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.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Two court cases for cyclists to watch

Two cases will come up in Toronto area courts over the next while, both worth watching.
  1. Lawrence Koch has a traffic case that could potentially set a bad precedent for cyclists' right to the road.
  2. Immanuel Sinnadurai was killed in a car/bicycle crash on August 1. Police now believe the driver who killed him was racing, and they have charged both of the people they believe participated in the race with dangerous driving causing death.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

How (NOT) to run a red light

Like most cyclists, I do not make a fetish of the traffic laws. When certain interpretations of parts of the highway traffic act would require me to put myself in danger for the convenience of motorists, I choose to say safe. Better judged by twelve than carried by six. That said, many traffic laws serve to keep cyclists and other vulnerable road users safe. As I have written before on this and other web logs, most of the time it makes practical sense to follow the traffic laws, to return courtesy for courtesy with motorists. Cyclists, in my opinion, have only two actual ethical responsibilities: take all possible care to come home safely, if only for the sake of the people who love you, and do not hurt any other vulnerable road users.

This video shows a pair of cyclists running a red light, and taking what I consider an unethical risk with pedestrians in the crosswalk as they do so. The red light has no magic quality that makes it important, but the pedestrians matter: their lives matter to them as much as mine matters to me. The riding show on this video is wrong. Full stop. It puts other people in danger; nobody on any vehicle has any business doing that.

We can do better.

Emotional safety and Privilege

Sometime over the past three decades, an increasing number of people began to demand emotional comfort as a right equivalent of physical safety. Expressions such as "I'm uncomfortable" went from an explanation to an imperative. Alerts appeared on writing dealing with any subject liable to upset people.

Some of this was simply respect for a diversity of belief; some of it, decency to people with harrowing pasts. But it doesn't do to allow the claims for emotional comfort to pass without asking three critical questions: who has made the claim to have their comfort protected; what measures does this require? Above all: who will these measures affect, and at what cost to them?

After all, the demand for emotional comfort current on the Left has a lot, indeed too much, in common with the conservative preoccupation with "quality of life". Quality of life, in these cases, always seems to mean a sense of comfort and safety for the privileged at the expense of people the privileged would prefer not to deal with. That has led, over time, to a great many oppressive actions by police, both official and unofficial.  The video in this post was taken by Chris Lollie as police arrested him after security officials complained he refused to cooperate with their demand he vacate a chair in a public area in Minneapolis. Whatever the merits of this specific situation, the police focus of "quality of life" clearly falls disproportionately on people of colour. While treating people with traumas in their past with sensitivity and respect doesn't mean pushing people like Chris Lollie from pillar to post, making sure we do not use phrases like "quality of life" or "emotional safety" as excuses for oppressive behaviour will take a certain amount of careful, and critical thinking.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Origins of hostility to cycling

Over the last couple of months, a number of articles in online magazines and web logs have appeared, dealing with incidents in which online commenters or media personalities have derided cyclists, expressed hostility towards cyclists, even condoned violence against cyclists. Many of the articles that try to explain the hostility shown cyclists, as well as the comments on these articles, refer to logic errors and psychology as explanations. While these claims probably have some merit, they avoid the elephant in the room: money. Buying and maintaining a car costs at least thirty times as much as a bicycle; bikes cost essentially nothing to insure and only the food (which people eat anyway) for the cyclist. That money supports a lot of jobs. It supports a lot of advertising. Most media outlets religiously report any mention of their parent companies, many columnists disclose personal relationships with their subjects, but newspapers and radio stations never seem to disclose the share of their advertising revenue that comes from motor vehicle manufacturers and dealers when they publish stories about road issues, crashes involving pedestrians and bicycles, or criminal acts by motorists.

Hostility expressed against cyclists and cycling often falls into one of three categories: objection to change, hostility to non-conformity, personal investment in car culture,  and objections to cyclist behaviour.

People concerned about the changes bicycles bring tend to focus their objections on the construction of bicycle infrastructure and the accompanying reduction in provision for the automobile. Hostility to non-conformity finds its classic expression in the sumptuary law police who object to cyclists who wear spandex. Neither of these arguments represent any kind of rational objection to cycling, cyclist behaviour, or public policy in relation to cycling, and cyclists cannot do anything to change them. In addition, many  comments deploring cyclist behaviour register objections to actions that don't actually break any laws.

That leaves people who feel genuinely concerned about safety and the effect of misbehaviour by cyclists. Many of these people actually cycle and advocate cycling; members of the cycling community do not usually hesitate to criticize each other. If you want a good way to distinguish between people who object to cyclist misbehaviour on real safety grounds, and those who invoke safety concerns as a cover for bias against cycling, notice which commentators take the time to disown the dud arguments, the rants against spandex or cycling infrastructure.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Thoughts on Walking in the World Pride March

Last Sunday, Toronto wrapped up a successful week hosting the World Pride celebrations with a huge Pride parade. The annual Gay Pride celebrations in Toronto traditionally kick off the summer season. This year, the whole world came to celebrate with our city. Under the sun, under a rain shower, under a rainbow that appeared in the sky above the rainbow city, we marched Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and straight together.

