Is This Progress? This Is Progress.

What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

On Feminism and Sexism: 2013 In Review

From my perspective 2013 felt like an onslaught of issues related to gender inequality. Throughout the year I had been collecting stories to write about but in many cases I just didn't act quickly enough. With the year coming to a close it now seems appropriate to take a broad look at the variety of stories at the forefront. I've already taken some time this year to write about "Blurred Lines" and rape culture. I also posted about the eliteness of "leaning in". Beyond this, I haven't really had the opportunity to address the myriad other issues that have in many cases exploded in local and international media.

The first is all the buzz about Snapchat. Hailed as the greatest consumer product of 2013 by many in the tech sector, it has attracted tens of millions of users. Snapchat is essentially a photo messaging application developed to allow users to send photos that disappear after a brief window. Naturally, it was intended to allow people to draw pictures share images with friends with the novelty of the image not being permanent.

It has been used, however, by teenagers predominately and sexting has been a key purpose of the product as a result. This is problematic largely because adolescents generally have misconceptions about consent as well as about the technology. Teenagers are often forced into behaviours due to peer pressure, and this is exacerbated by having limited access to information. It is generally acknowledged that the images do not disappear and can in fact be recalled by someone with rather minimal technical ability.

Next, this summer saw the rise of the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. For decades feminism as a movement has been dominated by white women. As such women in Western democracies have benefited from policy changes advocated for by interest groups formed by white women. Feminists have not only failed to meet the needs of so-called women of colour, many have defended the exclusion for a variety of reasons. The hashtag resulted in a spillover of sentiment around race politics. The infighting served to damage femisism both from within and from without.

Sadly, the theme was powerful throughout this year. 2013 saw the introduction of Québec's secular charter which, by virtually all accounts, was the most controversial pieces of legislation created this year. In many respects it was white feminism manifest, espouses values of uniformity over cultural diversity. The cultural artefacts of Islam, particularly the niqab, are political hot buttons in the West. These issues are inexplicably complicated and rest on huge value judgments about identity politics and issues such as gender, religion, and culture. Society is largely divided around wedge issues like these and they frame the discourse around equality.

Lastly and most recently famed male feminist and filmmaker Joss Whedon made comments that mainstream feminism took issue with. Whedon's opinion that the word "feminist" is inaccurate and needs an update was very offensive, with good reason, to most feminists. Among his other statements were that equality should be a natural state. I can see where feminists take issue with his comments; each seems to gloss over a history of systemic oppression. It doesn't appear that Whedon's intent was to remark on oppression but on the intrinsic equality between the sexes.

Regardless of intent, the question of what place men can and should take within feminism is critical. As a male feminist, I feel that there should be a space for me to participate. However, I also recognise that it's a privilege for me to be included, not a right. I've been turned away from feminism before many times, though I've been lucky to have been included more than excluded. Feminists have pointed out that Whedon's male privilege has allowed him a soapbox from which to discuss his ideas on feminism. It's my opinion that he should be able to speak about it as much as he likes. There are far too few men talking about feminism, not the least of which being those who have the wherewithal to create change. Traditionally, this had led many feminists to bristle suggesting that it takes away from attention that would otherwise go to feminist women. I can see the temptation to think this way, but there is no finite amount of attention to devote to gender issues. Moreover, many prominent women don't use their positions of power or prestige to highlight issues or call themselves feminist.

All said, 2013 didn't seem like such a great year for gender equality. A lot will need to change, and quickly, for progress to be made in the coming years. In my opinion, the most important shift that will need to occur is a greater recognition that we are further away from equality than we as a society think we are. How this will happen is anyone's guess, but I hope that everyone continues to agitate for greater equality for everyone.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Ukraine's Future

One of the most significant stories that is not getting press is the massive demonstration in Kiev against the national government. For many reasons, including timing and location, few happen to know what's going on in Ukraine. During my masters I studied the post-Soviet space and I therefore have a keen interest in the geopolitics of the region.

The future of Ukraine is largely understood as a binary. It is generally understood that the nation can either lean toward Russia or toward the European Union. This constant push and pull places Ukraine in the middle of a scary geopolitical situation. Neither option will secure a successful future for Ukrainians.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has pursued a policy by which it feels as though it has a right to interfere in the affairs of its former constituents. Russia considers the historical political, cultural, and economic relationships as an entitlement, its so-called "Near Abroad". As such Ukraine's relationship with Russia has been complex and little has changed since 1991, including ethnic Russians still making up roughly 18 per cent of the population. Russia has sought to exert economic and political influence on Ukraine, namely in the form of gas prices. Moscow has both offered discount prices and cut off the supply. This approach has been clearly aimed at ensuring that Ukraine does not pull away from Russia.

In the past two decades Ukraine has experienced a significant connection to the European Union. The organisation has expanded into Eastern Europe in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most recently in 2004 and 2007. The European Union is seen as a beacon of economic prosperity and democracy and many in Ukraine are hopeful that European integration will transform the country. The EU has been clear about not expanding further for the time being, but it is intent to develop a special relationship with Ukraine. That said, there is a significant amount of hesitant amongst EU officials not to intrude into Russia's affairs.

In the west, Ukraine is often expected to simply divorce itself from Russia's sphere of influence in order to pursue full integration into the European Union. In Moscow, Ukraine is often expected to spurn all advances by the European Union. As mentioned before, there is minimal space for Ukraine to navigate partnerships on their terms. Instead, the intended course of action for Ukraine is to align or to remain uncomfortably situated between Europe and Russia. This is an example of cold war bipolarity and is quite destructive to Ukraine.

In the wake of an unsigned trade deal, youth in Ukraine have taken to the streets to demonstrate against a government that leans too far toward Moscow. It has been branded as an expression of democracy, one that is for an idea (European integration) rather than in favour of a particular political movement or party. Activists feel connected to Europe and view integration as a panacea. Unfortunately, expectations of the EU are high and it's an example of idealism. Minimal attention is given to the fact that the European Union is not a protector of democracy but rather a vehicle to create larger markets.

What's unfortunate is this appears to be the next chapter in a constant pendulum swing between Europe and Russia. This is particularly significant given that Russia is constantly in the news with the Sochi Games on the horizon. Much attention has been given to Russia's new homophobic laws, the crackdown on political opposition, and the policy of violence in the Caucasus. While Ukraine is likely to swing far to one side, it is likely both short term and of minimal benefit for the majority of Ukrainian society.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Whenever We Finish

Music has been a massive part of my life ever since I first picked up an instrument. In the fifteen years since it has come to define my experience. Music is so well connected to memory, and I am always transported by harmony, timbre, and melody. I write this because last night I went to see Two Hours Traffic, my favourite Canadian band, here in Ottawa. The band is having its farewell tour and I was lucky to go check them out for their last tour. I have seen them now eight times and this will be the finale.

