addressed by walled off, exclusive, defensive separate states, each populated by a homogenous group of humans who feel they are the chosen.

We are really all at risk because of an interrelated set of developments:

  • Over population
  • Extremely uneven wealth distribution
  • Man-made global warming.
  • And a large subset of problems that flows from these three.

We can change this, turn it around, make progress, but only if we can function as the citizenry of one world, only if we have strong international institutions, only if we recognize that we will survive together or perish alone.

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Thoughts on the Making of a Suicide Bomber

By Dr David Laing Dawson

After the Manchester bombing I read some articles in which the authors despaired of ever understanding any suicide bomber, any killer of “innocent children”. (I don’t know why we need the modifier ‘innocent’ in front of the word ‘children’, other than to imply there might be some not-so-innocent children it would be all right to kill.)

I often write to understand, a way of thinking things through carefully and with a degree of logic, using what we all know about these events and what we know about human behaviour. The following is what I arrived at. I do not know if this helps in any way, but here it is:

What are the layers of the pyramid that lead to an act of terror, especially an act of suicide terror, whether the weapon be a truck, a gun, or a bomb?

A mind experiment reveals the foundation of the pyramid: Imagine a group of 18 year-old boys (make that 16 to 23 years old if you will) being taken by their teacher to a small museum filled with artifacts. Once there the teacher tells the boys they have two choices. They can choose an artifact and the culture surrounding that artifact, spend the entire day studying it, and write a five page essay about it in the evening to be handed in the next day – or – they can each take up one of these baseball bats and spend an hour smashing the artifacts and then go for a beer in the nearest pub.

If need be we can refine this experiment by removing one or two of the most successful young men (academic, social, sexual, vocational) and by having the teacher demonstrate use of the bat on one of the artifacts.

I am not betting on the survival of the artifacts.

There is a developmental phase in the lives of young men when most experience some anger. Most put at least one fist hole in the dry wall before this passes. They are now quite suddenly responsible for their own futures; they are faced with years of unrewarding industry; it is now up to them to plan and organize and work if they are to eat, sleep under a roof, own a car, win the mating contest. And they must do this while watching it, seemingly, come so easily to others.

And this is new to homo sapiens – this span of adolescence reaching into the mid twenties. Until these last few generations most 16 to 23 year old boys were quickly embedded into a life of work, survival, training, routine. Just this morning there was recognition of this in the local paper with a proposal that boys in care be supported until age 25.

In his immature and random use of language Donald Trump may have actually been partially accurate when he recently called the Manchester bombers “losers”. I think he meant it as a school yard epithet with the modifier “evil” added, but within that pyramid of angry young men mentioned above, some are successful, some are struggling, and some perceive themselves as unjustly losing in the academic, social, vocational, sexual competitions.

So on this second level of the pyramid we find angry young men who perceive themselves as losing, unjustly losing.

We have to assume family has an influence here, though it seems suicide bombers are the progeny of both extremist angry fathers, and of fathers who are moderate in their religious beliefs. But we also know that the two psychological states by which boys react to their fathers is by either (sometimes both) imitation or opposition. Family then provides a third level of influence, though not necessarily as direct promulgation of extremist views.

But these are boys looking for direction, seeking answers for their disappointments and rage. They are also seeking simple answers to reduce their existential anxiety. So they easily fall prey to mesmerizing leaders, gurus, exhortations to violence. This can be an Imam at the local mosque, or a Youtube video or an extremist or racist website. The general source of their distress and their failures is made clear to them. This is the fourth level, a powerful influence in the form of an older man, a guru, a man with explanations and answers. A man, or group, who can point this angry and failing young man to a cause for his dissatisfaction and disaffection.

But this must be combined with some social isolation, a retreat from social influences that would otherwise undermine or counter the influences of the newly acquired “teacher”. And most friends or acquaintances interviewed after a suicide attack report something like, “He was always a little quiet, but I haven’t seen him for the last five or six months. He stopped coming to our….” And some do report a change of behavior such as an angry confrontation at the Mosque before they stop coming or are banished.

So now we have a fifth level: withdrawal from alternative social forces.

There would be a division at this point in the development: Those who end up being called a “lone wolf” because they act alone, and those who become part of a network.

The former, the lone wolf, is truly suicidal, and probably suffers from, by now, a psychotic depression (depressed and delusional). This person would have been in trouble before, perhaps summarily discharged, fired, or known to mental health services and local police. His attack will be one of rage with suicidal intent. The creed of groups like ISIS or the white supremacists simply give this person a final excuse and a sheen of righteousness. His weapon will be whatever is available to him. His target may be personally symbolic to him: People enjoying and celebrating when he cannot. Women who have spurned him. Gays who enticed him. A corporation that fired him. An army that excluded him. The group that gives him that “sheen of righteousness” could be white supremacists, fascists, extreme Islam, anti-Semites, or even, today, talk radio and Donald Trump.

