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.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Test Run

Over the last few months, I formulated the theory that a marathon is not something that inflicts damage on you but something that gives you a tangible account of what has been inflicted on you. Perhaps that still sounds like a deft feat of double-speak. To put it another way, a marathon, to some extent, is a culmination of the time you spent preparing for it. If there are factors and stressors in your life that are nibbling away at you, they will surface over the course of the marathon.

I knew that I was less fit than I would have liked for the marathon I ran today, but I decided to run it anyway -- not to prove my theory right, but to actually see where I was mentally and physically in the middle of a stretch where I have not trained as much as I would like. When I woke in the morning I felt a bit nauseous and had a bit of a headache, two things that I'm not troubled by very often. I slowly found myself plodding into my warm up routine, hesitant for some reason. The nearest tangible excuse was the cold of my apartment, which was prompting me to put on a few more layers or get back under the covers. It was, after all, 5:15 am. 

I shook the reluctance off and got myself moving. As I drank my routine milk and followed it up with a sort drink I took note that the twingey left Achilles that needs a bit of warming up, was loose on this particular morning.

I started conservatively and did not push myself too hard to get out of the scrums of runners that might have been holding me back. I was very conscious early on, however, that I did not have the speed in my legs to reel people in and pass them the way I had in other race 2 or 3 years ago. Part of it was the lack of speed training throughout the year, but in the moment I didn't trouble myself with gaps in preparation. I was going to see where I was. That was the plan and the goal.

There were times when the body showed promise and strength, but as the morning progressed, I wore down more quickly that I would have liked. The first 7K of the race were done in about 37 minutes. Maintaining that pace throughout the morning would have been spectacular but in the late morning as the heat escalated on the unshaded final leg of the race I surrendered a bit more speed as the morning wore on. In retrospect, if I can use that would 8 hours after the fact, I knew the body wasn't ready. Friends were confident that a much faster race was possible, but I knew my body well enough. I finished in 3:53, 14 minutes off the time I ran two years earlier on a hillier route for this race.  I had a hunch. Actually I knew my body well enough. Not enough training, a less than ideal diet and may be just enough extra pounds to slow me down.

The mind though, that was a different story. During that race two years ago, despite the pace I ran, was a tougher battle and a less pleasant experience. Throughout the second half of that race in particular, I struggled with my expectations and reached a point where, within a kilometre of my door, I was ready to throw it in and call it a day. During this race, despite the disappointment of seeing my fitness exposed throughout the morning, I kept running throughout, save a brief break to deal with pain in my shoulders that I had not experienced during previous races. Every once in a while I pondered just walking it in, but I ran straight through and as the last kilometre appeared I actually found enough energy to pass a few fellow runners.

A few hours after the race I resumed reading a book that outlined 7 stages of processes, which included: Discovery and Encounter; Passion and Commitment; Frustration; and Retreat and Withdrawal. As I reviewed those stages, Frustration was familiar, but I was recalling it from May 2017 rather than today. At the moment I am probably in the stage of Retreat and Withdrawal. The question is whether it is a stage that has been underway for a few hours or a few months. If I have discerned the book's account of Retreat accurately, then pondering time on a yoga mat... okay committing to time on the mat is a sign that this stage will be constructive.

The most comforting thing today, however, is the reassurance that my head kept me moving rather than capsized me with the doubts and the broken record that played during this race 2 years ago.  I'm not sure if it was a consequence of my mental outlook today or not, but after finishing the race, a few of the volunteers told me - despite my medal and race bib - that I looked like I did not run the race.  One even mused about whether or not I was eligible of a race recovery nibble given the condition I appeared to be in. The body ached in new places today, but I looked fresh. If that was a reflection of the mental ease I managed today, good.

Now give me my waffle!


Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Making Better Time But Still -- You Guessed It -- Lost

William Jevons
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox
Continuous improvement is something that is valued and pursued in a wide range of realms and endeavours. Whether it is the fuel efficiency of a vehicle, the responsiveness of an organization to change and opportunity or our individual personal development, we strive for more or better.  Whether it is a matter of survival or more personal satisfaction, it is an end that we are eager to pursue.

