(Image Credit: Kimmo Kulovesi via flickr.com; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
On the day when India became the first country ever to land a spacecraft on the south pole of the moon, the stories on the main page of our ‘national broadcaster’ show that we are a nation without ambition.
TRY & TRY AGAIN
As you are probably aware, India’s spacecraft Chandrayaan-3 made a successful landing on the south pole of the moon yesterday (August 23, 2023). Their earlier mission to the moon had failed. The successful landing is, of course, news of global significance and interest, so news outlets around the world carried it. Here is the New York Times:
In an interview, K. Sivan, former chief of India’s space agency, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), said that “… the science data (that Chadraayan-3 will collect) is not only for India – it is for the global scientists” (at the 1:11 mark in this clip). Hearing this, I was reminded of something that I have been saying for a while. In a nutshell, it is about a country’s contribution to the global community, with focus on science and technology where the country advances the frontiers of knowledge that is useful around the world. I have been lamenting that Canada seems to have altogether lost the desire to bring new things to the world in the realm of science and technology. As I have recounted several times, we used to have a great track record of this, from Elijah MCCoy’s drip cup in the 19th century to insulin and vaccines to the Avro Arrow fighter aircraft to Canadarm for spacecrafts and the Candu Reactor for nuclear energy to the Blackberry phone for everyday people. After Blackberry, our track record stops abruptly. Why?
In the book Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, the author, Robert Pirsig, asks a timeless question: “And what is good, and what is not good, do we need someone else to tell us these things?”. In my understanding, the answer can toggle between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ depending on circumstances – although the author’s main thrust was that we don’t. This ambiguity poses a challenge, and at times, opens up space for a negative force to dominate a society. Here, by ‘negative’, I mean a force that creates a wrong understanding of what constitutes ‘good’. These forces are largely shaped by centres of power such as politics, religion and the media. In that context, yesterday’s front page of our ‘national broadcaster’ – which goes through over $1 billion of taxpayers’ money every year – looks like this (remember, this was the day on which the Indian spacecraft made its history-making landing on the moon):
Of course, one day’s front page of one media outlet is by no means a representative sample – far from it. But one could pore through all the front pages of all the media outlets in Canada going back years, looking for a development in Canada of a nature that comes even remotely close to Chandrayaan-3, and I guarantee that we will come up empty.
In its stead, you will see that over the years, their pages were filled with stories and opinion pieces about: white supremacy, settler-colonialism, patriarchy, climate change / climate denial, systemic racism, transphobia and the like. As a side note, it is worth pondering what happened to those ‘300 white supremacy groups’ that were supposed to be posing a grave threat to Canada according to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh in an interview with CBC. We haven’t heard anything about them in quite a while. One has to assume that all these nefarious groups decided, voluntarily, to disband themselves, because if they had been neutered by any official action, we would have heard the triumphant announcements and in-depth analysis via wall-to-wall coverage in the media. Or is it maybe just possible that these ‘300 white supremacy groups’ were just the flavour of the month? I am tempted to believe so, because we no longer hear about #MeToo as well, as if all the wayward men in Canada have come to their senses are no longer mistreating women (here, I mean the word ‘women’ in the old-fashioned definition).
As waves of virtue-signaling panics follow one another, never to be seen again after their ‘flavour of the month’ status is usurped by the next wave, one has to hit the pause button and try to make sense of what is going on here. As our politics and media are joined at the hip, the resources that media allocates to issues depend on what is the latest thing in vogue in politics at any given moment. But what decides what is in vogue in politics from time to time? I think that at least partly, it depends on the social mood. Specifically, what the prevailing view is as to the definition of ‘achievement’.
Most of my schooling was in a Catholic school run by missionaries, and among the things that we were taught outside of the curriculum, one important teaching was that making a ton of money cannot be an ambition – although it could be the byproduct of achieving an ambition. And because this teaching was being imparted in a truly multicultural setting (as opposed to the faux multiculturalism of Canada), this message was delivered via a genre of Sanskrit poetry known as ‘muktak’ (‘pearl’ – because the poetry is a stand-alone couplet with a message as valuable as a pearl):
Yeshaam na vidya, na tapo na daanam, gyaanam na sheelam, na cha sampratishtha
Te mrityuloke bhuvi bhaarbhoota-h, manushya roopen mrigashcharanti
Those who don’t possess knowledge, nor meditation, insight, character and a good reputation
They are a burden on this earth; animals moving around in human form
The harshly judgmental tone that may be grating to Canadian sensibilities apart, this muktak tells us what counts as a genuine ambition. Of course, it is possible to fiddle with the definition of each term to render an opposite message of what was meant in the muktak, but I am sure you get the actual point.