The latter, the suicide bomber who uses a more sophisticated weapon crafted by others in a network, is the dupe. He is the youngest, weakest, of the group. He has been gradually pressured and convinced to carry this out. Though he may be a believer in the creed, and though he may also believe in the rewards of martyrdom promised, he is really doing this to please, to not disappoint his cult leaders and be cast out. These leaders may include an older brother, an uncle, a father. Or they are strangers who have become his family. To retain his position with them, at least in his imagination, he must carry out the act. They are the ones with the political agenda and the level of sociopathy required to inure them to the consequences.

Police Entrapment, Terrorism and Wasted Resources

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Years ago a not-so-bright young man stole a Cadillac convertible. He had always wanted to ride in one, like a country and western star in a small town parade. This was the only way he imagined it could happen. The ensuing police chase, crash, lawyers, court appearances, sentencing was extremely costly. It would have been, I noticed at the time, much, much cheaper to buy him a Cadillac for a birthday present.

Another young woman had a penchant for setting fires. Whether she was in a jail, a hospital, or a boarding home. She was mentally ill, and we were trying to help her, but there was always a risk that her pyromania would cause many deaths as long as she was residing with others. Her care was costing the taxpayers in the neighbourhood of $200,000 per year. While in our institutions someone had to watch her at all times. A decent little house was selling for about $50,000 at the time. I proposed we buy her a detached house and take our services to her.

These two stories came to mind when I read about John Nuttall and Amanda Korody. It has been reported that the RCMP spent about $1,000,000 “entrapping” them.

Two marginalized people. Addicts. Neither bright nor sophisticated. Probably with their fair share of grievances and yearnings. Both destined to be burdens on the taxpayer for years to come. And both in that state of mind, that existential position, of searching for someone or something to blame and a way of elevating their sad lives.

Neither capable, on their own, of condensing those grievances into strategic action. Neither capable, on their own, of buying the ingredients and making a bomb, and successfully delivering it. Probably neither capable on their own of formulating a coherent argument why they should do this.

So, having discovered this despairing pair of hapless would-be terrorists, would it not have been much cheaper to give them a Lotto win of $100,000 and send them on their way. I know there is no sane way of doing that, but perhaps, instead of this elaborate sting operation, the RCMP could have alerted the local social services that this at risk couple needs extra help. Assign a new worker, a counselor to them. Review their needs, (social, educational, medical) and plan with them a better life.

So much less expensive and damaging and wasteful than all that police work, surveillance, subterfuge, and legal work, court costs.

Addiction services, psychiatric treatment, disability benefits, social housing, educational programs. These are all expensive. But so much cheaper than the alternative.

Moderate and Extreme Religions – An Easter Blog

By Dr David Laing Dawson cartoon

Today in the local paper I read a well written, thoughtful op-ed extolling inclusion, the multi-cultural tolerance of Canada, our peaceful acceptance of one and all. And this article, of course, was written as a bulwark against over reacting to the recent crimes in Brussels.

In the article the author referred to “extremists”, “extreme Islam”, and “radicalization.” – words that appear regularly in our papers and magazines and internet posts.

And I thought about them. The words themselves.

Extreme and extremist. Inherent in these words is the implication that there can be something that is “moderate”, or “in moderation”.

A moderate diet can become an extreme diet. Inherent in the concept of the moderate reduction of sugar in one’s diet, there exists the possibility of extreme reduction, elimination. Similarly inherent in the “reduction of calories” is the possibility of the elimination of calories. Which could be called a “radical” diet and would be suicidal.

I can make the same point with exercise and sports. We have moderate forms of both, and extreme forms. The extreme forms are a little crazy but harmful to no one but the participant.

There once was an extreme Christianity as harmful as extreme Islam, but not today as far as I know. Today extreme Christianity implies a gross excess of forbiddens. Thou art forbidden to dance, uncover thy hair, swear, drink, have transfusions, work on Sunday, use electricity, drive a motor car. It does get dangerous when it includes in its forbiddens, vaccination, medical treatment, planned parenthood and homosexuality. And like all closed systems, such rule-bound extreme collectives are vulnerable to takeover by a charismatic psychopath.

But the point I am making is that when we find an extreme form of something, extremist views and actions, radical views, the seeds of those ideas and actions can be found in the moderate form. They are already there.

There are violent, crazy, criminal ideas in the Old Testament of the Bible. There are violent, crazy, criminal ideas and directives in the Koran. These are the seeds of extremism that moderates ignore, re-interpret, and gloss over. But they remain available to form the foundation of thought and action for the dispossessed, the angry, the lost, and the sociopathic. And, to a horrifying degree, they inform the civil law of many Muslim countries.

