12.14.2014

what i'm reading: lost memory of skin by russell banks

Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks' 2011 novel, begins with an impossible paradox.

A group of men are living in an encampment under a highway. It is, in fact, the only place they can live.

Each of them has been convicted of some crime involving sex. The state, in a moral panic over child pornography, has decreed that after serving time in prison, a former sex offender cannot live within 2,500 feet of any place where children may be present: schools, public parks, bus stops - and homeless shelters. The men wear homing devices on their ankles to enforce compliance, and they are not allowed to leave the county. One problem: there is no residence in the county that is more than 2,500 feet from any forbidden zone.

It's easy enough to dismiss this concern: who cares about these people, they are scum, they are worthless. But the fact remains, they exist. They must live somewhere. And there is literally no place they can live. And so, these social pariahs have formed a ragged little encampment under a highway, where they live in scavenged shanties.  (This situation is real; it has been challenged by the ACLU.)

This is the untenable paradox, the premise of Lost Memory of Skin. The Kid, the main character whose real name we never learn, lives in this shanty town. Until politicians vowing to "clean up" the homeless send cops to break bones and smash what passes for shelter.

The Kid is not a bad person, and he is not dangerous. The crime that has led him to this marginal existence is slowly revealed to the reader, and is stupid and pathetic, but not heinous. The Kid is lost, and confused, and socially maladjusted, the result of a lifetime of total neglect, an utterly empty childhood that he filled with internet porn. He's a sad and sympathetic character; readers might not like the Kid, but most will view him with compassion.

Into the Kid's life comes the Professor: a genius, a socially successful person, but also a person with a dark past, with secrets, and with his own deficiencies and his own addiction. The Professor has some theories about sex offenders, and he wants to study the Kid to prove them. He also wants to use the Kid for his own purposes - not sexual, but shadowy and illegal nonetheless.

His relationship with the Professor changes the Kid, and those changes begin to sort out of some of his emotional and mental confusion... but the plot thickens. Is the professor who he says he is? Towards the end of the book, another character enters the mix: the Writer. The Writer appears to be a stand-in for Banks himself, who asserts some philosophical guideposts and offers some clues as to how to read the book (and functions as a plot device). In lesser hands, this would have been awkward, even ridiculous, but Banks pulls it off.

When I write about books, I often skim reviews from sources I respect to get a feel for what critics thought. Most critics felt this book was worthwhile, even important, but their interpretation differed widely from mine. For example, it is widely assumed that the Professor's theories about child sex offenders are Russell Banks' own views. I find plenty of evidence in the book that they are not; in fact, the Professor's theories are disproven, or at least questioned, as soon as they are espoused.

One theme running through Lost Memory of Skin concerns how we construct our sense of our selves - how and to what extent we shape our own reality. The Professor has a dark past, and has re-invented himself many times over. The Kid must form his self almost from scratch, as a young adult, with very little to guide him. The Writer has his own theories, but it's unclear whether the Writer offers guidance or more confusion. I saw this theme as central to the novel, yet not one reviewer (of the ones I read) even mentioned it.

Lost Memory of Skin is an absorbing novel, sometimes suspenseful, sometimes achingly sad, sometimes a bit strange. Parts feel bumpy and require a certain faith from the reader, but Russell Banks has earned that faith from me. Like all Banks' novels, this one is beautifully written, thought-provoking, and well worth your time.

12.12.2014

athletes in solidarity against unpunished police abuse crimes murder

Derrick Rose

Reggie Bush

Davin Joseph

Eric Garner

bobby keys, 1943-2014



Terrible news for the music world this week, and for the world of unabashed, unrepentant, hard partying rock-and-roll.

I have loved Bobby Keys for as long as I've known of his existence, which is to say a very long time. If you read Life, Keith Richards' memoirs, you know a few good Bobby Keys stories. And if you love the music of the Rolling Stones' best years, you've been loving Bobby Keys, too.

Keith and Bobby shared a birthday, and much of their lives. The death of Bobby Keys hits Stones' fans with a special kind of force.

Bobby Keys: Bruce Weber writes about him here.

12.07.2014

10 reasons you should participate in write for rights on wednesday, december 10

This Wednesday, December 10, is Human Rights Day. The date was chosen to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, the first document of its kind.

Every year on December 10, Amnesty International holds a global letter-writing event: Write For Rights (in Canada). Thousands of people around the world write letters calling for action for victims of human rights abuses, and offering comfort and support to political prisoners.

Here are 10 reasons you should participate in Write For Rights 2014.

