Wednesday, September 25, 2019

We Know

We know.

There was possibly a tremor of recognition that brought readers into this subsequent paragraph and what will follow.  Others recognized the threat that I would address this topic, the environment, and they skipped the threshold between title, opening sentence and this full paragraph, likely with a roll of the eyes and a tut or tsk of disgust.  For all the gloom and menace in this world right now, nothing gets a stronger response right now than having our opinions challenged.  I'm not going to presume that I can change minds, not in an environment where public discourse is thwarted by as much deliberate tone-deakness as we see.

It is, however, our tendency to resort to angry pique whenever we are exposed to a differing point of view that stalls dialogue at the tense jaw thrusting intolerance we see time and again.  If a perspective or an entire life experience serves as evidence of the need for a world that is integrated, conscious, sensitive and open we instinctively dig in our heels to resist this possibility.  There are synergies which await our contribution and participation for them to be cultivated to foster the model that will allow not our planet, not our home but our species to survive.

We have the knowledge and examples of what can and must be done and we know that the benefits surpass survival.  We have seen it in sci-fi stories where a civilization on another planet is passive and peaceful and they are a little quirky for their somewhat hippy-dippy or spaced out embrace of peace and higher knowledge.  Those stories end with a flaw in that utopian trip but we come away admitting that our impulses are not as multi-purpose as we might think.

We have seen with increased frequency or intensity -- and I do not know if it is because of or despite our need to accommodate this -- the rejection of the variations on diversity that need to be acknowledged and included to ensure our survival, strengthening and well-being.  Whether it is biological, linguistic, racial, cultural, political, cognitive, spiritual, generational or myriad other ways that our diversity can strengthen us and ensure our prosperity, we ultimately reject it or diminish the value of diversity because we are addicted to the convenience and efficiency of the monocultural. We may pay lip service to diversity but we still close ourselves off into a disconnected collation of defiantly isolated, hermetically separated entities that occasionally cross paths at nodes such as shopping centres, airports and gas stations where we look exclusively for what we can gain rather than what we can contribute.  We operate under the assumption that if we have enough money to visit these nodes we are participating in community.

There are still places where we congregate and occasions that generate some facade of togetherness but the discussions that could occur to foster understanding get deferred or dropped when the complexity or discomfort of a differing opinion exposes the differences between what we know and what we believe, wish or hope were true. We cannot make it on our own.  There is no energy or consumption solution that will resolve this.

The problems that loom will not be resolved by a panacea replacement to carbon that was cheaper, cleaner and renewable.  If that superball lottery gift of energy popped out of a university lab tomorrow we would simply use it every way we could to undermine our interdependence and distance ourselves further and further from one another and discard the possibility and potential that lays dormant whenever we come together in a way that acknowledges the way we can connect and the potential that exists when we respond to one another with the knowledge that we can have a lasting positive impact on one another. When we engage we respect, a sense of responsibility and a sincere desire to relate we take the steps required to ensure our well-being and survival.  This is the ideal, but more often than not we remain uncomfortable accepting others who are unfamiliar.  That acceptance is what will assure our survival.

Our survival in not in a lab waiting to be stumbled upon or glanced by an absent minded scientist in a brief attentive moment.  It is amongst us.

We now the answers and we know that it is an act of will that will make us sacrifice, compromise listen and accept.

Over the past year a child has emerged -- it sounds vaguely Biblical, doesn't it -- with the determination, character, passion, and expectations that are the living, breathing and pissed off embodiment of the cliches that lazy politicians who love the sounds of their own voices have spouted about for generations when they have appealed for the opportunity to be stewards of our future.  When faced with the reality of this child, we have by turns been timid and brutish about her call for us to all share the responsibility that we have shirked, that we have tried to cut corners on rather than devote ourselves to.

The spectacle of the abuse that has been heaped on Greta Thunberg because of the ferocity with which she has exposed us to a truth that we have diverted our attention from has been embarrassing.  It has, however, in only the last ten days prompted the first three serious efforts at conversation about climate I have encountered in my 52 years.  Not a flippant beef about today's weather refuting the claims of climate change, not complaints about the last handful of bought-off scientists that we blame for stalling action but actual, "what are we gonna do?" conversations about climate.  It is likely as urgent as we dread, but it is still possible to pull this off.

