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.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

On Complicity: 2015 In Review

As is my New Years tradition, I'll be posting about a dangerous trend. In 2015 I observed a general sloughing off of responsibility, specifically as it relates to Syria. Media coverage this year has focused on the xenophobic reaction of the west to developments in the Middle East, rather than looking at the relationship as significantly more influenced by the role of western powers.

It's easy to look at events like the Paris shootings and blame the Middle East. An oft-misunderstood region of violence and division, the Middle East and Islam are seen as the hotbed and forces of radicalistion respectively. However, this ignores the roles played historically by the Ottoman Empire, by the various pacts before and after the First World War, the creation of Israel, and American and Soviet intervention during the Cold War.

It has been easy for western countries to forget (conveniently) about their past imperialist histories in order to posture as victims. It fits in with cultural values (or presumed cultural values) about openness, multiculturalism, and secularism.

If we look back to the 1930s, the parallels with antisemitism are significant. Surveys from the period show that the vast majority of Americans were opposed to welcoming Jews facing persecution in Europe. Canada was no better having refused the St. Louis, a ship full of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. In 2015 we have seen the majority of American governors oppose the resettlement of Syrian refugees. Thankfully in Canada the process of welcoming 25 000 Syrians is well underway.

What's not being talked about is why there is such a need to fight against not only intolerance, but also incorrect assumptions about complicity.  #notallmuslims has been a rallying call, responding to voices from Donald Trump to #jesuischarlie. Moreover, Mosques and Muslim leaders have been forced to go on record condemning the actions of terrorists associated with their faith. While these acts show that Islam is not monolithic, it does strike me as peculiar.

Why are we not exploring this from the other angle, looking at the west and complicity? Why are we not asking our leaders to condemn the actions of their forebears? Why do we continue to support Saudi Arabia and Isreal? Why are the incursions into the Middle East ongoing?

This reminds me of one of my favourite historical debates. Who shares responsibility for the Holocaust? Hitler and his inner leadership? The military and the SS? Everyone in Germany? People outside of the Third Reich?

There is no clear answer, and I feel that in twenty years we will be looking back at this period asking the same questions. It's easy to look back an contemplate how horrific actions came to be. How did supposedly ''good'' people not resist? Mass movements, and in particular mass movements centered on hate and violence, do not appear at random: they are generated incrementally.

Let us wake up to what is going on so that we can reverse the tide of hatred and fear. Here's to 2016.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Funding Caps

158 groups have provided the funding for fifty per cent of the money raised for the campaigns of all the Democrat and Republican candidates in the US primaries. There is something patently wrong with the rules governing how money can be contributed to campaigns in America.

Having worked on several NDP campaigns, I'm aware of how controlled contributions are in Canada. It is understood that anyone making that substantial of an infusion in a political movement is essentially looking to make an investment. Self-interested individuals and groups making contributions would, in and of itself, be irrelevant if everyone were able to attain equal influence. When those who are ultra-wealthy are able to donate massive sums and outspend the remaining 99 per cent of the population, they are eroding democracy.

Modern democracy relies on constant cash. Big money in politics is a problem in every sense of the word. However there is a seeming lack of interest in changing the way this works. Consider as well that in the United States anyone can start a PAC and the funding regulations for these are truly the wild west.

Given that we are in the middle of the American primaries and that the ability of a candidate to endure is based on cash, how money is donated in the next six months or so is going to have a massive impact on the who will be governing come November.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Peak Islamophobia

Islamophobia is at peak levels in many western democracies, and the extreme conservative views on Islam in France and the United States are remarkably similar. I'm going to address this trend by comparing the relative scope of Islamophobia in modern French and American politics.

These two states make for excellent comparisons because both nations are experiencing key election activity at present. Moreover, both countries have a large, disaffected conservative population with an intention to voice itself as loudly as possible.

In France this movement is represented by le Front National, a far-right party led my Marine Le Pen. The FN is made up of a wide variety of interests, including anti-immigration, social conservatism, and euroscepticism. The party generally polls well as a protest vote, but has had minimal success until recently. Regional elections took place in France earlier this week at the FN fared much better than normal, sweeping 6 of the 13 regions and finishing first overall in popular vote.

In the United States this movement is represented by the Tea Party and by Republican front-runner Donald Trump. Despite his use of brash language, his broad employ of false information, and his continual scandals, he looks to be pushing through quite well. We are a ways from the caucus and ultimately the primaries, but Trump proven to have found an audience with which his message resonates, even when suggesting something as completely outrageous as ''banning all Muslims'' from American - whatever that even means.

The similarities between these two movements are honestly quite striking.

To start, I have to address the fact that they are both taken so seriously. This is surprising because they are representative of such political extremes (and ones that are normally not the centre of attention). However, the reaction of moderates and progressives only serves to galvanise the resolve of these extreme right wing movements, especially in the wake of recent events such as the attacks in Paris and California.

In both instances there is an impressive development of cult of personality. Le Pen and Trump are seen as saviours who have the answers to complex political, economic, and social problems (not far off as fascists go from Hitler). Moreover, they are seen as the purveyors of truth, speaking out against rigid climates of political correctness. In this way they get to be renegades or mavericks fighting against the system while simultaneously benefiting from representing elitism. Both the FN and the Tea Party receive broad popular support from ''average'', ''hardworking'' citizens while also appealing to the upper class with their political views.

In both instances the broad support comes from advocating for xenophobia (specifically Islamophobia). There is a limited interest in promoting inclusion or valuing diversity. The FN and the Tea Party base their policies more broadly on a combination of fear and historical nostalgia. The fact that France or America could ''resume their greatness'' is symptomatic of this.

In both instances the movements are likely to win votes in the short term but not be able to govern. Le Pen and Trump represent the protest vote, the desperation of people who feel left out of mainstream politics, and ultimately who can only unite their voices in opposition, not in the establishment of a particular coherent policy direction. 

Despite the fact that these movements are inherently incapable of governing, it won't stop them from making notable and nefarious impacts on national politics by influencing the general discourse. What's perhaps more of a problem is that there are no signs that the FN or the Tea Party will be going anywhere anytime soon.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

That Time of Year Again

It's no secret that depression is often at its worst around the holidays. The constant messaging about family, prosperity, and happiness is heartwarming when it affirms your circumstances, but can be devastating when people are having a difficult time. Yesterday the CBC reported on the rise in rates of depression, calls to crisis lines, and suicides in Alberta this year. Falling oil prices have led to an employment crisis and the social impacts are predictably grave. Various stakeholders have called for increased funding for frontline agencies, but, as I will argue in this post, I don't feel that is ultimately more than a very short-term solution.

The impact of environment on mental health is often neglected, or at the very least it is not appropriately acknowledged. I find this rather frustrating, especially given the prevalence of solid research that substantiates that unemployment, poverty, poor job security, inadequate housing, etc all have large impacts on an individual's mental well-being. This is amplified signficantly when you add in other intersecting identities related to class, race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

While, at least in the short term, providing more access to frontline services (for example counselling or a distress line) will have a measurable impact, the reality is that it's a question of firefighting when people are already at that point.

I'd advocate for an alternative policy that is designed to ensure that quality housing and stable employment are priorities. Moreover, we need to mitigate against income inequality as it is a principal driver and reinforcing factor of social inequality.

Programmes that advocate for living wage eliminate the problem of low-paid work (something that has been an ongoing discussion in Canada for the better part of a decade). Programmes like guaranteed income (recently adopted by Finland) help with impermanence in the job market. Higher personal taxes will help fund the first two programmes while also allowing the state to provide more frontline social services.

