Working where they'd forgotten

I had a dream last night that I was in my old house, one my family had moved out of about fifteen years ago. Some of the rooms had been converted into offices, and I was sharing one with a bunch of highly distracting co-workers. And then I remembered: in the finished part of basement was the study, the actual office. Everybody had forgotten it but me, and so I very quietly went down there, and found a lovely space (lovelier than it had been in life) where I decided I'd work secretly, perhaps extending invitations to a few favoured friends to use the second desk.

That means something, I think: it's a call to work in an old space, in a corner in a basemet, perhaps forgotten and unnoticed for a time.

That's okay with me.


Margaret Wente on coffee cups and plastic bags

Margaret Wente has written a column for the Globe and Mail in which she criticizes Toronto's recycling plans as "not based on economics, or feasibility, or anything that resembles common sense, but on the simple belief that the more we recycle, the faster we will go to Heaven." Her major objection is to a proposal that would have retailers give a twenty-cent credit to customers who use reusable coffee cups. Saying that "[i]t never occurred to [her] that choosing a coffee cup for my double-double is an ethical decision", Wente goes on to argue:

I have now spent many hours researching this matter on your behalf, and I have found entire websites, engineering reports, and university student subcommittees devoted to the environmental impact of coffee cups. The classic of the genre seems to be a study called Reusable and Disposable Cups: An Energy-Based Evaluation, by former chemistry professor Martin B. Hocking, who, I am proud to say, comes from our own University of Victoria.

To perform a proper lifecycle analysis of coffee cups, Prof. Hocking began by calculating the embodied energy (MJ) in each type of cup. Not surprisingly, he found that it takes a great deal more energy to manufacture a reusable ceramic cup than it does to manufacture any kind of disposable cup. For every paper coffee cup you use, you'd have to reuse your ceramic mug at least 39 times to break even, energy-wise (assuming that you wash it once in a while). For every polystyrene cup, you'd have to use your mug a whopping 1,006 times to break even.

I trust that clears things up.

Well, no, not really. First, it's not so unreasonable to expect to reuse a ceramic mug 39 times. That's a little over a month of once-daily use. Using the same mug 1006 times seems a bit less likely -- but then, that's less than three years of once-daily use. Shouldn't a ceramic mug last for three years? Further, the numbers that Wente gives address only the energy costs of production. Recycling and waste disposal both use additional energy. I'd like to see some numbers that take into account the differences at both ends of use. And of course, there are other issues to be considered: landfill space, pollution from production, etc.

Wente also objects to actions dedicated to reducing the use of plastic bags, on similar grounds:

Everybody likes to point to Ireland, which slapped a hefty tax on plastic shopping bags a few years ago. Voila! People practically stopped using them. But then they started buying plastic doggie poop bags and plastic kitchen bags and plastic wastebasket bags to replace all the plastic shopping bags they had formerly recycled.

Here's the thing: I don't use plastic liners in my garbage baskets, except for the large bin in the kitchen. They're actually not necessary. (The dog issue is different, but I don't have a dog). So the argument about shifting around waste doesn't really make sense for me. I also *like* my reusable bags better. They hold more, and they have sturdier, more comfortable handles. Of course, I notice this difference because I carry them myself when I walk back home from the supermarket, or sling them on the handlebars of my bike. I'm betting that Wente still throws her plastic bags in the trunk of her much-loved SUV.

I don't want to make this a virtue contest. Wente is probably correct that plastic shopping bags are not going to push us over some kind of ecological tipping point. But the bigger issue, the one she overlooks because it's the thing she really doesn't want to confront, is the issue of attitude. Why on earth should we defend our 'right' to generate more waste than we really need to? Superficially, Wente is defending single-use coffee cups and plastic bags; dig a bit deeper into this argument, though, and you'll find that she's defending her right to overconsume. Focusing on individual bits of garbage might allow us to justify a wasteful lifestyle. Considering a really different lifestyle, however, makes ours (mine included) seem simply absurd.