1. It's easy. Amnesty makes it really easy to participate. Read, type, send.

2. You can do do it from any computer. No meetings to attend, no schedule to keep. Just more of something you do all the time anyway: typing.

3. It's free. No need to donate money. The most this will cost you is postage.

4. You'll feel good about yourself. Enjoy that warm buzz you get from voluntarily helping other people. There's nothing quite like it.

5. You can choose how much to participate. Write one letter, write two letters, write three. Spend 10 minutes writing or spend an hour.

6. You can choose what to focus on. Write about an issue in your own country. Write about an issue in your country of origin. Write for children, or for women, or for LGBT people, or for workers, or for environmental activists, or for another issue that you care about.

7. You're busting stereotypes. We supposedly live in a selfish age where all we care about is I, me, mine. Challenge yourself to say it ain't so.

8. It works globally. Every fight against injustice begins with someone shining a light in a dark place. Be that light.

9. It works locally. When political prisoners are released, they often attest to the difference letters from strangers made in their lives: that knowing they were not forgotten helped them survive.

10. You enjoy your own human rights every day. Why not use them to help someone who can't?

Write for Rights in Canada

Write for Rights in the US

Write for Rights internationally.

On Facebook

Twitter: #Write4Rights

12.04.2014

#strikefastfood: low-wage workers in 150 cities will strike today

Two years ago, fast-food workers in New York City held a one-day strike. In that historic action, the result of months and even years of organizing, about 200 workers walked out of McDonald's, Wendy's, KFC, and other restaurants, to form the largest work stoppage in the history of fast-food. In the process, they launched a movement.

In the two years since then, the movement has burgeoned, and now includes thousands of workers all over the United States. Workers are rising against shockingly low pay in an industry that rakes in billions. The CEOs of the various fast-food companies "earn" about $25,000 a day. In New York City, one of the world's most expensive places to live, front-line workers in the same industry earn $7.25 an hour before taxes. 

The fast-food industry is a prime culprit in the huge and ever-growing income inequality that plagues North America, undermining what's left of democracy.

Fast-food workers want more than better pay: they want a bit of control over their own working conditions. That is, they want the right to unionize without fear of retaliation or intimidation. It's not just the fight for 15. It's the fight for fifteen and a union

Workers in the Walmart and fast-food struggles are standing in solidarity with the people of Ferguson and New York City who are protesting police abuse, recognizing, as King famously said, that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

You can support today's fast-food strike in many ways: sign a statement, tweet your support with the hashtag #StrikeFastFood, or best of all, visit a picket - offer support, listen, learn, and lend a hand. 

11.30.2014

rtod: this changes everything

Revolutionary thought of the day:
All of this is why any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect. Because what is overwhelming about the climate challenge is that it requires breaking so many rules at once - rules written into national laws and trade agreements, as well as powerful unwritten rules that tell us that no government can increase taxes and stay in power, or say no to major investments no matter how damaging, or plan to gradually contract those parts of our economics that endanger us all. . . .

This is another lesson from the transformative movements of the past: all of them understood that the process of shifting cultural values - though somewhat ephemeral and difficult to quantify - was central to their work. And so they dreamed in public, showed humanity a better version of itself, modeled different values in their own behavior, and in the process liberated the political imagination and rapidly altered the sense of what was possible. They were also unafraid of the language of morality - to give the pragmatic, cost-benefit arguments a rest and speak of right and wrong, or love and indignation. . . . .

As the historian David Brion Davis writes, abolitionists understood that their role was not merely to ban an abhorrent practice but to try to change the deeply entrenched values that had made slavery acceptable in the first place.

-- Naomi Klein, from This Changes Everything

11.29.2014

what i'm reading: this changes everything by naomi klein, one of the most important books you'll ever read

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein, is incredibly difficult to write about. I've been putting sticky notes beside important paragraphs as I read, and my copy now looks like an art project, bristling with coloured paper squares. I can say without exaggeration that this is one of the most important books you'll ever read.

In her clear, readable prose, Klein demonstrates exactly what is destroying our planet: unregulated, unchecked capitalism, brought to you by the scourge of our era: neoliberalism. (US readers may be more familiar with the term neoconservatism.)

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Klein showed us how corporate interests exploit crises to enact policies that enrich a small elite, using the holy trinity of neoliberalism: privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and lower corporate taxation, paid for with cuts to public spending. Now Klein widens her lens to demonstrate how that same orientation actively prevents us from taking the necessary steps to halt and reverse climate change, and with it, the impending destruction of a habitable Earth.

