Tuesday, June 16, 2015

On Being an Ally

I'm not sure how to say this without being blasted, but I'll try:  I might understand a little piece affecting Rachel Dolezal decision to present as black rather than be a white ally.

I just have one story.  It was about ten years ago.  I had just finished reading The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Narrative and was floored by it.  I couldn't believe I had never heard of her before.  The story is compelling, and it's a good length to offer to high school students.  I was curious if anyone else had tried teaching it to that age level, so I searched for forums where it was being discussed.  Then I unwittingly threw myself to the wolves by suggesting that I'd like to teach it in an English or history class.

The others on the forum were black, something I didn't think necessary to consider until they got very angry with me:  how DARE I consider teaching a book about a black experience when I'm white?

It was all kind of familiar because I've been in the middle of discussions about men teaching books about women - is it possible that men can understand the female experience enough to teach it?  Women can teach books about men because the subordinate group always knows about the dominant group.  Canadians know more about the U.S. than the other way around.  But I contend that it IS possible to look at life from an alien perspective.  It can't be done arrogantly, however, but must come from a place of respect and acknowledged ignorance, read charitably.  Like you can't really get Plato without an understanding of what Athens was going through at the time, we sometimes have to do extra research around people's environment and history to really feel their stories and understand the logic of their ideas.

I'm game to do the work, but I was so strongly dissuaded by this one black community, that I tossed the book aside believing I'm not worthy to teach it.

So it went untaught.

It's a double-edged sword.  If women think men shouldn't be teaching women's experiences, then, since most English profs are men, we might not have books by women on the syllabus.  And then we'll complain about that.  And if people of non-white heritage don't think white people can teach their stories, then they won't be taught - not because teachers don't care about those stories, but because they're afraid of doing it wrong.  And of course it's a problem that this part of the world is dominated by white men, and whites in general, but that's what we've got to work with right now.  Having the stories out there, taught by allies is one way to eat away at the system.

I know there are feminists who don't believe men can be feminists, but I'm not one of them.  I think it's important to get dominant voices (male voices) involved in the cause to help us get anywhere.  Similarly I think environmentalists have to approach big businesses as potential allies rather than threats.  I believe in intersectionality; I believe we can't undo the oppression or exploitation of one group without getting at them all.  Sexism, racism, LGBTQ issues, ablism, poverty, environmental destruction - it's all so clearly interconnected.

But, back to Dolezal.  I don't condone what she did at all, and I think she's got bigger issues under the surface there, but the one little piece maybe I do understand is that it can be hard to be an ally of a group you don't belong to.  People don't always trust you to speak for them if you haven't lived their experiences.  But I'm not sure we have time to do it any other way.


Monday, June 15, 2015

OITNB

I read some review somewhere of the first episode of Orange is the New Black on the weekend before I dove into a marathon session of the entire season.  It suggested that the reason people like the show is because it actually shows real relationships between real women.  The context is divorced from most viewer's experiences, but the conversations are similar.  And we rarely see that elsewhere.

No spoilers.

Okay, sure.  It's nice that it's a show about women, for sure, and the dialogue is fantastic - especially between Big Boo and Pennsatucky.  But I don't relate to it because of the conversations and relationships, but because of the individual experiences.  I can relate to the experience of not having my little one with me on Mother's Day, or being trapped with some slime ball "friend" and hoping to find a way out, or watching someone getting away with crap because they're good at playing the system.  Those are universally frustrating and heartbreaking situations.  And the peek into the background of each character individually gives us a three-dimensional understanding of their motives and beliefs and longings - and their development of various coping mechanisms to deal with the world.

But beyond the personal, this season gets into privatization - how it works, how to try to stop it, why we can't win - so well that it could be mandatory viewing for a unit of one of the courses I teach.  And, at the same time, it gets into faith - why we crave it, the need for totems, and communal belonging.  And, as always, it gets into the injustices of the world.  Sometime jerks win, and good guys lose, and vengeance feels good even when it feels a little bad.  And we don't ever know people as much as we think we do.  We just barely know ourselves.

You don't have to be a woman to connect with that.


Sunday, June 7, 2015

On Measuring Well

In Plato's Protagoras, Socrates and Protagoras argue over the language Protagoras uses to explain what happens when, as he describes it, pleasure overtakes reason and people make horrible choices.  Socrates insists that it's not pleasure that overtakes reason, but ignorance.  Here's some key bits of the passage:
They maintain that there are many who recognize the best but are unwilling to act on it. It may be open to them, but they do otherwise. Whenever I ask what can be the reason for this, they answer that those who act in this way are overcome by pleasure or pain or some other of the things I mentioned just now...  
He sets out the problem, and questions how something can be a pleasure if it causes greater pains and deprive us of future pleasures *coughclimatechangecough*.  And he explains the problem like this:    
The same magnitudes seem greater to the eye from near at hand than they do from a distance. This is true of thickness and also of number, and sounds of equal loudness seem greater near at hand than at a distance. If now our happiness consisted in doing, I mean in choosing, greater lengths and avoiding smaller, where would lie salvation? In the art of measurement or in the impression made by appearances? Haven't we seen that the appearance leads us astray and throws us into confusion so that in our actions and our choices between great and small we are constantly accepting and rejecting the same things, whereas the metric art would have canceled the effect of the impression, and by revealing the true state of affairs would have caused the soul to live in peace and quiet and abide in the truth, thus saving our life?' Faced with these considerations, would people agree that our salvation would lie in the art of measurement? ... 
What would assure us a good life then? Surely knowledge, and specifically a science of measurement, since the required skill lies in the estimation of excess and defect... 
...when people make a wrong choice of pleasures and pains--that is, of good and evil--the cause of their mistake is lack of knowledge. We can go further, and call it, as you have already agreed, a science of measurement, and you know yourselves that a wrong action which is done without knowledge is done in ignorance. So that is what being mastered by pleasure really is--ignorance...

"The required skill lies in the estimation of excess and defect."

The entire dialogue has Socrates questioning Protagoras, a sophist, if how to act, or virtue, can actually be taught to people.  Socrates is skeptical.  But then he argues that since being virtuous is contingent on knowledge, and knowledge can be taught, then virtue must be able to be taught.

The fact that this very behaviour has been on trial and discussed and debated for thousands of years and still we haven't found a solution makes me skeptical that it's teachable.  Not to mention the fact that people can know right and still do wrong, as Plato outlined in his Republic during a later period of writing, so people need to be made to do what's right under threat of punishment or exile for the benefit of society as a whole.

So we're horrible at measuring current pleasures against distant pains.  But even if we could, we enjoy doing wrong too much for knowledge alone to lead us down the right path.

Lovely.

We've been over this for thousands of years, yet we still value unfettered lives that lead to unspeakable tragedies, which we call evils, over some measure of restraint which could provide some current deprivations but lead to greater pleasures later.  That which we call the good.

So it goes.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Revolution, the Film

I saw and wrote about this movie two years ago, but it's being released to a wider audience now.

About ten years ago, Rob Stewart was making the film Sharkwater under his questionable conviction that, "If people knew shark populations were decreasing by 90%, they'd do something."

A question from the audience at a preview changed everything for him: "What's the point of stopping shark finning if fisheries will collapse by 2048?"

Stewart immersed himself in the larger issues with the ocean, until he got to the point of recognizing that, "The only thing we can do which will control ocean acidification is to stop burning fossil fuels." So then he got on the climate change activism path until he recognized, "We know what to do... it's down to political will," and that "We don't just have a climate problem; we have a human problem."  It took most of the film before he realized that all the planes he was taking to go around the world to talk about these issues and film animals might actually be adding to the problem.

All of the current problems are interrelated, and he didn't even touch on poverty and inequity.  We do have to fix them all, but we can jump in anywhere.  As we work we soon find the threads leading to the next issue.  It can be overwhelming, but we just have to stay afloat and keep on track to slow down our own fossil fuel use while we work together to motivate politicians and corporations (by whatever means possible) to change the system before it's too late.

The film has beautiful images that remind us of what we're going to lose if we don't get our act together. It makes it all the more devastating.

