10.26.2014

rotd: this changes everything

Revolutionary thought of the day:
...if there is a reason for social movements to exist, it is not to accept dominant values as fixed and unchangeable but to offer other ways to live - to wage, and win, a battle of cultural worldviews. That means laying out a vision of the world that competes directly with the one on harrowing display at the Heartland conference and in so many other parts of our culture, one that resonates with the majority of the people on the planet because it is true: That we are not apart from nature but of it. That acting collectively for a great good is not suspect, and that such common projects of mutual aid are responsible for our species' greatest accomplishments. That greed must be disciplined and tempered by both rule and example. That poverty amidst plenty is unconscionable.

It also means defending those parts of our societies that already express these values outside of capitalism, whether it's an embattled library, a public park, a student movement demanding free university tuition, or an immigrant rights movement fighting for dignity and more open borders. And most of all, it means continually drawing connections among these seemingly disparate struggles - asserting, more instance, that the logic that would cut pensions, food stamps, and health care before increasing taxes on the rich is the same logic and would blast the bedrock of the earth to get the last vapors of gas the last drops of oil before making the shift to renewable energy.

Naomi Klein, from This Changes Everything

kevin vickers, nathan cirillo, and canada's response to recent acts of violence

I've been thinking a lot about Kevin Vickers. By now the world knows Vickers' name: he is the sergeant-at-arms of the Parliament of Canada, and his quick thinking and courage undoubtedly saved lives. Vickers shot killed Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who had already killed one person and appeared intent on killing others.

Vickers is a hero. But my thoughts of him are filled not with adulation, but with sorrow. Imagine going to work one day, a day like any other, and by the time the day is done, you have taken a human life. You have killed a man at close range. What could that be like? It would not be surprising if Vickers will grapple with flashbacks, night terrors, or other forms of PTSD. Despite Vickers' courage and his new celebrity, I'd bet that few of us would want to stand in his shoes.

I've also been thinking of Nathan Cirillo, because it's impossible not to. Although I consume very little mainstream media, a short dip into my Facebook feed is enough: the dog Cirillo left behind, the outpouring of public grief, the obligatory "Highway of Heroes" photos.

Cirillo was a victim, and he did nothing to deserve such a fate. I feel for those who knew and loved him. But what makes Cirillo a hero? Guarding a war memorial surely is not an act of heroism. Is simply putting on a uniform a heroic act? Cirillo's death was senseless and tragic, but it was not heroic.

Of course, hero is a word that's lost all meaning, joining ironic, obviously, and traumatized on the ever-growing list of words that are used so carelessly and so often as to lose all meaning. Hero just might claim pride of place at the very top of that list. But the hero-worship of anyone in uniform is part of the creeping militarization of our society.

I've also been thinking about violence, and how we choose to respond to violence. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US government constantly invoked fear in order to advance its agenda: war on people who had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, repression of domestic dissent, spying on US citizens.

That response also included the widespread use of torture, and a concentration camp that, more than a decade later, still exists. Even if one believes, despite all facts and evidence, that the people of Iraq and Afghanistan were somehow responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the US's response was something like killing a mosquito with a hand grenade. By now it should be clear that the US government had its own agenda, and 9/11 provided the excuse.

Norway, on the other hand, chose a different path: it answered hate with love. After 77 people were massacred on Utøya island, the Norwegian government affirmed the open nature of Norwegian society and pursued charges against the perpetrator within the boundaries of Norwegian law.
These are the originals for the memorials which, from the 22 July anniversary, will be sent out to more than 50 counties across Norway, to commemorate the 77 people massacred by Anders Breivik, the far-right extremist who goes on trial this week.

On each of them, words have been carved from a poem by the Norwegian writer Laes Saabye Christensen that was recited at the memorial concert for the victims. This poem, with its message of peace, followed the tone set by prime minister Jens Stoltenberg in his address at the memorial service in Oslo cathedral two days after the tragedy.

"We are still shocked by what has happened, but we will never give up our values," Stoltenberg said. "Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity." Norway, he suggested, would not seek vengeance as America had done after the 9/11 attacks." We will answer hatred with love," he said.

"It's a clear case where a politician strikes a chord," said Frank Aarebrot, a professor of politics at the University of Bergen. "The prime minister struck almost a Churchillian note in that speech. People were jubilant."

Norway has granted every legal right to Breivik, despite hearing in gruesome detail of how he coldly executed 56 of his victims with shots to the head, after attacking a Labour party youth camp on the island of Utøya, near Oslo.
Canada has a choice.