It behooves all moderates of all faiths to look carefully at the seeds of extremism in their own holy books and teachings and remove them. Teach love and forgiveness, kindness and generosity. Tell fables that illustrate these lessons. Dump all the stupid stuff about retribution, apostates, infidels, purges and pogroms, stoning, beheading and an exclusive heaven. It would be a start.

 

The Adolescent Brain, The Bible and The Koran

By Dr David Laing Dawson

In our teenage years and often well beyond them, the adolescent brain struggles to form a map, a system of cause and effect, a number of certainties, a group of expectations, some rules and criteria that might guide it through this life, and sometimes beyond. A very healthy brain settles on a few absolutes, and leaves the rest quite flexible, able to adapt, change, and grow with new awareness and understanding.

But a very significant aspect to this journey involves the acceptance and/or rejection of the received wisdom of our parents and teachers. And in this process, in this process of the adolescent brain picking and choosing what to believe, invariably it (the adolescent brain) perceives the inconsistencies, oftentimes the hypocrisies to be found in our parents’ and our teachers’ instructions.

This leads to one of two reactions, sometimes both at the same time: one is to reject it all, the other to swallow it all, to become more of whatever it is, than our parents. And this may be a phase that ends in a healthy compromise and adaptation.

In its benign form the teen may shout at her parents, “How can you call yourself Christians when you only go to church at Easter and Christmas?” or “Is there any archaeological evidence this actually happened?”

Or it may lead to the teen and post-teen joining a commune, “going back to the church”, declaring himself atheist, finding solace in the Hare Krishna cult.

And today, as we know, it might lead a young man or young woman, raised in a “moderate” Muslim family, into the arms of ISIS. Perhaps these young people are especially vulnerable, unable to otherwise find their way, to fit in, to belong, to succeed.

But in the process of adopting a strict, conservative, oppressive, violent, rigid, immutable code they are also overcoming, reacting to, the perceived hypocrisies of their parents and teachers.

These teachers and parents are preaching from ancient texts, the Bible or the Koran. And they are choosing only the nice parts, all the while claiming that the whole book is the word of God. I’m not really sure how they do it. “We think of those as parables today.” “But the message is evil.” “Well we don’t really believe that part anymore.” “But you said the whole book is a holy book.” “Well yes but…..”

Let’s face it. Both the Bible and the Koran contain truly evil, ignorant passages, advice, instruction, and rules to live by. If we really believed all of what is in these ancient texts we would stop reading this now and gather some rocks to stone adulterers and apostates, to kill a few homosexuals, get our kitchen knives sharpened to cut off a hand or two, choose a small flexible branch to beat our wives; we might all make it our life’s work to spread the gospel and to fight the infidels, the unbelievers, and worse yet, the fallen believers.

But the point of what I am saying is this: When that moment comes in the adolescent brain in which her angst, his quest for certainty, their struggle to find a community, a set of rules to live by – when this is floundering – and when that young man or young woman sees the abundant hypocrisy, or at the very least, the paradox of claiming to be a true believer in a particular ancient text, but not really, not all of it, though it is the word of God…..well…there is the solution right there, spelled out in the early pages of that ancient text sitting on the bedside table. “It would be righteous to kill abortionists. An eye for an eye. The damnation of homosexuality. The closed door of heaven…….”

So, here is one thing we could do. Our churches and mosques could do. Tear out those pages. Stop teaching the whole book. Select the parts that time and enlightenment and education have proved valuable. Discard the misogynistic, racist, intolerant, violent passages.

Do this now. Please.

It is telling, I think, that the young women who left the very conservative Muslim school in Mississauga to join ISIS  felt that the teachings of this school were not sufficiently “conservative.” Well, in the eyes of most of us, what that school is teaching belongs in the 13th century.

But, they are using as their instruction book, their text, their Holy Book, the unadulterated Koran. And even though they were teaching those girls to behave as if living in the 13th century, they must have been skipping the more outrageous passages of the Koran – which is, to that adolescent brain, a tad hypocritical.

For humanities sake, let us rip out the stupid pages of both the Koran and the Bible. And, if you would like to test your knowledge of religion, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has this test you can take.

Homegrown Terrorism

David Laing DawsonBy Dr David Laing Dawson

A reasonably articulate and educated young man from Ottawa stands beside a ruined village exhorting others to violence against those who provided him with a comfortable childhood.

How can we explain this? And how can we explain the angry response stirring in my own brain?

Young men. Males of the species. Biology. Evolution.

