Wednesday, May 28, 2014

S is for Second Chances

Native Design inserted into the floor
between Air Canada Centre and Union Station
Toronto, Ontario
A reminder that Toronto's old nickname for itself was (and maybe still is)
"Toronto the Good"
photo ©Kristin Lord 2014
Serious study of early Christianity is not my field. I specialize in authors who were what we now call pagan. Right now I am devoting most of my research activities toward the Greek poets Sophocles and Euripides, although I have given conference talks on Catullus and Vergil, who are both on the Roman “side.” Nevertheless, in the final week of my introductory Roman civilization class I touch on what the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder calls the Constantinian shift, namely, how both Christianity and the Roman Empire changed when Christianity changed from the faith of the persecuted to the religion of the Roman Emperor under Constantine I (“Constantine the Great”) and ultimately of the Empire. This transformation is of particular interest to Quakers and other pacifists in the Christian tradition because it was part of the change in the attitude toward military service inside and outside of the early Church. In short, as a result of the changes in the period up to and during the rule of Constantine it became acceptable for Christians to serve in the Roman army, and the Roman army was for its part Christianized.

It might be argued that Constantine I, as a leader of exceptional ability, was instrumental in giving the western part Roman Empire a second chance that lasted for the better part of two hundred years. There is much to be said for this. As it happens, though, I think of Constantine as the emperor of second chances for another reason. He was involved in decisions about several movements within early Christianity that are now considered heresies. One of these movements was Donatism, which took a severe view about the readmission the Christian fold of both parishioners and clergy who had returned to paganism under duress during the persecutions of Constantine's immediate predecessor, the emperor Diocletian. The Donatists believed that people were out of the Christian fold once they were out. They were especially concerned about restoring priests and other leaders to position of authority, as they believed that the sacraments needed to be administered by a holy person in order to be considered sacred. Other people in the early Church believed that penance was there precisely to allow for people to be forgiven for making mistakes. If we consider the latter approach to be the way Christians normally believe —and by and large Friends adhere to it— it is, at least in part, because this view was accepted by Constantine and worked well for a huge number of people under different circumstances throughout later history. Although there are multiple reasons why the “orthodox” concept of forgiveness won out, it is worth noting that the pagans themselves were quite willing to give people a second chance to return to paganism by performing rituals in the non-Christian state religion. The Christian church needed to have a more attractive set of ideas, and being exclusionary would have ceded an important point to the pagans.

How do we view second chances today, in both religion and society? I have been thinking about this question for several reasons, both spiritual and political.  A telephone conversation a couple months ago with my father put the political aspect into high relief. “What is the deal with your mayor?” “I” don’t have a mayor, and my Dad knows it. I am an American expat who votes in the same Vermont town of  roughly 400 voters where he was on the checklist until he moved to another small Vermont town. Neither of these communities has a mayor. The rural municipality of Centre Wellington in the Canadian province of Ontario, where I now live, does have a mayor. A hard-working public servant who is respected by people across the political spectrum, she lives a few blocks away from us, but my father would not know that. In any case, when I replied, “What mayor?” he knew I was pulling his leg, as he had been pulling mine a moment before. My father lives on a sparsely-populated mountainside and has chosen to eschew Internet access, but one could never accuse him of being ill-informed.

I expect almost every person reading this blog knows to whom the phrase “your mayor” refers if the person hearing the question lives in the same province —maybe even the same country— as the mayor of Toronto, Ontario. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about Rob Ford. (For an overview see Wikipedia, the Star, the Huffington Post, and the Globe and Mail.) People who live in parts of Ontario outside of Toronto feel especially justified in having one because all Ontario residents and taxpayers have a vested interest in seeing Toronto succeed as a livable and cosmopolitan city. Every year that Toronto fails to get a grip on its traffic problems adds to the expenses all of us will have to pay when it finally does make progress (see recent articles in the Huffington Post, the Star and the Globe and Mail for different perspectives on this issue). And that is just the beginning.

Panoramic Photograph of Toronto, September 2009
Martin St.-Aimant
reproduced with permission via Wikimedia Commons

A number of serious political commentators in the United States and elsewhere have been trying to figure out why a significant portion of the Toronto electorate has given mayor Rob Ford a multitude of second chances. From recent polling, he can probably rely on a core support of around 30 per cent of the electorate for his reelection in the fall (although that support has been dropping lately). Part of the answer to this conundrum is that conservatives in Ontario and elsewhere can be political or social conservatives, or both. Canada has a Conservative party, called by somewhat different names with different coalitions of voters in various times and places, and also has people who are conservative with a “small c” who do not vote for that party. In Ontario, people who are attracted to the conservative end of the political spectrum are more likely to be the small-government types and may have libertarian beliefs as well. This is Rob Ford’s general platform. Only a few are Bible-belt conservatives; in fact, they run the range of ethnic and religious backgrounds, although they tend to be socially conservative to some extent. (Municipal elections in Ontario are officially non-partisan, but municipal politicians run under partisan banners when they move to provincial or federal politics, and vice versa. The Ford family is associated with the Ontario Progressive Conservatives.) On the other hand, the politicians who try to appeal to this part of the electorate, even with a diverse and increasingly secular crowd like Toronto, often take a “tough on crime” approach. Mayor Rob Ford and his brother, Counsellor Doug Ford, will not be able to appeal to this latter demographic indefinitely.

