Sunday, January 15, 2017

On Gender Pronouns and Peterson's Case

This is a difficult thing for me to figure out, and I'm not sure I'm quite firm on anything yet, but I've been completely fascinated by the discussions around Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto prof who refuses to use individually-determined gender pronouns, so I'll try to narrow down what I actually think based on some of his YouTube videos, his interview with Joe Rogan, and various articles. I wrote before about some points I disagree with, but here I'll also look at where his argument has some merit. He's got some solid ideas in the mix.

First of all, the fact that I'm wary of discussing this at all, means that Peterson is on to something. He might not be entirely right about what he's doing and how, but it's always a concern when people don't feel free to counter current views. Before I knew his name, this felt like an issue that wasn't allowed to be debated, and those are always the meatiest places to explore. Why can't we question it? What's going on there? I teach philosophy and social science courses, and I get into all sorts of discussions that push boundaries: is incest necessarily immoral, or why don't we all use performance-enhancing drugs, or what if we sterilize couples right after they have one child to decrease population? Yet people questioning their gender is untouchable as a debatable topic so far. It's to the point that teens who feel strongly that they're in the wrong body are allowed significant surgery even though women in their 30s can't get their tubes tied because they can't possibly know their own minds. That's really interesting to me.

For the record, I use all manner of pronouns in class. On my seating plans, I note how each person would like to be addressed. I'll call students by whatever name they prefer; I don't want there to be any reason a student feels uncomfortable to come to class. As one student said when considering what it would be like to be in Peterson's class:
Realistically, I would be too intimidated to say anything and I would drop the course or try to find an alternative. In a theoretical world where I feel like I have the courage and agency to do anything I want, I would try to have a conversation with him and say ‘Look, this is a really important aspect of who I am and it will impact the way I interact with you and your class. I would really appreciate if you used my pronouns or my name.
I'm not sure it's wise for teachers to act in ways that provoke students to avoid learning from them. And Peterson's online lectures and podcasts are engaging. I like listening to him for the most part because he's often very precise in his use of language. He seems to always have the exact right word at hand. But there's much more to this issue.

He refers to Social Justice Warriors as a troubled group, concerned that they are aggressively dividing the world: people who support them are seen as saviours out to protect them, and people who disagree are seen as hostile or predatory. I might fit the label Social Justice Warrior myself, but I agree with his concern with equating disagreement with hostility rather than allowing disagreement to provoke curious engagement. He explains that we like to keep things simple and decide who are the good guys and bad guys so quickly that only one side is allowed to be right and then any useful discussion is lost. That's a valid concern. There are nuances to any arguments that shouldn't be discounted with the whole.


ON THE NUMBER OF PRONOUNS

Peterson's clear that he doesn't object to a transitioning student requesting the opposite pronoun from what's indicated on their birth certificate. That's not his issue at all. He objects to the litany of recently created pronouns that demand individual attention.

He clarifies also that he has no issue with people using the terms, but he objects to being required, by law, to use them. He's referring to using 'they' as a singular pronoun or using 'ze' or a wide variety of other options. His analogy is that if someone refer to themselves as 'ze', it's like someone dating someone of the same sex, which is fine. But as soon as they demand that others refer to them as 'ze', then it's like them demanding that you double date with them, which is an infringement of your rights.  It's another level of involvement when, instead of just letting others be who they are, people are being asked to change their own behaviours in order to show respect for choices. They can't just be passively respectful or neutral; they have to be involved. It's not freeing speech; it compels speech.

Apparently some have equated Peterson's refusal to use new pronouns with a refusal to stop using racial slurs. He calls that claim intellectually dishonest, and I agree. A racial slur has its start as a pejorative term that was openly used during the oppression of a class of people, and most have been weened from our public vernacular. But words like 'he' and 'she' don't, in themselves, carry the weight of a painful social history. They're not problematic generally, but only very specifically. I understand the problem that can arise if we start giving credence to banning any words that are individually offensive. Students might end up with a list of words that can't be said in the classroom when they're present, perhaps with 'moist' near the top.

But he also makes some weak arguments here. He thinks language shouldn't be altered at all. But it's clear to me that language is alive and ever-changing. This is just a more abrupt change than the typical gradual shifts in usage.

I think this change is similar to the change that happened when 'Ms.' was added back in 1901:
"Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts.” How to avoid this potential social faux pas? The writer suggested “a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation,” namely, Ms. With this “simple” and “easy to write” title, a tactfully ambiguous compromise between Miss and Mrs., “the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances."
I started using Ms. on my first day supply teaching an unruly bunch ninety years after it was first considered. I wrote my name on the board, "Miss Snyder," and an anonymous voice in the crowd of 17-year-olds said, "Oh good - she's not married. No sloppy seconds." Without missing a beat, I erased Miss and exchanged it for "Ms." and never looked back. Sometimes it's preferable for marital status to go unnoticed. It took a bit for people to get used to using the term. As it became more common, some women got angry if someone assumed their marital status, but we have to acknowledge that, if we're in the minority, then we'll have to explain it and help others understand the need for this new term. We might have to patiently explain it over and over. It's unfortunate, but I don't think that, in itself, is worth a fight. Getting it added to forms as a viable option was the big turn. It doesn't help anything to be impatiently irritable with the few catching up to it all.

Peterson argues that it's just a tiny fraction of people affected by this pronoun issue, however I disagree that the number matters. The quantity of people affected shouldn't matter if it's the right thing to do. He makes a slippery slope argument that if we accept a few new words, then there could be an infinite number of words to accept with an infinite number of gradations of identity as LGBTQ becomes absurdly long and complicated. But we can still accept a few new words. It's unlikely that the movement will want a multitude of terms, and it's certainly not necessarily the case that creating a few words will lead to creating a multitude.

But he's right that having a variety of individually determined terms won't work. We need one choice for anyone that prefers a neutral pronoun. And, like Ms., it can be used when we're in that awkward position of ignorance of someone's gender. Like Peterson, I've been finding using 'they' as a singular pronoun awkward. It occasionally is used in a plural way already, but try to intentionally use it when telling a story. It muddles up the grammar to the point that comprehension can be affected. So I'd vote for 'ze' for s/he and complementary linguistic variations for him/her and his/her. But we do have to make a choice as a country - or, even better, as a world. And rather than being required to use the new term by law in conversation, we can, like we did with the addition of Ms., allow social practices to guide the shift.


ON BILL C-16

The new legislation is Peterson's primary concern. The bill passed in the House, but it still has to go through a final reading in the Senate. All parties in the House of Commons gave at least some support to the bill. At the link are the current changes that C-16 will provoke if it passes. It was debated at the second reading in the Senate on December 1st where Senator Jaffer gave an impassioned plea to pass the bill.
"The bill amends the Canadian Human Rights Act to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. 
The enactment also amends the Criminal Code to extend the protection against hate propaganda set out in that Act to any section of the public that is distinguished by gender identity or expression and to clearly set out that evidence that an offence was motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on gender identity or expression constitutes an aggravating circumstance that a court must take into consideration when it imposes a sentence.... 
Rupert Raj, a psychiatrist at the Sherbourne Health Centre, further describes the discrimination transgender people face. He states that 85 to 90 per cent of trans people are homeless, unemployed or underemployed. Despite this, some shelters will not even accept them until they have sex assignment surgery. Bill C-16's purpose is to provide transgender Canadians with the dignity they deserve."
She referred to many specific cases of young children hoping for a better life. Then a Conservative Senator, Don Plett, argued that the transgendered are arguing for two distinct genders when, he insists, there aren't just two. These are interesting times:
The transgender community that believes there are only two genders, their issue is they want to be the other gender. Yet, 70- plus genders will be included in this bill. This bill compels speech. It doesn't just work against freedom of speech. It actually compels certain speech.
This is the important part of Peterson's concern: the compelled language that's part of the legislation that requires he use whatever created pronoun a student determines is best for them.

Brenda Cossman argues that there isn't any compelled language as part of the act because refusing to use a new pronoun can't be seen as promoting a hate crime or advocating genocide under the Criminal Code. It's merely to stop discrimination of employment, housing, health care, etc. But in a later interview about the Human Rights Code, she clarifies that he could be doing something illegal but not criminal, so he wouldn't go to jail. "He could be ordered to pay money, he could be ordered to correct the behaviour, he could be ordered to go to training, etc."

Under the Code, he'd be responsible for "accepting requests for accommodation in good faith." There will be no questioning any serious request for accommodation. And tied to this is a definition of harassment that's a little slippery: “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome." If he, or anyone, used words that a student found unwelcome, like using the wrong pronoun, it sounds like it could very well count as harassment.

So, it seems like he sometimes makes it into a bigger deal than it is - there will be no hunger strikes in jail - but it's also not nothing. He's been served a couple letters from the university already. However he likely did his entire protest a disservice by being imprecise and grandiose when the facts, clearly explained, could be enough to sway people. It could enter a realm of the ridiculous given the kind of accommodations we're beginning to grant in schools (like scribes for the literacy tests). If little Johnny prefers to be called "John the Shiniest in all the Land," and I insist on plain old "John," then could this be grounds for harassment if he feels the lack of title is vexatious? This part of the code isn't new - it's not part of C-16, but it certainly takes on a bit of a different flavour now that using the wrong pronoun can be considered harassment. And I think this is where Peterson should be given an audience willing to hear him out.

