Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Time out from politics for a moment. It's too hot in Ottawa, and I mean that literally.
I once switched on the box several years ago and caught an episode of The Singing Detective. As I watched the dense and richly-textured plot unfold, I thought to myself, This is what television could be. The medium really does have enormous potential. Slings and Arrows is another rare illustration of this, made right here in Canada, too. Despite the critics' snotty commentaries, Paul Gross did the best Hamlet I've ever seen a few years ago at Stratford, and his considerable talents are uniquely suited to this backstage comedy.
For all sorts of reasons, though (mainly the exigencies of capitalism), TV is a living example of the race to the bottom, a desert of game shows, talk shows, assorted "judge" shows, "reality TV" shows, and random snippets and gobbets of this and that, intended for an audience weaned on Sesame Street who have, consequently, the attention-span of a gnat. That doesn't mean, though, that I don't watch a lot of it myself, and while drinking beer, not latte. My partner likes reno-porn, as a friend of ours calls the house-and-garden shows, and I've built up a healthy respect for Mike Holmes.
But in our case there must be some sort of cosmic re-balancing going on, because our favorite programs have been the Law and Order and CSI series. Fresh from the battlefields of protest and opposition, we cheer on the cops and the district attorneys, those "two separate but equally important groups" who, respectively, investigate crime and (presumption of innocence be damned) "prosecute the offenders." Aggressive defence lawyers, defending indefensible clients on hallucinatory grounds, drive us nuts, not to mention the bleeding-heart judges who waggle their fingers at Jack McCoy for some infinitesimal technical transgression and let sadistic murderers back on the street. We wait for the guilty verdicts with pleasurable anticipation, drinking in the stunned looks of the offenders as they're carted off to Rikers. They'll do hard time. Serves them right.
And, as a long-time critic of positivism, I am all awe and admiration for the hi-tech science and the meticulous evidence-based methodology of the criminalists in Las Vegas, Miami and New York. It's entered the domestic lexicon: "Did you take that last piece of pizza?" "What, did I leave some epithelials?"
But these urban morality plays, which effortlessly seduce us into a point of view that can be found more consistently over at places like Dust My Broom and Small Dead Animals, do not entirely rule the roost. Programs featuring defence attorneys are not as common--it's the Zeitgeist, stupid--but a few of them have shown staying power, like LA Law and The Practice. The spin-off from the latter, however, Boston Legal, transcends the pack of 'em, as well as the cop-and-prosecutor efforts that, in our saner moments, we realize consist of nothing more than hegemonic state propaganda.
A few years ago in New York City, we bought scalper's tickets and went to the theatre to see The Tempest. Who strode magnificently onto the stage as Prospero? Why, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise. Patrick Stewart was first-rate, another Shakesperian, like Paul Gross and indeed William Shatner, who made the real money somewhere else. But I cannot imagine Captain James Kirk doing a proper job of Shakespeare. Shatner was a ham, his acting in the early Star Trek series abominable. He was wooden, self-conscious and frankly silly most of the time.
So what happened? Somehow the man has finally found his métier. Shatner is just playing himself, laughing at himself and making it work, because his character is, well, wooden, self-conscious and frankly silly. Denny Crane has amazing presence as an early-onset Alzheimer's victim, an unabashed Republican and gun nut, who still wins cases, merely by pompously stating his name. "Denny Crane." I love it when he does that.
But one actor alone is not responsible for making this series sing. James Spader and Candace Bergen are indispensible. The three of them play off each other like a trio version of the Beatles. And Boston Legal is simply brilliantly scripted. Watching it is like entering a parallel universe where everyone is just slightly...off. The characters talk English, but one is tempted to search the place for pods. The only person who seems to be from planet Earth is Paul Lewiston (Rene Auberjonois), whom Trekkies will remember as Odo, the bucket man.