My grandmothers would never have thought twice about reusing anything reusable. My mother, for instance, tells me of her mother making aprons out of flour sacks. Why? Simply because you wouldn't waste a perfectly good flour sack if you'd grown up in pre-Confederation Newfoundland. I remember my father's mother reusing Red Rose tea bags through cup after cup, because it was the economical thing to do. (I also believe that she never bought a car she couldn't pay for outright -- on a teacher's pension.) Perhaps instead of defending our 'right' to generate garbage, we could start questioning why we allow ourselves to look at unnecessary waste as anything but a mistake. Perhaps rather than splitting hairs about whether or not we use more energy by buying a ceramic mug than a paper one, we might simply accept that it's decadent, and a bit obscene, not to make the best possible use of everything that we're lucky enough to have.

Of course, my current irritation with Margaret Wente might have something to do with her recent column about "savages".

Near the end of a long social studies unit about the Miq'Maq, my sixth-grade teacher used that word, too. She only let it slip once that whole year, and mumbled it a bit -- but I can still remember her glimmer of satisfaction, and her apparent relief. I have no doubt that she'd been saving that slur for weeks.

Does it surprise you, hearing that, that my sixth-grade teacher was a truly awful woman? She was nasty and smug and more than a bit stupid, though somehow able to keep a lot of people on her side. The sliver of hate that pushed through to the surface in that mumbled slur was an absolutely integral part of this woman's nasty, smug stupidity. It was not some coincidental bit of ignorance.

Even though a full fifteen years have passed since the sixth grade, I still wish that I'd spoken up in that moment, instead of swallowing my discomfort -- so I'll speak up now. Wente's column doesn't have the bluntness of a simple slur. It pretends to be reasonable, and it pretends to rest on fact. But -- it doesn't. It simply asserts something that Wente believed before she started her research, and pretends to back it up with some selectively gathered bits of information. (Two of the authors that the cites have since written in to object to her characterization of their work.) It also assumes an unsettling degree of intellectual authority, and rests on an incredibly uncritical appraisal of value and reason and truth. Today's column, not coincidentally, does the same thing.

Perhaps the ugliest utterances are also the most revealing.


Protecting Marriage on YouTube

It is, of course, much to my dismay that California voted in favour of Proposition Eight. It's only since the election, however, that I've become aware of some of the materials posted by the "Yes" campaign -- and I think they are instructive in understanding the real basis for objections to legislating same-sex marriage.

I have often said that I simply don't understand the argument about same-sex marriage as a threat to 'traditional' marriage. On some level, I assumed that this whole debate was about something metaphysical, some fear that if you let the gays into the Magic House of Procreative Marriage, they'll spread Sin Spores and everyone will get dirty. That kind of anxiety never made sense to me, and it left me feeling simply confused about the whole debate.

Then I watched this clip. It's predictably manipulative, in a lot of ways. The description of Jan and Tom and their family is an almost-amusing construct of the 'normal' family: they own a minivan, they have a dog, Jan cooks while Tom mows the lawn, and they sure do love their gay neighbours. (Though, G-d forbid, not too much!) The general tone of the ad is calm, and the language clearly tries to be neutral, creating the impression that these arguments against gay marriage are reasonable, and not based on blind hatred. Of course, they talk about homosexuality as a 'lifestyle choice', suggest that 'strong families' need a heterosexual nucleus, and talk about tolerance of homosexuality (as if it's something to tolerate?). If you're in the habit of reading this kind of language, you'll catch the nastiness under these euphemisms -- but perhaps not otherwise.

What I find instructive about this ad is not so much its strategies of manipulation, however, but the concrete objections that it voices in relation to gay marriage. First, they express concern about 'teaching gay marriage' in public schools; second, they suggest that legalizing same-sex marriage is likely to result in government interference in churches, who they suggest might be forced to perform same-sex marriages. I have to read these objections as showing, in part, a desire to maintain institutionalized discrimination.