Everyone who knew me up until I finished my undergrad knew me as the ultimate Oasis fan. It was all I listened to, all I talked about, and what I wanted to be. The transitions I went through up until that point had been defined by the songs and albums of Oasis - they synched up with life. That collapsed in 2009 when Oasis unexpectedly broke up. It felt, in many ways, like the end of being a teenager. I had to move on. Thankfully, in my fourth year of university I was listening to CBC when I heard "Sure Can Start" and I was hooked on a new band from PEI called Two Hours Traffic. I got their debut album for Christmas and it stayed in my car for over a month. Like Oasis had done for so many years, Two Hours Traffic played the backing tracks of my life over the next six years. The breakup of the band now feels like the end of my adolescence.

From 2007 to now my life has been turned around so many times it's hard to piece it all together. However, every new adventure seemed to be accompanied by the band. The debut album got me through breaking up with my first partner. When I went to teachers college their album Territory dropped the first week. Going to grad school, starting my teaching career, and now moving back to Southwestern Ontario have all taken place with this music as a backdrop. It seems fitting that a tumultuous period of intense change is hopefully ending.

Moreover, Two Hours Traffic taught me how to sing harmony more solidly and helped change the way I looked at writing melodies. Two Hours Traffic is connected to my growth as a musician. The music is also a part of many of my closest interpersonal relationships: my former bandmate David, my sister overseas, my partner, and Jenn, my very close friend from university. As mentioned before this marks the end of an era for me.

It's sad on the one hand to move on, but it's an acknowledgment that I'm onto somewhere new and exciting, which is very positive. This morning I found my old Two Hours Traffic albums hidden away, covered with signatures and brief messages from the band. I'm looking forward to finding out what my next favourite band will be, the one that defines the next stages of my life.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Politics of Memory

Memory is a topic I've written on frequently here as I'm an historian. Most recently I discussed Remembrance Day and the passing of Thatcher. These are both examples of how popular history and political discourse intersect. This is incredibly relevant this week with the death of Nelson Mandela.

It was a moment that people will take with them: where were you when you heard that Nelson Mandela died? Very few people make an impact so wide and so deep on popular history. The story of Mandela's opposition to apartheid in South Africa is full of easily identifiable good and bad, much like the story of Nazi Germany. Mandela stood up against an oppressive regime that rested on a deplorable notion of legal racism. For standing up for freedom, democracy, and equality, Mandela was jailed for 27 years. After his release in 1990 he went on to help dismantle apartheid all the while preventing racial conflict. When he was elected president he went on to nominate a cabinet that included former administrators of the apartheid mindful to not hold onto grudges. It also allowed the nation to heal from its incredible wounds. Forgiveness was a key part of his vision, leading to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

His works and his beliefs have earned him numerous accolades, not the least of which being the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. Mandela will go down in history as an example of compassion, humbleness, and dedication. He is the rare figure that is extolled by all. While this is a wonderful recognition of the universality of struggling against injustice, it also falls into a basic paradigm: understanding history as a linear process and categorising actors as dualistic. Ultimately, South Africa has become a much more equal place but there is still an incredible amount of injustice. Likewise, Mandela is neither a sell-out nor a saint.

In framing Mandela's life virtually all outlets have focused on the notion of how oppressive the past was and how this fog has been lifted. There were clear enemies and heroes and a starting and ending point. Few sources have truly examined modern South African society by looking at how apartheid lives on by manifesting itself through neoliberal economic policies. Nor has attention been put on how unequal Canadian society is. Limited focus has been put on examining why apartheid was enacted and who supported this regime or why. Little has been said about other actors who helped change South Africa. The narrative of Mandela has largely left out details that don't fit into the clean box of pro-western freedom fighter. The narrative of South Africa has been painted without contemporary turbulence.

From my perspective, freedom, justice, or democracy are not destinations. They are ideals to try to remain close to. As a Marxist historian I try to keep in mind that social pressures hold these ideals in a place of perpetual tension. It is therefore important to continue to agitate and to motivate others to participate. In today's climate that encompasses diverse struggles such as fighting against surveillance and discrimination and fighting for environmental justice and more human rights.

Friday, 29 November 2013

On Black Friday

Today is Black Friday and there has been a lot of news about what's going on. It's a relatively new phenomenon here in Canada, but growth in Black Friday sales has been substantial over the past few years. For most it marks the start of the holiday season.

One of the most troubling, though entirely unsurprising, stories to come out this year has to do with the presentation of prices. In an effort to lure customers, retailers shock us with prices that continue to look lower. The operative part of this is that prices appear to be good deals when in reality there are not. For example, some shoppers refuse to go out unless the reduction is greater than, say, 40 per cent. Some stores will inflate the price to show consumers deals that look for fantastic that they really are. It's a trick that we're used to seeing on infomercials, and unsurprisingly they are effective. Studies have in fact suggested that we are spending roughly the same amount on purchases but merely feeling that we are getting a better deal. That psychological element should not be overlooked.

What perhaps makes this even more interesting is that the notion of door crasher prizes, where the first people admitted into the store get a free product, are often lesser products. Reports that televisions given away are actually a variation on a model available on the shelf. In most cases, these products are either fashioned with inferior materials or have fewer functions than the for-sale counterparts. This trend is on the rise, particularly with electronics such as televisions.

This year has seen a scandal in that American Thanksgiving and Christmas are the closest they can be to one another. As such, the number of days between holidays is projected to cause people to spend less money during the holidays. Most retailers are deeply concerned that this will cut into their profits and damage their financial standing. There are numerous problems with this, not the least of which being that the long-term viability of most retailers will be entirely unaffected by the sales from one quarter. Moreover, customers will have numerous other reasons to get out and shop. I imagine that, for the most part, the sales figures from this year will be comparable to all recent Black Fridays, despite the fact that there are five fewer shopping days than last year. Customers will likely be packing their shopping into more intense sessions.

In order to combat the shortened season, many stores have began opening on American Thanksgiving, which is a watershed moment in Black Friday history. It has not gone without some serious controversy, some even calling this Grey Thursday. Many retailers, however, are staying out. These stores are viewed as heroes by many on social media as they are resisting the creeping barrage of consumerism into what is a family holiday and a paid day away from the working world.

A lawmaker in Ohio has, in response, urged the state government to intervene in this madness. He has suggested that retailers who wish to remain open on Thanksgiving be forced to pay triple time. This proposal is a valiant attempt to prevent the holiday from being taken over completely, but it is also not taken seriously as a real remedy. This is especially true since most Americans hardly think that a day of sales being extended into a binge weekend is even a problem in the first place.

The general attitude of consumer madness is highly problematic and speaks to the larger question of intense materialism in our society. The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is full of an overwhelming pressure to shop and to be good corporate citizens by consuming. I've written about this phenomenon before, but I wanted to restate that finding alternate ways to show your affection and care for others is important for many reasons. There are many great way to participate in what is often termed the "No-Gift Christmas" such as giving your time, a donation, your crafts, or something that is not new. There are plenty of places to get inspiration, but not a lot of support for people who wish to remove themselves from the web of consumerised giving at Christmas.

The craze of Black Friday is not a fad - it's an integral part of the shopping calendar in an increasing number of countries around the world. Without being checked by consumers or by governments, these sales will only continue to become more aggressive and overtake a greater amount of time away from what is meant to be a time for family and for getting away from the workplace.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Talking About Remembrance

There has been a lot of talk this year about acts of remembrance. The White Poppy, which is an alternative symbol of memorialising victims of war, has been in the spotlight in what has been a contentious debate about the role of remembrance day in Canada and, more broadly, the purpose of historical memory. As an historian I know that one of the most significant roles of history is how it is remembered publicly. Academic history is absolutely fascinating but is a realm not generally accessible to the masses. In most cases, constructs of history are played out more frequently in film or in commercials than they are in journal articles or seminars.