In the interim, we need to ensure that we do what we can to support those whose holiday seasons may be less bright than our own. Let's take care of one another.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Paris Climate Talks: Talking About Real Threats

COP21, the climate conference happening this week in Paris, is an event that has captured the world's attention and has momentarily reignited our interest in the fate of the planet. There are mammoth pressures on the international community to cooperate in search of a meaningful solution. The rhetoric of the last chance is admittedly high, but I'm convinced it's a fair assessment given our situation.

In this post I would like to explore why climate talks continually fail to inspire us to change our lives meaningfully while, in the name of security, socieities have been transformed because of the threat of terrorism.

In December 1997 the Kyoto Protocols were signed by delegates from 192 countries. The spirit of collaboration in the interest of our collective future was impressive, and was the next logical step after the Earth Summit in Brazil five years earlier.

Despite the initial zeal, Kyoto ultimately has proven to be a failure. The United States did not ratify the agreement, Canada has since rescinded, and the vast majority of signatories have non-binding agreements. In fact, while some countries have managed to decrease their carbon intensity, there are shockingly few examples of countries that have actually reduced their emissions.

Thus, it was with great flair in 2012 that delegations arrived in Copenhagen. Howevever, the divisive question of the times: how could wealthier countries, and developping countries come to an agreement? The outcome of Copenhagen was nothing tangible. The stakes are high for Paris.

With so little having been achieved, it strikes me as remarkable given the focus (in roughly the same span of time) placed on combatting terrorism internationally.

Both climate change and violent extremism are potentially cataclysmic phenomena. And, for all intents and purposes, are very similar in the sense that they threaten the ways of life of billions. Both have different effects on different societies; both require coordinated action; both require concessions and negotiations to combat; both are dauntingly complex and multifaceted; both have been overwhelmingly handled with rhetoric.

However, there are also numerous differences when it comes to these threats. Modern liberal democratic societies (refer to a previous post) have been able to mobilise change toward greater security by manipulating fear responses. The exhcange of civil liberties for greater protection is presented as a fair deal and hardly more than inconvenient. Moreover, terrorism has been met as a challenge, replete with more than enough emphasis on revenge and justice. The responsibility of dealing with terrorism fits perfectly into existing hierarchies (political and military).

To compare with the question of climate change, virtually none of these criteria are fulfilled in mainstream discourse. It is very challenging to deal with a threat that goes largely unacknowledged, forgotten, or constantly questioned on the base of its legitimacy. There also lacks the sentiment that failure to do anything about threats to the environment is irresponsible or endangers the population, something which is constantly part of the narrative about terrorism. Concerns that green technologies are a money pit by those with political influence ensure that the status quo continues.

Leadership in the fight against terrorism comes from countries like the United States and Russia who unabashedly promote military intervention abraod and greater securitisation at home. However, our leaders in the fight against climate change are not centre stage pontificating about the threat and their action plan (aside from this week, where they will undoubtedly be drowned out by larger economies).

Unfortunately COP21 is about as all or nothing as I can imagine. I can only hope that there will be enough recognition of this threat to produce an agreement of substance.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Liberty Under Threat

My read on the reaction to the Paris attacks is that most of the outrage centres on the events as an attack on liberty. This explains the fads of adopting peace symbols, tricouleur filters, and of course all the messages of solidarity that I've written about before. Westerners can sympathise with France as victim with readiness; we fail to extend that to those who live in societies that don't epitomise that liberty.

This has, of course, gotten me thinking. How does liberty fit into the narrative of combatting terrorism? Largely, contemporary extremism is viewed as an attempt to lash out at the decadence of the West - to oppose the liberty and democracy of societies such as France or the United States. These ''progressive'' places welcome difference and promote equality of opportunity, so the narrative goes.

But this is a convenient way to conceptualise the conflict: as a struggle between progressive, liberal societies and the extremist other. This so perfectly fits into the process of othering (us versus them). It also positions the West as defenders of liberty.

Moreover, it discounts our collective responsibility in creating an environment where extremism fluorishes, negating the role of imperialism. As I have continued to repeat, there are clear historical reasons for this conflict. Just in the past century, France conspired with the other allied powers to create zones of influence in the Middle East, violently resisted movements to decolonise North Africa and the Middle East, steadfastedly supported Israel, created a domenstic situation which led to the disaffection of six million of its immigrant citizens, and continually opposed refugee resettlement during the Syrian crisis.

This allows us to not even consider that France isn't the victim.

France, like the United States, is a society whose history is lauded as the manifestation of liberty. It's easy for us to rally around that image (think liberté, égalité, fraternité). But we must go beyond the façade and see that France does not embody these values in practice.

Let's change this narrative. Have we not learned that, in the fourteen years since 9/11, that this message of liberty under threat serves as the main thrust for increased militarism?

Saturday, 14 November 2015


I seldom find anything more heartwarming than displays of unity. It is genuinely nice to see solidarity manifest. However, what I find truly problematic is shows of solidarity that are inspired by a superficial movement and that highlight that an issue is only relevant in a certain context.

I am referring to the recent attacks in Paris and the stances taken by world leaders, the press, and people on social media.

It is either a disengenuous political statement about terrorism that rings hollow, or an unequivocal proclamation that some acts of terrorism are more equal than others. This, to me, is a serious problem.

The attacks in Paris, to be perfectly clear, were atrocious acts of terrorism. But acts of terrorism do not occur in vacuums. They are products of complex political, social, and economic climates. France has been rocked twice in 2015 - in fact, this was the subject of my most popular post with over a thousand views. We're dealing with Je Suis Charlie, the reprise.

The question to ask has to be: why has France been targeted twice?

The answer is surprisingly straightforward: France has an awful track record for integrating minorities. And this is not a new problem. France has a large, disaffected population of largely North African immigrants. Islamophobia is a massive problem in France, fueled by the War on Terror as well as the recent refugee crisis. This happened to be largely related to my MA thesis.

Unequivocally, France has been committed to the rhetoric of fighting terrorism, not backing down, closing off borders, and ultimately punishing moderate muslims as well as radicals. This was certainly true before the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, but certain political movements have further pontificated these values (like le Front national), furthering the xenophobic movement in France. (Consider for example that these attacks do not happen in moderate European states like Germany).

To take a "stand with France" is necessarily supporting these values of xenophobia, however intentional. It's not easy to hear. Especially when we consider that the expressions of this nature are unique to the attack on France, not to other acts of terrorism that have been confirmed in the past week alone - Nigeria, Lebanon, and Syria. It's plain and simple selective outrage.

What can we be doing instead? Acknowledge the value of all lives. The catastrophe in France is an expression of the same conflicts occuring in other parts of the world that are much more challenging for us to sympathise with. Let's be fair about violence: attacks of this nature, if we are to be appalled, necessitate that we are always appalled by them no matter where they happen.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Why Remember

At this time of year we are inundated with messages to never forget, but just what exactly are we implored to remember?

Is it the the armistice of 1918? The incomprehensible carnage of the First World War? The participation of Canada in numerous conflicts around the world? War more generally?

The significance of remembrance is that it should seek not to glorify conflict; it should somberly direct us to reflect on the impacts that war makes on humanity - from the individual to the society. 

We should remember the people who served our country, brave or not, by choice or by force. We should likewise remember those who we met as adversaries. We should remember their families. We should remember those who did not return, or who came back forever marked by their experiences. We should remember the civilians who witnessed the horror of war, targeted or caught in the crossfire. We should remember the victories, the defeats, the ceasefires. We should remember the atrocities, regardless of who committed them or against whom. We should remember the reasons why people took up arms against one another, both the iniquitous and the justifiable. We should remember why remembering is useful.

In short, we should consider Remembrance Day a moment to collectively and individually reflect on all the facets of war and peace.