In the case of fuel efficiency, however, the benefits have not always resulted in the outcomes that were envisioned. While the improved efficiency ought to result in lower consumption, the efficiency actually results in a consumption increase because the improved efficiency encourages an increase in consumption rather than a decrease. Think of the instance where you drive more because you have a fuel efficient car. That increase in driving can actually result in great fuel consumption in your econobox because of that confidence about the lower rate of consumption.

The phenomenon is not a unique one. Jevons' Paradox describes this as it applies to technology or other initiatives where the efficient management and use of resources is pursued and the outcomes result in increased demand for the resource. The paradox was first identified during the industrial revolution when efforts to improve the efficiency in the burning of coal resulted in increased consumption of the resource. The paradox has also been cited in reference to oil consumption in the last 40-50 years.

It could probably apply to time as well. When you consider the household efficiencies that have been generated by modernization of home appliances, it is sad to acknowledge that families still feel as, actually more, harried and hurried than they were before these innovations were introduced. This is one instance that makes me think believe that Jevons' paradox, or a similar insight, applies to personal improvement as well.

If, in the course of personal growth, we eschew the heavy lifting in favour of more superficial tweaks to habits or routines. If we were to view personal growth through the lens of Jevons Paradox, those minor adjustments of habit may only result in being able to hurry up a little more and panic a little more efficiently. An effort to reconsider your methods managing stress, for example, would require a deep look at your coping mechanisms and the stressors you may risk exposing yourself too. If the "dive" required to examine what you currently do and how you might adapt seems too much trouble, you may defer that self-examination in favour of switching to decaf after 2pm or something else that is of a relatively superficial nature. You can identify and brag about the change that you have made but there is a decent chance that your methods of managing stress remain untouched.  If there is a sense that there is a new capacity or efficiency that has been opened up by a small chance of habit, there is the distinct chance that, as would be the case with a Jevons paradox response, that you risk either supporting the continuation of poor and worsening stress management habits or feel you can take on more stressors.

Personal growth ought to be about potential rather than efficiency. Identifying, acknowledging and cultivating the potential that one has would be far more productive that more changing a bad habit here and there. If all that we manage is a change in efficiency look back to the household scenario where a change of efficiency without a change in priorities, does not allow a transformation. The opportunity to -- in this case -- slow down, is not seized upon. Personal improvement, ideally, transforms rather than hones.

Monday, April 29, 2019

The Modern Right: Without Principle or Reason

Throughout much of my life, I acknowledged and perhaps gave more than necessary respect to the need to form and support a rational argument when advocating for the things I believed. Whether it was on a personal level, or about a public concern related to topics such as the environment, immigration or education, I have put the onus on myself to make my case. The spirit of fair play dictated to me the need to go beyond a deft rhetorical touch or an appeal to emotion to do more than assert that my gut feeling and attempt to make the appeal that if we waited 20 years we would have the data to prove I was right.

Somehow, I was conditioned to believe that my arguments needed to be sound, my thinking straight and my homework done if it were going to stand up to the scrutiny of the more rational thinking and bean-counting we associate with conservative thought. For half my life I have set aside my passionate, poetic arguments in favour of inclusion, fairness, better education and other frivolous feel-goods. I have been conscious that if I were to propose a course of action, I would have to hold myself to a scrutiny that could be measured and identify outcomes or accomplishments that I could clearly claim as my own.

I would play by those rules. I would do my best to make a rational case. Have the data. Assure as many people as I could that this was not merely a gut instinct or an effort to have my way. If I had evidence to make my case about, for example, the economic benefits of diversity I will still sit tight until I had more or more irrefutable evidence to make my case.

I want to get it right. I have written and worked with the belief no amount of BS or bullying that will make the wrong true.

In the spirit of fair play.

With the goals of advancing inclusion, improving education, protecting the environment.

That sort of thing.

Yadda, yadda, yadda... etc. and so forth.