Rather than simply labelling these objections as discriminatory, though, I want to understand them. The issue of government interference in the church is a clear extension of the conservative tendency to limit (or pretend to limit) the scope of government in general. This objection creates a bit of a feedback loop, of course. It declares a desire to maintain the separation of church and state -- but it wants to maintain that division by passing legislation that is in keeping with conservative Christian values. I can acknowledge that an individual congregation should have the right to determine its own collective values, and I quite agree that the state should have limited control over religious practices in general. But can't this objection be addressed by simply affirming the separation of church and state? If there is a provision that allows same-sex couples to be married in town hall, or in progressive churches, but still allows individual congregations to refuse to perform ceremonies -- well, that objection loses all validity, and we're back to the Sin Spores argument. (As I understand it, Canadian legislation still leaves this choice up to individual churches, and our society hasn't crumbled.)

It's the argument about 'teaching homosexuality' in schools that I find to be most revealing. Instinctively, I find this argument to be absurd. As I see it, there is literally no possibility that reading King and King is going to change the sexual orientation of a single second-grader. What it might do is make a child with same-sex parents feel a bit less excluded -- or, better yet, mean that when one of these kids hits high school and comes out (comes out anyway, to be clear), he or she will be a little less afraid, and a little less abused and persecuted by his or her peers. To me, that sounds like a good result.

Thinking about this issue a bit further, I asked -- why would a person be so concerned about what their children see and hear? Why not trust that your child will develop the skills to sort out right from wrong on their own terms, and with your guidance?

My best guess is this: if you accept the authority of religious doctrine without question, then perhaps you believe that's the only position a person can take in relation to authority, or in relation to information itself. Your concern then becomes teaching your children not to question authority, not to struggle to reconcile their beliefs and values and opinions with what they encounter in the world, but instead with controlling the authority to which your children are exposed.

I feel like this interpretation has given my some new insight -- though I'm not sure quite where it leads me. It does, at least, remind me how happy I am to have been raised as I was, to understand doubt and questioning as part of real faith.

(Christian to Christians: if the Spirit is alive, shouldn't we let Him move? And if God is love, isn't He there when two people declare it?)


Political Preference and the Classroom

There's been a heated discussion on the New York Times website about the issue of teachers declaring their political preferences, particularly in the form of wearing pins that endorse a particular candidate. This discussion has followed a blog post by Stanley Fish, which you can read here.

As a teacher, I'm in an unusual position at the moment: I'm Canadian, and teaching in the US, so I can't vote. I know who I'd support if I could -- but I have a handy, default dodge for any student questions about who I support. How would I handle this situation if I could vote? I think that I would evade the question, at least to a point. I'm not sure that there is a comfortable answer to this question, but this is why I'm taking this position for the moment:

As a teacher, I'm in a position of power over my students. I'm reasonably certain that my political view become apparent to my students at some point during the semester -- but I'm not interested in putting them in a position where they have to agree or disagree with me on this kind of point. If they think of me as a good teacher, if they respect me, they risk being swayed for the wrong reasons (i.e. because they want to please me, or because they want to emulate me. I'm not sure that my students do want to please or emulate me, usually, but in this area, I'd rather play it safe and limit my influence).

But my bigger concern is that, as a teacher, I can't reduce political issues simple binaries. It's not my job to make sure that my students vote for the 'right' candidate. It's my job to give them the intellectual sophistication and critical thinking skills to see through bad arguments and manipulation on both sides, to encourage them to question campaign strategies in general, to nudge them a bit closer to being engaged citizens, to urge them out of complacency. If I try to teach that way while I'm wearing an Obama pin, I make the discussion partisan in a way that is, quite frankly, counterproductive. I make it easy to dismiss me -- or to agree with me -- without considering the real content of what I teach. That's not what a classroom is for.

Whether I teach Beethoven or Shakespeare, Madonna or the Beatles, I'm giving my students something that I want them to bring into the world with them, something that I want to make them thinking and questioning citizens. The issue of support for a particular candidate feels huge in the run to an election, but in the long term, I want to give my students something much bigger, and much more important. That's a big task, and I'm never sure that I'm up for it -- but oh how I try.


