Wednesday, April 15, 2015


It was just under 9 years ago. It was a Wednesday in September, I was a student, but I had no classes that day. Instead I was at work in the grocery store which’s meager pittance helped pay for my school.

My assistant manager called me over to show me what he’d found. In a styrofoam cup he’d cling wrapped was a cold-stunned black spider. He shook it slightly & told me he’d found it in some grapes. As the groggy arachnid rolled around inside the cup, I noticed the red hourglass on its abdomen. Before saying a word, I placed the cup on the wrapper & covered it in another layer of cling-wrap. I told him what it was - that it was a black widow! - & he laughed & said he didn’t believe me. It took another coworker corroborating my evaluation to drive home how dangerous what he’d found was.
That’s my last coherent, positive memory from that day. 

The next thing I remember, my best friend’s mom - a second mother to me - was calling my cell to ask me if I was okay & if I was safe. A shooting had been reported at my school. My friends were all hunkered down & locked away in classes all over. The woman who would become my fiancée (& who later would become a stranger, but that’s a different story) could not be reached. Her phone went straight to voicemail.

The radio at work was reporting conflicting stories, but people being interviewed were saying that a girl had been shot. Two hours of frantic calls to friends, to my then-girlfriend’s family… Nothing. I was trying to grapple with the possibility that the worst might have happened. I worried for her, for the friends I still couldn’t reach, for the ones I had reached who were still on-site. How many shooters were there? In the end just the one, but the news was shouting that there might be as many as 3.

Finally, my phone rang. It was her, she was safe. She’d huddled in a bathroom in the basement for safety. The girl who’d died was someone else’s friend, daughter, loved one… Someone else would have to face the unbearable grief I’d only ever so briefly stared into the face of. 

I didn’t see her that day. She spent the evening, understandably, with her family. 

I met her the next morning, purchasing a zippo lighter that had seemed to call to me from a store on the way. It had a montreal flag on the front with a black border, as though it had been ready to express the mourning that the city was feeling in its bones that day. I placed it in my pocket, met her & hugged her as tightly as I could.

Our story went its own way from there, & doesn’t need rehashing here. But that lighter was imbued that day with a sort of meaning I haven’t ever quite understood. It’s been in my pocket nearly every day in the decade since that event & the few days it hasn’t been, I’ve known where it was. Yesterday that changed. I lost it (or, I thought I did) - I spent the day in a sort of panic, feeling exactly as I had in the hours I spent in uncertainty all those years ago.

I got it back. My new girlfriend found it in our apartment. But I felt better. I relaxed.

In that moment I understood something I hadn’t before. That lighter was (is), for me, a sort of talisman. All those things about that day that I find too difficult to face, all the unresolved pain & trauma & panic & fear I felt on that day are still with me. I’ve simply set them aside in an innocuous object so I don’t have to face the reality of my own feelings. It is a strange thing to understand something like that about oneself. It is a stranger thing yet to accept it as okay, as an acceptable compromise between living w/ trauma & getting therapy to resolve it.

& yet… That’s where I am.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Intent, Bill 60 & Mammon

I have not posted to this blog in far too long, so when I went off on a rant on FB the other day, I thought it might be worthwhile to repost it here. So here goes:

In the context of hearings over Bill 60 this week, a certain Martine Desjardins decried the wearing of the hijab as a "strategy" in the "expansion of political Islam." That statement is utterly racist on the face of it and is not a particularly strong argument for a charter of values one way or the other, but I want to use her argument to illustrate why the Charter's proposed banning of religious symbols is difficult to take seriously.

So, now, if we leave aside that it would be a really shitty strategy in the secularized & liberal west. If we also leave aside the obvious tales of successful integration of Italians, Greeks, Chinese, Haitians, Armenians, Germans, Vietnamese & god knows how many other cultures into the fabric of Québécois society without the assistance of a Charter of Values over the last 7 decades or so, Bill 60 is still fairly evidently a farce. Specifically, the clause regarding ostentatious religious symbols. It is laughably unenforceable, doesn't address what it claims to and certainly doesn't mitigate the threat Mme Desjardins is trying to warn us about. Moreover even if it did, it simply would not live long enough as a law to be of particular inconvenience to anyone at all.