The storyline is complex, a mixture of discourses, largely parodic, swirling around themes of human passion and morality in both personal and legal settings. Watching Denny and Alan Shore (James Spader) have their manly Scotch and cigars in the evening, exchanging odd comments in perfect communion, two good friends, is worth the price of admission.
I don't know how the team, actors and writers, maintains such consistency. I haven't heard a false note yet. This is one of those series one watches in fear as well as admiration, wondering when it will come to an end--when that ecstatic jamming will falter, and the regular accordionist lurches once again onto the stage.
On to the next season. I can't wait.
Sunday, May 28, 2006
(Small Dead Animals and Celestial Junk were two of the many conservative blogs that mocked the reaction of the Parliamentary Press Gallery to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s demand that his office decide which reporters would be permitted to ask Himself a question. The following was retrieved from a pod that entered this universe through a tear in the space-time continuum. --DD)
PM: And now Comrade Kate McMillan may ask her question.
DT: Many thanks, Comrade Prime Minister. My question, as you know, has to do with freedom of the press. Recognizing that the press, largely composed of members and sympathizers of the disgraced ancien régime, frequently do not offer the respect that the Comrade Prime Minister is due, and do not speak for the broad masses of the workers and peasants, what steps will you take to ensure that the people are properly informed in the future? Thank you, Comrade.
PM: Thank you for your question, Comrade. If more reporters were like you, we would cease to have a problem with them. But for the most part they do not accept the will of the people, and continue to raise questions where none is warranted.
With my Party, I am planning an initiative to ensure that the people receive the information to which they are entitled. We shall be instituting a program of licensing journalists, which is not that radical a departure from the current practice of issuing press credentials. From now on, those credentials will simply have to be earned. As in the case of doctors, lawyers and accountants, certain minimal standards must be met.
Journalists who wish to practise their profession will shortly require a period of training in the basic rules and ethics of the profession. Once this training is complete--Comrade Levant will be the new Commissioner for Journalism, and will oversee the training--an oath of loyalty to Canada will be administered. We expect our first class to graduate sometime in 2007.
Until then, we shall keep the people informed with a regular series of press releases. Anyone with questions will be able to reach us at an email address or a toll-free number --1-800-GET-FACT. An operator will be standing by. Please stay on the line to retain your calling priority. (Laughter)
Journalists already in the profession will be permitted to practise--until they get it right. (Laughter and applause) But we are free not to talk to them--this is, after all, a free country. (Applause) Of course, they all have the option of going back to school.(Laughter)
Once again, Comrade, thank you for your question. (Prolonged and stormy applause)
Friday, May 26, 2006
What Harper and his supporters fail to understand, in the final analysis, is how journalism works. Jeffrey Simpson, not a man I tend to admire, writes a commonsense column in today's Globe & Mail that's worth a read. Journalists ask hard questions to get public figures on the record and to elicit information. Simpson points out that various Canadian prime ministers of both Conservative and Liberal persuasion have considered the press biased against them. They are in fact engaging in an attempt at deflection, one that won't stand up to scrutiny.
Here's an extract from Simpson's piece:
He should ask Paul Martin or John Turner. Or Jean Chrétien, whose government was rocked by endless media coverage of scandals, real or imagined. Did not Mr. Harper's party in opposition feast on that same media coverage month after month? Was it not The Globe and Mail that broke and pursued the sponsorship affair long before the Auditor-General sank her fangs into it?
Not to mention endorsing Harper for Prime Minister back in January! Four months is obviously an eternity in politics.
And here's Harper himself:
Unfortunately, the press gallery has taken the view they are going to be the opposition to the government and they don't ask questions at my press conferences now.
The PM's view of journalists, from this extract, seems to be that they ought to behave like Conservative flaks. Penetrating, probing queries annoy those who like to operate in the shadows, uttering imperial pronouncements from time to time that it would be treason to question.
