7.23.2017

why do we need to say black lives matter? a brief and partial history lesson

The African American experience in Los Angeles County, California: a brief and selected timeline of sorts.*

From 1940-1960, thousands of African Americans migrated from Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, and other southern states to California, hoping to find decent jobs, affordable housing, and equality of opportunity.

California was not quite as welcoming as advertised. Housing was strictly segregated. The Los Angeles Police Department under the governance of Chief William Parker functioned as an occupying army in all-Black neighbourhoods. The only contacts between the all-white police force and the black residents of L.A. were roundups, traffic stops, arrests, humiliations, and beatings.

August 1965. With the community at a boiling point, a traffic stop gone awry precipitates the uprising known as the Watts Riots. During the riots, Parker says: "These people came in and flooded the community. We didn't ask these people to come here."

("These people" were Americans, who supposedly enjoy a Constitutional right to travel freely between states. Author Walter Mosely on the Watts Riots: "Someone asked me, did all blacks feel this way? I told him, 99% of us do, but the other 1% is really angry.")

1982. Under Police Chief Daryl Gates, the occupation expands. When the LAPD is questioned about the many African Americans who died in police chokeholds, Gates says that African Americans were more likely "to die from chokeholds because their veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people."**

From 1987 to 1991, Gates uses "Operation Hammer" to supposedly clean up gang violence. With no attempt to speak with or involve the community, the LAPD deploys thousands of police to African American and Latino neighbourhoods. Families are rounded up, pushed face-down in the dirt, humiliated, demeaned, arrested, beaten, with little regard for evidence. Tens of thousands are arrested; but in the majority of cases, no charges are filed.

August 1, 1988. As part of Operation Hammer, police forcibly enter apartments at 39th Street and Dalton Avenue, holding residents at gunpoint while they vandalize and destroy everything in the homes. They smash appliances, mirrors, toilets; they shred clothes and children's toys; they rip up furniture and family photos. Police spray-paint "LAPD Rules" and other slogans on the apartment walls.

The raid nets six ounces of marijuana and less than one ounce of cocaine.**

March 3, 1991. A taxi driver named Rodney King is pulled over after leading LAPD on high-speed chase. A group of officers surround King, beat him with metal batons and kick him as he lay writhing on the ground. In an age before cell phones videos, a neighbour videotapes the beating and sends it to a local news station. The beating is shown continually on TV news. Four officers are charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force. The defense claims that the beating was a function of the city's ban on police chokeholds.

Despite the irrefutable evidence that all of America had seen day in and day out, none of the four officers are convicted of anything.

It is often said that the 1992 uprising/riots followed the Rodney King beating. This is incorrect. The riots were in response to the Rodney King verdict. The African American community trusted in the judicial system, believing that this time, with incontrovertible proof, there would be justice. I think of the Rodney King case whenever I hear Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll": "Now is the time for your tears."

March 16, 1991. Soon Ja Du, a shopkeeper, incorrectly assumes that 15-year-old Latasha Harlins is stealing a bottle of orange juice. A scuffle ensues. As Latasha walks away, Du produces a gun and shoots the teenager in the back of the head, killing her.

Security footage captures the incident, leaving no doubt that Du's claims of self-defense were false.

Du is fined $500 and sentenced to 400 hours of community service.

This is just some context. Context before Oscar Grant, before Michael Brown, before Trayvon Martin, before Eric Garner, before Philando Castile. Before these people in 2015, and these people in 2016, and these people, so far this year. One American city, and a few famous incidents.

If you call the US a police state, you'll be accused of hyperbole. "Go live in [current hated country] and see what a real police state looks like!" Or closer to home, just be black or brown and live in the wrong zip code.

------

* This post was inspired by watching "OJ: Made In America," a five-part documentary series, part of ESPN's excellent "30 For 30" docs. I may write about the OJ movie another time. This post is not intended for discussion of anything OJ-related.

