Is This Progress? This Is Progress.

What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Remembering Thatcher

As many of you know, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died on 8 April, had her funeral last week in London. Up until the recent tragedy at the Boston Marathon, Thatcher's death was the lead article. The word that was thrown around continuously was the idea that Thatcher was "divisive" and that her death was surrounded by controversy about her legacy. Numerous groups and invididuals attacked the former Prime Minister for her economic and social reforms, while other tended to revere her for saving Britain.

If you have been consuming all this media and are confused about what to think, you are not alone. I'm struggling with what I feel is Thatcher's legacy. Certain parts of it are simply matters of fact. She cut taxes for the country's elite. She opposed European integration. She didn't relax immigration policies. She stood firm in the struggles in Ireland. What these facts mean requires some careful consideration. Any one of those particular items can be viewed positively or negatively because they are value judgments. And this is my point right here: the idea of encapsulating someone's legacy as good or bad is generally rather difficult in the best of circumstances, though it's certainly preposterous in Thatcher's case. She's complicated, much like each of her individual attributes or her individual policies. I, therefore, am reacting to the fact that media outlets are obsessed with having the last word about her legacy as positive or negative. She was quite a lot of both.

I am not alone in viewing much of Thatcherism as a terrible thing, but I'm also quick to point out that Thatcher certainly had numerous positive impacts: she was nominally pro-choice, supported limited equality rights for queer people, she was the first female leader of a developed country, and recognised that climate change was happening. I'm also careful to note that her policies were reactions to calls from people in various parts of society for change. The most forgotten element in the discussions about Thatcher is the question of to what degree was Britain stagnant or collapsing in the 1970s. There's no right answer, of course, but the more this is explored, the more complicated evaluating Thatcher becomes.

Despite the fact that I have some respect for standing up Thatcher, I'm very much critical of her impact on modern politics. It's not impossible to evaluate her as being simultaneously a devastating force while likewise also fostering desirable growth. There are several angles I'd like to briefly explore.

The first item is that conservative figures are protected by conservative media. The death of Thatcher, like the death of Reagan, has been surrounded by repeated demands for not speaking ill of the dead. While this is a compelling emotional argument, it was nowhere to been seen when Hugo Chavez passed away about a month ago. The conservative bias in media is rather obvious, but events like this certainly make that bias rather glaring. Few newspapers in North America, save at least the Toronto Star, have really published much detailing the darker chapters of Thatcherism.

Another lens I'm keen to discuss is the idea of Thatcher as a female politician is held up as an icon or role model. The best representation of this is the film The Iron Lady. It's seemingly unfeminist to say that Thatcher was a bad Prime Minister (according to more mainstream discourses) because she was the first example of a woman directing foreign and domestic policy as head of government. From my perspective, the idea that she "saved" England has a lot to do with her being perceived as a man. Much in the way that Churchill stared down Hitler, Thatcher had enemies and took them on in an open fashion. She vilified unions in coal mining and what she broadly termed terrorism. Taking defiant positions here, almost in a military style, made her a valuable leader. It also made her popular and gave her the critical support to introduce her reply. In response to labour's demands for fair wages and safe working conditions, she formulated crushing reforms that deregulated the economy further and produced catastrophic results for the lower class. In response to terrorism, she vehemently opposed the notion of violence as a tool of liberation and she supported the Apartheid movement in South Africa. Her maleness comes across best, perhaps, in the fact that she used the 1982 Falklands War as a base for building popular support, drumming up nationalism and militarism. She acted as chief of the navy, the true Iron Lady, using force and coercion to put "rebels" in their place.

Lastly, an important perspective is the notion that "strong" leaders are okay when in a "democratic" context, though not elsewhere. In our society it's quite common to say that leaders like Stalin and Mao were terrible autocrats who, through control of the state, changed policies and wrought havoc on their society. These enemies are easily defined to Westerners because the leaders were never democratically chosen and thus should not have had any legitimacy. However, this becomes much murkier when we talk about other leaders who have, at least at one point, been elected. Chavez, for example, was elected, and so was Hitler. While these examples may be extreme, it is valuable to point out that democracy and authoritarianism are not, in the slightest, mutually exclusive.

