Friday, December 25, 2015

All I want for Christmas...

is a safety culture on Ontario's streets, roads and highways. And some respect for vulnerable road users would be good, too.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

These aren't the droids you're looking for -- and by the way, this is the best movie ever

It's probably just me, but somehow the rave reviews for "The Force Awakens" have a whiff of jedi mind tricks about them. It's not that it's a truly bad movie. Certainly, if you compare it with "Phantom Menace", it's a real accomplishment. But it's been called the best movie of the year, which seems just a little excessive in a year that saw the release of "Room" and "Spotlight".

For those who go to movies looking for spectacle, "The Force Awakens" delivers. For those who want to see plot twists, this movie will more than satisfy. If you want to see moments of convincing acting between the explosions, it comes across as well. For those who want to see truly coherent, truly excellent writing: see "Spotlight", or see "Room".

In his book "The Empty Space", the great English theatre director Peter Brook wrote about the disconnection between plays that described inner lives and plays that addressed the great sweep of world events. Brook points to the Elizabethan theatre as proof that writers could address both interior thoughts and feelings and world events, exposing the conflicts and interactions between the fears and hopes of individuals and the great events of the world. Perhaps Star Wars aims to do the same thing on a mythic scale, but it misfires badly.Star Wars has a red shirt problem. The first movie of the series, in 1977, began with the destruction of the planet Alderan.

All story-telling risks a kind of narcissism: telling a story inevitably means telling it from a particular point of view, and the listeners come to understand, and to that extent sympathise with, that view. Some story-tellers resist, making a conscious effort to remind their hearers that people outside the circle of the story also matter. Other storytellers happily capitulate to the limits of the form, even turning effect into ideology. Star Wars explicitly defines some of its characters as "chosen", some as auxiliaries placed by fate in the orbit of the chosen, and the vast majority as grist for the cosmic grinder. But this juxtaposition of the few who matter with the many who do not creates jarring inconsistencies in the heart of the story. At the end of Return of the Jedi, the film clearly presents Annakin Skywalker as fulfilled and redeemed, together with Obi-wan and Yoda which leaves the audience to wonder where in that afterlife the inhabitants of Alderan have got to.  "The Force Awakens" does not change this; it doubles down on the anonymous slaughter.

The problems with "The Force Awakens" start with, well, the force. An invisible, quasi-religious and very loosely defined principle associated with a set of abilities, mostly telepathy, the ability to manipulate others, and telekinesis, the Start Wars movies describe it as a grace somehow passed on by heredity. The force, in fact, provides a continual deus ex machina for the series, and particularly for the current film. The film depicts one of the principal characters as a scavenger, scratching out a subsistence living selling parts scavenged from the debris of space battles of a generation ago to an exploitative and oppressive junk dealer. Yet this character goes on to display excellent piloting and combat skills, skills that take decades to master and in fact act as the hallmarks of military aristocracy. Who taught this character these skills? Why would they? It should not surprise any viewer that the film makes it abundantly clear that the force is strong in this one. The films express a vision of profound inequality, and "The Force Awakens" does not change this.

Some of the best works of literature and drama to describe great historical events and movements have done so from the point of view of a random participant, as "Casablanca" tells the story of the Second World War, or from the point of view of the victims, as "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" or "Johnny Got His Gun" do. The protagonists of these stories represent the millions of people who went through the same experiences. Other accounts tell the story of major events from the point of view of people who happened to make specific decisions that had a profound impact. The choice of protagonist matters, and in Star Wars, the choice of protagonists, by an impersonal blessing from the universe passed on in the family line, contradicts the ostensible theme of the series, the struggle to preserve, then the struggle to restore, then the struggle to maintain a democratic state. The writers of Star Wars do not manage this tension well. "The Force Awakens" is spectacular; it has good acting between the blasts, but it does not tell a compelling story.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Cultural appropriation and the millennial environment

The recent protest at Yale University over issues of cultural appropriation and Halloween have received support, analysis and condemnation. Responses opposing the protestors run the gamut from thoughtful concern about free speech to indignant clucking.

Much of the thoughtful criticism focuses on the supposed "intolerance" of the protesters, asking what happened to the legendary free speech protests of the 1960s. Some of the writers objecting to these protests seem to think objections to racial caricature, at Halloween or any other time, represent a new low in public support for free speech. That would probably come as a shock to the Nuremberg tribunal, who found the vicious anti-semitic caricatures of Der Sturmer had helped fuel the hatred that drove the Nazi persecution and mass murder of Europe's Jewish population. The court sentenced the publisher of Der Sturmer to death for crimes against humanity. Free speech has always had limits, and most Western countries acknowledge that in a society that aims at tolerance and diversity, incitement to hate lie falls outside these limits.