Pollsters have so far found that the “Rob Ford Nation” can be divided roughly into two overlapping groups: those who agree with his economic approach and those who feel themselves hard done by elites. Although the Ford family is very wealthy, in political terms they are populist opponents of political, social, and —especially— intellectual elites. They also have the poise and charisma from which their opponents can learn a great deal (but probably not emulate, as experience can take someone only so far in the absence of innate talent).  In sum, there is a core group in Toronto and everywhere else in Canada and the United States that is sick and tired of being lectured at by people with advanced degrees. (In contrast, the late Jack Layton, the distinguished Canadian leader of the New Democratic Party/NDP, a social democratic party, had the kind of charisma that allowed him to attract wide support despite having an earned Ph.D.; his widow, Olivia Chow, who is also an intellectually engaged politician, is one of Ford’s opponents in the upcoming mayoral race.) For whatever reason, the Ford brothers seem to have an instinctive understanding of economically stressed people of average education.

Even these facts do not explain everything about Rob Ford’s popularity, let alone the degree of sympathy some have for him. (For an overview see Robyn Doolittle, Crazy Town: the Rob Ford Story [2014] passim, especially chapter 16.) Like many people, I have been trying to figure out what it is. The possibility of redemption is a part of it, and I will get to that in a minute, but related to redemption is the question of whether Rob Ford is a tragic figure. To a great extent he is a tragic figure, in the technical terms that would be familiar to a student of Greek tragedy. (Rosie DiManno of the Star, a fine journalist who has been following the Ford brothers for years, has a different definition and comes to a different conclusion.) Aristotle, whose understanding of tragedy and the ideal tragic figure forms the basis of much western thinking on the subject, believed that the ideal tragic figure is —in layperson's terms— of high status and better than average, but not blameless. The example Aristotle gives is Oedipus in Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King. To a great extent, Rob Ford meets this description, although for different reasons. Ford is indisputably of high social and political status; while he is no intellectual, his ability to “read” a large swath of the electorate, strike a hard bargain with labour unions (despite the controversy surrounding that bargain), and, perhaps most significant of all, to stay out of criminal court, shows that he is no fool. Many have underestimated him at their peril.

In Aristotle's view, the reason the ideal tragic character is successful is that he causes the audience watching a tragedy to experience a catharsis, i.e., an emotional release, of pity and fear as this character moves from good to bad fortune over the course of the play. (It is also possible, indeed likely, that the tragic characters themselves experience this catharsis, although this depends on interpretation.) The catch, once again, is that this character must be of the sort Aristotle recommends. If the person is completely innocent (for example, a toddler dying of a horrible disease), then one feels a sense of horror and outrage rather than pity and fear. If someone is a base character, then those watching his downfall feel he has gotten his just desserts. Indeed, some members of the Toronto electorate, and, by extension, some Ontario taxpayers, are feeling just this sense of revulsion. If nothing else, Rob Ford is a polarizing figure.

Mayor Ford's outrageous behavior is closely related to his substance abuse problems; for this reason, following his decline over the past year makes me feel a sense of pity and fear rather than revulsion or outrage. I have seen others suffer horrific effects of addiction, and, like many people, it is frightening because we know that many good people could be in the same situation but for a roll of the dice of heredity and environment.

Aristotle claims that the ideal tragic figure undergoes a reversal (in Greek, peripeteia), from good to bad fortune because of something called hamartia. Classical scholars nowadays translate hamartia as error, specifically, as D.W. Lucas puts it in his commentary on the Poetics, an error arising from “ignorance combined with the absence of wicked intent.” (Lucas, 1968, p. 302) For instance, Oedipus in Oedipus the King kills his father and marries his mother because he does not know that he was adopted. While we cannot say that Rob Ford acts out of ignorance in the formal sense of the term, the very nature of substance abuse problems often makes it impossible for the person suffering them to understand them in a way that allows them to act on them. I am giving a contemporary description of cognition, but one that is still relevant given what addiction does to the brain. Such an effect was not unknown to the Greeks. In Euripides’ tragedy the Bacchae, the character Pentheus, who is forced to participate in the rituals of the wine-god Dionysus, becomes unhinged to the point that he kills his own mother in a Bacchic frenzy. Aristotle himself uses the word hamartia in the Nicomachean Ethics, one of his other works, to refer to someone whose error occurs because he is drunk or angry; in this case the individual, although not seeming to be ignorant, actually is so because of these mitigating factors (EN 1110b.25-30; cf. Lucas, p. 301).