You can buy or rent the movie here.  For every movie sold, $1 will go to World Wildlife Fund.

Stewart also made a series of short educational videos.  Here is more information on...

Ocean Acidification:


Ocean Acidification World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.

Deforestation:



Deforestation World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.

Climate Change:


Climate Change World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.

Overfishing:


Overfishing World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.

Same the Humans:


Save the Humans World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.



On Sublime Madness

"You don't fight fascism because you're going to win. You fight fascism because it is fascist."
     - Jean-Paul Sartre, The Age of Reason

In my previous post, I intended to write about Hedges' new book, Wages of Rebellion, but I got thoroughly overcome by a rant that's been building inspired by his subtitle.  So here's the gist of his writing without repeating ideas from previous posts of late (lots about the prison system that I already mentioned).


The Courage to Know, and to Join Together:
The greatest existential crisis we face is to at once accept what lies before us - for the effects of climate change and financial instability are now inevitable - and yet find the resilience to fight back. (28).  The last days of any civilization, when populations are averting their eyes from the unpleasant realities before them, become carnivals of hedonism and folly.... Culture and literacy, in the final stage of decline, are replaced with noisy diversions, elaborate public spectacle, and empty clichés (33-34).   
We will have to find ways to fend for ourselves. And we will fend for ourselves only by building communitarian organizations (25).  It is the religion of capitalism, the maniacal quest for wealth at the expense of others, that turns human beings into beasts of prey...As those who build these communitarian structures discard the religion of capitalism, their acts of charity and resistance will merge - and they will be condemned by the corporate state (42-43). 
The goals of wholesale surveillance...is not, in the end, to discover crimes, "but to be on hand when the government decides to arrest a certain category of the population" ... This fear and loss of spontaneity keep a population traumatized and immobilized and turn the courts, along with legislative bodies, into mechanisms that legalize the crimes of state (54-55).
Lynne Stewart, a lawyer for the poor, convicted on charges of conspiracy, was allowed to leave prison because of stage 4 cancer.  Her advice:
Don't let yourself get isolated....Find the other people who think like you....This is a pretty loveless world we live in....We have lots of romantic love. We have lots of Sex and the City. But real love, love that is the kind that saves people, and makes the world better, and makes you go to bed with a smile on your face, that love is lacking greatly.  You have to search for that (50).

Class Struggles and the Origins of Revolution:
Moral courage....is always defined by the state as treason (59).  The modern corporate incarnation of this nineteenth-century oligarchic elite has created a world-wide neofeudalism under which workers across the planet toil in misery while corporate oligarchs amass hundreds of millions in personal wealth.... Class struggle defines most of human history. Marx got this right. The seesaw of history has thrust the oligarchs upward. We sit humiliated and broken on the ground. It is an old battle. It has been fought over and over in human history. The only route left to us, as Aristotle (Part IX) knew, is either submission or revolt (66). 
Revolutions, when they begin, are invisible, at least to the wider society.  They start with the slow discrediting and dismantling of an old ideology and an old language used to interpret reality and justify power (67).  Berkman said, "Because revolution is evolution at its boiling point you cannot 'make' a real revolution any more than you can hasten the boiling of a tea kettle. It is the fire underneath that makes it boil; how quickly it will come to the boiling point will depend on how strong the fire is" (86).  Thomas Paine, partly because he did not come to America from England until he was thirty-seven [kinda like John Oliver], understood that the British monarchy - not unlike our corporate state - had no interest in accommodation (154). 
In Germany there was a yearning for fascism before fascism was invented. It is the yearning that we now see.  if we do not swiftly reincorporate the unemployed and the poor back into the economy, giving them jobs and relief from crippling debt, then the nascent racism and violence that are leaping up around the edges of American society will become a full-blown conflagration. Left unchecked, the hatred for radical Islam will transform itself into a hatred for Muslims. The hatred for undocumented workers will become a hatred for Mexicans and Central Americans. The hatred for those not defined by this largely white movement as American patriots will become a hatred for African Americans. The hatred for liberals will morph into a hatred for all democratic institutions, from universities to government agencies to the press" (162).

Sublime Madness:

He starts his discussion of sublime madness with a quote from Nietzsche, but it's taken from a book by Max Weber rather from the original source.  Curious.  Anyway, here it is from the horse's mouth (Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, 39):
Something might be true while being harmful and dangerous in the highest degree. Indeed, it might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it completely would perish, in which case the strength of a spirit should be measured according to how much of the “truth” one could still barely endure - or to put it more clear, to what degree one would require it to be thinned down, shrouded, sweetened, blunted, falsified.
Nietzsche's saying that most people need the truth to be watered down in order to cope with it, because it's painful to know.  It takes great strength and courage to face reality.  Hedges goes on to Kant:
It is impossible to defy "radical evil" - a phrase originally coined by Immanuel Kant to describe those who surrender their freedom and morality to an extreme form of self-adulation and later adopted by Hannah Arendt to describe totalitarianism - without "sublime madness (211).
Here's Kant's explanation of radical evil from Theory of Religion (aka Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason), pages 42-44 (caps are his).  It's less about a group of people, as Hedges' words might imply, but about the evil within us all:
The vitiosity of human nature is, therefore, not so much WICKEDNESS - this word being understood in its severest sense, namely, as an inward wickedness, or intent of choosing evil as evil (for that were diabolical), - as rather PERVERSITY of heart, which, on account of the consequences flowing from it, is called AN EVIL HEART. This, however, is not inconsistent with a state of Will that may generally and on the whole be good, and arises from the infirmity of human nature, which is not sufficiently strong to adhere to the good principles it may once of all have adopted; coupled, however, with the impurity (insincerity) of not duly sifting and arranging the springs according to their ethic content, and of having an eye mainly to this, that actions quadrate with the Law, although they have not been originated by it. Now, although from such a state of matters VICE may not immediately arise, still the cast of thinking, whereby the absence of vice is looked upon as virtue, is already a radial perversity of the human heart.... 
This insincerity, shrouding our real inward character from our view, prevents the founding of genuine moral principles within, and spreads, after having deceived ourselves, so as next to beguile and impose upon others, which, if not wickedness, is at least worthlessness, and proceeds from the radical evil of human nature, which, by distorting and untuning our moral understanding in regard of what a man is to be taken for, renders slippery and uncertain all ethical imputation, and constitutes that rotten spot in humanity, which, until entirely severed, keeps back the germ of good from unfolding itself, as it otherwise infallibly would do.

But the important bit from Hedges is reaching this state of sublime madness:
The message of the rebel is disturbing because of the consequences of the truth he or she speaks.....To accept that nearly all forms of electronic communication are captured and stored by the government is to give up the illusion of freedom (213).  The moral life, celebrated only in the afterglow of history and often not celebrated at all, is lonely, frightening, and hard... The rebel knows the odds. To defy radical evil does not mean to be irrational. It is to have a sober clarity about the power of evil and one's insignificance and yet to rebel anyway. To face radical evil is to accept self-sacrifice (215). 
Those with sublime madness accept the possibility of their own death as the price paid for defending life. This curious mixture of gloom and hope, of defiance and resignation, or absurdity and meaning, is born of the rebel's awareness of the enormity of the forces that must be defeated and the remote chances for success. "Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism," Havel wrote.  "It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." (219).   
People of all creeds and people of no creeds must make an absurd leap of faith to believe, despite all the empirical evidence around us, that the good draws to it the good.... and in theses acts we make possible a better world, even if we cannot see one emerging around us (226).

Hedges' Suggested Readings:

Emma Goldman's articles in Appeal to Reason
Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States
Ralph Nader's writings  - many pieces of legislation were written by him
Hannah Arendt - Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem
Auguste Blanqui's writings
Sheldon Wolin - Democracy Incorporated
Clive Hamilton - Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change
Alexander Berkman - The Idea is the Thing
Thomas Paine - Common Sense

The Moral Imperative of Revolt

I prefer Hedges' subtitle to his title, Wages of Rebellion, but this post isn't about him per se.  Morally, we have to revolt against this corrupt system - like when the workers in Rome all walked out in a series of secessions (it doesn't always take the first time), or when the Barons and peasants turned on the King in the middle ages, or when workers in Winnipeg went on strike, and through all the rebellions against tyrannical rule in between and later.