Moreover, we should acknowledge that the act of remembrance is inherently personal. We thankfully live in a society that awards us this liberty, but it is only useful if we can see beyond what we are being told to remember.

NB - this is an English translation of a presentation I am going to be making tomorrow at a remembrance ceremony.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Because It's 2015

Today the new federal cabinet was sworn in. As promised, women make up 50 per cent of the cabinet positions. After viewing the appointments as well as the discussion around them, I reflected on the meaning of this moment. Trudeau's justification of ''because it's 2015'' really points out how simultaneously exciting and unremarkable the announcement was.

To start, it's easy to see why this is momentus. While the previous government was not known to be friendly toward women in politics, Canada has in fact had a pretty long history of women's absence from cabinet. 27 per cent of the Liberal MPs elected to Parliament were women - that's 50 of the 88 female MPs elected. This broke a few records, and the cabinet announcement is really an achievement that goes well beyond this. 

However, it's perhaps a bit more difficult to see this event as merely a requirement. The time for this has, to some degree, come and gone. Canada ranks poorly in terms of female representation in federal politics, below the 30 per cent threshold that is encouraged by the United Nations. The fact that it took until 2015 to have anywhere even close to this level of parity is, frankly, rather embarrassing. Trudeau's decision should be lauded, but it is nowhere near as progressive as some people are making it out to be.

It's worthwhile noting that there are existing quota systems in play in federal government. The most evident are regional differences, language, and affiliation. A good cabinet has largely been one that is meant to look good on paper, so the fact that so many people are bent out of shape about Trudeau's choices not being about merit are rather misguided. In fact, this truly reinforces the idea that quota systems are short-term solutions, because eventually we come to expect a certain diversity.

As such, I'd like to briefly outline the importance of affirmative action. There was barely an increase over 2011 in terms of women elected to the House of Commons. However, the media will have you believe that the 1 percentage point increase is a massive coup. This, as mentioned above, plays out both negatively and positively depending on people's values (to scare or encourage). But the idea should functionally be that a cabinet with parity should encourage more women to become engaged in the political system and, perhaps more importantly, it should convince the public that women are in fact capable of holding a portfolio and delivering like their male counterparts.

I'll leave you with an important notion: that diversity will lead to a greater degree of experience, a sharing of values, and hopefully better governance. Let's see what the next four years will hold.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Electoral Reform: It's Time

The election of the Liberals ten days ago should signify some changes to the way our electoral system works in Canada. In this post, I'm going to talk about the importance of democratic reform being a consultative decision, as well as what I believe to be the best solution - single transferable vote.

Having won roughly the same proportion of the popular vote as the Conservatives in 2011, the Liberals won a majority government with less than 40 per cent of Canadians' support. The Liberals, Greens, and NDP had all promised some form of electoral reform during the campaign, and now that we have a majority Liberal government, the pressure is on.

Trudeau recently mentioned that a solution will be created within eighteen months. It is my hope that the solution will be troven through thorough public consultation. I think it would be an excellent idea to form a commission, engaging civil society in order to establish what Canadians want.

However, my concern is less whether there will be reform; I'm truly concerned that, almost by default, electoral reform will consist of adopting proportional representation. Throughout the campaign, the visibility of proportional representation was very high, to the exclusion of alternatives.

To me the value of proportional representation is that for most voters it is the easiest to comprehend. It also ensures that no vote whatsoever is wasted and that results are parallel to the popular vote. However, I firmly believe that our system is based on value of local representation and this is why I am opposed to proportional representation. Members of Parliament are responsible to their constituents, not the electorate in general. Moreover, voters should be able to select who they are voting for directly, not selecting a party from the list having no idea for whom they are voting directly (this would be true both in closed party lists and open party lists).

This is why I believe that Canada should adopt single transferable vote. This system still uses ridings, albeit larger ones with a greater number of candidates. In this case you have a ballot where you can make a determinate amount of choices, ranked by number. A threshold is set whereby a certain number of candidates must meet this target to win. There will be multiple winners in a riding, reflecting the voting intention of the constituents.

A practical example of this would be looking at New Brunswick's results. The Liberals won all ten of the seats in the province. In this particular case, the Liberals won all these seats by taking at least 40 per cent of the vote. Despite having won more than 50 per cent of the vote on average in the province, they were awarded all the seats. In this particular setup, if we considered using all of New Brunswick as a riding and selecting ten winners, there is no way that the Liberals could have won all ten seats; they likely would have won six. This allows for other candidates to represent the 45 per cent of voters who didn't vote Liberal.

No system is going to be perfect, but I feel that single transferable vote best balances the need for local representation with the need for results that better fit with voter choices. The longer term implications for reform will mean that strategic voting will no longer be a looming problem. Voter intention and voter choice should theorectically be fully correlated. For more information view this explanation or this report.

Most importantly, there is a significant lack of awareness about single transferable vote in Canada. I propose the creation of a non-profit organisation to lobby for its adoption and to educate voters about its benefits. I hope to find other people who are equally interested in this particular reform.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Concert Diplomacy and the Conflict in Syria

I first wrote about the ongoing conflict in Syria in July 2013. The torrent has been raging now for nearly five years and shows little sign of slowing. In the time since writing, the context has changed - most notably with Western powers now coming to face the fact that Bashar Al-Assad will likely be part of the solution to the crisis, if only for the time being.

The news that the United States and Russia may work together to back the authoritarian regime has caused its share of controversy, but this concert diplomacy is taking place in the context of what has repeatedly been called the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. As the sheer magnitude of the volume of refugees is becoming clearer, more and more in Europe are erecting baracades to keep assylum-seekers out. The question of how to deal with this influx was one of the major election issues during this fall's General Federal Election in Canada.

The political pressure of the refugee crisis is meeting up with the failure of the West to contain or eradicate ISIS. These two phenomena, though largely unrelated at the onset, have coalesced into a diplomatic nightmare that has required cooperation from the likes of France, the United States, Iran, and Russia. There has been much made of the United States working collaboratively with Russia in order to achieve peace in the region. Moreover, the idea of supporting a dictator who has been directly implicated in killing his own citizens has been viewed with, at the very least, scepticism.

Leaving aside the ethical questions of this quandry, it's worthwhile considering the practical consideration that the United States will be finding itself in another version of a situation from which it has failed to properly itself. The American withdrawl from Iraq is viewed as the principal cause for the rapid spread of ISIS - not to mention that Washington has redoubled its commitment in Afghanistan.

As someone who opposes foreign state intervention as a general rule (and as someone who believes in sovereignty), I view attempts to impose a solution with great disdain. However, as someone who also believes in the right to national self-determination, I have strong feelings that Assad is not a legitimate representation of power in Syria. The proposed solution, thus, fails both criteria: it imposes a decision from outside the country by backing a leader that does not represent Syrians. Even if the longer-term solution is to depose Assad, it's ethically flawed.

Unfortunately, there aren't many reasonable alternatives. Intervening unofficially by supporting various rebels has proven to only exacerbate tensions. Intermittent participation in the region is arbitrary and generates new power vacuums and radical political movements like ISIS. The development of a reasonable settlement will require various stakeholders to be able to negotiate together in good faith. However, as we've seen with other conflicts in the Middle East, this is not easily attainable. There are so many divergent groups - all with differing visions of a united Syria.

Instead of focusing on how to restructure Syria, we should be taking a harm reduction perspective, helping to resettle as many refugees as possible. If we are all truly moved by the image of the young Syrian boy who washed onto a beach in Turkey, we should be organising in a way that can make a serious difference. The international community does not have a legal obligation to fight Assad; it has a moral obligation to ease the suffering of ordinary Syrians, those who have uprooted themselves and made arduous journeys that meet never-ending obstacles. Making a difference is possible and actually quite feasible, but it's going to take a collective will to act.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Our Forty-Second Parliament

Most of you are probably aware of the degree to which I was surprised with the election results. I was stunned to see the electoral map painted red, particularly the early results in Atlantic Canada. So the story goes that people took strategic voting to the extreme, but I see many fundamental shifts that underlay the sweeping changes we saw on Monday. The next four years are going to be interesting, and we have to make sure that we navigate the fine line between holding the new government accountable and allowing them to establish themselves.

