Sunday, January 11, 2015

On solidarity

Forget Charlie Hebdo for a moment. Start somewhere else. Consider a little community in Colombia, Las Pavas. The people of Las Pavas have a small cooperative agrarian community. Their lifestyle apparently suits them. Unfortunately, their land has attracted the attention of an international company that wants to extract palm oil. The people of Las Pavas are trying to say no to the exploitation of their land, and to the corrupt and violent processes by which an international company has attempted to take it from them.

If bullets can answer words, the people of Las Pavas, and with them a hundred other communities: indigenous people, the poor, or even simply people who choose peace, have no chance whatever.  The greed of the neoliberal order and the obsessions of the consumer culture will answer words with bullets without a single thought if they can get away with it.In fact, none of us have any realistic possibility of resisting the violence of our culture with violence. We organize, we protest, we speak, we persuade, and we cannot do any of these things effectively if a bullets can answer words.

That explains why je suis Charlie, and why je suis Charlie matters so much.

Not everyone agrees: some of the most quoted pushback has come from Jacob Canfield of the Hooded Utilitarian. Mr. Canfield makes the point that free speech does not free Charlie Hebdo from criticism. His criticism focuses on the way he considers the editors Charlie Hebdo failed to navigate the distinctions between the places in the world, such as Europe, where some Muslims suffer oppression, and the places some Muslims oppress others. Whatever the merits of that argument, it does not change the reality that two men with Kalashnikovs attacked a satirical magazine and killed eight journalists and cartoonists, as well as police officers protecting the offices. In a wholesale and brutal fashion, the gunmen answered words with bullets. A brief look at the firepower available to those governments committed to the neo-liberal politics and economics makes it extremely clear that the poor and powerless in the world will suffer most if the murders at Charlie Hebdo go unanswered.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I remember...

as a child watching the first runs of Mel Brooks's Get Smart with my parents. In one of the episodes a character mentioned torture, and my mother said the American forces would never use torture.

My mother did not indulge in illusions about Americans. She never saw the United States with awe or reverence or as the exceptional and unique nation many Americans profess to see. She saw a nation among all others, home of Janas Salk and Bull Connor, Martin Luther King and George Wallace, John F. Kennedy and H. L. Hunt. She saw a country with manifold, even brutal flaws, a country capable of great good and great evil, a country where, in that moment, the good outweighed the evil. Above all, she saw a country which stood for something, something that included a code of conduct. And that code of conduct simply excluded torture.

I refuse to believe that country no longer exists. I believe many, many Americans still hold to and live the basic American propositions about the fundamental dignity of human beings, and would never engage in. or condone, torture. The American Empire may have grown over the American Republic, but it has not devoured the American Republic. Yet when I read long discussions in comments on the recently released US Senate report of CIA torture, discussions focussed entirely on the question of utility, of whether torture works, I cannot shake the conclusion that my mother would find many contemporary Americans deeply dsappointing.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Black lives matter

For Canadians tempted to get smug about the American legacy of slavery, let me add: First Nations lives matter as well.

The incidents in the United States between African Americans and the police have piled up lately in a particularly sobering way. A police officer in Ferguson MO. shoots an unarmed student. A police officer in Staten Island chokes a man selling for loose cigarettes. Officers shoot and kill a shopper in the middle of buying an air pistol and a child playing with a toy. A police officer stops a motorist, orders him to fetch his license, and shoots him when he goes to get it.

Rudolph Giuliani weighed in on the shooting in Ferguson, terming "Black on Black" crime a worse scourge on the African American community than  any heavy-handed police presence. Plenty of people have responded to the moral insensitivity of his comments, but the factual problems with his claims bear some consideration.

When Giuliani speaks of the need for a police presence in majority African American neighbourhoods plagued by violence, he implies that the police present will protect the community. In fact, as Radley Balko documented in a Washington Post article, in the environs of St. Louis law enforcement activities often serve the purpose of raising funds for otherwise economically unsustainable communities and their work forces. Since the work forces include the police, the officers on duty have to fund their own positions through fines. For years, the residents of Ferguson lived with the absurd fiction that police can dispense even handed justice when their real mandate is to find ways to extract money in the form of fines from the community. It did not dispose them to accept the explanations offered by the police for the shooting of an unarmed student.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014


the Jabberwock, my son. Oh, and the two-tonne steel bomb with the driver who thinks everyone on the street should wear high-viz or stay at home.

Operating a powered vehicle on public streets for your own convenience, pleasure or profit is a privilege. That privilege comes with responsibility. That responsibility is simple: do no harm. If you can't drive safely for any reason, don't drive. Driving safely means, at a minimum, not hitting pedestrians with the right of way. Period. It does not matter what the pedestrian has chosen to wear. If you think you can make a legal right turn on red but you can't tell for sure if you see a pedestrian waiting to cross, don't make the turn until you have made sure. If you get an impression that you see motion at night, you probably do: in darkness, the human eye does a better job detecting motion than shape. That fleeting impression of something moving could mean a human being, and until you've identified it, stay stopped. You and your car can mange to wait to make the turn, but the pedestrian can't make do without their life. Adjust your speed to the visibility. If you can't see a pedestrian in a black coat in a crosswalk in time to stop, slow down until you can. You will get where you want to go a whole lot earlier if you don't have to stop to explain how you injured or killed someone along the way.