Greta's patience and resilience in the face of the resistance and abuse she has borne the brunt of since she took this on calls to mind the overlooked thesis of Neil Postman's The Disappearance of Childhood. As childhood has disappeared or become amorphous in the last few generations, adulthood has as well.  Those who have scorned Greta for her passion and her position because of its inconvenience have proven that with glaring, embarrassing clarity.  She is not at a disadvantage because she is 16 or because she has Asperger's.  Too much of our public discourse today is characterized by a stubborn petulance about not getting one's way or not having the last word.

If we find Greta's messaging too unpleasant, and the reality is that it is quite empowering, we will only expose ourselves to the certainty of louder, more brutal and ultimately destructive messages from the environment that we so disdain when it does not give us what we want.  It doesn't work that way.  We will see astonishing disasters that surpass what we have seen and we will have to do what we can to support one another through them and share, protect, give, listen, assure, support and love and in those moments we will look past the differences that we retreat from today.

It is just a matter of deciding to.  Now.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Oh, For a Transcendent Vocabulary

As the United States grapples with the realities the immigration policies that it is imposing or, to put it stark, more accurate terms, striking a balance between a real immigration policy and the current government's ethos of white nationalism, Ken Cuccinelli, Donald Trump's current head of Citizenship and Immigration Services (and it is a massive act of self-restraint on my part not to put diminishing quotation marks around services) has deigned to revise the poem that is etched on the plinth of the Statue of Liberty.

There is not an actual threat, not yet, anyway, to rewrite the Emma Lazarus poem, The New Colossus, anytime soon, but I will not rule out the possibility of this being graffitied through the poem in the coming days.

The poem is not legally binding, but the compassion, aspiration and generosity behind it have been woven into the fabric of the human family blanket. Giving refuge and comfort to the poor, the disadvantaged and anyone in need ought to be a common goal, a golden rule but during this prolonged lapse of moral depth in the United States, the memorable line from the second stanza was modified to "Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge."

However, borrowing that famous line of poetry, which arguably has the cadence, the guidance and the mission of a line from the Preamble of the US Constitution to tack on a bit off self-serving, narrowing bureaucratese belies a latent ignorance about the possibilities that the language can hold.  Attempting to link poetry to such a petty, bare-faced endeavour to exclude the disadvantaged or retreat from the great good that we all ought to aspire to is belies a repugnant self-interest and a gross inability to be moved or inspired by the either the language we share or the hardships that we would dread experiencing ourselves.

What Ken Cuccinelli has done with that poem is the equivalent of taking an Ansel Adams photograph of Yosemite National Park and editing in a scattering of McDonald's wrappers because you would tolerate that view today.  The technicalities aside, that is the essence of what this shill for hatred has done to the language of this poem. One distinction to note is that such a desecration of an Ansel Adams photo would be done for the sake of satire, or a form of editorial rage at the way people have treated their environment. Cuccinelli's abuse of the poem ought to have been the realm of parody on late night television rather than messaging from a government institution.

I'm not going to trudge into a discussion about who can do what with the language or the optics that we are surrounded by as our world drifts closer to the dystopian wonderland that is approaching us from the horizon.

Our language, when used at its best -- whether in an inspiring speech, a heart-rending song,  an observant quote, a children's book or an epic poetic passage that our ancestors would commit to memory and fuse to their souls for the rest of our lives and pass down via blood or repetition -- possesses a mission or a calling because of the clarity and and the transcendence of what we are tell each other in those deepest most meaningful terms.

We have distanced ourselves from the depth and quality of the language that ought to prompt a nod of agreement and empathy about what we are doing. Even when we aspire to speak more aspirationally, we lower our horizons and the quality of terminology.  The golden rule is treaty as a trite, pappy cliche spewed by those we presume are edging toward daft.  Instead, we talk respectfully about the "no-asshole rule" set our sights on following this credo.

There is still a need and an impulse to aspire to more and to do more with our lives and part of that begins with trying to communicate with language like that in Lazarus' poem.  It is language that speaks to a greater good and does not bog itself down with a quibble over specifics that would not hold up to the scrutiny of pedants or millions.