From my vantage point, I feel that a lot of the conjecture about poppies comes from the fact that Canada's history is both a very clear narrative and a sparse amalgam of divergent stories. Most people are aware that Remembrance Day is an important holiday in the trajectory of Canada as a nation. However, for most I believe the shared sentiment stops there. Everyone's personal perspective on the act of remembrance changes thereafter, to whether they think about the families of soldiers recently deployed in Afghanistan, or about the horrors of post-traumatic stress disorder, or about the military as promoting violence and war. Individuals are entitled to think about what interests them personally and what affects them emotionally about these questions. I believe the point of remembrance day is, quite explicitly, to remember the cost of warfare, which is left wide open to interpretation.

I feel that the right has a tendency to voice support for the military in a doctrinal way such as placing the soldier as an idealised figure in a glorious service role. Likewise, I feel that the far left is often all too keen to disparage most elements as though everything about the military actively promotes ideals like hierarchy and obedience in the name of "freedom" or "democracy". To me, the wide rift is mostly a result of thinking about the military as something we are either for or against. These positions lack precision and are gross oversimplifications of the role of violence and order in a global historical context. It's helpful to separate the military into several interrelated pieces: the soldier, organised violence, military institutions, and conflict itself.

I can't speak to the multitude of perspectives on these complex issues, but I can flesh out how I feel. I'm inclined to support soldiers, not simply because they have given of themselves, but because there seems to be a tacit respect for them but no real support in the long term once they leave active duty. I think of numerous family members who served during the Second World War only to come back to a society that did not understand them. I think of infantry coming back from Afghanistan who experience night terrors. I think of the families profoundly affected by this. While I support the people who serve, I don't buy into the rhetoric that we need to "support our troops" because that for me is wrapped up in supporting specific conflicts and/or the military as an institution. I'm under no auspices that the military should be abolished or that we can live in a world without conflict, but the military needs to be an institution worthy of criticism and transparency. I think that, as I mentioned before, Remembrance Day should be about taking the time to reflect privately and publicly about these issues. It makes me think about the types of questions I want to ask. What I want to talk about. What I want to hear others engage with.

What is or is not admirable about the roles of those who are in the military?

What is the cost of peace?

What is the role of states to intervene in the affairs of others?

How can military institutions be held more accountable?

How can we promote peace while going to war?

How do we honour those who serve without valourising war?

Lastly, what of the poppies? Ultimately, remembrance is a very personal and invididual choice. I believe that those who choose to remember differently or who choose not to remember are participating in valid ways. Likewise, I believe that policing the types of poppies people wear is problematic and polarising. Let's not allow Remembrance Day to be a holiday away from critical thought, one where we feel obliged to follow tradition. Let's be conscientious and try to approach issues around peace and sacrifice with open hearts and minds.

Friday, 13 September 2013

On the Charter of Values

The major political issue this week has been the release of a Charter of Values in Québec. It has ignited an explosive debate nationwide that has centred around several questions, though the discourse is rather firmly entrenched in the notion of how much society must bend for the individual or how much the individual must bend for society. While there has been a decent amount of good writing on the topic, my fear is that certain terms and concepts are not being discussed well in many forms of conventional or social media. My post today will attempt to address some of these transgressions.

Secularism refers to a political ideology where religion and government are divorced from one another. As a policy it is dominant in the United States, Turkey, and France, where these societies struggle with how religion influences politics, social interaction, and the economy. Secularism manifests itself differently in different societies. In the United States, an example with which Canadians are rather familiar, it has largely been an attack on other religions while reinforcing a deeply Christian past. In my view this is due to the fact that secularism in the United States was all about religious tolerance for different Protestant Christian groups. In France and Turkey, secularism has largely targeted all religions, in a way that it similar to what is happening currently in Québec.

As for multiculturalism, it is a policy, not a reality. Diversity is a fact of modern society and multiculturalism refers to a specific way of integrating others, and in Canada, as with the rest of the world, there are serious debates about the degree to which multiculturalism is in fact successful. Mind you a large portion of it is uninformed, xenophobic, political nonsense, but much of it is careful consideration of what other alternatives might be. Fundamentally, the idea should be that multiculturalism, while I support it steadfastedly, is not infallible. There could be something better and reasonable discourse on the matter should be encouraged rather than believing that it is outright the only way. In order to evaluate it you have to examine alternatives, and that's precisely what comparative politics is all about. To start, it's helpful to understand what other jurisdictions have multicultural policies. The sad truth is, not many. Secularism is billed as the alternative to multiculturalism, but establishing this as the binary is really useless since that barely covers the issue. Moreover, secularism and multiculturalism are not opposites.

Another concept that I feel is not being unpacked is the idea of how different Québec and Canada are, particularly in terms of identity. It's no secret that most Canadians tend to feel a sense of superiority over Americans based on the treatment of minorities. I'd argue that anglophone Canadians feel the same way about Québec in a lot of ways. It reinforces for Canadians that they are superior because an issue like this is not happening there. It allows Canadians to forget about the ways in which they marginalise others that may be less blatant.

This otherness is amplified by the limited knowledge of Québec's history by outsiders. As someone who is a Quebecer and who teaches Québec history, I can say that I have a slightly more intimate knowledge of Québec than the average anglophone. What most people tend to miss is that Québec is rather different from Canada in a lot of meaningful ways, not the least of which being that since the 1960s it has taken a sufficiently different approach to the organisation of society than Canada has. For the most part, it has actively sought to remove the church from all facets of formal power. There is an open acknowledgement among francophones of the historical role played by Catholicism, though the major current is that religion does not mix with public life. This is highlighted in the controversy about the crucifix in the National Assembly. Given that Québec (at least outside Montréal) is relatively free of cultural minorities, a secular tradition has not posed many serious problems until recently.

On a practical level, I really can't condone what Québec is proposing. Nor can I support other imperatives like the FIFA scandal from the spring. The Charter is obviously about women covering their faces, and it is therefore a clearly Islamophobic move. Division amongst society is relatively high, and that all of Québec is being admonished as on board with this troubles me. There are segments of all societies that hold attitudes that reinforce oppression. What's particularly interesting is that a wide gap has developed between so-called "conservative" and "liberal" feminists. Conservatives connect Islam to sexism while liberals grab onto the notion of choice. There are no clearly drawn lines when it comes to interpretation, and this is again why it's such a difficult element.

