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.

 

 

Thoughts On Toronto’s Homelessness Crisis

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My first time reporting on Toronto City Hall in early 2013, Rob Ford’s council debated on whether to fund more emergency beds for people experiencing homelessness. Unsurprisingly, council put it off, saying more studies needed to be done, etc. Politicians invoke the word “studies” when they don’t want to fund things for poor people, but don’t want to appear heartless.

Immediately after the vote activists rose in the chamber, unfurled a banner and denounced the council for having “blood on [their] hands.” If that sounds dramatic, know the previous day they had attended the funeral of a friend who died on the streets of Toronto. They shouted lucid and undeniable arguments, a silence really did hang in the room, then security escorted them out.

That was six years ago, and Toronto’s problem has grown.

Since this time I lived for over a year in India. For most of it, I lived in a posh sector just outside Delhi, in Uttar Pradesh, near my office in a company guest house, among retired judges and lawyers and military people. In January 2017 I moved to Lajpat Nagar II, where my neighbours included Afghan refugees.

Honestly, I didn’t see many expats in Lajpat II, (when immigrants are white they’re called “expats”), but I had an Italian friend in Lajpat IV. My real estate agent (finding an apartment requires one) lived in an apartment down the street from me with his family, but I regularly saw merchants sleeping on the streets next to their stalls, on charpoys, cots of woven rope. They slept among the homesless dogs.

There was a Gurdwara near me, a Sikh temple of worship that helps feed people. Honestly, I didn’t learn enough Hindi to talk with the poor people around me, and even if I did, I couldn’t have come even close to understanding their world. I grew up in Forest Hill: I can’t understand the life of a homeless person in Toronto, never mind there. One time I gave a legless beggar, wheeling himself on a wooden platform, 100 rupees ($2) and he cried and said nobody has ever given him so much. (My friend translated).

But here? In Toronto? I’ve seen people arrive to downtown Toronto straight from India, and they are appalled by the homelessness. Amid such wealth, in such a clean city? It’s unconscionable. The sight of people dying in slow motion on the street amid such robust prosperity shakes them.

India is notorious for its poverty, for its slums. India used to be the richest country on Earth, and it was plundered, and now amid a booming middle class, as Western Businesses compete for their share of this new money, Indians don’t believe they’re a poor country anymore. This may stun people in Canada, for whom India is synonymous with poverty, but many there don’t.

I was in an editorial meeting the day Snapchat’s CEO reportedly said he didn’t want to invest in poor countries, such as Spain and India. This remark didn’t go over well in India. But wasn’t it…true? Sudhir Chaudhary wondered how the man could say such a thing! And the room agreed. There like here, journalists come from wealthier backgrounds—nobody else could afford to rise in an industry that often pays in “exposure.” (Believe that this affects coverage of money, homelessness, power…)

Anyway, so how exactly does a country measure its wealth?

Forget India for now. Here, things are not OK. According to the 2016 census (the most recent available), the average 2015 income for a Toronto male over 15 was $33,456. If a one-bedroom is $1,500 a month (no roommate, but that’s a good price), subtract $19,200 from that. Toronto has a higher share of high-income earners than the rest of Canada and Ontario, and a higher share of low-income earners in both. People here are generally very rich or very poor.

Anecdotally, the oldish but spacious two-bedroom, two-storey apartment I rented in late 2010 by Trinity Bellwoods cost $1600, plus hydro. Today, the landlord wanted to charge $3,000. We all know this story.

How best to crunch the numbers, which stats are most useful in representing Toronto’s wealth, is interesting to consider and it’s important for framing policy, but the fact is Toronto has slums and people are dying and nobody is talking about it.

Consider all the media attention gun violence is currently getting. In 2018, an especially violent year, we had 95 homicides. This is a crisis too! But over 100 homeless people die each year in Toronto. Contrast the silence in the media regarding the deaths of people experiencing homelessness with that of gun violence. Again, obviously gun violence is a major issue, but more people die in Toronto from…from what? From being poor. Or depressed, or having no support.

As Toronto-born Robbie Robertson wrote: “I’ve just spent 60 days in the jail house, for the crime of having no dough, now here I am back out on the street, for the crime of having nowhere to go.”

This is a time of supposedly divisive politics, but doesn’t everybody care about this? Can anybody hear these stories neglect, of needless human suffering on a shocking scale amid such wealth, of death, and shrug? Does anybody think that Free Markets determine the cost of things, so people should just…die? Do people think this?

Nicholas Hune-Brown wrote an absolutely must-read article in Toronto Life about homelessness in this city. He spoke to people living under the Gardiner Expressway and in Rosedale, he drew up the most relevant stats, and really, the article was as fantastic at capturing the different dimensions of this crisis as the crisis is depressing.

Citing stats, he says the line up to receive subsidized housing in Toronto is 98,000 people long, roughly two full Sky Domes. Toronto builds 500 units of affordable housing each year. There are about 8,000 people experiencing homelessness in Toronto, currently. This number is growing steadily. The article points out that housing a person with mental health needs in Toronto’s housing system costs $59,000, whereas subsidized housing costs $21,089—roughly a third of the cost.

I’m sure there’s a policy solution to this, but whatever it is it’ll takes years and lots more people will die. I don’t know what should be done.