The problem: unbridled power; the common people being subjected to the whims of the state; the masses living in poverty while the elites reap the rewards of their labour.  Right now we need a Clause 61 like they had in 1215:  25 MPs ordered to uphold the Charter in case the PM tries to overrule it:
Any infringement of the charter’s terms by the king or his officials was to be notified to any four of the committee; and, if within forty days no remedy or redress had been offered, then the king was to empower the full committee to ‘distrain and distress us in every way they can, namely by seizing castles, lands and possessions’ until he made amends. In this remarkable clause, then, the charter introduced the novelty of obliging the king to sanction and institute armed action against none other than himself.

Over and over throughout history whenever a small group has found the means and strategy to get total control over a people, the people eventually revolted.  Many died trying before succeeding, and sometimes their efforts made life significantly better, and things improved for a time, until everyone got complacent again.  You'd think that any knowledge of history would make leaders wary of taking so much power for themselves and screwing over the masses.  You'd think.  

But things are frighteningly different today.  Religion is not the opiate of the masses anymore; the internet is.  We're back to bread and circuses.  We have it just good enough to ignore the news.

Here's Marx's full quote (italics are his - he was an emphatic writer):
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.  
Getting rid of the distractions in our world is a red herring.  We have to get rid of the conditions that lead us to need so many distractions, the condition that requires illusions to exist.  We need to WAKE UP to the issues and get angry enough to act on them today.

This time, I fear, if we don't sort things out, we won't have another chance.  If we can't stop C-51 and openly protest the destruction of our air, water, and soil, then we are totally fucked.  

I'm a teacher using the "f-word," so you know this is serious!

C-51 could be made law this week if the Senate doesn't vote it down (click on each name to get a phone number and e-mail, or use this form instead/also).  An Ottawa Citizen article on the protests yesterday said,
Some organizers feel the turnout was also hurt by a general feeling of resignation, as polls show that, while more than half of Canadians now disagree with at least part of the proposed bill, they nevertheless believe C-51 will be pushed into law.... First Nations protest organizer Lynda Kitchikaeesic Juden is another strong opponent of the bill. “It troubles me and it worries me that other Canadians don’t realize that this bill, and this sounds horrible, but it means that they can be treated just like Natives,” she said.
MP Randall Garrison's speech is worth a read in full if there's any question that this bill needs to be defeated, as is Senator Grant Mitchell's blogpost.

People who let this go by without comment, without a letter in the mail or a sign in the streets, unless ignorant of the issue (which even my grade 10s understand), they are acting immorally.  As Geddy Lee said, "If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice."  That silent choice is for unfettered authoritarian state control and the freedom to obliterate our natural resources, destroy water sources, oppress the workers, and make a profit for themselves at the expense of others.  Who wouldn't agree that's immoral?  Utilitarians and deontological philosophers alike would be on the side of rejecting the bill.  It doesn't maximize pleasure for the most people, and it can't be applied universally without contradiction.

Okay, Epicurus liked to keep out of these affairs entirely, and I've thought of getting a place in the middle of nowhere, off the grid, miles from a newspaper or internet access.  I admit I might have done it already if I had found a group of friends willing to come with.  But I didn't.  And it's just as well because we have a responsibility to the next generation and to the other species who don't have a voice in this mess.  And if Epicurus' friends were taken into custody for questionable scrolls, and once he acknowledged that his garden would be affected by climate change, he would have acted.  I mean, Lucretius wrote of him,
When 'human life lay groveling ignominously in the dust, crushed beneath the grinding weight of superstition' one supremely brave man arose and became 'the first who ventured to confront it boldly.
And his student, Philodemus, wrote,
Men suffer the worst evils for the sake of the most alien desires, and they neglect the most necessary appetites as if they were the most alien to nature...It is impossible to live pleasurably....without living prudently and honourably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends, and without being philanthropic.

So I think Epicurus wouldn't just sit in his garden oblivious to this one, chatting with his buddies about how to determine which desires are natural or necessary.  Because at this point, if we ignore politics, it won't just fizzle out, it will kill us all.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Squelching Thought

Hedges and Chomsky both complain about the education system of the universities being neo-liberal proponents of the free market schema that tell students what to think instead of how to think.  Ken Robinson says it all happens in grade school - although he's not even in the same ballpark as the other two when it comes to developing supports for his claims.  But I think the problem starts much earlier.

Our brains are wired to get better at doing whatever we do regularly.  Pathways form that make that task faster and more efficient each time, and tasks we avoid get harder to do as those pathways close up.  One of the most important things we have to do, as a species, is to think for ourselves.  It's a strikingly creative act, thinking is.  Luckily we're also wired to be creative and original, but we lose it if we don't use it.  And when parents sit their kids down in front of hours of TV shows and games, they lose their ability to invent new ways to play.  Parents organize playgroups and activities instead of kids knocking door to door and designing their own worlds with small groups of neighbours without any adult input.

Boredom is necessary to inspire kids to develop their own ideas about games and rules and entertainment.  Far too often children's boredom makes parents anxious, so they alleviate it before the kids can come up with their own brilliant ideas.

Some of the games we played had rules that changed by the minute, which was frustrating, but it allowed for decision-making and collaboration and assertiveness-training.  If the rules are rigid and enforced by an adult, then the thinking goes out the window.

Many years of being passively entertained makes it that much harder for teachers to inspire creative thought or initiative-taking.  But it makes it much easier to get kids to fill in the blanks and colour within the lines.

We have a huge capacity for imagination through songs, poetry, theatre groups.  It's through our creations that we can effect change.   But those won't happen if people get used to being told what to do - and if they get to liking it.  It will be a hard struggle to convince them that there's something more for them later on if they do a bit more work now.

It's always the way.


Thursday, May 28, 2015

On Thinking

I'm not even talking about critical thinking here, just plain ol' thinking.  It's funny how many seem unable or unwilling to do it.

While I was in a discussion group talking about Chris Hedges last week, one of the older gentlemen in the group complained that Hedges explained a lot about his own activism, but he didn't tell us what to do, so we're left rudderless.

Hedges talked about the many different ways he subverted authority and changed things for the better with hugely entertaining examples.  And he suggested specifically that we be in connection with marginalized groups.  But, no, he didn't tell us precisely what to do next, each of us, individually.

So figure it out!

This is a key difference between a leader and a manager, and we're all too complacently used to being managed rather than led.  Too many of us actually want (or need) to be told precisely what to do.

The conversation reminded me of some classes in which I give a broad assignment to challenge the kids to discover the key aspects of the concepts for themselves.  There are some that are so excited to have limitless choices, and they dive in and end up producing amazing stuff.  But there are always many more who keep asking for more information until I eventually suggest I just do the assignment for them.  They prefer fill-in-the-blank handouts.  It's too hard to make decisions and come up with ideas.  They're convinced I'm asking far too much of them.

Thinking is hard work.  Figuring out what to do and how to do it is a struggle.  But it's necessary to get people to actually think for themselves.  And I'm amazed how few relish the challenge.  They like games where they make somewhat educated guesses at the best moves and are immediately rewarded or punished for their efforts, but they don't so much like puzzles.

And that doesn't bode well for my little scheme to create an army of activists in my classroom (or at least a few kids who care about life outside themselves) because this whole mess is one giant puzzle that has to be dismantled and put back together in a way that works but still fits without any pieces missing.  (Well, there might be a few pieces I'd toss.)  It's a challenge our generation is unlikely to finish, but it's our duty to take up the torch anyway - even though we might not live to see the rewards our effort reap.  And it involves a lot of thinking and deciding:  We have to figure out which issues are important to us, and then figure out all the players involved and how it all works - which also means deciding which sources are most accurate and why (which brings in some critical thinking skills), and then figure out what we bring to the table - what skills or connections we have that might help, and then actually get off the couch to do something with all that figuring.  That's insane!

