Some Scattered Thoughts About Racism

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The point of eradicating racism is to allow everybody to exist in the same blessed and joyful state of obliviousness and innocence towards racism white people get.

Fellow white people: remember growing up, when race basically never entered our consciousness, and all we did and talked/thought about was fun stuff we liked? That! That’s what non-white people want, and to be safe, and to feel safe.  

If you are tired of hearing about racism, I assure you, so are non-white people!

Let’s put away raging political discourse about The Left or The Right or “anti-racism”: people have one life to live on this planet and it should be as full and as free as they’d like it to be. This isn’t partisan or particularly left or right wing, it’s just basic normal goodness. It’s the Star Trek view of things.

I suspect if you ask most people “Should everyone be free?” they’d say, “of course!” On the surface, everyone claims to value universal freedom. Right? Yet, racism persists. So where exactly do people’s views differ? Where is the fork in the road?

If you believe in standard Canadian mythology—that people here are unusually “nice,” that we live in an advanced country, and that racism is a blight indeed but mostly a historical one—you may be skeptical of reports of systemic racism.

The thinking is pretty straightforward: How can people say Canada is so bad when Canada is so good?

Where we mostly differ, then, is what we think is going on at a street-level, and what constitutes racism. It’s a difference in perception, not necessarily values.

Years ago, with Obama in office and anti-racism becoming mainstream in pockets of culture, it was easier for White Canada to deny racism ever existed, let alone persisted. trump and Black Lives Matter has made that impossible for even the most sheltered person imaginable.

You’d have to be living under a very remote rock to still believe there is no racism. But how much racism is there? How bad is it? Where is it? What effect does racism have on people’s lives?

What sources are you going to rely on to find out? Whose voice do you trust and why? When/if you read about racism/anti-racism, are you consciously/subconsciously invested in exonerating White Canada? Are you reading Black writers only out of due diligence because all formally educated people know to read both sides, but in practice, you’re reading with a closed-mind because secretly you don’t want to believe White Canada is in the wrong?

Nobody born wealthy and white is born Woke, and it’s very easy to understand how white people cling to old and untrue explanations of the world that, let’s be honest, reflect better on us.

If you are a white person making money in a country that everyone surrounding you, movies/TV, and textbooks all tell you is a model to the world, you are likely to be very eager to fully believe them! Not only do you get to live a life of wealth, you get to be respected by society and feel like the respect is merited! You get to have it all! You get to believe, essentially, “Canada is prosperous because it is just and good, and I am prosperous because I am just and good.” What does this person have to gain from considering what Canada is getting wrong, or who it is leaving behind? Even acknowledging the question may undermine not just their sense of accomplishment, but their world-view and sense of self.

If you aren’t making money here but subscribe to the Canadian myth, you get to have an entire political party dedicated to putting “Canada First,” claiming you’re getting left behind because decadent vacuous feel-good politicians are putting sissy internationalist values ahead of good ol’ Canadian boys!

Either way, you are at the unquestioned centre of the mythology. White Canadians are embraced by society from birth, which is great! But it should be done for everybody. It is precisely the thing that must be done for everybody.

You can come at this topic from different angles, and personally, mine is this: there is no god and race is a made-up concept we have horrifically imagined into existence to justify slavery/economic exploitation. Humans are free to make this world a civilized place by ending organized barbarism of paying police billions to jail and surveil historically persecuted people instead of genuinely supporting them with education and housing. This is possible, but the biggest obstacle is: we don’t want to. No communities/nationalities/religions are genetically or socially predisposed towards crime! White supremacy robs people of their childhood innocence—the worst heist imaginable.

Sometimes it may understandably seem like white anti-racists are scolding fellow white people on Wednesday for not knowing/accepting what we just learned about on Tuesday. Or maybe it seems like white anti-racists are saying: look at my lofty and understanding soul!

I’ll just say this: I don’t want to be talking about race, and I’m sure Black people don’t want to either! I’d LOVE to just talk about Dr John and Jerry and Alice Coltrane and the rest of my loves! I’m sure Black people also have a huge amount of much better things to do! Nobody would be in the streets every night directly facing off against a militarized army of violent racists who kill Black people and viciously attack innocent protesters unless things were really fucked up and needed to change.

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Many conservatives and even so-called liberal/centrists believe gender pronouns on campus constitute government tyranny or a threat to Free Speech, but they shrug or even applaud when public servants (ie police) kill innocent unarmed civilians/citizens–this flagrant double standard is a good example of how what is framed as an intellectual argument about society, and what embarrassingly passes for Political Discourse, is really just powerful people believing “if I am irritated, it is a threat to all civilization; if you are attacked or killed by the state, meh/lol, I’m sure they had reason.”

Racism often boils down to which skin colour is reflexively trusted, and which is doubted. Power maintains power through violence, then uses the power to tell nice stories about how it got the power. Privileged people seldom have their illusions punctured because society has historically run on those illusions.

In a world where Black people may tragically have their innocence robbed early on, being able to carry childhood innocence into late adulthood is a real blessing and a privilege, even if it encourages attitudes like the above which are untrue and repugnant!

Years from now, you’ll be humiliated you ever paid attention to people paid to be so embarrassingly out of touch.

Racists sometimes make the following defence: “a person can’t be racist unless they intended on being racist.” While there is a distinction between a proud racist and a person who unwittingly holds one or several racist views, the statement is not remotely true! Try substituting the word “stupid” for “racist” in the sentence above, and see how dumb it sounds! Really, do it: “A person can’t be stupid unless they intend on being stupid.” Makes no sense, right?

According to this defence’s underlying logic, if a person doesn’t intend on driving badly, but they keep crashing their car into trees, they cannot be called a bad driver!

A racist society is inhuman and frankly barbaric for everyone. It won’t get fixed until a critical mass of people with a lot of power decide they’re genuinely willing to trust and listen to people with less power. This isn’t about capitulating to Leftist internet activists or the SJWs or anything like that–everyone should be interested in understanding what is actually happening in the world, and ensuring we live up to the stated values we claim to believe in. What better way to rehabilitate our lofty but largely BS nationalist myths than by infusing them with truth by actually applying them to everyone in the country?

Tax Evasion vs TTC Fare Evasion: Selective Enforcement

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Society ignores tax haven criminals dealing in many millions of dollars but hounds poor people over pennies. This is one example of an infinitely-recurring pattern, where the ultra wealthy essentially rig society in their favour at the expense of society’s poorest people.

Let’s see one manifestation of this dynamic in action.

Canada loses $4 billion a year to tax evasion, because Canada’s wealthiest have more than $200 billion in offshore accounts, and these funds don’t get taxed. $4 billion.

The general public is not demanding blood. In fact, nothing is happening!

In Canada, over the past few years, the CRA has been financially hobbled in just such a way that it can’t really pursue the tax returns of society’s wealthiest people, who necessarily have the most complex, unwieldy paperwork. As a result, apparently it is more efficient for the agency to invest in assessing small- and medium-level tax returns…

How convenient!

Effectively, tax evasion is legal for the very wealthiest people in society.

Compare this lax treatment against how everyday TTC riders are grilled.

TTC riders face TTC Fare Enforcers, a subsection of police there specifically to ensure “the integrity” of $3.25 fares. All this, though more than 97% of TTC riders pay a fare, and the 2.7% who don’t includes people who can’t because a Presto machine was broken.

So, “fare evasion” is a rarity, what evasion there is is tiny, and “fare evasion” isn’t one person greedily draining the broader society of wealth, it’s just them traveling around their city, which is what the TTC exists to do. If the TTC received 5 times the amount or revenue supposedly lost to “fare evasion” annually, it’d still be critically underfunded! “Fare Evasion” is not the root cause of the TTC’s problem.

Still, we send patrols out because the idea of a poor person getting away with anything is cannot be tolerated.

The TTC is basically broke because unlike any other North American city this size, about 80% of its funding comes from the till box–ie, riders pay for it mostly, not government. Yet the TTC found the money to take out ads to shame and humiliate their own riders and plastered them on TTC vehicles!

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Similar ads were on the insides of buses and subways, and the outsides of streetcars.

The outrageous fine for “evading” an outrageously high $3.25 TTC fee is $425 or criminal charges. The smaller the crime, the more it is enforced and the higher the penalty.

When considering this backwards enforcement, is it really coincidence that John Tory, Doug Ford, and Justin Trudeau are more likely to have personal and professional connections with tax evaders than TTC fare evaders?

Look how they chase poor people.

Toronto’s mayor proudly sent fare enforcers on public transit into a global pandemic in March! Imagine paying $3+ to take a shitty public transportation system to a minimum-wage job during a deadly pandemic, hoping nobody is on your bus so you don’t get COVID, and still seeing Fare Enforcers circulate through the system. Public schools are crumbling, hopefully we have enough PPE for frontline healthcare workers, but this we have money for? This is our society?

