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.

To my conservative friends…

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Many conservative voters object to overt, extreme forms of racism, then have a hard time reconciling how leftists can accuse them of being racist. They don’t feel racist. They get defensive and accuse the liberal in turn of being over-sensitive, or using “racist” as a smear to dismiss without cause anyone they disagree with. Everyone and everything is racist, these days.

I posted an article to Facebook shortly before the 2018 Ontario election about a white supremacist podcaster hoping Doug Ford would win. There was nothing contentious or up for dispute in the article: the white supremacist was a self-declared white supremacist, cheering on Doug Ford because, in his opinion, Ford was the only candidate who would implement white supremacy.

“Ronny Cameron, a white nationalist blogger who has recently published several pro-Ford posts, suggested that when Ford declared ‘we gotta take of our own before we take care of anybody else,’ every single white nationalist said to themselves: ‘we know what you’re sayin’, Dougie.’”

I didn’t sabotage Ford’s character by connecting him to something odious where there was no real connection. I would never do that. Rather, I sabotaged his character by highlighting a very real connection he has to something odious.

Here is how I introduced the article on FB on June 3: “self-declared white supremacists have a crystal clear favourite in this upcoming Ontario election and if your vote aligns with theirs, have a talk with yourself.

Don’t let trumpism rat fuckery come here, for the love of all that’s holy.”

I said nothing inaccurate, or even contentious. An interesting thing happened next though.

A Conservative insider who worked for Doug Ford’s provincial campaign and once wrote speeches for Stephen Harper, commented: “I’m voting for Ford. Are you calling me racist?”

The conservative’s must have a PR handbook for deflecting attention away from conservative racism. Such a handbook could read, “when a liberal draws attention to our racism, respond with attack by implying that the accusation itself is a grave insult—but, and this is key, never address the actual racism they were correct to highlight, it’s bad branding. Make racism about you, not them.

A motto for conservatives could be, “Are you the victim of racism, ie did someone call you ‘racist’? Vote conservative!” Conservatives love it when liberals accuse them of racism. They feed off anger, it unites them. That people called “racist” are currently drawn to one party, well, what does that say?

Conservatives, I say to you: racism isn’t a feeling. Whether a person feels racist only matters to that person, but racism happens (at least one form…) when non-white communities receive second- or third-class treatment.

There are reasons a person may vote for Ford that have nothing to do with race, but none of them change the fact that a vote for Ford is a vote for a certified racist.

Ford was elected premier only a couple months ago, and here is a partial list of what he has already done so far:

–Ford cancelled a promised $500,000 grant for at-risk youth to receive musical instruments and instruction.

–Ford pledged to increase police presence in at-risk neighbourhoods, bringing back the cancelled TAVIS, against the wishes of community leaders and experts

–Ford wants to bring back “carding,” a practice the Liberals cancelled because it stigmatizes and hassles racialized people and has absolutely no proven benefit in fighting crime. (Police have been asked repeatedly to provide proof carding helps them fight crime, and have never provided any.) It’s also unclear how the personal data on private and innocent citizens, dubiously acquired by police, is stored and used.

–After a shooting near Jane and Finch, Ford was pictured with three local residents and the anti-racism minister, Michael Tibollo, who wore a bullet proof vest and described the area as, essentially, a war zone. (In contrast, after the Danforth mass shooting local politicians were (correctly!) destigmatizing the Danforth, promoting it as safe family-oriented place, and encouraging Toronto residents to visit, mourn and patronize businesses. While a police spokesperson said Tibollo’s bulletproof vest was given “to err on the side of caution”…it is impossible to imagine this photo op happening in a white neighbourhood. Note, Ford didn’t wear a bullet proof vest.)

If you examine the quotes and gestures in isolation and one at a time it may appear like simple nitpicking from oversensitive libtards keen for another hammer to attack Conservatives with. But if you connect the words and images with where and how Conservatives are choosing to spend money, a picture emerges. Is it really a coincidence that Ford and his people say allegedly racist things, then do in fact de-fund these communities and send in more weaponized police with pre-emptive permission to hassle residents? It’s only been two months.