On one side stands fear, suspicion, bigotry, and repression, a society where people are feared and attacked because of their appearance and surnames, where people are afraid to exercise their right to criticize the government. On that side, too, stands war: the death and destruction of innocent people, citizens turned into shells of themselves because of what they've witnessed and what they've been asked to do.

On the other side stands democracy, freedom of expression, pluralism, inclusion, human rights, and peace.

What kind of country do we want Canada to be?

Do we want the Harper Government to decide that for us?

10.23.2014

"these acts were driven by hatred, but also designed to drive us to hate. they will not."

We woke up this morning in a country blessed by love, diversity and peace, and tomorrow we will do the same. These acts were driven by hatred, but also designed to drive us to hate. They will not.

Thomas Mulcair

I offer my sympathies and condolences to the family and friends of Nathan Cirillo, on the tragic and senseless loss of their loved one.

I offer condolences to the family and friends of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. He, too, is gone, and leaves both sorrow and bewilderment behind.

I offer my sympathies and condolences to all the survivors in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, and everywhere lives have been lost from terrorism perpetrated by the powerful armies of powerful states.

And I offer my energies and whatever abilities I have to help stop Western nations from making war and breeding terrorists.

10.20.2014

coming full circle: my sixth-grade obsession meets my teen book club

Continuing on the young-adult fiction theme, it's been about six months since I blathered about my absolute favourite part of my job: teen book club. Our monthly gathering is still going strong, a small but dedicated group of young readers who love books, and love to talk about books. My posters for TBC invite teens to "hang out, eat snacks, talk about books, talk about life," and that pretty much sums up what we do.

Every few months, the group votes on the next four titles, chosen from a selection that I gather, as well as their own suggestions. Most young readers gravitate towards either realistic fiction or fantasy fiction, so I try to balance the two. I also include one or two classics on each list of choices, and they are surprisingly popular: this month we are reading S. E. Hinton's The OutsidersFahrenheit 451 is on the list for early 2015, and the group is clamouring for Catcher in the Rye.

Along with those classics, the next titles are: Dooley Takes the Fall by Norah McClintock, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

I'm especially happy to be doing The Outsiders, a book I was obsessed with in sixth grade (or "grade six," as we say here). S. E. Hinton's classic had a huge influence on my writing and thinking about young-adult fiction. When I learned that Hinton was a woman, and wrote the book when she herself was a teenager... my whole world changed. Apparently teens today find the book no less relevant. Although I don't expect any of my TBC members to become obsessed with The Outsiders, one young man did mention he's read it five times.

By happy coincidence, there's an interview with Hinton in the current New Yorker, asking her about - what else? - the so-called debate on youth fiction. When Hinton was a teen, there was no youth fiction: her books carved out a niche in the classroom, other writers followed in Hinton's footsteps, and YA was born.

the so-called "y.a. debate" rages on, but doesn't a debate have two sides?

In June of this year, Slate ran a now-infamous piece called "Against YA," in which Ruth Graham argued that adults shouldn't read young-adult fiction, and should be embarrassed if they do. A flood of posts and essays were written in response; my own response is here. In the short term, as far as I can tell, not a single writer agreed with Graham.

Despite this lopsided showing, some headline writer (possibly here) dubbed this "The Great Y.A. Debate," and the name stuck. There must be people out there who agree with Graham - surely hers was not an original idea - but one cranky article does not a debate make.

I did find a few interesting essays that used Graham's piece as a springboard to unpack some interesting ideas and cultural trends.

A. O. Scott, in The New York Times Magazine, is one reader who found himself agreeing with Graham, and asking himself why. Scott's The Death of Adulthood in American Culture joins the crowded field of "things ain't what they used to be" stories, gazing fondly back on a time when a cultural elite drew a very bright line between "high" and "low" culture, a line that, if it still exists, is too blurry to locate and carries little cultural currency. Scott, however, reflects on his nostalgia and acknowledges its curmudgeonly (and sexist, exclusionary) nature. It's a nicely ambivalent essay... and it has very little to do with youth fiction.

In Henry James and the Great Y.A. Debate, Christopher Beha, writing in The New Yorker, uses the same so-called debate to muse on the state of the novel, how literature from different eras reflect entirely different worldviews, and why the work of Henry James is still, in Beha's view, relevant to the contemporary reader. It's a good piece, worth reading, and again, none of its ideas are stated or implied in Graham's essay in Slate.