The activists I saw in 2013 were 100% correct. Rob Ford’s council had blood on its hands. So does Tory’s. Rob’s brother Doug is gutting social programs left right and centre and transferring this money, rebranded as “efficiencies,” to Toronto’s wealthiest people. I think our political class are essentially slum landlords.

But again, nobody enjoys the fact that people are homeless, starving, freezing, and dying. Right? I talk with Conservative voters, and right-leaning people who feel politically abandoned because Ford is an obvious illiterate maniac but they don’t like Trudeau, and (through media conditioning, I think) in their bones cannot stomach the thought of voting NDP. Everyone agrees homelessness matters though.

But nobody wants to pay for it. Not really. They say they would, but it never happens.  This is about power, but it’s also about the psychological gulf between wealthy people who just never, never actually have meaningful interactions with these people. It’s out of sight out of mind. “Ohhhhh, you don’t know the shape I’m in.”

Devote tax dollars to this. Please!

During a flash-freeze last year I walked around giving people I saw on the street some gloves and toques and some money. In India, this is a type of jugaad—the Hindi word for a MaGyver, basically—an improvised solution with whatever is at hand. I have an Indian buddy who recently visited Russia, and he made some videos wherein he described to someone that in India, for many people, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is upside, where spiritual needs are addressed first and foremost, then they move towards food and shelter.

Frankly, in Toronto I see a lot of overpriced yuppie ice cream and tacos, Uber Eats charging $35 for a small dinner that arrives cold (delivered by a “driver partner” not an employee, so the US company is conveniently exempt from the Employee Standards Act), people either in despair over the cost of renting and buying a house and ready to seriously leave Toronto, or they’re excited about the cute back splash in their new kitchen…

There’s either a lot of money in this city, or none. But I don’t expect homelessness to get addressed in a meaningful way when this same city is full of people livid at the thought of workers, workers, earning literally only $1 more an hour.

Again, I hope I’m wrong! I do think everyone cares on a basic level about this. But this isn’t quite about morals…everyone feels bad, it’s about money. Hopefully Hune-Brown’s article will galvanize public opinion and politicians will believe there’s actually a will to fuel change. It was just published and is getting air time.

But if the life and death of 100 people a year truly depends on good Samaritans, Toronto is a sad place to live.

Only a couple weeks ago, a woman at Bloor and Dovercourt was trying to get clothes from a donation box. She got stuck inside and died. Days later, a man sleeping on the streets in the Financial District was run over by a garbage truck. He died too. The driver didn’t see him. Stop for a minute: consider the symbolism and visualize the reality of the Financial District’s stupendous wealth, as a human being lies on the street one morning in an alley, and suddenly his life over, run over by a garbage truck.

Please, I hope we can all agree we need comprehensive and well-funded policy right away so people don’t die on our streets. Be mad. Whatever our political differences I refuse to believe people in my city are OK with this.

Empties

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Jeremiah prepared his large open-concept apartment for tonight’s party. To make room for at least ten thousand people, he pushed the sofa against the wall. Yes, yes: he checked again and the numbers were sound — ten thousand people drinking an average of five beers each over three hours would yield $5,000. He could use the dough. That suit from Sydney’s being fitted cost something and the Beamer needed fixing.

Jeremiah had thousands of friends in the city, and not a single one knew what he did for a living. Evading this question wasn’t a high-wire act fraught with danger — he made a game of it, never repeating the same story. His guests, all wanting to appear intimate and familiar with the popular host, raved to each other about Jeremiah’s skill as a carpenter, bagman, lawyer, loan shark, architect, luxury toy maker, grade-four teacher, grade-five teacher, Deep Web hacker, stock trader, arborist, city planner, mob boss, gestalt psychologist, pilot.

When occasionally confronted by two people with conflicting reports of his livelihood they asked him, “Well what is it, are you a chef or a museum curator?” Jeremiah laughed and responded, both and none. “I dabbled in pizza slinging during the Tutankhamen exhibit, but currently I’m writing a long-feature for The Walrus about my time covering Iraq. Please, fellas, drink some more beer!” Everyone readily believed him because his aura of eccentric mystery jived with the outsized parties, and more than that, everybody really wanted to. The key thing was to slyly nudge them to drink more beer.

Jeremiah’s sole source of income, his actual profession, was luring masses of people to his BYOB parties held in his apartment, so he could redeem their empties. To get the rubes in the door, Jeremiah baited them with music and fun. It wasn’t hard. Everybody wanted to be at the huge parties with the city’s best eats and beats. That these DJs and chefs were in fact Toronto’s best was confirmed because Jeremiah had hired them. Even though Jeremiah didn’t actually hire them: in return for launching their career they sponsored the party extravagantly, and would never dream of accepting payment from Jeremiah.

So everybody came.

Before long Jeremiah’s apartment was littered with precious empties, which he secured methodically throughout the party under the guise of tidying up. Once the guests no longer produced empties –once they were done drinking– their function in the ploy was over and their continued presence unnecessary: there was nothing else for them to do in Jeremiah’s apartment but leave it. These people returned each week, so much did they enjoy this scam.