No really, what the hell IS wrong with Russell Smith?

From today's Globe and Mail: "Ladies, Don't Pad Your Resumés"

The column is full of Smith's usual hooey, exhorting women to dress for male pleasure. In particular, he'd like us to wear skimpy bras that allow for "natural sway" and -- oh joy, oh bliss! -- the breathtaking possibility that one might see the natural shape of a nipple, "surely the most erotic sight in clothed humans". Part of me wants to commend him for celebrating the female body. That part of me is far outbalanced by my queasiness at the (recurring) suggestion that a woman who does not dress to please men is somehow not doing her job.

Which brings us to the headline. I don't know if Mr. Smith writes his own headlines, but this one is simply nasty in its implications. If my breasts are my resumé, am I in fact applying for the 'job' of being sexually attractive to men? And being sexually attractive to men is my job, then are my breasts my primary qualification?

I can't help but take this kind of thinking personally. I realize so often that in this culture, it is my failings as an aesthetic object that define me for other people. And yet, there is so much about me that simply can't be seen.

(Can you hear it, at least?)


Thank you for contacting customer service

Dear Education Client,

Thank you for alerting me to the problem you are currently experiencing with your Education Product. I assure you that we are working diligently to address your concerns.

Upon checking your purchase history, I see that you have ordered some of our Learning Tokens, which, when accumulated in sufficient numbers, can be exchanged for entry-level employment at a rate of remuneration marginally above the government-mandated minimum. I apologize for any difficulty that you may be experiencing in accumulating these Learning Tokens.

Despite the best efforts of our Education Company, these Tokens occasionally cause difficulty for our clients. We disclose the possibility that Tokens of Grade B or lower may be issued, when Tokens of Grade A are preferred. As our Waiver indicates, these variances in Token Grade are not a result of our quality control, or of Token availability. Rather, they are designed to encourage you to accumulate these Tokens in a way that leads to ancillary benefits for you, the Education Client.

You have indicated that your current Token is unwieldy, and that you are concerned about the Grade of your Token. I assure you that your Token was issued with the utmost attention to your Client Profile. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee Token Grade at this time. Further, if you inspect your Token closely, you will see that the Grade controls are in fact accessible by you, the Token user. If you are having difficulty in operating the Token Controls you may wish to set up an appointment with our Customer Support team. Most of our clients find, however, that with sufficient effort they are able to operate their Tokens in a way that provides our intended ancillary benefits while at the same time increasing the Token Grade. This may require you to read our Support Materials.

We regret that we cannot accept returns of Learning Tokens. You may, however, withdraw from the Token system at any time, and exchange your accumulated tokens for entry-level employment. You may also upgrade at any time. (Upgrades are reflected primarily in ancillary benefits, and while they are likely to be reflected in the Token Grade, we can unfortunately make no guarantees.)

Please do not hesitate to contact your teacher Education Product Representative if you have any further questions or concerns.

Your Education Product Representative


Attention menfolk!

You may be operating under the assumption that a magic fairy washes your dishes, picks up your socks, mops your floor, scrubs your toilet. Or you may be operating in a state of minimal awareness, where you believe that these things do not need to be done, and that your house will nonetheless remain liveable. Also, you may be convinced that your gender makes it somehow impossible for you to see dust.

This is NOT TRUE. And if you believe these things, and you are not living in squalor, it is probably because a woman who lives with you has learned that it is easier to play magic fairy than to get you to play domestic. And -- here's news -- you're not a feminist, buddy. You're not even close.

Ask my mom, for instance. Or, ask my dad, and he'll deny it, but might just admit that I explained to him how to empty the lint trap when he was forty-seven years old, and that he then spent the next nine years in court trying to prove that my mother had never done a thing for him. Hooray for heterosexual love.


What the hell is wrong with Russell Smith?