What do you mean by "on their own two feet?"  What is a public charge? Are you going to bill us for this or are we billing you?  Those trivial details bog us down and confuse us too much to be inspired or to take action. A conscious interest in communicating well and clearly will prompt us to use the language better, and perhaps hold ourselves accountable within the terms unweaponized language. If you are trying to say something and people quibble over your terminology or don't get you, it is because you are too self-centred to tap into our common experience and dreams or you are trying to be too clever.  We all have the potential to speak about our experience, perspectives and insights in ways that can transcend us yet more and more us outright refuse to reflect on our experiences and share them in a meaningful way.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King advises us to "mean what we write" (as opposed to writing what we mean), a suggestion that means we ought to obey the language we are given to work with, not only in terms of its grammar, but the legacy of compassion, generosity and the common good that shines when the language is used best by its masters. We should aspire to the honesty, integrity and kindness to communicate as our language intended us to.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Fragility and Power of Story

In film and fiction there are a handful of Japanese auteurs who have transcended the barriers that exist between their home and the West. Akira Kurosawa, Yukio Mishima, Hayao Miyazaki and Haruki Murakami have been at the vanguard of their respective crafts in film, anime and literature over the last 50 to 75 years and they have fostered interest in other Japanese artists as well. A contemporary filmmaker with the promise to emerge from their shadows, if he hasn't already, is Hirokazu Kore-eda, who, since 1995, has assembled an astounding body of work that has earned him awards at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals, an Oscar nomination for his 2018 film Shoplifters and possible adaptations of a few of his films for US audiences. His first English-language movie, The Truth, featuring Catherine DeNeuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke, appears in Fall 2019 and hopefully it will bring more attention to his work.

Many of his movies are heartbreakingly subtle and emphasize the bonds that prevail among families that are trying to portray a version of their lives that is less tenuous and fraught than the reality. Within each of the films there is the effort to don a brave face, whether for the public, within the family or both.  In Nobody Knows (2004) a 12-year-old boy looks after his siblings after their mother abandons them in an apartment in Tokyo.  In Like Father, Like Son (2013) a father realizes that the boy he has been raising for 6 years is not his biological son because the children were switched at birth.  In Shoplifters (2018), three generations of ne'er-do-wells live together as family in spirit and habit but not in the eyes of the law.  In these films and throughout Kore-eda's work, families' stories about themselves are challenged and the power of their illusions tested when, as Kore-eda puts it, "truth and emotion collide."

Kore-eda has navigated that collision and its consequences to astonishing effect and, remarkably, he does so with a style that is compellingly understated.  His grasp of the subtleties of family dynamics is evident even in films where a facsimile of a nuclear family is not to be seen.  He relishes in the quiet details of meal-making and in those moments there is an evocative quality that entrances the audience even if they are not familiar with the rituals, the customs or the culture.

For all that can be said about his attention to those details and the quiet nature of the tragedies and dramas he presents his audiences, is his grasp of the power of story to possibly provide the passport to transcendence and the imminent risk that it can strand us upon a brush with reality or responsibility.  The truest demonstration of this is his 1998 masterpiece, After Life.  In Kore-eda's hands the afterlife is not a realm of harps, choirs of angels, clouds and ultimate comforts.  Instead, it seems more like a run-down institutional setting where the water is colder than you'd like, the staff is questioning the value and meaning of the work they do and they squabble and bicker like folks in any other office rather than the embodiment of what we would perceive to be the wisdom and kindness we would attribute to that realm.

The premise of the story is that the recently deceased have arrived to select the one memory from their life that they would like to take with them to heaven.  They have three days to choose their memory and then it is staged and filmed for them to view before they proceed to the great beyond.  The premise makes a great conversation between the main course and dessert, but Kore-eda takes it beyond the simple selection of a memory to contribute to the collective consciousness and ensure that you have a more heavenly memento to comfort you through eternity.  As the staff help their clients prepare and stage the filming of their memories, there is the realization that these memories are being shaped and molded in a way that may not accurately capture the truth of their chosen moment but their version of it.

While pondering their lives for to select moment they want, the clients actually have the option of watching their lives on grainy, fluxxy VHS tape of their past. They do not merely say, "That one," and head to heaven on the wings of that archival footage, but recreate it to their liking.  There might be a moment where the homespun recreations and the rough hewn setting of the film suggest they were defined by budgetary restraints. It is more likely a reflection of Kore-eda's grasp and interpretation of the way memory and myth are deployed to isolate us from reality, even in the hereafter. During the sequence of After Life when the characters are involved in the re-creations of their memories, the feel, look and noise levels of the film look and feel like the "making of" bonus feature tucked away on a DVD. Less reflective and static during these moments, the clients come alive as the re-creations are assembled and their input and buy-in are called for.  Our stories form the path to the lives we want, the destinies we seek.