To understand why student complaints about the use of cultures in Halloween often seem to focus on practices that do not seem hateful, it helps to understand the environment the millenial generation has grown up in. The Internet has shifted the context in which today's students experience restrictions on speech. The power of the Internet has made the actual repression of information and opinion very difficult, except for extremely authoritarian governments willing to endure considerable self-inflicted harm. Students today have never lived in a world where censorship of ideas can plausibly come from an American civil servant or a judge. Instead, they have spent their lives in the world of the DMCA, where expressions get blocked not by laws but by licenses, not by bureaucrats but by lawyers, not by state power but by private claims of ownership over ideas. The controversy over cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes involves not free expression but property.
"MGD06JesusSaysBuyMoreArt" by Infrogmation - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons -
Connor Friedersdrorf quotes the offending email by Erika Christakis: "Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious... a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?" That looks to me like a naive and nostalgic view. In Halloween celebrations of the 1960s and 1970s, parents whipped up costumes for their children, Halloween decorations were made at home, and students pulled sheets of their beds for toga parties. Some parents still make costumes for their children, but Halloween today is a multi-million dollar business. Stores pop up in major cities in September and October, selling multitudes of ready to wear costumes. These costumes come with design copyrights, trademarks, even business method patents. The only people who do not get to make claim on this revenue stream are the people who created and maintain the living culture that gives many of these costumes their meaning. Cultural appropriation is not kids being transgressive; it is yet another an example of big business using the powerless as raw material to make a buck. Moreover, it is one means of turning that many things appropriated from the powerless into cash that individual students can choose not to participate in.  The email from Erika Christakis advised students offended by a costume "...if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other." That misses part of the point. Costumes are big business. By the time a student puts on an offensive costume, the exploiters have rung up another sale.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


for the people of France mourning loved ones. And the people of Lebanon. And Syria, Iraq and Russia. Pray for everywhere terrorism leaves its ugly imprint.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The 11th day

of the eleventh month, the guns of the war to end all wars fell silent. The millions of the dead in that war included my great uncle Launcelot Cumpston. Eleven years after the end of that war, my father was born. I was born eleven years after the Second World War; a war in which my cousin John Cox died.

We frequently commemorate the war dead with the phrase "lest we forget". In its original context, the phrase did not refer to the need to remember the dead and the sacrifice they made. It appeared in Rudyard Kipling's poem recessional as a refrain: it calls us to remember that power politics and military might will not keep us safe.

God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

let us remember all the men and women who served in war and peace, those who stood guard and those who bound up the wounds, those who gave their lives in battle to resist aggression, and those who laid down their lives to witness that there is another way.

Above all, let us honour the memory of those who died without complacency. I believe the near future must include a day on which we can say: here ended war. I believe that if that day does not come, then a day will come, although nothing will ever mark it, when humanity ended. And I honour the sacrifices made by brave men and women in the armed services of our country.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

NDP and deficits

Writing in the Progressive Economics Forum, Louis-Phillippe Rochon denounces Thomas Mulcair's stated intention to avoid running a deficit. He pronounces himself shocked, shocked that Mr. Mulcair would ever suggest that deficits and debt make it impossible for governments to do good things for those they govern. He writes:
But in embracing balanced budgets, Mulcair has also endorsed all the right-wing rhetoric and lies that come with it. On the campaign trail, Mulcair has said in response to Trudeau’s promise of infrastructure spending, “I am tired of watching governments put that debt on the backs of future generations.” Later, he said “Mr. Trudeau seems to have the same approach as Mr. Harper – they both want to live for today and let tomorrow take care of itself … There’s a reason why we want to be good public administrators with balanced budgets, because if we’re not, then we’re not going to be able to have the types of programs that we all believe in going into the future.”
Historically, running a deficit without a just tax structure simply creates more debt, which rich people and corporations buy because poor people can't afford to; this requires governments to pay interest, which the poor pay for and which rich people and corporations collect. We have also reason to believe that citizens pay more attention to what governments spend  their money on when they have to actually hand it over as taxes, rather than watch the numbers add up on a debt clock on the web. Experience over the last five decades doesn't do much to support borrowing money as a means of building a durably just society. Infrastructure projects, public benefits, and economic stimulus without a strong, just and sustainable base of fair taxes can end up in the sorry mess the Greeks find themselves in, or the wildly irresponsible bank bailouts the Americans and others engaged in at the outset of this decade. Above all, I see no way to build a just society on injustice,whether you borrow money to do it or not.

And that, rather than the nicer points of public finance, explains why I, unlike Dr. Rochon, plan to give Mr. Mulcair and the NDP as much support as I can. Unlike Justin Trudeau's Liberals, the NDP voted against Bill C-51; unlike the Liberals, the NDP has promised to repeal it as soon as they get into power. And that matters, because C-51, effectively declares open season on First nation communities trying to protect their culture, land and rights. If, as they have said they will, the Liberals retain any part of a law that makes it easy to trample the rights of people Canada already has a shameful history of abusing, they will run a moral deficit far worse than any numbers in a financial ledger, and they might as well build their infrastructure projects on sand.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

...a different appropriation

Consider this thought experiment.