I'm often unsettled by Russell Smith's fashion columns. There's something incredibly creepy about the way he discusses women's wear -- and really, I can't be alone in thinking so. Take his most recent column, "Footwear for slave girls is oddly appealing":

Do guys like those strappy gladiator sandals for women?There is something oddly sexy about a lower leg bound in leather straps and buckles. Perhaps it's their suggestion of confinement. Perhaps it's that they remind us of all the impossibly beautiful "slave girls" in the series Rome, or mad Cleopatra and her smoky sexuality.

The problem with so many of these elaborate harnesses is that they can get a bit gaudy - they tend so often to metallic colours, to sparkles and spikes and studs, that they can look a little bit brassy, as if to suggest that the wearer should also have a pack of menthol smokes, platinum blonde hair and her house upholstered in leopard skin.

Luckily, most Canadian men aren't as sensitive to aesthetic connotation as this. All they are going to notice really is whether your shoes are flat-heeled or high - and even this we tend to register unconsciously, as a vaguely different shape to your leg.

Now the high-heeled variety of gladiator sandals are extremely flashy, indeed overtly fetishistic; they just scream high-maintenance, expensive gifts and uninhibited sex. We will certainly notice these.

No, really. I couldn't have made this up if I tried, could I? I'm sure that Smith thinks this kind of discussion of desire is a sign of enlightenment, a sign that he has transcended his provincial small-city Canadian past. I'm sure of this because I read his columns with faithful distaste, and because I too am a Haligonian expat. Clever as Smith always obviously thinks he is, knowing where he's from I can only see his attitude as the typical smugness of an Eastern Canadian who wants to sever all connection to his once-home. So much more sensitive to aesthetics than most men? Of course! So cutting towards women who dare not dress to arouse, and so vocal in his declarations of lust for those who do? How liberated he is from the backwards bourgeoisie of Nova Scotia.

I'm sure Smith is clever; obviously he's well-read. That makes his evocation of vague Orientalized objects of desire all the more offensive, because he should know better. And it makes his discussion of women -- arousing or not -- all the more tiresome. If he's so clever and liberated, why is he so desperate to prove it?

In response to his imagined retorts:
1) I have also lived in Paris. I live in New York now. Shut up.
2) I was very badly treated in Nova Scotia through much of my youth. I was also bored senseless. I'm quite sure I know what you felt. It's still home, even if I never live there again.
3) I'm sure that you'd be appalled by my summer footwear of choice. I pick it for the arch support, not for exotic sex appeal. Whatever. I make delightful company, even if I'm not fetching drinks for bulimic men in sheets, and even if there's no chance that I'll off myself with a poison asp.



Harper, Carbon, and the G8

The CBC site is reporting the following:

As the Group of Eight summit wrapped up in northern Japan on Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said it's a "mathematical certainty" that developing countries will bear the brunt of the work in lowering global greenhouse gas emissions.

His comments to reporters in the resort town of Toyako came as several developing countries reportedly balked at climate change targets proposed by the G8 countries the previous day.

The major industrial countries represented by the G8 set a goal Tuesday to halve emissions that contribute to global warming by 2050, though no international baseline year was set and the plan lacked midterm goals.

Harper said that by 2050, developed nations will likely account for no more than 20 per cent of global carbon emissions.

"So, when we say we need participation by developing countries, this is not a philosophical position. This is a mathematical certainty," he told Canadian reporters at a news conference Wednesday.

"You can't get a 50 per cent cut from 20 per cent of emissions."

1) Developed countries have spent a couple of centuries "developing" while emitting massive amounts of carbon. It's why we have the technology and industry we do today.

As the developing world catches up in terms of technology and industry, how is it that we now get to blame them for the state of the environment?

The ruling class will always try to maintain its status. That's part of what this is about: plain and simple, economic imbalance works for the developed world, and we collectively want to maintain it.

2) Way to shirk your responsibility, Harper. Regardless of what's going on in other nations, it's still incumbent upon Canada to do better. We've made commitments to reducing carbon emissions. If you're short-sighted, you might be focused on the economic undesirability of making such a change.