Just as the characters in After Life and the other movies in Kore-eda's canon try to trade objective truths for the passport that story or edited memory can provide, the stories that we tell about ourselves, our pasts or our destinies have compelling potential for us as well.  Do we tell these stories to empower ourselves or cocoon ourselves in delusion?  If we ponder how we might engage in that conversation over dessert, we will have an idea of how we can comfort ourselves with our warmest reminders, dither in dread about disconnection or cast a story that is distinctly different from the one we lived in.  

At the same time, there is the realization that any moment of our lives has the power to be that personal, that powerful, tragic or transformative.

Monday, August 5, 2019

You Can't Mix Earplugs and Free Speech

It is beyond ironic, it is ultimately hypocritical, for a government that donned earplugs in the legislature to amplify the fact that it was ignoring the position, insights, arguments of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, to draft legislation for free speech at university campuses in Alberta.  It is consistent of Jason Kenney to demonstrate a lack of moral acumen when he seeks to implement his policies that demonstrate an instinct for exclusion and a disdain for vision.  Within his short term as Premier it has been evident in his economic policies, attempts to breach union contracts with the government and to compromise the right of assembly and the safety of students who wish to participate in Gay-Straight Alliances in public schools.  Throughout his entire career in federal and provincial politics, he has demonstrated a preference for being divisive in his role rather than demonstrate a depth of thinking to demonstrate his regard for the complexity of issues. Instead he has had a history of policy-making and decision-making that is based on his goals of acting ideologically on behalf of the least compassionate or empathetic representatives of the right wing.

He is not an individual who ought to be trusted with updating policies pertaining to free speech, not at a time when social media is as toxic as it is with the virulence on hate speech.  Not when his party has comfortable ties with Rebel Media and not when the mainstream newspapers do not merely express their bias in favour of the UCP but have their lead columnists literally writing campaign literature on behalf of the party's candidates.  The suggestion on the part of the Kenney government is that there are some people muzzling free speech in the province and that some people are getting a raw deal because they are not able to express themselves as freely as they deserve.

It is a wade into the complex depths of the issue of free speech and ultimately it is a strategic move to further empower people who ultimately feel that their opinions and beliefs are so sacrosanct that they ought to be allowed to express them but they need not be challenged for the accuracy, truth or impact of what they say.

Targeting Alberta's universities with this policy is ultimately an anti-elitist move on the part of the government because these institutions, while not perfect, more often than not subject a variety of opinions to the discourse and consideration to withstand debate.  Among the things that students ought to be learning and professors ought to be demonstrating is the ability to listen as well as to think critically and argue and debate in an intellectually sound, constructive manner.  They are also given the opportunity to be exposed to a multitude of opinions, perspectives and life experiences and to life with the challenge of holding the breadth of these experiences and possibilities in their mind as they go forward through life.  There is a commitment to lifetime learning that draws most people to institutions of learning and people who come to universities must bear in mind the opportunity and need to listen and participate in discourse with the goal of becoming better informed.

Anyone who suggests that universities are falling short in this manner likely has not visited a university campus with the purpose of learning or feels that they are not doing what they personally expect them to do.

A university need not provide a platform for the unchallenged airing of ill-formed or toxic opinions.  This would actually undermine the diversity of thought, experience and perspective that ought to be cultivated there.

Consider these realities. There is a university that houses within its campus opinions from the left and the right held by professors who have exposed themselves to ridicule for their opinions, have exposed themselves to humiliation and criticism and death threats for the work they have done.  The work they have done has provoked discomfort beyond the campus and perhaps within it as well and there are measures which have to be made to ensure the protection of their well-being as well as the freedom of speech that allows them to continue their work despite the challenges they face because of the direction that their research, their passions and their vocation has taken them.

I speak of the University of Calgary, which despite the opinions of anyone with their ears plugged and a tendency to regard pluralism with disdain, is not an ivory tower for academics to muse within, detached from the realities of the world.  The faculty are well aware of the challenges of inclusion, climate change, the opportunities to address it, the economy and more. In fact they seem more conscious of and concerned about these matters than the government that insists upon changes to policies addressing free speech.  While I work at U of C, I am confident that the other institutions of higher learning strive for the same goals as well and strive to foster environments and settings where citizens engage in informed and informing discourse.