Thus, as the situation stands now (May 28, 2014), Rob Ford seems to me a tragic figure in the Aristotelian sense, except that he is living his life and not acting on stage. Those who are not convinced by this approach, Rosie DiManno probably among them, might consider how Rob Ford's time in office compares to another model of ancient Greek tragedy —and, indeed, Greek thinking about human behavior. In this model, which we see on stage in some of the plays of Aeschylus, a character becomes too full of himself or herself. Such an individual shows a kind of overweening arrogance with a bit of verbal and/or physical violence thrown in; the Greek term is hubris, which can also be found in Athenian law for verbal harassment or physical assault. This hubris invites the envy (phthonos) of the gods or other humans, or both. Inevitably, the individual involved makes a reckless error in judgment (the Greek word is atasthalia), which in turn results in his or her destruction. The trick for a writer turning this kind of person in to a character for the stage, or for a journalist describing someone in the media, is to humanize him or her so that the audience can relate  —which, I suppose, brings us back to that whole “pity and fear” shtick.

However, North American society is influenced not only by the ideas of ancient Greek tragedy but also the concept of redemption, which comes through Christianity and other religions. In fact, even Oedipus gets a second chance on the Greek stage, in the later play Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles.

When it comes to Rob Ford and redemption, the people of Toronto and Ontario are waiting with bated breath, as he undergoes inpatient treatment at a facility north of the city. What can I say about Rob Ford from my vantage point as a Quaker? As both a Friend and a human being, I can only hope and pray that his treatment is successful. If I were a Toronto voter looking for policies in passable tune with Quaker values, I would consider other mayoral candidates. Nevertheless, when listening to Rob Ford speak about the influence of elites and his sense of himself as an outsider (whether or not this is justified), I remember that George Fox had issues with the elites of his day. Some of the people to whom Fox appealed held roughly the same positions vis à vis the power structures in society that the “Rob Ford Nation” has now. George Fox upended the religious power structure by saying that one did not have to be educated at Oxford or Cambridge to be a minister of the Gospel (The Journal of George Fox, ed. by John L. Nickalls [1975], p. 11). He succeeded to a great degree because of his ability to create an alternative organizational structure for religion. Although the men and structures to which George Fox objected were spiritual elites, given the way England worked in seventeenth century, they had enormous temporal power as well. Both Oliver Cromwell and King Charles II had to be reassured that George Fox and his associates were not aiming to overthrow their physical authority. The first —and one of the most eloquent— expressions of the Friends’ peace testimony, the letter to King Charles II in 1660, was this very reassurance.

If George Fox was able to appeal to people who felt unsupported by the social structures of his day, might a less divisive figure than Rob Ford appeal to voters of varying degrees of affluence who are disillusioned by conventional politics? This is unlikely on the face of it, as lower taxes seem to be the “third rail” of politics for this group today. On the other hand, the situation demands thinking outside of the box, and a truly original and gifted politician will have ideas that we have not yet considered. It is possible that Olivia Chow (on the left) or John Tory (on the centre-right) or perhaps one of the other candidates could become this type of leader if winning the election. Certainly, whoever wins the election will need to gain the respect of people who voted for someone else.

How can Quakers, who are relatively small in number, help to bring about new ideas and encourage mutual respect? One of the major problems Toronto (and some other cities like it) faces is that it is a “forced marriage,” created by the Ontario government some years ago, of the urban core with some of its suburbs. People in different parts of the city often do not meet, except perhaps on a superficial level, and their children will probably not be educated together unless they attend the same university or community college. It might be very helpful if some of the religious groups in the area could facilitate informal discussions among both leaders and “ordinary” people who might otherwise never meet, much as Quakers have done with international political leaders through the United Nations in New York and Geneva.

Regardless of the form Toronto politics ends up taking, I am optimistic about the longer-term prospects of the city. God willing, all of us will have second chances, whether these opportunities are financial, political, educational, or spiritual. Although North Americans believe in the importance of these second chances, we are not always taught to use them well. When considering the life trajectory of leaders, be they Constantine, Rob Ford, or George Fox, it is instructive to see how they did or did not use their second chances, and how we may learn from what they did.
Native Design inserted into the floor
between Air Canada Centre and Union Station
Toronto, Ontario
photo ©Kristin Lord 2014

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