I'll start out by saying that I have very mixed feeling about the result. I'm so relieved that we are now living in a country where, not only is Harper not our prime minister, but where he has abdicated his role as the leader of a unified Conservative party. Conversely, the tide that elected a majority Liberal government is unsettling. I had been prepared for a minority government and spent the entirety of the 78-day campaign conceptualising this. A majority changes not only my expectations for the future, but also those of most in my social circles. Especially when this majority is a mirror of its predecessor, winning less than 40 per cent of the popular vote. This means that not only do the Liberals have complete control in the legislature; they will be directing us until the fall of 2019.

That said, I firmly believe that mixed feelings are probably a good thing. I'm trying to be open-minded. I've seen a fair amount of anger from supporters of everyone (including some Liberals) about the election result, and while I'm surprised, I'd prefer to consider myself cautiously optimistic about this government. My perspective at present is very much let's not judge until the government starts doing things. And I'm not saying this as a partisan.

However, the question of the NDP is one that will take some time to unravel. I've heard a lot about strategic voting as the cause for the collapse of the NDP. This is likely true in the sense that the NDP didn't make many gains, but it fails to explain why many veteran NDP members of parliament like Paul Dewar, Megan Leslie, and Andrew Cash were all defeated in rather impressive upsets.

Perhaps a better explanation lay in the fact that the NDP has changed direction significantly under Mulcair compared to under Layton. Layton's progressive vision of Canada was inspiring to Canadians and, in particular, Québec. Mulcair failed to build on this; instead focusing on jobs and the economy. I'd have to atribute this shift not only to ideological changes within party leadership, but to the fact that the NDP were leading in polls and were seeking to be viewed more seriously. It's no surprise to me that this led Trudeau to run on a platform of positivity this time around.

Having largely avoided taking policy positions, there are many pseudo-commitments made by the Liberals that I intend to watch carefully. Chief among these are the review of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the omnibus Bill C-51. In both instances the Liberals failed to adopt real policy positions during the campaign, opting instead to review them after forming a government. Progressives hope that we see the Liberals undo the damage socially and economically that will be caused by these two pieces of legislation. More importantly, for the future of our democracy, I sincerely hope that the Liberals will in fact commit to reforms to our electoral system. The massive majority mandate that Trudeau received may allow him to escape dealing with this issue for the time being.

At any rate, I'm happy we have a more progressive parliament, one that better exemplifies the values of Canadians. I wish Trudeau luck.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Symbols: Memory and Identity

It's been some time now since the shooting in South Carolina that led to heated discussion about the Confederate flag and its place in the public realm. Whatever your perspective, the question disappeared overnight from our radar with the supreme court decision on same-sex marriage. I thought it might be time to reflect on the Confederate flag and the role that symbols play in collective memory and the construction of identity.

The image of the Confederate flag, as we have seen, has proven to be polarising. To many, it is a visual representation of the evils of slavery; to others, it is a symbol of the heritage of the American South. Accordingly, the Confederate flag evokes rather polarising attitudes. With the focus recently on the question of whether or not it should be banned, I think the point has been largely missed. Most symbols are not ubiquitously good or bad - this is inherent because they are complex. As shocking as this may come to people, symbols have different meanings to different audiences. While I am offended by the values behind the Confederate flag, I'm still undecided on what I feel about banning it.

Again - this stuff is complex. Moreover, why are we stopping here? Why aren't we outraged that Thomas Jefferson is on American currency or that the American flag has a history or violence, hate, and oppresion along with it. Why do we valorise corporate symbols that are synonymous with corruption or oppression? There are plenty of other examples of symbols that have failed to inspire a collective action to irradicate them. Before we go any further, let's consider that symbols can be images (like a flag for example), but people, groups, and institutions can also act as symbols.

There are three cases I'd like to briefly outline below that illustrate the complex nature of symbols.

It's difficult to discuss symbols without delving into Nazism. In the years following the Second World War, there was a massive undertaking in both East and West Germany to remove the references to Hilter. One of the most interesting ways in which this occured was by changing the names of streets and public squares. Virtually every population centre in Germany and Austria had something named after Hitler. In East Germany, many of these squares were renamed in the honour of Stalin; in West Germany the emphasis was on the new class of liberals. Absent from the renamings on both sides are the thousands of streets and squares throughtout the country that bear reference to Germany's brutal colonial past in Africa (something which Germany shares with most European nations).  

More recently, the remains of King Richard III were found under a parking lot in Leicester in the fall of 2012. Despite the fact that Richard III is often regarded as a despot, a majestic funeral was held in his honour. The fact that he was royalty trumped his actions - meaning that the symbolism of the British crown ultimately the significant factor.

Lastly, the Catholic Church's involvement in Indian Residential Schools makes up a major part of the complex story of the Church in Canadian history. The Church represents both life and death quite literally in the early history of our nation. Despite the harm caused by the Church, an apology has yet to be offered. Symbols associated with catholocism are, therefore, likely to be viewed with some major differences.

As an historian, I am deeply concerned about pushing the undesirable elements from our past into a dark corner. From my perspective, I'm really concerned with the idea that we are policing people's values. Symbols are among the more powerful manifestations of an idea. Banning a symbol gives it great power. Instead, let's unpack symbols and discuss what they mean (all of their complex meanings).

Thursday, 14 May 2015


There has been an absolute flurry of activity around FHRITP. A TFC fan, Shawn Simoes, was interpellated by a CityTV reporter on Sunday, confronted as to whether or not he was going to try to yell the viral phrase into her microphone. Hydro One released a statement that Simoes is no longer employed with the public enterprise. While this move was certainly justified, I don't feel like we're going far enough in dealing with sexism, in particular with street harassment.

Last fall I remember a viral video campaign about a woman who walked the streets of New York filming the men who approached her. You may also remember the Twitter trend #YesAllWomen from a few years ago. These all highlight the prevalence of women being victimised because men think it's acceptable to harass, intimidate, or otherwise insert themselves into situations with women. Sunday was merely the most recent example.

Interestingly, there has been another trend lately of employers having to fire staff who get embroiled in scandal. Consider the importance of behaviour online. Most social media has at least some component that is public, meaning that contributions (photos, posts, etc) can be viewed by anyone. Take, for example, Matt Bowman, a Toronto firefighter who was fired last November after he tweeted racist and sexist remarks. In this particular case, it was easy to tell that Bowman was a member of the city's fire department based on a cursary glance at his profile. This phenomenon is not limited to the public sector: Justine Sacco, a PR executive, was fired after making racist comments on Twitter.

Organisations will continue to be less and less tolerant of their employee's indiscretions. Pressure from the public is always instrumental in calling out these behaviours and then demanded action from the employer. Bad public relations from the mishandling of a scandal can cost companies their annual advertising budget or more.

Despite the fact that offensive behaviour in public or online can cause a wave of shame against those presuming to do wrong, it can also result in the victims being targeting. In the case of the FHRITP, it's evident that some people feel that Simoe losing his job has turned him into a victim. Others decry the feminisation of public space or the disappearance of free speech. Still more, people claim that the humour is not understood, that it's just a prank, or that we are taking things too seriously. Whatever the case, there are plenty of apologists.