Achieving one’s ambition (in its true definition) results in two things: (a) financial gain, and (b) reputation. This is where we lost our way. Increasingly over the past decade (and perhaps longer), one could derive a lot of financial gain by participating in unproductive activities (such as making speculative ‘investments’ in real estate), and gain instant fame by becoming an ardent supporter – nay, evangelist – of the ‘flavour of the month’ cause. The former does not require elaboration on my part – you are quite familiar with the phenomenon. As for the latter, consider this: In the Opinion section of CBC’s website, a recent ‘First Person’ article with the heading “After coming out as trans, my return to return to sex work has been unexpectedly rewarding”. I glance at this ‘First Person’ section occasionally (just for the headline – the subjects covered aren’t in my range of interests), and each time I wonder why they don’t carry a piece from a straight A’s student who is now maybe 3 or 4 years into their STEM career, offering insights into their success that can motivate other young people. Or maybe a non-straight A’s student who found a creative way to a rewarding career. Or someone who resolved a local ecological problem, along the lines of some fishermen in India who have taken it upon themselves to protect an endangered species of turtles (see this report).
The bottom line is that in the present-day Canada, both financial gain and reputation can be achieved via cost-free means. The prevailing ambition is not to achieve a feat that brings you money and fame – rather, the ambition is to become rich and famous.
When my daughter used to play hockey, watching the organizational process unfold was educative. There was this home league consisting of a bunch of teams (the individual players getting juggled around every year so that their former teammates were the now opponents and vice versa), from which aspiring players were selected for the ‘Rep’ teams. Competition at the ‘Rep’ tryouts was fierce. One player who was so good that she could have easily been selected at the ‘Rep’ level at the first attempt decided instead that she wanted to get into ballet dancing. As I learned about (not witnessed) the process by which hockey talent ‘bubbles up’ to the national level, I was impressed.
At the same time, this also bothered me – to my knowledge, there isn’t a similar organized process for bubbling up budding scientific talent. Or if there is, then their activities aren’t considered material enough to warrant space in the pages of the media. The Ontario teachers who were so gung-ho about taking their students on a ‘climate march’ every Friday don’t appear to be bothered that over half of their students cannot meet the province’s own standard in math. Organizing a ‘climate march’ is a cost-free method of achieving fame (even if it may be for the proverbial 15 minutes), whereas bringing the students’ performance in math up to the provincial standard (and hopefully, to a world-beating level) is too much work – work that is no longer prized in Canada.
A NATION ADRIFT
The end result is that on the whole, there isn’t a goal that we are striving to achieve. Precisely because it is cost-free to become rich and famous (or at least, be lulled into that belief), the means to achieve these have become deeply entrenched into well-oiled machineries that are so pervasive as to crowd out productive effort. For example, the ever-rising number of newcomers to Canada (as immigrants, work permit holders, international students and refugees) all but guarantees rising housing prices, turning speculative investments in real estate into a safe bet. Great riches are guaranteed, isn’t that great? Or, on the other part, as Jonathan Kay pointed out, there is the case of a Canadian who has changed their gender identity 4 times, and each time, CBC and the Toronto Star wrote an article about it. This makes one wonder: what would it take for a high-achieving student (in academics or in something else, such as music or dance or sports) to attract so much interest from two of the most prominent media outlets in Canada? Or any other individual, not just a student, for that matter?
The sad conclusion is that as a nation, we have lost sight of our priorities. Is it (at least partly) because we have a prime minister who believes that we aren’t a nation at all? Or is he just the most visible symptom of a deeper, widespread malaise? Let me be clear: in any society, most people will live humdrum lives. It’s not their fault either – their priorities are about basic survival and the other mundane things of life. But a society with bursting vitality will always have those few starry-eyed individuals who want to try the impossible. The other characteristic of such a society is that the rest of the people will be supportive of these efforts.
In this regard, special mention needs to be made of the much-ballyhooed ‘Technology Supercluster’ plan that was announced with great fanfare some years ago by the then-Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains. I remember the total tag for this plan at $ 20 billion (more on which later). The Atlantic part of this plan had a commitment to spend $153 million on the Ocean Supercluster project (see this report by CBC from November 2018). However, I am unable to find any report online as to what this project achieved in the nearly 5 years that have elapsed since this announcement. I am also unable to find media reports on the overall plan (for $20 billion, which number is from my memory).
This is my issue with these ‘top down’ schemes (with emphasis on the word ‘scheme’) – they are generally prone to governmental ineptitude and lack of accountability, and more than likely a means to siphon public funds in the direction of preferred cronies. The overriding factor here is not the ambition to achieve something, but rather the ambition for financial gains (for the recipients of the funds) and for ‘street cred’ (for the government).
The net result of all this is that as a nation, we don’t have a starry-eyed mission, the way India had. In all objectivity, there are indeed a plethora of problems and distractions there also, just as they are in Canada and everywhere else. But the defining difference is that in addition to these problems and distractions, they also have people with ambitions that go beyond money and fame. As I have been saying for a while, Canada has stopped trying to be globally competitive precisely at a time when global competition is becoming more intense – perhaps unprecedentedly so. Unless we re-establish our values and start treating real ambitions with the importance that they deserve, Canada will, at some point in the not-too-distant future, be relegated to the status of ‘also ran’ in the global community of nations. Have we run out of time for this corrective action? Regardless of the actual answer, it behooves us to believe that the answer is ‘No’, that we can still try and make Canada a major player internationally. But it would require us to have a ‘moonshot project’, or several such projects. This requires a paradigm shift – we would have to start believing that ‘achievement’ does not consist of buying multiple residential properties and mouthing the latest ‘in thing’ as if we are actually convinced of its truthfulness.
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