Rosie DiManno further justified Peterson's concerns:
Just last week, the commission issued a statement clarifying its position: Refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified pronouns could constitute gender-based harassment; refusing to refer to a transgendered person by their chosen personal pronoun, matching their gender self-identity, will likely be considered discrimination when it takes place in an arena covered by the Code, including employment, housing and services such as education.... 
An individual who defies the jackbooting of vocabulary fascists, who won’t comply with preferred pronouns — and to be clear, Peterson does not stand accused of doing this yet; he’s merely declared he will not do so — can find himself, herself, themselves, stripped of a job, fined, have assets seized and wages garnisheed, or be forcibly trotted off to some kind of language gulag where they can be retrained as per the ideological gospels.
People attacking his claims need to take a closer look at what this law suggests and any further implications.


ON KEEPING STUDENTS SAFE

Peterson explains that what someone finds upsetting can't be the sole criteria used to determine if an action is objectionable. I agree that our young charges are becoming increasingly thin-skinned and anxiety-prone. If we continue down this road, we could have far too many good people charged and fined or at risk for job loss because they're sarcastic, oppositional, or just plain forgetful. And students suffer from over-protection. To reduce the effects of a trigger, according to CBT methods, we need to be exposed to it over and over in a safe environment, not be allowed to avoid it completely and forever. I believe the rise of trigger warnings actually fosters the development of anxiety.

He discusses Mill in a cursory way, mainly in relation to Marx, but I'd expect him to be all over On Liberty. That essay completely supports his position that harm and offence are two categorically different things that must be treated as such.

He takes a page from Freud's Civilization and its Discontents when he describes the development of socialized people: The very process of learning to live with others necessarily builds but also destroys some of our individuality. We can't have norms without some marginalization. He illustrates this with children playing games: if most want to play hide and seek, and a few want to play tag, then the tag players will be marginalized this time. We can't just be individuals refusing to acclimatize to social norms because we want to be true to ourselves because then society won't work productively. It's unfortunate, but we do have to give in a big to the ideas of the crowd.

He continues (paraphrased):
To be less afraid, we can't make the world safer, but we can break fear into bits to make it easier to confront the fear. It doesn't reduce anxiety, but it makes people braver and better able to cope. Universities should arm students with arguments, engage them in intellectual combat - it's better than real combat. University is a place to be confronted by horrible ideas - history is a bloodbath. Stay home to be safe.
Absolutely. 

But then he goes on to blame the rise of trigger warnings in the 1990s on women studies outright. I think it fits more with the general extremism born from a desire for simple solutions. We don't want to talk about the complexity of experiences, and we don't want to deal with anything uncomfortable. But we must.


ON BEING INTERESTING: Obsessions with the Self

Here's where the discussion gets a little uncomfortable. Peterson suggests our concerns are creating a generation more prone to narcissism in which, "only the oppressed class can speak for themselves; it gives them privilege because of their marginalization," and I have some similar concerns. Yes, each generation lambastes the previous one all to bits, but that doesn't prove this isn't actually a problem.

With respect to the growing number of non-binary and transgendered students, I sometimes wonder if we're fostering a set of behaviours that wouldn't happen at nearly the rate otherwise. Were there that many students quietly suffering a decade ago, or is this, just maybe, a bit of a trend?

I've seen many different ways students demand greater attention than others. If I have a student that has an accommodation that allows for double the time on tests, and I allow everyone as much time as they need, then that accommodated student will sometimes get upset. It doesn't matter that many students don't have the time or money necessary to be formally tested. And it doesn't matter that the student with documentation is getting their accommodations met. It becomes very clear that that's not the point. They don't want to ensure that they're needs are met as much as that they have more than everyone else. They want something extra. Teenagers often really need to feel special, and we seem to be provoking that desire rather than quelling it.

To what extent are some cases of gender identity a matter of being interesting? Currently in some places, it's highly rewarded. People are given extra thought whenever a pronoun is needed, and, in some parts, they're automatically part of a group that's very welcoming and supportive. About twenty years ago I had a student who said, off the cuff in class one day, "I wish I were a lesbian. They're such a tight circle, and I'm not allowed in." Clearly it's not the case everywhere, but where there is a highly supportive environment, is it possible that it fosters 'wannabe' behaviours from people who desire to be at once unique yet also part of a strong community? Are we normalizing a behaviour that wouldn't be growing as quickly otherwise?

Mark Lilla, Columbia prof, thinks the problem is an obsession with identity.
Diversity as a social goal and aim of social reform is an excellent thing. But identity politics today isn’t about group belonging; it’s about personal identity. From the ’70s into the ’90s, there was a shift in focus from group identity to the self as the intersection of different kinds of identities. Identity became more narcissistic and less connected to larger political themes. For many students, their political interest and engagement end at the border of how they’ve defined themselves. It’s extraordinary how much time and thinking they devote to exactly what they are as the subtotal of other identities.
And people are railing against this claim. But a recent study found a dramatic rise of "Fame" to be most the common value on display in shows geared to tweens. And these ideas are not dissimilar from what Charles Taylor has noticed as a shift in the philosophies of our times beginning at the enlightenment. And Hannah Arendt wrote about it at length as a reaction to what's favoured by elites starting at the turn of the century:
Deprived of political rights, the individual, to whom public and official life manifests itself in the guise of necessity, acquires a new and increased interest in his private life and his personal fate.... What the mob wanted was access to history even at the price of destruction.... The mob, and not the elite, was charmed by the "radiant power of fame" and accepted enthusiastically the genius idolatry of the late bourgeois world. In this the mob of the twentieth century followed faithfully the pattern of earlier parvenus who also had discovered the fact that bourgeois society would rather open its doors to the fascinating "abnormal," the genius, the homosexual, or the Jew, than to simple merit.... The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it....The belief that everything is possible seems to have proved only that everything can be destroyed.  
Of course we should accept people dressing as they like and inhabiting all aspects of gender they find comfortable, but to what extent are people altering their forms as, sub-consciously perhaps, a means to become interesting. There's a whole generation of teens and children who are guinea pigs to a new mentality that we should heed their perspective about their own pre-pubescent bodies at any cost. Like earlier studies on cosmetic surgery, sex change operations don't always decrease body dysmorphia. It's complicated. But it won't get any better if we're too politically correct to question the parameters of this burgeoning ideology. I'm not a typical anti-PC type because much of the movement towards correct behaviour is really a matter of being polite and respecting one another. But it shouldn't be so severe that it prevents people from asking some difficult questions.

Here's something possibly even more controversial to say aloud. It's a bit off-topic in general, but it fits with the identity obsession: There's a rise of the number of students with anxiety, OCD, depression, etc. I'm not saying they're faking illness to be special, or that it's all mind over matter, but that somehow a society that nurtures illness might end up getting more of it. It alters people's constitution to be open to illness of any kind. When I was university and I'd get sick at the end of each term, it was like my body knew it could. Or there was that time when a partner's horrible flu made him unable to get out of bed, but somehow, when I succumbed, I was able to still make lunches and get the little one to daycare. My brain knew at some level that staying in bed wasn't an option. This isn't an uncommon mom/dad scenario that likely precipitated the stereotype of men being babies when they're sick. It's because they can be. Similarly, if we offer the idea that a child is anxious, and they learn they can decrease those feelings by avoiding a trigger completely simply by referring to their anxiety ("I can't do presentations, and I need double time on tests because of anxiety."), then that behaviour has potential to increase in frequency. Now some tests are written over days, and everyone gets gum and treats. It's not necessarily a bad thing to help kids relax for a test, but this wave of concern for each special snowflake is making it harder for them to learn how to work hard, to handle insults, to tolerate difficulty, to pull themselves together in public places, and to push themselves to the end. It might be similar for gender dysphoria.

The line between something being impossible, painful, or abusive and something being difficult, taxing, or uncomfortable has been blurred beyond recognition. I believe a focus on the self is at the heart of all of these trends. "How do I feel? How should I be accommodated? What's going on inside of me?" has become an overarching concern replacing, "What's my place in society? How can I help or add something useful to the world? What's going on beyond me?"


ETA: After seeing this document, I'm not so comfortable openly agreeing with some of Peterson's views, but that's just the point. We should approach everyone's arguments critically, looking for the bits we supports and parts we reject and developing arguments to support our conclusions. Writing him off altogether isn't the solution. Thinking about each claim he makes is the only way we can work our way through this mess.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Eco-Hypocrites: Flights of the Anti-Flyers

I was just contemplating my own hypocrisy when I came across this NYTimes Op Ed on hypocrisy. Likely I'm not the only one in this position of explaining away, or coming to terms with, behaviour very contrary to my ethics. I've written before that nobody should board an aircraft for a luxury trip, and then I took my family to Costa Rica over the break.