Our indifference to poor people is evident from the TTC’s “plan” at the time for social distancing, which was this: Fare Enforcers exit the vehicle once 50 people are on board. Can you imagine society risking the lives of wealthy people to ensure financial accountability over any sum of money, never mind $3.25?

Unsurprisingly, a system built on a foundation of violence against poor people is also racist.

Statistically, Fare Enforcers issue tickets disproportionately to Black people. Fare Enforcers assaulted an unarmed Black teenager on a streetcar just down the street from my apartment. The enforcers were found to have committed no wrongdoing, which is not an exoneration of their conduct but a total indictment of the entire system.

Can you even imagine one scenario where an authority would ever physically tackle a tax-evading investment banker, and upon formal review it’d be deemed acceptable?

This charade of enforcement-theatre which lets mega criminality operate freely in broad daylight while violently hounding poor people out of a fake concern for Law and Order is grotesque, yet very typical. Indeed, if you look carefully, you’ll see this underlying dynamic repeated ad infinitum with only minor variations.

If TTC riders face humiliating ad campaigns suggesting they’re criminals and a dedicated team of armed enforcers over $3 fares, what would it look like to see proportionate enforcement against people stealing many, many millions of dollars?

The tax haven class would be cavity searched upon leaving their home in the morning. Growling bloodhounds would bark after them in the street. Billboards targeting the super rich would proclaim, “You unpatriotic dogs think you can swindle Canada? Think again!” and the super rich would be billed for these undermining billboards.

The TTC is a public good that only exists to affordably get people around the city. People have jobs and appointments to get to: The TTC is not there to generate profit, nor should it be!

Comparing the relative treatment of Class Haven Criminals versus TTC riders illustrates clearly that poor people are the ones paying for collective society, that “trickle-down-economics” is BS because in reality the money trickles down to Switzerland or Panama to be privately hoarded.

If our politicians were actually concerned with enforcing the laws on the books evenly and sensibly, rather than waging a war on the poor to benefit their friends and donors, they’d immediately send TTC Fare Enforcers away from public transit and into the Board Rooms, where all the real criminals and “evaders” are.

 

 

 

 

Thoughts About Narendra Modi’s 2020 Pogrom in New Delhi

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In late February a pogrom broke out in New Delhi, where I lived between February 2016 and August 2017. I was overwhelmed when I started reading about the violence, and still am while writing this. Still, I have thoughts.

 

Some basic facts about the violence
A mosque was burned. Footage circulated of a man from the Militant Hindu mob standing on a vandalized minaret, planting a saffron-coloured flag (BJP colours, Modi’s far-right party) and a flag of Hanuman, a popular Hindu god. Men chanted “hail Lord Ram” (a Hindu Nationalist slogan). In places, Muslim men were asked to sing the national anthem, or were beaten up right there.

To confirm their religion, Hindu mobs asked Muslims to show if they were circumcised. Elsewhere, in places Hindus put up the saffron flag so the mob would know not to torch their homes or businesses. A Hindu mob burned an 85-year-old Muslim woman to death, she was too frail to leave her home in time.

Footage of Delhi police shows them damaging CCTV cameras, so they won’t record what’s happening on Delhi streets. Yet I’ve seen a video of a police member instructing a mob to throw a brick (my friend translated the cop’s instructions).

The death toll was 4 in the initial reports from February 25. At the time of writing, it’s 53 and could still rise.

An editor in Delhi sent me pictures of victims way too graphic to post or even describe. Friends there advise me not to visit–“the country has changed.” One buddy told me, his friends aren’t talking about the pogrom–“let’s not discuss politics,” they say…as if a massacre is simply “politics.”

An Indian judge hearing the “Delhi violence” case came down on Delhi police, and was transferred away from Delhi days later. There’s other evidence this violence had explicit support from politicians and police, thought Hindus were also killed, and so was a policeman. How organized and predictable should the violence in a pogrom be?

Pogroms From all the reports I’ve read, and from everything I’ve heard from my friends there, this was a long-coming anti-Muslim pogrom organized by a fascist Hindu government.

 

India’s reputation
Modi’s India is dark, but you wouldn’t know it unless you’re there. In North America, we hear reports about the supposed eradication of poverty in India–Western Big Business is looking to corner the Indian market, and they’re eager to demonstrate their presence in India benefits India.

The pogrom in Delhi threatens to pierce this painstakingly cultivated image. To maximize profits from India Big Business can’t have India associate with political instability. Actually I think they don’t have much to worry about: media coverage about Delhi’s pogrom has been predictably shameful.

Right wing outlets that still reference Trudeau’s clothing during his India trip are not reporting about Modi’s second pogrom. Priorities.

The image North Americans have been fed about India (deliberately) ignores the all-too-real real undercurrent of violence and growing militarism circulating through the country.

India is not usually associated with Militant Hindu Extremism, but with softer, nicer things: yoga, vegetarianism or butter chicken/naan, non-violent protest, infectiously joyous Bollywood movies, etc. Indians should be proud of these things! But Modi uses this them strategically.

I saw and felt militarism-creep with my own eyes: the increased public Army worship, in the form of bigger parades and more statues; a new law requiring movie theatres to play India’s national anthem, compelling everyone by law to stand up; Hindus (gau rakshaks) lynching Muslims, and the shrugs which follow.

Still, I was totally stunned when the pogrom in Delhi actually happened, even if I wasn’t surprised. That’s the paradox. No matter how much you expect and even prepare for violence, you’re never ready when it happens.

Violence has been ratcheting up since December, when Modi introduced a law (CAA) that itemized which minorities entering India would receive certain citizenship rights on their path to becoming a naturalized citizen, and Muslims were glaringly not included. You can read about the rising violence, Modi’s “detention camps” in Assam (they seem like concentration camps), the different timeline of violence in Delhi and more elsewhere.

I’m not recapping such complex events, just want to write about my perspective on the aftermath of a massacre.

 

How to feel, after your adopted home saw a pogrom?
There are different ways to be at a loss for words, and they are not all equal. “Be safe” feels like a trite and impersonal thing to say, equivalent to “have a nice day” between strangers.

How can you tell a friend, “please, don’t die”? But what do you say?

I wanted to know that my friends were in fact safe. I assumed they would be, since they mostly live in posh South Delhi, but I didn’t want to take anything for granted.

Actually, a friend of mine’s wife is Muslim, and her family’s business was burned down by a mob. She is safe. They don’t live in Delhi anymore. No wonder.

My Facebook feed has been Indian friends non-stop reflecting, sharing reports, grieving…my Muslim friends are still worried. Their fear is palpable. My Hindu friends also lament what the country has become and are worried too. But it’s different.

I feel impossibly close and far away from the violence. My Canadian friends don’t have the first-hand sense of things to really understand what’s happening. They could intellectualize it and sympathize it, but they won’t get it.

But here’s the thing: neither do I. I’m close enough to feel my heart breaking, but I’m thousands of miles away. It was my home city for a period, but I can’t speak Hindi. My experience living in India was like an ultra immersive movie–I really did experience that country, but always through a bubble.

I wonder what my local gurdwara in Lajpat Nagar II is doing to help desperate people get their lives back together in languages I don’t understand. This is the closeness and the distance I mean. Guilt for being unable to help, close enough to feel a visceral sense of dread. 

I didn’t live in North Delhi where the riots largely took place, but I see the streetscapes from images and become nostalgic for what feels like my home.

One observation I’ve made is that maybe corny things are important to hear the closer you are to the violence. Yet I also believe the precise opposite at the same time:

“Don’t give up on the dream of a safe, secular India”…is this just twee crap that grates on the ears of people gripped by the realness of spilled blood, or is it a heartening and literal description of what peace-seeking Indians need to do moving forward?

In closing
All I know is I send my LOVE to everyone in Delhi trying to live among their neighbours in peace, who want nothing to do with Modi’s Hindu extremism. They have a proud democratic tradition amid regional challenges more complex than Canadians can imagine.

Canada has seen a mosque massacre. A Nazi unfurled a swastika at a Bernie Sanders rally just days ago, yet some North Americans simply think fascism can’t come here because our country is good, but that violence in countries like India (non-white, poorer) is expected.

At heart, Modi’s politics are identical to donald trump and doug ford’s–like McDonald’s operating in different countries, alt-right nationalist politics also makes adjustments and accommodations based on the region.

Consider, Canadian Conservatives lambasted Trudeau, not for having ties with Narendra Modi, a man so connected with mass-murder, the US wouldn’t let him enter the country for a decade–but for not having stronger ties with him. Scheer has still not denounced modi’s massacre. Neither has Trudeau.