But it's not impossible.  And if we can get the thinking started, who knows where it will lead!


In other news, I'm freakin' 50 today!  How the hell did that happen?


Monday, May 25, 2015

Cassandra's Curse

Climate scientists are reporting higher incidents of depression.  It could be from living like the mythological Cassandra, who had the gift of prophecy but was cursed by Apollo for refusing his advances.  Her curse was never being believed or listened to.

Imagine studying one topic for decades, figuring out the problems and solutions, and being largely ignored by the world.  Or worse - being hated and vilified regularly.

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Camille Parmesan said,
I felt like here was this huge signal I was finding and no one was paying attention to it.... I was really thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ... In the U.S., [climate change] isn’t well-supported by the funding system, and when I give public talks in the U.S., I have to devote the first half of the talk to [the topic] that climate change is really happening.... I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost,
And, of course, the hundreds of comments on that article are full of deniers holding on to the last shreds of hope that it's all a scam.

In the words of Baldwin, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mad Max: Reality Road, an Even Darker Ride

It was so close.


First, the less important comparison:  It wasn't as gripping and shocking as the original Road Warrior, and my son called it before we went in:  more explosions and less rapey.  People don't accept casual rape scenes in movies like they did in the 80s.  This is a good thing, but it does take away from developing a sense of horror and brutality in this lawless world.  There were many of the same bits of humour in it, and really cool cars, but no sharpened boomerangs. But what it really lacked was character development.  Furiosa's backstory was delivered in an awkward scene of overt explanation rather than a more subtle development throughout.  We don't get to know the other characters enough to care about them.  There was no scrappy little kid surviving by his wits.  And when one of the wives died, I wasn't remotely upset.  I don't remember any of their names.  Somehow it lacked the same kind of tension that was such an important part of the first film, and this Max reminded me more of Indiana Jones than the original Road Warrior, but my kids thought I was nuts on that one. But there was one excellent scene that made me glad to have caught it in 3D.  Things blowed up real good!


But that's not the important comparison.  With a quick read of a few scientific journals, it could have been an authentic depiction of what we will likely face far too soon if we don't change the path we're on, and the movie could have been just that much more brutal because of it.  That they're fighting over water and searching for arable land instead of for oil (sort of), gets us part way there.

***spoiler alert***

A question occurred to me as I watched them suffering in the heat, using slaves to run pulley systems, and using fire for heat and light all within a contained city that turned out to be the best possible place to live:  What did they need oil for?  They didn't use it to generate electricity in any way that I could see.  And they made it clear there was no place to go to, so all that gasoline and ripping up the desert was for nought.  Oil seems to be a dead commodity in a post-apocalyptic world.  Just as well.

But one bit of reality was that whomever controls the water, controls the world.  That will be very true very soon.  Canada has lots of fresh water, but could we win against an American invasion?  Or will Harper erode our rights so much (which has already started) that the U.S. will feel the need to stage a coup and install a better leader for us under the guise of helping us reform a democratic system, and then take control of all our water while they're at it?

In the film, once the good guys win and kill the bad guy who was rationing water too stringently (and keeping slaves and many wives), they seem to decide to open the water for all without any rationing as if that's the nice thing to do.  But it's not.  It's as equally bad leadership as rationing too tightly.  Rationing will have to be a reality in their world where, like in Snowpiercer and The 100, there are too many people for too few resources.  Population control must be a top priority or they'll have to start culling people in ritual sacrifices.  

Just imagine, when the good guys made it out east and talked about going back and taking over the place, imagine that they had had one brief conversation about how they would run the place differently.  And imagine if their ideas actually made sense!   They could have excitedly talked about a fair means of delivering food and water, a choice of jobs on a rotation, a means to slow population growth...  and then we'd see the realization on their faces that no matter what they did, they would have to control childbearing.  Men and women just couldn't be allowed to have every child they wanted.  Saving women from the clutches of an evil-doer who controls their reproduction would have to be replaced by a different system of control rather than done away with completely.  Figuring out how to do that without being hated by the masses is the exciting bit.

The gang tries to find some green space that used to be Furiosa's home, but it's all dead now.  The soil is full of salt so nothing can grow.  One effect of climate change will likely be "the extension of salt-affected territories."  But something else that could have been included, that was slipped into Interstellar and discussed in The Sixth Extinction (which has already started), is that many of us will likely suffocate before we starve.  Here's my summary on the 3rd major extinction from Kolbert's book:
Ending the Permian period - 252 million years ago. This was the most devastating - called "the great dying." It was caused by an increase in carbon which acidified the oceans and, with the oxygen level dropping, most organisms probably suffocated. Reefs collapsed. It lasted maybe 100,000 years from start to finish, and eliminated 90% of all species on earth (104). The best explanation for this increased carbon is a massive burst of vulcanism in Siberia. "But this spectacular event probably released, on an annual basis, less carbon than our cars and factories and power plants" (123). This one is most similar to what we're currently experiencing, but these days we like to do things much, much faster.

It's not just water that would be a scarce resource, but oxygen would be too.  The main bad guy had the right idea with an oxygen mask, but they could also have made oxygen their drug of choice.  As the ocean acidifies (which is already happening), hydrogen sulfide is released into the atmosphere.  It tends to sit low on the ground, so they might be fine in higher altitudes but need oxygen masks on in the lowlands.  Just think of all the creative ways they could each design their masks!

And check out the effects of exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide: eye damage and degenerative nerve damage.  They could have had people riding through lower areas, and unmask a bad guy who suddenly has his eyes eaten away and falls into a fit of spasms!  It would also make the air more flammable, and there's so much special effects guys could do with that!  It was such a missed opportunity.

The horrors of real life scientific predictions are rife with great ideas for apocalyptic films just waiting to be taken, and maybe a disclaimer at the end with sources would wake up a few more people to the reality we could be facing.  Except that it might ruin their happy ending.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

On Privilege

I saw Chris Hedges speak again at the Tommy Douglas Institute / Community Worker Program followed by smaller discussion groups.  I was so pleased that he doesn't have a set speech for each book launch and that I was treated to an entirely different set of stories than the week previous.

Here's just a bit on the smaller discussion group that followed his speech.

I spent a 30-minute break deliberating which topic to choose out of eight possible offerings.  One was on Aboriginal Perspectives, and I'm teaching Native Studies next year, so I was leaning that way, but then I decided to go for a topic more generally encompassing:  Education, Engagement and Activism facilitated by Desmond Cole.  I expected something about how to engage students towards activism, which is my biggest struggle in the classroom.  Just yesterday a few grade 12s said of a project on social justice:  "What if we just don't care about anything happening in the world?"  I told them to act like they care, and the caring might come.  But it's THE pivotal question, and I ever fail to entice many of them towards a wider worldview beyond which dress they should wear to prom.  I suck at engagement, so I really needed this.

First a disclaimer:  Cole was a kind and equitable facilitator who made every effort to hear every voice in the room, and he was excellent at demanding a respectful environment.  I sat silently, patiently waiting for the topic to come up, but we didn't come close to hitting the topic I was expecting.  Hearing every voice sometimes means hearing a variety of ideas, which can be educational in its own right.

We got into a long discussion on teacher strikes and whose voices are left out on that, which I would have expected in the "Labour Perspectives" group, which I intentionally avoided because I'm so immersed in the issue at work, I'm weary of that conversation.  I get how it could be a way to engage students except that we have strict orders not to talk about it in the classroom.  

But the bulk of the conversation was about privilege, specifically Chris Hedges' privilege, and it was interesting to me how some people seemed to understand Hedges' position and how it differed from my own interpretation (as a white, middle class woman).

Here's what I heard Hedges say:
We can never allow the oppressed to become a distraction.  We must maintain vital human relationships with people who suffer.... We must build relationships with people experiencing oppression... to understand and learn so our actions are grounded in reality. Maintaining those relationships is vital.
He described the many journalists he knows who have been killed, the many friends he has in war torn places who are now dead, and how, at 40, as he helped carry a wounded boy from the street with gunfire continuing, and as he thought of his own son becoming traumatized by the psychological damage the job was having on his dad, he decided he had to stop taking these assignments.  And he told of quitting his job at the NYT when they asked him to stop writing against the establishment, and he shared the process of teaching in the prison system and encouraging his students to write a play together and then going the distance to get it on stage in NYC (Caged, coming here in January), and promising to take all their families to see it on opening night.