I'll close by mentioning the controversy over people wanting to dance on Thatcher's grave. This has caused a sensation in Britain and elsewhere, with many commenting about the morality of such a thing. Most of the comments tended to come from young people who were neither alive in the 1970s nor have any sophisticated knowledge of British economic and social historical narratives. Consider the following: what will happen when Harper passes away? My inkling is that Harper has been as divisive in Canadian politics as Thatcher was for Britain, and perhaps this can lend a helpful vantage point.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

My New City

Last September I moved to Québec from Ottawa. For a wide variety of personal and professional reasons, I made a leap into the unknown and resettled. I want to share my experience thus far. My impetus for writing this post is essentially to provide my perspective on two key things: what it's like to relocate to a new city on my own and what it's like to live in Québec City as an anglophone.

In 2011 I wrote a blog about Ottawa, mostly encouraging people to get out and enjoy their surroundings. It's been something I've thought about a lot recently since coming to Québec - so much so, in fact, that it got me thinking about writing this post. I've been putting it off for some time, and I figure now is a good time to finally start talking about it.

I have the vantage point of having been in Québec now for seven months. I wanted to live in Québec City for virtually all my life, and I realised that I had to take advantage of any opportunity to do it while I was in my twenties. The first time I ever visited was when I lived in Saguenay in 2008, during the 400th anniversary and summer festival. I fell in love with the city and knew virtually instantaneously that I'd have to move there. I went back again in 2011 and 2012, eventually researching apartments and finding a place to call home.

It seemed to line up nicely that I had recently been certified to teach in Québec, got hired by the local school board, and would hopefully have no trouble getting teaching experience that I could then build a career from. Nothing has really gone according to plan with Québec, and I think that's what has made it very exciting. I have yet to teach in Québec City, but I have been teaching nearby.

Québec and Ottawa are similar, and this is part of why I love it here. There are a lot of green spaces and public squares for locals and tourists alike. The city always ranks high on the list of most livable places. It's large enough to have everything you need, yet small enough to get away from. I also really enjoy the fact that it's very much amenable to an outdoor lifestyle. Not only are there hundreds of kilometres of bike paths, it's a city that is easy to walk. Just outside the city are several national parks, including Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier. There's also an attitude of embracing the outdoors year-round. Despite the fact that I've only lived there so far in Fall, Winter, and Spring, there have been so many outdoor events it's hard to keep track. In the fall there was a cross-country ski race in the upper village. There was an outdoor Christmas market throughout most of December. Carnival takes place for two weeks in February. Crashed Ice was an excellent weekend in March.

Québec is unique. Living there is incredible and I feel as though I live somewhere very special. Architecturally, culturally, and historically, Québec City in unlike any other place in North America. It has a European feel in every sense of the world. Narrow streets in front of buildings that are several centuries old. Small cars parked on steep hills. People are outside everyone, whether riding bicycles, reading under a tree, or checking out the cafés. It's vibrant and exciting.

On the more socio-politcal level, being an anglophone and a Québécois simultaneously is interesting. I'm very thankful that I have an interesting social group in the city, made up of anglophones, francophones, and allophones alike. Before moving to Québec, I knew that language was a significant tension virtually everywhere in the province, made more salient with the recent election of a sovereigntist PQ Government. Just prior to my move, an assassination attempt on the new premier occurred. Violence has seldom been a part of Québec's separatist movement, but the tensions that push that violence forward are never far from the surface.

I'm fortunate to be living here where there's a lot of turmoil around language. The PQ has really failed to take significant policy positions on anything, with the exception of sovereignty. As such, language politics are always in the news. I listen to the news in French and English here and try to talk to as many francophones and anglophones as I can about current events. Currently the STM is debating whether or not to offer services bilingually. There is also a lot of discussion about a proposed bill that will limit the rights of communities with sizable English populations. There are numerous other items all occurring at the provincial level and at the municipal level where anglophones live in greater number. 

Despite the fact that there is a lot of bad blood between French and English, the discourse is not static. My experience with ethnic and linguistic tension has come from being places (like Montréal or Sherbrooke) where there are large anglophone populations. However, living in Québec is similar to my experience living in Saguenay several years ago. The not-so-shocking truth is that Québécois who have limited exposure to anglophones don't dislike them outright: francophones are frustrated by English people refusing to speak French. As an anglophone in Québec, I've come to note that Québécois tend to really appreciate it when people make real efforts to not only speak their language but to similarly understand their culture. I've had a universally positive experience with francophones since moving to the province, and they know I'm English because they can hear my accent (which they all agree is "Franco-Ontarien").

I'm honestly quite excited to see what happens in the coming months as there are a lot of items on the table. I'll be staying in the province for the foreseeable future, though it's unclear if I'll be moving somewhere where there are more anglophones. I hope that this post makes you consider visiting my city. We'd love to have you!