Allow me to explain. Let us accept, for the sake of argument that Mme Desjardins is right. There is a conspiracy of political Islam to expand & change the way societies and cultures operate by proselytizing through the ostentatious display of religious symbols so that eventually Islam & Islamic culture & politics edge out existing entrenched cultural, religious & political norms. Let's also assume, for the sake of argument, that this would be a bad thing. (For the record, the first assumption is not true, but even if it was, the second assumption does not necessarily follow from the first)

In such a world, Bill 60 would seek to curtail the wearing of the Hijab, the Burqa & the Niqab, but would not in any way interfere with a man wearing a ritualistically unshaven beard - an ostentatious religious symbol. In fact, there are little to no ostentatious religious symbols worn by men which would be the target of this bill. Sure, Kirpans & Kippas & a few other odds & ends, but ultimately the list is biased to favour Christians & Men. That said, a whole crapload of ink has been spilled addressing these shortcomings & I shan't dwell on them further, except to point out that in all of these cases we are banning an article of clothing while assuming intent - & in the case of Mme Desjardins pointing to a perceived potential threat if we don't.

But what if there was a religious group that was a proven threat to our values and way of life that wore an ostentatious religious symbol & practiced strange rituals every day in full view of the public? What if this group had caused the collapse of the world economy, leading to *hundreds of thousands* of evictions & foreclosures, thousands upon thousands of cases of homelessness and thousands of death by suicide related to depression as a result of long term unemployment? What if this group worshipped a god - let's call him Mammon? & what if their ostentatious religious symbol was the business suit?

Would we ban that, then?

Okay, sure, you're right, the business class do not actually worship Mammon, it's just a biblical turn of phrase. So it's not a religious symbol, they get to keep it. But it sure as hell is a lot more menacing than a biology major trying to write an exam with a pretty scarf wrapped around her head.

So if the pretty, non-threatening scarf has to go, but not the business suit, then the government is drawing a distinction between whether the wearer intends for the article of clothing to be a religious display. So what if I, an atheist, wear a Kippa because I like the look? Or what if a nun dons a headscarf that happens to look a little bit like a hijab to shield herself from the cold? The text of Bill 60 already indicates it's not ready to make that distinction for these particular articles of clothing, and yet it's already made a number of distinctions as far as what gets covered in the first place.

What that means is that if this bill is adopted, it will not *just* be challenged in court on the basis of it violating the religious freedoms of Canadian citizens, but also by people claiming their freedom of expression has been violated in a simply non-religious sense. Oh, I almost forgot, it will also be challenged on the basis of unfairly singling out women & violating the equality rights of Canadian citizens under the Charter of Rights & Freedoms (& yes, this includes state secularism, ironically enough, as Bill 60 clearly favours one religion over others).

With so many challenges, the bill will nearly certainly be struck down quickly. Which means that the Quebec government would have to use the Notwithstanding clause to force the bill to remain in effect for 5 years. How does the PQ *really* feel about their chances? If they use the notwithstanding clause to explicitly deprive Québécois of rights, do they honestly believe they'll have the reigns of government to do it again in 5 years when their likely tweaked Charter is challenged again?

This whole thing is a bad joke. It is clearly unconstitutional. It even violates the *existing* Quebec Charter of Human Rights & Freedoms (though it would get around that by amending that particular law - because rights can just be written off by a legislature if they're inconvenient, right?). It is divisive, it pits Québécois against Québécois & Métropole against Capitale. It needs to stop.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Society has Failed Feminism?