As cold and calculating as we once thought those with a conservative mindset seemed to be -- you know, the risk-phobic bureaucrat that needed to ensure that the bean-counting was complied with and the common good attended to before anything "special" were done in a particular situation, even if it cost nothing -- you had to acknowledge and give them credit for the fact that they were being rational and following a set of rules. Regardless of how frustrated you might be with their position, they were doing what they believed was in favour of the greater public good.

Past tense.

As easily as what I stand for could be ridiculed with a line about unicorns and rainbows, the things I have advocated for has been deeply rooted in reason and reality.  Like many people, I have set aside the soft arguments about happiness or intangible benefits of an initiative to make a case that was premised or a rational argument, a clear logic model or a strong business case.  Beyond those things, my opinions and positions as a leftie, a moderate, a progressive, a liberal, or whatever label one might assignment out of a pejorative impulse, my position has also been rooted in optimism and a belief that we -- collectively and individually, as families, neighbourhoods, and nations -- are capable of doing better. It is within our reach.

The right, as it is currently preoccupied, does not exemplify that optimism. There is a more fundamentalist and pessimistic mindset that characterizes the mouthpieces of the right and the people who pinned their hopes on them.  It is quite difficult to make the case that the current leaders of the right -- whether Donald Trump, Theresa May, Andrew Scheer, or the Conservative premiers who have ascended to power over the last year or two in Canada -- are laying out policies grounded in a rational examination of their impact on the greater or common good. Whether it is resisting pressures to improve gun control laws, relaxing or eliminating measures to protect the environment, compromising food and water safety, or treating minorities or the marginalized with the appropriate regard for their human rights. Over the last few years, the leaders of the right have governed with the intention of inflicting damage in these and other areas of public interest. These "leaders" have also conducted themselves in a manner that has provided tacit cues to those who have despaired that the changes occurring are a sign of society's downfall.

The right is acting like a vanquished group because the privileges they so deeply embrace -- things like driving without the hinderance of bikes lanes, pedestrians and carbon taxes; owning guns; asserting that whatever they say is 'just a joke, don't be so sensitive;' determining the skin tone and creed of your neighbours; avoiding the queasiness that one might associate with a different lifestyle, orientation or perspective; throwing what they want wherever they want and not having to think about the consequences of their actions or beliefs -- are being compromised and that they have to fight back to retain that status and the expense of everyone else's well-being.

If the right feels they need to "fight" to retain this status, it is a fight premised on the establishment of collective rights over individual rights. It is a fight that has shown a visceral disdain for data, reason, truth and our long-term well-being. They have resorted to confrontation and petulant stubbornness when there is a need for openness and collaboration. When they speak about the environment and human rights, areas where the data is in and the arguments sound, it is abundantly clear that they are discarding principles in favour of power.

The sad thing is that reality will hold firm, regardless of what these leaders insist upon.  The consequences for our communities, societies and our planet will prove dire, but it is even more important for the diversity, stewardship, collaboration, critical thinking, honesty, and reason to be the default mode of operations among those who oppose them.

Friday, April 26, 2019

The Grizzlies: A Review

When there's a Canadian movie that remotely catches your interest, you know that you need to rush out quick to see it before its run comes to an end. So, on the Thursday night of The Grizzlies first week of release I found I was not alone and enjoyed sitting down with an ample audience.

The movie gives the account of a new teacher's efforts to respond to the social and emotional challenges in a community where among other things, suicide, particularly teenaged suicide, is, as one character puts it, not a "copycat thing" but an epidemic. The filmmakers are quite upfront about the harshness of the subject matter and go to the unusual lengths of providing a warning about these aspects of the story's portrayal before the movie, rated PG, begins. Perhaps this incongruity between rating and warning is an indication of the challenges that are unique to filmmakers as we strive to tell more and more stories of the realities and history of Indigenous people in Canada. Having been one of those callow, raw, rookie white teachers like the main character in this film, albeit half a lifetime ago, my interest in stories such as this is deeply rooted.