Beha offers this comments on A. O. Scott's piece.
...Scott’s essay is an expression of great ambivalence. He isn’t happy about this trend in movies, but he also isn’t sure how justified his unhappiness is. He admits to “feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Hunger Games,’ ” but he quickly adds that he’s “not necessarily proud of this reaction.” He is scrupulously mindful of what it means for a self-described “middle-aged white man” to pine for an earlier era of cultural authority. Indeed, the real subject of Scott’s essay turns out to be not the infantilization of culture but the decline of cultural—if not political or economic or social—patriarchy, and the ways in which this decline is reflected in the culture itself. He takes this change to be the underlying subject of several of the past decade’s prestige TV dramas—particularly “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad.” In Scott’s view, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White are “the last of the patriarchs.”

This is where the essay becomes a little confused, in my opinion. If we really are living through the decline of the cultural authority of the straight white male, that seems like a rich and appropriate subject for a sophisticated work of narrative art. The fact that we find this decline represented on television seems in this sense a sign of cultural maturity, one that cuts against the idea that our culture reflects an “essentially juvenile vision of the world.” Many shows now grapple more honestly with the world as it actually exists than did the sitcoms that I grew up watching, in which mom and dad had all the answers and were waiting in the wings to save us from our mistakes.

The strong ambivalence running throughout Scott’s piece emerges from the fact that he sees an intimate, even necessary connection between the decline of the straight white male’s stranglehold on the culture as a whole (which he views as all to the good) and the rise to dominance of a juvenile strain within popular culture in particular (which he likes a lot less). But even assuming that both of these things are going on, it’s not at all clear how much they have to do with one another. There is a difference between art that merely enacts a culture’s refusal to grow up—say, a Y.A. fantasy turned summer blockbuster marketed at adults—and art that engages thoughtfully with that refusal.
The New Yorker also pointed to a 2008 article by Jill Lepore (one of my favourite writers in that magazine's circle), illustrating the long history of self-appointed reading gatekeepers. This one was a librarian who was horrified by E. B. White's Stuart Little. And not just any librarian: it was Anne Carroll Moore, who invented the idea of the children's library. Great reading: The Lion and the Mouse.

Throughout, I am left wondering if anyone on the "against" side of "Against Y.A." has read any youth fiction other than The Fault in Our Stars or The Hunger Games and has read any children's fiction other than Harry Potter. Often I'm left wondering if they've read even those, or merely read about them.

These essays are all worth reading... as are many youth novels.


10.17.2014

a war resister connects the dots: canada, is this the war you want to fight?

A U.S. war resister in Canada writes in this NOW Magazine.
Very soon you will begin to hear about Canadian planes sending “humanitarian aid” of food and medical supplies to those affected by the fighting. . . .

And now ISIL is touted as the new enemy from the darkness as if their emergence was not foreseeable. In reality, ISIL is just the latest incarnation of a very old xenophobic sect of Islam, the Wahhabi movement, finding new breath in the aftermath of yet another war. Our bombs have only made them stronger, just as they always have.

The Harper Conservatives are hoping you are not engaged enough to notice its hopes of attaining a new casus belli for Canada. But if Harper gets his way, you’ll soon be spending money you don’t have on a war that’s making you less safe, not more.

And what about the long-term costs for the soldiers who do come home? How will Canada be able to take care of them? Large numbers of Canadian veterans from the war in Afghanistan have already become homeless, jobless or committed suicide. They have yet to receive care from a resource-strapped Veterans Affairs Canada. How will VAC be able to meet the needs of even more veterans?

Please understand that I don’t mean to forgive the barbarity that ISIL has clearly committed. As an American soldier, I witnessed first-hand how war makes monsters of us all. Everyone with a gun in a war zone thinks themselves “one of the good guys,” but the idea that anyone in a war acts in accordance with international law is a myth.

Once I realized this, I decided I could not participate in a war of aggression (the Iraq war of 2003) launched against people who had not committed any crime. I found taking part in this war a violation of both international law and basic moral behaviour, to such a degree that I could not have any further part in it.

Many others made the same choice I did, and a good number of us came to Canada seeking refuge. We have experienced first-hand the lasting effects of a war in Iraq started under false pretenses. We would implore you to be thoroughly informed, Canada. If you decide to go forward into this war, you should at least do so with all the facts.

Almost all who desert the U.S. military are simply administratively discharged without jail time. But without exception, every American war resister in Canada deported into U.S. military custody has faced significant jail time when evidence was presented of how we spoke out to people like you. The American government wants to jail me not just for leaving the military, but for having the audacity to shed light on war crimes we were asked to commit.

Is this the kind of war you truly want for Canadians? If you do, I will leave quietly.
A number of resisters living in Canada have seen recent movement in their cases after years of silence from the government. The immigration minister’s personal attention to our cases is made clear by Operational Bulletin 202, directing all our files to his desk for review instead of using normal procedures.