He spoke of growing up in a small town with a gay uncle and a minister dad who stood up against a homophobic congregation knowing it would cost him his job.  He spoke of the actions he took for the workers at Princeton, photographing their working conditions for an underground paper knowing he could be expelled for his actions.

Throughout his speech he gave credit to the many writers and activists who came before and during his time.

And in the break-out group, several people complained heatedly about his privilege and the fact that he doesn't know what it's like to walk down the streets in Toronto and be stopped and carded by police.

And I thought, quietly and a bit defensively - pretty defensively - that after all he lived through in other parts of the world, all he threw himself into in order to give marginalized people a voice, in countries where white journalists are routinely murdered, privileged is not the word that I would use to describe Chris Hedges.  I wanted to understand the anger some of the people in the room were feeling towards him, but it was a struggle.

Yes he's white and a man and necessarily privileged because of those facts, but how is it useful to rail against him for something he can't help?  And if we want to improve our situation collectively, who does it benefit to take down someone willing to risk so much for change?

Cole wisely turned it into a discussion of experiences and how difficult (or impossible) it is to share and know how another person's oppression works and how it feels, how it's hard to access that if it's not your own reality. Hedges can't speak to it if he's not experiencing it.  And one participant explained it in terms of macro and micro issues (paraphrased):
He's talking from a macro perspective, so it feels like he's not speaking to me.  But it's because he's not experiencing micro issues. 'Micro' makes it sound small and insignificant, but it's not.  So we have to find a place where the micro issues fit within the macro view.  
That helped diffuse the separateness I felt from the more vocal members of the group.  And I thought of the years I spent in training to be a sexual abuse counsellor, and one of the leaders reminding us over and over "pain is pain, and it can't be compared."  Similarly, we can't compare forms of oppression, and it doesn't do anyone any good to rank them.  Putting troubles on a hierarchy and complaining that others don't get it, or their issue isn't important enough, doesn't work to improve the situation.  It's a slimy way we've been trained to attack one another instead of looking to the real roots of the problems.

Similarly, during the labour discussion one participant suggested the solution is for teachers to give up some of their wages to people who have less money, as if a deduction in teacher wages would actually go towards helping reduce tuition costs.  That line reminded me of part of Diamond's Collapse in his chapter on Rwanda.
The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs.
Instead of looking to the power source that is the heart of the problem -- and for us right now, that's the corporation/governmental policies that have removed the middle-class tax base (through outsourcing, technology implementation, stagnating wages) to the extent that there's not enough money for schools so class sizes have to get bigger and tuition has to increase -- we look to the group just a bit more comfortable than us, and revolt against them.  They're right in front of us, and it's simple and easy, but strikingly short-term and ineffective.

But some of the participants weren't done venting their anger about Hedges' privilege.

One was particularly upset that he had the forum to speak directly to the Dean, who was right in the room during his speech, about policies she implemented.  She seemed to be hoping for a bit of a telling-off to happen.

As an outsider to this school community, I had no idea what the policies were or that the Dean of a School of Social and Community Services would be anything but community minded and hyper-aware of social injustices.  So I question how fair it is to imply that Hedges should have known that, apparently, there's a problem at the school that he could be addressing.  Maybe I'm wrong and they're highly publicized and I was just unaware, but if they're not, then that's a lot to ask.

The idea that Hedges, as a white man, should step up to help the cause makes sense to me, though.  I sometimes show this video in my class because it explain that dynamic so clearly:



But this raises a different issue for me: the white man swooping in to save the day.  I used to show Power of One to my classes because it has some great bits for civics and history, but I stopped because it also has a narrative of a white man coming in to rescue the masses single-handedly. I despise any movie with women in need so grateful for the guy who can finally help, so I try to weed it out of my choice of films to show about apartheid or civil rights or first nation issues... But it is the case the a dominant voice can sometimes go further to help than a million marginalized voices, unless, of course, the dominant voice becomes seen as marginalized by association.

This idea was approached by a different participant who was concerned that Hedges didn't clarify that the oppressed and marginalized are the experts of their situation, and that when people want to help, they have to come in as allies, not as leaders.  He didn't say it overtly, so it's only because of my personal experiences that I heard it even though it wasn't verbalized.  But it IS something that needs to be made clear.

To really help, we have to get down on the ground to understand what the marginalized and vulnerable are experiencing and to find out what they need us to do, from our position in the world, to change the system.  But it's not always easy to figure out who needs help and who wants to help.  So we have to approach it all with the utmost care and respect for one another's lives.  And, a term we learned in philosophy courses when the readings were centuries old, we have to listen to people's stories and experiences charitably as best we can - especially when it's a struggle to understand a different position.  I'm not sure how well I'm doing on that one, but I'm still in the game.

Really simply, we have to stand up for each other and remember that the problem is where the power sits.  Hedges talked about rising up and using our bodies to stop the tar sands, and we can do the same for all the oppressing acts we might see, from hurtful words in the hallways to carding in the streets.

Something like that.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Either Side of the Fence

This brief video compilation shows Harper's views when he was Leader of the Opposition only just over a decade ago, and at a recent press conference.


Opposition Leader Stephen Harper comments on Prime Minister Stephen Harper Create by: typoprone (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZ7UQyzcxNGTmxyAXreOI0)
Posted by Government for all Canadians, not just the wealthy on Saturday, May 16, 2015


"My difficulty with the Prime Minister at this point is that I don't think he's been forthcoming and honest on fairly simple questions when there appear to be contradictions."

Absolutely.


ETA:  here's the original poster's site


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

On Progress

"Our civilization is characterized by the word 'progress.'  Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features."
     - Wittgenstein

If you're walking towards a meeting point far away, every step is progress.  But if you happened to take a wrong turn, and now you're getting further from your meeting point, then, until you see the error, you will continue to believe you're making progress when in fact you're getting further and further away from your goal.  You're regressing.

We've taken a wrong turn, but all the inventions and new things for us to play with make it feel like we're still progressing.  And turning our back on them to retrace our steps?  That involves moving backwards, and some might even call that devolving.

So many people link progress exclusively with technology as if we can progress enough that we no longer need nature.  One of my students is pretty certain we don't need to worry about climate change because of the work being done to figure out how to live on Mars.  After we completely destroy the oceans and the rainforests, we can just create our own oxygen here, and save the hassle of dragging all that machinery to Mars.

If we could live on Mars, then we can live on Earth no matter how dramatically the climate changes.

But would we want to?

Of course it's not a real choice because only a select few could fit in the habitat being created, and I don't have the kind of bankroll that could guarantee me a spot (not to mention the fact that they better hurry up - we might only have 30 or 40 years before we're in a period of endless wars).

But I counter the premise that this IS, in fact, progress. We're not necessarily happier or wealthier or more satisfied with our lives now that we can carry our phones with us and watch movies on demand.  We're moving and changing so it feels like progress, but it's not clearly better than it was.  It's convenient, and we've gotten used to it, but there's still more to life, particularly when we look at the number of people, animals, and resources exploited so we can continue at this pace. We aren't progressing by continuing to make new crap to buy; we're on a wrong path, but it's so bendy it's hard to tell because we can no longer see our way back.  And we'll never get back to where we were - with horse and buggies and oil lamps.  Progress is a different path with technology in the picture, but without as many things cluttering up the place, without so many distractions from the real world.

And with oceans. And trees.

Monday, May 18, 2015

It's Just a Joke

This week wasn't the first time I talked to my class about the FHRITP phenomenon.  But the fact that one guy lost his job and another was fined $400 has changed the conversation.  A discussion about the sexual aggressive street harassment typically elicits a "but it's just a joke" response in some of my younger classes, like the adult men in the now famous video said to Shauna Hunt.  Some women experienced this once a week, and sometimes even a few times a day, because people found it so hilarious. But now that guys are getting in trouble for it, it's no longer a joke.