The Op Ed discusses a study that shows why hypocrisy is so irritating:
"We contend that the reason people dislike hypocrites is that their outspoken moralizing falsely signals their own virtue. People object, in other words, to the misleading implication.... the principal offense of a hypocrite is not that he violates his own principles, but rather that his use of moral proclamations falsely implies that he himself behaves morally."
At a recent Christmas party when people spoke of the many trips about to be travelled, I asked, "How do you justify the trip to yourself knowing the damage it has on the environment?" Now, before you look at me sideways, I meant is as a legitimate question regardless how inconsiderately I likely worded it. It's something I'm struggling with, and I really want to know what others do. Is it denial? or rationalization? or apathy? How do we all act in ways counter to our own long term survival? But, of course, it's taken as a judgment. The main reaction was "You're going on a trip, so now you can't talk!"

This is only correct in part. It's correct in terms of offering a judgment of others, which is what the authors of the Op Ed are getting at. We can't rightly say to someone, "You're a bad person for wearing shoes in the house," while we currently have our shoes on in the house. That's a problem. But I'm not claiming that people are bad, but that certain actions are a problem that have to be dramatically reduced. It's similar to the reaction (often gleeful) some people have when a grammar teacher makes a grammar error. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't promote good grammar despite our own fallibility.

My rebuttal to the comment was, "Sure I can!" because we all need to stop travelling for leisure. Including me. I feel horribly guilty for taking a trip, and I really want to know how others manage those feelings when they're making travel arrangements?

There's another view out there that people are upset by claims of moral action because it forces them to reassess their own actions comparatively, and they're angry when they think they fall short of appropriate or admirable behaviour. That's actually pretty much the same thing, but it has a difference feel to it. It puts the problem in the hands of the audience's reaction to factual statements like, "I don't own a car, or I'm vegan." They feel their conception of themselves as moral human beings threatened. The authors of this view recognize that it's often an unintended implication that's read into the statement of concern. It's not the speaker behaving falsely, as the speaker can be well aware of their own flaws, but the audience who assumes it's bragging rather than concern.

The Op Ed author suggest that admitting wrong-doing helps. I do this already when I talk about the morality of eating animals because I've personally focused on reduction rather than strict restriction. But I intend to remember to do this in all cases:
"To further test our theory, we asked people to judge “non-signaling” hypocrites: those who hypocritically condemn behaviors they engage in, but who explicitly avoid implying anything virtuous about their personal behavior — by saying, for instance, “I think it’s morally wrong to waste energy, but I sometimes do it anyway.” We found that people judged these non-signaling hypocrites much more positively than they judged traditional hypocrites. In fact, they let these non-signaling hypocrites entirely off the hook, rating them as no worse than those who engaged in the same bad behavior but did not condemn others for it."
But I'm not going to stop talking about doing everything we can possibly do to slow down climate change. As Mill said,
Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be for ever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish objects and contemplation. 
We think we have a right to everything we want to have or see or be, and that doesn't just damage our planet, but, I'd argue, it does a number on our ability to ever be content.


How DO People Cope with the Guilt, and Why Did I Finally Break?

I fell deep into rationalizations.

I first agreed to my daughter's request for a trip because I was terrified of getting surgery, and I thought an upcoming trip would help distract me (because flying is more scary for me than being cut open!). I was right. It was a useful distraction in the weeks leading up to my operation. None of the things I worried about actually happened on the trip, but there was a volcano that grounded all planes for the two days before we were scheduled to leave. I didn't even know to worry about that.

But once that came and went, then it became a promise to my children (which shows a lack of the skill of measurement, going for a short term gain that provokes a long term loss). Somehow it seemed better that it was for them and that I wouldn't actually enjoy it. I hate travelling and hot climates. I don't really understand standing in line after line in a crowded airport in order to go to a place with the temperature of a Canadian heat wave, something I typically barely tolerate, in order to have fun or relax constantly surrounded by people without the hope of time alone for eight solid days. I'm really good at having fun and relaxing in my own home all by myself!

And I convinced myself it's okay because I do it so much less than many (but way more than far more others, so that falls apart too). It's the same way I rationalize eating turkey at Christmas. It does help to do it less, to consider it a rare treat, but it helps more not to do it at all.

And I figured it might be okay because we booked an eco-lodge. The place was lovely, and I asked a ton of questions about how they operate it. They considered going off-grid, but decided it wouldn't make sense to since Costa Rica runs on 100% renewable energy. They catch rain water and dry laundry (they did all our laundry) with the sun in a greenhouse-type set-up, collect sewage in a biodigester, and compost all food waste. All the food was local, the water was solar heated, and they cooled the room with fans and thick curtains rather than A/C.

 

BUT, it was all-inclusive with meals already prepared for us as we arrived at each meal. I told them ahead of the trip that we had no allergies or aversions and didn't claim vegetarian status because I wanted to eat how they eat, but, really, they fed us how typical tourists might want to eat. It was a ton of food and lots and lots of meat. After a couple days, my kids ignored desert and asked instead for a plate of raw vegetables. The owners of the resort laughed at our unusual request - and at how excited we all got at some broccoli at the side of our plates one night. I hate seeing food go to waste, so I finished my plate and then went to work on the kids' leftovers. Despite hiking through the jungle every day, I managed to gain weight. It was delicious, but we could have managed on portions half the size. Resorts are all about luxury and an expectation of gluttony seems to go along with that.

And the trip became a trial run for wearing tank tops and a bikini on the beach surrounded by total strangers. It was far too hot to be discrete and cover up any more than the bare minimum. As soon as we got to our room, we'd all strip down to our skivvies. The heat forced me to come to terms with my new body shape, and swimming in the ocean helped my arm mobility.

Most striking to me, was the social rewards mounted on people who travel. I was congratulated for planning a trip and taking it. People wanted to hear all about the plans and the results. It's hard to avoid such a normalized behaviour or consider it a luxury when, in some circles, it's presented as a necessity.

But none of this erases the fact that jet fuel creates as many GHGs in two hours per person on the flight as a typical person creates in a year.


A Better Way to Relieve Guilt

The best way to ease guilt is to do something about it: in this case to buy carbon offsets. The David Suzuki organization has a step-by-step guide explaining the rationale behind purchasing the highest quality offsets, but it still takes significant effort to find a good company for investment. Many airlines have offset calculators with preselected companies (which might use a closer look) or suggested companies. Those two calculators gave very different amounts for the identical destinations: $60 for Air Canada and $20 for Delta. But really, that's a drop in the bucket for the cost of the trip. And it doesn't entirely alleviate my guilt. It's still morally wrong to take more that you need in a way that deprives others in future.

Instead of using the calculators to try to find some kind of accurate amount, I went old school - back to my churchly days of tithing. Sending ten percent of the price of the flight to an environmental organization that preserves forests or created renewable energy or opposes fossil fuel pipelines might be a good practice to begin implementing: a personally imposed carbon tax on harmful practices. It's a small price to pay for some semblance of peace of mind for those who can afford the luxury of a destination vacation.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

On Boyden's Questionable Ancestory

It's hard when we find our heroes as fallible as the rest of us. Boyden, the prize winning indigenous writer found to be not so indigenous, is taking a hit now. Some, like Aaron Paquette, think Boyden can't claim status without having endured the hardship that went with being raised by generations decimated by legislated policy. It's cheating to take the perks without the privations. Others, like Wab Kinew, think Boyden should make amends, but then could be part of the wider circle. (Both of those pieces are beautifully written and deserve a look.) I'm more interested in the drive to assimilate with the victimized. When Rachel Dolezal did something similar, she was duly trashed. I tried to understand her position as well. Yet, through reading Boyden's books, I've attributed greater depth, thoughtfulness, and generosity of spirit to him. People don't want to casually toss him aside as a wannabe.

My ancestors were the invaders and some were likely the invaded who assimilated and survived: the Gauls and Normans and Vikings and Saxons. Later on, those Norwegians, French, German, Scottish, and Irish who wanted more for themselves or who wanted to escape persecution loaded on boats for the New World. New to them that is. They came centuries after the the French made allegiances with the Hurons, about the time the British decided to deal with the "Indian problem" by creating the Indian Act, a document of invasive regulations that enabled the residential school system to open and flourish. Just like their forefathers, they invaded and forced assimilation on the people because they had bought into the need for the purity of a single group. It's what we do.

I'm a mix of all those cultures, but I don't hold allegiance to any, not even to the line of Alsatian Mennonites that gave me my surname. It's so far back, I feel divorced from those cultures, orphaned and adopted as Canadian, whatever that is. I'm sometimes jealous of newer immigrants with clear ties to a people. And of the Indigenous Canadians. We were unsuccessful at taking their culture from them, try as we did; their culture is strong and formidable. But, as much as John Ralston Saul would like to suggest, it's not our culture.   

I grew up in a good sized house on a large lot that backed onto a beautiful maple forest, with two professionals as parents, happily married and financially stable. Some quiet alcoholism, occasional temper tantrums, and likely undiagnosed Aspergers were the only flaws in an otherwise storybook scenario. My pain is not like theirs.  

So I can see the draw. I can understand wanting to claim a history that isn't quite accurate.