** One of the US war resisters in Canada recognized army raids on Iraqi homes as a version of the police raids that were a regular feature of his neighborhood in East L.A. From that similarity, he began to see the US as an occupying power.

*** Gates is often heralded for ushering in the era of SWAT policing and the DARE anti-drug program. The former has escalated police violence while failing to protect communities, while the latter was a colossal waste of money, finally discontinued in 2002 after all studies proved it was a total failure.

7.14.2017

what i'm reading: pit bull: the battle over an american icon

If you have an opinion about pitbulls, chances are good that it's based on myth, misinformation, and even disinformation. I know a good deal about dogs, and I thought I knew a lot about pitbulls, yet I was constantly amazed and enlightened by Bronwen Dickey's Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon.

Here are some of the things you will learn if you read this book.

There is no agreement on what a pitbull is.

No one can correctly identify a dog's breed-mix based on the dog's appearance, including experts.

Many or most media stories about pitbulls are based on uncorroborated heresay and myths, and many are actually fiction.

Many dog-bite incidents reported as involving pitbulls actually involved Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, Poodles, and other breeds.

Accurate statistics about dog bites, especially those that account for severity, do not exist.

There is nothing special about a pitbull's jaws or the strength of its bite. In fact, no test exists to measure the strength of a dog's bite, thus "facts" about a pitbull's bite being x pounds of pressure compared to other dogs' bites, are pure fiction.

Reading this book, you will consider connections between the media's portrayal of pitbulls and racism, between fear of pitbulls and fear of urban youth, the dynamics of a social phenomenon known as "moral panic", and how the moral panic over pitbulls mirrors the one about crack cocaine. And did you know that in pre-Civil War America, dogs of slaves were confiscated and put to death, as were dogs in Jewish homes in Nazi Germany?

All this might be merely interesting, or perhaps fascinating, if ignorance and moral panic didn't inform law-making. Sadly and infuriatingly, this is not the case. Thousands of dogs labeled as pitbulls that never harmed anyone or showed any signs of aggression have been killed. Thousands of people were forced to choose between their beloved dogs and homelessness, when any dog deemed a pitbull was banned from most public housing and much private housing. This is not about a dangerous dog being euthanized. This is the wholesale round-up and (attempted) eradication of dogs based on appearance only.

In one of the many insightful looks into media coverage of dog-bite stories, Dickey uncovers the total lack of credentials, expertise, and experience of the owner of a professional-looking website called dogsbite.org. She notes that on one side of the so-called debate are the Center for Disease Control, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, the National Animal Care and Control Association, the Animal Behavior Society, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. and all but one animal welfare organization. On the other side, the owner of an attractive website with unsourced claims. But the media, in the name of "balance", will give these two sides equal weight, without questioning where dogsbite.org gets its information. The answer is: they make it up.

Dickey introduces the reader to two important, remarkable organizations: the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, now called Beyond Fences, and a Humane Society program called Pets for Life. In the past, the only thing animal control organizations could do for neglected dogs was remove them from homes -- a chilling echo of how children were removed from certain homes under the guise of protection. These two groups help people keep their animals, by offering free veterinary care, free quality dog food, and free dog-care education. Because -- go figure -- it turns out low-income families love their animals just as much as affluent families. The descriptions of dogs and people whose lives have been transformed by the dedicated people of these organizations are the most beautiful and hopeful parts of this book.

Dickey introduces the reader to many amazing people -- dedicated rescuers and trainers, as well as people who are amazing for all the wrong reasons -- amazingly ignorant, willfully ill-informed, and close-minded, determined to rid the world of one supposed breed based on a refusal to acknowledge facts.

Dickey's book is a tour de force of research and synthesis. It's not so much a book about dogs, as a book of history, sociology, science, and information studies where dogs are the organizing principle. I wish that everyone who has an opinion about pitbulls was required to read this book.

7.09.2017

in which telehealth sends me to the emergency room and i wonder why. or, what's the deal with telehealth?

