Friday, February 13, 2009

Superstitions

As I am getting ready to fly in a small 40 passenger plane from Toronto, Ontario to Albany, NY, I am more aware that today is Friday the 13th than I normally would be. This has led me to reflect on how superstitions are part of the commons, and a part that is generally not privatized. Of course, superstitions are used for private profit, as in the number and variety of horror movies built around Friday the 13th, or the sale of lucky charms, blessed water and the like that still can be found all over the world.

The superstition around Friday 13th has its roots in ancient Christianity. Friday is the day Jesus was crucified and is commonly known as Good Friday. The term “Good Friday” is actually a variation on the original which was “God’s Friday,” much like ‘goodbye’ is a shortened version of ‘God be with you.’ Friday is also supposed to be the day Eve gave Adam the apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In theology this is referred to as “the fall” although as feminist and liberation theologians often point out, it allowed us to “fall” into adulthood and assume responsibility for our actions by having the knowledge to understand their consequences.

The superstition around the number thirteen also has roots in Christianity, since Judas Iscariot was supposedly the 13th person to sit down at the Last Supper before he betrayed Jesus to the authorities. The number of hotels and office buildings that skip the 13th floor and go from 12 to 14 speaks volumes to how this superstition is still in play. According to SNOPES, there are people who are actually very afraid of the #13, and particularly of Friday 13th. These conditions have names: triskaidekaphobia is fear the number 13, and paraskevidekatriaphobia is fear of Friday the 13th.

Superstitions don’t start out that way: they start out as ideas people hold to be true. People who originally believed that putting a hat on the bed could cause someone to die were probably taking precautions against the spread of disease. It is harder to find a logical root in the belief that breaking a mirror causes seven years of bad luck or that blowing out all your candles at once on your birthday cake grants you a wish, but there probably is some experience that gave rise to these beliefs. Later these truths fade into superstitions, which are sort like half beliefs. We don’t think it is true, but maybe it is, so observe the custom. Later even the custom is forgotten.

I wonder what beliefs we have now which in years to come will be seen as superstitions. Belief that the market will regulate itself is fading fast. We can only hope the superstition that a powerful nation must have a large military will fade altogether. Or perhaps even the belief that America must be a powerful nation.

In this current economic turmoil, while we still fight a war in two countries and supply arms to mercenaries all over the world, perhaps Friday the 13th is a good day, a Good Friday, to think about what we truths we actually hold to be self-evident and what truths should fade to superstition and fade away altogether.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tax Me - I'm Yours!

Dear Readers:

Because this is a blog about the commons, it doesn’t make sense for me to be the only writer so from time to time I am going to ask friends and colleagues to post something here. The following post is from a friend in Toronto, Rob Howarth. Rob wrote in response to his own government’s unwillingness to raise taxes, a familiar and depressing story for all of us in the USA. Rob is a “commoner” and our bond was forged a couple of years ago when he created a website called “I love taxes.”

People seem to have a new-found fervour for collective solutions to collective woes. They want their governments to step in and take the heat off a massive market meltdown. Stimulus now! Spend more public money, the sooner the better! The curious thing is that no one seems willing to pay for this spree. Everyone hates paying taxes, and seems to imagine they can pay less and less of them and still have public spending grow. A combination of massive spending increases and significant tax cuts are central to both the Canadian and U.S. economic stimulus packages. Surely this will go down as the biggest attempt at a free lunch ever conjured up (except perhaps the brilliance of building our societies on non-renewable fossil fuel foundations).

I have noticed that conservative watchers of these ballooning deficits are warning that deficit spending today simply means deferring our taxes ‘till tomorrow. We are setting ourselves up for massive tax increases down the road. They say this as if it is a bad thing. I say, bring ‘em on! The sooner the better.

I have wanted to pay more taxes for some time now, but the conservative winds of the last twenty years have thwarted my desires. Tax cut aficionados continue even now to tell us that money in people’s pockets is, in every instance, preferable to paying taxes. It is always preferable, but unfortunately just for solving individual needs. Once a group of individuals decide they need to do something together, like build a hospital, or school, or affordable housing, or collect the garbage – they will need to invent systems to do so. And also a way to pay for it fairly. I think we refer to these systems today as government and taxes. They are not perfect systems, and they are in constant need of reform and vigilance so that they reflect people’s collective desires, and not just the will of the powerful. But the alternative of providing all of these collective good via the private market is not looking like such a great idea these days.

So I still say, what’s so funny about peace, love and a progressive tax system? If we had been paying more taxes all along much pain could be avoided today. We might even have chosen to strengthen our healthcare, green our energy sources, invest in community infrastructure, roads, cultural, educational and other public assets on an ongoing basis – not just when the banks have to get out of the kitchen.

Instead of a free lunch, let’s follow John Lennon’s advice and “free our minds instead”. I’m starting with jettisoning the fiction that we can all take care of each other, and be taken care of, without contributing much along the way. And I’m printing up buttons that say: Tax me – I’m Yours!

Rob Howarth is the part-time coordinator of an association of thirty nonprofit agencies located in neighbourhoods across Toronto, called (fittingly enough) the Toronto Neighbourhood Centres. This involves working on shared issues of concern related to community change (e.g. the racialization and spacialization of poverty in our city), and the role of local organizations that strive to support communities through service-provision and community-building work. He started at university training as an architect, which was fun, but realized he did not warm to the professionalization of that realm. He reflects that he is often involved in creating an "architecture of dissent". He lives in Toronto.