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.

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.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Chronicles of Sarnia - Pt. 2

My penultimate week in Sarnia has wound to a close. Much as I find myself surprised to say this, I'm actually going to miss Sarnia. As mentioned in the first part of Chronicles of Sarnia, I was not keen to move here. Nor was I much a fan when I first arrived. Despite the fact that I'm ready to move on in the next stage of my life, the notion of leaving Sarnia is not wholly positive.

Everyone who has talked to me over the course of the past few months knows that I love my job. I'm so incredibly lucky to have such great colleagues and fantastic students. I'm in the process of saying goodbye to people already even though there is still a week left in my contract. I have said goodbye to schools before, and they have been difficult, but much like when I didn't have my contract renewed in Shawinigan in 2013, this departure is going to be difficult. I know that I'll never have an experience like this again - and that reflection in particular makes me both content and disappointed.

As well, I've been quite fortuante to have met so many great new friends here. Over the five months I have spent in Sarnia, I've met people I've really connected with. The circumstances were similar when I left Ottawa and Québec and I know it's going to be a challenge adapting. Meeting people with similar values and interests is never easy, but when you moved somewhere new it can be impossible. Through a combination of luck and hard work, I have met people in Sarnia whom I consider to be lifelong friends. Which is good because I have a reason to come back!

It should also be no surprise that I'm going to miss is Lake Huron. I've enjoyed walking the beaches, swimming, and staring out at the ships on the horizon. I've always been enamoured with the ocean, and the proximity to Lake Huron, my favourite great lake, makes me feel like I'm on vacation, even when I stand in the cold wind as waves pull chunks of ice into shore.

Ultimately, it'd be wonderful if I could pick up my school, my friends, and Lake Huron and move them all to Kitchener, but until that's possible I will have to move on. I will simultaneously look forward and look back. But that's nothing new.

Friday, 16 January 2015

One Hundred

It's hard to believe, but after nearly four years of writing I've reached a milestone I never really foresaw until recently: my hundredth post. Kaputall started when I was in grad school studying political economy. After a particularly challenging course came to an end, I resolved to continue my exploration of economics and chose a blog as my medium. I really didn't expect to keep up with it, especially not this long.

But this isn't about me: it's about everyone who has participated. Kaputall wouldn't mean anything were it not for everyone reading, sharing, and commenting online or otherwise engaging with me in person. Somehow I've managed to gain a following outside my personal network in North America. I've had hundreds of hits in Russia, France, Japan, and Malaysia all en route to my nearly ten thousand views.

Given that I've managed (somehow) to write a hundred posts, I thought I would share my favourites as a retrospective. Please indulge me. Here are my highlights:

Jian Ghomeshi: Privilege and Consent (October 2014) This was one of the hardest blogs I've ever had to write. It tooks me days to put together my thoughts on the situation, larely out of disbelief. In looking back at Kaputall, I've always attempted to stay current, but this post marks one of the first instances where I was posting on a topic that had truly exploded in Canada. Because my blog often circulates Facebook there were several concurrent threads where intense debate about rape culture, privilege, and consent were taking place. In some measure, this was probably my first truly successful post.

Politicising a Non-Partisan Issue (July 2012): This is one of my favourite posts because it's one of a select few that puts the focus squarely on co-operatives, a topic that I've sadly failed to comment on recently. In the transition between grad school and becoming a teacher I worked for the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation. Having never been exposed to co-operatives I was enamoured with their structure and impact. I was there during the International Year of the Co-operative where I was able to participate in a variety of seminal events, notably the Québec summit. Concurrently, the federal government was attacking the Co-operative Development Initiative, a fund designed to help with the startup and maintenance of co-ops. In writing this post I went to parliament to observe the debate about the CDI and the proposal by Mauril Bélanger, who has gone on to be the real champion of co-ops at the federal level.

Young Capitalists (May 2011) This is one of my earliest pieces - my fifth post in fact - and in reading back on it nearly four years later, I can't help but feel sentimental. I placed this one on the list for the simple reason that it encapsulates what I wanted this blog to be about when Kaputall was conceptualised. It was a critique of culture and society insofar as it was influenced by economics. That was, in a word, my goal when I first started this blog. I've deviated pretty substantially from that in the sense that economics seems to play a smaller and smaller role in my writing, but from time to time it reemerges as a dominant part of Kaputall. Reading back on this post has already given me inspiration for a few new topics on finance. Stay tuned.

What's In a Name? (August 2014) Sometime in the past few years I developped a taste for writing about issues that were personal, removing myself from the detached criticism of the world around me and bringing the spotlight on my own life. On the tenth anniversary of my decision to start going by James, I wrote about my struggle in identifying who I am. It was well received and, to my suprise, actually had a marked impact. My deepest respect goes out to everyone who listened to my message in this post.

Talking About Remembrance (November 2013) I have saved what I feel to be the best of my posts for last. I feel the topic is so incredibly personal while at the same time dealing with my area of academic expertise: history. I wrote about the importance of remembrance, not in some statist conscruct where we sanction war, but in the sense were we work on the act of remembering collectively and individually by taking a critical stance. I wrote specifically that I hoped we would all consider Remembrance Day to be an opportunity to reflect on the cost, meaning, and impact of violence, peace, democracy, and other questions. I'm proud of this piece and I feel that I have not heard the last of that post.