If Ford and Tibollo and other Conservative politicians merely said but did not do racist things, it’d be less of an actual problem. But make no mistake, the words are followed up with action. People said trump was just all talk, that his racism was for ratings. No, no, no. The Conservatives will harm at-risk communities in real and tangible ways. Lives will be damaged. People may even die in ways that don’t immediately appear directly linked to Ford’s cuts and policy, but are.

Not to be too dramatic, but it’s true. The point isn’t that Doug Ford (or other Conservatives labeled “racist”) is a cartoon embodiment of a racist: I doubt he is restraining an urge to wear KKK sheets or lynch minorities. Racism can be very damaging when it’s more subtle. It often takes the form of white men in suits making policies which favour white communities at the expense of non-white communities. It’s economics. Whether the cancelled investment in Jane/Finch was driven by active hate or “taking care of our own before we take care of anyone else,” it’s racist. It is a distinction without a difference.

I know people who grew up on Talib, Tribe and De La, who today oppose their politics. Conscious hip hoppers were always social justice warriors. The Right Wing Culture War machine would have you believe that SJWs are “virtue signaling” about minorities to be retweeted, or sticking up for women’s rights merely as a tactic to fuck them. They disparage the alleged motive, and do not address the argument itself. Trump and his people like to paint critics as just humourless PC babies…sure, like Eminem and Borat.

I’m sure there are many good and conscientious wealthy Conservative voters who would be appalled if they saw what their vote contributed to up close. But they won’t see this. They may see lower taxes, but never what paid for the reduction, so they’ll never really come to understand the harm Conservatives inflict.

They don’t live in these communities, and have no contact with the people there whatsoever. Like me, they don’t go to Jane and Finch. I “taught” at Emery for one brief and disastrous month. But I grew up in Forest Hill. The closest people there get to Jane/Finch is Oakdale Country Club. To get a sense of how sheltered conservative thinking can be, consider that Federal Conservatives are pitching the idea that the people in crisis in the “Refugee Crisis” are the people safe in their homes inside Canada, not the stateless and traumatized refugees fleeing war and death. I doubt Conservatives actively want to harm non-white communities, they’re just indifferent to them, and this leads to harm. In any case, malice in the motive isn’t required for harm to occur.

In 2010 Rob Ford cancelled the planned LRT that was going to finally connect Jane and Finch with the rest of the city via rapid transit. Doug will continue making cuts, there and elsewhere. I didn’t feel racist when I voted for Rob Ford, but eight years later I still wrestle with the fact that before I was politically formed, I voted for an international disgrace in a mere municipal election.

I felt and feel extremely stupid and ashamed of this. There’s more I can say, but my feelings then and even now are irrelevant. I didn’t feel racist, but I voted for one. Today, my conservative friends, your feelings do not matter. What happens in the world does.

 

Addendum:

I’d like to describe briefly how and why I have come to believe what I do, because the general public probably has a Right Wing Media conception of “social justice warrior,” so people may read things I wrote above through that lens.

Like all smart-ass young writers I was enthusiastic to reject all teams and labels, etc. I still do, but with less of a hard edge, and some laughter. People will call me a leftist, and my views tend to fall that way, but I’m not associated with any organization, I don’t get paid to express certain views, I don’t represent any group—it’s just how I feel is all, and underlying it is:

The god of organized religion doesn’t exist; we’re all going to die one day and there’s no purpose to any of this shit apart from what we make of it; race is a social construct that is in one sense completely arbitrary and made up, but try saying race doesn’t exist, or that oblivious phrase “I don’t see race,” to the descendants of slaves.

The individual’s ability to love people and things and produce fascinating, sublime, beautiful works of art is what’s truly worth the reverence religion receives.

I hear things from conservatives like, “I support equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome,” which is a naïve but surface-smart sounding way of saying, effectively, “It’s OK if generations suffer harmful yet predictable outcomes in life based on their race, gender and class, so long as these social evils are arrived at naturally, not by state coercion.”