In front of you you is a large blue button. You have only to push it, and technologies for efficient energy production, large scale urban agriculture, and efficient recycling and recapture of metals and materials will appear on a mass, commercial scale. Fibre production will come from massive and energy efficient grow-ops. Recycling will replace mining, and the agriculture that feeds the cities will be relocated to high-rise, high efficiency urban hydroponic farms, and fossil fuel extraction will end. With little to no industrialization pressure, indigenous cultures, and indeed anyone willing to live simply off the land will have the majority of the planet's surface to themselves. The First nations of the Western Hemisphere, for the first time since Columbian contact, will have an opportunity for real freedom.

There's a but.

If you push that button, the patents for all this technology will be owned by Exxon, Haliburton, GE, GM, IBM, Microsoft, Monsanto, and Nestle. Indigenous people will be free and outside this system, but the rest of us, those who want IPads and Internet, gaming, and Facebook will end up more deeply entwined than ever in neo-liberal corporatist culture. With the new technology, this culture and its owners would be more successful and more powerful than ever before.

The blue button aims to separate our commitment to specific matters of justice from our sense of what the world we want to live in looks like. If we push my imaginary blue button, it would end the oppression and dispossession of  the people of the land here in the Western Hemisphere, and many of us are committed to doing just that. That it would also cement the prosperity and the power of people many of us hate and fear is at most a secondary matter. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: if I could free oppressed First Nations by eliminating neo-liberal culture, I would do it. If I could free oppressed First Nations by not changing the neo-liberal culture at all, I would do that. If I could fee oppressed First Nations by eliminating some aspects of neo-liberal culture and leaving others the same, I would do that.

Many of us deplore the appropriation of the cultural artifacts of oppressed peoples by mainstream culture, ranging from actual religious symbols to gestures, but observing the dialogue on the Left today I have to wonder how many of us engage in a more subtle appropriation: using the urgency of the struggle for First nations rights, the struggle for the dignity and safety of the African communities in North America to promote our own vision for the future of society. If we work and fight for a world where Black lives matter, or First nations are masters of their own fates, what happens to neo-liberal culture in the process only matters to the extent that neo-liberal principles actually affect the lives and dignity of the people we ally with. Insist on freedom and justice first, and we will see what happens to the Nestles and Monsantos of the world.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fashionable political absurdities...

David Frum recently published an article in Atlantic Monthly, with the following interesting statement:
The Obama people, not being idiots, understand very well that international terrorism possesses an overwhelmingly Muslim character. In Europe, where attention is so focused now, the great majority of the most lethal terrorist incidents of the past 15 years have been carried out by people professing to act from Islamist motives. 
Peter McKay, Canada's Justice Minister, recently illustrated the problem with this thinking, although he did so unintentionally. In his recent statement on the conspiracy to commit random mayhem in Halifax, Mr. McKay denied the conspiracy had any links to "terrorism". Since then, evidence has surfaced of a motive: the social media presence of at least some of the accused conspirators reveals a far-right wing orientation. Denying that a plot to commit random violence with no possible motive except for politics only makes sense in the context of a trope that effectively defines political violence as terrorism only if committed by Muslims.

Consider another example, the largest mass casualty act of political violence in the last twelve calendar months to take place in the geographic confines of Europe: the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the Eastern Ukraine. To the extent this attack involved any Muslims at all, it involved them as victims. It caused 298 deaths, by a long way the greatest number of deaths from an act of political violence last year, and for some time before. So why does neither David Frum nor the sources he quotes at least acknowledge this as a terrorist act? Because, by the definition in effective use by his contemporaries, it doesn't qualify. Muslims didn't do it.

Given the winds of political fashion, shorthand expressions that conceal absurd assumptions come and go all the time. These tropes only really matter when someone attempts to use them to establish a point of fact, and ends up seduced into stating something seriously out of line with the facts.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Halfway around the world...

I recently stumbled on an example of the way an untruth can make it halfway around the world while the truth is getting its boots on.

On a comment section in Atlantic recently, I ran into the following claim about the creeping Islamic influence in "Western" societies:
...Islamists have brought about women-only classes and swimming times at taxpayer-funded universities and public pools; that Christians, Jews, and Hindus have been banned from serving on juries where Muslim defendants are being judged, Piggy banks and Porky Pig tissue dispensers have been banned from workplaces because they offend Islamist sensibilities. Ice cream has been discontinued at certain Burger King locations because the picture on the wrapper looks similar to the Arabic script for Allah, public schools are pulling pork from their menus, on and on...
When I asked for sources for these claims, another person posting on the same thread pointed out that virtually exact copies of this same statement have appeared as cut and paste jobs in many site comments. After a Google search I tracked down the source of this boilerplate: a thriller by Brad Thor called The Last Patriot. Amazon describes it as the story of a US Navy Seal turned Homeland Security operative, searching for a secret way to halt militant Islam. That may or may not provide a diverting read. But when a sentence or two, lifted from a work of fiction, appears in dozens of comments as fact, it has the potential to distort discussions of public policy that matter.

This encounter with Internet fiction repackaged as fact has reminded me not to assume the assumptions that produce legislation such as the Conservatives' recent security bill have any basis in fact. 

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.