But journalism isn't about showing deference. It's about eliciting information. When a fiercely partisan Conservative was proposed to head up a new commission on public appointments, supposedly put in place to ensure non-partisanship, a parliamentary committee had the effrontery to challenge the choice. Mr. Gwyn Morgan was grilled about his publicly-expressed views on immigration, and was pretty well accused of being a bigot. When CTV's Jane Taber got him on-air, her first question was, "Are you a bigot?" The howls of outrage from the right half of the blogosphere were something to hear. Yet her question was simply good journalism. It offered Morgan the opportunity to rebut, and to enlarge on his views.
Taber was blasted for a recent interview with Rona Ambrose on Kyoto, too: in spite of her questions, some commenters smugly noted, Ambrose came out of the interview looking calm, cool and well-briefed. In spite of her questions? More like because of them. Who allowed Ambrose to shine from coast to coast to coast? Why, the evil "MSM," that's who.
Let me pause for a moment, though, to engage in a little self-criticism. Once upon a time, when I held senior office in a large public service union, I dealt with the media, national and local, on a fairly frequent basis. At first I reacted to pointed questions as though we were having an on-air argument. It took some growing on my part to realize that I was being given an opportunity to get the message out, and to counter assumptions that many held about unions and our position on issues of the day. Nor did it matter if my questioners--many of whom were members of the Canadian Media Guild--were "really" antagonistic to unions or not. The questions themselves were a jumping-off point.
That's not, of course, how Harper sees it. He wants to pick and choose the journalists he will deign to respond to. He has muzzled his own caucus. If the Parliamentary Press Gallery resists becoming in effect his personal PR outfit, well, he just won't talk to them, then.
The peevish and petulant little man who heads our government is demonstrating frankly dangerous tendencies. When he doesn't get his way, he tends to lash out like a spoiled child. It's becoming clear what he and his blindly-partisan supporters want: unconditional obedience and shows of respect, a lot of kow-towing and curtseying, a tame media and a tame electorate.
I am, for some reason, put in mind of W.H. Auden's poem, "Epitaph on a Tyrant":
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
A reporter once took on another imperial-minded prime minister some time ago. Here is the partial exchange:
At what cost? How far would you go? To what extent?
Well, just watch me.
Just watch Stephen Harper. You ain't seen nothin' yet.
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
His views on homosexuality can only be characterized as extreme. Bulka sits on the so-called "Scientific Advisory Committee" of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), a fringy far-right outfit in the United States that believes homosexuality is a disease that can be "cured."
Carleton University is well-known in Canada for its progressive values--it has long prided itself on its diversity and inclusiveness. Its decision to honour Bulka flies in the face of these values. Anyone interested in questioning this eminently questionable decision should get in touch with the President of Carleton University, Dr. David Atkinson, at email@example.com. And why not drop a line to Dr. Marc Garneau, Carleton's Chancellor, while you're at it? He can be reached through the Departmental Administrator of the Carleton Board of Governors, Ms. Barbara Steele, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE: (May 25) The Carleton University GLBTQ Centre for Sexual and Gender Diversity is now busy moblilizing against the award. There will be an article in the student newspaper, a letter-writing campaign and a protest at convocation if the university presses forward. Meetings are planned with Dr. Atkinson and with groups such as EGALE. Stay tuned for more.
Thursday, May 18, 2006
Since about that time, war had been literally continuous, though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war....But to trace out the history of the whole period, to say who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible, since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made mention of any other alignment than the existing one. At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.
Now Canada is further enmeshed in the international policy and narrow interests of the US, which, as history reminds us, has engaged itself in wars, proxy wars and invasions almost since it declared independence.
The vote was won with the assistance of people like Michael Ignatieff, an outspoken defender of the American imperial mission, described in the press rather confusingly today as a "senior Liberal." (I'm out of the labour movement, where seniority actually means something.)
So, folks, what are we fighting for? (Cue Country Joe and the Fish).