Primarily, it's embarrassing to be aligned with the invaders and to acknowledge how much we've benefited from the efforts of our ancestors to exploit or destroy many peoples. It's a burden we have to accept and acknowledge in practices like naming the land we're on when we have an audience. Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next shows how German students learn to cope with the horrific actions of their country's past. We could use more of this in our own lives to help us come to terms with our collective guilt:




Nothing makes you aware of your country like leaving it. I was just in Drake Bay, Costa Rica where the locals told me of their high schools that look like prisons, with one teacher who teaches every subject for each grade. People who want a good education have to move away. The man running our resort was lucky enough to have an aunt in a city, and he moved in with her at 14. I told them that's just like Canada. We have areas where there aren't enough people for a good school, so kids are sent away from home. But our country is massive by comparison, so they're sent really really far from home to cities like Thunder Bay. They're often just boarded rather than actually raised and cared for, and they sometimes end up in trouble with alcohol or sometimes they go missing and are found at the bottom of lakes. It's absolutely tragic. They were shocked that happens in Canada too. They had no idea. (Some of the American guests there had no idea who our current Prime Minister is, though. So maybe we're just not considered in general.) We're not just guilty of past actions; we're still struggling with current issues.

Secondly, I understand the draw to the victimized. Hardship gives people honour just for existing, for soldiering on. I saw that with breast cancer, how people thought me brave just for continuing to do whatever would give me best chance for a long life. A difficult past has a curious elevating effect on a person's status with little necessary effort to develop personal character worthy of honour beyond a will to survive. It's a too easy shortcut to glom onto a surviving group to claim that status. Currently, there's an access to extras not granted to the dominant class, not granted for a reason because of everything else available to us, but I don't think that's what either Boyden or Dolezal were about. It's a side effect of their actions, but unlikely to be the main motivator. They couldn't know that they'd get the awards and grants when they told those first few lies.

We're sometimes envious of the attention given to the sick or traumatized. I'm reminded of the Robin William's film, World's Greatest Dad in which many teens suddenly claimed they were best friends with a recently deceased student who didn't really have friends because he was such a horrible person. It's not uncommon to attach ourselves to the middle of an event and claim a place closer to the suffering person because we feel at all. We want our emotional experiences with the incident recognized. It's interesting that it only happens when the suffering are at the centre of the fray rather than ignored at the outskirts, as most are. The Indigenous likely had fewer people loudly insist they're 8% native a few decades back when that admission could have a more negative effect.

The William's film also beautifully depicts how someone can get sucked into a fabrication. The dad, a struggling novelist, doesn't want his son found strangled in an autoerotic asphyxiation accident, so he reties the rope around his closet bar and writes a suicide note, which becomes his first published piece. Soon he's "finding" novels the teenager left behind. It's the only way he could get his writing acknowledged. He didn't have malicious intent, but the effect wasn't entirely harmless. Boyden's books stand on their own merit, but would he have gotten a foot in the door of the publishing world without his chosen identity?

Finally, claiming status gives individuals a people, an entire culture where they feel some sense of belonging. We're shifted to such an independent focus in society, bereft of community, that being a mutt, a mix of many cultures, can be profoundly isolating. Changing a few details of our past in order to be included in a group can be very enticing, which can sometimes be too hard to override with more moral reasoning.

I completely agree with Paquette's notion that it's not acceptable to just attach yourself to a group without enduring the challenges the group survived, but I love the flavour of Kinew's article that suggests people can be adopted and accepted as honorary members if they're worthy of the honour. We need a sense of belonging in this world right now more than we need to clarify our borders. But we also need to live authentically, honest with ourselves about who we really are and where we came from.  

Monday, December 26, 2016

On Cancer Doulas

When last we left our heroine, she had just had an invasive tumour removed, but found out there could be traces of cancer left behind. She was left to choose between surgery, radiation, tamoxifen, or nothing. Let's see what she does next...

I had never heard of Healthcare Navigators before, and it seems they don't exist as much in Canada as they do in the more expensive and privatized healthcare to the south (except for Indigenous needs), but they're becoming more of a thing here. In Ontario, some hospitals have them, and we're apparently leading the way to integrating a navigator even before an official diagnosis, but I didn't encounter any and don't know how to find one. Believe me, I've looked. If you're pregnant, you can get a doula to help you through all the issues that come up when you're at your most vulnerable and being bombarded with contradictory information. Cancer is very similar. It's just way too confusing to navigate alone. I'd like one that comes around to appointments with me, not one that stays in the hospital. Without a partner, I've had to rely on my barely-adult children to come to my appointments and try to make sense of everything. They have exams to study for and essays to write. This isn't a burden I wanted them to take on, and there's so much I would have liked to have known.

It would have been great if someone mentioned shaving my pits ahead of time. It's not something I ever do, and they put surgical tape right up in your pits, then send you home with arm exercises. I couldn't raise my arms without ripping out the hairs, and I had to get my poor children in there with tiny scissors freeing me from my own physical constraints. It also would have been great to have someone suggest I DON'T do both surgeries at once. Yes, it's fewer times under anesthetic, but it's a longer time, which can be worse. And the after care for one (plenty of walking after the oophorectomy) was contraindicated for the other (bed rest after the mastectomy). Now I know, but it's useless information to me at this point.

It would also have been amazing to have someone knowledgable there to answer my questions. I ended up back in emerge when one breast swelled to about half a boob size. After four hours, the hospital assured me that I don't have an infection, and that's all they know to look for. They sent me home to google for information. I can only guess that it was a sudden build-up of fluids, but we're still not sure. It went away before I could get in to see the surgeon. I have weird pains on one side now, but I have no interest in getting it checked out. What's the point?

I've been going to my follow-ups alone, and it's even more awash with conflicting advice now that they know I actually had cancer. No doctor seems to have a clue what other doctors do, and nobody has their head around the entire process. Here's a bit of a mild horror show - more frustration than fright. My main surgeon was confident that the plastic surgeon could just move my belly fat up to make new breasts, but the plastic surgeon was quite certain I didn't have nearly enough body fat for that. Implants were the only option, and I bowed out of that and let the surgeon know I would just rock a flat chest. He told me he wouldn't stop trying to convince me because "You're too young not to get them redone." Hmmm.  Does this mean I can't be an attractive woman with a flat chest? Does it mean I'm too young to spend my time and energy pursuing my own interests instead of pursuing a mate? It struck me as a slightly insulting comment, but I ignored it. He's likely about my age, but he was raised in a different time. I try to be forgiving.

But then after surgery, when I saw the topographical roadmap left on my chest, he told me it always looks horrible. It just does. Then I spoke to a genetics counsellor who told me he likely left extra skin behind for the plastic surgeon to use in reconstruction. I asked her to set me up with a therapist who specializes in this kind of thing, because I still haven't been able to look at myself in the mirror topless. It's really gross.

But, What. The. Fuck. If that's the case, then this is when I needed an advocate to verbally bitch slap the bugger. After that nightmare after surgery, I have no intention of going back under to get things cleaned up. I can accept that the surgery is just going to look like crap (despite the many beautiful pics of women who are living with a flat post-op chest online), but I have issues with the possibility that he deliberately ignored my decisions and created a mess unnecessarily. But I was too sore and tired and scared to complain.

I saw my gynecologist who said my ovaries were healthy. I asked her about the options available for my lymph node issue, and she was surprised tamoxifen was one of them (to reduce estrogen for my estrogen-loving micro-tumour). She said usually people come to her to get their ovaries out so they can stop taking tamoxifen . But when I saw the genetics surgeon, she seemed to think that letrozole was a better option for post-menopausal women. There are tons of side effects, and the most concerning to her was loss of bone density. She said I could take it for a while to see if it helps, but how do you tell if it's helping? She also suggested a physical every 4 months for two years, followed by one every six months after that. But with whom? My family doctor's not going to know what to look for. Other than that, lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and easy on the caffeine and alcohol.

Then my surgeon sent me to a radiologist for a consult. The radiologist was confused why I would have been sent there. He told me radiation is only used to shrink a tumour. If they don't know if there's a tumour, then they don't randomly radiate the area. But if there's cancer in the lymph nodes, which might have sucked up some cells from the invasive tumour, then they'll likely do six months of chemo followed by radiation because it'll be travelling everywhere. If I wait, and just check for lumps, and they find it later, then the chemo and radiation treatments will be longer and more intensive. The surgeon told me I'll have to do yearly mammograms despite not having breasts. The radiologist told me they don't do mammograms without breast tissue present, and I'd have to have yearly ultrasounds. Either way, radiation isn't an option at all right now, and I used a half-sick day unnecessarily. When all the doctors say each other is wrong, how can you possibly know what's right?

Before I left, I asked him about the math of it all: Previously I had a 90% chance of getting breast cancer, whereas most women have a 10% chance. But now I have a 1% chance of having it in my lymph nodes, so isn't that something to ignore?? I mean, they don't suggest surgery to women with a 10% chance, so why would I get surgery? He said it doesn't work like that. I have a 1% chance of a recurrence of cancer, which, apparently, is very different. Something like that.