Regardless, Simoe can probably now understand what it's like to be harrassed and victimised (not to insinuate that this is just) and hopefully he will have learned a valuable lesson. Surely this episode had to have been embarrassing for him, not to mention devastating for his career. I really hope, however, that instead of letting him take the fall, that we use this as an opportunity to reflect on what values actually lead people to saying FHRITP. The manifestations of sexism evolve and we will be finding ourselves “outraged” about another misogynist phenomenon in no time. Let's connect the dots instead of gathering to watch someone crash and burn.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Contextualising the NDP Victory in Alberta

Yesterday I awoke to a flurry of activity on the radio and social media - the Alberta NDP pulled off a spectacular and historic win. Not only did they win a majority government, but they unseated the Progressive Conservatives who have been ruling the province for 43 years. The NDP managed what would have only been unthinkable sixty days ago and the prospects for Alberta and for Canada have changed dramatically.

While it is important to note that the result has been characterised as less a PC loss than an NDP win, I think too much has been made of this argument. Yes, the election was largely a referendum on Jim Prentice, but have we already forgotten that in the previous Alberta election in 2012 that it was the Wild Rose Party that many projected would form a majority government? The truth is that the PCs have been managing to hold it together despite the fact that there was a growing popular sentiment that it was time for a change - though admittedly unsure of where that would go. The 2012 election illustrates that there was a desire to change, but that Albertans would not abandon the PCs without reason (there was too much risk, evidently). The line that the PCs lost this election is important to take into consideration, but it neglects the fact the the NDP and Rachel Notley made an impact on voters and spoke to their desires instead of their fears.

Despite the fact that the crowd at party headquarters reacted negatively when Notley announced that she was looking forward to working with Harper, I have few worries that Edmonton and Ottawa will fail to work in concert. Moreover, I think this plays into the hands of conservatives who attempt to make out the NDP as the antidote to a healthy economy. The NDP will not destroy Alberta's economy (not that the economy was not in serious trouble under PC management). There will be some concrete changes if the NDP follows through with leading platform thrusts like increasing the minimum wage and introducing new income tax brackets. While business leaders will claim that these changes will hurt Alberta industry, it's only a mechanism to ensure that people can benefit more evenly from the province's prosperity.

Given that this is a federal election year, the NDP win will no doubt influence the outcome in October. There impact has already been felt in Ottawa with the federal NDP claiming that the election has shown that Alberta voters can elect a leftist party. Moreover, Justice Minister Peter Mackay commented that caucus was like a “morgue” on Wednesday morning (also commenting that the province was now becoming Albertistan). With Orange Crush cans turning up across the country, there is no doubt that the NDP win is being felt.

However, there is the matter of the NDP tabling a budget in Alberta, something that must happen before summer. This means that Notley will have to demonstrate her capacity to actually run the province, not merely win the election. This includes selecting first priorities, working out the economics of the budget, and nominating a cabinet from a group of novices. This will be a true test: the party managing the day-to-day affairs of Canada's most successful economy in terms of GDP per capita.

Ultimately, I'm not holding my breath. There is a long stretch between now and October. While there aren't many certainties, it would be a safe bet to say that Canadians will be eagerly watching Alberta for the next few months.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Here We Go Again

In November I wrote about the violence that rocked Ferguson. I am dismayed to see that we are, a mere six months later, staring into the same gaping inferno. Of course it is not surprising that we are failing as a society to have a rational discussion about institutional racism in the United States. It's impossible, especially when we have the mainstream media focusing on looting and everyone else throwing one-liner opinions out on Twitter. Something has to change.

I am currently teaching an English course and we are reading the obligatory novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. I remember reading this novel when I was in high school and I wanted to prepare my students for seeing why a novel like this is truly relevant, so we discussed Michael Brown. Little did I know that, in the span of a month, there would be three black murders at the hands of police.

Baltimore is the latest example and by far the most distressing. After the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, the city demanded answers and justice. When they were rebuffed, the residents jumped into action and tens of thousands hit the streets. Despite the fact that the vast majority of those demonstrating were doing so peacefully, the media coverage has been focused on people throwing rocks, burning police cars, and looting stores. All this coverage serves to promote the idea that the protestors are all self-serving ingrates who are out to let their id go wild. In other words, the protest is unmerited.

But who are the privileged to say that the protest is invalid. Especially when the judgments are made based on the actions of the very small opportunist minority. Wealthy white Americans may have their sensibilities offended to see store fronts demolished, but let's not lose sight of why this happened.

The murder of young black men by police is pandemic in the United States. When this demographic is targeted at such obscene rates, and when there is little done by the justice system to correct it, Ferguson and Baltimore are the predictable results.

I don't want to see inequality continue to take more victims in America. From Ferguson to Baltimore, America has a race problem. Moreover, it has a problem talking about its race problem.

We don't need more Detroits - more cities hollowed out by the disappearance of opportuinties. Baltimore is speaking the language of the unheard:

"When you cut facilities, slash jobs, abuse power, discriminate, drive people into deeper poverty, and shoot people dead whilst refusing to provide answers or justice, the people will rise up and express their anger and frustration. A riot is the language of the unheard"

We need to develop the capacity to have a meaningful discussion about what's going on in America. Because until then, there will only be more violence, destruction, and disharmony.

Friday, 24 April 2015


From the shores of Lybia venture countless migrant vessels, each overflowing with hopefuls seeking a new start in the Old Continent. In the years since the Arab Spring movement transformed a dozen countries, many have opted to leave the Middle East and North Africa for a better life in Europe. This new demographic phenomenon is gaining exposure around the world, largely through media coverage of the Syrian Civil War and the recent sinking of several migrant ships in the Mediterranean.

For decades the Middle East has been viewed as a conflict zone, worries of interstate violence against Israel topping the list of concerns. For a decade terrorism became the new buzzword, and since 2011 the game has changed dramatically again. This time it's the advent of new conflicts that are far removed from international borders, a hybrid of terrorism, war, and genocide that is quickly becoming an unfathomable humanitarian crisis. Take for example ISIS, whose incredible growth in the past year has taken the world by surprise. The fear that has been struck into the hearts of westerners has been impressive, but the real victims of ISIS are the inhabitants of the region.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the rates of outward migration from the Middle East or North Africa are mammoth. For many who have wanted to leave their homeland, there has never been a better time. From their perspectives, Europe is a land of promise, akin to the appeal of America during the late nineteenth century - a beacon of hope. People are willing to drop everything and risk their lives to restart in Europe. And so hundreds of thousands arrange passage across the Mediterranean.

Much like the beacon of hope that America has been viewed as (think of Ellis Island), Europe offers liberty and promise to those fleeing poverty and persecution. However, the Europe they find is, in various measures, largely xenophobic, particularly toward Muslims.

Take the seaside town of Catania, in the south of Italy. The town has been flooded by those rescued from sinking migrant vessels. Some villagers are frightened that they will have to take care of these huddled masses, responsible to clothe them, protect them, feed them, and police them. It's not surprising that the question of Italy absorbing these migrants has been met with widely polarised reaction.

Italy has been forced to take in the vast majority of migrants. Moreover, it has also been responsbile for surveying the deadly waters. The programme, which Italy cannot afford to run, has not gotten financial support from the EU despite significant pressure from both the Italian government and wider public opinion. It was cut significantly last year when, during an eight month period, approximately 3100 people died attempting to cross the sea.

As far as humanitarian crises go, this exodus from North Africa and the Middle East is among the largest in the past century. It's impacts will be far-reaching. It is not the time to be idle. If the European Union does improve search and rescue operations in the coming weeks we can expect the death toll to be appalling. Let's consider that today marks the centeniary of the start of the Armenian Genocide. Let's learn from our long history of inaction.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Federal Budget

The much-anticipated 2015 Federal Budget was released yesterday. For seven years we've waited for a balanced budget, and, at least in name, that's what we got. Finance Minister Joe Oliver announced yesterday that we should expect a surplus of about $1.4 billion next fiscal year. This certainly puts the Conservatives in a good place for the upcoming election, but what is the real economic impact for Canada?