My point is this: we're now involved in a civil war between rival gangs of hard men in a failed state. These things tend to go on forever. And the more we extend our mission, the more difficult it will be to extricate ourselves.
I notice that one Warren Kinsella (who shall get no link from me) has applauded the Parliamentary vote, claiming that it's "the right thing to do" because it's only a matter of time before terrorists blow up one of our subways. I'm a little unclear on the logic of that, because it could be argued that the latter might well happen as a result of us merrily pacing the US in its mid-East and Far East romps. Massive civilian casualties tend to make people crazy. The survivors are not likely to make neat distinctions between Canadians and Americans when they embark on suicide missions, distinctions that, in any case, Stephen Harper is hell-bent on erasing.
Make no mistake: if I could have wished away Mullah Omar or Saddam Hussein I would have had no hesitation in doing so. Their dismal records speak loudly for themselves. But that does not, or should not, lead inexorably to the notion that the US has some sort of global manifest destiny to invade countries at will to get rid of stinkers. On closer examination, we find that those stinkers have usually arrived at their positions of power because of the US, and that other stinkers are ignored on the world stage altogether because they are allies of the US. The last century of Latin American history provides more than enough examples to make this point.
The other point is that invasions and wars of attrition do not bring out the best in subject populations, their state institutions or their leaders. Afghanistan is just such a case. Even if, for the sake of argument, we were to assume that the US behaves altruistically when it ventures forth periodically to conduct regime change (an assumption I shall refrain from making), the results of these interventions have tended to be nothing short of disastrous in human terms.
So what do we do about corrupt and cruel leaders around the world? Perhaps stop installing them, for one. Stop propping them up when it's convenient, and overthrowing them when it isn't, for another.
In the meantime, here we are, well and truly implicated in a war without end against "terrorism," that empty signifier. A war that is, in fact, for the purpose of furthering US imperial domination around the globe. We're just one of the privileged nations joining in for reasons of ideology and Realpolitik, and we're making ourselves a target for the damned of the earth.
Is there still time to ask why?
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
I have a suggestion. Why not build a wall?
Naturally, I'm not suggesting that this encompass huge swathes of Canadian and Mexican territory; the Israeli example leaves something to be desired. No, I'm suggesting that we think outside the box, and do our best to help our American friends feel secure.
The wall would of course extend the entire length of both Canadian and Mexican borders, but why stop there? There are the Eastern and Western seaboards to worry about as well. Make the entire continental USA a gated community, I say. Well, why not? Hawaii and Alaska can fend for themselves. They weren't part of the original forty-eight, now, were they?
But we need to be comprehensive here. Air space is also a problem. The solution? A huge kevlar geodesic dome that would cover the entire continental area, of course. (Gentlemen, we have the technology--at least in embryo.) Back it up by all means with missiles and armed satellites. Pull back the flap to let the pollution out from time to time, while going on red alert.
The last concern is tunnelling. Possibly a thick "floor" of steel-reinforced concrete could be laid across the US. Basements would be a thing of the past, but perhaps just as well.
When this teraproject is completed, our armed forces can pitch in by continuing to patrol the northern border to forestall any attempted breaches. The Mexicans can do the same. Perhaps the UN could patrol the coastal regions. The borders must remain secure!
Then, only then, will Americans feel safe. Not to mention the rest of us.
Saturday, May 06, 2006
I'm one of those "Babble refugees" some of you have heard about--frequenters of a discussion board over at Rabble until their aptly-named Management Committee started acting like Simon Legree. Well, no, let's not exaggerate--more like V.I. Lenin:
We are not utopians, we do not “dream” of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination. These anarchist dreams, based upon incomprehension of the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship, are totally alien to Marxism, and, as a matter of fact, serve only to postpone the socialist revolution until people are different. No, we want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control, and 'foremen and accountants'.
The subordination, however, must be to the armed vanguard of all the exploited and working people, i.e., to the proletariat.