You’ll notice, conservatives often criticize “SJWs” for allegedly having some filthy ulterior motive, but they never consider the possibility that, actually, things like fiscal conservatism, often described in lofty universal philosophical terms, nearly always results in whatever benefits that person’s self interest the most.

The theorists who reduce humans to animals are half right—we are animals, obvs, but they often take it one step further, saying we ought to continue our existence in the jungle conditions of other animals. No! The whole point of civilization is to use our intelligence to impose and shape order on our natural impulses for the betterment of society. The notion that it’s wrong to correct for our inherent flaws, such as our innate tendency to break into tribes and then war against neighbouring tribes, opposes the very idea of civilization influencing our civilization.

“Equality of opportunity” is a super important thing to have enshrined in law, and can’t be taken for granted. We need it, it must be celebrated. But we know that in practice things like generational wealth, gender and race undermines the living shit out of “equality of opportunity.” The people dealt the best hand say, “sorry, such are the cards!” And the people dealt the bad hand say, “this isn’t a fucking game, this is life.”

I understand that the ancient Greeks distinguished between two kinds of knowledge. First is understanding a concept abstractly, then there’s first-hand knowledge from experience. You know someone must feel extremely sad when somebody they love dies, but you don’t know the feeling until your loved one is dead. There’s knowing and there’s knowing. 

There’s a kind of argument I see a lot of online that’s so pedantic and theoretical and unconcerned in how life actually is–it’s based on this first kind of knowledge only. I’ll never know what it’s like to grow up poor, black, female, Native. I just won’t. No social discourse can be complete without this second kind of knowledge. Various people must give input, or life is only described in two dimensions, not three, and the world is three dimensional.

It’s in this sense that I’ve learned a lot from listening to people from a wide range of backgrounds, from reading and traveling, but really from listening to people. You don’t know what you don’t know. I’ve been humbled, I‘m more convinced I don’t know a fucking thing on this earth, that the more confident someone sounds the more likely they’re faking it, they’re simply wrong or paid to lie.

So, anyway, to my conservative friends: Zuckerberg and co benefit from people freaking out. The internet is murder. Unwind, unplug. Give it all a think. Listen to different kinds of people. I’m the same pretty chilled dude I always was, but I will definitely write some more angry shit on my facebook about trump, ford or whatever right wing shitlord you voted for. They’re disgusting, and I reserve that right. If you disagree with something I write, feel free to respond in the comment section. I’ll be nice! It’s good to have a group airing. Or DM me. This will avoid that performative urge to appear better informed or too pithy that sometimes comes when private chats are conducted in public. You won’t be piled on or dragged by my ruthless FB friends, either.

Love,

J

Response to Professional Essay: Exercise 3.16–Writing By Choice, Eric Hendersen

Writing By Choice, Third Edition. Eric Hendersen. Oxford University Press. Don Mills Ontario. Page 96-96

  1. Briefly analyze the essay’s introduction. Consider the effectiveness of the opening and the thesis statement. Is Halperin successful in establishing his approach to the topic of dog versus houseplants?

“They’re barking money pits, these dogs, and for too long we’ve been under the false impression that they’re better than houseplants.”

Yes. Halperin’s opening and thesis statement are effective–finally, a writer addresses the crucial issue of “dogs versus houseplants,” for so long neglected by the Mainstream Media.

 

  1. How could you characterize the writer’s tone? Give specific examples. How could awareness of tone affect your reading of the essay?

Halperin’s tone is fearless. Resolute. Some writers are glib in the face of society’s most dire crises, relying on humour as a crutch because the grimmest truths are too uncomfortable.

“Unlike dogs, plants will forever maintain their poise no matter how many times you ring the doorbell…Dogs, on the other hand, are famous for attacking mailmen—an obvious sign of class warfare.”