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Tactics were required. What looked on the surface to be merely ways to make parties more fun were really covert profit-boosting stratagems. Everyone loved the 80s and 90s-themed parties, but really they harkened back to youth when getting drunk meant drinking beer, and Jeremiah played on this pretext to quietly direct people towards bringing mostly beer. Hard liquor threatened his business; it got people very drunk but yielded only one returnable bottle. He frowned at it for years but never explicitly stated a ban. Until one night a few months ago.

In thanks for hosting these parties, a guest gave Jeremiah a bottle of Lagavulin single malt as a gift. This Dan, a quiet tactful man, managed to corner Jeremiah so the two could chat.

“Hi, Jeremiah. Nice to meet ya! You don’t know me. My name is Dan. Listen man, thanks for having me here tonight and, you know, like every week. Enjoy this with friends now, or drink it later. Whatever. Just again, thanks.” He proffered the scotch and a modest smile.

“You rotten son of a bitch,” replied Jeremiah. Inspired, he snatched Dan’s gift and stopped the music. Faces turned to Jeremiah in the silence.

“I live for beer! This is a god damn beer party! From now on all my parties are beer parties! Look at Dan over here,” he said, pointing to Dan. “He thought to bring hard liquor to my party. Let me prove how much I love beer by showing you all what I think of liquor. Watch!” Jeremiah took the bottle from its cardboard box, removed the seal and stopper and held it by the neck high above his head.

“What’s inside this bottle took 16 years to produce. Let’s see how quickly I can empty it.” With that he poured the scotch onto the floor (but safely stashed the bottle, to be returned later). As planned, this needless and flagrant waste of great scotch was taken as an authentic demonstration of Jeremiah’s love for beer. The partygoers applauded rapturously and took up the inventive chant, “Beer! Beer! Beer!”

Nobody ever brought hard liquor to another party again.

Things changed for Dan. At first he shuddered watching everybody cheer as the host wasted his expensive gift. He wondered what he did wrong. But this episode raised shy introverted Dan into a celebrity after it his important role in it was properly understood. Jeremiah couldn’t prove how much he really loved beer by spilling merely good scotch. Dan gave him the best. Jeremiah’s sacrifice needed to be valuable for the same reason God didn’t ask Abraham to only sacrifice a cousin.

Women and men congratulated Dan. He met a sweet smiley woman named Matilda and together they drank beer, fell in love, married, honeymooned in Cinque Terra. They would go on to raise three boys—a future track star, a west-end legend in bicycle repair, and a business mogul who, when he learned the details of his company’s exploitative operations, spent his personal money to fix the situation and travelled for three years in Uttarakhand’s Bandarpunch mountains to be mostly alone. Time here healed him, so he returned home to see Dan and Matilda, who rejoiced.

Dan and Matilda owed their life together to Jeremiah’s love for beer, as demonstrated by his legendary sacrifice of Dan’s scotch.

If decades from now you assembled the countless Torontonians who attended these parties and looked backwards to find the definitive moment of their lives, you would inevitably wind up back in Jeremiah’s apartment. His parties launched people in whatever direction they ended up. They weren’t just fun, they were nostalgia incarnate. So let’s return to tonight’s party, with Jeremiah in want of money for that suit from Sydney’s.

Thankfully Jeremiah just had two important breakthroughs. The thought of all the extra profit he missed out on for months by not having these breakthroughs earlier would have angered him, except he was delighted he had these breakthroughs now.

He stopped the music, instinctively and instantly reinserting the party goers into the identical stream of feeling they felt the night of the scotch sacrifice. Jeremiah sold his new demands to the primed crowd.

“Brothers and sisters! I have been struck by revelation: a more sacred form of drinking. Glass beer bottles disgust me, when there is simpler, cheaper packaging available. Let simplicity reign! Who needs fancy glass beer bottles? Long live the beer can!”

The rapt audience somehow knew to remain silent and let Jeremiah continue, avoiding that ugly moment in performances when audiences applaud before they should.

“But not just any beer cans, fellow partiers. The tallboy: the coarse American-style super-size tallboy. Its immodesty an insult against the dignity of regular-sized beer cans, which weren’t too small for our ancestors and certainly aren’t too small for me! Canada’s beer vessel is the regular-sized beer can! Nobody desecrate my home with tallboys, or glass beer bottles, ever again!”

Jeremiah began to hurl every bottle he could see against the wall, smashing them all to pieces. The guests plugged their ears for the roar of exploding glass, but laughed at the hilarious yet profound demonstration. Jeremiah knew he couldn’t redeem these smashed bottles, but justified the smashing as a sensible marketing expense, this loss of income essentially the cost of launching his new can-only campaign.

And it worked. The apartment was as filled with glass shards as the crowd was filled with enthusiasm for adopting these new rules. For them, anything but regular-sized beer cans was unholy. Of course the superficial charm of bottles was an insult against laudable simplicity! Of course tallboys were gaudy! How strange they never perceived this before.

Incidentally, crushed beer cans take up way less trunk space than glass bottles, while tallboy drinkers need fewer returnable cans to get drunk on. These changes to his parties more than quadrupled the Beamer’s trunk-to-profit ratio. Everyone was happy.