I will go to the cell that awaits me in the U.S. for having spoken loudly about the injustices I was asked to abide. I do not believe I deserve to be punished for speaking out, but perhaps I do for not having spoken out loudly enough.
Read the essay here. Then sign a letter to help stop the deportations.

10.14.2014

u.s. war resisters in canada are at serious risk. here's how you can help.

The War Resisters Support Campaign is facing an unprecedented crisis. Since war resister Kimberly Rivera was forced out of the country in September 2012, there had been no movement on any war resister’s case.

Then, within one month, five war resisters received notices that decisions have been made in their cases. Two of these have been given removal dates (i.e. they have been told to leave the country by a certain date). We expect similar negative outcomes in the other cases – and we don’t know who else will receive a notice tomorrow or next week.

The Campaign has shifted into high gear, challenging the decisions in court while we help families prepare for worst-case scenarios. There are two ways you can help.

You can send a letter to Minister of Citizenship & Immigration Chris Alexander, Minister of Public Safety Stephen Blaney, and your MP in support of U.S. Iraq War Resisters. Click here to send a letter.

You can donate to the Campaign. You can donate online through the GoFundMe.com/LetThemStay or by cheque or money order (details here).

Please read and share these recent statements by Iraq War resisters: Dean Walcott, Joshua Key, and a joint statement by all U.S. war resisters in Canada. If you share these with your own networks, please include the GoFundMe link.

10.13.2014

more art and culture in the suburbs: indian art activism and the baps mandir

In September my mother was here for her annual visit. I always plan some art or cultural attraction for us to take in. This time she was recovering from some knee surgery, so major walking in Toronto was out. On a previous visit, we had already done most of the cultural attractions in Mississauga - or so we thought. I'm pleased to say that the west-end suburbs was up to the challenge.

At the Art Gallery of Mississauga, we saw a fascinating exhibit on the Sahmat Collective, a group of artists in India who use street art to challenge religious and sectarian intolerance. The AGM itself is a small but lovely space housed in City Hall. 

A colleague suggested a fibre-art show at the Art Gallery of Burlington. My mom loves any kind of craft or handwork, so this was a great fit. The Burlington space has an excellent street presence near the waterfront, something the poor AGM can only dream of. 

The highlight of our cultural tour was a visit to the enormous mandir, or Hindu temple, that sits on the border of Toronto and Mississauga, full name BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Toronto. Like everyone else, we've seen the giant white wedding-cake of a building from the highway, but had never thought of visiting before.

The building is extraordinary. It was built from 24,000 pieces of sandstone, carved in India, then assembled in Canada like a giant jigsaw puzzle, without a single screw, bolt, or nail. The temple portion is elaborately carved sandstone, and the adjacent community centre is equally elaborately carved wood. It is the largest temple of its kind, by far, in North America.

The mandir's unfortunate location near several major highways and the airport must ensure that the gleaming white stone is usually blackened, and in constant need of cleaning. It was being cleaned while we were there.

No photography is allowed inside, but there is an interesting video describing how the building was designed and constructed, and documenting its celebrated opening in 2007. Unfortunately, that last part includes Stephen Harper.


The unexpected Indian theme - both the AGM exhibit and the mandir - seemed fortuitous. The following week, one of our nieces was visiting, and she has lived and traveled extensively in India. With her, though, we went for dim sum, took the dogs to the beach, and wandered around the University of Toronto (St. George) campus.

With much of my family now living on the west coast, we're no longer having the big family gatherings for US Thanksgiving, and I rarely see my nieces and nephews. This would be the case even if we still lived in New York City. I don't miss the 11-hour drive, but I do miss seeing everyone.


rest in peace, canine with a brave rebel heart


When I blogged about him a few years back, he was called Kanellos, the Greek rebel dog. Somewhere along the way, English-language media dubbed him Riot Dog. He was also called Louk, short for Loukanikos. Louk, Kanellos, and also Thodoris may or may not have been the same dog.

Whatever his name, he was brave, loyal, and handsome, and he stood on the side of the People. His health was diminished by tear gas, but he soldiered on. He died recently at the home of a person who cared for him. He was thought to be about ten years old.




10.07.2014

thank you, thomas mulcair and the new democrats: thank you for saying no to war

Today I feel so much better about living in Canada. Once again, we have a political party that says no to war. A political party that says no to letting the US dictate Canadian foreign policy. I now feel much better about voting NDP in the next federal election... which can't come soon enough!

It's a shrewd political move on the part of Thomas Mulcair, polarizing the field with the Liberals and Conservatives on one side and the New Democrats on the other. I have no doubt it's politically motivated, but why should I care about motives, when the end result would be diplomacy, humanitarian aid, and no war?

Listen to his speech. Thank you, Tom Mulcair!