In an era where mafia states infiltrate Western countries, where the planet’s ecology is systematically destroyed and sold, and global economic disparity is increasing grotesquely in an age of post-scarcity, these are dark times and it is comforting to find a writer as serious and perceptive as Halperin.

 

  1. Analyze one of the body paragraphs, using criteria discussed in this and/or previous chapters.

“Finally, after years of attachment, your plant will grow and so will your pleasure with it. With casual care, your plant can actually outlive you. No matter how much you care for your dog, it will end up dead in a crumpled heap on the floor…”

Here, Halperin’s overflowing optimism is balanced against his aversion to sentimentality. Without being mawkish Halperin manages to describe love’s unfathomable ability to survive death, so long as the heart in which it resides is true.

The world has not seen metaphysical musings combining cosmic seriousness with comic playfulness since John Donne, 1572-1631. Of course, no criterion in this university textbook can sufficiently describe the lofty heights reached in this paragraph or any other.

 

  1. Identify the compare and contrast method Halperin uses and the bases for comparison. You can use the appropriate diagrammatic model on page 95, above, to show method and bases for comparison.

“It’s not all economics. Plants give back oxygen without even being asked. This is a real kindness because you can’t overestimate the importance of oxygen…dogs only give you something with the understanding that you’ll throw it back to them in an endlessly futile cycle.”

Halperin uses the compare/contrast method in body paragraph 5 to denounce the way capitalistic societies have become totally transactional—where the commercial pay-or-be-paid ethos filters down to inner lives, so that even personal relationships are conducted like bookkeeping where every positive and negative action/remark is kept inside a ledger, where all existence is reduced to a realm where altruism by definition does not and cannot exist. This is definitely what Halperin is really getting at.

 

House Plants Are Better Than Dogs

[full text]

[1] Some people believe that a home isn’t a home without a dog. To hear these people talk, you’d think that shedded hair, sharp fangs and crap on carpets are trivial matters. They’re barking money pits, these dogs, and for too long we’ve been under the false impression that they’re better than houseplants. Let’s investigate.

[2] Unlike dogs, plants will forever maintain their poise no matter how many times you ring the doorbell. Calm, cool and collected, the houseplant is a model of patience and even temperament. They bow down to nobody, see no race or class. Perfectly reflecting the modern zeitgeist, plants represent the highest ideal of egalitarian tolerance. Dogs, on the other hand, are famous for attacking mailmen–an obvious gesture of class warfare.

[3] You can be sure plants won’t harass the company at your next dinner party, but don’t be fooled into thinking they’re entirely dormant. They grow in response to Bach fugues, which would be a compliment to their ear, if they had one.

[4] In light of nuclear disaster and the rising cost of gas, there’s a big hubbub about how best to harness the sun’s energy. But plants settled this millions of years ago. Living off the sun’s rays, plants are their own solar panels. Scientifically way ahead of us and financially more responsible, plants don’t need government handouts for their energy exchange program. Shame dogs don’t eat rain and sunshine, eh?

[5] It’s not all economics. Plants give back oxygen without even being asked. That is a real kindness because you can hardly overstate the importance of oxygen. Plants can’t help but be givers. In comparison, dogs only give you something with the understanding that you’ll throw it back to them over and over in an endlessly futile cycle. Also, dogs need to go to school just to figure out how to sit down or play dead. Plants don’t need to be taught how to play dead. They’re autodidacts

[6] Admittedly there’s something to be said for a dog that quietly nestles on your lap after a hard day’s work. But ask yourself: has your dog signed a contract indicating he won’t revert to pissy pre-housebroken days? What if some horrible canine violence on TV suddenly provokes him and he becomes a biter? Plants offer unrivalled peace of mind. You can take plants at their word. Nothing can make them bite you or crap under your bed.

[7] Finally, after years of attachment, your plant will grow and so will your pleasure with it. With casual care, your plant can actually outlive you. No matter how you care for your dog, it will end up dead in a crumpled heap on the floor. If you have kids, they’ll cry. All’s well that ends well, but it never ends well with dogs.