So now I have even less confidence in the general surgeon because he sent me to a specialist who didn't think I should be there. Then the radiologist, whom I JUST MET told me he ended up presenting my case to rounds since neither surgeon who first discussed it, nor my gynecologist showed up. Wow. Anyway...  Luckily the radiologists did show up or nobody would have been able to tell me what happened there, and I wasn't really supposed to even meet with him. The four surgeons who looked at the case all said I should get the lymph nodes removed, BUT, the radiologist told me that I should keep in mind they were "speaking politically." Looking at my file, without me in front of them, they saw a risk involved in doing nothing, so they leaned to the side of doing something despite the risk of lymphedema (which is a 1% to 15% risk depending who you ask). Apparently the worst case for that is wearing a compression bandage on my arm forever, but I don't really believe anything anymore. I'm sure I can find an even worse case scenario. The radiologist and genetics surgeon and regular surgeon all leaned towards doing nothing because they saw me all skinny and healthy in front of them. I'm a low risk for a recurrence. But it's four against three.

Unfortunately, the radiologist couldn't tell me what the lymph node surgery would be like, except that it should be far less invasive and take a fraction of the time. So I have to go back to the original surgeon to find out for sure. We'll see if I have enough balls to complain a little about it all. Probably not. If it's an easy surgery, and I can time it to line up with March Break (so I don't have to deal with the very different nightmare of planning weeks of lessons and then fielding daily e-mails from the supply teacher), then I might go for it. I'm too curious to just leave it be without knowing for sure.

What a gong show!

On Social Control in Universities

Chris Hedges has concerns with Trump's impact on intellectuals:
Trump and his Christian fascist minions, sooner than most of us expect, will seek to shut down the small spaces left for free expression. Dissent will become difficult and sometimes dangerous. ... The Trump administration will hand our Christian jihadists a platform to champion a repugnant religious chauvinism that fuses the symbols and language of the Christian religion with American capitalism, imperialism and white  supremacy.
He spoke with historian Ellen Schrecker, author of several books on McCarthyism, who says this has been in the making for the past four decades since America has been "cannibalized for profit." They spoke mainly about the Powell memorandum launched in the 1970s and the current rise of watch lists targeting leftist academics for discrimination against conservatives or for criticizing capitalism, an act allegedly committed by Richard Wolff, a Marxist economist on the list. Left-leaning alternative media is also being targeted.

Schrecker refers to Martha Nussbaum's discussion of the importance of the humanities to give us a taste for the other through literature, history, and sociology. They think it makes you a better person and citizen when you put yourself in another's place mentally, but the pressure on people to focus on the self is very strong, even from parents who dissuade students from degrees in the humanities in order to focus on more lucrative professions.

Hedges ends with a plea for us to hold fast to
values of compassion, simplicity, love and justice....Tyrants have silenced voices of conscience in the past. They will do so again. We will endure by holding fast to our integrity, by building community and by spawning new institutions in the midst of the wreckage. We will sustain each other. Perhaps enough of us will endure to begin again.
This article is timely for me because I recently watched Jordan Peterson talk about the demise of universities, but from the completely opposing side. [He gave a 3-hour interview about many topics - some I agree with entirely, so I'll get to more of them another day.] A prof at U of T, he's been given written warnings after refusing to use alternative gender pronouns upon request. His refusal is in part to make an important point about freedom of speech. His concern, and here he runs parallel to Hedges, is that our speech is being micromanaged in a way that could be dangerous if allowed to continue. He's also concerned with the lack of a cultural history in the populous. And, like Hedges, he praises Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago for its compelling story of the inner workings of the Soviet Union. They're both concerned with the erosion of civil liberties, and Hedges takes from Solzhenitsyn's book that,
"unless these informants on the streets, in the prisons and manning our massive, government data-collection centers are disarmed we will never achieve liberty."

But that's where the similarities end. Peterson seems to take from Solzhenitsyn's book that horrors of the time were entirely due to Marxist ideas, which he further conflates with anything left-leaning, and deduces that therefore the problem with the universities is the leftists who are all Marxists, who are all unwittingly (or dimwittingly) promoting the horrors of the Gulags. The fact that Trudeau said anything nice about Castro makes him suspect in Peterson's eyes.

The atrocities of the Soviet Union might be pinned on Lenin's revolutionary actions, but Marx and Lenin had marked differences, primarily in their view of control over the people. Peterson sets up a straw man when he suggests that the Marxists all think it didn't work with Stalin because he was a monster, but it could work if they were in charge. And then he argues that we would all end up as brutal dictators given that much power. But he misses the point. Marx didn't want an authoritative body to be in charge; he wanted workers to be in charge of the factories: "to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class." His writings promote anarcho-syndicalism more than what we currently call communism.

Peterson thinks people like Marxism because it's compassionate, which is nice and all but doesn't work with a large group because we can't treat one another as kin once society gets too large. So it's misguided to have equality of outcome. All positive motivation renders the world unequal. He's on the conservative side of this meme below in terms of handouts, expecting the little guy to be motivated enough to negotiate the solution shown on the right. But, as far as he's concerned, if we just set it up like in the right image, then nobody will be motivated to do anything.
Here's a little history of this meme.
So, if I understand him, if we ensure that everyone has what they need, compassionately, then all progress will end. Here's Marx's response to that claim,
It has been objected that upon the abolition of private property, all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us. According to this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those of its members who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything do not work. The whole of this objection is but another expression of the tautology: that there can no longer be any wage-labour when there is no longer any capital.
Peterson's analysis implies an underlying premise that the poor don't work hard, which basically suggests that the rich and poor are divided entirely through their efforts. But it's clear to me that there are elements of luck and mass obsession and exploitation of others that lead some to become outrageously wealthy with relatively little effort. And there are many working a variety of jobs but just barely surviving. He's concerned with the lack of progress that would entail with equality of outcome, but then later gets all Taoist. But progress is largely antithetical to the Tao. Curious. He's a little hard to pin down.

Furthermore, Marx insisted that "Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others by means of such appropriations." He wanted to end the exploitation that enabled the few to become exceedingly wealthy off the backs of the many, not to end the profit that comes from innovation.

Peterson rails against the left, but left and right are a slippery dichotomy. In some regards, Marx is not that different, ironically, from John Locke who some call the father of capitalism. Marx wanted to stop the exploitation of the factory workers by the managers, and Locke wanted to stop the exploitation of the peasants by the aristocracy by allowing them to own the land they worked:
The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.
The father of communism and the father of capitalism and Adam Smith and Aristotle and many others, all implore us to compassionately reject exploitation of the masses and most of them want to ensure the people all have the basics to thrive. Here's Aristotle:
It is manifest therefore that a state is not merely the sharing of a common locality for the purpose of preventing mutual injury and exchanging goods. These are necessary preconditions of a state's existence, yet nevertheless, even if all these conditions are present, that does not therefore make a state, but a state is a partnership of families and of clans in living well, and its object is a full and independent life.
Back to universities. Peterson thinks the leftist ideology boxes people in. It controls and suppresses the marketplace of free ideas. He includes in this Woman Studies Departments which all dangerously foster revolution with a false anthropology that claims there used to be an egalitarian paradise before patriarchal oppression. For evidence he implores us to look at any Women Studies website, but his specific concerns seems to be that they promote class-guilt in their belief that we're responsible for the sins of our past and that they believe the oppressed deserve special compensation. [I'll dismantle that bit another day.] Because of the Marxism of the universities which is leading to the "slow creep toward social control," he thinks universities do more harm than good. We can educate ourselves online better now. Wisdom has moved outside the universities.

And then he spent many minutes applauding the reach of his own monetized videos and possibly being convinced by the interviewer to shift to a podcast model for an even wider audience, and it all started sounding a bit like an infomercial.

But then he took a decidedly left-wing view and argued for limits on the profits to be made by managers in a university. He notes the proportion of funds going to administration has massively increased and that administrators are essentially stealing the future earnings of the students who aren't allowed to declare bankruptcy on their student loans. Or, one might say, the proletariats of the system are creating indentured servitude. Interesting. He adds a capitalist twist to it with a concern that this burdens citizens at a time when they're most likely to take entrepreneurial risks. For a minute there, it almost seemed like he was forming a compassionate kinship regardless the size of our society.

He loves YouTube because it documents issues without interrogation. He calls it a revolution as overwhelming as the Gutenberg press and a re-birth of genuine journalism where people can seek out contrary viewpoints. I agree, except I'm not convinced it's entirely a good thing to promote as potentially the dominant form of education. Information needs some form of curation. There's a lot of crap out there. And if Marxist courses are the problem in universities, then people like him should stay put to offer an alternative viewpoint.

But I do agree with his concerns about social control, just like I agree with Hedges' concerns. I'm fascinated with the idea that both are concerned with social control, but both think it comes from opposing places: external right-wing think tanks and internal left-wing humanities departments, and targets opposing groups. I worry to what extent Peterson's crusade is muddling the truly frightening concerns from the other side? But maybe that's just my brainwashed leftist ideology talking.

Peterson says "university is a place to be confronted by horrible ideas. History is a bloodbath....Stay home to be safe." I agree absolutely. We must be able to express minority, dissenting views freely and openly, especially in educational facilities. I support him on that even though I'm exactly the kind of person he's blaming for it all - a crazy Marxist feminist egalitarian schooled in a leftist humanities department.