Briefly, because the story has been well-told elsewhere, a well-liked moderator, Audra Williams, was fired during a series of life-crises, by email. The Management Committee that did the firing took a hard-nosed stance, stated that the matter was not up for negotiation, and withdrew into haughty silence. A lot of veteran Babblers picked up and left to create their own site, which recently received its official name: EnMasse. No subordination and control for them.
I'm not really in their number, having lurked but not posted much at Babble--I prefer the blogosphere to Usenet-type groups, as a rule. But I'm old-fashioned enough to take the slogan "An Injury To One Is An Injury To All" to heart. I made a bit of noise in a few Babble forums, and signed up as an EnMasser to show a little solidarity.
What choice did I have? Here was Rabble, behaving like a Type X manager in a non-union shop. No sense of shame. No principled self-criticism. No transparency. No accountability. And leaving its soft underbelly fully exposed for the Right to rip and tear in its inimitable fashion. To use this mess as an excuse to indulge in personal attacks against thoughtful Left stalwarts like Judy Rebick, who was only one of the players involved in any case.
Some people are continuing on over at Babble as though nothing had happened. La desaparecida isn't talked about very much any more. Best to keep your head down, or explain it all away, or make excuses, or pretend it didn't happen.
I've probably already lost a couple of good, longstanding friends over this. One sent me an email that pretty well said just that, after I had the temerity to tell her that this action was out of character. But I'm a trade unionist at heart, and what happened to Williams--and the way it happened--was a damned disgrace. If this had happened on my turf, I could have won the grievance in a deep sleep. Fired for failure to hand in a form. That's what the email said. Good grief.
So anyone interested in some good back and forth that isn't trapped in somebody's combox ought to head over to EnMasse. Some there have a foot in both camps. Others have simply--moved on. Check it out. There's a lot of fresh air over there.
I'm just back (briefly) from the PSAC Triennial Convention in Toronto, and I'm still collecting my thoughts. But I couldn't resist a few comments in the meantime about little Luc Cagadoc.
Luc is the seven-year-old Filipino-Canadian kid in Montreal who was accused of "eating like a pig" and disciplined ten times for using a spoon and a fork at the same time in his school cafeteria. It seems fitting, somehow, that I post these few hurried remarks before heading to that city myself for a meeting of the Canadian Anthropology Society.
Reading the news reports on this has been a Rashomonic experience. One report has a teacher, serving as lunchroom monitor, calling him a pig; another attributes the word to both his teacher and his school principal, and another (from the Philippines) included this interview with the parents where the question of intelligence was raised:
She said she confronted Bergeron about the incidents. The principal, however, lectured her that Luc should learn how to eat like the Canadians using only a fork. [Note: another report has the principal insisting on both a knife and fork. –D.D.]
She said she got more angry when the principal of the 387-student Roxboro school told her: "If your son eats like a pig he has to go to another table because this is the way we do it and how we’re going to do it every time."
"I told him have you seen him eat like a pig? How can you tell me that he is eating like a pig. At that time I was furious, I was enraged. I was really mad," she told ABS-CBN.
Even Luc's father, Aldrin, was incensed after talking with one of the school officials. "He said that if you eat aside from this method, it’s not intelligent. I told him, 'You mean if you eat with chopsticks, it’s not intelligent?'" he said.
Little Luc is apparently an A+ student in math.
Perhaps the word "cochon" (pig) is thrown around freely at the school in question. In my day, though, when I lived in Quebec, the c-word was considered one of the gravest of insults: using it on a seven-year-old kid would have been unthinkable. In any case, the school board has its own spin on events: "What was questioned was the way he was eating that day," their spokesperson Brigitte Gauvreau said. She claimed that students could eat with chopsticks, or any other utensils they need. She went on to state:
This child has attended the Lalande primary school since preschool and has thus had those cultural practices since then and it has never been a problem....