After the film's warning about its content, the opening credits roll over archival images of students in residential schools to help set up the story and indicate what themes will be explored in the film.  Apart from suicide, the cost of living, poor quality of housing, teen pregnancy, the dilemmas surrounding schooling, family violence and the culture clash between Inuit and Qallunaits (whites or southerners, as they are called in Inuktitut) are quickly delineated.

As the story unfolds, the young, cocky white teacher, with his eye on a lightning-quick departure for a gig at a private school, starts to recognize the issues that his students have. The portrayal of these aspects of life in the Arctic are bang on.  The youths' night-time gatherings to drink and find some safety or normalcy while their parent's are doing the same at home is one of the many details of the movie where the reality is not softened or overlooked for the audience. The harshness of the family violence and social problems are laid out clearly and quickly as the challenge of set up this tale for a movie audience is pursued.

In the effort to get the story told and to comply with the goal of having these students and their teachers overcome the challenge facing, there is, however, a bit of a rush. The young teacher, ostensibly the lead protagonist in the story, is not developed as fully as he ought to be. The challenging of defining him and the circumstances he is being airdropped into are rushed for the economy of the storytelling within the film. During the early moments of the movie, the main character's observation that their aren't any trees risks trading the quiet awe of the landscape for a quick joke. In reality, migrating southerners quietly press their heads to the airplane portholes to observe the changes in the terrain and vegetation throughout the trip.  They are awed enough by the landscape and mature enough in most instances to, more often than not, proceed with discretion or get weeded out early in the interview process to not appear in the community. Within a film, however, our rookie teacher, Russ Sheppard, provides the audiences' eyes and ears for the story as well and a film audience is clamoured for rather than vetted and carefully oriented to the story and its setting.

Another key character that is not fully developed is the school principal, played by Tantoo Cardinal.  She is overwhelmed enough of the breadth of the job and the challenges that she faces, but within the context of the movie, must also provide the big picture perspective of the challenges in the school and community that the audience may not be cognisant of. She has and all-too-familiar with the attitudes and limitations of the young white teachers who come to the village, but there are times she is required to provide blunt opposition to Ross' plans rather than display the dilemmas that she must grapple with in her position.

These, ultimately, are compromises that ought to be made because of the constraints that a feature film imposes. The filmmakers do a great job fitting this story into the template of a film and the arc is inspiring. The epilogue notes that follows the story's ending indicate that the characters who comprised the team have indeed achieved great things in their adult lives despite the challenges that remain in their community. It also serves as an admission by the filmmakers, that there were compressions and composites that served the story. The real-life Ross Sheppard stayed in the community for 7 years, an accomplishment that I admire and honour.

The Grizzlies has a story that can be easily told and it will reach sizeable audiences within and beyond Canada because of its simplicity, the key facts that it contains about the challenges facing Indigenous youth, their educators and communities and the inspiring tone it hits. There is a risk, however, in a story too simply told. During my time in the Arctic, a school administrator showed the movie Stand and Deliver to the junior high students in our school and then turned to the teachers, and essentially admonished us by posing the question, "Why can't you do that?" The question overlooked the fact that we had been in the school three months at this point and that we, unlike the protagonist in Stand and Deliver, were not of the same culture as the students.

Beneath the feel-good elements that lie at the root of this story are complex threads and realities which have been trimmed away. The story remains intact but there is much that has been left out. A longer treatment of this subject is in order and perhaps The Grizzlies will prompt more people to look for other stories about the modern Arctic or Indigenous experience. Filmmakers will have the experience to know where a corner had to be cut and have the opportunity to figure out how to tell a similar story more fully the next time around. They will also know that audiences will come to these stories in significant numbers to make them viable and the characters in these stories can be more fully developed rather than required to serve multiple functions.  

These stories need to be told and heard more and explored for the depth that they possess. In time, there is the opportunity to become familiar with the cadences of Indigenous storytelling as well.  The oral traditions of Indigenous people provide a rich source of story but story making and telling as well. Hopefully there are ways of filmmaking and storytelling that can plumb this potential beyond the arcs of tragedy and inspiration and give more space for these stories to be told and shared in the way that Indigenous people are prepared to tell them.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Untethered to Dream

A week ago I was riding the bus from Edmonton to Calgary, drowsing off and on, pondering the book I was reading and letting the muted rom-com divert me from time to time.