But, hell, I don't really know about economics. That's not what I do. Sometimes, though, you just have to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do -- not because you see a concrete long-term benefit for yourself, and people like you. I'd like to see a national leader who understands that.


Gas and Cable

It looks like gas prices have finally started having an impact on cute little white girls in Utah. Thank goodness; I thought we'd have to wait a long, long time before this issue started getting sufficient media coverage.

Okay, seriously now. Two little girls from Utah, who cannot spell "money" or indeed "cable", are upset because their parents have cut off their cable TV to pay for gas. I'm thinking, long term, these kids are going to be better off. Perhaps they can spend their Hannah Montana time taking the bus to the library.

In fact, part of me feels that a lot of good things are going to come from rising gas prices. Anything that makes people take public transit or bike rather than driving -- well, that's a good result. And, if we're going to be honest, rising gas prices are the only thing that's going to make the average North American consumer make those changes.

Good effects aside, though, I'm more than a bit concerned about this situation. Here, two cases in point:

1) My airfare to get home for Christmas this year will be approximately $200 more than it was last year.
2) A pound of tofu at Trader Joe's is $0.50 more expensive than it was a year ago. Or, I'm pretty sure it is. And I'm guessing that much of this increase is the result of increasing transport costs.

As a graduate student, I feel these economic pinches pretty acutely -- or, at least, cumulatively. I can, however, bear them pretty easily. For me, a few extra dollars each week at the grocery store is something I notice, but -- since I'm shopping for one -- can absorb pretty easily, and still buy fresh produce and tasty Greek yogurts. $200 extra a couple of times a year to visit my family hurts a bit more, but for now, I can handle it.

The thing is: I'm in a pretty good position. I have a low income, but my future earning potential is reasonable, and I certainly come from a comparatively advantaged background. I have no dependents, so I'm typically cooking for one -- and because of my Newfie heritage, I'm well-schooled in running a good and frugal kitchen. Thanks, Grandma!

I'll also add that I'm already making, as a matter of course, most of the 'sacrifices' that people are talking about as a result of rising fuel prices. First, I don't have a car. I also split my heating costs three ways with my roommates, keep the thermostat at 60º as much as I can stand it, and refuse to run the air conditioner. (I actually took it out of my house.) When I do laundry, not kidding, I use a hand-crank machine and spin dryer. So -- effectively, there's not much on which I can cut back.

If, with all of these advantages, I'm still noticing meaningful economic changes, the story to be told is not mine, and not the story of privileged white girls from Utah giving up something they (probably) shouldn't have anyway because of gas prices. The story is about food and energy costs hitting people who can't be hit any more. That's been getting some coverage, I know, but it's where the real crisis is coming, and it's time we took heed.

On the whole: enough, ENOUGH whining about having to make negligible lifestyle changes. You shouldn't be driving everywhere anyway. You shouldn't be so invested in cable TV that you take to the streets in protest. You shouldn't be beside yourself about the cost of leisure travel.

Be indignant for the people who need it.

And perhaps, be indignant about the state of the market. Be indignant that people in positions of power have realized that people will buy very nearly as much fuel at $140 a barrel as they did at $90 a barrel -- and that they've simply decided to charge $140. Be indignant that these same people have wielded their money and power for decades to ensure that we would have few viable options to fossil fuel, when this time came.

A reductio ad absurdum, yes, but not an unsubstantial part of the question. The end result will be predictable: the very rich will get richer; the moderate privilege of us in the middle will shrink; the really poor will suffer abonimably.

How do we live with this? If the poor are still with us, it's because we need them, some more than others. It's an ugly admission, but as I type it, I realize that it doesn't weigh on my conscience nearly enough.


I'm not somebody who typically reads news stories and gets agitated about lenient sentencing. This, however, strikes me as seriously, seriously wrong.