Monday, 1 April 2013

Sense and Sensibility: Gender and Power

For those of you who know me well can attest, I identify as a feminist. Talking about gender has indeed featured in many of my posts to date, such as "It's Not Sexism: It's Science". In fact, one of the most-read posts in Kaputall history is Men and Housework from way back in December 2011.

That said, I've been asked about why I haven't written one post detailing my overarching principles around my feminist identity. Instead, it's something that I intend to sketch out through posts about various topics. My reasoning is straightforward: feminism is complex and I don't have simple answers to what causes oppression and how to alleviate it. I hold contradictory views simultaneously and I'm rather flexible and circumstantial. My views and experiences are a microcosm of feminism as a movement - it's also disparate, paradoxical, and fluid. Women's history month just passed, and following the stories on my favourite feminist websites like Jezebel, Feministing, and The Atlantic gave me stark reminders of just how divisive talking about feminism can be. Just have a look at this article about different values in feminism across time and class.

Today I want to talk briefly about listening to a CBC radio discussion about women in the corporate world alongside a debate about the merits of chivalry. Both were carried on Q last Thursday.

First was a discussion with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg who has made a significant career move by authoring a new book entitled Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Her book tries to advance the discussion about gender equality, because she fears that the trend toward equality is stagnating. She points, for example, to the fact that in most western countries women hold only 5 per cent of top positions in the private sector.

Instead of focusing, as much academic work has, on the socio-economic barriers that women face, she attempts to view the problem from the lens of women "limiting themselves". She covers a wide range of issues, from women needing to be more aggressive, to needing to put success first, to embracing risk-taking. It's all quite convincing, actually, the notion of empowering yourself and bettering your social location. However, instead of talking about what's wrong with our patriarchal notions of gender and why we have to conform to these narrow boxes, she's effectively arguing that women should just be more like men.

The last element that gets me is whether or not her story reflects other people's experiences. There's a lot of discussion about this and it's a quagmire, so I'll tread lightly. I think it's simply fair to ask, is the story of one of the world's wealthiest and most powerful women truly representative of some type of universal female experience? And by extension, is her advice sound or even relevant?

The second piece was a debate about chivalry. Emily Esfahani Smith recently wrote a piece entitled Let's Give Chivalry Another Chance where she argued that there were benefits to chivalry, and that today's society is boorish and disrespectful to women. The value of chivalry is effectively predicated on the notion that a well-ordered world with rules is less confusing and therefore better for everyone. She asks is chivalry and inequality necessarily go hand-in-hand. She notes that women are not weaker than men in every aspect, but that gentlemanly behaviour is essential to combating objectification, assault, and other ills that she argues are the product of men not treating women with a chivalrous deference.

Opposing her in the debate was renowned psychologist Peter Glick, who argues that chivalry is a form of "benevolent sexism", something that is directly correlated to more hostile forms of sexism. Chivalry, he argues, is deeply rooted in the notion that women cannot take care of themselves. Women are, in deeply patriarchal societies, treated as though they are elevated so long as they conform to certain norms - the pedestal. If they do not fit the narrow definition, or if they fall off, there are often significant social consequences. Glick argues that chivalry is a terrible idea because of the power dynamic it establishes, and suggests that everyone should merely just be nicer when the circumstances are right, rather than just because someone is a woman.

I took some time to reflect after listening to both stories in order to try to understand how it is that they intersect. It's complicated because these two segments hit on so many different gendered aspects of modern society.

Both pieces address the question of equality, albeit from different perspectives. Sandberg argues that women need to embrace the characteristics that are attributed to men, while Esfahani Smith suggests that women should receive preferential treatment by virtue of being weaker in some ways. This gets at a central tenet to the broader gender debate: are men and women different? This is a substantial and controversial question, and one that spawns numerous others. Should men and women be treated differently? Should we strive for equity or equality? How do we do this?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I will make a few comments. I believe that there is a remarkable diversity within genders and a remarkable similarity across genders. Humans understand the world by creating categories, often to our great detriment. Chivalry, in my opinion, tacitly supports having widely different gender roles for men and women. Wealthy and powerful women in business, on the other end of the spectrum, often want the erasure of femininity. It's often necessary for these women to change their understanding of feminism in order to fit into a "market-normative world view". The notion that you can change market norms through participation has proved to be seldom effective. 

Navigating a line, somewhere in between eliminating gender differences and reducing it to a binary, is where virtually all feminists reside. There is a lot of tension in trying to figure out exactly where someone stands, but it's helpful to take note that they don't occupy one small space, but numerous flexible and paradoxical places simultaneously. That's perhaps my only constant in the way I conceptualise feminism.