I suppose Canadians naively think that after full-fledged mass-murder in the streets, the adults in the room will automatically stand up united to denounce all violence. In my brief experience what happens is this:

a) People who denounce modi for the Delhi pogrom are flooded by modi supporters on twitter accusing you of Fake News and being funded by an “Islamist Network” etc. (His elaborate Digital Army has been written about in detail.)

b) Modi’s radical RSS supporters claim to be the victims of a Muslim Mob, and anyone who even sympathizes with Muslim victims or blames Modi for the pogrom will face their fierce criticism and distortions of events–those who murder have no trouble merely lying.

c) outlets here that promote their own business interests as “news” will ignore a genuine massacre when their partner does it, but will fiercely denounce the wardrobe choices of non-clients for years.

d) the pattern to beware is this: alt-right parties portray critics as being outlandish and hysterical for calling them violent fascists; when the warned-about violence really does happen, they’ll say it didn’t happen, or it happened to them.

I want to send ALL MY LOVE to Delhi now! I didn’t know what to say to you through text messages in the immediate aftermath, and I still don’t know what to write even now, and I’m sorry about this. I send my love. Also, a caution: the pogrom did happen in New Delhi, and it can happen anywhere.

 

Jeffrey’s Version—My literary and literal journey with Richler’s beloved novel

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One day I stumbled on Barney’s Version at a book sale at my local bank for $1, and because I had heard the name Mordecai Richler before I thought, sure. It was 2008 or so. I had just finished doing a literature degree at Dal and thought I knew something about books.

But this one was just so funny, so honest, and seemed in all conceivable senses to be designed for me personally. This is not the place to analyze the novel or discuss anything inside it. I just want to tell a story that has a middle and ending that you won’t see coming, because I certainly didn’t!

Barney’s Version made me want to become a writer. So I started writing, and soon went on to read all Richler’s other books (except, on the written advice of Mordecai himself, his first three novels). Currently on my shelf are 27 Mordy books.

I read his non-fiction, secondary criticisms, the wonderful Foran bio, and even found for $2 a signed hardcover copy of Don’t Stick Your Neck Out. The Incomparable Atuk was released in the US under this alternate title. What I’m saying is, I got big into him!

In 2014 I was writing arts stuff for a TO website with a small but noble readership when I learned Noah Richler was curating the Luminato literary fest. I emailed him some questions, and we went back and forth a bit.

We met at the event, and soon after he graciously and very surprisingly invited me to “his local” to chat more over beer. I was excited! Noah has worked for decades as a journalist around the world, and is a great writer in his own right.

We talked about literature. He asked if I had ever read any of his father’s work, and I responded, “yes.” He asked me if I write fiction and I said “yes” again. He asked what my novel was called, I said it didn’t have a name yet. He asked what it was about. “Love and advertising.” He said that would make a perfect title, and he was right, so I called it that. (This novel is currently unpublished.)

Anyway, in about a year’s time I moved to New Delhi to help launch an international news station, World Is One News. I worked on the web desk, and my editor at WION has since become a dear, dear friend of mine. Tathagata Bhattacharya has reported from four continents, and has an astounding depth of knowledg on topics ranging from dog breeds, world history, military armaments, finance, to Dead/Band/Dylan. He also knows literature in his bones.

His grandmother, who died in 2016, was Mahasweta Devi, one of India’s most revered authors and social activists, and I understand was a runner up for the Noble Prize in literature, having published over 80 works. T’s father, who died in 2014, was Nabarun Bhattacharya, a radical Bengali novelist who transformed that language’s literature.

T leant me a copy of Vasily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, inscribed by his father Nabarun. “Dear Bao, For a Brave Life & a Bravely Faced Fate.” I loved that novel, and it was good to get my head out of news for a bit and back into literature.

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After a visit home to Toronto, I gifted to him an inscribed copy of Barney’s Version. He read and really liked it, saying it was funny and so readable, but its weave and structure was deceptively complex. Precisely.

Anyway, witnessing Tathagata proudly handle his father and grandmother’s legacy–ie corresponding with publishers, fans, news agencies, posting pictures and anecdotes on Facebook–inspired me to contact Noah again. Why not just be straight up and share a story he’d probably like, rather than be self conscious and do nothing?

I emailed Noah, reminded him who I was, and told him that I didn’t want to be a Fan Boy back when we met, but actually I had read all his father’s books. I told him that BV is what made me want to write, and how I gifted BV to Tathagata and he enjoyed it, and I explained who Tathagata was and that seeing him honour Mahasweta and Nabarun’s works is what made me want to reach out to him. I also sent him a picture of a copy of Barney’s Version sold in India, with a cover I had never seen before.

I got back a very long and warm email! And to my total amazement, actually, Noah had interviewed Mahasweta Devi for the BBC. Jewish Montreal, Toronto, Calcutta, London — small little world! Noah’s email was extremely gracious and friendly. In it he politely asked if I could do a favour and buy and ship to him a copy of Barney’s Version with the cover he had never seen before either for his mother’s archive (the Florence, ie Mordecai’s wife, the model of Miriam in BV no doubt). He’d reimburse me, of course.

Back in Toronto we met and had a very nice talk. After our initial meeting but before I had gone to India, he had been a high-profile federal candidate for the NDP, and had written a fun, candid and very well received book about the experience, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

I gave him the copy of Barney’s Version with the Indian cover, and of course refused his money—I was very honoured and frankly tickled to contribute my favourite novel to Florence Richler’s own archive.

Over the years I’ve bought probably 10-15 copies of that novel for people. I left 3 or 4 in India. In addition to my reading copy I have the Uncorrected Proofs too, still with the handwritten notes from the reviewer and a letter from Knopf Canada outlining/boosting the novel, and advertising Mordecai’s availability for interviews.

I’m only telling this story because the other day on Twitter I saw someone with the handle “Barney Panofsky’s Best Intentions,” and told him that I followed him solely on the basis of his most excellent name. I couldn’t tweet this story to him, too long, so I wrote this. Why didn’t I tell this story earlier? Maybe I’m uncomfortable name-dropping and it’s impossible to tell this story without doing that. But really, who gives a shit.

I’m happy to celebrate Mordecai! My darling Mordecai! I say that while there are “Greater” novels, BV remains my comfort food, my bagel lox and cream cheese, and my death-bed meal.

And actually a documentary came out literally just two days ago entitled “Nabarun,” about the literature of Nabarun Bhattacharya. I had heard so much about him from T, and praise for his writing from other Bengalis, but until watching this documentary I had never seen him on video or heard him speak, either in Bengali or in English. The raw footage of him was excellent, and very inspiring even! Plus my dear bud Tathagata is in the documentary too, and I haven’t seen him since 2017. Pranati Bhattacharya, Nabarun’s wife and T’s mom, is also in it, a force to be reckoned with who I met briefly shortly before she died.

Looking back, that $1 I spent for my original copy of Barney’s Version was my best investment ever…I wish I could stretch every buck this far!

Cars and Bikes in Toronto: Applying Chess Logic to Urban Planning

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Gracious reader, do me a kindness and perform a mental backflip and please read about this loaded topic with a fresh mind. I want to use chess logic to look at the problem of how to move people around a city effectively.

Preferring one chess piece to another is a terrible weakness in a chess player–the only goal is to get checkmate first, and every move serves only this prime directive. Moving people around a city is to transporation what checkmate is in chess.

The goal is not to only serve one kind of commuter, it’s to accommodate the needs of everyone in the city, and get them moving in a way that fits their lifestyle. The point isn’t to move cars around, it’s to move people.

I’d like to describe the benefits and the drawbacks of cars and bikes with these criteria in mind.

Benefits of Cars

Cars are excellent for long-distance trips that take you exactly from point A to point B. Nothing beats a car for this.

Cars easily transport heavy and oddly shaped things. And people!

They are great for those with mobility issues.

Once you buy winter tires and adjust how you drive on icy roads, it’s definitely good to be in a car on a cold winter day. Though accidents do increase, too.

Cars can transport people without them expending any physical energy.

Cars have good or sometimes great stereo speakers.

When the roads are open, and the gas tank is full, and you’re with a good buddy on a nice drive, it’s fun! These conditions are rare, though.

Drawbacks of Cars

To fuel a car, you need to find, extract and process oil. Fuel is expensive, and relying on it signifcantly damages the planet. Continually adding new cars to regions that didn’t have many cars before, or to ones that always did, is unsustainable.

Physically, cars take up a lot of space! You can park about 10 bikes in the space it takes to park one car. There is only a finite amount of space on the road and in the city, all of it at a premium, and much of it is taken up by cars and roads. Toronto must have millions of cars in it…how many square metres of road do we have? How many square metres of car? In a crude, basic sense, the physical space cars take up is a big problem.

The public infrastructure to support privately-owned cars is expensive: road signs, parking policemen’s salary, road upkeep/maintenance, new roads…(john tory is spending billions of dollars to fix a 1.6 km stretch of the Gardiner, all to shorten commuters’ drive by 2 minutes.)

Highways act like great psychological barriers–You can be on Front Street and feel very far away from Lake Ontario because a highway separates you from the water. Highways bissect neighbourhoods and have major real estate implications: look what a house costs on the east versus the west side of the Allen Road.