When we speak of free speech, however, we tend to fix upon the image of the soapbox and the pressure maybe that we are failing to accommodate free speech if we do not give a soapbox or yet again a higher soapbox or bigger megaphone to anyone who stomps their foot insisting that they have the right to speak, regardless of the intention or content of their message. The problem has proven to be that the clamour for attention for their ideas has precluded the act of listening to the opinions of others or, carefully, critically and honestly, to the content of fair questions that challenge the quality of thinking behind the opinions we express to one another. Too often today, we strive for oppressive monologue and cue the gaggle that support our opinions to quash dialogue.

A common complaint about discourse today is that it is too PC.  Ultimately that is the expression of the position that I don't want to hear you, and I don't want to take your feelings into account when I express myself.  This complaint is about the challenges that we face when dealing with diversity and inclusion and beneath that complaint is the assumption that only certain people need to be heard and allowed to express their opinions.  While this policy is, nominally, about free speech it has actually been calculated to give enough oxygen and energy to opinions that people want to express without exposing them to a critical, reflective consideration of their own intent and impact.  It is intended to fan more monologues, to allow the people making the most inciting of those monologues to stop their ears when faced with dissent or diversity and, ultimately to make the public forum the exclusive domain of those who want to say what they wish without regard for the consequences.

If we are to speak freely and respectfully, we must honour the duty to listen to one another and make our opinions clear to others and ensure that we are open to the feedback and input of those who listen to us.  The government introducing this policy made it clear when they donned their earplugs that there are only certain people they deem worth listening to and that their definition of free speech is not the inclusive, respectful one that those two word ought to denote.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Compassion and Will

It is inevitable.

The geological plates of the Pacific will grind together and result in an earthquake as it has many times before and we will be held in the thrall of a significant tragedy.  Lives will be lost, others overturned and irrevocably changed as homes, artifacts and memorials are shuffled into a newly formed layer that is buried in the upheaval.  Those of us able to observe from afar will be moved and governments and individuals will be motivated to respond with the gestures, the labour, the generosity and the compassion to listen to the stories of the sudden change and the aftermath.  We will, as we aspire to do in those hours we call our proudest, pull together. We will do it out of mercy, by choice because we have been so moved by what has played out and the moment of connection with these siblings in the human family - whether they are from Indonesia, California, Chile or Japan.

Oddly, however, in late July, a few days after the optimism and nostalgia that fused upon the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11's landing on the moon, and the diversion of a face-ageing app to amuse and then infuriate us with fooled-you embarrassment, a boat carrying about 150 asylum-seekers sunk in the Mediterranean Sea while attempting the journey north from Libya to Europe. It is one of the many quests for refuge that have too-quietly defined this decade and will define the next one with even greater clamour, grief and controversy as unaccounted corners of the world become uninhabitable for economic, ecological or political reasons. The overlapping circles of that toxic Venn diagram will become even harder to distinguish.

If this boat made it across the Mediterranean and these people landed near the refuge they sought int he developed world, they would not have necessarily encountered a quiet, warm welcome that defines hospitality. This boat was not the first of its kind nor, is it at the vanguard of this quest for safety, hope and what scant opportunity that First World begrudges those who seek asylum, refuge or what crumbs fall from the tables of the more fortunate.

Throughout the decades since the fall of the Iron Curtain, we have been inclined to regard refugees with ever-escalating suspicion and hostility.  When there were refugees from the other side of the wall, escape was associated with the quest for freedom and in there was a hint of victory for the "better" way of life or "better" political philosophy.

In the climate of distrust that has deteriorated over the last 30 years, we overlooked our ability and capacity to share and adopted the presumption that refugees and asylum seekers are merely coming here to take from us at a time of misstated scarcity.

In the face of other recent exoduses by refugees of climate, war and other catastrophes, there has been push-back and dissent over the possibility that these people, forced by desperation, were actually invaders and that the earnest quest for refuge and safety a mask over more questionable motivation, despite the peril they risk in leaving their failing, unsafe homes. When they do cross the gauntlet to the safety of the "developed" world, they are first shunned, questioned, denigrated, doubted and detained before enough compassion -- or is it mere and narrow pragmatism -- is mustered to grant them status.  After that it is a long journey still until they are accepted in the communities they wish to join and they are able to share the story of their struggle to travel, to survive and finally be welcomed.