I used Telehealth for the first time this past week, Ontario's call centre for health questions. I thought it was a great service, but now that I've spoken to others about my experience, I'm confused. Is it true Telehealth sends everyone to Urgent Care or the Emergency Room?

USians, you may marvel at the beauty of universal public health care.

* * * *

It was the Monday after Canada Day, and I had been sick all weekend. My family doctor's office always has an on-call doctor or nurse-practitioner, but the office was closed. I had a feeling I should see a doctor, in case I needed antibiotics.

I Googled to find the number, and read this on the Telehealth website.
Call Telehealth for medical advice
Telehealth Ontario is a free, confidential service you can call to get health advice or information. A Registered Nurse will take your call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 
  • Toll-free: 1-866-797-0000
  • Toll-free TTY: 1-866-797-0007
Telehealth Ontario is only offered over the phone. Email advice is not available. 
How it works
When you call, a Registered Nurse will ask you to answer questions so they can assess your health problem and give you advice.
Telehealth Ontario nurses will not diagnose your illness or give you medicine. They will direct you to the most appropriate level of care or may put you in contact with a health professional who can advise you on your next steps.
The nurse will help you decide whether to: 
  • handle a problem yourself
  • visit your doctor or nurse practitioner
  • go to a clinic
  • contact a community service
  • go to a hospital emergency room
Who can call
Anyone can call Telehealth Ontario to ask a health-related question. This service is: 
  • confidential –  you may be asked to provide your health card number, but it is not required
  • provided in both English and French, with translation support for some other languages
  • free for all users
What you can ask
You can contact Telehealth Ontario when you have health-related questions or concerns about: 
  • illness or injury that may need medical care
  • illnesses that don’t go away or keep coming back
  • food and healthy living
  • teen health and issues
  • depression, suicide or other mental health concerns
  • medications and drug interactions
  • breastfeeding
First a recorded announcement told me what was going to happen, and how to access emergency care. This part was kind of long; I wondered if most people would listen to that much information.

Then an intake person came on the line. She asked me a series of questions, then said I would speak to the registered nurse on duty. The wait would be about 20 minutes, and I could either stay on hold or she could call me back.

Fifteen minutes later, the nurse called. I told her what I was experiencing, and she asked me a series of questions.

When she was finished, she said, "Right now, when this call is finished, you should go the emergency room." I was so surprised, and asked if that was really necessary. "Yes. You must go. If you have a respiratory infection, while you wait to see a doctor, it will get worse. You can end up with bronchitis or pneumonia, and both are serious, especially if you already have respiratory issues. Will you go to the emergency room right away?"

The nurse also said I could use my inhaler (puffer) more often. I'm new to puffers and didn't realize that. But she wanted me to assure her that I would go to the emergency room.

Me: "If a nurse is telling me I should go, I guess I should."

Nurse: "Not just a nurse -- a panel of 12 doctors. A panel of 12 doctors created these interview questions, and based on your answers, you need to go to the emergency room."

I was highly skeptical, because I suspected I didn't have bronchitis. I didn't have either of the two classic symptoms, shortness of breath and chest pain. But the nurse was so insistent... so, despite my skepticism, I woke up Allan, and off we went.

There is an Urgent Care clinic in my area, and I knew that was more appropriate than the actual Emergency Room.

We waited three hours in UC. A doctor listened to my breathing, told me to use my puffer, and sent me home. The interaction with the doctor took 2-3 minutes.

I was annoyed at myself for going.

Allan and I talked about how you can't base your decision on an unknown outcome. If it turns out something is wrong, you're glad you went. If it turns out that you didn't need antibiotics or anything else, you feel stupid, like you should have known to stay home. Obviously you can't know the outcome until you go, so you have to go.

Two days later, I was still sick, plus I thought I might need a doctor's note for work. I called our health centre, made an appointment for the on-call nurse-practitioner, and was seen immediately. She listened to my breathing much more carefully than the UC doctor, and asked me more questions. She concurred -- wait it out. If there's no fever, green phlegm, chest pains, or shortness of breath, just use the puffer and wait it out.