[8] Yes, dogs can be sweet, cuddly and affectionate–they aren’t wholly without commendable traits, even though it’s much, much better to get a houseplant. But in all fairness, at least dogs are a cheaper, lower maintenance, and cuter alternative to getting a baby.

Identity politics VS politics

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The conservative idea of “identity politics” is sheltered and oblivious and needs consideration.

In one of the latest incidents in US police brutality Stephon Clark, a father of two, was in his grandmother’s backyard holding a cellphone when police shot him twenty times. Fatally. [Correction: eight bullets hit him, they fired 20 times.] Drawing attention to this, calling this outrageous and demanding it end is a no-brainer. It’s not a partisan cause or some niche side-interest to take up unless you think black people are only secondary members of society.

Maybe conservatives would care about it more if framed as an issue of government overreach, as in it’s wrong to spend tax dollars (often a huge salary) on government workers who don’t just fail to do their jobs, they literally kill sovereign citizens. 

In the age of video, white people need to be wilfully ignorant to still believe the innocent people killed posed a reasonable threat to police, that police were justified to feel their lives were at risk.

Stephon Clark was unarmed on his grandmother’s property and they shot him 20 times.

Philando Castile was calmly telling police he had a gun in his glove compartment before they shot him dead in front of his wife and child—it was licensed and they were in an open-carry  state and the entire interaction lasted about 40 seconds. The examples go on and on.

There are also multiple incidents of white people carrying machine guns brought in alive by police, even after they killed people or even after they pointed the guns at police.

The difference is instructive and extremely damning. The problem isn’t that these white people are brought in alive by cops—that’s a good thing. It’s that evidently police feel more threatened by an unarmed black man than a white man pointing a gun at them.

Police couldn’t be failing more to meet any standard of discretion, let alone the high one required before society should grant them the right to use lethal force on citizens.

Let’s do a thought experiment: if you didn’t know to what race you belonged and were told of two problems plaguing society, the first encouraging the use of trans-approved pronouns and the second state agents killing people with the court system’s permission, what would you say is a bigger problem?

Conservatives here are single-mindedly fixated on changing pronouns for two reasons: even the slightest accommodation they’re asked to make feels oppressive because people in power are used to demanding not accommodating, and conservatives are utterly sheltered from actual social problems.

Even if you thought that government control of language was only a prelude to gulags, the police are already killing people with the state’s permission. Why are those frothing mad about what they claim is potential fascism silent on what’s already happening?

Because conservatives only care about their identity politics.

Consider how natural it is for the conservative to see his identity mirrored in NFL pregame ceremonies, with Navy or Army veterans singing the anthem with a brass band, an American flag seen from space and fighter jets screaming over the field in formation.

They don’t even term this “identity politics” because it’s just the default way of doing things. But what else is it?

Conservatives feel under siege when their identity politics pre-game ritual is even slightly altered, so slightly nobody even saw Colin Kaepernick take a knee during the anthem for weeks until a reporter caught on and asked him about it. They were deaf to the fighter jets but the man silently kneeling pierces their ears. Think about that.

Conservatives often get offended when you tell them that actually the flag and fighter jets are blatantly identity politics, especially the kind of conservative who brags about how they cannot be offended.

In the way conservative’s invoke the supposedly sacrosanct right to own guns but defend police for killing a black person because they claim the black person was holding one, conservative fury at Kaepernick exposes their sham concern for free speech and the right to protest.

Identity politics is politics and the stakes are high. The FBI is surveilling Black Lives Matter activists, like they did Martin Luther King Jr, calling them “black identity extremists.” In other words, the feds are potentially criminalizing innocent black people joining a group that is peacefully responding to innocent black people being killed by police. Think about that circular logic.

Identity and politics are seldom separated. So for people to minimize what is literally a life and death issue marginalized communities face as mere “identity politics”? Anyone who does this must take a hard look at themselves and ask why.

Hopefully conservatives reading this won’t become defensive. I know political alignment is mostly determined by Clan Loyalty and it’s hard to break group ties and emotional bonds. Just, really consider what you actually believe and why.