One night he overheard guests talking about environmental sustainability, a common enough topic in downtown Toronto. Someone mentioned a town in Southern Ontario, with a new Green government subsidy that offered not ten but fifteen cents per empty. The details were unclear, something about kick-starting a local recycling program. It sounded sketchy, but governments wasting tax dollars was hardly unprecedented, Jeremiah reasoned. 15 cents instead of 10. The thought of getting 50 percent more for each empty drove him wild. He began drawing schematics for the Big Haul that night.

Upon sober inspection, the numbers were surprisingly bleak. The Big Haul required renting a truck. Crushed cans might take up less physical space than intact ones but they weigh the same; carrying this added weight increased fuel costs. There was the time for driving, loading and unloading. Everything conspired to make the Big Haul financially less lucrative than he thought. He crunched the numbers again and again but to no avail. Still, he kept more and more bigger and bigger parties — a truck filled with such lucrative empties was just too alluring a fantasy to ignore.

Actually the fatal flaw was invisible. Jeremiah didn’t understand let alone account for the ire he aroused among his rival empties collectors. If he was asked, he’d say they had no reason to complain—they could still return the city’s discarded liquor bottles, beer bottles and tallboy cans. But they resented only getting the inefficient empties, Jeremiah’s crumbs, that he thought himself above. They couldn’t just watch while he single-handedly dominated their industry forever. Why should Jeremiah have everything? He was just a guy, not a god. And worst of all, they were the only ones not invited to his parties.

Eliminating the entrepreneurial empties collector destroying their livelihoods wasn’t going to be easy — he was surrounded at every party by thousands of loyal strangers. To get Jeremiah off his turf they assigned a couple plants to make sure Jeremiah overheard them talking about a town offering a much greater (but non-existent) rate per return. Of course Jeremiah couldn’t resist.

The day of the Big Haul was sunny with clear skies. Traffic was slight. Jeremiah was giddy. He sang whatever song came on the radio, while enjoying the pleasant breeze through the window. He was proud to transport more empties than he thought a single person could ever amass at one time, but this made him paranoid too. Though he wasn’t violent he carried a knife today. No way would his truck get robbed on its maiden voyage, the odds were too low. But in the unlikely event some highway drifter tried to stick him up he hoped flashing the blade would be enough to scare him away.

But Jeremiah never suspected to be assassinated, so when the ambush went down he got quite panicky. He brandished the knife and shouted wild threats, but the collectors only laughed in his face; Jeremiah’s rapacious empties collecting left his enemies armed with an entire city’s worth of glass beer bottles, each one smashed to become a fatal weapon. The glass he shunned would do him in.

Jeremiah realized his mistake too late. He should have harnessed his vast network to spy on his competition, or converted some rivals to his side by offering them a sufficient monthly supply of empties, or at least brought some damn security on this trip. But like many people he didn’t want anyone to know what he actually did to earn money. He enjoyed people believing his work was important and skilled, fascinating and noble. Mysterious, even. Practically speaking if the public learned his actual profession, people would see him differently and never attend his parties again. He’d lose his only source of money. Inside, Jeremiah was alone.

He offered to split the Big Haul but it was too late. The rabid pack of bottle collectors murdered him brutally. They let his corpse rot, then split the profits after returning by far the most valuable empties collection ever assembled by man. They celebrated together with a huge boozy party, and the next morning returned these bottles. They felt like billionaires living off interest.

When news of Jeremiah’s death returned home, countless friends wept over the fantastic obituary. It read:

“Jeremiah was a great man with a warm genuine soul who freely opened up his own home to the community. Above all he valued smiles and happiness. By all accounts he was an accomplished concert pianist, an unsurpassed literary critic, a wizard sommelier and a fearsome MMA fighter. Jeremiah made valuable contributions to an array of unrelated fields, such as economics, taxidermy, string theory and Lepidoptera. He leaves behind thousands of bereaved friends and colleagues.”

Many blogs covered the funeral, reporting on which taste makers and influencers gave eulogies. Many who attended the parties proclaimed to friends in a type of grief-stricken, melodramatic brag how close they were to the deceased, even if they didn’t really know him. To add a personal touch in the deceased’s honour to a common mourning ritual, many spilled beer on the ground from strictly regular-sized beer cans.

Dan and Matilda were on date four when the ghastly news reached them.

“I don’t understand, who’d want to kill him?” said Dan.

“I have no idea. I also still don’t really get why he poured out your scotch.”

“That was weird. Well, he brought us together. Cheers, then! To Jeremiah, one mysterious man.” They gently clinked glasses.

 

Jeff Halperin — Toronto 2013

Against categorizing people

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How odd it is, the number of people with intense opinions / judgements about millions of total strangers.  Whether these opinions are positive or negative, the very underlying premise–that a person can have an accurate opinion about millions of strangers–is ridiculous, even if it’s quite commonly done.

It usually take the basic form of, people from ____ country are _____. Nations get reputations, or people from these countries are thought to embody certain supposedly national traits.

Another form of generalization comes from people making an assessment of the government of a certain country, and judge citizens of that country in relation to what they think of the people ruling it.

It’s usually subconscious, and it’s done even though it sounds quite stupid when said aloud.