When I told her that Telehealth told me to go to the ER, she said, "They tell a lot of people that. I think it's a liability issue."

Later in the week, I mentioned to a friend that Telehealth sent me to UC, she said the same thing: "That's what they do." We were with a group of people, and everyone seemed to agree that Telehealth recommends the ER or UC to cover themselves. What if they tell you to wait, and your condition worsens? What if you have a respiratory crisis, and it comes out that they told you to stay home and not worry?

Is this true? If so, what's the point of Telehealth? Actual question, not sarcasm.

Also, why didn't the Telehealth nurse ask if there was an UC facility near me? She only said ER. If I hadn't known the difference between UC and ER, I would have diverted ER care -- plus probably waited much longer, since I would be lower down on the triage scale in ER.


a must-read if you're responding to ignorance and bigotry about omar khadr's settlement

In case everyone hasn't seen this yet, written by someone named Ben Feral Selinger.
July 6

Okay, I'm fucking sick of the idiocy and done with writing a diatribe every single time a friend posts about how they're upset that Trudeau is giving a terrorist $10m. You people are.... wilfully ignorant and hypocritical. Here's why. (And I thoroughly suggest reading the entire post. If you know me, you know I'm neither stupid, nor an apologist. I am pure fucking science, and this post is such. Read it before making an ass of yourself by posting about how we just gave a terrorist money).

The story (the facts we know).

* Canadian born Khadr was taken to Afghanistan at age 9, by his father. We don't know if he wanted to go, and we don't know why they went. There has been zero evidence put forth to suggest the trip had anything to do with terrorism. Regardless, as he was only 9, he had no choice in the matter.

* Khadr, aged 15, was found in critical condition following a firefight. The mission debrief report filed by the US troops stated that a middle aged man threw a grenade, which killed one US soldier. The grenadier was shot in the head and confirmed killed.

* Khadr was taken to Guantanamo Bay prison. No charges were filed against him at that time.

* Several years later, formal charges were filed. These charges were technically not even charges of war crimes, as if they were true, Khadr would be considered an enemy combatant during a time of war, and thus everything he was accused of doing, was legal under rules of engagement. He was denied access to a lawyer at this point and no trial date was set. He was held in detention and tortured for nearly 10 years.

* Nearly a decade later, an addendum to the original mission debrief was submitted, which identified the grenadier as Khadr by name. The original report was not rescinded. No one knows who made the addendum. No US personnel present during the firefight confirms the addendum. (at least I've not been able to find any).

* A week later, Khadr is offered a plea deal. The terms of the deal were to admit guilt to all charges and serve a few more years in a Canadian prison, or refuse to admit guilt and be denied trial indefinitely. (the latter portion is not confirmed by the US government, but let's be realistic here...)

* Khadr takes the plea deal, is transferred to Canada.

* Khadr sues the Canadian government for their involvement in his illegal detention, torture, and lack of a trial.

All of the above is true as far as anyone knows. That is the official story, from both the Canadian and US governments. They have said straight out that Khadr would not be offered a trial unless he took the plea deal. Just let that sink in for a moment.

Now let me ask you a question.

As a Canadian, what do you stand for? Do you believe that you, as a Canadian, have the right to be presumed innocent, until proven guilty, as well as the right to a fair and quick trial? I know this is hard for many of you to consider without jumping to "oh, but he's a terrorist, so fuck him, he's a traitor and doesn't deserve anything", but we'll get to that in a minute. Seriously consider this. Do you believe you have, as a Canadian, the inalienable right to everything laid out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

If you do, but still think Khadr does not, because he is a terrorist, let me ask you; "How do you know he is guilty?" There was no trial for 10 years, and he was only offered a trial on the condition that he plead guilty. How do we, as Canadians, determine guilt? Have you read and understood the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? It's entire purpose is precisely to ensure that what happened to Khadr, is not allowed to happen. Period.