On Trudeau in India

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Indian’s love for Trudeau was palpable to me when I was there. I’d ride on the Delhi metro, people asked where I was from, I’d say Canada, and they started praising him, eyes lit up. Colleagues went pretty gaga too. Not everyone, but many.  
That’s worn off, it seems. Indian media got a whiff of how thick he lays on overt shows of multiculturalism. Corny and embarrassing, he made an exhibit of himself. You can wear Indian garb without drawing too much attention to yourself. Trudeau wore juutis to meet SRK.  It’s hardly apocalypse, though. Just clothing. I’d rather have a leader who tries too hard to appear multicultural than one mostly silent in the face of Muslims being lynched, or another who is soft-on-Nazis.
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The author at a wedding in Delhi, February 2016.

Oddly I’ve just been reading Khushwant Singh’s old essays on the roots of communal violence in Punjab. The Atwal episode is indeed strange and unjustifiable– a mistake was made. There are questions not just about how Atwal got invited, but about how he was suddenly allowed to enter India, when Jagmeet Singh was denied a visa. More will be learned about this. Right wing Indians suspect Trudeau’s government covertly supports Khalistan independence. I doubt Justin knows what that is. Likewise, it’s amusing how the attack dogs in conservative media here are suddenly experts on Khalistan.
 
While Trudeau’s India trip went stunningly bad, it’s not like the stakes were very high. What would real ties with Modi–the Hindu nationalist killer of gujarat–look like? What was to be gained here was relatively low in dollar value, high in cultural exchange between nations with a strong, historical fondness for each other…ie a great trip for Trudeau would have brought about results mostly symbolic anyway. India’s economy has lost its sheen post-demonetization/gst and Nirav Modi has the spotlight back on ol’ fashion crony corruption. Trudeau is in Delhi now with Hayley Wickenheiser and Ladakhi hockey players on an exchange–My loves, combined! Canadian Ice hockey and not just India but Ladakh coming together, it’s a warm thought.
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Ladakh!! August 2017.

Modi has less to gain than Canadians may think by posing with Trudeau. They each represent countries that get along well, apart from that they have nothing in common. Some from India’s right celebrate trump’s birthday by eating cake in Jantar Mantar. Trudeau may be more useful as a person to be distanced from. Not even his worst detractor here will call Trudeau a strong-man leader. Modi’s coolness wasn’t an accident, but the Canada-India cultural connection is too strong for him to sideline Trudeau altogether. They hugged in the end.
 
But Modi ran to the airport to hug trump the instant he landed because he feels a kinship with a leader who also leads via personality-cult and fascist tendencies. And trump has new condos to sell in India, so he pretends to care about India. Indeed, trump Jr is in India right now talking with billionaires, to try to get their money.  Trump backs India enough to hug Modi and do the photo op because it suits his personal economic interests, but will deny H1B visas to Indians seeking to come to America because ultimately they’re not white.
 
That’s my view of things, from the vantage of TO. By the way, I love and miss you India!! Reminder: a country is much, much more than its leader. Indeed, national leaders almost never reflect their country’s actual inhabitants.
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Canada at 150 in New Delhi at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

“Me Too” backlash is ridiculous

Some people are mad (or scared!) culture seems finally determined to protect women from sexual assault and rape. They may insist protecting women is a good thing, yes, but the effort has gone too far!

“It’s a Witch Hunt!” they say. No, it’s not. There are no such things as witches. Creeps and rapists exist. They’re everywhere.

OK, but now any woman can say anything and just like that, an innocent man’s life is ruined. Actually, when a female victim comes forward, it’s she who gets piled on, threatened, her reputation attacked. There are very real barriers keeping victims from speaking out publicly. The notion that women are lining up en masse to make up lies just to destroy innocent men is ridiculous.

Why is there more concern about these theoretical men who could maybe have their futures ruined, instead of all the actual women whose past, present and futures contain suffering?