What happened on April 12 had to do with the way he was ingesting his food that day and not with the utensils he was eating with, nor how he was using them. It was an educational intervention and in no way had any intercultural dimension.
And--quelle surprise--the parents have been threatened with legal action for speaking out. The issue has been taken up by the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, an advocacy group, and the mother is expected to file a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission on Monday.
The matter has generated international attention, and the Filipino ambassador in Ottawa, Jose Brillantes, describing it as an affront to Filipino culture, has called upon Canada to live up to its multicultural self-description. Demonstrators have shown up outside our embassy in Manila with large spoon and fork cutouts strapped to their bodies. And there matters lie for now.
I am assuming that a more complete story will emerge once the Quebec Human Rights Commission has done its investigation. I'm aware from personal memory that kids aren't always graceful at the table. Being lectured on table manners is not one of my happier childhood memories. They seemed to me to comprise a huge collection of completely arbitrary rules that took all the fun out of filling one's face.
But there does seem a bit more to this than correcting a bright little boy who may well have a mischievous side. There is at least a strong hint here that cultural differences are at the root of l'affaire cuillère et fourchette, not just kids' table behaviour. If even a fraction of the parents' account of what they were told by school officials is true, a kind of cultural indoctrination seems to have been going on, not untinged by the kind of ethnocentric attitude that would permit school officials to talk to parents in such a fashion about their child.
In any event the simple, unreflective act of eating has become hypostasized. Spoon-and-fork dining is now the Filipino way, the very essence of Filipino-ness; giant spoons and forks parade before our embassy, as noted; and indignant Quebec school officials insist for their part that the proper companion of a fork is a knife (preferably, however, not worn upon the person). If multiculturalism in Canada is, to a large extent, a collection of fetishes, so too is the reaction to it.
An article in the Philippines Times refracts some of this in a way that maybe lets us see things a little more clearly. Here are some of the highlights of "The boy who ate with a spoon," with some comments of my own:
[A] school in Quebec has cast collective contempt on a population of 85 million Filipinos and eight million more who live overseas.
Whereas the Montreal Gazette calls the whole matter a mere "flap."
The Chinese and the Japanese have their chopsticks, their staple being sticky rice that can be formed into a ball and picked up easily by clicking sticks. As a matter of fact, some Chinese families dispense with the serving spoon and dip their chopsticks into a common bowl of chow mien [sic]. Some of us would probably flinch, "eeew, serving spoon, anyone?" but culture no matter how strange is something to be studied, understood, and respected, not narrow-mindedly interpreted.
This paragraph sums up the complexities and ambiguities of "Othering" admirably. This is a liberal, not a conservative, take on the "strange," their "clicking sticks," their supposed distasteful habits (Chinese in fact reverse their chopsticks when taking food from a common bowl), so that, instead of discipline, we should "understand" and even "respect" such behaviour, no doubt at a suitable distance.
Theresa said she has been flooded with messages of support not only from Filipinos but also from Canadians and other foreigners.
I do like the "foreigners" part.
A letter writer to the Chronicle said the "arrogant and ignorant" actions of the school monitor and principal make him ashamed to be Canadian.
"That kind of 'superior' attitude belongs to the ugly past of the British Empire...[!] If the child is misbehaving, address that problem but do not insult the boy's culture and an entire nation," he said.
But I repeat all this not to mock, but to illustrate. The writing, a little foreign in its texture, smacks of Otherness to a Canadian reader. The oddnesses and errors in it bring to our consciousness attitudes which, if we would only step back, can be found right here at home, in the words of the schoolteacher and principal of the Ecole Lalande, in the institutional responses when the matter became public, and in the whole sad, hokey spectacle of identity politics known as Canadian multiculturalism.
I am sorry that a child has become the latest surface of emergence for these essentialist cultural battles. His vulnerabilities are many in this affair, and I hope he grows up to be a social activist and not a serial killer. For now, just let the kid eat his damn lunch, for crying out loud.