Now I know many of you still can't get past the "but he's a traitor so he doesn't deserve a trial" even though neither you, nor me, nor the US or Canadian government were able to provide ANY evidence whatsoever, of his guilt (no evidence was submitted during his trial, presumably because none exists), but that doesn't matter. Let me explain the problem to you.

You are worried that terrorists are trying to take away your freedoms as a Canadian right? They're trying to force their way of life upon us and we as Canadians, won't stand for that right?

Do you see where I'm going here? Presuming Khadr's guilt, with no evidence and without trial, is precisely what the terrorists want to do to Canada. Isn't that your concern? Does it not strike you then, that by saying that Khadr doesn't deserve a fair trial because he is a terrorist, with absolutely no evidence, nor a trial to prove the charges, that you are doing precisely what you are worried the terrorists are trying to do do us? A presumption of guilt, no trial, a decade of detention and torture. Is that not EXACTLY what you are worried terrorists are trying to do to us?

At this point, I don't think any of us should even be concerned about Khadrs innocence or guilt. He is inconsequential at this point. The REAL concern for all Canadians, is that our government denied a Canadian citizen his inalienable rights, guaranteed to him under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They did EXACTLY what you are worried the terrorists are trying to do. If Khadr was guilty, a trial probably would have proven such, so why was he denied a trial?

For your information, the Canadian government did not simply offer up an apology and $10m for no reason. They were sued. Khadr filed a civil suit with the supreme court of Canada, and that court found in favour of Khadr, in that the Canadian government was in breach of Canadian and International law. Over half the money awarded will be going toward legal fees.

Think about it this way. Your government, was just successfully sued for war crimes. Crimes they committed not only against Khadr, but against the entire Canadian public. They assured us that we would all be given a fair trial, but now we know that is not true. They assured us that we will always be presumed innocent until proven guilty. We know that is not true. They took your money, money which could have been spent on building half a hospital or something, and spent it instead, on committing war crimes, and crimes directly against the Charter for which our country stands.

Now I don't know if Khadr is innocent or guilty and I don't know if that money will end up right back in the middle east, but before you get upset about that, I want you to consider this: Had the Canadian government offered Khadr a fair trial, regardless of his guilt, there would have been no civil suit and we'd have $10.5m more Canadian Pesos to spend on Moose shirts, or maple syrup flavoured hockey sticks.
All they had to do, was abide by our own legal doctrine, and this whole mess would have never happened.

In summation:

If you believe Khadr did not deserve a fair and quick trial, you are not Canadian. You do not stand for what Canada stands for. You are saying very clearly, that you don't care about evidence, treating people (who we presume are innocent until proven guilty) with basic decency, or your own or anyone else's right to a fair trial. You are, quite literally, openly supporting about half of Sharia law. You fuckwits.

Addendum: Hey guys. I had no intention of this post reaching such a wide audience. It was really just directed at my fellow redneck buddies (all very excellent folk but who I felt could benefit from the data). I've adjusted some of the language to suit a wider audience.

I appreciate the feedback (surprisingly generally positive), but bear in mind that with a post this widely shared, I cannot respond to the thousands of PM's flying at me. Feel free to re-share the post, or just copy/paste to your own feed to keep the conversation going. I absolutely do not need any personal attribution.
Thank you, Ben.

7.08.2017

adventures in streaming: tubi, dick cavett, and the manster

The Roku streaming device gives you access to thousands of apps... most of which are completely useless.

That doesn't mean I don't love Roku. I do! But we use it almost exclusively to watch Netflix and the Red Sox, and to access downloaded files on the TV. We've also installed a few other apps, most of which we rarely or never touch: PBS, Democracy Now!, Google Play, National Film Board, a cooking channel or two. Sometimes I page through the available apps, install one, try it, then immediately remove it.