The charity and compassion that we need to ensure our collective survival seem, shamefully, to be intermittent and conditional. We quickly, compassionately and perhaps even happily respond to the victims of an earthquake and our donations in response to such disasters amounts to a redistribution of wealth, something that is frowned upon in some circles. Boats sinking with refuge- or asylum-seekers, regardless of the body of water or the intended destination, may offer the convenience of perceived complexity but that perception should not offer us the option of ignoring the circumstances that caused it.  These tragedies are as clear and simple and inevitable as an earthquake. The biggest distinction is that they occur in slower motion and the developed world has the option of responding sooner rather than ignoring the harbingers of tragedy and the consequences.

Given that there may only be 5 countries currently meeting the UN's goal of sharing 0.7% of national GDP in foreign aid, and beyond that the gnarly questions of actually how much of any aid is actually getting to the people who need it rather than sustaining a fiefdom of non-profit administrators et al, we need to find and demonstrate the will and tenacity of these refugees and asylum seekers when it comes to giving people an equal opportunity to live in the comfort, safety, cleanliness and security that we regard so dearly that we are reluctant to risk sharing it.  If we fear having these things taken from us, or fear the personal expense of sharing the wealth or the planet or finding the personal and political will to ensure that more of this planet is inhabitable then these things will be taken away from us.  If we choose to regard freedom, comfort and security as the tokens in a zero sum game -- which I don't believe they are -- then they will be wrested from us.

That too, is inevitable.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Allegiances and Individual Rights

I had the interesting occasion today to complete a survey that asked me to identify my racial background. That was easy enough, but there was a subsequent question about how I identified with that race on a scale of 1 to 10.  Therein was a bit of thinking and reflection.  I'm not entirely certain what a person of mixed race would be inclined to respond, but among the mindsets people might adopt when responding to the question is one where the values need to add up to 10. If there was a broad range of nationalities that tempted me to acknowledge the French, Irish and Scottish roots I know of there might be some formula that weighed the three in terms of ancestry and maybe a dollop of extra points citing the influence and presence of Irish music and my family's fortune evasion of in-house bagpipers.  The question remains unclear.  I can see an alternate scenario where one might rate their identity at 10 for every trace of their ancestry.

With only the option of Caucasian available to me, one thought was that I would default to giving myself a 10 in that category.  I probably am supposed to have the least doubt about my identity, the plain palette untouched by evident traces.  I clicked on the slider and dragged it.

I gave myself a 6.

It still may have been too high.

I could go back a decade or so to an August afternoon when, standing on a corner in Tehran, a car stopped in front of me and the driver asked me for directions. In Farsi. Lacking the skills to even say, "I don't know," in their language, I gaped and gestured helplessness. Up until that uncommunicative moment, I blended into the scenery. I, as it is put in other contexts, passed for an Iranian.

Less disconcerting were the years in Japan when I warranted the slang term of "egg" -- white on the outside, yellow on the inside -- which I wore with some pride and satisfaction at how I adapted to life in a community where I was for the most part accepted. Oddly, my neighbours would complain with me about the local tourists who invaded our nook of Kyoto to spoil the peace and contemplation that they sensed that I appreciated as much as they did.

In junior high school, there was some affinity between myself and the African-Canadian students who were controversially bused into our school to integrate it int he early 1980s.  I ended up sitting on the side of the classroom that the African-Canadian students sat on, and was in the same level English class as well.  In high school, when the news of Donald Marshall Jr.'s wrongful conviction and 11 years of incarceration for a murder he did not commit came to light in Nova Scotia, I bristled at complaints that he was in the news and that we (whoever "we" happened to be) had to keep hearing about the inquiry into his mistreatment in the news. Lacking the rhetorical equipment in my teens to weigh the inconvenience against the abuse Marshall was subjected to as succinctly and convincingly as I would have liked I was quiet, but still discomfited. If I try to make that case today that the injustice was something we needed to hear about there may still be some question about my well-being or my solidarity with caucasians. Such is the collective attachment to the comfort of ignorant bliss over the discomfort of harsher truths the ought to prompt us to recalibrate our concepts of comfort.