Lastly, I have been trying to understand this as an economic issue. It seems to be pretty far removed from the realm of the economy, though it is expressly reinforcing notions of who can and should work: the secular person. Work is a key part of economic activity, and this is therefore an important connection in a story that seems to not be talked about from the financial perspective. In a world where Québec is seldom mentioned outside of talking about separatism, this move has garnered serious attention. And perhaps it's most interesting because one of the major elements of this scandal is that, in my opinion, it is designed to be a wedge issue. The Parti Québecois has failed to gain traction amongst francophones on the economy, language, or climate change. The issue of secularism is something that has a significant power to shape the way that Québecers think of themselves. The federal government is already preparing itself for a fight, and Québec society, in many regards, seems to feel ready for it.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

VMAs 2013: Media and Sexuality

On Sunday night the MTV Video Music Awards were presented, shining a spotlight on American culture. Much has been written about Miley Cyrus joining Robin Thicke onstage for the controversial summer hit "Blurred Lines". I've been busy paying attention to what's going on through social media, television, and online articles written from numerous perspectives. I want to state some things that I thought were relevant, which I'll hopefully do succinctly below.

Instead of trying to explain what happened, I'll leave you with the performance itself so that you can have an unfiltered explanation. There's a lot to take in, that's for sure. The performances were, firstly, absolutely atrocious. I found the singing and dancing to be pretty abysmal, but quality is not the primary focus, not by a longshot. The sexualised nature of the performance has drawn criticism from hundreds of millions of people.

The media reaction has been swift, and it has developed into a massive storm. Social media sites, Twitter in particular, have been inundated with posts about the VMA performance. The mainstream media has gotten in on the action, with CNN (among other guilty parties) privileging the VMA scandal over the developments in Syria where civilians were gassed. Largely, the reactions have been to the effect of slut-shaming. Twitter has been awash with statements condemning the performance and the mainstream media has joyfully jumped in, with some even going so far as to question the sanity of Cyrus. The central arguments seem to be that this was an over-sexualised act marketed to children, and that it is offensive because it is "indecent".

The feminist blogosphere, however, with sites such as Feministing and Jezebel, has countered some of the major discourses coming out of social media, print, and television. They have been quick to hit back that the performance is offensive, but not really for the reasons listed above. While the acts were sexual in nature, the problem, to many, has been the overtones and undertones or race, sexuality and gender.

We live in a society where sex is a significant part of public life. The VMAs, in my opinion, were complicit in normalising behaviour where men and women play oppositional roles and are therefore viewed through radically different lenses. Thicke's actions have not come under scrutiny thus far, and it seems likely that they will not, despite the rather expressly rapey content of his single "Blurred Lines".

I've read some great articles that also highlight the degree to which young female artists break the mould by becoming "rebels" by adopting selected parts from myriad western queer and black cultures. ThinkProgress' Alyssa Rosenberg put it nicely when she said this is common for young peformers who wanted to "demonstrate a certain kind of rebelliousness, while still remaining largely acceptable to a mass-market audience" without struggling with the loss privilege that transgressing these lines would entail.

I think that what's missing, from my perspective, is a serious discussion about agency. I won't pretend to know what's going on behind the scenes or even on stage, but I imagine there's an intricate balance between the actors we see and the actors we don't see that produces this type of stuff. Matthew Good sums it up quite well when he states that female child performers "no longer have access to the machine that made them stars, one so powerful there is almost nothing comprable in entertainment, so decisions have to be made". It's no surprise that the trajectory taken Cyrus is a well-travelled road. The larger cultural attitudes are certainly propagated by young artists, but I'd argue that they are reactions to a culture that finds it satisfying to observe and an industry that feeds off this system. Again, slut-shaming and talking about sex is more interesting to the average American than a discourse on economic inequality or human rights violations. I believe it's easy for people to have an opinion on something like this so the volume of participants is high. It helps that this is so controversial that it is no problem to sustain.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Telecommunications Breakdown

Last Friday Bell Canada published an open letter to the Canadian Government, printed in numerous national publications. The telecommunications company is appealing to the public following Verizon's attempts to jump into the Canadian mobile phone market. In the wake of this move, I'd like to make a proposition that Canadians agitate to create a more effective market, including potentially forming a co-operative to meet the needs of Canadian consumers.

Canadians have some of the most expensive cellular rates in the world. While many reasons for this are cited, it comes down to the fact that there is minimal competition in the Canadian market. For the past few decades, Canadians have had minimal choices. Bell Canada Enterprises has been the largest player in Canada, and is privileged to hold about 30 per cent of the market share for cell phones. Bell and Rogers have been competing intensely for the last decade or so. Bell being represented in blue and Rogers in red. This is commonplace branding for Canadians who encounter Bell and Rogers countless times daily.

Bell, for example, owns a substantial part of the national telephone infrastructure, the Montréal Canadians, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and The Source. It also controls Bell Media, which includes CTV, TSN, the Comedy Network, MTV, Discovery, the Globe and Mail, and several radio stations. Not to be outdone, Rogers has similar investments in Canadian media. Shaw, which owns Global, is a third party, and Telus competes in the mobile market.

Collectively, Bell, Rogers, and Telus make up the "big three" in mobile phones. There are subsidiaries of each, but of course they do not really create more competition since they are owned and managed by the parent entities. The only independent national carriers are Wind, Public Mobile, and Mobilicity. Together these companies make up a very small share of the Canadian market (approximately 1.1 million plans or about 4 per cent). It's not by coincidence that these recent entrants to the market are small - there are two significant barriers to entry. Firstly, the CRTC regulations make it very challenging to get a license. Secondly, the capital required to run such an operation is outstandingly high.

Despite these barriers, Wind Mobile has been rather successful, taking about 2.5 per cent of the Canadian market in the past four years. However, due to unfair rules they have struggled to become true competitors. That's where Verizon comes in. An American giant, Verizon has saturated its markets and is looking for a place to expand. Verizon has massive access to capital and therefore only really needs to get past the CRTC in order to become a true competitor in the Canadian market.

If Bell was scared in 2008 with Wind attempting to join the market, this is the nightmare. The fear does not come across explicitly: the tone of the open letter is one of stirring up nationalist sentiments against encroachment from a foreign company. Bell is counting on Canadians being outraged at American money changing hands and that the public will view Bell as the little guy, which is a rather absurd proposition.

I'm not overly excited about another large multinational conglomerate coming to the market in order to increase competition. For that reason, I'd like to see something more democratic and sustainable. My hope is that Canadians could explore the feasibility of arranging a co-operative to meet the needs of wireless consumers. In the past Wireless Nomad was an internet provider arranged as a for-profit co-op and currently the Eastern Ontario co-operative Mornington Communications Ltd offers phone service. These are small companies, but are examples of the drive that Canadians have for more transparency, fairness, and sustainability in wireless communications.

I hope for more competition, but I know that meaningful changes to the market can only occur when Canadians have real options that are affordable and democratic. I support Verizon's ambitions, but I can't help but think that a co-operative is the right way to go.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Québec and the Tar Sands

Recently a train derailed in the small village of Lac Mégantic in the Eastern Townships of Québec, devastating for the local community. The details are astonishing and I'd encourage you to have a look at as many sources as possible. While it has brought to the fore some rather predictable responses, the tragedy rests precariously on some important political and economic fault lines.

Blame is currently going around, with various groups pointing to different actors and criticising their actions. Aid relief from the federal government has allegedly been slow; the provincial government has been accused of using this event as a political firestarter; firefighters, engineers, and supervisors are the subject of investigation, the role of the rail company is being scrutinised, and the regulatory systems that govern rail transportation are under attack.