We humans have come so far because we are the most adaptable of species. The traits and instincts we have inherited come with wide variability. Most other species play out a single program when challenged, or threatened, or frightened, or hungry, or fed, or stroked. Our reactions can be far more nuanced, far more context driven. Our reactions are sometimes even preceded by thoughtful consideration of outcome. And, after a certain age, even thoughtful consideration of long-term outcome and effect on others.

But the extreme possibilities remain in our atavistic human brain, those extremes that served us well in the jungle, in hostile environments, in times of scarce food, when survival of the species, of the family, required intense competition for territory and mating. When survival required the banding together of brothers, intense loyalty to the Alpha male, and the willingness to kill.

We learn through play, through the socialization of family, sports, music, school and work to suppress those primitive instincts. We have developed healthier outlets for them: the hockey arena, the football field, the rock concert, extreme sports, the racetrack, even the hunting party, and perhaps, we hope, video games.  And, for better or worse, we can vicariously experience the flowering of these traits, these behaviours, this banding together of brothers, this adrenalin rush, this possibility of righteous killing, of revenge and conquest, as we ride alongside Bruce Willis, Liam Neeson and Colin Farrell.

God help us, the instinct is there, the trait is there, lying dormant in most young men, usually only trotted out in safe and playful circumstances. But it is there.

And to release it, to let it flourish, for some young men, requires but a little indoctrination by a charismatic psychopath with an ancient text under his arm.

How do we prevent this happening? Mostly by doing what we have been doing: becoming more educated, more aware, more sensitive to the feelings and rights of others, to the stupidity of war. By, if you’ll pardon the word, “allowing” women to become equal partners in this evolutionary struggle. By sharing. By treating the ill among us. By developing a good, just, liberal, inclusive, and secular form of governance.

But, I also think our ongoing reliance on ancient texts remains a problem. There are moderate people in our midst, good people, who believe in and promulgate ancient texts. The most progressive among them even ask us to believe in only the nice parts of these texts, the love and kindness parts, and they ask us to ignore the homophobic, misogynist, racist, vengeful, violent, and very stupid fanciful bits of these same ancient texts.

But still they are conditioning another generation to believe, without question, the teaching of an older, ordained man, with an ancient text under his arm, a text written before we knew the world was round and not the center of the universe. Usually a good man I am sure.

But at a certain low and troubled time in his life, how is a young man to know that this charismatic ordained bearded father with an ancient text under his arm, promising brotherhood, glory, certainty — is really a murderous psychopath?

Rat Brains, Youth, and Jihadists.

David Laing Dawson

By Dr David Laing Dawson

There is something wonderfully insightful about our parliamentary form of government. We have a queen. We could have a king. She lives in luxury surrounded by symbols of history and power. She, or her representative, is visible at all major ceremonies. Her representative delivers the throne speech. She can be honorary leader of our soldiers, open libraries, commission battleships. And she has absolutely no power. It is even considered bad form should she express an opinion on anything save motherhood and endangered species.

Because of this we can give some power to our prime minister. We limit his term in office. We can challenge him publicly. Because we have a Queen, we can think of our prime minister as just another self-serving politician. He is not us. He has no divine right. He may fall from grace without damaging either the institution of Parliament or our self-esteem. His office is far more important than the current occupier. And he occupies this office entirely at our whim. And because we have a Queen, we need not project unto our prime minister all those two million year-old impulses, fantasies, wishes and hungers that we might otherwise project unto our leader.

I was thinking of this, oddly, because of ISIS and the recent videos and pictures of all those young mislead men. They have bought the insanity and delusions of ancient documents and a charismatic psychopath.

Slick videos and a bearded all-powerful leader with a simple formula have tapped into a hunger deep within the rat brains of these young men. Brotherhood, purpose, an unleashing of all that masculine aggression – clearly the best first person shooter video game on the planet. The only other ingredient these young men need is a sense of immortality, invulnerability, which they might have until age 22 or so, and after that, well, a promise of life everlasting as a revered martyr.

I am sure it is too late to save them. That level of primitive tyranny will provoke competing tyrannies, unleash other hatreds, and ultimately, self-destruct.

But, back to our parliamentary democracy. How wonderful it is that for all but a few of us, we have managed to develop a form of governance that does not allow, would never allow, a single man with an ancient text under his arm to command our loyalty, our fealty, our love and our sacrifice. How creative and insightful we humans have been to create a system of governance that does not, will not, allow the blossoming of those primitive needs and impulses.

Editor’s Note – Dr Dawson is the author of The Adolescent Owner’s Manual where he discusses how a parent’s goal should be to get your adolescent child into adulthood, alive, healthy, preferably educated and skilled, without a major drug problem or criminal record or pregnancy. Anything more is icing and a pleasure to behold.