Of course it never was.

When I first heard about this "game," it really bothered me.  I could never quite get across the idea that accosting someone in the street with sexually aggressive language is a problem.  People laugh because it's shocking.  It's a childish power play in which the newscasters get "owned."  But anything that knowingly causes direct harm to another person isn't a laughing matter, even if the harm is just a little humiliation.  Unless the victim is in on the gag, or you know her and are certain that she would think it's funny, then it's just not funny.  Any time I've tried to explain this position, people grin at me and shake their heads to themselves because I just don't get the joke.

Now I think I may have found the perfect anecdote to explain why I think it's important to address this for what it is.  In Hedges' new book, he describes Marek Edelman, the last survivor of a command that led the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, recounting a pivotal episode in his life before the Ghetto even existed.  Two beautiful, tall German officers had taken a small, bowed Jewish man and sat him on a barrel, then they began to cut off his long beard a bit at a time with huge tailor's shears.  They were laughing the entire time, and the crowd that had gathered were also laughing.  "Nothing really horrible was happening to that Jew."  It wasn't a big deal, really.  He wasn't being hurt.  He didn't get cut.  He was just being laughed at a little while he was getting an unwanted shave.  It's just a joke.

But Edelman understood the important shift that had happened:  "that it was now possible to put him on a barrel with impunity, that people were beginning to realize that such activity wouldn't be punished and that it provoked laughter."

We need to take care that no group of people is allowed to be publicly humiliated with the excuse that it's just a joke.  If someone is being humiliated, and they're clearly not in on the gag, then it's just not funny.  It's cruel.  It's a surreptitious use of power over another, a dominating move that people try from time to time, but they must always fail.  They have to get caught and be punished in some way. Because giving tacit permission to humiliate a group of people could be just the first step in something far worse.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

If I May But Touch His Garment

I went to see Chris Hedges speak last night.  His words brought forth a mix of devastation and elation, with some in the congregation compelled to applaud after every few sentences.  He's a brilliant storyteller, and I could have listened to him all night.  It went far too quickly.

I had a chance to speak with him in the time it took him to sign my well-annotated copy of Empire of Illusion and my brand spankin' Wages of Rebellion, and I regret not buying all of his offering in order to extend our conversation.  My voice actually shook a little when I started talking, and I talk to people for a living!

I told him of the impact Sam Harris has had on my students who now say openly bigoted things in class, and he gave me some words of encouragement and signed my book "keep resisting."  Well, he signed everyone's book like that, but still.  I felt sincerely encouraged, and he looked me right in the eye when he spoke to me.

He was being interviewed by Susan G. Cole, whose books I gobbled up twenty years ago.  I actually called her up once and asked her if she'd present to my students at a conference I organized in the mid-90s, and she agreed but for a handsome fee.  Unfortunately I didn't have the wherewithal to ask the school board for money, and I was a dirt poor mom of two babies - all I really had were the balls big enough to call her up - so I had to decline her acceptance.  But she was a great moderator.

Here are the bits that stayed with me after he finished.  These are his words, only somewhat paraphrased and out of order (I'm a fan, not a journalist), but they lack the stories that give them colour, so you still have to buy the book!



On Intellectual and Emotional Knowledge and the Necessity of Faith

When confronting climate change, we know intellectually that change is necessary. But the emotional knowledge of our fragility is hard to acquire.  The existential issue of our time is how to digest issues intellectually and emotionally in order to rise up and resist.  Rebellion is an act of faith.  It's what we become, not what we achieve.  The religious (not necessary a belief in a god, but those with belief in  our inevitable historical progress) are less susceptible to emotional highs and lows.

We need to fight fascists, not to win, but because they're fascists. And we need to believe in the good in order to want to take action.  Most people don't want to change anything because their religion is a belief in the system (e.g. they believe we have a free press).  It keeps people doing nothing.  The American religion glorifies the hyper-masculine, patriotism, strength, and the right to use violence to impose virtues on the rest of the world.  It's a sacralization of empire.

Faith isn't irrational, but non-rational.  It can't be empirically measured much like beauty, truth, justice. Wisdom involves enveloping the non-rational forces into our life - what artists do.  The utilitarian tech culture severs us from these forces: arts, education, journalism - anything that has the power to transform.  But we can only achieve wisdom with the capacity to be in touch with the non-rational.

The christian right are heretics.  Jesus was not about making money.  Like Popper said (p 543), in the name of tolerance, we've accepted intolerance.  The christian right has infused the state with religion. They've misused the gospel to sacralize elements of the state.


On Prisons:  "The only act left is civil disobedience."

People are convicted before trial.  They stack charges, then plea bargain away most so they never go to trial.  It's criminalized poverty.  They prey on the poor knowing they have no resources.  They prey on families who are fleeced for hundred of dollars for phone calls.  Due to austerity measures, in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, 30-40% of city funds are raised by fining residence for things like not mowing their lawn.  There's a 64% recidivism rate.  Dostoevsky [possibly*] said we understand civilization by looking at the prisons.  To corporations, these are the ideal workers.  They live there; they're never late, and they cost little.

Inmates know the horrible things that can happen to them if they step out of line.  They're a deeply religious community because they have so little else to hold on to.  Like in Gaza - the only thing to give structure or normalcy to their days is the call to prayer.  And, with respect to Charlie Hebdo, I'm angry at the idea that it's amusing to make fun of religion.

The privatization of the prison system means each prisoner makes the prison some money.  Prisoners are charged for everything: they have to buy their own shoes, blankets, phone calls....  There are fees charged to send money home to your family.  An emergency visit to a relative's deathbed will cost you $900.

Corporations write the legislation.  Slavery is integral to the U.S. economy. We're seeing sweatshops being recruited by prisons.  They can pay 22 cents/hour here instead of in some factory in Bangladesh.  It's neo-slavery.  The 13th Amendment allows us to use it as a form of punishment, and it's used by Hewlett-Packard, Johnson & Johnson, Starbucks, Victoria Secrets....

Appealing to the systems that are profiting off the exploitation of prisoners is useless.  The only act left is civil disobedience inside and outside the prisons.  Prisoners had a demonstration knowing the consequences they would face.

This nascent moment in the US is about organizing prison labour to get minimum wage.  It would collapse the system built on neo-slavery.  This is a perfect example of how we have to organize in that manner.



ETA - John Oliver on the inequity of bail:



On the Right and Left

Nader was destroyed by the Democrats when he ran as an independent.  They were frightened by him.  Sanders won't run as an independent because he doesn't want to be hit like Nader was.  It would mean not being at the debates and not having enough money.

The Liberals are more dangerous than the right.  Under Clinton and Obama, there were more executions and we filled more prisons.  Clinton brought in the 1993 Omnibus crime bill and drug laws, which are key to understanding the rise of the surveillance state.  This is "omnipotent policing" as Arendt calls it in Imperialism.  These are mechanisms that prey on the undocumented and the poor.

[In an different interview, he clarified that Sanders made a mistake not running as an independent. The democrats are saturated with corporate money so they're under the control of corporate power. Obama proved that in an 8-year assault on civil liberties worse than under Bush.  It's the role for the 3rd party candidate with the understanding that we have to recognize that the goal is to build movements; that you may run a candidate not to win, which is almost impossible, but to further empower the movement.  Sanders is giving legitimacy to the Democratic Party.  The democrats aren't reformable.  We must be able to agitate on the outside.]


On Activists:  "People are complex.  There's no perfect hero."

[They discussed Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Wiebo Ludwig, Che Guevara, and Martin Luther who was an anti-semite alcoholic, and scribes recorded everything he said even when he was drunk, so at least we got a full picture of the man.]

These people are messianic.  The rose up against corporations.  They have the DNA of constant rebellion.  No uprising is possible without them.  They feel passion for social change.  Community is key; we can't effectively resist without it, so we need to create acts of solidarity.


On Canada:  "There are signs of life here, but you're not going in the right direction."