Seemingly, these are all important pieces of the puzzle, and will ultimately determine the trigger for the crash as well as its larger causes. However, there seems to be minimal attention to the reason why an event like this is even taking place, and it is rather unsurprising taken in the context of larger Canadian political and economic issues.

The oil sector in Canada is a major cause of the problem. The transportation of oil by rail has increased 280 times in the past five years. While the Tar Sands are seen as a vast fountain of wealth for Canada, they are useless on their own. Oil extracted from the Tar Sands needs to be properly processed, and it is for precisely this reason that the governments of Alberta and Canada have worked so tirelessly to establish new pipeline deals. Crude oil would then be sent either to China (via the Northern Gateway Pipeline) or to the United States (via the Keystone XL Pipeline) in order to be processed.

However, there has been an incredible outpouring of support for groups that oppose these projects, namely because they oppose the Tar Sands. Where in years past people demanded that the Tar Sands be closed, the rallying cries now are that pipeline projects be stopped in their tracks. They have become significant public relations controversies given the high risks and costs, though all the while production has steadily increased in the Tar Sands. An increasing amount of oil has been sent by rail to processing plants in New Brunswick. In order to get there, oil is sent through prime agricultural land and densely populated regions of central and eastern Canada. Places like Lac Mégantic.

The Tar Sands have a massive effect on the Canadian economy, leading various governments to make decisions about fiscal issues such as taxes and services. Domestic policy in Canada is quite strikingly predicated on the Tar Sands. Decisions about whether or not scientists should be able to criticise the oil industry or whether corporations are to be held accountable and transparent are part of the grip that the Tar Sands has on Canadian society. Now rail transportation can be added to the equation.

What's perhaps most interesting is the fact that the Tar Sands were a significant part of the NDP's attack on the government after Mulcair was selected as the new leader. Mulcair argued that Canada, by virtue of having invested so heavily in the Tar Sands, had forsaken the rest of the Canadian economy. This rationale picked up serious momentum until it was pointed out that Quebec, which is the base for the NDP's support, was reliant on transfer payments from the Tar Sands.

The cries of Dutch Disease fell silent, but sadly the money that is pumped into governments across Canada from dirty oil have started people to ask a new question. Is it worth it? While financially Canada may seem to need the oil sands, the idea of externalised costs is striking. Concerns about who will pay for the rebuilding of the levelled village, how victims will be compensated, how the oil will be cleaned up, and what happens to the drinking water are now the dominant concerns of people who, for the first times in their lives, have been meaningfully affected by the Tar Sands.

It's a long distance from the advertisements that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers have created, espousing the wondrous economic and social benefit of the Tar Sands for Québec. Presumably time will tell and people will hopefully not vote with their wallets on this pressing question for the future of Canada.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Situation in Syria

My first post on this blog was in May of 2011, merely two months after the conflict in Syria first emerged. Despite my intense interest in the Middle East, I've shied away from commenting on it because I haven't felt that I've been able to put my thoughts into some type of coherent post. Given the rise in media attention over the past month, I thought I'd offer some brief insight.

My suspicion is that the logical starting place is around the nomenclature. It's been termed a civil war, genocide, revolution, conflict, insurgency, uprising, and numerous other labels. But what is it? To some degree it's a matter of perspective, but perhaps more importantly it's a question of not being able to characterise a movement as any one particular thing. In my opinion, it's numerous different things simultaneously, which is why I am attempting to refer to it as a conflict in order to remain rather vague about it. To frame this more historically, people are still debating whether or not the American Revolution was in fact a revolution or whether it was merely a war of independence. Historical events and processes are complicated and take on numerous labels at once.

The origins of the conflict in Syria are connected to the broader Arab Spring movement of 2011. Much unlike the other countries involved, the events in Syria were not short-lived. While other movements ended (Libya), and others have met with intermittent success (Egypt), Syria is alone in sustaining the climate of revolution and open combat. It's most certainly the most complicated of all the Arab Spring movements, and I'd argue that it's definitely the most misunderstood.

At a domestic level, the situation is difficult for Westerners to understand because the lines are not clearly drawn. While it is rather obvious who represents formal power, the enemies of the state are numerous. Some are self-fashioned Islamist groups while others are claim to be liberal secular moderates. There have been numerous attempts to unite enemies of Bashar al-Assad under a coalition, but these have failed because there are significant disagreements about what a post-Assad nation should look like.

This gets overwhelmingly complicated when the international context is added. Many of the groups fighting in Syria have received support from outside powers, while others have been labelled "terrorist organisations" by Washington and others. This has stopped countries, particularly France, Britain, and the United States, from making commitments to more participation. It is unclear how to intervene without picking allies carefully. The United States and other NATO allies have been burned badly in Iran, Afghanistan, and Libya over the past decade and are naturally hesitant to participate in another highly charged situation. From Russia's perspective, Syria has been an ally and, while Assad may not be the most likeable character, he is a safer bet that a radical pro-Western Islamic state. It's only been in the past few weeks that Moscow has changed its tone regarding Syria, though this has yet to materialise on the ground.

The fact of the matter is that the average citizens of Syria are left to deal with numerous factions fighting one another. The destruction is incomprehensible, with cities virtually destroyed, crops burned, and the innocent subjected to atrocities by all sides. The road toward a solution is complicated at best, since at this point numerous factions have been fighting for over two years. Every side has invested heavily in trying to create a Syria that is synonymous with their aspirations and values, often directly at odds with those of their enemies. It's unlikely that Syria will be at peace in the near future, and when that time does come, resentment will find other ways of manifesting itself.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Memorial Ride

Last weekend I went to Montréal for the burial of my grandmother, who passed away in March. It was a remarkable day to celebrate life and family, and it was a great experience for me to reflect on my life. I've therefore decided to write a more personal post, one that explores the grieving process.

The past six months of my life has been marked with numerous transitions, graduating from my masters, moving to Québec, and starting a career in teaching. In the midst of all those changes my grandmother went from being autonomous and healthy to her life coming to an end. During this time I battled with confusion, anger, stress, and sadness; much like anyone who experiences the loss of a loved one and time freezes. Like all the other new elements of my life, this one was simultaneously thrust upon me and painfully slow.

While the funeral offered some closure to me, I wasn't emotionally ready to handle what seemed like one in a long train of transitions. I had felt like I was able to take the changes, but given the tumultuous nature of my life at the time, it was a challenge, and one that I couldn't do while surrounded by family.

Between March and June my life has changed dramatically, and in that I have become more resilient and more focused. Heading to Montréal this time was so different. Standing in the warm sun on Mount Royal's Notre-dame-des-neiges cemetery, I realised that my life was centred and that while we all grieved the loss of an important person in our lives, we were all happy and ready to move forward as a family, which is exactly what grandma would have wanted.

That was powerful enough, but a long afternoon ride, where I joined four family members, embodied the state of my life and my grandmother's death. We rode from the West Island, out to Laval, around the Lake of Two Mountains, to Vaudreuil-Dorion, and back to Montréal. I thought about my grandmother and how her life was centred around Montréal. We had all come back to mark her death at the burial, but riding through the region allowed us to get together and celebrate her life.