There are dozens of apps for movies and TV shows. Some are the streaming option you get when you already have a network or cable channel. Some have expensive monthly fees, others are expensive pay-per-view, and lots are free. If the description says "classic movies" read "public domain". Classic or contemporary, there may be one or two movies of interest, then a whole lot of filler.

One popular free movie app is Crackle, owned by Sony to stream their own content. I installed Crackle because it had one movie I wanted to see that I couldn't find anywhere else. We found the embedded advertising (which you can't skip) too intrusive, almost as bad as watching commercial television. I removed Crackle, but it wouldn't unsubscribe me, and I finally had to kill-file their emails. When I checked back recently, they no longer even have that one movie.

We recently had better luck with TubiTV. It's also free, and so far, the ads are only at the beginning, and it's not too annoying to wait through them (on mute, of course). So far Tubi has given us two gems.

One is the old Dick Cavett show. Cavett was known to be a thoughtful host who did lengthy, in-depth interviews, sometimes featuring one person for the entire show. He was also really into great music. There are performances by and/or interviews with Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and others, an impressive list.

From the movie "Janis: Little Girl Blue," an excellent biopic of Janis Joplin that I saw on Netflix, I learned about her connection with Cavett. I was once obsessed with all things Janis Joplin, and still love and admire her, so I was excited to see her appearances on The Dick Cavett Show available on Tubi.



There are also interviews with famous writers, comedians, actors, athletes, politicians -- a wide swath of interesting people. Check out this episode list, it's pretty amazing.

Tubi also has a "Cult Favorites" category, on which I found my favourite B movie of all time: The Manster. I'm not especially knowledgeable about B movies, but I watched a lot of old movies when I was a kid, the good with the bad. (This is in the dark ages when we watched whatever the networks and weird local stations aired.) I've seen The Day the Earth Stood Still, Night of the Living Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and all the other big B movies from that era, multiple times. My favourite is The Manster.



In The Manster, an American journalist goes to Japan to interview a scientist rumoured to be experimenting with youth serums. In his secret mountain laboratory, the scientist keeps various creatures locked in cages. (We later learn that one of the creatures used to be his wife.) Scientist secretly injects journalist, which causes a second head to grow out of his shoulder. The second head is evil and causes the transformed journalist to murder people.

After a manhunt, as the police close in on the two-headed journalist, the suspense builds to the shocking conclusion. With the manster standing behind a tree, we hear a giant tearing sound, like the world's biggest velcro strip being opened. Tearing, screaming, tearing, screaming... the monster rips apart from the man! Interestingly, both man and monster now have two arms and two legs. Police kill the murdering monster and the journalist is carried off on a stretcher.

There are also some riveting subplots, featuring the doctor and journalist drinking and carousing, the doctor's assistant falling in love with the journalist, and the journalist's wife trying to win him back from his new profligate life. The doctor's assistant ends up in a volcano, courtesy of the newly liberated monster.

I was so pleased to see The Manster on Tubi that we watched it straight through, something I haven't done since I was in my pre-teen years. It's a classic B movie combo of wild histrionics, meaningless cliches, giant plot holes, and bad lighting. But the real reason to watch are the awesome special effects. I swear you can see the strap that's holding the extra head on the actor's shoulder.




Before writing this post, I didn't even know The Manster was a famous B movie! I found it on many best-of lists. There's even an action figure.


7.07.2017

happy strike-iversary!






The City of Mississauga has a community recognition program, through which community groups can have their banner fly at City Hall for a day. When the program was announced, I said to a few of my union sisters, "I know a flag I'd like to see there...". I was only joking -- but they took me seriously! This morning, to the astonishment of many, the beautiful pink CUPE 1989 banner is flying beside Mississauga City Hall!

This week marks one year since the members of CUPE Local 1989, Mississauga Library Workers, walked off their jobs and onto the picket lines. It was the first strike in our local's history and the first strike against the City of Mississauga.