Oliver's budget brought in a slew of new, rather tangible, measures. These include changes to the tax rate for small business, renovation tax credits, and doubling the annual contribution caps for TFSAs. The catch with all this is that none of proposed changes are supposed to come into effect for some time (most after 2017). The implication is, evidently, that if you want these measures you'd best vote for Harper in October.

These changes are expensive. In the case of the TFSA there is significant data that this will cost billions to manage. When combined with poor oil revenues, the picture of the Canadian economy is rocky at best. In fact, some economists have indicated that this budget almost looks like a recession budget.

But what about this surplus? Ever since Oliver announced that he would be delaying the release of this year's budget, there has been talk about whether or not it would reverse the trend of the last seven years. The messaging of the government recently has been consistently hinting toward a surplus, but the announcement fell a bit flat with only $1.4 billion offered up. To some, the fact that it is a surplus will be enough, but with all the expectation built up over the past two months, to some this will be disappointing.

The sum is rather pitiful when you consider that much of this revenue comes from asset selling (such as shares in GM) or by cuts to the public sector. Tom Mulcair is right to consider the budget to be an economic sleight of hand. Projections for the next years will likely not come to pass since there is an election in way. Moreover, these numbers are very much contingent on the performance of the tar sands in a market with low oil prices. There has also been criticism that the federal government intends to use the contingency fund which the opposition argues is meant for emergencies, not routine shortfalls.

In an election year, we can't overestimate to what decree this announcement is all about politics over policy. Oliver has dangled some shiny things in front of voters and we are ramping up to a big decision.The budget should have Canadians concerned, asking tougher questions about what our economic situation is. In some way, the announcement should also provide clarity on which demographic groups the Conservatives are targeting for the fall.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Let's Talk About Mental Health

When the Germanwings flight 9525 smashed into the French Alps on Tuesday, the routine investigative journalism followed suit with suggestions of poor weather and terrorism. The revelations yesterday that the plane was deliberately crashed by the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, resulted in a deluge of articles about depression, many of which were problematic.

On the way to work this morning I heard an aviation safety expert talking about the fact that there are very few checks on the mental health of flight staff. This is generally attributed to the difficulty in assessing mental health, though other factors like cost and effectiveness are certainly important. The state of Lubitz at the time, as well as his history with depression, have become the centre of attention.

While it is a sensational story (and a tragedy), mental health carries many stigmas today. Both on social media and in articles from reputable journalists there has been an emphasis on shaming Lubitz for his depression. Before I go any further, I will say that handling depression by flying an airpline full of passengers into the side of a mountain is not an appropriate option. What I want to talk about here is not the violent final act, but the context in which it took place - in shame and secrecy.

To me it is unfortunate that we support Bell's Let's Talk campaign about mental health but then fall into the trappings of shaming people with mental health problems. Depression is real. Just because it cannot be easily observed, diagnosed, treated, or quantified doesn't mean it is not to be taken seriously (or outright rejected).

Attitudes that depression is a sign of weakness promote the further desire to keep it secret. If people can't get help, or will lose their jobs because of it, then the culture of secrecy continues. In the case of Lubitz, a voluntary disclosure system which would allow him leave from work would have prevented him from flying the plane without him losing his career. These are the types of changes that we need to contemplate, and we have to move beyond characterising Lubitz by his depression.

The reality is that depression is the most common form of mental illness. In some form or another, virtually everyone is affected by depression. Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but we all experience significant changes in mood and character. According to the CMHA, 8 per cent of Canadians experience serious depression and suicide is one of the leading causes of death for people from adolescence to middle age.

Plenty of people with depression live very productive lives. They can be our greatest artists, our leaders of commerce, and our loved ones. It comes down to getting support in the time of need - help without reprisal. So let's get real about mental health and stop stigmatising people who already feel like they don't have many options.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

A New Cult of the Personality?

We're all familiar with the philosophical question about a tree falling in the forest. But what about a modern permutation? If you have a deep thought, a frustration, or an accomplishment - is it real if you don't share it on social media?

Upon first reading, that may seem ridiculous, but let that set in. This something I've been thinking about recently given all the noise made about the banning of selfie sticks in tourist destinations around the world. While people argue about safety issues, isolation in public spaces, and boorish ettiquette, I can't help but think about the fact that the selfie stick is a tool in advancing the ongoing construction of our self-image. While some sharing is more personal (sending a text message for example), much of the sharing of pictures is done through social media.

I write this post fully cognizant of the fact that I participate in this culture. It's another modern mutation, this time of the cult of personality. In the traditional sense, this referred to the deification of leaders (commonly Stalin or Mao), aggrandising their accomplishments and character. Typically this was done in print, with newspapers and pamphlets leading the charge. Think of the rather laughable exploits of Kim Jong Il, available here.

In our modern world, we use the internet to share our exploits. And sometimes to exaggerate them. Or outright lie about them. I think a reasonable question to ask ourselves is, are we often doing things just to share them on social media? Is the attention that we get from these accomplishments a large part of our motivation? There has been rising interest in climbing Mount Everest, and I'd posit that a large part of this is the ability to share your accomplishment with others. It also explains the popularity of apps that share fitness accomplishments like Strava.

The phenomenon of building our online profiles is called crafting. There was a lot in the news about crafting last year, and I am curious as to why the talk of crafting hasn't been grafted into the current debate about selfies. We consume media about our friends and infer much about their interests, values, and personalities through their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media.

Here's a case study about the impacts of crafting. I read a great article last week about how people are apt to share articles, often poorly researched, about science in order to look like they are knowledgeable or interested in science. There is a wide proliferation, accordingly, of junk science that has survived on account of crafting.

Because I am comfortable enough with criticism, I've taken a look back on my own Facebook profile to look at what I have been sharing. In the past month or so, my posts have been related to:

Sharing articles that broadcast my values (11 times)
Adding photos that show I was in Europe and Asia (4 times)
Promoting my blog (3 times)
Getting a new job (1 times)
Epic walking (1 time)
A picture of a ticket to the first show my band played (1 time)

These examples show what I evidently want others to see of me - someone who likes travel, writing, politics, music, and being a teacher. I'd encourage you to take a look at your wall and see what you have shared.

I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with living a life of sharing on social media. I think there is a possible concern with doing it without being aware of what you're doing. I frankly believe it would be impossible to engage with social media without ever broadcasting who you are. Ultimately, some elements of crafting are more overt or pernicious than others, but it is inescapable in the online world. I'll just note that I think it's worthwhile reflecting on what it means to share, before you share.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Should Life be Life?

Yesterday Justin Trudeau spoke on the new legislation that the Conservatives have proposed, the controversial Bill C-51. He caused quite a stir. A stir that, in my opinion, was much anticipated. This bill, which has received virtually unanimous criticism from experts in law, has been slowly boiling over in this, an all important election year. The injection of partisan politics in the judiciary is as dangerous as it is ill-advised. Unfortunately, it is also not unprecedented - particularly from Harper.

Harper has produced a bill that is designed to make it much more difficult to rehabilitate Canadians who have offended. Specifically, he is attacking the parole board with a campaign called "Life is Life", in which he suggests that someone charged with a life sentence should never have the opportunity leave prison. The claim has been repeated that violent offenders are getting out and that this deeply endangers our society. Much like the government's discourse on terrorism, this is all about building fear.