I'll get to those pronouns next time.  (ETA - here's my discussion on that)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Swiss Army Man


I first saw this at the theatre and, despite the fact that it starts with a whole lot of farting in a wide variety of tones and tempos, the ending had me in tears. I highly recommend it. The surface story is about Hank, trapped on a deserted island - sort of - who finds a dead body, Manny, who slowly comes back to life - sort of, and they try to get back home in a Wizard of Oz kind of way. Here are a few different things I think it could be about; I'll likely read much into it because it had me thinking and questioning at every turn. Authorial intention be damned! There are a ton of spoilers, but they won't really ruin anything. This is a film that can be watched over and over.

This is a resurrection story. When people come back from the dead (like Gandalf and Jesus and Harry Potter), they tend to come when they're needed the most. People don't come back because they couldn't get enough of being alive, but because other people really need them to live. Hank is in a period of profound need. He's just about to kill himself when he spots Manny on the beach. Over the course of the film, Hank refers to previous suicides and the need to sing to keep his thoughts at bay. He's struggling with himself and on the verge of losing, but "there's always a thought beautiful enough to keep you going." But maybe that's just a survival mechanism our animal brain has evolved. He couldn't get through his struggle without Manny there to help talk him through to the other side.

It's a story about loneliness. Just regular loneliness that can be debilitating and so shameful. We don't want others to find out we ever experience loneliness. Hank was too afraid to talk to the girl of his dreams; there were no parties and friends in his life, so he just walked away from society. His mother died and left him alone with a critical dad: "How do you expect anyone to talk to you if you sound retarded?". Hank developed an internal critic that prevented him from connecting with others, and his time with Manny, a facet of his inner self, helps him through his own negative thought processes. Manny is innocent to criticism. He's Wilson in Cast Away or Donald in Adaptation or Pinocchio still learning about good and evil and created primarily to keep Geppetto company. But he could also be a Frankenstein, better than human, but also able to terrorize a crowd with his ignorance of social norms. There's a consequence for seeking enlightenment, for leaving the cave (#Platoiseverywhere). We can't fit in if we're weird: "They'll call you names like Hanky Wanky." But there's a cost to ourselves - to our integrity and our authenticity - if we conform to social roles that establish an artificiality in our relationships. The denial of our true selves keeps us from ourselves.

It's a story about humanity and our disgust with ourselves as animals. Hank and Manny become archeologists humming the theme to Jurassic Park while studying the nature of homo sapiens who poop and make garbage - they are surrounded by garbage - and then die. We're more important than trash, but not by much. At least we decompose completely. Having forgotten his previous life, Manny is an alien in our world and must be told everything. Through describing the things we see as disgusting and that we hide from others (flatulating, defecating, masturbating...), Hank begins to recognize the harmlessness of them and questions the self-loathing caused by our very animal natures as they lay in a pit in the woods.

And it's a story about love. Hank is seeking that one person to make him happy. He explains porn to Manny: "Before the internet, every girl was more special," but it's telling that Manny becomes aroused only when Hank invents a romantic tale about the girl in the magazine, and later only when he sees that one girl from back home: Sarah. Love is what brings Manny back to life and provokes Hank to go back. He runs through a better version of meeting Sarah with Manny's help, as he teaches Manny how to talk to a girl who is himself dressed up as Sarah. This bit had me re-reading Albee's The Zoo Story:
"It's just...it's just that...It's just that if you can't deal with people, you have to make a start somewhere. WITH ANIMALS! Don't you see? A person has to have some way of dealing with SOMETHING. If not with people...SOMETHING. With a bed, with a cockroach, with a mirror...no, that's too hard, that's one of the last steps ... with...some day, with people. People...."
Manny learns about fear from a bear encounter, and it's relived here. He expresses all Hank's doubts about saying something stupid, but Hank is encouraging despite the terror they feel. "The more you know, the less you'll like me." As they fall, plunging into depths of water, they kiss. Hank's like Pinocchio having to confront his fears at the bottom of the ocean. The directors have commented on the gay necrophilia of the film, but I can only see that scene as an embracing of the self, as Hank's eventual acceptance of himself as lovable. Now he's able to love others, and wants to show he cares, but wary because showing you care is weird, and "we can't be weird in front of others." As he explains to Manny that Sarah is actually married to someone else, Manny grieves, suddenly impotent to action, but Hank is energized and recognizes that "We don't need her; we have each other." I haven't decided if this is denial of his own grief or if it's acceptance of himself as a whole being no longer needing the love of another to maintain him. I prefer the latter explanation, but later lines lean to the former as Hank instructs Manny to stop thinking about it.

In a final fight with the bear, Manny proves courageous enough to get Hank to Sarah's doorstep regardless the futility of the meeting. "We're all ugly, dying sacks of shit, and it just takes one person to be okay with that." As they get closer to home, the illusion of their bond is broken, and we start to see Hank as others will see him: a crazy person dragging around a dead body. Before that we're so immersed in his fantasy we sympathize with his struggle. And then we watch him, finally reaching civilization and seen by a child as he's fighting with a corpse.

The others find Hank's amazing tableaus made of garbage in the forest. We don't just destroy things; we're industrious creatures. His relationship to art especially reminded me of Freud's Civilization and its Discontents. Hank used fantasies and works of art to sublimate his impulses. He avoided the pain of the world through deliberate isolation. We have a mistaken belief that a simpler, happier life has been possible but is lost because we've become too civilized, and we're unable to endure the social constraints imposed on us. Yet we need to live in a community structure. Love should keep society going, but it's dangerously dependent on the chosen love-object. Freud even has stuff to say about gay necrophilia specifically, but generally speaking, society frustrates us with a restricted view of sexually acceptable acts, which can be ignored if we're brave. But then we still have to deal with our aggressive tendencies.

Life can be profoundly difficult to endure. An eye towards the absurd can help. Luckily the others are able to see that just enough to connect with Hank. It's not ideal, but it might be enough.


[Cross-posted at Random Thoughts on Film.]


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Shift in Values

Further to my last post about the current values and the boundaries of the social imaginary that prevent us from making any significant and necessary changes in the world, George Monbiot has data to show that actual shift in pervasive attitudes:
A study published in the journal Cyberpsychology reveals that an extraordinary shift appears to have taken place between 1997 and 2007 in the US. In 1997, the dominant values (as judged by an adult audience) expressed by the shows most popular among nine- to 11 year-olds were community feeling, followed by benevolence. Fame came 15th out of the 16 values tested. By 2007, when shows such as Hannah Montana prevailed, fame came first, followed by achievement, image, popularity and financial success. Community feeling had fallen to 11th, benevolence to 12th.
He relates the link between corporate capital and celebrity. Adam Curtis explained how that was orchestrated by Edward Bernays in the Century of the Self as I recapped in an earlier post:
There was a growing concern with industrial overproduction, so Bernays helped the US shift from a culture focused on satisfying needs to one obsessed with fulfilling desires. He promoted the idea of regular citizens buying shares in companies, and he got film stars to come to parties at the White House, forever after linking politics with celebrity right up to today when Americans are choosing between Meryl Streep and Scott Baio.
The study Monbiot cites also shows that actors get four times the publicity of scientists today: "those who have least to say are granted the greatest number of platforms on which to say it. This helps to explain the mass delusion among young people that they have a reasonable chance of becoming famous."

There was a time that I thought a wealthy celebrity would make the best politician because they couldn't be swayed by lobbyists. But I forgot that there's never enough for anyone caught up in a drive for excess.


Sunday, December 18, 2016

What Happens in the Arctic, Doesn't Stay in the Arctic

There are more and more signs of climate change about to pull a number on us, but we still won't listen. We've got ammonia in our atmosphere and a spike in methane concentrations:
"CO2 is still the dominant target for mitigation, for good reason. But we run the risk if we lose sight of methane offsetting the gains we might make in bringing down levels of carbon dioxide.... Methane has many sources, but the culprit behind the steep rise is probably agriculture.... [Methane] is about 30 times better than CO2, over a century timescale, at trapping heat in the atmosphere.... If we want to stay below two degrees temperature increase, we should not follow this track and need to make a rapid turn-around."
And the Arctic is taking the brunt of these changes. It's a flashing warning light for the whole world:
The average air temperatures were “unprecedented”—the highest on observational record.... Rarely have we seen the Arctic show a clearer, stronger, or more pronounced signal of persistent warming and its cascading effects on the environment than this year.... Average annual air temperature over land areas was the highest in the observational record, representing a 6.3 degree Fahrenheit (3.5 degree Celsius) increase since 1900.... 
Scientists who produced the annual Arctic Report Card warned the situation was changing so quickly it was “outpacing our ability to understand and explain” what they were witnessing.... This is a frightening moment. We have seen how the reins of the federal government are being handed over to the fossil-fuel industry.

Unfortunately people are still generally in favour of doing what improves their current life rather than focusing collectively and long-term. Politicians are not kicking corporations out of their beds or their investment portfolios. Parents who would do anything for their kids won't change their own behaviour to help their children's habitat remain viable.