I'm comforted that my grandmother's life was centred around Montréal, and while I've never lived there, my life has always revolved around it to a large degree. I'm excited about making decisions in the coming month about where I'm going to be living next, and it may very well be Montréal. My grandma would be proud.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Conservatives and the Media Bias

There have been a lot of controversies recently in Canadian politics. While the Federal Government has dealt with the prospective failure of the XL Pipeline, the potential trade deal with the European Union, and the spending scandal in the Senate. While this has been in the news every night, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has managed to surpass the Conservatives in media coverage.

It is alleged that Ford was videotaped smoking cocaine in a suburban neighbourhood of the city. The American website Gawker claims that two of its reporters saw the video and that it is "clearly" Ford, and this was picked up by the Toronto Star. The only information that the public has to go on is a picture that was provided. Attempts to secure the video have proven unsuccessful, and right now apparently the video has disappeared. The people with him were apparently involved in criminal activities and were both killed outside a nightclub earlier this year, leading many to assume that the video has been seized by police as part of the evidence in a homicide case.

Naturally, this has taken off as not only one of the top national news stories, it also briefly enjoyed exposure worldwide, much to the chagrin of Torontonians. Ford, for his part, denied the allegations about a week after they surfaced. During that period he managed to lose three members of his staff. The media storm intensified with nightly attention on The Tonight Show, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show.

All the while, Ford's loyal supporters, who love his "don't give a fuck" attitude, have remained at his side. While he has been vilified for his inarticulateness, his malice, and his outspoken opinions, he has significant appeal for failing to waiver in the face of strong opposition. Ford's image, in fact, is based on him being rough and tumble, and smoking cocaine with criminals has not surprised many, including his supporters. Ford has had a long history of substance abuse problems, most famously getting a DUI in the United States about a decade ago.

It certainly begs the question. What's the relevance of a scandal like this? So far as I can tell, there are two significant angles. Firstly, there is no evidence against Ford. Secondly, many seem to still feel that Ford is still fit to run the city. It's worth remembering that he was fired in 2012 and managed to win his job back.

Nonetheless, Ford has hit back against the media. It's not the first time that he has attacked the press. Far from it: Ford has always claimed to be fighting against a media bias against conservatives. According to Ford, who has taken the same line as Republicans like Mitt Romney, that the "lamestream media" is run by liberals. Ford appears every Sunday on a talk radio programme where he voices his opinions directly, without the filter of any media companies.

While my first reaction is to say that of course the media is not biased against conservatives, as media often serves the dominant class, I'd argue that mass media is not necessarily partial to a party. Instead, I prefer to think of the bias as one against an ideology of public spending on programmes that resdistribute. These are usually packaged as "pro-business" which is coincidentally how conservatives tend to brand themselves.

Sadly, despite the fact that large companies in Canada such as Bell, Québecor, and Shaw control the vast majority of national media, many Canadians believe that the media is either "unbiased" or that it represents a more "liberal" agenda. This disregards the fact that, for the most part, Canadian media tend to oppose the social welfare state and take positions to uphold the status quo on important issues like women's rights, immigration, environmental protection, or employment security.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Credit and Economic Expansion

Recently there's been a wave of attention around a motto: "do you #smallenfreuden?". This craze was later revealed to be the work of Visa, supporting their cashback rewards. The basic premise is that for every dollar you spend, you get some portion (normally less than 1 per cent) back, paid to you as a dividend at the end of the year.

You can watch a commercial for it here. There are numerous versions but the idea is the same. Don't just use your credit card for large purchases, use it even to buy a doughnut or a magazine. Credit card ownership now is very high, often with people holding two or more cards in their name. With markets saturated, Visa is looking for a new way to increase its bottom line. The next logical step is getting people to use plastic for a higher proportion of their purchases.

This comes in the wake of a significant credit bubble. I've already written about the credit crisis before. Rates of consumer debt are ridiculously high in North America, and for the first time Canadians are spending more money than they make. The average family spends $1.50 for every dollar they bring in. It's not a zero-sum game, like everyone has to be breaking even all the time, but the desired balance from a sustainability standpoint is that you can't always be spending more than you make. It just doesn't last.

Credit cards have been on the defensive over the past few years. Television shows have exposed the outrageous debt loads that average middle-income North Americans have amassed. While credit companies have at most only be partially blamed, there has been more attention paid now to the fact that credit cards are at least an enabler.

Companies like Visa are fighting back, however. And it certainly makes decent sense from their perspective. The psychological imperative is pretty compelling for the average consumer. You can make 1 per cent cash back over the year, which for some people may amount to saving 100 dollars. It's no different than loyalty programmes like Air Miles, Petro Points, or any other such systems. You are rewarded for spending money in a certain way and there's a small prize in it for your sustained attention. These programmes are popular because people want to get perks. As I'm writing this I'm very aware of the fact that I have cashback on my MasterCard.

Studies show that when we feel like we're working toward a reward we tend to make poor decisions. People will spend more thinking they'll get more points, but the logical is rather nonsensical. Spend ten dollars more to get ten cents back. Often people get prizes they wouldn't otherwise want, thoguh with cash that's never a problem. Nevertheless it works, and Visa is upping the ante by suggesting that you put virtually all your purchases on your credit card.

It may be worthwhile to say that I think there's lots of merit to buying with a credit card. It allows you to review your purchases and to keep records. It's convenient and you never need to carry lots of cash. However, the downside is that you're spending money that, in many cases, you don't have. More importantly, if you don't come up with that money you can face penalties of up to 28 per cent per year compounded monthly. In case you are curious about what your card can charge you, check out the details on the back of your statement; it's mandated by law that they explain how long it'll take to pay off your balance with minimum payments.

Credit cards are tools. Inherently neither good nor bad. But knowing how to use them is simply not a skill that many people have. Many of my friends and students don't know about the basic components of debt, financing, or interest. I was myself shocked to find out that when I paid my MasterCard bill I was short about 10 per cent of the total and they are legally allowed to charge me interest on the entire value of my balance carried. Unbelievable. I know the information is readily available you go online to find it, but that's often insufficient help for people.

While the effects for individuals are rather clear, the effects for the economy at large are shrouded. The historical context is very interesting: 1929 and 2007 are remarkably similar events. Cultures that were built on credit eventually must collapse. Massive economic growth in the 1920s was rather similar to the 2000s, financed on credit and overproduction. Year-over-year the economy expanded, largely because people bought stuff with money they didn't have, meaning that the economy was growing based on debt. Another way to look at that is that the economy grew based on future contraction, and looking at the 1930s and now it's rather evident that this was in fact the case. Both 1929 and 2007 were shocks were credit bubbles burst and suddenly the debt structures, like pyramid schemes, were unveiled. The speculation in the stock market during the 1920s led to extreme overvaluation and eventually collapse. Sub-prime mortgage lending in the 2000s brought the global economy to a standstill more recently.