To reverse warming, reverse course

Klein succinctly and precisely diagnoses the root problem. In order to challenge climate change, in order to reverse a course that threatens billions of lives and is ultimately suicidal for humanity, radical change is required. We must stop living as if infinite growth is possible on a finite planet. This goes way beyond separating our trash into different bins and using more efficient light bulbs. It means dismantling the fossil-fuel industry, powering our entire society with renewable energy sources (it is possible!), and ultimately, abandoning the idea of growth as the basis for our economies.

Tackling climate change means, ultimately, dismantling neoliberalism itself.
A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.
This means rethinking the false notion of "free" trade. Ontario, for example, would be decades ahead in wind and solar production, not to mention good, green jobs, but for the crippling mandates of free-trade agreements. "Free" deserves scare quotes.
Not only do fossil fuel companies receive $775 billion to $1 trillion in annual global subsidies, but they pay nothing for the privilege of treating our shared atmosphere as a free waste dump.
Klein reminds us that if free-trade regulations block our ability to disrupt our dependence on fossil fuels, then those regulations must be rewritten. And so it goes for any number of policies that express the neoliberal ideology, which, as Klein writes, "form a ideological wall that has blocked a serious response to climate change for decades."

Of course, nothing is free; the question is who pays the price. The price may be unemployment, or jobs that can't sustain a decent life, or overcrowded classrooms, or a generation condemned to poverty-stricken old age. The price may be flammable drinking water, or whole villages beset by rare cancers. The neoliberal agenda wreaks its havoc in ways seen and unseen. Shell's Arctic oil rig ran aground when it braved impassable winter weather, attempting to beat a timeline that would trigger additional taxes. In Montreal, the MM&A rail company received government permission to cut the number of staff on its trains from five to a single engineer: thus the Lac-Megantic disaster. However measured, it's a price paid by ordinary people, while corporations wallow in profit.

Less carbon means more democracy

In turn, dismantling neoliberalism would mean rethinking our governments, too, as democracies driven by lobbyists, corporate donors, and industry interests - valuing profits over people - pave the way for policies that are killing us all. Can a society where this can happen be rightly considered democratic?
...the most jarring part of the grassroots anti-extraction uprising has been the rude realization that most communities do appear to lack this power; that outside forces - a far-off central government, working hand-in-glove with transnational companies - are simply imposing enormous health and safety risks on residents, even when that means overturning local laws. Fracking, tar sands pipelines, coal trains, and export terminals are being proposed in many parts of the world where clear majorities of the population has made its opposition unmistakable, at the ballot box, through official consultation processes, and in the streets.

And yet consent seems beside the point. Again and again, after failing to persuade communities that these projects are in their genuine best interest, governments are teaming up with corporate players to roll over the opposition, using a combination of physical violence and draconian legal tools reclassifying peaceful activists as terrorists.

....Only two out of the over one thousand people who spoke at the panel's community hearings in British Columbia supported the project. One poll showed that 80 percent of the province's residents opposed having more oil tankers along their marine-rich coastline. That a supposedly impartial review body could rule in favor of the pipeline in the face of this kind of overwhelming opposition was seen by many in Canada as clear evidence of a serious underlying crisis, one far more about money and power than the environment.
When reviewing the proposed solutions to climate change, Klein skewers the chimeras that don't and can't work, from the corporate boondoggle known as cap-and-trade, to various technological fixes that would take our fantasy of controlling nature to bizarre new heights.
Indeed, if geoengineering has anything going for it, it is that it slots perfectly into our most hackneyed cultural narrative, the one in which so many of us have been indoctrinated by organized religion and the rest of us have absorbed from pretty much every Hollywood action movie ever made. It's the one that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us (the ones that matter) are going to be saved. And since our secular religion is technology, it won't be god that saves us but Bill Gates and his gang of super-geniuses at Intellectual Ventures.
Klein also heaps contempt on the so-called partnerships between large environmental organizations and the fossil-fuel industry, which are something like the partnership between the pig and Oscar Mayer. As Klein puts it, "the 'market-based' climate solutions favored by so many large foundations and adopted by many greens have provided an invaluable service to the fossil fuel sector as a whole."

Already changing everything: Blockadia

This Changes Everything illuminates an impressive array of activism, introducing most readers, I'm guessing, to a new expression: Blockadia. Blockadia represents the global, grassroots, broad-based networks of resistance to high-risk extreme extraction. From Greece to the Amazon to New Zealand to Montana to British Columbia, the resistance is in motion. Taking many forms - the divestment movement pressuring institutions to sever economic ties with the fossil-fuel industry, the towns declaring themselves "fracking free zones", the civil disobedience that physically slows the building of pipelines while court challenges continue - Blockadia is creating space for public debate and the possibility of change.