Behind me, a telephone conversation casually intruded on my attention. There was little mystery to the conversation, nothing that left me trying to grasp the context that could come from the other end of the line. I can't honesty rely on tropes like, "from what I gathered" or "could discern." The man behind me, whose presence might have suggested an amount of bulk looming in seat 6A, was riding the bus from Edmonton to Calgary to be incarcerated.  There did not see to be anyone accompanying him on the journey so my best guess was that he had a sentence that he was required to serve on weekends.

I have no idea. The one thing I did gather from the call was that he was keen to impress the woman he was talking to and assure her that he had an eye to setting himself straight, or at least turning the page when the time was served in the 48- or 60-hour instalments. Could he having been trying to intimidate the other passengers with the story? Possibly. At the same time it is hard to strike fear in people when you make it clear that you are, like the rest of us, free to move about the province from Monday to Friday under your own recognizance. The distinction might be that his week is the photographic negative of everyone else's, their weekends demarcating freedom as Friday afternoon's last hour drains out of the workweek.

He was vague about how long he was in and what it was for, but there was a clear desire to move on. Clearer still was his optimism and what he wanted. The conversation turned to moving on and he got specific about where he wanted to go. He wanted out of Alberta and into BC. Kelowna was not too appealing for him because of the winters and he was setting his sights on Vancouver Island.

As his half of the conversation pulsed into and away from my attention, it was inspiring to see him grant himself the broad horizons he saw for his future. There were no questions about the hindrance his criminal record might pose, none about logistics or equity or simply getting anywhere. Perhaps there is an element of that old line "freedom's just another word for nothing else to lose," as stated in the old chestnut "Me and Bobby McGee," and there is a chance that such a damn the torpedoes is just the thing that got him in to trouble and could do the same.

Still, if we strip the risks or probabilities aside, that optimism is not something that should be confined by the situation that we find ourselves in. There is also the ironic possibility that the more we have, the less inclined we are to dream or target a possibility that may be beyond reach. Perhaps a dream requires you to dramatically push everything you have into the kitty and bet it -- a prospect that may prompt some reluctance to dream at all.

With those thoughts stirring in my head, the bus continued south. We got off and we went our separate ways with him heading to a thinner mattress and livelier ambitions.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Why'd Kenney Do It?

The evidence of the Kamikaze campaign is being uncovered and there will be the expected effort to assert that evidence is actually just circumstantial evidence or conjecture and that circumstantial evidence is nothing at all or merely conspiracy to mar Jason Kenney's reputation.

It is all quite puzzling, really. At the risk of being taken out of context and quote to build the flimsy, circumstantial case in his favour, "Why would he have to jury-rig the proceedings of the United Conservative Party leadership race by bringing in Jeff Calaway as "the kamikaze candidate?" He had the greatest name recognition and along with it the strongest "machine" behind him, the experience, the blue cache of being one of the Reform, Alliance, CPC stalwarts who was on the front lines of that movement for two decades years. The reputation, track record, the whole shebang of resume credentials required to make the electorate gravitate to him. 

Or did he?

Positioned as he is, firmly on the right, his draw is fixed and there is a definite and self-imposed ceiling on his appeal. Among Conservative voters deciding the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives and then the UCP, the assets he brought back from Ottawa to Alberta ought to have been enough to clinch the position he has now in a walk. IF the whole kamikaze scandal proves to have enough truth to damage him, then the rationalizations for his (and his team's) stratagem would include a lack of personal confidence, an impulse to see what he could get away with, a distrust of the supporters within his party and an aversion to chance and uncertainty.

Of these possible motivations to support the Calaway campaign, the one that is overlooked in the crossfire of partisan motivations is the aversion to chance and uncertainty. Kenney clearly had all of the tangible advantages he needed over Brian Jean to secure leadership of the UCP, but that is never quite enough. It is a less than gentlemanly sport, especially if victory and its commensurate leverage is more important than consensus.