Cars also kill lots of people. I have a good buddy who died in a car crash (actually, Yale died 17 years ago today. RIP, love you forever!). 30,000+ Americans die every years in car crashes. What other thing this fatal do we actively embrace like this?

People pave their front lawn to make space for their car to just sit there. A car is the only form of transportation you need to pay for even when you’re not using it–insurance, parking fees, buying a driveway/parking pad.

Driving makes us angry! There is even a specific term for it, “road rage.”

The very presence of cars scares people, especially kids and seniors. Nobody ever had a more relaxed time because cars were nearby whizzing by them.

The Benefits of Bikes

Bikes are wildly inexpensive. There is no fuel charge, no parking fees, no insurance. They cost a few hundred dollars, and you can either repair/maintain them inexpensively or even learn to do it yourself for free, or for the cost of parts.

Biking is healthy. You get jacked from it! Stay fit.

Biking is safe (half truth–biking is safe, only not near cars! It’s the cars that aren’t safe for bikes). The only reason helmets are necessary is because cars are everywhere.

It’s easy to sidestep obstacles on a bike that a car cannot, usually other cars. What is to the driver an infuriating bottleneck barely slows a cyclist down. I don’t mean cyclists should rapidly weave in and out of cars–you can cycle around and between them very slowly, and when cars are stuck in gridlock, it feels very fast!

Bikes are actually a very fast way to get around town. Many people tend to think of distances in terms of how long it takes to drive there, which may or may not factor in traffic. Cycling is usually slower, sometimes way slower, but sometimes faster. Especially if you factor in the search for parking.

Cycling is continuous. Driving is usually agonizingly stop-start, stop-start, but biking you mostly keep going forward. I’m not talking about barrelling through reds: if there’s a red far away, just slow down a bit and it’ll be green when you get there.

Cycling introduces you to nooks and crannies of your city you have never seen. When people drive, they take the major roads with good flow they’re familiar with. Cycling is the opposite: you just head in a general direction and go where it’s quiet and safer…you’ll find cool new places!

Drawbacks of Bikes

Unless you have an attachment or a hitch, you can’t transport people or very much weight on a bike. I bring a napsack to the grocery store, but I’m not buying food for a family.

Distance: Unless you’re Josh Kaminsky’s father, you can’t ride a bike to Muskoka.

Adverse weather: Montreal does have harsher winters than Toronto, but they plow their bike lanes and people ride 12 months a year. If you have rugged wheels and a rugged soul, you can ride in winter. Most people don’t, for understandable reasons.

Theft: Bikes get stolen. I mean, cars do too. But bike theft is a bitch.

Sweat: If you’re biking to work, or to an interview, a date, etc., you don’t want to get there sweaty.

Cyclists annoy drivers: bikes don’t inherently piss off drivers, it’s only because Toronto doesn’t have one physically separated bike lane (ie, we don’t have one real bike lane), and drivers want to get to where they’re going without feeling like they might kill someone.

Upshot:

Every method of transportation has a role to play in a city’s transporation network. In just the way you can’t talk about the virtues of a bishop without talking about how it teams up with the other pieces, it’s difficult to talk about these modes in isolation. There are also busses, subways, streetcars, LRTs, etc.

If anything is to be emphasized here, it’s the underlying perspective of this conversation needs to change from ‘WAR ON THE CAR’ hysteria to what is actually good and bad about each method. What I’ve written here is off the top of my head, and obviously it’s basic.

Transportation decisions should be made by cool detached reason and evidence; our decisions shouldn’t be hijacked by the road lobby or the car lobby, or their seductive mythology and propaganda that has already taken root in people’s minds. Post-WWII North American cities were designed for a world that (wrongly!!) assumed cars weren’t bad for the enviroment, and that everyone could drive one on perpetually unclogged streets.

There will always be cars. It’s impossible to have everyone on a bike, and not even the most militant cyclist is asking for that! There will always be way more drivers than cyclists. That isn’t the point.

We need a mayor that pushes for attractive alternatives to driving: if the only way to get around a city is to own a car, it’s not affordable, accessible, or healthy. The impasse is this: “I have to drive because Toronto has no good public transit option,” a decision which then incentivizes more subsidies for drivers and less for public transit, and thus perpetuates the problem.

Give people good options–clean, inexpensive, and rapid public transit; safe bike lanes–and some drivers will decide through cost-benefit analysis that driving is no longer worth it for them anymore. When this happens, drivers will see reduced traffic and no bikes to contend with, and everyone will be happy!

More urgently, cyclists and pedestrians are dying, more of them die each year. It’d be nice to have a mayor who prioritized keeping everybody alive over saving drivers’ two minutes of their day.

Ode to My Grateful Dead T-Shirts

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Looking through pictures from overnight summer camp a while ago really made me miss, of all things, my old Dead t-shirts. I wore a dead t-shirt consecutively every day between 1997-2000.

Bootleg Grateful Dead t-shirt culture has been written about at large. In my day I competed against CWP counselors for who had the coolest Jerry shit and the best tapes. I  held my own.

Today is August 1, Jerry’s Bday: happy birthday, big guy! Love you forever! In honour of it I’d like to catalogue My Dead Ts for posterity, with pictures where possible.

  1. “Space Your Face”—First Dead T, acquired in 1994. Standard Dead Skeleton with cool space shit inside it. This is me and my younger bro. This pic shows how long I’ve been in the game!

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2. “You know our love will not fade away”—Silhouette of Jerry’s face with lyrics from Not Fade Away on the back. Purchased in Vermont by my parents on a trip in ’95 or ’96.

3. “Nothing left to do but smile, smile smile”—This T was given to me by a family friend, herein called The Source, which he got from the parking lot of a Jerry-era Dead show. I got it in 1996, an early long-sleeved gem. Black and purple on either side of the stealie, with a smiley inside and the lyrics from He’s Gone, “Steal your face right off your head,” underneath.

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4. Sugar Magnolia T—Stealie with green and yellow on either side of the lightning bolt. Underneath was lyrics from Sugar Mag, “She’s my summer love in the Spring, Fall, and Winter…” Tour dates on the back from Fall 92 Dead tour. Shirts like this get reproduced today, but you can’t find ’em like this anymore.

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5. Blue tie dye, Skeleton with Roses—Blue/white tye dye. Acquired from The Source. I’ve seen this shirt on other people, but it was cool! I had the same image on a window sticker that’s still beautifying my parent’s house.

6. Deal T—Jerry-era parking lot T from The Source featuring a cartoon Jerry playing poker against cartoon skeletons, with the lyrics to Deal in bubble letters. Tour dates from 92 Tour on back. This was the best shirt of them all! In 1999 I happened to be wearing this shirt at a Merl Saunders concert, who played keys with Jerry in the Legion Of Mary. Merl sang Deal that night and I was in the front row, pointing to the lyrics on my shirt he was singing. He smiled. RIP, Merl! I wish I had a picture of this T somewhere!

7. VW Busses—Lot shirt from The Source. Dates from 90s tour on back. Everybody who saw me was envious of this BEAST of a shirt, and I’d kill to have it back and in good condition (I wore it to shreds). It was the best shirt I or anyone else ever owned.

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7. American Gothic Skeletons—Classic Grant Wood American painting rendered in Grateful Dead styles, a male and female skeleton farmer in tie dyes and overalls, etc. Lot t-shirt given by a good friend’s older brother—Source 2. This shirt was COOL!

8. Yosemite Sam Dead—frosh shirt from early 90s, inherited from Source 2. You can’t see the ‘stache on the skeleton, but it was there alright.

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10. Blues for Allah—Dead at the Pyramids Egypt t-shirt, acquired in 1998. “What good is spilling blood, it will not grow a thing.” A friend bought it for me when she visited Israel. I still have this shirt!

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11. Warrior skeleton—this low key Dead T-shirt had a pic of a skeleton on horseback wearing native regalia, on his shield was an ad supporting the Rex Foundation, named after a Dead roadie who died. Acquired from The Source.

12. The Wheel—Jerry Bear riding a motorcycle, green tye dye. I gave this to a close buddy and devoted Dead Head. I got a lot of shirts in my day, more than I gave away.

13. Jerrymeister—people think this is a booze shirt, but it’s Jerrymeister. Lyrics from Brown Eyed Women on the back. Purchased at Grateful Fest in Ohio, ’09.

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14. “Grateful Dead Ain’t Nothin’ to Fuck With”—Dead and Wu Tang mash-up. Phish show parking lot, SPAC, ’14.

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15. San Diego Chargers/ Stealie—Chargers/Dead mashup. Grateful Fest, ’09. Pretty much just a white t-shirt at this point.

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16. Ohio Buckeyes/Stealie—Dead/Buckeyes mashup, Grateful Fest ’09. Gave to a beloved friend.