That's how I see one hundred posts. I'd be curious to hear your side.

But before I close, let me just say that I feel so privileged to have people reading my thoughts. Kaputall would not be here were it not for you. Thanks so much for putting up with my writing. It means the world to me that you follow and engage, however critical you are of my perspectives. I hope you can handle one hundred more.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Identity, Bias, and Outrage

In the wake of the attacks at Charlie Hebdo I've found myself thinking about fairness every day. The attacks have dominated public discourse over the past week. My previous post, Je ne suis pas Charlie, has been viewed about one hundred times per day. I've gotten into debates because It gets everyone engaged, and for good reason. The case is tied to the limits of free speech, to belonging, to security, to identity, and most importantly to fairness. One of the other reason why this event has been so - to put it mildly - polarising has been because of the degree to which it highlights the connections amongst three key items: identity, bias, and outrage.

It took me quite some time to determine which word would best encapsulate the reactions to the events of last week, but outrage seemingly does the trick. I came across it after realising that everyone who had a grand opinion, myself included, was expressing outrage. The targets of this could be Charlie Hebdo's drawings, the terrorists, religious extremism, unrestricted free speech, high rates of immigration, failure to integrate immigrants, islamophobia, or whatever else depending on your perspective. In each of these cases, we are outraged by what we perceive to be unfair and these are value judgements.

Accordingly, how we justify this outrage is key. Our perceptions of injustice are informed by the other two pieces: our identity and our bias. What I mean by identity is a bit complex, but it essentially refers to the elements of who we are and how we see ourselves reflected (or not) in society, notably in media and government. Naturally, our identity has a great impact on our bias. Therefore, if we strongly relate to an aspect of our identity we are biased to see it under attack. A few examples:

Many westerners perceive Muslims to be victims of marginalisation, oppression, and hatred.

Many westerners see Islam as getting special treatment and endangering secularism and freedom of speech.

In both cases, the crime is different. Moreover, the victims and perpetrators of injustice are different. This explains why people who value multiculturalism are recoiling at the rise in xenophobia. This similarly explains why proponents of free speech have been so offended by the attack, hence all the drawings of pencils fighting AK-47s.

This should highlight to complexity of dealing with inclusion and fairness. I have a bias, and I will admit it: I believe that it is important to stand up against oppression and xenophobia. We need nuance in a time like this, not volatile cartoons, threats of violence, or faux solidairty. This vicious attack was the product of numerous factors, not merely religious zeal. Pinning the attack on Islam is so superficial it is painful. This, especially, when merely criticising the state of Israel in the west is viewed as anti-semetic.

Despite the complexity of the reasons behind the violent attack, I condemn it unequivocally. However, while freedom of speech is central to democracy, it should not be limitless. In principle, we should have the right to be critical (which is what I presume the function of free speech to be at its core), but it should not be used to promote hate or as a tool of oppression. In my professional life as a teacher, I respect the right of my students to express themselves, but should I allow them to bully one another? I don't feel like giving someone the right to use their privilege to the disadvantage of others is fair, but of course that's just my bias talking.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie!

What I have to say today is, well, very likely to be unpopular. But I'm worried by what I'm seeing online - Facebook, Twitter, blogs, news websites, youtube. I'm talking about the rise of the "Je suis Charlie" hashtag. As you may have guessed from the title of this post, I take issue with this rhetoric, and I'm going to outline my case below.

To begin, let me be clear that I do not support the use of violence against unarmed civilians. Frankly, most of you know that I'm incredibly opposed to violence in the first place. The attacks that happened in France were, in the words of many "cowardly" and "shameful". Twelve people were killed and many others wounded. It's shocking to see events like this happen, and my sympathies go out to everyone affected.

If we were to stop there, perhaps I could agree with the message. But there's more. So let's turn to Charlie Hebdo. First off, it's not a person, but a periodical. Hebdo is short for hebdomadaire, the French word for weekly. It has a high profile not only in France, but throughout many French-speaking locales including in the Middle East. According to many of the editors at the journal, the writers have targeted Muslim extremism because they are against any type of religious extremism. That's a fair point, and again I agree. They have then gone on, stating "we are not racist" which, if I'm not mistaken, should mean that you are not racist. Right? The satire is, quite clearly, aimed at extremism, but it always comes back to Islam, the Quran, Mohammed, and other symbols that reinforce Islamophobia. This harkens back to the offensive nature of Draw Mohammed Day.

The reality is that there is no objective measure of what constitutes racism: it's a judgement of value. That said, I would strongly encourage you to check out some of the works by Charlie Hebdo. They are full of references to the Quran being "merde" or Mohammed in compromising sexual situations. Perform a google image search (trigger warning). I'm not Muslim and I find that to be heinous at the very least, and most certainly a form of hate speech. Sadly, France does not have hate speech legislation and apparently there is a minimal amount of public support for moderate Muslims who feel, rightfully, that they have been targeted. They are caught between defending the people who make fun of their religion or being accused of being terrorist sympathisers.