In many places, Blockadia is led by people from indigenous communities. Not only are indigenous peoples often the first victims of climate destruction - witness, for example, the off-the-chart cancer rates of First Nations people living downstream from Canada's tar sands - but their worldviews may form the basis of our way forward. On a Montana reservation where young Cheyenne are learning how to install solar energy systems - cutting residents' utility bills by 90% while learning a trade, creating an alternative to a life spent working for the coal industry - a female student makes this observation:
Solar power, she said, embodied the worldview in which she had been raised, one in which "You don't take and take and take. And you don't consume and consume and consume. You take what you need and then you put back into the land."
I despair. But it doesn't matter.

I want everyone to read this book, and because of that, I hesitate to share this unfortunate truth: ultimately, This Changes Everything filled me with hopelessness and despair. I wouldn't say it made me pessimistic, as I am optimistic about humankind's ability to change ourselves and our systems, if we choose to. Rather, the book filled me with outright hopelessness, because I don't believe we will even have the opportunity to make that choice. The forces aligned against the necessary changes are massive, and massively powerful. Untold profits depend on the system not changing, and what's more, gargantuan profits are being reaped off the destruction itself. The oligarchs who profit from climate change are associated with the most powerful tools of violence ever known - the mightiest armies and the greatest amorality.

Adding to the difficulty, our society clings to what Klein calls "the fetish of centrism": of the appearance of reasonableness, of "splitting the difference, and generally not getting overly excited about anything". This is the illogic that dictates we must "balance" the interests of the petroleum industry with our need for clean water, or the profits of real estate developers with the human need for shelter. This fetish of centrism allows the government and its partners in the media to label as "extremists" people who want to protect water and land from catastrophic oil spills.

Added to this, huge numbers of ordinary people, led by corporate media and astroturf faux activists, align themselves against their own interests, stoked by fears of imagined foes (be they communists, immigrants, or feminists) and cling to notions of a supposedly free market, which in reality is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. This global market is anything but free: the risk is socialized in every way possible, but the returns are strictly privatized.

If you've read Jared Diamond's Collapse, you are familiar with the concept that societies don't always do what's best for them. Societies make choices that ultimately chart their own demise. I do not despair of our ability to remake our world, but I know that the forces aligned against us will stop at nothing to prevent us from doing so. The most powerful people on the planet can shield themselves from the effects of climate change until it is too late for the rest of us.

And yet... and yet. I feel hopeless, my feelings don't matter.

What matters is this: we have little time, and we must try. Resistance movements have changed cultures. Resistance movements have brought mighty empires to their knees, have ended deeply entrenched systems: slavery, colonialism, apartheid. For centuries, there was something called the Divine Right of Kings, a concept which must have seemed permanent and immutable. Now it does not exist. Capitalism, as currently practiced, is killing our planet - killing us. We cannot shrug our shoulders.

If you agree - and more importantly, if you disagree - read this book.

11.26.2014

#walmartstrikers + international buy nothing day = don't shop at walmart

I don't know when people starting calling the day after US Thanksgiving "Black Friday," but the expression has become synonymous with over-consumption, empty consumer culture, and the bizarre importance assigned to hunting for bargains.

And what a bargain it is: a multibillion-dollar corporation sells a piece of crappy future landfill at an artificially low price by manufacturing it halfway around the globe with child labour, dumping toxins into the environment, and paying its own customers sub-living wages. In return, consumers agree to see nothing and know nothing except the price sticker. It's a deal that is devouring our planet, and our souls.

Those low, low prices on Black Friday are partly subsidized by Walmart employees, who earn crap wages, can't get full-time work, and are harassed and intimidated when speak up about their working conditions. This year, as in 2013 and 2012, Walmart workers will go on strike to demand change. And you can help them. Here's how.

First: don't shop at Walmart this holiday season.

Second: let Walmart know that you are boycotting their stores because of their unfair labour policies.

And third, if you're in the US: drop by a Walmart on Friday, November 28, to cheer on the strikers.

Even if you don't see a protest at your local Walmart, you can still participate: bring a sign saying that you support the workers fighting for fair pay and respect. Snap a selfie, and tweet it with the #walmartstrikers hashtag.

Feeling camera-shy? Write a letter a store manager. Walmart tracks every one of these actions, and collectively, they have a huge impact.

Go here for tips, instructions, and legalities. (In some states, there are legal injunctions against protesting in front of stores.)

For more on International Buy Nothing Day, Amy Mendoza, on xojane, gives us five reasons to buy nothing on Friday, December 28.