Our current judicial system is, like all systems, imperfect. We have high rates of incarceration for First Nations. We have a systemic problem with maintaining our federal penal infrastructure. There have been numerous cases where prison guards have not intervened in suicides. Among these problems is the rare person who comes out of prison for a murder charge who reoffends. While non-violent crime recidivism rates are generally about 40 per cent, those who are on parole after a murder sentence reoffend at one per cent. That means that most who go through the penal system are capable of following their conditions of parole and reintegrating into society.

Fundamentally, that is the point of prison. Or so I thought. There are broadly two theories on the purpose of correctional facilities.

The first posits that prison should be to rehabilitate those who have erred. This means that prisons need to be connected to the world. There needs to be a cultural exchange between those on the inside and wider society. It also includes having rewards for personal development and good behaviour.

Another way of looking at prisons is that they are designed to isolate segments of the population from society. As mentioned before, Canada has a problem where we hold onto racial segregation by formalising it through prisons. The same is true of black people in the United States. The goal here is to criminalise a segment of the population and make it exceptionally difficult for them to integrate or reintegrate, even if their crimes were non-violent (such as with drugs or theft).

If we look at both models, we see a significant ideological divide - one where we see prison as a vehicle to aid those who are in need, another serving to propagate isolation. In the case of Canadian political discourse, there should be no question where our government stands. This newest bill is just part of a long stream of initiatives designed to target populations and perpetuate their stay in Canadian prisons. The Canadians have championed their tough on crime stance, even when it is consistently shown that tough on crime doesn't lead to more peaceful societies. And it has to be asked: what is the impact on the incarcerated? Why should someone who has committed a violent crime be deprived of the opportunity to better himself or herself?

We should all be concerned that our government is introducing this bill in order to have wider sweeping powers to prosecute various groups, not the least of which including "terrorists". Harper wants to increase the powers of both the RCMP and CSIS without adding greater oversight. Moreover, he wants to implicate the Ministry of Public Safety in the judiciary by having them involved in parole decisions. These changes should worry Canadians deeply.

I don't trust the Conservatives with our judicial system and we do not need further steps toward a police state. Hopefully Canadians will resist this bill and join in with experts in law and society in decrying this thinly veiled attack on our freedoms. I take solace in knowing that, ultimately, the liklihood of this legislation going anywhere is minimal. I'm looking foward to the October election.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The State of Post-Secondary Education in Canada

Last night contract staff and teaching assistants at York University in Toronto voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action. Of course this has become a huge story and, as a York alumnus, it's been all over my news feed. I heard an unfortunate interview on CBC's Metro Morning with university president Mamdouh Shoukri. While the debate about contract instructors is legitimate, I feel that in large part the wider context of what is happening with universities is being relegated to the background. The changing role of university is what I'd like to address in today's post.

Universities have existed for roughly a millenium. During most of that time, their role remained rather constant: providing society's elite with tools to become critical thinkers, thus empowering those who revolutionised fields of study like philosophy. Most universities were places to study liberal arts - politics, anthropology, religion, and history. In the nineteenth century economics and sociology came into the fold.

The latter half of the twentieth century saw universities grow modestly as professional schools expanded. With this came, in my opinion, a conflation between university and job training - such that now it is considered a smart career move to go to university, even if it's not for specific training in one domain or another. Stundets are going to university at unprecedented rates. However, there is a great amount of dismay amongst university graduates (myself included in 2008) when there is no work, save for poorly paid internships, service jobs, or work outside their chosen field. What's worse is that graduates have been saddled with debt, often called good debt because it is supposed to help them in the future.

Seldom are we asking ourselves as a society: what should the role of higher education be? Whereas universities used to be a place of free exploration of the world around us (natural and human), they have come to be viewed as conveyor belts for employment - a fast track to success. Most students who go to university are doing so because they feel it is part of reaching up in obtaining better career options or earning potential. Universities, governments, media, and parents are all to blame for propagating educational inflation, a race wherein we protect ourselves from underemployment by seeking more and more formal schooling.

The benefactors of this have not been students, or even the economy. Look at any report from Stats Canada and you'll see that new graduates are largely underemployed or unemployed (and unhappy). I'd argue that educational inflation has really served the best interest of universities. As a sector, education has grown year over year for some time now. A good marker of university success is the number of cranes erecting new buildings on campuses across the country. Not surprisingly, this has led to the further transformation of universities not only into career assembly lines but also into places to party. In the United States there is a growing demand for universities to provide an attractive lifestyle: private pools, tanning services, and luxury accomodations on campus.

I think that a few changes should be made to the university model.

University should be close to free and more difficult to get into: While this may sound elitist, universities should not be accepting virtually everyone so long as they have money. Instead, there should be a greater emphasis on students entering university based on grades, community service, or affirmative action.

Universities shouldn't be marketed aggresively: I don't see any reason why university should be billed as better than other forms of career training. It'd be also helpful if universities weren't seen as conveyor belts for the job market. The added bonus of this would be that universities could ease up on their oft-sketchy relationships with the corporate world.

University should focus on independent learning and critical thinking: Students should be exploring the world around them through seminars, online forums, papers, and workshops - not in lecture halls with four hundred other students. University should be about developing abilities to reason and communicate, not to absorb information.

In Europe, where these values are closer to the norm, university attendance is low and there is not the same expectation that a degree will lead to employment. This also helps make post-secondary education more accessible. In most of Canada and the United States, tuition is prohibitively high (and rising) which prevents bright students who happen to be poor from going to school.

Ultimately, we have a lot to think about as a society when it comes to education. This is by no means an answer, but it is an attempt to start a conversation. Let's stop building up the university experience and leaving so many young people disappointed that there isn't a job waiting for them afterward.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Going Viral

This morning I listened to The Edge on my way to work instead of the CBC. I heard the announcers discuss an inane story about #thedress, a dress that looks different colours dependent on lighting conditions and your eyesight. During my prep at work I noticed that not only was this phenomenon trending in the right hand corner of my Facebook homepage, the story has appeared numerous times in my newsfeed, was on the front of news websites, and my students kept asking me about it.

What appears to be something incendiary is, in reality, merely a distraction. I've read article titles from reputable organisations stating that #thedress is dividing the internet. What passes for controversial today is abhorent. The fact that something so completely irrelevant can go viral is already sad enough. However, when you consider that there are so many other stories right now that deserve our critical attention, it actually hurts. Imagine if everyone were devoting this level of interest to issues that have an actual social and material impact?

I remember when reality television emerged at the turn of the millenium. It changed our patterns of media consumption dramatically, and viral social media is another step in this direction. I've worked hard, admittedly, to have a news feed that mostly shares stories about racism, sexism, homophobia, terrorism, poverty, and other crises that I find fascinating. But even at that I'm constantly running into trivialities, and apparently #thedress was a breaking point for me.

Another element of this particular story that I find compelling is that you get to pick a side, and the defense of the side involves no work or justification. I read a really great piece a few months ago by a friend who runs a blog called Gin and Tacos. In it he talked about his experience teaching undergraduates who have minimal interest outside of themselves. The idea of bringing identity into viral campaigns is part of its success, and we don't have to go far to find examples. Just think about the Ice Bucket Challenge from last year.

Entertainment is great. And there's nothing wrong with disagreeing about the colour of a dress. But think twice before you share an article about it and consider the footprint you're leaving and the chance for something else to take root.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Updating Ontario's Sex Ed Curriculum

I was fortunate to have good sex ed, particularly when I was in elementary school. That included being exposed to concepts that, at a young age, can be awkward or difficult. Public health workers came to the school and offered workshops where we could ask questions and where there was a climate of respect and openness. As I got older, however, I soon realised that not everyone had such progressive sex education. That's why I'm writing this post following the Ontario government's announcement of changes to the sex ed curriculum.