People from rich Western countries look down on people who live under totalitarian rule, like North Korea, or under more or less military rule, like Pakistan. I suspect North Americans will say they care about the lives of such people, and they may, but there’s still a quiet and automatic feeling of superiority. We have no control over the system of government we’re born into, but I suppose many people here feel like we earned it. Like we deserve to have been born in a stable, wealthy nation.

I know people who hate Trudeau, yet are prepared to judge millions of people in another country by who rules over them. There are people who make an assessment of a foreign country’s leadership, then, based on this, believe these countries should be militarily invaded and attacked. Really, consider this.

My rule of thumb is, anybody who can’t name the language spoken in another country, let alone actually speak it, can’t really have an opinion about that country worth hearing. I lived in India for 1.5 years and didn’t learn Hindi. I only interacted to a subset of people who speak English, and this was very limiting. I know a lot more about India than I used to, but for a real political opinion, speak to a native. Natives from different regions. You can begin to understand another country’s politics when you understand their political cartoons.

The thing that determines status worldwide is money: Rich nations export their culture, and their culture becomes international pop culture. It’s not necessarily because it’s better art, there’s just money behind it, and confidence, and this sends it around the world. The fact that it’s been exported convinces people it ought to have been exported, and they’re more likely to embrace it because it was presented to them than they would if they stumbled on it themselves in some remote corner of the internet.

That art from their country is present around the world makes the people from that country feel superior, even if they have absolutely nothing to do with the art’s creation. That’s why politicians eagerly claim artists born within their borders, even if they didn’t fund or inspire or have anything else to do with the art. Countries even brag about writers who spent their lives denouncing that country, or at least its government. Politicians are likely to praise local writers they have never read, let alone understand.

It’s not a coincidence that America’s culture has circled the globe, and so has its military. Beyonce is great! Coca Cola is shit. Governments judge art not aesthetically but by how much Soft Power it’s worth. Art in this sense has no artistic value, or at least is not valued for its actual artistic value, it just confers status and prestige. If you see the way people scream at concerts, from Beatles to Bieber, you’ll see it’s as if they’re responding to partaking in their status by being in its presence, rather than showing appreciation for music they enjoy.

I am definitely not criticizing American artists! Most writers and musicians I love are American. I repeat, I love them. But all countries produce excellent artists, and we simply never come to know them. I’m sure of it. People claiming prestige because they come from the country that produced Melville, even if they’ve never read Moby Dick, are the same people judging strangers by what cultural capital that country has allegedly produced.

Culture in North America usually takes the form of ready-made Products–songs, novels, something ready for sale. In India, I found culture was mostly created to make the surroundings more beautiful. Textiles were created so people have something nicer to wear, and even though of course they are sold, its inspiration was artistic rather than commercial. Music is played in temples, to accompany prayer. I went to Piano Man to see some jazz, but small venues like that are rare. When I wanted to listen to some music, I went to my local Gurdwara.

Cultural needs to be understood in its context. There are people who think Pakistan isn’t a cultural capital because it allegedly hasn’t produced novels in the Western Canon. This is like saying American writers are behind because it hasn’t produced any good ghazals.

Anyway, I submit that people shouldn’t judge strangers by things that have absolutely nothing to do with them: their government, their artists. The truth is, they say you can be married to someone for years, and one day wake up and realize you don’t really know them. How is it then, that people form such strong and rigid views about millions of perfect strangers?

We’re probably hard-wired for the days when humans lived in way smaller groups, and even though it’s tempting to do we’re not mentally equipped to process reasonable verdicts on millions let alone billions of people. Especially total strangers. So it’s good to recognize this limitation, and only judge people or things after making reasonable contact. Don’t judge things without context. It sounds easy, but we all kind of do it.

Calibrate your outlook according to your staggering ignorance (no matter how many things you know, there’s way more you don’t…this has nothing to do with lack of intelligence, there’s just way too much out there to grasp–it’d take many lifetimes), be humbled by this, and keenly appreciate how little we know. Then judge, or not judge, accordingly.

 

On what I currently listen for in music

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My musical ear has changed. I always listened to excellent music—my first loves were MC Hammer, Aerosmith, Dance Mix 92-95, Phish and of course Grateful Dead. I don’t regret one note I listened to, but I wasn’t listening to the whole of every song, and gravitated too heavily to the guitar.

It’s begging the question: Did I focus too much on guitar because I was a guitar player, or is that why I became a guitar player in the first place? In either case, I didn’t properly value rhythm sections. I should have listened to everything. This might seem like not really a big deal but actually I think of it now as a sonic sin, akin to watching only 80% of the every screen while watching a movie. Musically, I was crooked.

Rhythm sections were something I responded to, I felt them, but didn’t hear. To be fair, I listened to a lot of bootleg Dead tapes with varying degrees of audio quality. But to listen to the drums without really hearing the bass is to hear the drums without their context. Drums and bass live together, there’s a dialogue between them in the music, and to only hear one is to really miss both.

I have known this for a while now, maybe months, but felt this quite intensely the other day messing around on a bass while my buddy drummed. The bass drum and the bass guitar are a tandem. It’s very possible to like a band because of their rhythm section without quite knowing that’s why you like them. That’s why Dave Byrne of Talking Heads wore that big suit, to make his head look small and his body look big as a reminder that music is fundamentally physical, not intellectual.