Last night I read a very good article on AlterNet about the way our society's view of libido and sexuality is so broken that many of our cultural problems with gender, sex & equality can trace at least a portion of their insidiousness and apparent unshakeability to that broken conception. It got me thinking about how the feminist movement set out to raise social awareness, elevate women to an equal status in society, undermine rape culture and generally make society a place where all human beings can have an equal claim to a healthy life & to comfortably express their economic potential, identity, gender, sexuality and personality. The line of thought inevitably led me to a realization:

We have put a lot of social discourse into attaining the feminist goal, but very little by way or real, legitimate effort has been made toward acheiving that goal. The fact is, our society has largely accepted the precepts of equality that feminism has brought to its attention. The fact that with that acceptance has come so very few results, to my mind, means one thing and one thing only. Society has failed feminism.

It's a bigger problem than some out there might wish to admit. As much as the feminist critique largely focuses on redressing those sectors of our society and culture where there has been abject failure to ensure the physical and mental health, economic well-being and equal status of women, we often forget the consequences of those failures. Women are not the only victims of this social failure (as the AlterNet article touches on). When women cannot expect to make the salary they deserve, the economy suffers and problems of unemployment can quickly be exacerbated; when women cannot expect to control their reproductive lives, the health and social costs to society can become staggering, social mobility for men and women at the bottom of the economic spectrum becomes utterly stunted; when women cannot expect to be believed when they claim that they have been raped, men cannot expect their sisters, mothers, aunts, neices or daughters to feel safe, be safe or expect justice; when society paints every woman as a sexual commodity, it robs our government of true representation because women cannot be expected under such circumstances to compete fairly in the democratic process; it means that men can only expect to be viewed as predators or consumers of sex and marginalizes assertive women, emotionally sensitive or expressive men and anyone at all who isn't willing to agree to be a dominantly sexual man or a submissively sexual woman.

That is a very short list. But it speaks to an unbearable failure. It speaks to a society that values neither women, nor men, nor anyone at all - or at least that the value assigned to each is lower than anyone really agrees it should be.

The most terrifying part of that failure is that we all have internalized it to some extent. I am, with the love of my life, living in a sex-positive open relationship and I wrestle with unreasonable and ineffable guilt every time I spend a moment with another woman. I struggle with jealousy whenever my love spends time with another man. But it doesn't make sense. I want to spend the rest of my life with her and she with me, we love each other comepletely and we ensure that every moment we have together is ours in a way I don't think I've ever experienced. And yet... I feel society's yoke around my neck. I'm certain, to a lesser or greater extent, you, my reader, do as well.

I think it is necessary for us, as a precondition to living up to the expectations and ideals of the feminist movement, that we attempt to shake off that yoke. It cripples our capacity to move forward by impairing rational moral thought. It cripples our capacity for compassion for the same reason. We need to be better than we are. I need to be better than I am.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Forget 1968, Let's Talk 1984

I feel I need to begin this post with a disclaimer: every discussion of modern society's descent into Orwellian dystopia is, almost by definition, a cliché attempt at dramatic hyperbole that does little besides demonstrate that the author has read 1984 and keeps half an ear to the ground either politically or culturally. I hope that the bit of text I am presenting here does not fall under that rubric. This is, of course, a hyperbolic exploration of a theme. It is my hope, however, that it will prove to be a fruitful & useful one, rather than merely an exercise in intellectual masturbation.

The reason I have chosen to discuss 1984 now is, to be frank, my revulsion at the way police, the media and the government have behaved vis-à-vis the Occupy movement in the US primarily, but also here, in Canada. My thoughts began from there and went on to ponder a much larger political and cultural reality, but I want to be straightforward & state very clearly that a support for the Occupy movement served as my starting point.

Ultimately, during the course of my musings, I was forced to conclude that we in North America have a serious problem with the language we use to discuss all facets of our political reality. Language has always been a weapon in politics, and no one saw more clearly what it could accomplish in that capacity than George Orwell did in the shadow of World War II. It is therefore difficult to truly grasp how twisted our language has become without contrasting what is happening in our very real, everyday, actual world with the events in Winston Smith's fictitious world of 1984.