RIP Book Room

The closure of the Book Room, Canada's oldest bookstore, was announced several months ago, and now it seems it's happened. Of course it's sad to see it go; it was quite a nice bookshop, and in its way a bit of local history.

But (!): in fairness, I have always vastly preferred The Bookmark and John W. Doull as independent bookstores. I'd be beside myself at the loss of either of those (much as I was at the closure of Sam's). I'm hoping that these businesses are more flexible and adaptable than the Book Room, which blamed its closure on the rise of internet book-shopping, proved to be. But, just in case, if you're in Halifax, I beseech -- nay, implore! -- you to shop at these stores. What kind of city would we have without independent booksellers? I shudder to think.


"The Emperor's New Clothes": Three Musings

1. It's the child, the child with no position to protect, the child with the least authority of anybody in the story, who announces the emperor's nakedness.

This tells us: the risk in telling the truth is least when you have the least. We accept and propagate deception to keep what we have.

(Here, I have everything: a full fridge; a heated house; clothing; the necessities of life.

Here, I have everything: a fridge full of food grown by people in total poverty; house heated with oil won in foreign wars; clothing sewn by ten-year-old girls; necessities of life bought cheap, at somebody else's expense, to leave some money for luxury. What am I going to do about that?)

Also: The utterance of the weak has power. And not simply because this is a story for children.

2. The emperor, he's at fault. He's foolish and he's vain, and these are real flaws.

But the emperor gets his comeuppance. He's humiliated; he's spent piles of money on lavish robes that don't exist -- while conmen-tailors skip town happily, with their pockets full.

This tells us: you may think that you know who you please when you keep your mouth shut. You're probably not looking in the right place.

Or, our flaws leave us vulnerable to real, active evil. That's not inexcusable, perhaps; it's certainly human. But you need to keep your eyes open, and your mind sharp.

3. The emperor was naked all along. And everybody saw it.

This tells us: If it's true, it's true; you see it, even if you don't say it. So say it.

Ask, at least. Is the emperor naked?

I've been thinking about this story a lot lately. Health care in America? The emperor's naked. War in Iraq? The emperor's naked. Public education? The emperor's naked. And on, and on, and on.

Plantation sugar?

Every time I go home, I'm startled to see these sugar packets:

Now, there's nothing wrong with the sugar itself. (It's raw sugar, basically indistinguishable from the "Sugar in the Raw" sold in the USA.) But why on earth is there a picture of an ambiguously dark-skinned person playing a mandolin under the label "plantation"? Perhaps the Lantic Sugar company doesn't find this image offensive, but given the long practice of bad white people using African slaves in Carribbean sugar plantations, I have to object. It goes without saying that there's a complex, ugly history there. This stylized image, which suggests that this sugar is natural, exotic -- raw, of course! -- translates that ugly history, and all of those offensive essentialized concepts about people of African descent, into mere marketing.

I've dumped dozens of these packets into my coffee over the years, but after putting it into those terms I think I might be switching to Splenda.

This is also a reminder about the importance of ensuring decent treatment for current farmers and farm workers -- be they growing sugar beets, sugar cane, cocoa, coffee, or any other commodity crop. I'm not as rigorous as I should be about choosing fair trade products when possible, and I'm not sure that fair trade arrangements are the best of possible solutions -- but it's better than the alternative of certain exploitation.


Revise, Revise, Revise; Also, What's the text?

I set the Beatles' Anthology, Volume 3, as my alarm-clock music for this morning. Hypnopompic listening is, I think, just about the best kind: in that haze between sleeping and waking, I hear things with a particular clarity.

This morning, I had two thoughts. First, having these anthology recordings -- which show some portion of the group's creative process -- is deeply reassuring for those of us who don't spit out beautiful, polished work on a first draft. (That might be everybody. Isn't it?) Setting aside even the difference in production values between these "sketches" and the finished works, the tiny details of lyrics or harmony that were changed from early version to final version remind me, at least, that even the very best of us have to polish, polish, polish. Sometimes I'm a bit sidetracked by that Romantic ideal of flurried, inspired creation, even in academic writing; for me, this is a very good reminder.