Early, the jazz bass player’s role was to support a soloist improvising over the tune’s harmony. They soloed, too, but it was mostly a supportive role. In 1970 Miles gives us Bitches Brew, which isn’t just a killer album title, it provides musical hints about the new direction: the instruments simmer together in a cauldron. Gone is the formula for 50’s jazz and even the freer 60’s stuff, where all instruments play the head of the tune, principle soloist solos first followed by second and third horn, drum solo then close with the song’s opening melody. Rather, there’s one groove that everyone participates in at the same time.

I had one saxophone lesson in 2007, wherein my teacher made an astute observation that astonished me: Coltrane was a hog! He kept soloing forever and forever, with the best rhythm players backing him. There was no melodic exchange. Now, I love Coltrane deeply, but this is more or less what he did.

A nasty alto player who used to run the Dal sax department told me something similarly astonishing: He said Cannonball Adderley was content with his bad ass swing, while tortured Coltrane changed his sound every week because he was just unsatisfied. I had thought Coltrane’s quest to find music’s highest height was a service to humanity. I will never say a bad word about John Coltrane, whose sublime music has genuinely given to me more than what religious people get from religion. Once in a while I’ll play him and have a kind of sacred experience, but generally I need music structured differently.

Miles said he learned from Sly and the Family Stone how to dismantle that old standard jazz formula, and melt his horn into the other instruments, rather than playing one after another in their turn.

The Band is the perfect sound for me now because of its balance. On the surface they don’t appear to have anything in common with Miles, but not only did they play on bills together in the early 70’s, their music is both a cauldron even if the brew is nothing alike.

The Band was a bar band for 10 years before they recorded their first album. This is key to understanding them. They had played loud high-octane Rock in every bar in the American South and Ontario. In the studio, in Big Pink, they wanted to turn the instruments down, hear each other, play songs on which their instruments intertwined. No virtuoso guitar or drum or bass solos. Their music is on a foundation of interdependence.

Most bands only have one or two super talented members whereas everyone in The Band is an all star. So maybe other groups can’t be as balanced as they are because their talent is dispersed lopsidedly—it’s a question of talent, not vision.

Glenn Gould said it’s “anti-democratic” for a pianist to have one dominant hand. Sure, but commitment to democracy isn’t enough, it’s very difficult to have a left hand that plays as deftly as the right. Gould would call The Band democratic. They are perfectly, utterly balanced.

There’s something so tacky to me now, even vulgar, about million-notes-a-minute guitar solos. So guitar-centric. “Play rhythm for me while I shred” is like asking friends for a favour rather than hanging out together on equal terms. This kind of solo is a physical achievement of dexterity, not necessarily a musical one. I can marvel at Steve Vai and G3, even feel envy at their shocking chops, but I don’t really want to listen to it.

Picasso had to prove he could paint in a renaissance style before his more abstract stuff was taken seriously. Why? For many people art can’t be serious unless it passes a certain threshold of technical achievement. This is understandable to an extent—you don’t want to celebrate an artist that produces something an untrained infant can.

Yet complexity does not equal quality. Would his abstract work be any less incredible if Picasso couldn’t also paint in a renaissance style? Does Neil Young need jazz chops to be taken seriously? Of course not, it’s ridiculous. Every artist is their own genre.

Most art presupposes the possession of certain amount of artistic skill, but not all. Judging art purely by the skill required to pull it off, rather than by the vision or soul behind it, is nearly as vulgar as judging paintings by how much money the Art World says it is worth. A solo isn’t good because it’s hard to play, but because it’s musical. Of course it’s OK to be impressed with a tough passage, but only if it’s musical.

Art is a mood, a vibe, a sound, a feel. Art is not ranked along any one ultimate hierarchy. But in music, I think it’s important to give the same weight to all the instruments. Actually I think Western Classical generally privileges melody and harmony over rhythm, the first conditioning of the Western ear. This dynamic trickles down.

The ironic thing is African music was often called “primitive” specifically because the rhythms were literally too sophisticated for Westerners to process. There’s a moment in the Ginger Baker documentary when he’s hanging privately with one of his hero drummers as a teenager, who plays records of some African drumming. Baker is asked to name the time signature, identify where the beat starts. He cannot.

Balance for me in music is along this axis to, between harmony, melody and rhythm. Rhythm should be a feature, not in service to the other two. I listen to a lot of Atlantic Soul records now, where the punch is the groove, not some dazzling soloist.

Music is infinite permutations of tension and release. I want to caution against confusing sophistication in music or art for quality: Like I said, I still love that old Dance Mix stuff, and a lot of old E-A-B blues is basic on paper but sounds like shit unless you play and sing with feel. If you can dance to a tune or you like hearing a song, that song has done its job.

But the music hitting me hardest now has togetherness, it’s communal. The Band sounds like they’re all having a great time hanging out together (and when they stopped enjoying hanging out, their music immediately suffered). It’s not an accident that they all play each other’s instruments, live and on albums. They’ve transcended their particular instrument and are playing music.