For whatever combination of reasons, I have felt conscious of so-called minority groups and the marginalized. When studying in university, the poetry of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks jumped off the page in ways few of their Caucasian contemporaries ever could. Perhaps it was merely a sense of justice that has grown over time and become more deeply rooted as I've gotten older. The accounts and insights provided over the time since then by authors like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison illuminate the defiance, sense of justice and clarity of thought and rhetoric that is evident among African-American authors.  Recent books by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Robin DiAngelo have further entrenched my consciousness about injustice.

A teaching career that started in the Canadian Arctic, before leading me to Japan, definitely sharpened my perspective about privilege, identity and even hegemony bestowed by the institutions that shape our lives.  I was conscious of the role I played within the school I taught and after a year and a half of struggling with the "work" I was doing, I found a way to come to peace with my presence as one of only two white male English speakers in this community. I subverted my work by asking my students what they wanted to learn. After all that trial and error I found a way to serve my students. In that there was a relief, a clearing of conscience and acceptance in the community that I was never sure would welcome me.

In the meantime, those experiences, and my increased consciousness about marginalization -- am I being too euphemistic, okay, the abuse -- of Indigenous peoples and the social changes that have been inflicted on them in the previous 30-40 years got tuned out by the friends I grew up with. While I was trying to unpack and understand the work I had undertaken, they were more occupied with comparing their car stereos, high scores on Nintendo games and tolerance for alcohol. We were in our mid-20's, more than a few of us were already on our way to post-graduate degrees, but the conversations could never get beyond the post-adolescent comparisons. If my experiences in the Arctic did come up, my earnest efforts to speak on what I'd witnessed was drowned out by one-liners about igloos and blubber. They were not supremacists, just uncomfortable or indifferent. Regardless of their intentions or their character, they responded in a way that manifested white solidarity or white indifference in the face of the unfamiliar or the difficult. Before long, we tuned each other out and that was the last I'd seen of a group of guys I had known since elementary school.

These experiences are in no way a means to make the case that I ought to claim other ancestry or heritage.  Nor are they evidence enough to assert that I am an ally to groups that facing injustice because they are neither white enough or normative in other ways. It does, however, make the case, if only for myself, that I only loosely identify with other Caucasians.  I do not feel inclined to rally to their cause or ease their insecurities as our society strives to become more inclusive.

If there was any substance or a priori clarity to whiteness, then there would not be the effort that there is to assert ever more clearly that whiteness is also based on other factors -- many of them made up on the fly -- whether they be habits, possessions, ways of thinking and the need to maintain a dominant position, politically, economically, culturally and legalistically. Before I was 10, I learned first-hand that language, religion, culture, and the land you -- rightly or wrongly -- claim as yours are mere constructs deployed to distinguish and divide. Even if you think you "pass," there comes a point where a collective narrows itself down to an ever more-exclusive circle. Within the racial group that I was asked assess my allegiance to, there remains a need for me to do more to meet the criteria required to merit inclusion.  At times, "passing" requires that I demonstrate solidarity in favour of injustice that privileges one collective over others and consequently disregard individual rights.

I have traveled too much to trouble myself with the labels that get deployed for the sake of distinguishing who to exclude. On September 12, 2001, I was in Japan and when I encountered people with a darker skin that suggested roots in the middle East or South Asia, a shade and heritage that would merit distrust, profiling and other strains of marginalization, the first thought that came to mind was that he and I were, in Japan, both outsiders. Whatever distinctions that would be made between us in another country were inconsequential in Japan.  There, we were on converging paths, if not the same one. Whatever we were striving for in Japan, we were able to regard each other as ex-patriates, outsiders with common experiences in an unfamiliar place that had, more often than not, proven to be hospitable. Birthplaces, religions, mother tongues were discarded. We were not motivated on this occasion to attach a label or an expectation on one another for the sake of false clarity.

My travels have blessed me with occasions where I am included, granted not completely, within unfamiliar cultures. That experience, time and again, confirms there are common needs and desires. If there are needs beyond those basic ones for shelter, food, water, respect and love, they are clad in the amorphous codes of culture.  Whatever we have identified to confer upon ourselves power, supremacy or address some voracity that, on this crowded, overheated orb, has proven not only self-indulgent, but malignant.