We're nearing the end of our chances, and we're carrying on, business as usual.

Charles Taylor thinks it's because we're limited by our culture. We need a shift in our social imaginaries - the moral values embedded in our culture - the cultural attitudes and understanding we learn and perpetuate. We're currently so far afield in individualism, it's hard to see our way back to a more collective and compassionate mindset.

We accept judgment over behaviours around trivial things - choice in fashion, entertainment, political ideology (same thing?), etc. But it's unacceptable to judge people over their actual character - openly valuing the generous and other-centred. It's mean to suggest people are being unkind or self-serving. And this is internalized to the point that I wonder if most people ever take a moment to evaluate their own character, their own moral actions. Is shame a thing people experience anymore? Being self-serving is to be accepted as a viable choice in our current landscape, and we've got Ayn Rand and the like to give us arguments to maintain our course. The goal is no longer to develop character in our children or students, but to sweep clear the path ahead of them so their gains can surpass our own. The importance of doing the right thing isn't an axiom of our times.

One of my father's lessons to me was a warning that I should live in such a way that when I lay on my deathbed looking back I can rest assured that I was a good person, with few regrets over my wrong-doings, times I harmed others or took more than my share. That's how he thought of basic priorities faced in the final moments of life. Recently a few students told me their goal is to lay on their deathbed relishing all the enjoyment they had, all the pleasure they got from validating careers and access to various material status symbols of the era. It's not enough to have a job that pays the rent; it should be a joy to go to work each day.

This mindset is a concern not just because it sets them up for profound disappointment, but because we've lost sight of acknowledging our own character development. People who are against Nestle taking local groundwater for profit, will tell you so with bottled water in their hand. There's a profound disconnect between how we life and what we believe.

And we cannot change the structures allowing the continuation of behaviours that exasperate climate change with a individualist hedonistic mindset. It just won't work.

Taylor suggests that for people to work collectively to shift social structures we must have enough people who understand the model to be used. We can only walk down paths that are familiar to our culture delivered through our parenting, education, and media. Personal restraint and abhorring wastefulness and excess are not tools we can suggest. They're too far removed from our understanding of the good life.

However, a few months ago, Bill McKibben offered a means of understanding the road we have to take using a metaphor familiar to most of us.
It’s not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war. Its first victims, ironically, are those who have done the least to cause the crisis. But it’s a world war aimed at us all. And if we lose, we will be as decimated and helpless as the losers in every conflict--except that this time, there will be no winners, and no end to the planetwide occupation that follows....Even if every nation in the world complies with the Paris Agreement, the world will heat up by as much as 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.... 
Turning out more solar panels and wind turbines may not sound like warfare, but it’s exactly what won World War II: not just massive invasions and pitched tank battles and ferocious aerial bombardments, but the wholesale industrial retooling that was needed to build weapons and supply troops on a previously unprecedented scale. Defeating the Nazis required more than brave soldiers. It required building big factories, and building them really, really fast.
We're really good at war. In this war, we have to fight against our own self-absorbed consumption. But if we win, then we all come out alive, albeit some of us a significantly poorer. But we can only survive if we actually start fighting!


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Requiem for the American Dream

This is Chomsky's last long-form documentary. It came out in January, but I hadn't heard about it until recently. I paraphrased/transcribed the 72 minute video liberally with links to further readings below.

It's about the American Dream: the idea that you can be born poor but work hard enough for a home and car and good schools - that's all collapsed. We profess to like the values of democracy, so public opinion should have an influence on policy and the government should carry out actions determined by the population, but the privileged sector doesn't like democracy. We have extreme inequality with a super wealthy group in the top 1/10th of the top one percent. It's unjust in itself, but it's got a corrosive effect on democracy.

The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power

Concentration of wealth yields concentration of power, especially as costs of elections skyrocket forcing politicians into the pockets of corporations. This translates into legislation that increases the concentration of wealth through fiscal policy (taxes, deregulation, rules of corporate governance) designed to increase the concentration of wealth and power in a vicious cycle of progress.

Adam Smith described this in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations: England's principal architects were merchants and manufacturers who will made sure their own interests are well cared for however grievous the impact on citizens. Now financial institutions and multinational corporations are doing the same thing.
"All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind" (Chapter IV). 

#1. Reduce Democracy   (Also see this Truthout article from 2014).

There's an ongoing clash between pressure for more freedom and democracy from below, and efforts at greater domination from above. This goes back to James Madison, the main framer of the constitution. The US is designed so power is in the hands of the wealthy - the more responsible men, and it's seen in the structure of the constitution which originally placed most power in hands of the unelected Senate:
"Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability....the longer they continue in office, the better will these views be answered."
If everyone has a free vote, the poor majority will take the property of the rich, so democracy must be prevented.  This goes back to Aristotle's Politics. He said the best system is a democracy, but the same dilemma exists. But Aristotle had the opposite solution: to reduce inequality so the poor would be more content.

The history of the US is the struggle between these tendencies of democratization and a backlash against it. In the 1960s, people were highly involved. They became organized and actively changed things like minority rights, women's rights, concern for the environment, opposition to aggression, and concern for other people. They were all civilizing effects, but they caused great fear in the upper class.


#2. Shape Ideology

There was a business offensive in the 1970s. The Powell Memorandum, sent to the Chamber of Commerce and Business Lobby by Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, warned that business is losing control over society and something has to be done to counter the forces:
"No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack. This varies in scope, intensity, in the techniques employed, and in the level of visibility.... The fundamental premise of this paper, namely, is that business and the enterprise system are in deep trouble, and the hour is late."
It was a call for business to use control over resources to take control over society. On the liberal side came the first major report from the Trilateral Commission, a group of liberal internationalists that staffed the Carter administration who were appalled by the democratizing tendencies of the 1960s, called "The Crisis of Democracy":
"The essence of the democratic surge of the 1960s was a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private....some of the problems of governance in the United States today stem from an excess of democracy."
The passive parts of the population - special interest groups - were trying to enter the political arena. It was seen as a failure on the part of the schools to adequately indoctrinate the young. Private business wasn't seen as a special interest because they affect all of society, so it was okay if they influenced politics, but the rest must be subdued. A major backlash running parallel to all this was a redesigning of the economy.


#3. Redesign the Economy   (This bit is reminiscent of Reich's Inequality for All.)

Since 1970, there's been an effort on people with power to shift the economy by increasing the role of financial institutions: banks, insurance companies, investment companies. By 2007, financial institutions controlled 40% of corporate profits, far beyond anything prior.


In the 1950s, the economy was based on production and manufacturing. The task of finance was to distribute unused assets to create credit for merchants and citizens. Banks were regulated and no financial crashes happened during periods of regulation. In the 1970s, the increase in the flow of speculative capital allowed more risky and complex investment. Former directors were engineers, but now they're all from business schools where they learned financial trickery. They make more profit playing with money than by producing anything.

With offshore production, trade was reconstructed, and it put working people in competition with each other worldwide. Americans were pitted against the poorly paid workers in China. The capital was free to move, but the workers weren't. Adam Smith said that free circulation of labour is the foundation of any trade system, so this was in opposition to his foundational ideas.

The policy was designed to increase security. Alan Greenspan testified to congress about his success:
"Atypical restraint on compensation increases have been evident for a few years now and appears to be mainly the consequence of greater worker insecurity."
If we keep workers insecure, then they'll stop asking for better wages. It's good for the masters, but devastating for the people, and it led to a vicious cycle of concentrated wealth and power.


#4. Shift the Burden

The idea of the American Dream is partly symbolic. The 1950s-60s was the golden age with egalitarian growth in which the lowest fifth improved about as much as the upper fifth. There were some welfare state measures imposed. It was possible for a black worker to get a descent job, home, car, and send his kids to a good school. Manufacturers were concerned with their own consumers, so Henry Ford raised the salary of his workers to enable them to buy cars.

This shifted to a Plutonomy with a small percentage of the population gathering increasing wealth and becoming less concerned with consumers. The goal became profit in the next quarter even if it's due to financial manipulations. It created another class, the Precariat - precarious proletariat - the working people of the world who live increasingly precarious lives. During great growth, taxes on wealth were far higher. The tax system was redesigned so taxes paid by the wealthy were reduced and tax on the rest increased.


The pretext is that it increases investment and jobs, but there's no evidence of that. To increase investment and job, give more money to the poor to stimulate purchasing, which stimulates production and investment and leads to job growth and so on. Corporations have shifted the burden of sustaining society on to the rest of the population.


#5. Attack Solidarity  (Also see this video of Chomsky from last May).

The new view is that solidarity is dangerous. You must care about yourself and not others. Compare that to Adam Smith who saw sympathy as a fundamental human trait. This was driven out of people's head. It's okay for the rich and powerful, but devastating for the rest. It took a lot of effort to drive human emotions out of us.

We see it today in policy formation, like attacks on social security. Social security is based on a principle of solidarity; we pay taxes for the widow across town to buy groceries. But it's of no use to the rich, so they destroy it by defunding it. Then it won't work and is fodder for privatized systems. We see this in attacks on public schools: we pay taxes so everyone can go to school. This was a jewel of American society. The golden age was because of free public education. Now most students leave college with debt and are then trapped in crappy jobs unable to actually use their higher education.