Charlie Hebdo did not deserve to be attacked - let me be clear. I'm merely pointing out that this is more complicated than pinning it down to a bunch of fanatics. This is a sociological question. Let's think back to the Boston Bombings in the spring of 2013 where Stephen Harper made remarks about how it was an inappropriate time to be talking about sociology. How misguided is that? It's akin to trying to stop the conversation firearm safety in order to avoid upsetting victims of a mass shooting.

"Je suis Charlie" has been popular in the west, interestingly enough, by people across the political spectrum. I have friends in my social media circles posting with the hashtag or changing their profile pictures. I get the solidarity, I really do. I can see where conservatives are coming from and I'm not really surprised: this is akin to 9/11 and virtually any time that terrorism comes up as an issue.

Where I'm more concerned is my friends who are liberal, anti-oppression, or socialist. What's going on here? Many of the people condemning this attack and supporting Charlie Hebdo are the same people who, for example, criticise the Washington football franchise for its blatant racism. Why should Charlie Hebdo be treated any differently than than Washington's football team?

The central question to me is: should we stand for hate speech? Those condemning the attack have focused on it manifesting barbary, senselessness, and most importantly hatred all the while extolling the virtues of Charlie Hebdo's bravery. But why aren't we focused on Charlie Hebdo's promotion of Islamophobia? The attitude that this is about "freedom" or "liberty of the press" is a typical trope designed to absolve the paper of any complicitness in promoting hate. Newspapers have freedoms in order to prevent tyranny and should not use those powers to oppress. Again, I don't mean to say that France was asking for this type of attack. Far from it. But let's not be so quick to come to the defense of an organisation that is spreading Islamophobic attitudes - let's commit sociology. I look forward to talking with you.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Falling Price of Gas

This week I bought gas for 81 cents per litre (or 2.765 USD per gallon). Ever since prices started to fall in October, consumers have rejoiced, politicians have promised to keep the prices low, and economists have battled to forecast the bottom. Needless to say, there has been a lot of talk about gas prices, but what are the larger ramifications of the falling price of oil?

To start, the rhetoric has pointed repeatedly to the fact that there will be more money in the pockets of consumers. Estimates vary, but in general the annual projected household savings is supposedly in the neighbourhood of about 1200 CAD. Consumer savings are always welcomed with open arms, especially when it comes to a staple like fuel. Gas prices have been labelled as excessive or unfair and the fall in prices is viewed as a reprieve, particularly for those who rely on fuel prices for their livlihood. Moreover, the price of fuel is built into the prices of many other goods, notably food.

This side of the equation has been covered relatively extensively, so I'll leave it at that. But what are the impacts beyond?

One of the most salient is with regard to Canada's economic performance. It's no surprise that during the last decade of Conservative governance, the tar sands have expanded signficantly both in terms of size and in terms of importance to the overall Canadian economy. Policies that have foresaken other areas of the economy, notably manufacture and the public sector, have hollowed out the Canadian economy by placing so much of our stock in one resource (otherwise known as Dutch Disease). The impact of falling gas prices, which had been foreshadowed for some time, has been painful. The Alberta government has already had to readjust its budget due to dramatic changes in royalties. All this compounds the pressure on Canada's monolithic oil economy (which was already bruised from pipeline politics). Canada has been focusing significant resources in the sector in the past decade; however, the benefit to Canadians has not been similar to other democracies in the same point, notably Norway.

Another signficant impact has been on the Canadian Dollar. In the time since the beginning of the fall the dollar has lost significant ground - from 90 cents to currently approximately 84 cents. This cascade, obviously, has an impact on the buying power of Canadian consumers, the same group who are supposedly the benefactors of falling gas prices. Here it's important to look at a basket of goods to decide whether or not the consumer is better off. Accord to the Consumer Price Index the impact is nominal, though the most recent data isn't new enough. The falling Canadian Dollar impacts more than consumers. Relationships amongst provinces have been strained over the tar sands - notably with Ontario struggling with the hollowing out of its traditional manufacturing sector as oil prices have been high since 2009. You don't have to look far to see examples of industries packing up and leaving Ontario, though the falling dollar now may lead to a reinvestment in Ontario as a place for manufacturers to set up shop. At least in some measure, Alberta's loss is Ontario's gain. This will be particularly interesting with the federal election scheduled for the fall.

The final element to consider is that driving is a heavily subsidised activity. That is to say that we don't pay the real price to drive. The falling price of gas doesn't change the huge costs of road design, construction, and maintenance. It does, however, reduce the amount that the federal government and provinces receive in excise taxes and sales taxes, much of which are earmarked for infrastructure spending or the provision of other social services. Surely we are going to need to find that money somewhere else or otherwise initiate further cuts. With the election forthcoming there will be some discussion of this, especially if oil prices continue to languish.

The larger picture of commidity prices is important and something that I feel is not accurately represented in the media or in public discourse. As 2015 goes on I hope that the conversation will move to examining some of the elements I`ve pointed out as well as others. Happy new year.