It is quite easy to see news headlines dominated by the exercise of, no, the abuse of white privilege at the institutional level. I scan the headlines and I see: 1) another state government dominated by the very demographic -- (middle-aged white male) I am lumped into by dint of skin tone and hair line -- limit the rights and dictate the punishments for women, in Alabama in this instance; 2) conservative politicians in Canada, unremarkably white male, bristle against taking some quite likely feeble policy measures and making the compromises in consumption that seem the most plausible and meaningful response to climate change; 3) the Canadian federal government, which might portray themselves as the good guys in the idle parlor game of talking about the environment remaining oblivious or morally inert to the urgency of addressing the water rights of Indigenous people; 4) the use of racial profiling by police in Canada; 5) the likelihood that Canadian schools are inclined to racist conduct toward African-Canadian students of all ages. These actions and other have shown how societies have recently tilted further to the right are an effort to assert control and stave off progress toward greater individual rights.

I have never strived to benefit from oppressing others or disregarding their needs and rights. I am fully aware of how I have benefitted from being a white male. I have been able to live and work and travel where I want, whether it is because of the colour of the skin and my gender or because of the economic benefits that have not-so-passively accrued to me thanks to the fluke that landed me in this skin in this country at this time. I have quietly been an ally to individuals who have been marginalized. Too quietly, however.

I am conscious of my need to advocate and speak up more often than I have rather than pass through life with the best of intentions, but lacking the sense of mission about equality to push for recognition of individual rights rather than letting systems and institutions work at the pace that they choose to when there is no pressure to go any faster.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Letterman's Deliberate Journey

Among late night talk show hosts few have bared their soul the way David Letterman has throughout his career. While fans are familiar with Jay Leno's car fetish, Stephen Colbert's mania for The Lord of the Rings, Johnny Carson's divorces, Letterman's interests and more significantly, his flaws, have been front and centre from much of his career. Whether it was heart surgery, his extramarital affairs or his beef with Leno over the outcome of the battle for the Carson throne, all of it has been dealt with publicly.

Letterman's comedy has had its edge throughout the iterations of his talk shows. The Stupid Human Tricks and the man on the street moments seemed to have a nasty streak or an impulse to mockery that reflected badly on Letterman with the suggestion that there was a ruthlessness or superiority that informed.  At the same time, Letterman's self-deprecation was always there and it has ascended as the nastiness mellowed away.

He has shared parts of his personal life with his audience not merely for the sake of self-deprecating humour, but perhaps for cathartic reasons as well. While he has not sought to share everything about his life, what he has aired has been provided the breadcrumbs of a trail of self-discovery as well. The double hit of his heart surgery and the blackmail case that surrounded his extramarital affairs has likely prompted a deeper reflection about his life rather than a more defensive reaction of denial.  With My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Letterman has had the opportunity to not only interview the people he has chosen for the show, but also to comes to terms with questions that have occupied him more and more. His life arc from the edgy stand-up to the reflective (and goofy) eminence grise
who is still exploring questions and lives that are conceivably uncomfortable for him or for any other 72-year-old while male retiree.

Throughout the first season of MNGNNI, Letterman was openly musing about his anxieties about the world he is raising his teenaged son in. Whether walking the bridge in Selma with John Lewis, meeting the Syrian refugee staying with George Clooney's father, or struggling to interview Malala Yousafzai, there has been an ongoing quest to make sense of his place in world. (You could even get a hint of Letterman's growing consciousness during his appearance in Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. Letterman -- who likely rivals Seinfeld and Leno as car buff and partnered with Indy car racer Bobby Rahal -- concluded his episode by requiring Seinfeld to ride off with him in his Nissan Leaf.)

The superiority seemed central to some of the man-in-the-street bits that Letterman did in the 1980s and 1990s has given way to a willingness to say, "I don't know" and proceed from there to give people the opportunity to tell stories, unfiltered, that they otherwise may not tell. Given that Letterman could likely sign Dave Grohl up for a 50 minute love-in that could draw bigger numbers, it is brave, if not telling that Letterman has sought the guests he has for the second season. The interviews with Tiffany Haddish and especially Ellen DeGeneres revealed stories that need to be heard. It was amazing to see Haddish at home "in the hood" and painful to hear DeGeneres work through chapters of her past that she struggles with. When he does show that wisdom, as he does in his episode with Lewis Hamilton, it is world-wise, but imbued with a fragility or a consciousness where one might normally presume certitude.

While some guests in season two require a bit more of an introduction - Letterman acknowledges this before introducing Lewis Hamilton and I have to confess Haddish was unknown to me before her interview - he has hit a stride where his quest, curiosity and conscience guide him on a journey for as David puts it, "precious knowledge" that more men his age ought to strive for.