17. Pink/Salmon Jerry Stealie—from Grateful Fest, ’09. It’s a nice thick cotton piece, of higher quality than other bootleg shirts, which you come to appreciate after a while.

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18. Jerry Bear—this one was a gift, a friend saw it at The Gap! Weird, but hey. Dead shirts once supported people in need of money to see more Jerry shows and now it’s sweatshops, but this shirt does

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19. Sphinx Jerry Bear tie dye—This had a Jerry Bear as a Sphinx, and there was a pyramid or two. I vaguely remember getting it at Kensington in the 2000s. Looking through pics I saw it. I also had another Space Your Face tie dye, and probably some others I can’t remember to be honest.

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20. Cats Under the Stars: I got a JGB T-shirt in San Fran in 2012, with the famous logo from the Cats album.

Honourable Mentions:

You get to spoon with Jerry every night when this is your blankie. Acquired in late 90s from The Source, who I understand got it from Haight/Ashbury.img_20190801_095657.jpg

Technically this is not a Dead shirt. My good buddy, younger brother of Source #2, is seen rocking a serious tie dye skiing/snowboarding Jerry Bear shirt.

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Laughter: No Joking Matter

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Laughter is rarely thought of in all its dimensions. When considered in a positive light, laughing is associated with happiness but also childish innocence and immaturity, and this narrow focus makes laughter widely misunderstood and undervalued. Laughter is complex and works differently in everything people do, and tells us important things along the way.

Laughter is a joy and a killer. Let’s see a few ways laughter can work.

Dictators

It’s said that fascist dictators can withstand criticism, but not laughter. The existence of critics in the media benefits a dictator because: 1) it gives them an entity to demonize, and rally their base around 2) critics create the illusion that the ordinary pre-dictatorship world still prevails, a world where institutions haven’t yet been subverted and can still check the dictator’s power.  This illusion is essential, because its existence keeps naive centrists from accepting the truth—that the left is correct, and there’s a dictator in power.

So fledgling dictators do tolerate media criticism, even if they lash out against it violently, but what they cannot abide is being laughed at. Laughter undermines strongman leadership. How can you be dominating people, if they’re laughing at you? trump absolutely freaked out about being mocked in SNL. He took to social media to go on pathetic tirades, trying to appear impervious and undermine them right back. You saw his face when Obama made jokes at his expense at the correspondent’s dinner, and drew wide laughter from the audience.

Dictators need the appearance of control and domination, and laughter shatters this illusion.

Laughter in All Social Groups

This dynamic I’m talking about doesn’t only apply to dictators—laughter means something different to every group, depending on the nature of the group and where you are located on the hierarchy. You don’t laugh at power. You don’t laugh at the boss at work, or at a mob boss. Think of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas: “How am I funny?”

In the mob, where status, reputation, and hierarchy mean everything, somebody could legitimately be murdered over having their leadership undermined by a joke. It wasn’t obvious Pesci was joking. Immediately after it’s clear he was in fact only joking, everyone laughs. Then, someone from the restaurant asks Pesci to pay his tab–he’s actually undermined in front of his mafia friends, so he cracks a glass over his skull–and everyone laughs.

In the Sopranos the reverse happens. In one episode, Tony gets upset because his mafia buddies laugh too hard at his jokes, even very mediocre jokes, trying to curry favour with the boss. You must not ever laugh at the boss, but you must always laugh with him. This is how laughter works in the presence of power.

Bullies

Bullies pick on people by mocking them, and bystanders signal their approval of what the bully is doing by laughing. For the victim, the more laughter there is, the more gut-wrenching it feels. The bully isn’t the only adversary. The bully plunges the knife into the victim, and laughter is what twists it.

Why is laughter such a powerful signal? Because it’s a pre-thought, reflexive thing, making it hard to fake. If I tell somebody “that joke is funny,” it doesn’t mean as much as simply laughing. People sometimes laugh uncontrollably, a guffaw. There is no equivalent for this in speech. Laughter is immediate and visceral, so as a signal, it’s reliable.

Comedy

Humour is badly undervalued in mainstream art because people are hard-wired to be moved by suffering, not pure joy. Woody Allen said that humorists are always seated at the kid’s table, which, aside from explaining why he became a humorist, is a good phrase that gets at how drama and politics are seen as mature and intellectual and comedy is not, even if the dramatists or political pundits in question are illiterate swine and the comedians are brilliant and serious. Making people laugh is thought to be low because it’s fun, whereas politics is taken seriously because it’s miserable and hopeless.

This dynamic helps to explain why John Kennedy Toole’s comedic masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces was rejected by publishers, which apparently drove Toole to suicide. Only after his mother dutifully circulated the manuscript with this tragic story in hand did the comedy get published, and eventually win the Pulitzer Prize. Comedy needs tragedy to be valued, because people are hard-wired for suffering.

A lot of the vivid humour in Certified Serious writers like Joyce, Kafka, Proust, Gogol, Bulgakov, and others is missed, because readers tend to think literature is serious, solemn, grave, and read in that headspace. These writers fuck with you all the time, and if you take them too seriously you may miss the jokes. Comedy is not in conflict with seriousness, and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong and liable to miss out on comical profundity, which sucks for them.

Commercial Implications

Humour is deeply idiosyncratic. It’s impossible to pin down. While there are formulas in comedy like the 80s cop-buddy movie, those formulas revolve around the plot—the actual humour in the movie can’t be broken down into a formula and reproduced, like as some kind of Hero’s Journey formula. (The Lion King is based on Hamlet, etc.)

Comedies are one offs. They fail or succeed if they’re sufficiently inspired. Robert McKee’s famous book on script writing does something beautiful on this topic: it devotes hundreds of pages about how to write every kind of movie, but comedy is deliberately excluded.

The only rule of a comedy, McKee says, is that by definition the hero is never in danger. If a house falls on the main character, he will stand up after, dust his shoulders off and walk away. This is what distinguishes a comedy from merely an action movie or drama that contains comedy. I like McKee’s rule, because it points to the primary rule in comedy: something is either funny or it’s not. 

Comedy is impossible to scale up. They make 10 million superhero movies now because they’re all variations of the same thing…meanwhile, the brilliance of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (the best film of the 20th century) couldn’t even be carried forward into the sequel, which had its moments but is a very pale shadow of the first.

Comedies are one-of-a-kind—they are the hardest genre to replicate.

Self-Deprecating Humour

If bosses, mob bosses and dictators can’t be laughed at, maybe people like self-deprecating humour so much because on some level it signals, “I’m no threat.” Note, the self-deprecating joke is funnier the more power the teller has—if some pathetic little shit makes fun of themselves, it’s probably just sad. If a powerful person laughs at themselves in public, it signals that they won’t wield their power against you.

Dictators are never self-deprecating. A boss might make a self-deprecating joke, but not when you’ve been fucking up. The self-deprecating joke is a reward, that signals everything at work is currently fine.

Jokes among Friends

Laughter is actually the sign and the substance of friendship. Laughing is the best thing friends can do among friends. Laughing at the same jokes as somebody shows not only that you’re on the same mental wavelength, but that you belong in the same social group.

When good buddies talk shit to each other, it’s a way of signalling, I only fuck with you because we’re buds. Ribbing requires a friendship that rest on a foundation of real trust and love.

You signal that you’re on good enough terms with somebody to taunt them by actually taunting them, and they signal that your estimation is correct by laughing at it and making fun of you back. In a sense, this form of laughter is one way to measure and test just how good friends you are with somebody. This style of humour isn’t for everybody, no one style is. We all have our own temperament when it comes to what we find funny, but this explains one common form of humour. There are infinite forms of laughter.

Us Versus Them–Jokes and Social Power

It’s called an “inside joke” because the people laughing are the “in” group. That’s literally the word used—“you’re in on the joke,” they’ll say. There is an us-versus-them dynamic in humour, and what side you’re on is signalled by laughter. It’s not just chuckles, it’s about signalling group membership.

That must be why in offices or work contexts, women report having feelings spanning from eye-rolls to real discomfort or worse when guys make lewd sexual jokes. It’s clear who the in group is, and who is out. It’s not just a joke, it’s claiming territory—this is a male space. Now, of course there are women who like that kind of joke, but they’re called “one of the guys.” When men denounce that kind of joke, they’re called “a bitch” or whatever. Toxic masculinity is equating the unwillingness to abuse power for a laugh with weakness, which is expressed as femininity.

I joke around with people all the time, and when I lived in India I noticed a pattern: people laughed a lot. Too much, sometimes. Now I love to fuck with my boys like Kandarp and that miserable degenerate Parakram, and I got them laughing because we’re buds. But when I joked and bantered with the security guards in my sector or the “office boys,” they were smiling ear to ear, even though…they didn’t speak English. What was exactly happening?

I think they saw that a white guy was taking the time to talk and fuck around with them, and they were happy because they felt included. People with power often exert it in less friendly ways. So when a person with power cracks jokes with a person with less power, they might just laugh out of relief, or maybe they partake in that power because for a moment it’s shared with them.