In 1984, this refers to a perception fostered by the political régime of Oceania that peace is impossible without perpetual war against either Eastasia or Eurasia (the enemy du jour being retroactively edited into records as having always been the enemy, with the ally du jour receiving the same treatment). The war is not perceived as perpetual, mind, merely as necessary to ensure peace.

In 2011, ten years after the declaration of the War on Terror, we are repeatedly reassured that "Thanks to the [war in Afghanistan] our citizens are safer and our nation is more secure;"
that internationally illegal incursions over the borders of sovereign, ostensibly allied countries in order to commit state-sanctioned murder are "justice;" moreover, the same state-sanctioned murder is celebrated with elation in the streets of the capital of the most powerful country on the planet, a scene disturbingly reminiscent of the cheering depicted during the public hanging of Eurasian prisoners of war in Orwell's book. In a very real sense, then, we in 2011 understand - or at least our governments would have us understand - that WAR is, indeed, PEACE.


This is where the coverage of the Occupy movement got my thought process moving. Now, admittedly, the example I will use for the real world cannot genuinely be called slavery. That is a hyperbolic exaggeration that trivializes the reality of slavery as it was experienced by millions over nearly four centuries & as it is experienced by millions more today in the world's poorest & most despotic régimes. That said, the contrast between what can & cannot honestly be called freedom is one which I feel must be drawn.

In the world of 1984, every party member is free to think exactly within the boundaries drawn by Big Brother & no further. Language itself is being curtailed, remade into newspeak, in order to eliminate the very possibility of heterodox thought. People's minds are being made slaves to ingsoc orthodoxy in order to allow them complete freedom within a terribly limited scope of behaviour. Proles - that is the bottom level of Oceanic society - have far more freedom than Party members, but theirs is a different slavery: no education at all; given the most menial & unintellectual tasks in society; kept drunk & hooked on mechanically generated radio shows meant to keep them distracted & uniterested, proles are slaves to vice, forever unable to manifest into a genuine political or social force.

The modern example, while nowhere near as insidious, is nevertheless worrying in the extreme.

In 2009, the Tea Party movement made headlines by carrying guns & behaving in an intimidating fashion at political rallies under the dual protections of the first & second amendments to the United States Constitution. Their extreme, but ultimately conservative (& therefore Orthodox) message was protected. I can find no instance of police intervening to break up a single Tea Party rally or protest in any periodical online.

By contrast, the more heterodox liberal/socialist message of the Occupy movement has provoked multiple & violent interventions by police to silence, displace & disperse the movement's encampments in municipalities all over North America. The protesters deserve it because they have no clear demands. They are hippies. They need a bath and a job. Never mind their rights as US or Canadian citizens.

No appeals to either the First Amendment in the US or the Canadian Fundamental Freedom of Expression
(which is a little less narrow a right than the American Freedom of Speech in that is a. covers more than speech & b. does not only refer to the citizen's interaction with government) have allowed these protests to resist being shut down or violently attacked by police. In situations like these it becomes abundantly clear that freedom of speech is a freedom only so long as the message being articulated is consistent, at least in part, with the prevailing political orthodoxy. If the message is counter to that, it would seem, then it is not subject to any freedom at all.


The 1984 version of this is subtle. It is considered a strength to be able to believe two completely opposite statements; to be able to forget words & vocabulary that express things beyond the doctrine of the party & to be able to forget the true course of events & history in favour of history as prescribed by the party. In this world, it is willful ignorance which is considered strength, true; but it is willful ignorance achieved through willful & selective amnesia.

The contrast with modern politics is striking. There is no willful amnesia among the modern electorate - merely a glorification of ignorance. How else do we explain candidate Herman Cain's statement that "we need a leader, not a reader?" Or the attacks against Obama as an intellectual, a lecturer-in-chief, a professor or an elitist?