Motorists keep putting more and more onerous conditions on vulnerable road users. It has to stop now. The appetites of car users for speed and convenience already dominate most of the usable public right of way. Motorists have an unconditional responsibility not to injure pedestrians using the limited public space left them. Don't hit pedestrians in crosswalks, at four way stops, in crossovers, or on the sidewalk. Just don't do it: full stop, no excuses.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ride Line 9


A high pressure petroleum pipeline known as "line 9" runs through Toronto, roughly parallel to Finch Avenue for most of its length. Historically, the pipeline has carried crude oil from terminals on the East coast to the refineries in Sarnia. Enbridge, the owner of the pipeline, proposes to reverse the flow and have the pipeline carry diluted bitumen, tar sand, from Alberta to refine on the East Coast.

We know that the Earth's mineral resources will not sustain the kind of high energy, high consumption culture and lifestyle symbolized and enabled by the private automobile for much longer. Trying to keep on with business as usual, squeezing the last oil out of our planet, will come at a high cost to the world, to the living things on it, and to us and our cities. Line 9 goes right through some of the most ecologically sensitive and the most heavily settled part of Ontario. As the energy industry wrings the last drops of fossil energy from this planet, pipes such as line 9 carry more and more dangerous and corrosive substances.

Cycling culture offers an alternative to this ugly escalation of extraction, consumption, and waste. To demonstrate this alternative visually, I propose a bike not bitumen ride along the line 9 route, through some of the beautiful and diverse parts of Toronto. I tentatively propose it for the first Saturday of October: early enough to be warm for the ride. A Saturday one week after critical mass, should provide an opportunity for the greatest participation. An afternoon ride, starting at 3:00 pm, should take place in the light; the ride should take about two and a half hours at an easy pace.

The route I propose for this ride follows the route of line 9 closely, from Islington Avenue near the Humber to Leslie Street in the East.

For reasons of safety I am changing the ride start point to Jane and Finch, specifically Jane at the recreational trail crossing, just north of York Gate Mall (about a block North of Finch on Jane). Also, the ride will stop at Dufferin until 4:30pm, to give anyone who wants to join us after the Ice Ride a chance to do so there and then. 

Monday, September 08, 2014

The public eye: Nina Davuluri and Amanda Marcotte

It started with a flower.

Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, visited Central High School in York Pennsylvania, and Patrick Farves gave her the flower and asked her to come to the prom with him.

Anyone who has had any involvement with planning a high school prom, or even just observed the process from a distance, knows that while not all high school formal dances aim for this, or achieve it, a cultural expectation exists that those who participate in a prom will find it a magical experience, an excursion into a fairy tale world, a Cinderella dance where all the coaches turn back into pumpkins (or, more accurately, rental stretch hummers) in the morning. Likewise, anyone who shops for food and reads the magazines and tabloids in the checkout lane knows that a whole industry dedicates itself to convincing us that some people, collectively known as celebrities, live in this enchanted world all the time.

An invitation to the prom, therefore, does not necessarily entail a sexual invitation, still less an invitation to any sort of relationship. An invitation to the prom may well mean nothing more than an invitation to share a fantasy. When someone to extend it to a person supposedly living the life of a celebrity, what does that mean? If you treat the proposition as an equation, and cancel out the absurdities on both sides, it comes out to a simple acknowledgement of the other person's humanity. I don't know how Mr. Farves saw his actions; more than anything else, it looks as though he saw the event as a cheerful prank.

But it caught the attention of Amanda Marcotte the feminist blogger, who saw the whole thing in a much darker light.  She has of course the right to see these matters anyway she chooses, but I find her arguments interesting. She wrote:
Every year around prom, there’s a “cute” story wherein a teenage boy gets himself some attention by putting a famous and beautiful celebrity he’s never met on the spot by asking her to prom, knowing full well that she would rather be at home pulling out her toenails than go on a date with some random teenage boy she’s never met.
The passage expresses an interesting repugnance: people don't generally pull out their toenails voluntarily. Marcotte here appears to equate any date with any random teenage boy with torture. She provides an important clue to her thinking later in the piece, when she writes:
I don’t think it’s cute when girls pester Justin Bieber for dates, either.
As someone who wishes Bieber well and hopes he gets his life together, I still have to say: on the record now, and when Ms. Marcotte wrote the piece in question, the problem with pestering Justin Bieber for dates has much less to do with the "pestering", but with the recent behaviour of Justin Bieber. If I had to advise any random young woman about asking Mr. Biever out on a date, I would have something to say about getting into a car with someone who has a charge of drunk driving on his record, I see no reason any young woman who wants to date Justin Bieber should not consider herself attractive enough to set her sights on him.