A wise friend told me once there are four stages to music. The first is “unconscious-unknowing.” Think of a child who plays air guitar because they feel the music in their bones but have no idea how to play actual music. Second is “conscious-unknowing,” the beginner who labours to follow the basic instructions, but is now playing music. Third is “conscious-knowing,” the accomplished musician who knows what and how to play but still must think about it. The final stage, that almost nobody reaches, is “unconscious-knowing,” where music is simply felt and transferred to the instrument immediately, without thought required.

This fourth category is filled with musicians who have transcended their instrument, or maybe two or more instruments. Their music isn’t a physical phenomenon anymore. It’s not even a cerebral one, because while it takes brains to play, it’s about feeling as much as thoughts. Not just the degree of thoughts and feelings—not how much intelligence and feeling is there–but the nature of these things.

The only pertinent question to musicians in the fourth category is: what are their musical thoughts like? How good are these thoughts/feelings? Charlie Parker’s music is nearly impossible to play, but that isn’t his real achievement. It’s his ideas that are impossible to conceive of. Lots of people mimic Parker today, and they are incredible musicians! It’s very, very hard to do! But they are reproducing his licks, not the mental originality that gave rise to them in the first place.

Musical ideas need not be complex to be good. It’s instructive that when musicians get tired of playing bebop, they mellow out and play grooves. Miles’ Birth of the Cool or even Kind of Blue. Thought of this way, the idea of ranking musicians or bands in sequential order is ridiculous.

I worry that a lot of people hear music on YouTube and it sounds like shit. MP4s, or iTunes, sounds like shit. Non-flac digital files compress music so that a device can store a million songs. Really, the sound waves have a narrower range. It’s a real distortion. Apple, Spotify and YouTube offer immediate access to every song on earth, and in exchange, they don’t sound as good. This may differ from recording to recording, or on your speakers or something, but I suspect there is a generation hearing subpar music. As TVs have improved their picture, our audio quality has gotten worse.

I say this not merely as grumpy man, but from having taught guitar to kids for years and seeing how they listen now, on devices or computers. I suspect the worsening audio quality impacts the way contemporary producers and DJs create and play music. Medium Is The Message kinda thing. But that’s a longer story for another day.

An old proverb I heard is “chess is an ocean in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe.” Same goes for music. Take from it as much or as little as you want. If you like having it on in the background, cool! But listening actively is a life-long activity that evolves, and pleasure really deepens. However far you want to go in listening to music, there are many who have already gone further. That this is true is just such, such a blessing.

Am I in the echo chamber, or are you?

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This will sound sarcastic, but honestly I never got accused of being influenced by an “echo chamber” until after I moved to India to work as a journalist, and after making a deliberate effort to read non-white and non-male writers.

To review, an “echo chamber” is the phenomenon where a person only exposes themselves to views they already have, and the more online they are the more they deeply entrench their own beliefs/biases.

Whatever people think of my views, objectively speaking, I’m not a product of an echo chamber. The accusation is laughable.

I read Conservative media. I used to be conservative. For years I kept tabs on the heart of Conservative Canada by reading the FB updates of my cousin’s husband, a former speech writer for Harper who is currently strategic director of communications for Doug Ford.

This guy has defended Trump, Breitbart, rejoiced when NFL planned to shut out Colin Kaepernick, Betsy Devos, and more. He once accused me of being in a social media echo chamber, and has since defriended me from FB. I cannot help listen to Ford without being deeply aware that he hired a man with these views to communicate for him.

I read the National Post for years–I know the work of Rex Murphy, Blatchford, the Kays, Conrad Black, Robyn Urback, Lorne Gunter, and the rest. I used to see the Sun’s Sue Ann Levy at city hall when I wrote about that circus, and ran into Tarek Fatah in an elevator in Film City. I read (hate-read) Wente at the Globe.

I can’t read Ezra Levant on Twitter because he blocked me, but I’ve seen this former National Post editor’s Rebel segments and read enough of his writing, from his early days at Maclean’s. I read Barbara Amiel, Conrad Black’s wife and the former wife of George Jonas, a small-C conservative voice I read fondly in the National Post for years.

I worked for Zee Media, basically India’s Fox News. Sudhir Chaudhary was my editor in chief (I was on Web and he was TV, and mostly does Hindi news, but still, I sat in story meetings and am acquainted with his thought). I have read/watched enough Jordan Petersen and have talked with him before.

I had to read US Conservative media in the summer of 2016 when researching for a TV show I was writing about Trump. I don’t read it all the time now because it’s exhausting and time-consuming, but I know the work of Ben Shapiro, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Bari Weiss at the NYT, Sam Harris. I used to read Krauthammer, and still read former Bush speech writer David Frum.

I was in the belly of the beast of India’s Conservative news machine. When demonetization was announced, we got an order not to write anything critical about it.

The BJP announced Demonetization on literally on the night of the US election, and like everyone I was consumed by Trump news. While I had reservations about demonetization right away I thought my fellow Indians on the desk were better suited to pronounce on it than me. Maybe this is me rationalizing a moment where I should have quit on principle, out of disgust for the flagrant conflict of interest–the owner of my station is an independent member from Haryana of the BJP, the ruling national party.

But the point is, I’ve seen first-hand how money influences/determines coverage of economic policies. Even without telling this story, my station ran a disgraceful commercial that promoted not WION, but the government policy! Imagine CBC running a commercial promoting Trudeau–that’s what my station did.