This is a polity in which it is a disadvantage to be educated. The evidence is everywhere: among the websites above, "Harvard-educated" shows up as a slur; there are dozens of news stories google-able with headlines like "don't believe what they say;" for god's sake, Michelle Bachmann repeatedly demonstrates unbelievable ignorance & gullibility & remains a semi-viable candidate in the GOP presidential primary.


Do we live in a 1984, Winston Smith, Big Brother kind of world? I like to think, & hope, not. But the language we use to talk about our politics & the culture surrounding the big questions of leadership, freedom, the economy & our government are geared to produce a very limited & limiting outcome that favours one specific segment of our society. It is difficult to pin down exactly when it happened, but at one point since the 1970s, war did, indeed, become peace. Freedom, while not quite slavery, became a far more limited notion than we might imagine. Education became a liability, not a strength.

There is something worrying in that. The potential consequences of this perversion of political language and culture are terrifying to behold & we should be wary of allowing it to exacerbate the already tenuous situations of our economy & civil rights.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Occupons Montréal: Don’t Listen to the Media

He was working at the base of the statue of Queen Victoria when I photographed him. The tools of his trade were a simple black marker & a small sheet of plywood. What he was drawing was a beautiful, if a little terrifying, piece of artwork. This was the moment that my scepticism about Occupons Montréal faded & was replaced with hope – cautious hope, cautious optimism – but hope nonetheless.


The reason I had felt sceptical, the reason I had felt that Occupons Montréal might fade into irrelevance until I saw it for myself, is rooted in my understanding of other occupations worldwide – most notably, Occupy Wall Street, where the message is much clearer than the media is portraying it to be & the protestors’ organizing prowess & sense of community repeatedly seems to win out against the established powers & authorities. Globally, we are seeing a sort of 1968 all over again – a mass protest movement, simultaneously local & international in scope, with issues ranging from ending war, economic justice, student debt, unemployment, animal rights, etc. The momentum of this movement seems implacable & the energy of the people participating in it is contagious when you are around it.

So when I saw, over the weekend, a headline on the Le Devoir website saying that Occupons Montréal was associating itself with a march for Québec independence (the headline has since been removed), I felt my heart sink. The rest of the world was challenging an unfair, unscrupulous & predatory economic system that is pushing governments to austerity & here I was seeing my city’s Occupation rehashing old battles & using old, still-divisive politics to undermine its own message & popular support with nearly half of Québec’s population.

Except it wasn’t, and it isn’t. The Occupation General Assembly’s Minutes don’t mention a word about sovereignty or independence. The Occupation seems to be about changing the system to make it fairer for the people in our society who aren’t at the top of the wealth & power pyramid; the old battles are being brought up in the media, but not in the discussions I heard people having down in Square-Victoria-cum-La-Place-du-Peuple. Some of the ideas being discussed are frivolous, unachievable, blue-sky pushes for revolutionary, total world-system reform, but mostly what’s talked about seems to be about making the movement work, making the occupation durable &, beyond those goals, it seems to be about making the world better for people who need it. Allowing people not just to exist, but to live.


So yes, my scepticism faded. It faded because of the message of the Occupation, which is simply “Here are the problems foisted on our society by the wealthy & the powerful at our expense & in our name. Fix them. Now.”; it faded because of the people at the protest, who are living together with a sense of community I have simply never seen in Montreal; it faded because artists are sitting next to enthusiastic political activists, drawing pictures & sculpting stones while someone lectures about inequality and social justice, just because this place has given them the opportunity to express themselves in a way they could not before; it faded because in a city where people will riot because a band can’t play a gig for being held up at the border, there is a village of tents cooperating in an astonishing display of direct, deliberative democracy to change things for the better & not only has it not descended into chaos, but it has grown larger, more organized & more beautiful.

The artist with his plywood canvas sat on the plinth of a statue in a true, 21st Century Agora. If nothing else is accomplished by this movement, the community & the sense of being at the bustling, creative heart of a true democracy will nevertheless stay with me always.