In an August 2016 article during his campaign for the UCP leadership, Kenney is quoted as saying, “I have learned, in 19 years in Parliament … that ‘conviction conservatives’ can’t do anything unless they can work in a coalition with others.” The thing that he seems to share in common with those "conviction conservatives" as a discomfort with chance or uncertainty. Perhaps change is another word to add to the realm of discomfort that Kenney and the far-right seem uncomfortable with, especially now that he has chosen to stand with the conviction conservatives who would form his front bench and his inner circle. The UCP united in part not strictly against the NDP, that is primarily a matter of branding or the odd sense of entitlement that the Alberta right-wing assumes within their province. It seems at times that change and perhaps even the outside world -- as the separatist or firewall impulses demonstrate -- that the UCP wants to fight against. 

We live in remarkably uncertain and rapidly changing times. We are not going to be served well by leaders who are uncomfortable with that or incapable of responding to it effectively. Effective responses are not those that rig the system in the favour of those who have the resources to rig the system in their favour, as seems to have been the case during the UCP leadership campaign. Effective responses are those that strive to integrate as much of the reality of our complex environments and take all of them into consideration when making decisions and drafting the policies that will shape this community in the coming years. At the end of the day, there needs to be a custodial impulse to providing a community that all Albertans would feel a part of.  That single community needs to have the infrastructure, the compassion and the openness for all to feel welcome, supported and included.

Those are pretty essential things and easy to neglect on the campaign trail in favour of attention getting items and issues that will drive voters to the polls, or in this more cynical era, away from the polls. Jason Kenney and the UCP find themselves struggling with the same convictions of exclusion that welled up in the past for the Wildrose Party, the convictions that Kenney once or briefly expressed a need to distance himself from. The UCP's quixotic efforts to tamp down inevitable change and fend off the discomfort of uncertainty have flared up and will erode their focus throughout the balance of the campaign and leave voters uncertain about their ability to ensure that Alberta remains a diverse, strong and vibrant community. The investigation into the Kamikaze campaign will continue and the question is not so much whether or not Jason Kenney will have his comeuppance there but whether or not Alberta wants to pin its fate on him and his ilk. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Instead of Angry Alberta, How About Petulant Conservatives?

A curious trend on social media has emerged with the #NotAngryAB hashtag trending on Twitter. It has been cornucopia of pet videos and scenic shots of Alberta landscapes. In the broader context, it is an election year both provincially and federally and the aspiring provincial opposition has been doing its best to ratchet up the animus against the current incumbent governments. Today the price of oil is $7 lower than it was when the Progressive Conservative party was counting down the last few days to its election loss in May 2015. This is but one of many things that the opposition, and reportedly the majority of the province are angry about in 2019.

The anger that the opposition, and by opposition I should narrow that to the United Conservative Party, seems to come from what could be construed as either a sense of entitlement or a resistance to change. For much of the last year, the party has had a commanding lead in provincial opinion polls but that somehow does not seem enough to content the presumptive government-in-waiting. The sense of entitlement manifests itself in two ways: 1) the assumptions that they ought to have been in government for the last four years and that the largesse of oil revenue that the province had enjoyed for much of the last 50 years ought to be restored, perhaps because Albertans are prepared to make the promise that they really, REALLY will not piss it away this time and 2) that the province of Alberta is owed some degree of insulation from the changes that have been occurring recently. Whether it is the empowerment of Indigenous peoples as partners in the development of natural resources, the diversity and tolerance that have become prevalent in the province over the past few decades, the pesky souls with that environmental consciousness that muddies the discussions about extraction and custodianship and that provincial government that does do things the way previous governments did.