There's no hope in the U.S.  We're finished.  It's remarkable how often the U.S. blunders, and then Canada replicates it.  But Canada's not nearly as far gone.  The U.S. is very violent, founded on genocide and slavery, with corporate-owned politics.  Canada doesn't have nearly the same level of violence, and its political system isn't completely closed.

To stop Harper, read Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies.  The question is NOT about how to get good people to rule.  The question is how to make the power elite frightened of you.  Power is always the problem.  We need movements to keep power in check.  Elections are fine, but the last liberal president was Nixon because he was the last one still frightened of movements.

In Canada you have Idle No More and the Quebec student protests, which are great. You have to begin movements that might have a political wing, but every action must be about nourishing the movement.


On Rebellion and Madness:  "A protest of one is still a protest."

Nothing gets done if we're enraged or overwhelmed.  We need to embrace sublime madness to make real change.  There's nothing rational about rebellion.  When rebellion starts, people are not striving towards a vision, but driven by it.

Movements are monitored and infiltrated. There is a psychological warfare waged against you.  We can't compete on the state's level of violence or security.  What we do have is transparency and non-violence.  If we try to play their game (snitches...), we'll eat ourselves alive. We can create tiny committees to mess with the heads of state.  Consider: What can we do as an act of resistance that they won't expect?  It says to the state, 'You don't know everything.'

The most powerful weapon we have is speaking truth about discrediting the system of power that many can hear.  I talk to people about the difference between police in blue shirts and the white shirted assholes.  The blue shirts have to listen to the white shirts all day. But there are always people even at that level that can hear you.

We're standing up as forces of life.  Saving the ecosystem so the future can have life is as stark a battle as you can get.  Our capacity to speak truth is relentless, and non-violent, and there's a real possibility of bringing foot soldiers to our side.  Once we do that, then the state has no security.

I sued Obama over section 1021 of the National Defence Authorization Act which allowed military to take over in cases of domestic law.  We won federally, but Obama appealed and won.  The law was enacted because the state doesn't trust the police not to defect.

The state is corrupt and decadent.  In marches we find hope, light, creativity.  We are blessed by new generations of rebels.




* Sources suggest it's in The House of the Dead, but I couldn't find it, and I wonder if this is similar to the situation with Voltaire's quotation on free speech that he never said.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sex Ed Redux

The papers are full of stories about the fight for and against new sex education legislation.  Wynne seems to be holding her ground this time, though, so I'm not sure any of the debating will come to anything.  But it's raised some interesting questions and ideas, and provoked a long talk with my 10-year-old daughter, which I get to below.

The curriculum (and all school curricula) is easy to find on-line.  Curriculum documents are unwieldy though, and it might take a while for the uninitiated to know which bits to look at.  There are many pages that aren't really essential reading for parents, so I've included the important pages for each grade below from the grade 1-8 Health and Physical Education Curriculum, revised 2015:

Grade 1 - Caring and exploitative behaviours and feelings; potential risks; body parts - including the external genitalia (penis, testicles, vulva, vagina); hygienic procedures (92-93)
Grade 2 - Standing up for yourself; medicine use and substance abuse - there's a bit leaning towards healthy living over the use of medication; stages of development (106-110)
Grade 3 - Processed vs unprocessed foods; broadening the range of eating choices; safety guidelines; factors you can and cannot control; real and fictional violence; more on substance abuse, healthy decision-making, and misusing medications; healthy relationships; respecting differences - this is the bit about the variety of families out there now (120-124)
Grade 4 - Healthy eating and nutrients; food safety; safe use of technology; bullying - particularly on-line issues; assessing risk; smoking; changes during puberty (139-144)
Grade 5 - Nutrition; media influence on eating; threats to personal safety; effects of alcohol use and abuse - including alcohol poisoning; the reproductive system including menstruation; interpersonal stresses (155-160)
Grade 6 - Nutrition; positive social interactions; community resources; conflict management; anger management; illicit drugs; decision-making in relationships - including wet dreams and masturbating; risk assessment - including dental emergencies, caring for pets, and hypothermia; stereotypes and assumptions including homophobia, racism, bigotry (171-177)
Grade 7 - Healthy eating; technology dangers including online privacy, bullying, harassment, body image, substance abuse, delaying sexual activity and how to say no (what consent looks like), sexual acts (vaginal, oral, and anal sex are explicitly in there), STIs and pregnancy, sexual health, relationship changes  - I think this is the scare the crap out of them year.  (194-201)
Grade 8 - Healthy eating; addiction; sexual decisions including reasons to wait; reducing risks; impact of violence; mental health; stress management; gender identity; sexual orientation; contraception; consent; intimacy; dating violence (214-220)

I was a really innocent kid.  I didn't think other kids were even kissing in grade 7, but then one of the kids in my class actually got pregnant - for real.  I didn't kiss anyone until well into grade 11.  But I don't think kids today are significantly worse in this respect.  From surveys we do in social science classes, I'd guess that most kids are still pretty innocent in grade 9.  There are a few doing a lot in earlier grades, but I get the sense that's uncommon.  If they're misleading on the surveys, I'd expect them to say they're doing more than they are, and I only get a couple doing anything harder than pot in grade 12.  Despite the norms generated by movies - particularly the kind we watched in the 80s - many kids in grade 12 don't drink OR have sex.  At all.    

The curriculum is, as always, jam-packed, and I'm a little unsure that everything can be covered thoroughly.  But it's clear to me the focus is on personal safety - how to stay alive and in one piece, physically and emotionally, as you grow up.

One concern I have is how the line "...including First Nation, Metis, and Inuit food choices, cultural habits and teachings, relationships..." is unceremoniously plunked down throughout the teaching strands. It feels uncomfortably like tokenism.  I appreciate the idea that we have to be more inclusionary, but this doesn't quite feel like the right way to go about it.  And I question to what extent these teachings really will be incorporated into every section of the health curriculum at every grade when many of the teachers haven't learned any of this material in university or come across it in life. Unless the ministry is willing to provide teachers with more than just "mention that medicine wheel stuff," then teachers might do a cursory job or worse.


Here's what my 10-year-old had to say; she told me I could write about it here.  What she thinks should be taught is pretty close to the above.  Mainly.  She wasn't sure 6-year-olds need to know about the names of their body parts, but I asked what if someone touches them there, and they need to be able to use the right word to tell somebody.  She's pretty convinced nobody would do that to a little kid, and then I felt it necessary to ruin that illusion for her.

She thinks being gay or lesbian should be discussed earlier - in grade 3 - because "it helps people understand who they are and will be so they know they're okay".

Most importantly, in about grade 4, they should tell you everything to NOT worry about:  "wet dreams, period, B.O., crushes on people of either sex... because people start to ask questions and worry about the things they don't understand, so they need a list of things that are normal and okay."

I told her that one concerned parent was worried that there's lots of talk about sex, but nothing mentioned about love.  He's right.  She actually seemed to be more uncomfortable talking about love with me than about sex. "Love is a strong word" was about the most I could get out of her on this one.


My stance is towards adding to it - as if there's time in the day.  I see teens after they've been exposed to prejudices and cruelty - particularly online - so I applaud any and all efforts to nip that in the bud. I want them to know that they're okay.  I've had more than one student hospitalized for alcohol poisoning because they had no idea it was possible to die from drinking a lot at once.  I've seen kids destroyed by the idea that there's only one true love for them out there, so if it ends at 17, then it's over for them forever.  And too many think if they can't get a date, then they can't go to any dances or proms because we're stuck in a coupley mode of thinking.

First of all, back to grade 1, I'd like it if we could all acknowledge that the entire external part of a girl is the vulva, and the entryway to the uterus is called the vagina.  That's just what they're called.  I'm glad the clitoris is mentioned in grade 7, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

By grade 8, at least, I'd like to see acceptance of all types of sexuality discussed - those who think it's an act of love to be saved for one person - and we're doing a serious disservice to some if love isn't mentioned at all -, those who think it's a form of recreation (but only with profound respect from involved parties), and those who don't have any interest in engaging for any reason.  Imagine if we could obliterate the terms "prude" and "slut"!