Racist Jokes

When jokes punch down, they stop being funny. Or, should. Privileged people sometimes express disdain for marginalized people with jocular contempt—hate expressed as a joke, for chuckles.

Frankly, I used to do this. I don’t anymore because only hateful or oblivious people enjoy this kind of humour. I was oblivious. I come from a very privileged background (white, straight, male, from Forest Hill—the works!), and while I never wanted to physically or emotionally hurt anybody, I found squeaky-clean fun to be boring.

Punching down was everywhere in 90s culture, and I did it too. We all did. Gay jokes (SNL, my beloved Ace Ventura is wildly transphobic at the end), black jokes (CB4, Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, and too many movies starring white people to name), homeless jokes (Dirty Work and Happy Gilmore are full of them) or whatever seemed to me like innocent transgressions. It was a form of bullshitting, and because I was surrounded by people unaffected by these jokes, it felt innocent. I never saw what harm there was, and was allowed to believe there was none—I was oblivious.

If chirping a friend is actually a way to reinforce that we can only talk shit to each other because there’s love there, then perhaps on some level what offensive shock humour really says to the recipient is, “I only make this joke with you because you know I don’t believe that shit.” You don’t say this out loud, you just tell the joke. They answer that sentence by laughing.

Is there a distinction worth making between the racist racist-joke teller and the person who just likes shock-humour? These people are obviously not the same, but, in practice it’s a distinction without a difference: in either case, stop making these jokes! To even explore this distinction is to prioritize the comfort of the joke teller over the target, or the bystander who hears these jokes and is understandably uncomfortable.

Racist jokes aren’t necessarily concrete proof that a person harbours ill will towards people of that race, but even writing this makes me feel very uncomfortable, because people say “it’s a joke” to mean that it’s only a joke, when many people aren’t only joking. I don’t want to give cover to people who use humour to shield their racism.

Ask yourself, when you hear someone make a racist joke, do you identify with the teller, or the target? Whose defence do you naturally gravitate to? People who identify with power (privileged people normally do) make explanations for why the teller of racist jokes is not necessatily a bigot, and if they consider how it makes someone else feel, it’s considered second.

I’m not comfortable with punching-down humour now, and I’m not defending myself or anyone who make these jokes. I’m just explaining myself, then and now.

Humour as Means to Feel Power

I suppose privileged people make fun of marginalized people because subconsciously it makes them feel their power. They subconsciously revel in the fact that they aren’t the ones at the bottom of the hierarchy.

This would also explain why people from marginalized communities mock those who are even more marginalized. It makes them feel powerful. You can’t laugh at people with power over you, but when you have more power than someone, kicking down is easy—they have less power, they can’t respond.

This explains, for example, why there was homophobia and misogyny in hip hop even as so much of it also rightfully denounced anti-black racism. Many of these rappers matured, and rightly apologized. Actually, America’s white Christian Family-Values fundamentalists who went on a moral crusade against Rap in the 90s turned out to be—surprise surprise—scumbag racists. Today they’re MAGA, and Nas is writing a kids’s book.

Again, some people enjoy punching down not just for this subconscious reassurance that they have power, which is still a very bad reason to do it, but because they do hate the people below them! Racists enjoy laughter too, and when they express racism as a joke, it is still a) a joke b) definitely racist. The alt-right’s irony-drenched trolling is tired and trite as fuck, and they’re definitely not only joking.

How do you know if the person making the racist joke is a genuine racist or just oblivious in their privilege? After you tell someone to stop making racist jokes, watch how they respond. Do they genuinely get introspective and apologize, not because they were caught committing a faux pas in public but because in their bones they feel horror at having upset someone? Or do they get defensive, stick up for their rights to Free Speech, insist you are humourless, that they didn’t intend on harm and therefore harm is impossible and if you’re feeling it it’s your fault?

A wave of fascism has already descended on places close to me. Muslims are being lynched under Modi, MAGA people have murdered leftists and journalists in broad daylight and trump seems happy about the deaths. Conservative politicians in Canada are demonizing minorities, and this will escalate in the lead up to the federal election in October. Canada has produced faith goldy, gavin mciness, ezra levant, and other alt right shitlords.

Let’s make jokes to share love with friends and strangers, and to deflate fascists and the corporate gutter trash running Ontario. Let’s not revel blindly in privilege by making jokes that reinforce our power over people and undermine their sense of self, but just to lift people up and brighten their days and for no other reason.

Thoughts on Racism and “Intent”

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I’ve heard friends say something I really disagree with, that a person can’t be racist so long as they don’t have racist intent.

What I suppose they mean is, there’s a distinction between proud racists and well-meaning white people who may say/do something on Tuesday that was only deemed officially racist by the Internet Monday. Putting these two people in the same category feels wrong, right?

I think they mean: social mores are changing fast, people are busy with work and family, and if a nice white person commits a racial faux pas because they can’t keep up with ever-evolving PC nomenclature, they shouldn’t have their lives ruined by the rabid SJW Social Media Mob.

Anecdotally, enough people have told me more or less this. Here is why I don’t think it’s logically relevant to consider a person’s intent when determining whether or not they’re racist.

First, agreed: there is a moral distinction between the white person who, for example, supported slavery because of the Economy and the white person who supported slavery because they thought black people were subhuman. The second person is morally worse! But who cares??

This kind of moral distinction only matters to the white people worried about self-image (theirs or someone else’s), or to people who make abstract philosophy out of brutal physical/psychological violence, but it doesn’t matter at all to the people actually suffering and in desperate need of relief.

If you vote for trump, your reasons for doing so don’t matter to anybody but you, when it comes time to defend your choice, so you can find a way to sleep at night. I heard someone express this point differently. “The German language has a word for people who voted for the Nazis only because they were economically anxious: the word is, Nazi.”

If you support something racist, you are racist to the precise extent that you support that racist thing. There’s just no other way to look at it. And we know this. Does someone need to self-identity as an asshole, or can you safely call them an asshole if they keep behaving like a fucking asshole?

How can people who mean well become very racist? An analogy and thought experiment:

Imagine a Christian fundamentalist knocking at your door, trying to convert you because, being of a different religion, you’re a heretic, and heretics burn in hell for all eternity. We’ll call this guy Peter. Peter is trying to save you from hell.

If hell was a real place, Peter would be doing a real kindness! Peter’s intent is very good, but in reality he’s an annoying idiot unwelcome at my doorstep. The problem with Peter isn’t his intent, it’s that his intent is not aligned with reality. He’s not morally wrong, he’s factually wrong.

But imagine if Peter had a different but still wrong world outlook, and thought black people were naturally inclined towards criminal behaviour, and rather than a bible Peter carried a gun because he’s a cop, which gives him legal permission to shoot and kill somebody if he feels threatened.

Now imagine Peter feels particularly threatened around black people, not because he was born evil but because he grew up inundated with images on TV of black violence, which nothing in his adolescence counteracted. Now, Peter didn’t create the racist imagery in the first place, or ask to be exposed to it. There are countless ways to imbibe racism because it’s everywhere, so even if he isn’t responsible for becoming a racist, he is one now. But he’s a cop, and in his mind he only wants to protect his community and return home alive to his family when the shift is over.

But one day on the job, feeling threatened, he shoots and kills an unarmed black man. What is a white jury/public likely to see?

They watched the same TV promoting racist ideas about black violence Peter saw growing up. The white public sees a person daily risking their life to save the (their) community from threats (invented, in this theoretical case, but very real in their mind, which matters a lot). They put themselves in the cops’ shoes, and imagine how scared they’d be too. Wealthy white people often side with the police in an unspoken understanding, that they, the wealthy white people, are the ones in need of protection. Cops only exist to protect them and their property.

So the white cop kills a black person, the white citizen sides with the police, the white reporter frames the story/headline in a pro-police stance because they also identify with the police, and all of these white people may earnestly believe they’ve done nothing racist!

Even though a black person is dead. You see, throwing the term “racism” around is what’s divisive, not state agents killing innocent people.

So, if you read that a cop killed an unarmed black person, don’t respond saying that the cop probably didn’t wake up that morning looking to kill somebody.

The ghastly and concrete reality of police brutality and other horrific outcomes that stem from racism need to be concretely addressed. Racism is real and it kills. 

Sitting around guessing whether the perpetrator had full or only part mens rea is decadent crap for people who, thankfully, will never be on the wrong end of a police officer’s bullet.

(Random, semi-related thoughts: the Blue Lives Matter movement is absurd: nobody denies police lives matter! rob ford gutted every public service and even he gave police a raise, despite the fact that they were investigating him for crimes!

If police became cops from birth rather than choice, and innocent officers were semi-regularly murdered by the state, and the justice system basically looked at this murder with approval, then Blue Lives Matter would be legitimate, except it would be indistinguishable from Black Lives Matter.