In the 1950s, we were a much poorer society, but we could manage free mass education. Now we're much richer, but claim there's not enough resources for it. It's a general attack on principles that are humane and the basis for the prosperity and health of this society.


#6. Run the Regulators     (Also see Inside Job for this history lesson.)

Look over the history of regulation - railroad, financial... quite commonly it's either initiated by economic concentrations being regulated or supported by them. They know sooner or later they can take over regulators in a regulatory capture and become self-regulating with lobbyists writing laws about lobbying. In the 1970s, lobbying expanded enormously as the business world tried to control the population.

Nixon was the last New Deal president advocating for consumer safety, safe workplaces, the EPA... Businesses didn't like regulations and began coordinated efforts to overcome them through lobbying and deregulation. There was no crash in the 50s and 60s because the regulatory apparatus of the New Deal was still in place. But then it was dismantled by business pressure and financial pressure.

It started in 70s and took off in 80s. Everyone is safe if the government will come to rescue. Reagan bailed out banks and ended his term with the savings and loan crisis. In 1999, regulation was dismantled to separated commercial and investment banks. 2008 brought the Bush bailout. And now we're building up for the next one. Each time the taxpayer is called on to bail out those who created the crisis. A true capitalist system wouldn't do that, but the rich and powerful don't want true capitalism. They want a nanny state so they can get bailed out by citizens when they need to, and they call it "too big to fail." Economists like Stiglitz and Krugman disagree with the course we're following, but none were approached.

They went to Robert Rubin and Goldman Sach to fix the problem they created. Neo-liberalism provides one set of rules for the rich and the opposite for the poor. The next crash is so expected that credit agencies are counting the next bailout into their calculations. As wealth gets more and more concentrated this should come as no surprise. It's what happens when you put power into the hands of a narrow sector of wealth dedicated to increasing power for itself.


#7. Engineer Elections

Concentration of wealth yields concentration of political power particularly as the cost of elections skyrockets which forces political parties into the pockets of major corporations. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision used a 14th Amendment provision: "no person's rights can be infringed without due process of law." The intent of that was to protect freed slaves, but it was used for businesses instead so their rights can't be infringed. Gradually corporations became persons under the law in a legal fiction.

Under the 14th Amendment, no undocumented alien can be deprived of rights if they're persons. Migrants aren't counted as persons, but GM is. The perversion of elementary morality and the obvious meaning of the law is quite incredible.

The 1970s courts decided money is a form of speech in the Buckley V. Valeo case. Then the Citizens United trial of 2009-10 read the right of free speech to mean corporations could spend as much money as they want, and that can't be curtailed. They're free to buy elections. This is a tremendous attack on the residue of democracy.


#8. Keep the Rabble in Line    (Klein was on about this in The Shock Doctrine.)

Organized labour is one force which has traditionally been in the forefront of efforts to improve the lives of the general population and act as a barrier to corporate tyranny. There's been a fanatic attack on unions because they are a democratizing force; they want popular rights generally, which interferes with prerogatives in power that own and manage society. The fundamental core of labour rights is the right of free association, which means right to form unions, but the US has never ratified that. They're alone among major societies in that respect. It's so far out of the spectrum of US politics, it's never been considered.

We've had a long, violent labour history. By the 1920s, labour unions were virtually crushed by police with guns and tear gas. By the mid-30s, it began to reconstruct under Roosevelt who informed labour leaders that, in order to get it passed, they had to force him to do it: to go out and demonstrate, organize, protest. Only when the popular pressure is sufficient, will he be able to put through the legislation they want. In 1934, Roosevelt said:
"I am not for a return to that definition of liberty, under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of a privileged few. I prefer that broader definition of liberty."
The combination of a sympathetic government and popular activism enabled unions to form. Industrial actions and sit-down strikes were one step from saying, "We don't need bosses; we can run this ourselves." Business leaders were appalled; this was a hazard that had to be repressed.

After WWII, businesses acted in force with the Taft-Hartley Act, written for only one purpose: to restore justice and  equality in labour-management relations. McCarthyism was used as propaganda to stop unions. And during the Reagan era, he made it acceptable to break strikes, suggesting workers forfeit their jobs after 48 hours on strike. It all went through the roof with Bush in the 90s. Now less than 7% of private sector workers have unions. The counterforce has dissolved.


Those in power want to maintain class consciousness for themselves, but eliminate it for everyone else. In the 19th century, working people were very conscious that wage labour wasn't much different from slavery, just temporary. Now those in power drive that idea out of our heads. We just don't talk about class. Who gives the orders and who follow them - that basically defines class.


#9. Manufacture Consent     (Check out Adam Curtis' Century of the Self  for more on this.)

The public relations industry is a phenomenon developed in the freest countries: Britain and the US. In a free country, it's not going to be easy to control the population by force, so they had to have other means of controlling people - through control of beliefs and attitudes. The best way to control them according to Thorstein Veblen was to fabricate consumers. [He's the "conspicuous consumption" guy.] We have to fabricate wants, direct people to the superficial things in life, and the people will be trapped into becoming consumers. This doctrine is found through all progressive intellectual thought including Walter Lippmann, a major progressive intellectual of the 20th century, who said in The Phantom Public (chapter 14):
"A false ideal of democracy can lead only to disillusionment and to meddlesome tyranny. If democracy cannot direct affairs, then a philosophy which expects it to direct them will encourage the people to attempt the impossible; they will fail, but that will interfere outrageously with the productive liberties of the individual. The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd."
Like Madison and Powell, he thought citizens should be spectators, not participants. The advertising industry exploded with the goal of fabricating consumers. The ideal is what you see today where teenage girls spend free Saturday afternoons in the mall, not the library or park. The idea is to control everyone. The perfect system is based on a dyad - the pair is you and the internet -in which one presents you with the proper life and you spend your time and effort gaining those things. Currently that's the measure of a decent life.

Markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational courses. If we had a system like that, a true market system, then a television ad would consist on GM putting up information saying what they have for sale. That's not what an ad is. The point is to create uninformed consumes who will make uninformed choices. That's what advertising is all about. When the PR system runs elections, they do it the same way. They want to create an uninformed electorate who will make uninformed choices against their own desires.

Obama didn't really promise anything; that's mostly an illusion. There was very little discussion of policy because public opinion on policy is sharply disconnected from what leaders want. Policy is focused on private interests that fund the campaigns with the public being marginalized.


#10. Marginalize the Population

A leading political scientist, Martin Gilens, determined that 70% of the population has no way of influencing policy, and the population knows it. It's led to a population that's angry, frustrated, and hates institutions. They're not acting constructively to respond to this but are very self-destructive with unfocused anger: attacks on one another and on vulnerable targets. It's corrosive of social relations in order to get people to hate and fear each other and look out only for themselves and don't do anything for anyone else.

April 15th is that day we pay taxes. It's a measure of democracy that it should be a day of celebration as the population decides to fund the programs they agreed on, but instead it's a day of mourning - a day in which some alien power is coming down to steal your hard-earned money.

The tendencies described in the US, unless they're reversed, will create an extremely ugly society based on Adam Smith's warning of a vile maxim, "All for myself, nothing for anyone else." A society in which normal human instinct and emotions of sympathy, solidarity, and mutual support are driven out - that's a society so ugly I don't even know who'd live in it.

If the society is based on the control of private life, it will reflect those values - of greed, and the desire to maximize personal gain at the expense of others. Now, any society, a small society based on that principle is ugly, but it can survive. A global society based on that principle is headed for massive destruction.

I don't think we're smart enough to design, in any detail, what a perfectly just and free society would be like. I think we can give some guidelines. And more significant, we can ask how we can progress in that direction.

John Dewey, a leading social philosopher in late 20th century [who responded to Lippmann in The Public and Its Problems], - argued that until all institutions, production, commerce, media, unless they're all under participatory democratic control, then we will not have a functioning democratic society: "As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance."

Where there are structures of authority, domination, hierarchy, somebody gives the order, somebody takes them, they are not self-justifying. They have to justify themselves. They have a burden of prof to meet. Well fi you  - usually they can't justify themselves. If they can't then we should be dismantling them. Progress over the years has been just that. The way things change is because lots of people are working all the time - in their communities, workplace, or wherever they happen to be, building up the basis for popular movements, which are going to make changes. That's the way everything has ever happened in history

For example, freedom of speech isn't in the Bill of Rights or the Constitution. It began in the 1960s through the civil rights movement, which demanded rights and refused to back down. They established a high standard of free speech.  The same thing happened with women's rights. That's how rights are won. Flaws in institutions have to be corrected by operating outside the framework that is commonly accepted.

Activists are people who have created the rights that we enjoy; they carry out the policies and contribute to the understanding. We have to try to do things, learn about what the world is like, and that feeds back to the understanding. In a free society, the government has limited capacity to coerce, so lots can be done if people struggle for their rights.

As Howard Zinn said, "What matters is the countless small deeds of unknown people who lay the basis for the significant events that enter history." They're the ones who have done things int eh past. They're the ones who will do things in the future.