Allison and I belong to an affirming church, and when we walk in the parade, we marched with the Proud Anglicans, a group of affirming churches in the Toronto area.

When Allison and I march, we march first and foremost as allies. Gay Pride is an expression of Gay and Lesbian culture: we go to support our gay friends and neighbours, the people we work, worship and learn with. But as with many things, it isn't quite that simple. Yes, in one sense, for us Gay Pride is someone else's parade. But in another sense, it is ours, too.

I started high school in 1970. A high school in a small Ontario city in 1970 was not an outstandingly friendly place for anyone. For my Gay and Lesbian friends at the time, it took spectacular courage go to school at all. As someone on the autism spectrum, I did not have a very easy ride either. My school mates did not have a sophisticated analysis of gender. I can attest that some had on the vaguest idea what "Gay" or "Lesbian" entailed. They used homophobic slurs to cope with any nonconformity, and I didn't conform. I remember more than a few occasions when I walked home from school with "Freddy F-----" ringing in my ears.

It's important to remember who Pride is primarily for, and why. Whatever the difficulties people on the autism spectrum have to deal with, no country has a "anti-autism" bill with penalties for family members who don't turn in people with autism. But the Pride celebrations have a larger message: everyone has the right to celebrate the way they are made. Each one of us is a magnificent, awesome creation, each one of us was made to love and be loved. And in this larger sense, as an affirmation of the dignity of each of us, the Pride Parade is my parade as well.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

And now for something completely different...

intersectionality and the carceral state. A post about what's wrong with the current furor over Woody Allen.

In the Nation, Jessica Valenti wrote:
I also believe that deep down people know that once we start to believe victims en masse—once we take their pain and experience seriously—that everything will have to change.
Jessica Luther writes:
When people buy tickets for the next Woody Allen film or they purchase his latest on DVD, when another Hollywood group decides to honor his decades of work, when an actor chooses to work with him and says how nice he is in the interviews as they promote their movie.... those actions, all of that acceptance of Allen silence his victim.
A lot of silencing has taken place in this situation. The defence of Woody Allen by Robert B. Weide in the Daily Beast suggests we shouldn't believe what Dylan Farrow has to say. He doesn't accuse her of lying, not exactly, but he does claim people he does not name have somehow engaged in "swiftboating" Woody Allen. He writes:
I know Dylan/Malone believes these events took place, and I know Ronan believes so too. I am not in a position to say they didn’t, any more than all the people on the internet calling for Woody’s head can say they did. 
Nobody should have to say this, but: if Dylan Farrow and Ronan Farrow believe Woody Allen committed a heinous crime against her, why should they keep silent? Neither his talent, nor his body of work, should excuse Woody Allen from somehow reckoning with some serious accusations he has evidently not come to terms with.

Defining justice as punishment and exclusion, on the other hand, silences many other people. Jessica Valenti, Jessica Luther, and others write as though some even-handed judge of impeccable integrity will arbitrate their call to exclude and punish Woody Allen and those like him, but in fact calls for harsh retribution lead to laws interpreted and enforced by the American state, with all its historical faults. Millions of Americans, mostly impoverished and racialized, face literal silencing by cell walls, and once released, when laws turn them away from the polls.

By a coincidence, on the day I looked up Jessica Valenti's comment, the Nation also published the following story in the "this just in" box on the same page:
The US government hid an egregious clerical error that placed a Malaysian Stanford University student on the TSA’s no-fly list and prompted a nine-year effort to clear her name, according to a federal ruling released to the public Thursday.
In other words, on the same page that Jessica Valenti inveighs against any acceptance, not for convicted malefactors but for the accused as well, a link appears to another incident in the ongoing story of the American national security and carceral state. Pace Ms. Valenti, that United States has long believed victims "en masse". The results include laws, many named for individual victims, which specify harsher and harsher penalties, ceding more and more unchecked discretion to police and prosecutors, and narrowing the legal rights of suspects, offenders, and the general public alike. Americans have already decided to reject the argument that the life of a person, any person, amounts to more than the worst thing they ever did, or the worst thing anyone accused them of doing. They have instead embraced laws that have led to mass incarceration, mass punishment, at a rate that not only eclipses Russia, China, and Iran, but also has serious effects on American democracy, from the racial imbalance in the denial of voting rights to outright public corruption.

Our society engages in extravagant celebrations of talent and achievement in the performing arts and sports. We do a poor job of separating the celebration of achievement from an affirmation of the ethical qualities of the people we celebrate, so that we make performers, people who excel at sports and other performances, into heroes. We have no vocabulary for saying that Woody Allen has great talent but also great flaws. Indisputably, he has family members in deep pain that he has never succeeded in reconciling with. Clearly, we cannot dismiss the memories of Dylan Farrow. Equally clearly, after three decades of American public policy has excluded and demonized offenders, we can see that road does not lead to a good place. As difficult as it seems, I see no realistic choice but to treat the good in people, in everyone, with celebration, and the bad as something to heal.