This is a long shot, but what I'd really like is to get rid of words related to LGBTQ and trans and cis.... and just have people who wear a variety of different clothes and make-up and are attracted to a variety of different people and have different levels of comfort with their own bodies that are sometimes helped with surgery.  We're bags of bones mysteriously drawn to other bags of bones of random shapes and sizes.  But that's probably asking too much of society yet - and too much of struggling individuals who get comfort in the support of groups of people who similarly self-identify.  But one day...

I'd also like to see more on body image and how quickly people, young and old, hone in on that one vulnerability in order to destroy one another.  My little girl biked to St. Jacobs with me yesterday, in 30 degree weather, in jeans because she doesn't like her legs.  Heartbreaking, that is.  It's not the shape, but the hairiness.  Despite the fact that I often don't shave, she felt self-conscious because kids at school have already made fun of her for having hair.  So I bought her some razors and taught her how to shave, and now she's wearing shorts.  I would have LIKED to changed the patriarchal world we live in and convinced all the girls in her school that hair is cool wherever it grows, and that shaving pubes can lead to infection (which garners no mentioned in the curriculum), and that Juliette Binoche had hairy pits in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and she was sexy as all get out!!  But that's a job for tomorrow.  For today, she shaved.

We do what we can.  Baby steps.

...ETA - And then there's Norway.

On Misinformation

What do we do when people build their beliefs on misinformation?

At least some of the people protesting the new sex ed curriculum have some shocking ideas of what Wynne expects teachers to do.  An article in The Star reported these bizarre claims bandying about:
In Grade 1 they will learn to reveal their private parts (not just name), they will see posters and flash cards of private parts, they will learn to touch the private area and identify it on themselves and others....Grade 6 is about the promotion of self-discovery through masturbation. Our 12-year-old daughter or son, who is not even a teenager yet, will be asked in class to explore his or her own body by touching their private parts, masturbating and pleasuring their body....Anal Play 101 class in Grade 8 would actually provide instruction on anal sex play.
So it's really no wonder parents are losing their shit about it all.  But why would anyone actually believe that the Premier would support and encourage child nudity in the classroom?  Now, there are other reasons parents who understand the curriculum are protesting, but I'll get to that in another post.  Here I'm concerned with how quickly misinformation spreads and takes hold of a population.

It's nothing new, really.  We've always had snake-oil salesmen sucker in enough people to make a living. Now we have Dr. Oz and Jenny McCarthy making dubious claims that are being followed by millions.  And tabloid haven't lost their appeal.




But the snake-oil salesmen of today have a larger platform and a much wider reach that's frightening in its scope.

I'm still having arguments in class about Islam being the reason for all the evildoers in the world.  And that belief is so strong, that I think I can only shut it down with, "No bigotry in my classroom, please."  The fact that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists just provokes further arguments, which also make little sense, but they slay me with their sheer volume.  I can't keep arguing, and it's not part of the curriculum of my class anyway, yet it keeps coming up wherever the few class pundits see an opportunity to raise the issue again.

When the internet started, I used to have to debunk claims like KFC is breeding chickens without heads, and you can actually buy ManBeef online.  I took up the greater part of some classes explaining how to tell the information is wrong.  Now I've beefed up my research lessons and insist on at least three varied, reputable, peer-reviewed, primary sources all pointing in the same direction to be able to make a claim in a paper.  It doesn't work as well during conversations.  Here are some from just this week:


There's someone living today who will live to be 1,000.

Okay, Aubrey de Grey thinks there's a person alive today who will live to 150, and within 20 years, we might hit 1000, so the misinformation was slightly misquoted. Grey did a TEDTalk, which, to many, is the same as publishing research in a peer-reviewed journal.  My advice is the standard, "Extraordinary claims need extraordinary supports," but it falls on deaf ears.  This paper, written by a group of scientists studying aging, molecular biology, genome studies, etc., suggests that Grey's work is pseudoscience as it...
is based on the scientifically unsupported speculations...which are camouflaged by the legitimate science of others....bears only a superficial resemblance to science or engineering....writings in support of it are riddled with jargon-filled misunderstandings and misrepresentations....notoriety is due almost entirely to its emotional appeal.

Solar panels emit more GHGs than coal-fired plants. 

According to this paper (p. 6), including the creation of the panel/plant, coal emits 58 times more than solar.  Now, in that paper nuclear emits less than solar, but it's published by the World Nuclear Association, so we have to watch out for bias as well - which is why it's necessary to have a variety of research with different funding sources.  This paper suggests solar emits slightly less than nuclear (still far less than coal).  If I were writing a paper on it, I'd find a few more sources before drawing a conclusion.  I found one source that substantiates the student's claim, on a site called "No Tricks Zone," but that writer's cited research include one piece that only looks at e-waste, and another that makes use of significant hyperbole with little in the way of actual data.


It takes ten times the energy to sit up straight as it does to slouch.

I couldn't find this claim anywhere on-line, but I did find proof that it's hard on your spine to sit up straight in a chair for 8 hours/day, and, for optimal back health, you should vary your sitting position - including slouching.  But there is some evidence that sitting up straight makes people more productive, which could be argued is linked to energy levels.


In Finland, nobody has to go to school; kids just go when they feel like it. And they have the best educational system in the world!

This claim got a round of applause from the class that couldn't be affected by my counter-arguments.  People believe what they want to believe and will shout down contrary claims regardless the quality (or existence) of research presented.  According to this site, completing school is mandatory, but, like here, students may be home-schooled.  The wording of the piece could be misinterpreted if they just read a sentence out of context.  That's something else many students struggle to understand - context.  They skim and grab short pieces completely ignoring the broader position of the piece.  Anyway, our schooling is from 6-18, theirs is from 7-19.  It's a great school system, but not because it's optional.  It might have more to do with these factors: teachers all have masters degrees; there are no standardized tests; grades are optional up to grade 8 (just pass/fail) to get students to focus on a love of learning rather than competing for grades; they don't have sports teams; academically-challenged students go to a specialized school (something we used to do, but now we're into integration); differentiated instruction is taken to its full potential; the culture respects teachers; the culture expects children to be completely independent from their parents at a much younger age; and university is free.


These claims weren't made by grade school children; many of these students are about to finish high school and go to university, and they generally get very good marks - our best and brightest. I'd hate to think they'll be in the next round of protesters arguing against claims that nobody ever actually said.  But the big stuff: climate change, TPP and TPIP, rampant inequality?  The government and technology will save the day.  We'll all be living on Mars soon anyway, amiright?

I can only demand sources (which I've yet to have a student provide - not even one horribly biased source - nothin'!), express my skepticism on the claim, and carry on.  I sometimes put counter-arguments on our class website, and some of the topics are never mentioned again - but some never die.  My courses are jam-packed with curriculum to cover.  There's no room for extended discussion on anything off-topic regardless student interest in the subject.  But I'd hate for students to walk away having learned from the dubious claims of their peers because of the appeal of the intensity of their positions.  It's exciting to discount ideas we all think are true!!  New information trumps everything even if it's crap.  There's a power-play there for the students to be able to get one over on the teacher, and I'm all for students teaching me something - except when their research is lacking or questionable.

For a while there, we had an "English Across the Curriculum" movement, and we had to evaluate English abilities in all subject areas in order to improve literacy.  Gym teachers and tech teachers suddenly had to add essay-writing to their lessons.  Then AER happened, and I was specifically told by an administrator that I couldn't evaluate grammar on an essay in a history course because it's not in the curriculum for my course, and evaluation must be tied directly to the curriculum.  I ignored that guidance, and I still take off marks for grammar so I don't end up reading text-speak in essays.  Curriculum police be damned!

But what we really need now is an "Anti-bullshit Across the Curriculum" movement.  We need every teacher to demand a variety of reputable, primary sources for every claim made.  It means kids will have to read more than just headlines, and there's a danger that they'll just stop expressing the claims in class rather than actually learn how to fact-check them.

Maybe that's just as well.