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75th Annual Summer Conference, August 10–13, 2006


Opening Keynote
Two Cheers for Progress

Vivian Rakoff
Author, former Director of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry and Professor of Psychiatry, University of Toronto.

Summary by Paul Dhillon


David McGown opened the conference to applause and introduced a small video clip on the history of the Couchiching Conference. The video began with black and white archive footage containing candid comments from Mr. Eric Koch including lexical gems such as “…they were keeping up with Mrs. Jones down the road who was a sexual giant.”

Mr. McGown continued after the film to welcome the crowd to their conference and reviewed some of the history of the Couchiching Institute and the past topics that have in some way or another been related to the idea of progress, the topic of this years’ conference. David continued to examine the generally positive view on progress that people have on the individual level and how that view changes at the macro level. The evolution of the conference over the last year was discussed and the loss of Ronald Wright as the opening keynote speaker due to a family emergency was stated. A warm thank you to the many volunteers, the YMCA, and the CBC was made in addition to thanks to the strong financial support that allows the CIPA to function year after year and allow over 40 students from across the country to attend the great Canadian conversation.

David McGown introduced Vivian Rakoff and a long list of achievements and accomplishments was summarized.

Dr. Rakoff began by introducing his title as a borrowing from “Two Cheers for Democracy” as much of his speech would be borrowing from different sources.

He proposed that within our culture “broadly defined as the western culture but extended to much of the world” but whose values are the aspiring values of much of the world. Because even in our failures we operate on a platform of ideas where everyone should be free, minimum incursions by the state, no discrimination, fundamental human rights, health, clean water. Paradoxically our severest critics have been fostered in the very system that we created.

Norm Chomsky, Edward Sayed, Stephen Lewis operate within the hospitality of our institutions, which provides them a protective cocoon in which to work on their ideas and remind us of our failures.

Our debate and uncertainty is in fact the greatest gift of the bourgeois revolution, out of the past 200–300 years we don’t quite know where we are and this uncertainty is the type of progress that exists today.

AIDS in Africa, lack of political right in China, internecine battles in India, Afghanistan, inescapable mess in Iraq, the warming of the planet, the issues in Lebanon.

His stance began with a humanist approach. He spoke about the confluence of factors that have led to “us” sitting here talking in an air conditioned room, from immigration to railway building

Two Streams. If one wishes to see where progress really is unambiguous, look at medicine. The audience was surveyed if anyone had ever had surgery, worn glasses, or had any fillings – very few people had not had any intervention. He continued to speak about the life expectancy of man in London when it was 15–17 years depending on the study, when people would die of TB, tooth abscesses and other associated illnesses.

Now we carry on to live longer and in better health than any group of human beings have ever lived before. Polio is almost gone, smallpox exists in a storage in highly protected labs, and now even AIDS is a disease to be lived with and not necessarily a death sentence. The world was always a mess; history is a succession of horrors; what looked like progress at one time has often been overturned. Examples of the Weimar republic ending in the Nazi regime, the Stalinist tyranny, the streets of Florence turning to book burning.

We are with all our failings an extra-ordinarily charitable society.

The political thread (stream) begins with the Sabbath. God, neither the king nor the master, said that one day a week you do not work. And the implications are extraordinary. This means that there is a definition of the human being that is not a constant generator of the economic good. This notion of an unviable humanness that does not exist all over the world

Sabbatarian Human Being – This has permeated the entire flow of western human history.

The notion of slavery and kingship was a part of our tradition until the renaissance as it was given very respectable form by Aristotle. In The Politics he spoke of a state in which people are in a society in the role in which that nature intended them to be in. It is not too far from that to the divine right to rule by kings. The world changes by absorbing the past and recasting it. From the many revolutions (French, American) they all carried the extension of the individual.

Hobbes and Locke in their notion of the social contract…implied that contractual relations between individuals…was from citizens banding together and being individuals…not from God or the king…these demands formed the basis of the enlightenment…a form of government in which the arbitrary was removed.

Liberté, Egalité…but it was a bourgeoisie revolution…which meant equality before the state and fraternité. This meant that we extend to one another the biological fraternity in which we exist in our own family. From this we have the tax system in which that we support those that we do not necessarily support in terms of health, schooling, and even the road system.

The USA remains one of the most open countries even though it votes against gays and has the death penalty, yet people still keep on coming. Yet the harshest critics of the USA live inside the USA.

The combination of the trade union movement, the humanist movement, the gradual easing of the workday amongst others is the reason that we are here today. The horrific picture of Engel’s working day was already being challenged and this view came to America from England and what was the colonial movement.

The shaping of how one may live an ordinary modest life; the rational humanist democratic tradition forms how we are in the world today.

Without our clothes and teeth we are the same as how we were 7, 8, 9, 10,000 years ago. So how do we define progress when we are the same model, similar to a Ford model car, that we were years ago with the same feelings….

Jean Jacques Rousseau’s state of nature, of primary innocence, did say that it is more important to be a human being instead of an educated human being. The notion of human innocence affects everything from school where “creativity” is the mantra. The vision of the human being as entirely sacred, human beings are their own value.

The notion of people being singular was still around, there was a need to perceive the human beings as being passionate and singular. Rameou’s Nephew (recommended reading). By stating that the human being had many potentialities he was already undermining the state; this was why the book was not published in France.

This meant that you did not have the one possibility of self; you had many. The notion of the romantic self was beginning to take place.