So with the cat videos providing the thin edge of the wedge for discourse on anger or the lack of anger in Alberta, I'll quote Pema Chodron about "an essential choice that confronts us all: whether to cling to the false security of our fixed ideas and tribal views, even though they bring us only momentary satisfaction, or to overcome our fear and make the leap." It has been clear throughout the brief life of the United Conservative Party that they are replete with fixed ideas. It has been apparent in their opposition to Gay-Straight Alliances in public schools, and other social policies that they have opposed. As far as tribalism is concerned, the favour they have gained from racists in the province, not to mention the positions of authority that those with racist points-of-view have had within the party do not indicate that the ascension of a United Conservative Party would not be regarded as a hopeful breath of fresh air.

The rise of the UCP and their quiver of fixed ideas will herald an era of unresponsive, incapable government with a mandate to setback social policy rather than respond to the changes that are occurring and are beyond the control of the provincial government. UCP leader Jason Kenney does not have experience in an economic portfolio under his belt and his aversion to current provincial polices indicates that he will conduct a slash of spending that will be motivated by visceral attachment to dogma or disdain for anything done by the Notley government because it was the NDP.

The anger that has been expressed on the part of conservatives in Alberta and in other jurisdictions over the last few years -- the United States, United Kingdom and Ontario to name the most vivid recent example -- has been aimed at change. In each case, governments have been granted powers to resist change and each of these governments have demonstrated their quixotic responses in fashions that are clearly worthy of ridicule. Jason Kenney may be a more polished politician that the likes of Donald Trump, Teresa May and Doug Ford but that polish does not extend to bestow on him the aura of a visionary or an innovator. He did not gain the leadership of the UCP by virtue of an engaging and invigorating grassroots campaign. He got the position by virtue of the name recognition and the political capitol he has accumulated through the course of his 20+ year career.

As the vanguard of a political party pushing for a regression to past values and tired entitlements Kenney, the UCP and other angry Alberta conservatives seem too preoccupied with harbouring their grudges and plotting a return to an old world order to focus on diversifying the economy of Alberta. Perhaps they are merely averse to admitting that the oil industry with remain moribund indefinitely, but the United Conservative Party do not conduct themselves as a group of forward-thinking innovators who are capable of acknowledging that change is inevitable and generate policies that help Alberta adapt, and encourage and invite entrepreneurs and new businesses to set up shop. Instead, they will double-down on oil and insist that someone at the federal level pour good money after bad.

The United Conservative Party does not, despite its relative youth as a political entity, strike me as a group that possesses the mentality of a start-up. The do not seem connected to the innovators and the influencers who have a vision to take Alberta into a future that is built on inclusion, economic diversity and an interest in supporting the innovation, risk-taking and entrepreneurship that is required to pave the route forward. Instead, they are more inclined to ensure the security of the old ways and they will recommit themselves in an initiative that will ultimately fritter away resources and political capital that they have in shorter supply than they think.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Stagnant Versus Exploring Leaders

It is 2019, yet it seems to be a time when people are more inclined to look at the world in black and white rather than in greys or with an awareness of nuances and details. It is hard to tell if it is the majority that think and act this way, merely those in power or if, despite our best of intentions and aspirations, the vast majority of us regress to a simplistic view or response when push comes to shove.

In recent years, outmoded ideas that ought to have been consigned to the same dustbin as polio have re-emerged at a time in when progress whether they be about race, gender, religion, or the comfort that we ought to be entitled to at this very minute, regardless of the short-term and long-term expense. People of this mindset, and it goes without saying that there are business and political leaders who have decided to thrive on espousing a "you're either with us or against" mindset or narrowing their vision and consequently public discourse to battles over ill-defined mutual exclusions.  The economy and the environment can co-exist. Bicycles and pedestrians are not a threat to automobiles. Admitting a flaw or a weakness will not compromise your character. Such fallacies have too much influence on us today.

After a period of progress and positive change, more and more people are assuming that ideas and beliefs are fixed absolutes and there is significant investment of emotion, money and energy in ideas, despite the fact that they have, at best, a limited shelf-life. We must not blanket ourselves in ideas and assume that we can take indefinite comfort in them, or fix an iron-firm grip on them and their certainty despite the rapid pace of change that we have experienced throughout our entire lives. the things we merely believe are regarded as knowledge and sacrosanct because of the comfort certain ideas provide. All too often, we fail to regard ideas and beliefs as things that have an impact on others and a fixed shelf-life that ultimately includes decay. However, when ideas or beliefs are challenged -- whether by opposing opinions or by reality -- there is an escape to over-simplistic thinking or a tactical mission to get one's way.