That Blue Lives Matter formed in opposition to Black Lives Matter, rather than sitting down to discuss with that community how it could improve, is just more proof that Black Lives Matter has the truth on its side.

Love and Advertising — Prologue: Dean Galbraith’s Scorn

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Dean Galbraith, up in his office in the tall tower of the Henry Hicks building, was giddy at the start of another academic season. But this year some hideous fear began to creep in and fester, threatening the pleasure he took seeing young students come into their own, maturing as thinkers and people. Schmoozing and balancing the departments’ budgets was always to him a sordid business way beneath the academic and interpersonal development he lived to foster in students. Nowhere did the Greeks or Romans extol the virtues of glad handing. Yes, the Romans were administrative pioneers, but it was their dullest achievement. Muses don’t sing about efficient, thorough public records.

A professor could affect too few students and Galbraith had no hunger to research, but he considered it a shame to spend time away from getting to know the students—challenging them, busting their balls, showing them that academia was rigorous and difficult but rewarding, civilizing and exciting but never stuffy or pretentious.

Of course he accepted that his job contained some unavoidable bullshit, but lately administration wasn’t just a banal chore. He saw himself as overseeing the death blow to the classical notion of university: business, management, and the ever-expanding rackets of marketing and sociology were choking real academics to death, enrollment and expansion in these departments slated to be higher than ever with no end in sight. The humanities, literature, history, classics, philosophy shrunk every year. Galbraith felt complicit, guilty. But the guilt fell most to another man.

The ultimate academic desecration was a fraud skilled in all ways of pretending: Berringer. As he did daily, Galbraith decided to recharge his animus by opening up Dr. Stephen Berringer’s latest work, reading from whatever page he happened to open (such a random disordered entry into the book jived with such an incoherent disordered text):

A scholarly Reflection:

Dr. Stephen Berringer

By applying a neo-Foucouldian lens to a systems discourse it’s easy to trace the setbacks caused by neo-cons and other critical analysts of their ilk. It can be seen, therefore, that more investigation is wanting, but, on the other hand, its corollary is true too, namely that the talk and feedback loop has increased the vivacity of grassroots initiatives, and plans are coming steadily along to bring about the fundamental change up from the ground. Fruit is bound for harvest as indispensable momentum has been gained in this and in other related and interrelated fields. Incidentally, a retrospective glance at historically bypassed alternatives to the accepted narratives and viewpoints isn’t just a vital reconstruction that adds definitively to the wider scope, as mitigating and transcending the accepted biases is required or we are hopelessly lacking completion, but often is a mirror of the real thing itself. The truth is the narrative as told for decades, flipped upside down and inverted. It is necessary, therefore, to bring up the rear, as it were, and ensure that this crucial aspect doesn’t dwindle. The strength of current bonds, agreements, and cross lateral academic joint suppositions depends upon the intrinsic strength of this arrived at result of reflexive academia. We ignore these findings at our collective peril: we cannot possibly move forward until we accept these findings and resolve to pledge solidarity.

Galbraith burst out laughing at this last preposterous bit, but checked himself, thinking mirth an inappropriate reaction to something already debauching a generation. Galbraith laughed hard and often, and that the suppression of joy was the proper response to Berringer’s writing proved that the prose was deplorable. He had to restrain two rumblings in his belly, laughter and the first stages of puke. Either to make spiritual amends for laughing or to physically expunge what was mentally ingested, he reached the toilet before getting sick then gargled mouthwash, specifically stored in his office to freshen his breath after Berringer readings.

Berringer was the spiritual guide, the chief fiend of the political radicals on tenure that infested Dalhousie, the “academic deadwood” pileup from which no university is immune. They weren’t new to Dal but could no longer be safely laughed away. They were gaining ground. But who could read this shit? You’d have to be a madman to find any meaning in it! The undecipherable, destructive and manifestly absurd claims cloaked in the populist underdog language wooed the innocent lesser lights of campus, students only guilty of signing up for education, not abuse. Of course this was a scandalous disgrace even if annual tradition, but resigning in protest would only replace him with a different overseer, one who would no doubt applaud and encourage the atrocity.

These blank-slate sociologists, tabula rasa Marxists, wilfully blind or shamefully ignorant of congenital inheritance’s impact on human nature, were here under his watch, safe and handsomely paid instead of interred and forgotten about in the local asylum. About these professors, cheerfully termed “social construction workers,” Galbraith consulted his lawyer about filing a human rights grievance, suing for obscenity or for loss of enjoyment of life. His lawyer counselled against it. “Besides,” the lawyer said, “you don’t want to create a toxic workplace environment.” “They’re a toxic work environment! Fuck them and fuck you! You’re fired!” So he fired this lawyer, an eminent distinguished professional with a sterling record that shone beyond Halifax to the furthest corners of Nova Scotia. But the next lawyer also advised against Galbraith’s wishes.

“Sorry Jerry, but Berringer’s students don’t meet the accepted legal criteria of ‘child soldiers.’”Anyway, he reasoned, they craved a cause, and even if they should win in court it would only give them another thing to cry about, demonstrate against, boycott, sit-in, lock-out, and spend pleasant afternoons plastering propaganda to telephone poles in solidarity against. These things, of course, not just their favourite pastime but their existential reason for being.

Berringer ingratiated himself to the student base by making radical claims about cultural capital he knew they loved. They loved him for transforming their views, making them see things in a new light, no matter how dim the light. He proudly attached his name to intellectual brands: every kind of Marxism, feminism, reconstructionism, socialism, even if in practice they were mutually conflicting. Say, promoting a UN petition demanding increased First World funding for the Third World while simultaneously supporting an anti-imperialist mandate urging an end to First World financial meddling in the developing world under the phony pretext of promoting economic sustainability. Berringer was a veritable bullshit hydra.

But there were more threats than Berringer. The cynical marketing and advertising professors, sophistry devils reappropriating university’s prestige earned from the bygone days when professors knew Latin and Greek, who taught subjects proudly developed over centuries, not simply invented last Tuesday. Marketing and advertising degrees were proudly framed proof students had not just the willingness but the expertise to swindle society, turning people with hearts and minds into lobotomized consumers. After leaving Dalhousie these uncultured bats from hell could now enter the world and amass a fortune by making everyone around them retarded. Galbraith believed that modern university, his included, was just about society’s largest threat. Not exactly a terrorist training camp, but close.

Galbraith once put out feelers to see if he could abolish the marketing and advertising program on humanitarian grounds, but was unsuccessful. A flabbergasted Kofi Annan wrote him back in a polite yet insistent tone claiming to be busy in Sudan. “I don’t want to take him from his important work,” said Galbraith, “because thanks to the UN Darfur is once again a tourist magnet. That putrid organization. As warlords butcher on industrial scales and blame it on Israel, Annan is busy making sure that, under absolutely no circumstance, does he dislodge his thumb from his ass.” Unsuccessful as it was, the effort caused considerable rumbling against him from professors in these departments. “Do you know that Galbraith voiced objection to our department in the UN? No, literally, the United Nations!”

Galbraith was the de facto leader of his faction, and was very far from the only traditional old-school academic. Higher education no longer favoured learning for its own sake. That anyone would study to simply elevate their soul was beyond naive. Decadent. Privileged. Suggesting university should exist so students could learn something earned you funny looks. It was just social emancipation for historically marginalized people, or an economic investment for the highly unmarginalized. The ancients lasted for centuries, but were disappearing because the economy demanded students learn contemporary garbage. His loathing for everything modern increased in degree and breadth.“Stare into the abyss and laugh,” was the Greeks phrase that best captured the outlook Galbraith cherished, that blend of stoicism and dark humour.

He laughed in the face of what personally and professionally threatened him. He just couldn’t help but giggle. Sometimes guffawed with everything he had. He despised how some profs concealed their radical views, unleashing them only once they were safely tenured, but enjoyed that tenure was an anagram for retune. He liked that the Marxists’ shanty offices crammed with messy book shelves, coffee-encrusted mugs and yellowing plants neighboured the newly constructed Marketing department, a lavish and gleaming steel-and-glass monstrosity.“Two appropriate habitats for two opprobrious rabid rats.” These private unshared quips popped into his mind constantly, making him smile through that thick red-tinged beard, a grin that appeared seemingly for no reason, leading others to think him a madman.

Though Galbraith saw the commoditization of higher learning developing a mile away, for years he pretended it couldn’t grow and swallow everything he stood for. Caring, intelligent, duty-bound professors, of who, again, there were many, constituted an impregnable fortress guarding centuries of noble tradition. But this year he felt something change, the momentum switched. He needed to fight more than ever.

In the official Dalhousie pamphlets welcoming students and parents to the city he inserted quotations from Tolstoy and Orwell. Inspired by a cherished comedy, during frosh week he instituted an academic decathlon featuring subjects like “Rabelais,” “Gogol,” “dog shit and the human response,” “Thucydides,” to take place before the cheers and jeers of packed drunks enjoying life inside the Student Union Building.