Hegel took the world that until then had been static, that all is change, that everything is in flux and that we are constantly being challenged with new thesis. From then on, no one would speak of human life as being static; all would be change. The Romantics generally spoke about the courageous man and the right to be happy, and then along came Schoppenhauer who said everyone has a will, so in the end you had to end with a buddhistic passivity.

Metaphor – a dismal version of the social contract. Sleep like hedgehogs at night so we sleep far enough away to protect ourselves from the prickles but close enough to be safe together.

Nietchze – took the notion of will and entelechy one step further; he took the Hegelian principle that the world is ever changing. You had to make your own life. He refers to the death of God in two moments. God be with you said Zarathustra to the religious man, to whom he says. Does the old man not know that God is dead? The second time he speaks to a crazy man and says the same.

Authentic, you make you entelechy. Nietchze’s thinking informed the thinking of humans in tragic situations. Many playwrights in Europe – Strauss, Klimt – are Nietzche influenced. The existentialists took the notions of self-making and addressed the Aristotelian notions that you become what you are.

To sum up. Two points.

Satre: “No Exit” – “Hell is other people.”

Support and comfort is other people, doubt is the greatest gift of the bourgeoisie revolution.

The lack of certainty, the creation of anomie, is probably the most precious guarantor of progress that we have.



Brian: Have we lost the ability to carry with us the products of the enlightenment?

Dr. Rakoff: Jefferson was fallible and human; I like them because they don’t make the rest of us feel imperfect and awful. To look for the perfect leader is to perhaps look for a tyrant. The fallible Jefferson is not a bad model when you look at France when one perfect revolutionary began to kill another perfect revolutionary that was not perfect enough. Cherish the imperfect leader, watch him, and know you can throw him out.

Welcome the mess of democracy. If you see broad boulevards and triumphal arches, there is likely a dictator.

The USA is not as two-dimensional as some people think. There have been a huge number of great political thinkers and artists who have come from the USA. There will be a time when Hollywood will produce a gem. Remember that there was a ton of garbage in Elizabethan England but one Shakespeare.

Jans: “Why are we all here? Because we are not all there.”

Stephen Lewis is a great trumpeter for the cause but there are many working in the clinics, but there is progress being made. We are not a smug civilization, we are acutely aware of our failings. When you identify a wrong you are beginning to address it. The romantic, heroic vision is the one that always does us wrong. If we concentrate on a humble modest life we will be here for a long time.

Heather: Progress comes from a lack of certainty, Cartesian doubt… The Romantic Self…what are the connections between the 17th and 18th century sense of self and how can we relate them to the 21st century sense of self?

The sort of person you are and are allowed to become, it has a great deal of the romantic in it but the laws of the democratic society that we live in govern it.

Aphorism for it is: yes we’ve accepted the right to dance on the tightrope (Nietchze) but we don’t expect everyone to dance on it, we’ve created a safety net. You don’t have to be amazing; you just have to be human.

Verel: What about the world of Islam and “Eastern” (Chinese/Japanese) world?

We have borrowed so much from the Arab and Chinese world. At any moment in history is what cones down in a particular place…however in my narrative I cannot see the contribution of South Africa.

Sean: Uncertainty and the lapse of nations in times of uncertainty to dictatorships.

Not all societies cope with uncertainty in the same way. Some countries enter into a state of entropy. In terms of China is it an amazing protean civilization that I hope will take into it the political progress and change as it has taken in the economic change.

Andrew: Jefferson’s gravestone. The decline of the classical education.

The self-immolation of the humanities in the United States... Know-nothingism, as Jefferson said.

Alistair: The story that you are telling in terms of western political and economic thought is consisting of two strands…(1) a classical humanist tradition and (2) a romantic tradition …there seems to be a profound tension between these two strands…a notion of a self-creating, self-constituting person…runs counter to a rational self-interested Asian…is there a theoretical or real tension that exists between these two streams?

Yes, it exists. But they have both made great contributions. The aesthetic attractiveness of many of the romantic traditions that attract people commonly last to community and individual disaster.

Madha: How do you see mental illness progressing?

I have seen the symptoms of depression managed, psychosis controlled, and changes in the institutions, we haven’t conquered the field, but progress pharmacologically, and etc. has been amazing.

Jeremy: How do we reconcile freedom of speech with our societies take on hate speech?

The issue of the absolute moral good is modified in reality. You’re allowed free speech but you’re not allowed to yell fire in a crowded theatre. Absolutist statements of absolutes always fail in reality when you are asked, “if there are Jews in your cellar.”

Monica: Institutional hospitality, maybe some increasing freedoms are not addressing the problems (environment).

We are cognizant and awareness of these things makes them different. The main thrust, the model we have for the world is of the peaceable kingdom.

Heloise: We need to return to the poetics of doubts…what do you think about the poetics of certainty? What do you think of the reintroduction of philosophy to the secondary level?

Theocracies everywhere have a history of oppression and they are truly death philosophies and an absolute intolerance of the other. The inclusion of the other by ever widening circles is an accomplishment.

Jonathan: What problems do you see with progress at different levels? (income disparity)?

This is a tremendous moral question. How much happiness can you be entitled to in your life? A decent pragmatic society is not a bad beginning. It’s hard to starve to death on the streets of Toronto…do we have an international obligation…of course we have…but never before have people given so much voluntarily.

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