“OK,” they say, “but not every creepy thing is rape!” Who can’t tell between a grope and forced penetration? Women know the difference. Any normal person does. They’re all unacceptable, but they’re not interchangeable or identical. This is easy to understand.

The’re a fear that employers and political parties are just throwing anybody from Aziz to Weinstein under the bus together. Well, companies and political parties have always clamored to protect their reputation / brand. When have they ever cared more about ethics and legal justice for workers than their own self-interest? The only thing that’s changed is, now, enough people consider sexual assault to be bad that they want to disassociated themselves from it.

The notion that men can’t make jokes in the workplace anymore, because anything will get them fired…is it really so onerous, to ask professionals to be professional? I held some zingers back. It kind of was a crime! They were good ones. But, damn it, I was a committed professional in my last office.

People are very quick to defend an accused man, even before anyone knows what he’s accused of. An illustrative example is Patrick Brown, the Conservative candidate for Ontario until a few days ago. His entire staff stepped down when it became known that a report accusing him of sexual assault was imminent. Brown denied all guilt. Many supported him. I heard his backers suggest it was merely a butt grab…even before they had any idea what he was accused of.

Turns out the accusation is that as a federal MP he gave alcohol to an 18-year-old and asked her to suck his dick. Words to the effect of that or “put this in your mouth.” She did, then she was uncomfortable and stopped. Another woman accused him of giving her alcohol when she was 18, and throwing her on the bed trying to kiss her. He maintained his innocence, his party tossed him out.

I’m not sure hatred for Kathleen Wynne was the only reason people rushed to defend Brown, because women in general are doubted. Rather than try to glean reality accurately, there’s a tendency to minimize, to reduce all accusations to the mildest one any man has ever been accused of.

Brown is an interesting case, because journalists and insiders apparently knew about him long before. They interpreted this story as finally it’s coming out, whereas this came out of the blue for most people, myself included. Who else knew, and when? That can be asked of every case.

Recall, even Weinstein initially insisted on his innocence and people believed him. Even though now apparently everybody knew. It’s been since reported in New Yorker’s “Army of Spies” that he hired former Mossad agent to spy on women he abused, to make sure they didn’t come forward, and to make sure journalists didn’t report on him for it.

There’s a fundamental difference between the court of public opinion and actual courts. An accused has the presumption of innocence when the state can imprison them. This is as it should be!

But by granting accused men the presumption of innocence in the court of public opinion, they assume women coming forward are guilty: it’s impossible to assume they’re both equally innocent at the same time. The neutral thing is keep your opinion suspended until more is known. Though I admit, I am now inclined to believe women.  Remember, this court is just the collective society’s opinion. It can’t punish anyone. Public opinion never fires someone, only companies or political parties do, and it’s based on their perception of how public opinion will affect them.

The flood of men being called out is because there’s a decades-long backlog. It’ll slow down, hopefully, when men improve.

Also, ignore boomers when they inevitably say ridiculous things like “in my day, we didn’t consider that assault!” as if their obsolete standards should matter in this day they just acknowledged we’re not in. Do they think assault should be tolerated now, because they tolerated it?

More to the point, who cares about them? Black people had separate water fountains in the US until 1964, and the last Canadian Government-run residential school closed in 1994. It would be a needless shame if we calibrated today’s world according to what that generation found OK.

I should add, nothing above is really partisan or buzzkill-y. Have sex! Enjoy! Fuck! Have afternoon anal for all I care. Just have it be consensual, which isn’t a big ask. If your’e doing it all right she won’t merely give you permission, she’ll repeatedly beg you to fuck her harder.

[Note: Jan 30–I don’t want to be mistaken for sounding flippant last para: I should have made my larger point clearer, that if a man/woman sends “mixed signals” it should interpreted as a red light not a green.

Also, I used salty language here perhaps unadvisably but not mindlessly, to indirectly combat the misguided notion I fear is kinda prevalent among men, that concern for safety/comfort of your sexual partner is somehow for prigs or killjoys.]