The overlooked options in the face of such challenges are discussion, reflection and exploration.

There may have been a time and a space when these things could be done, but we live in a time when it all seems or actually is, too fast paced. Beyond that is the reality that given the penetration of social media into each moment of our lives, that there is a lack of private forums to safely discuss and get our heads around the changes that are occurring and weigh the pros and cons or even determine what we can be certain about. Instead, we have the mounting evidence that the more public the forum, the more rigid and intractable the positions people adopt.

At the start of 2019, with elections to anticipate federally in Canada and provincially in Alberta and an electoral debacle that is asking to be undone in the United States, people can anticipate convening in a forum where the positions politicians adopt are stagnated and inflexible. Adapting to the realities that are encountered during an election and acknowledge a change of policy or approach would be tantamount to weakness. While Kim Campbell might get ridiculed for saying that "[an] election is not the time discuss serious issues," there is incredible accuracy in the statement.

A few days ago I reopened Marshall McLuhan's Hot & Cool (1967) and rediscovered the following passage:

"I am an investigator. I make probes. I have no point of view. I do not stay in one position.

Anybody in our culture is regarded as invited as long as he stays in one fixed position. Once he starts moving around and crossing boundaries, he's deliquent, he's fair game.
The explorer is totally inconsistent. He never knows at what moment he will make some startling discovery. And consistency is a meaningless term to apply to an explorer. Ig he wanted to be consistent, he would stay at home.

Jacques Ellul says that propaganda begins when dialogue ends. I talk back to media and set off on an adventure of exploration.

I DON'T EXPLAIN --
I EXPLORE"

(This passage is particularly dated by McLuhan's use of "he." There have been at least two evolutions in the use of personal pronouns in the past 50-odd years. McLuhan, however, had the insight to explore these changes and make light of how those knotty little pronouns have proven to be more temporal than we ever might assume. I digress --)

Perhaps an election is not the time to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan. Somehow though, it is a good time to talk about other things. (My apologies for not barraging you with hyperlinks to the greatest hits from the campaign trail.) Let me say, however, that as erratic as Donald Trump has been, he has been consistent. The same consistency and the same stagnant, fixed point of view can be attributed to an infamous line of politicians over the last two years alone: Nigel Farage, Doug Ford, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Andrew Scheer, Maxime Bernier, Kellie Leitch, Mike Pence, Theresa May and Jason Kenney have thrived by adopting fixed, narrow, unconstructive, positions bereft of policy or innovation in favour of the best sequences from a propaganda playbook. None of these leaders have demonstrated a capacity for proposing policies that respond to the changes that are impacting society, the economy or the environment. Amongst this pantheon, there are a few who cut and run when heavy-lifting was required. Amongst these warriors exerting every last effort they can to preserve a fading status quo, Kenney is compelling because he seems to be campaigning with from the assumption that the premiership of Alberta is, by birthright or some ancient fiat, the domain of conservatives.

Those political leaders who choose to sit still and shun the responsibility to examine the changes that are occurring and drafting policies to address them are a threat. They may be worthwhile examples to follow if we are examining tactical abilities on the stump. Away from the gamesmanship of the campaign trail, however, these "leaders" embody a version of leadership that is detached, self-interested, and oblivious to the distant early warnings that exploring, vigilant leaders are more often attuned to. Whether a threat is 10 minute, 10 months or 10 years away, the likes of these stagnant leaders loathe to observe, explore, dialogue and direct in favour of calculating, strategizing and last minute fear-mongering.

Given the pace of change we currently encounter, more and more of us are seeking certainty. Lip-synching along with right-wing politicians espousing family-values and saving tax dollars is not the certainty voters ought to settle for.