Fundamentally, whether we like it or not, we are bound by the realities of economics. We can not borrow against the future in the long run. The current federal stimulus package (for which the millions of dollars of advertising has been allocated) is an example of this "spend our way out of trouble" philosophy. Creating growth without equality can function in the short term, as it has since the introduction of neoliberalism in the 1980s, but once the growth is gone, the inequality is exposed with real consequences. I sincerely believe that creating a more even economic climate will be the only real sustainable way forward.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Why Economics Counts

I have been staying on top of the most recent news with respect to the collapse of the factory in Bangladesh, and I've been thinking a lot about globalisation lately because I'm reading a terrible book about it called "The World Is Flat". So far over five hundred people have been killed in the disaster is South Asia. This is truly a watershed moment in the history of labour. People are talking about this sad story and throwing blame around all over the place. I think it's great that a discussion is taking place, but I'm concerned that people are participating without understanding a lot of the basics about economics and just how important they are to world issues.

This post will be straightforward. I will outline the basic driving factors that create a situation where exploitation is so widespread. I will then describe the tools that are used by various actors to meet their economic targets. Lastly, I will take a case study that highlights the factors, the tools, and finally the effects of the so-called "race to the bottom".

The race to the bottom is all about two driving factors: higher profits and lower cost. This drive to make the most money is an economic imperative because virtually all companies are owned by shareholders. By virtue of taking on financial risk through stocks, shareholders expect greater and greater rewards. This economic imperative results in disaster frequently, especially since in some jurisdictions it is illegal for management at a company to make decisions that will cost shareholders. Often these decisions would include cutting pollution or ending exploitative practices. The economic imperatives are important, but the cultural one is just as significant. The idea that we drive for more and more profit for the sake of it is highly problematic, especially when paydays come at a great expense for the planet and for billions of people around the globe.

There are numerous tools that have assisted in the ability of corporations to make outrageous profits. I'll mention each and try to tie them together.

Free trade has left a significant mark on economies. By reducing the barriers (tariffs or bans) that either protect entire economies or sectors within them, it has allowed the comparatively strong to push its way around. Much like vulnerable individuals need to be protected from abuse, vulnerable communities, organisations, and economies also need that protection.

Outsourcing is a direct result of free trade. Taking down barriers has allowed companies the latitude to relocate exceptionally easily in search of greater and greater profits. Free trade allows capital to move freely, but not individuals. Investments (like capital through stocks) and assets (like factories) can cross national boundaries, but labour is infrequently given the same freedom. Companies have moved their centres of production to locales where labour is ridiculously inexpensive, notably Bangladesh, Mexico, and Indonesia.

Deregulation amplifies the affects of free trade and outsourcing. Companies that relocate to poor nations benefit not only from the cheap cost of labour; they also reap the reward of minimal or non-existent laws regarding unionisation, workplace safety, and working hours, among other critical problems.

Corporatism is the last large piece of this puzzle. This ideology of creating larger more powerful businesses is highly problematic in and of itself. However, the erosion of the state as a broker of fairness only exacerbates the problem. Corporations are not and never have been democracies. It's virtually impossible to imagine them becoming democratic. Money talks, and in fact it shouts. Only the stakeholders in the company have a real say (directly or indirectly) in the affairs of the organisation. This is why alternative models like worker co-operatives are so important.

The effects of all these policies is simple at first glance. The common criticism is that it depresses wages. As much as I agree with this as a basic macroeconomic complaint, I'd like to note that it's much deeper. These policies, taken as a whole, are responsible for the nearly wholesale dismantling of private sector unions, the erosion of workers rights, the lengthening of the work week, the loss in benefits, and other "privileges" or "entitlements" that the western labour movement spent decades building. These of course do not compare to the disastrous working conditions in the developing world, but they are similar in shape.

Let's use the case in Bangladesh as a measuring stick. On 24 April a factory collapsed in the city of Savar that has up until this point killed more than five hundred people. While the causes of the collapse my likely never be disclosed, the reality is that free trade, outsourcing, deregulation, and corporatism lead directly to these types of situations where profits are pursued over safety. In the time since the collapse, Loblaws has taken significant heat for its hand in manufacturing there, though they are merely one of dozens of companies with contracts at the plant.

While the controversy rages on, Loblaws turned a messy public relations situation into a golden opportunity to differentiate itself from its competitors. Immediately following the disaster Loblaws was singled out as a retailer that purchased goods from the factory. Cries for boycotts emerged nearly instantaneously. The Pope spoke out against the abuse of cheap labour in the developing world. The case that Loblaws has effectively made thus far is rather simple: they don't know what's going on in the factories, but they perform audits to make sure that minimum safety requirements are met. The chances that Loblaws did in fact know what was going on are remarkably low. The chains of command these day are long and complicated. It is highly unlikely that anyone from Loblaws ever even read an audit about it as it was likely contracted and subcontracted.

Corporate Social Responsibility entails that businesses be accountable to the communities invested in the company, not just their shareholders. It's a corporate buzzword that, in reality, holds little water. The idea is wonderful, but it effectively leads to co-optation, where businesses pay copious lip service to a cause but in effect do virtually nothing. It's important to remember that the point of Corporate Social Responsibility is merely to protect the public image of the brand in order to make more money. Loblaws has done this by pledging a small sum of money to those immediately affected and talking up the notion that regulations will change.

One of my students asked me last week if slavery still exists. I told her it is an open question, something hotly debated by academics, journalists, and businesspeople alike. It is evident that it still exists, though the degree to which it does is unquantifiable. I come down on the side that slavery is widespread, but that its new form makes it look much less exploitative and a lot more like offering hope and social mobility. It's a shame that it takes a tragedy of this calibre to force even small action.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Terrorism and Citizenship

I had been spending a lot of time over the past two weeks talking to my students about terrorism. In the wake of the Boston Bombings there has been ample discussion about violence, ideology, and religion. Where they all intersect is interesting because it reveals the extent to which our society has some very strong opinions about who can and should citizens. This post will explore the implications of terrorism and citizenship.

I'll start by explaining that there has been a draft of a post about terrorism and citizenship sitting here for some time. I was going to write about the press concerning the terrorist attack in Bulgaria last summer which killed five Israeli tourists. Canadian citizens have been linked to bombings, and this has prompted some potential changes at Citizenship and Immigration Canada. This conversation, however, has been entirely overshadowed by the events that occurred in the United States. That conversation has, in turn, been cast aside by the arrests of two non-citizens who are accused of planning an attack on VIA passenger train.

The attack in Boston was a horrific event. I certainly do not endorse or condone the use of such violence against innocent civilians, but I do believe that it shouldn't be immediately condemned as incomprehensible and cowardly.

The reasons for such actions are complicated, but they are quite understandable. The two men behind the attacks, the Tsarnaev brothers, were from Chechnya, a region that has long been struggling to gain independence from Russia. The conflict is largely unknown in the West. The United States has kept relative neutrality, angering both the Chechen nationalists and the Russians who have been attacked in absolutely astonishing terror attacks. It is patently unclear why the Tsarnaev brothers, permanent residents of the United States, chose to strike in Boston, but the underpinnings are rather easy to imagine.

The second element regards the notion of cowardice. While I won't state that the assailants were valourous, I will state that our notions of cowardice are misguided. It is the average North American who is truly a coward, removed from the world of conflict and oppression. Systems of political, social, and economic hierarchy have produced an unbelievable amount of suffering around the world for westerners it is out of sight and thus out of mind.