When people claim that Postmedia is affiliated with the conservative party here in Canada, it means they informally do what in India is done formally. It’s not an accident that Tarek Fatah writes for the Sun here and appears on Zee TV.

What become undeniably clear to me during my time in journalism is the extent to which economic reports are deliberately and shockingly cooked, both by ostensibly neutral economic institutions like the IMF and by journalists covering the industry.

I had a good talk with John Perkins, the author of Confessions of an Economic Hitman, who for 10 years negotiated in backrooms with the leaders of Central American countries, unofficially but decidedly on behalf of American business interests. Perkins was recruited by the NSA, and his book outlines the basic process:

  1. Corruption: Offer leaders money and perks if they give major contracts to American businesses
  2. Propaganda: Tell the leaders, we will cook the books/stats so that your citizens believe (wrongly) you will benefit the country.
  3. Threaten: Cooperate, otherwise, see examples where national leaders were removed by coup, to be replaced by cooperative leaders.
  4. Threaten more: Cooperate, because if you don’t play ball and a coup doesn’t work, the US will simply assassinate you or take power by force

People in Toronto seem to have no awareness that Free Market ideology is an ideology. It’s assumed that the current stage of consumerism/capitalism arises here naturally, like lakes do, that the Free Market’s global success is do to its innately superior properties, and not to external pressure applied by wealthy people.

They think the Market is a non-human entity, an omniscient force that somehow distributes the right money and jobs to the right people based on a complex but merit-based algorithm. That it somehow weighs people’s personality, skills, responsibilities, and other criteria and allots to them the salary they deserve.

I believed something like this. But it’s total horseshit. Of course the control of money has human fingerprints all over it. It’s incredibly naive to believe that ultra rich people simply entrust their fortunes to fate.

Really, they acquire and guard it ferociously–there are entire industries that exist so that people with immense wealth can use either legal, quasi-legal or illegal means to shelter their fortunes from tax authorities in offshore accounts. Money buys politicians or media influence. People know this–every pseudo-sophisticated political observation is based on the wonderful quip “An honest politician is one who when he’s bought, stays bought.” But I suspect most people downplay how much this of a role this plays in politics.

I had a fascinating conversation with a longtime Canadian journalist who mentored me, who said that the Globe and Mail is basically a money-losing entity that only exists so the owners can frame the national discussion. Obviously they’d rather make money than lose it, but even if it bleeds money, it’s a very worthwhile investment, and anyway it’s only a small part of the owner’s portfolio. The Globe’s target audience, according to internal documents from the Globe, is people who make over $100,000 annually.

The Sun and National Post–2 of 4 of Canada’s major daily newspapers–are the Conservative Party’s low brow and high brow blogs, respectively. But even the Globe is not there to expose white collar crime or anything that seriously undermines how the Free Market.

These newspapers work on the assumption that the grotesque and ever-growing income inequality is by definition justified because the market dictates it, and to interfere with the market is akin to sticking a wrench in Nature.

While social conservatism is often berated in public and in media, when it comes to money journalism in Canada and really everywhere has a right wing bias. Look at a newspaper: there are entire sections devoted to Cars/Driving, Travel, Movies, Sports, and now Cannabis–these papers will neglect some life-and-death issues (jailing, housing crises, police brutality) while reporting on subjects that might be interesting but are only only important because money is concentrated there.

These are complicated topics, oversimplified here for my purposes. It’s impossible to talk fully about the Market and how money works without talking about race and gender, and that’s also beyond the scope of this little article.

I have an acute sense that my FB friends despise my political posts (I do too! I swear, politics is miserable and depressing). But my views are in the minority in the broader community, too: Toronto elected Tory and Ontario elected Doug Fucking Ford.

So, if my views are unpopular, doesn’t that suggest my views were arrived at despite the echo chamber?

Isn’t it possible that the people and media institutions with long histories of promoting the status quo are the creators of the echo chamber?

There’s a concept called “Vertical Integration” coined by an old sociology professor of mine. The idea is this: If a theory is incompatible with other types of accepted explanations of the world, it is likely bogus–it’s not enough that the Bible says that the Bible is true, because it’s contradicted by so many interdependent branches of science. This is begging the question 101. The more a theory tallies with different kinds of thought, the more buttressed it is and the more likely it is to be true.

The Bible is a self-contained echo chamber. I put it that conservative politics is drifting further and further into the same kind of realm.

Trump calls any credible media report that doesn’t flatter him “Fake News”, and a hostile country flooded social media with fake accounts (“bots”) that pathologically promote Trump, who has created an entirely alternate reality for his followers to believe in because his views are so incompatible with the actual world: Isn’t it possible that *this* is the echo chamber?

The left is frequently entreated to watch 4 hours of Jordan Petersen videos to see that his latest misogynist quote was deliberately misquoted to smear him. I’d like to ask those on the right to do a type of mental back flip, a very hard thing to do and no small ask, but really, ask yourself: “am I the one in the echo chamber?”

PS: I am happy to discuss any of these broad topics with more nuanced with anybody, privately or in the comments or whatever. I do think it’s important to be approachable: Sometimes my writing comes off snarky because the truth is I can be a little shit, but I do get bored talking to basic liberals and find these and other conversations very fascinating.