He should have known last year that change was coming when inviting students to his home for dinner was made illegal. He and his wife Sally served wonderful food and French wine to select students. These were put to an abrupt halt: Dr. Phyllis Stein’s popular “exploitation of females in society” lectures had a devastating effect upon the campus climate, and the way students regarded him and males in general. Stein, a rousing success, implanted in the students a higher awareness of “everyday sublimations of oppressive patriarchal gender hierarchies,” which eroded the students’ basic sense of trust in half the human population.

Stein’s treatment of Lolita convinced the helpless students that any old, seemingly-nice gentleman was just a cunning pederast, biding his time. The sweeter the appearance, the more elaborate and diabolical the impending debauchery. The calculus was grim: if a man who seemed like a gentleman was a brute and a man who seemed like a brute was a brute, who was left? Nobody was innocent. Galbraith’s formerly celebrated dinners didn’t just end, but that they ever occurred caused a dark fear and suspicion in many hearts. “I’m not some lecherous pervert, I’m the dean of this university!”

“Ya, because history’s never seen a powerful old white man lewdly abuse power.”

“Crusty wench.”

“Exactly.”

All he wanted was to feed kids delicious food! Offer good wine he knew students couldn’t afford! This was civilization to him. Most of all, to demonstrate that education and sharing their deepest thoughts could lead to wonderful laughs and an overflow of warm satisfaction, not just accursed grades or revenue.

And artistically misconstruing Nabokov, this, this was unforgivable. Satanic bitch! Yes Stein was attached to the university as a tenured prof, Galbraith reasoned, but could still be choked to death. No, she didn’t warrant that. Berringer was sociology’s ring leader. And Carrie in advertising—that Hollywood-vacuous, money-chasing philistine—was no slouch either.

The more Galbraith considered this sordid cast, the more assured he became in his belief that the highest form of intellectual honesty, the purest and most effective way to stand up for the enlightened values of Voltaire and his company, was to remain in his post to sabotage the guilty programs and people of Dalhousie.

 

The Arrogance & Ignorance of “Western Culture” Boosters

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I’d like to address here a common thing I see, which is North Americans assuming that Western Culture is automatically superior to the cultural output from other countries.

To begin, I will never say a bad word about the literature of the Canon—my point is a more basic one: how can anybody who only reads English possibly judge non-English literature? People judge culture based on its prestige. The literary heroes of the Canon are the best writers from the countries with money. Military and political centres. It is no accident! Let’s not confuse fame and prestige with talent.

Again, I am not taking away anything from Proust, Kafka, Bellow, Nabokov. Love these writers! I do, everyone should. But I can’t read Bhattacharya in his native Bengal, I can’t read Ghalib’s ghazals in their original. Or for that matter, Kafka or Proust, Or Belano in Spanish, or Tolstoy in Russian. When people say Western Culture is superior, what are they actually saying?

Western books are often considered, rightly, to be the bedrocks of literature because generations of writers around the world read the Bible and Homer, Shakespeare and Joyce. Often, an angry type of critic believes that removing these books from the centre of the discussion is nouveau philistine junk. I’d like to pause here and consider a few things.

The cornerstones of Western Literature were often originally banned in Western countries. Ulysses, Madame Bovary, Lolita. The notion that the West has always embraced what is now considered Western master pieces is simply not true.

With music, its record is worse. America only let Duke Ellington and his musicians enter through the back door of the club, and Jimi Hendrix wasn’t discovered in America. Black American blues musicians had to be validated in the UK before America embraced what it had. Son House, John Hurt, Frew McDowell…

But there’s another side to this. When I was young and the Maple Leafs won a game, I’d say to my mom, “we won!” She would tell me, correctly, “you didn’t do anything.” So when people talk about “our” culture, what do they mean? What did they do? The answer: jack shit.

This so-called cultural conversation is often just people co-opting the prestige of famous books they didn’t write, or even read, because they happen to have incidental geographic circumstances in common with the author.

The point that wealthy countries have their author’s celebrated is interpreted by some as a war cry—it sounds, to them, like what I’m really saying is political concerns should impact, or even determine, aesthetic judgments. This is not what I’m saying! On the contrary, my point is that only the aesthetic masterpieces from rich countries get their due celebrations, while masterpieces from poor countries languish, relatively.

Put another way, the aesthetes are more influenced by politics than they think. They will likely reject this notion, it will offend them, because they think they are driven solely by detached and impartial Eyes for Art.

Western Classical music is rightly beloved, but a lot of people judge other music by its terms, and just sound stupid when they shit talk music they don’t understand. I suspect African poly rhythms were too sophisticated for people conditioned to only understand Western harmonies and rhythms, and they’d criticize it as “savage” or “primitive,” which beyond the racist connotations is literally them just misunderstanding music because it is too complex for them to understand. If you asked such a person to identify the beat or the time signature, they couldn’t. But to them, it just sounds like noise.

People say this of hip hop, a beautiful, rich and varied art form. People relate to art made by people like them, because it reflects them, the listener/reader, and when they approach art that reflects someone else, they think the art is bad, when really what’s happening is, for once, the art they’re looking at reflects somebody else. They are making political judgments, not artistic ones, though it’ll be impossible to convince such a person that this is what they’re doing. They are convinced in their bones they’re viewing Art Only.

An open mind for literature/art isn’t necessary from a political point of view, but from an aesthetic one. Nabokov’s essay about the struggles of translation (fidelity to meaning, rhythms, a million other esoteric things to convert) is required reading for anyone who thinks they can sound off on books written in another language. VN tells us that a writer can’t be judged by a reader who can’t properly pronounce that author’s last name.

Can you pronounce Ghalib properly? Gogol? Tagore? Even Kafka, Proust, Goethe? It’s from an Art perspective that the imperialistic backers of Western art show deficiency. There’s a kind of foundation you need to understand foreign literature that they don’t have, but the international prestige of Western literature (that blessed, blessed thing!) convinces them that any haughty declaration of Western cultural superiority is justified.

“Western Literature” is a funny term, anyway, for suggesting it all comes from one place — the supposed united thing called The West is made up of countries that warred with each other relentlessly for centuries. Even Homer’s Greece had the Peloponnesian War (centuries later, but still), because “Greece” was a bunch of city states, not a country as we know the concept today. France and Germany and the UK went at it forever, and the US fought a war to separate itself from England — suddenly, there is one thing called The West which produces authors who fall under one category?

The authors who excelled from these countries probably did so despite the national influence on them, not because of it. Joyce wrote outside Ireland. Gogol never saw the Russian countryside he appears to have depicted in Dead Souls but from a passing carriage, and fled the country whenever he published a new work. Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Church and was out of favour with the government when he died alone in a train station, even though Putin’s Olympics had a ghastly Tolstoy caricature running around during the Sochi Opening Ceremony. Putin co-opting Tolstoy’s prestige is not very different than a strain of critic I see today, boosting themselves for being born in the same country as literary giants they had nothing to do with.

I don’t like the business of ranking literature—anyone concerned, like me, with art for art’s sake also doesn’t care about ranking. Nabokov judges each book one at a time—he loves Anna Karenin, thinks War and Peace is a rollicking historical novel for children, and thinks Late preacher Tolstoy is mostly garbage except for Ivan Ilyich, a true masterpiece. Gogol’s Ukrainian stories, junk. Dead Souls, immortal work of shimmering genius. What does it mean, that people feel emboldened to make judgments about “Russian literature” when each author is so uneven in their own career? What do the books in the Canon have to do with each other, exactly? Sometimes there is a link, or a direct line of influence, sometimes there really isn’t.

The thing for a critic today is to try to squeeze the most possible from every work of art, to narrow the focus. The point is to enjoy the art. This kind of nationalistic bragging is political jingoism dressed up as concern for art, and it strikes me as absurd, laughable, and embodies the smug stupidity it praises itself for being above.

Put another way, everyone bragging about Western Literature should shut up: anybody can read a book, only the person who wrote it is entitled to bragging rights. Let’s be humble, open-minded, and never forget that genius is universal, and that to take any view which limits our enjoyment of literature or art instead of broadens it is needlessly limiting, and warps our critical faculties.

It may strike one as surprising or counter intuitive that readers who emphasize the impact of colonialism on literature are actually more focused on aesthetics in literature than the ones who swear political power has no bearing on literature, and that there’s no room for political concerns in a conversation about art, but this is an odd truth.

It’s necessary to recognize both things at once: Tolstoy was a genius, but he could never have written such novels without having the leisure time on his estate to simply sit there and read and write all day. Sophia helped him with all kinds of things. Women weren’t encouraged to write, and people without money didn’t have the time to. Certain countries aren’t talked about or celebrated for their writers. But of course great writers can come from anywhere.

Because of money, power, race, nationalism, there are lost literary heroes whose names we will never know, and this should bother everyone concerned with art.