I've written about citizenship before, and it's no secret that while I hold great disdain for Stephen Harper, the Conservative for whom I have the greatest frustration is Jason Kenny. His work at Citizenship and Immigration Canada has given him a significant profile. He's frequently in the media talking about foreign workers, the condemnation of international marriages, and of course Islam and terror.

The xenophobic attitudes of many in Canada aren't arbitrary; they are based on a perceived world where all the violence in the modern world is centred around conflict between religions. We live in a world where nationalist and political conflicts are supposedly over. The cause of violent conflict, we are often reminded, is religion. This is manifested in asymmetrical wars like Afghanistan and through acts of incredible terror such as the London bombings.

Citizenship is an often misunderstood concept. It's an abstract idea that someone can belong, in a legal sense, to a community at the state level. Unlike nationalism where inclusion and exclusion can be a significantly contentious and grey matter, citizenship is more matter of fact. Being a "Canadian" in a social sense can involve feeling a connection to the land, the people, the culture, or the institutions. However, citizenship is a legal-political concept that is supposedly black and white. Someone is a citizen of only one or two states and thus is bound by their laws and simultaneously protected as one. Discussions like "if only we had deported them sooner" are quite sad to see.

However, making changes to rules around citizenship that allow people to suddenly lose it defeats the purpose of having citizenship in the first place. It is designed as a special protection that cannot be arbitrarily revoked. The terrorist attack in Bulgaria exposed the xenophobic and Islamophobic attitudes of the Canadian government. It is frankly no surprise given that Jason Kenny has spoken out about other items connected to various others: Muslims, Arabs, and immigrants. The idea is relatively simple, everyone who comes to Canada has to assimilate. Even if they do this well, they will continue to be inferior to "normal" Canadians and will continue to attract the suspicion of the government as well as individual members of society.

This is symptomatic of the way in which racial profiling has destroyed lives, most famously with Maher Arrar. What's worse is that our ideas of crime in Canada are becoming more strict, with punishments doled out in place of working to understand and rehabilitate those who have "offended". The Boston Bombings are no exception. When newly elected Liberal leader Justin Trudeau mentioned that we should try to understand the root causes of such an act, Harper replied by stating that we should "condemn it categorically, and to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators you deal with them as harshly as possible. And that's what this government would do if ever faced with such actions".

Ultimately, I'm not convinced that an act of terror should result the loss of one's citizenship. That's a really outrageous penalty considering there will be numerous others that these people will face. These people could become stateless, they can be charged by any manner or organisations or states, and they could be handed over to be tortured. This is simply unacceptable.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Remembering Thatcher

As many of you know, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died on 8 April, had her funeral last week in London. Up until the recent tragedy at the Boston Marathon, Thatcher's death was the lead article. The word that was thrown around continuously was the idea that Thatcher was "divisive" and that her death was surrounded by controversy about her legacy. Numerous groups and invididuals attacked the former Prime Minister for her economic and social reforms, while other tended to revere her for saving Britain.

If you have been consuming all this media and are confused about what to think, you are not alone. I'm struggling with what I feel is Thatcher's legacy. Certain parts of it are simply matters of fact. She cut taxes for the country's elite. She opposed European integration. She didn't relax immigration policies. She stood firm in the struggles in Ireland. What these facts mean requires some careful consideration. Any one of those particular items can be viewed positively or negatively because they are value judgments. And this is my point right here: the idea of encapsulating someone's legacy as good or bad is generally rather difficult in the best of circumstances, though it's certainly preposterous in Thatcher's case. She's complicated, much like each of her individual attributes or her individual policies. I, therefore, am reacting to the fact that media outlets are obsessed with having the last word about her legacy as positive or negative. She was quite a lot of both.

I am not alone in viewing much of Thatcherism as a terrible thing, but I'm also quick to point out that Thatcher certainly had numerous positive impacts: she was nominally pro-choice, supported limited equality rights for queer people, she was the first female leader of a developed country, and recognised that climate change was happening. I'm also careful to note that her policies were reactions to calls from people in various parts of society for change. The most forgotten element in the discussions about Thatcher is the question of to what degree was Britain stagnant or collapsing in the 1970s. There's no right answer, of course, but the more this is explored, the more complicated evaluating Thatcher becomes.

Despite the fact that I have some respect for standing up Thatcher, I'm very much critical of her impact on modern politics. It's not impossible to evaluate her as being simultaneously a devastating force while likewise also fostering desirable growth. There are several angles I'd like to briefly explore.

The first item is that conservative figures are protected by conservative media. The death of Thatcher, like the death of Reagan, has been surrounded by repeated demands for not speaking ill of the dead. While this is a compelling emotional argument, it was nowhere to been seen when Hugo Chavez passed away about a month ago. The conservative bias in media is rather obvious, but events like this certainly make that bias rather glaring. Few newspapers in North America, save at least the Toronto Star, have really published much detailing the darker chapters of Thatcherism.

Another lens I'm keen to discuss is the idea of Thatcher as a female politician is held up as an icon or role model. The best representation of this is the film The Iron Lady. It's seemingly unfeminist to say that Thatcher was a bad Prime Minister (according to more mainstream discourses) because she was the first example of a woman directing foreign and domestic policy as head of government. From my perspective, the idea that she "saved" England has a lot to do with her being perceived as a man. Much in the way that Churchill stared down Hitler, Thatcher had enemies and took them on in an open fashion. She vilified unions in coal mining and what she broadly termed terrorism. Taking defiant positions here, almost in a military style, made her a valuable leader. It also made her popular and gave her the critical support to introduce her reply. In response to labour's demands for fair wages and safe working conditions, she formulated crushing reforms that deregulated the economy further and produced catastrophic results for the lower class. In response to terrorism, she vehemently opposed the notion of violence as a tool of liberation and she supported the Apartheid movement in South Africa. Her maleness comes across best, perhaps, in the fact that she used the 1982 Falklands War as a base for building popular support, drumming up nationalism and militarism. She acted as chief of the navy, the true Iron Lady, using force and coercion to put "rebels" in their place.

Lastly, an important perspective is the notion that "strong" leaders are okay when in a "democratic" context, though not elsewhere. In our society it's quite common to say that leaders like Stalin and Mao were terrible autocrats who, through control of the state, changed policies and wrought havoc on their society. These enemies are easily defined to Westerners because the leaders were never democratically chosen and thus should not have had any legitimacy. However, this becomes much murkier when we talk about other leaders who have, at least at one point, been elected. Chavez, for example, was elected, and so was Hitler. While these examples may be extreme, it is valuable to point out that democracy and authoritarianism are not, in the slightest, mutually exclusive.

I'll close by mentioning the controversy over people wanting to dance on Thatcher's grave. This has caused a sensation in Britain and elsewhere, with many commenting about the morality of such a thing. Most of the comments tended to come from young people who were neither alive in the 1970s nor have any sophisticated knowledge of British economic and social historical narratives. Consider the following: what will happen when Harper passes away? My inkling is that Harper has been as divisive in Canadian politics as Thatcher was for Britain, and perhaps this can lend a helpful vantage point.