A lot has been made of the fact that these changes were first introduced when Kathleen Wynne was education minister. I was in teacher's college at the time and I was really excited for these updates. Not everyone has access to accurate and progressive sex education, and it should be the province's responsibility to ensure that this is standardised, just like algebra, Canadian geography, or science.

For after all, the point of public education is to provide everyone with the necessary tools to be able to integrate successfully into society. That means life skills like respecting difference, listening, and learning about the world of sexuality.

The changes to the curriculum are awesome and include new information about gender identity, sexting, and consent. Naturally, it's also propted a visceral reaction; the reason why it was not implemented five years ago. It's not random that these items are here, they are designed to deal with the fact that misinformation is rampant in schools (and in society) when it comes to issues around sex and sexuality. When children don't get information from reputable sources, they get it from their parents, their peers, the internet, or from formal media like movies. Many of these sources only proliferate innaccurate or wrong information.

Students live in a world full of sexualisation where they have minimal sexual literacy. This is in part due to harmful messaging around consent, body image, gender binaries, and other themes. Equipping students with the tools to resist against this messaging is important.

Anyone who wants to prevent this from happening is promoting willful ignorance. While I am fully respectful of the right to religious freedom, I feel like it is irresponsible to prevent a young person from learning about basic concepts like the fact that consent is absolutely necessary or that other sexual identities exist.

It is, quite frankly, in the best interest of both the child and society that there be a progressive, inclusive sex ed curriculum that prepares youth for the realities of a modern cosmopolitan society. Those who have serious issues with the curriculum should have their children exempted rather than trying to block these changes.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

In Conversation I: American Sniper, Killing, and Honour

There has been a lot of talk recently about American Sniper. In the midst of this controversial film and the firestrom it has created, I've been reading a book called On Killing by Dave Grossman. I really wanted to pair these two pieces together, so I decided to go see American Sniper with my friend Liam and then have a brief conversation with him about the film, where we will talk about how the film was controversial and how it was not.

So to start, Liam is a former member of the armed forces. He was a technician for fighter aircraft and served for six years. He is very knowledgeable of military history and also the impacts of war on society. We have bonded together talking about the HBO series Generation Kill, and he was kind enough to lend me On Killing. After powering through the book I decided that I would invite him out to see American Sniper so that we could talk about what's been deemed the most controversial film of 2015. As a note, the analysis of the film is not meant to be a conversation about the real Chris Kyle as he is nothing like the film makes him out to be.

I'll first start by providing my impressions of the film. I was expecting something far more egregious given all the intense commentary. While I found the film to be at the very least problematic, it was not the glorified piece of propaganda that had been suggested to me in my reading beforehand (as much as I love Noam Chomsky). I felt that, while I was supposed to deeply sympathise with the main character, Kyle, I didn't see the implication that what he did as necessarily honourable or dishonourable. I believe the film left a lot to the audience to figure out for itself, which again I was not expecting.

I brought up the question to Liam, who told me that he feels like the film, while Hollywoodised, portrayed with some accuracy the life of a sniper. As well, he said it touched on the ethical dilemmas soldiers are faced with in combat, some of which he has talked about with former colleagues. We talked about when killing was clearly honourable and not, and agreed that there is no clear definition for many cases that fall in between. Kyle's killing of civilians is meant to be a grey area and the audience is meant to see the internal conflict that a soldier faces when a split second evaluation needs to be made.

We also talked about what Michael Moore has said regarding snipers: he called them all cowards. I can see the propensity to believe that an enemy in hiding is dishonourable, but warfare has always relied on some form of deception and to think otherwise is to sugarcoat war. Snipers may be killing someone who does not know they are there, but snipers also expose themselves to greater danger by being deep within enemy territory. The film only aludes to this challenge, but Liam mentioned that snipers often spend days in one location in order to take only one shot. After they make it they have to run for their lives. While it is true that sniper are engaging their targets from a great distance, they are not the only ones to be doing so; in fact, they are one of the few hidden units that is still exposed to the enemy.

I would argue that those who fly bombers, direct movements from headquarters, or load artillery are both safer and further removed from the killing process. Are these acts not more cowardly or dishonourable? As Grossman mentions in On Killing, every foot of distance is a corresponding decrease in reality, meaning that as you get phsyically further from the target you are more likely to go carry out the kill and also to not feel guilty about it later. A good example of this is the use of drones in the US military. Controlled remotely, soldiers can kill a target thousands of kilometres away. I can't think of something more cowardly or detached. It seems strange to dote on the sniper when so many other parts of the military are removed from the combat arena.

I also think it's worthwhile pointing out a double-standard - snipers have most certainly been glorified in other contexts, not the least of which being in Enemy at the Gates, where our hero (a Red Army sniper) was in pursuit of his German counterpart. To me it seems to suggest that a sniper is only as "good" as the conflict he is fighting in.

We spent some time talking about the conflict in question: the second American invasion of Iraq. The film showed a man with little purpose finding his calling when terrorists strike. We see the 1998 attacks on the American embassies followed by a scene where he enlists. Of course we seem him sobered by the events of September 2001. Liam and I talked about this narrative and we both agreed it was blatant patriotism as a plot device. Liam felt that the film was meant to be purposefully hateful of jihadists and thus elicit sympathy for American intervention in the Middle East. I do agree to some degree with Liam here, if only for the fact that some of the first kills in the film were met with cheers from the audience, much to my horror (especially since they were civilians being shot). However, my impression of the situation was that it looked more like justification on the part of the character for his participation in the military.

We see that, as the film goes on, Kyle has deep troubles with his work. He struggles with killing as much as he does with losing his compatriots. While we see him detach from reality and develop a cold exterior, we see him experience great difficulty when faced with having to pull the trigger. In particular, there is a scene where he is faced with killing a boy who is carrying an RPG. He is shaking, praying that the boy puts down the RPG. He begins to squeeze the trigger, only to find that the boy has decided not to fire it. He is so full of relief he doubles over. To me this signals that a main message of the film is that war is awful and that it deeply affects those who participate in it.

This brought us to talking about how in On Killing soldiers have an aversion to killing, much unlike what we see in Hollywood. Through careful analysis of battles during the industrial period we can observe that the average person recruited for military service has minimal interest in killing, and will often go to extremes to avoid it. However, in the time since the end of the Second World War many militaries, specifically the United States, have adopted programmes designed to programme soldiers to get past this resistance. The effectiveness of these tricks was first truly demonstrated in Vietnam and has carried through to American action in Iraq. Liam points out that elements like dissociating the enemy is one of the key parts of these strategies. He noted that in the film the enemy was referred to as hajjis and other derogatory terms meant to turn the enemy into a cartoon character. While I agree that this is in fact how the US military works, I feel like the inclusion of this in the film was not to promote the xenophobic sentiment, but rather to show that it is embedded in the culture of the military. To illustrate this point, I'd note that Kyle (in the film) doesn't seem to participate in this villification of the enemy. Moreover, he gets visibly annoyed when a marine that is stationed with him displays these values. Beyond this, the word "evil" gets thrown around a fair amount, but it's always other characters talking about this morality.

Fundamentally, this film was worthwhile watching and certainly has made an impact. Was it offensive? Less so than I was expecting. Was it inaccurate? Absolutely. As Liam notes, the film includes the sniper making kills at obscene ranges and endangering his own units in the pursuit of an unrealistic kill. He also mentioned that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, which is completely right. It is, at the very least, misleading to have presented it this way. I also happen to feel that the film lacks the presence of good Arabs or good Muslims. I think that this film does a decent job of pointing out how military culture works in the United States. It most certainly is not the best exemple of a scathing exposé of abuse, but I also deeply feel that it is also not the propaganda that many have labelled it.