Another hypnopompic musing: listening to one of these sketches, I thought, "it's too bad that they didn't record that version!". Clearly, this thought was the product of a still-drowsy mind, as I was in fact listening to a recording of that version. But -- in the ongoing debate about what constitutes a text in popular music studies, I think that this instinctive reaction is worth examining. Both of these recordings exist, but one (even when I'm really awake) still seems more 'real' to me than the other. Abbey Road is an album; the Anthology recordings, even though they might contain versions of these songs that have the same bare musical materials, are something less. I'll draw no conclusions -- because I don't think this debate really is a resolvable one -- but I'll keep this filed as evidence.


The CBC, or, highbrow/lowbrow

I spoke to my father this evening, and we came to the topic of the CBC. Apparently, in his opinion, the CBC has hit a 'new low' this year with programming such as MVP (which has in fact already been cancelled), and The Week the Women Went (which has apparently been very popular, and will return for another run). My father's solution? The CBC should run "more of the good BBC shows".

Now -- I'm a total sucker for BBC programming. I'm not sure what percentage of my Netflix rentals over the last two years have been BBC shows, but it's a substantial number. I've gone through the new Doctor Who, As Time Goes By, Fawlty Towers -- and, actually, after that, the list starts (ahem) to get embarrassing. But, as I said to my father, "We're not a colony any more!". Given the near-saturation of Canadian channels with American (and, to a lesser extent, British) programming, my nationalist inclination is, perhaps problematically, this: if we're producing television about Canadians, and Canadians are watching it, that's a good thing. Genres that people watch -- yes, even soap operas and 'reality' television -- do have a place on the programming roster of a government-funded national broadcaster.

This is a problematic perspective, yes. The more I dig into the issue of nationalism, the more I'm inclined to see it as something toxic -- and, in fact, to think that Canada works reasonably well as a country specifically because it lacks the coherent, mythic identity of so many more powerful, and historically more dangerous, nations. At the same time, I have to dig in my heels when I see my national culture being subsumed -- or aborted? -- by Anglo-American imports. Even if its content is lowbrow, even if it's the product of a Canadian government institution, I instinctively regard Canadian cultural products as evidence of postcolonial resistance, be it to the colonial power of the past (Britain) or the pseudocolonial power of the present (the US). Perhaps I've spent too much time immersed in the work of Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, et. al. -- the generation of writers who came of age in the late 1960s -- but there still seems to me to be some inherent value in this enterprise.

There is, however, an inherent paradox in this argument, because at least with regard to television, what this comes down to is a debate about the model in which the CBC, as a public broadcaster, should be cast. Should it be highbrow, 'educational', something that strives to provide a clear alternative to the lowest-common-denominator programming of private broadcasters? Or, as an institution funded by taxpayers, should it be concerned with offering programming that appeals to as broad a range of Canadians as possible? The paradox: the former model is that of PBS; the latter, that of the BBC. So though I might defend a broader-based approach to programming by the CBC, including Canadian content of all stripes, what I'm really defending is the model of the BBC.

I'm not sure what the alternative is. Is there a third possibility, a new model for the CBC? Is our best option to simply follow the BBC model, with an emphasis on Canadian content (as was done literally with MVP, which turned Footballer's Wives into the wives of hockey players)? What I'd love would be a reinvigorated CBC, with all the shining glory of its best programming -- The Newsroom, Twitch City, This Hour has Seven Days, even the old Degrassi. What was so glorious about all of that old programming? Thinking, offhand, of these examples, I'd have to say that they were deeply Canadian without being intentionally Canadian. The express national identity, with little explicit nationalism. They didn't hide their Canadian attitudes, Canadian settings -- but they weren't terribly emphatic about them, either. They set aside most of the anxiety about national status, accepted that they were immersed in Canadian culture in a global age, and went about their business. Perhaps instead its persistent identity crises, the CBC could try learning from its past successes, and take these up as models.