I am a member and now the president of Local 1989. In the past year, I've been invited to speak on panels, in conferences and conventions, in rallies, meetings, and gatherings of labour activists. Our local was honoured at the CUPE Ontario convention, and featured in a conference called "Building Strong Locals," held in Halifax. Everybody wants to hear how we built a winning strike, and it's been my great honour to share my reflections.

I never get tired of talking about the gains we made, especially for our lowest-paid members, and about how the strike transformed lives. But except to my partner and a few others, I don't talk about how the strike and my union work effects me personally.

Leading the bargaining team, the strike, and our union has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I love being a librarian, but even that is far outweighed by the satisfaction I find from my union work. Leading our team through bargaining and through the strike used -- and tested -- everything I had. It felt like all my experience, all my knowledge, and all my skills, from every thread of my life, had come together for this purpose. That was extremely exciting and energizing.

It also came at the right time in my life. I'm less volatile, more focused; I have a longer fuse, and a good deal more common sense. Dealing with the physical and mental limitations from my health issues was not always easy, but I'd rather struggle with getting enough rest at 55 than popping off in tirades at 25. (I did pop off once or twice in bargaining. Hey, I'm entitled to some fun!)

Our union continues to thrive. We're enforcing the terms of our collective agreement, protecting gains we have made, and always, always, always striving to engage our members. We're also identifying and developing future leaders, so the gains we've made don't unravel when the current team steps away.

I've made great friendships. Like my comrades from the War Resisters Support Campaign, these friends are from greatly diverse backgrounds and lives, linked by our belief and commitment to this work.

Tonight, members of CUPE 1989 will gather for our "strike-iversary," to reminisce about the experience and reflect on what we gained, how we've changed, and what lies ahead.

7.06.2017

the politics of the hardboiled detective novel

I love these old covers!
Last year, I blogged about a wonderful essay by Raymond Chandler called "The Simple Art of Murder", written in 1950. Reading that, I realized that I knew the work of both Chandler and Dashiell Hammett -- the originators of the hardboiled detective genre -- only through film adaptations. I hadn't read any of their novels. To remedy that, I borrowed several titles by each from the library.*  (I also plan to read some of the giants of the noir novel, having seen the classic film adaptations of their work: James M. Cain, James Ellroy, Jim Thompson.)

I read Hammett's Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon, and Chandler's The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. If I didn't have so much other reading pressing on me, I would have read many more. I loved everything about these books.

The writing is simple but vivid and evocative. The characters are interesting and multi-dimensional. The twisting plots are full of surprises. And above all, the protagonists -- the detectives -- are the perfect anti-heroes.

In detective movies and TV shows, the character of the detective him- or herself is paramount. If I like the detective, I'll follow him anywhere. If the detective rubs me the wrong way, it's a no-go, no matter how good the writing or acting or plots might be. Philip Marlowe (Chandler) and Sam Spade (Hammett) are as good as they get. It didn't even bother me that as I read, I could only see Humphrey Bogart in these roles. The casting of those famous films was perfect; my mental image of Bogart, who I love, only added to the enjoyment.

In his seminal essay, Chandler describes his detectives like this.
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.
In an interesting bit of self-consciousness in The Big Sleep, Chandler has Marlowe describe his own role, and the hardboiled novel itself.
I'm not Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance. I don't expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it. If you think there is anybody in the detective business making a living doing that sort of thing, you don't know much about cops. 
I also loved the politics of these books. Of course hardboiled detective novels are not political per se, but Hammett's and Chandler's work have a clear, consistent political and social point of view. Spade and Marlowe are working class guys, and the reader sees everything through their working-class eyes.

In fact, class consciousness underpins everything in these novels. Throughout, there is a deep empathy for the working person, the underling, the regular Joe or Jane, and a consistent assumption that the odds are always stacked against them. Spade and Marlowe's work takes them into both dark underworlds and opulent mansions. They are equally themselves anywhere -- because they are men of integrity, without pretense -- but only the mansion will elicit scorn and contempt. The sad underworlds are more likely to evoke pity, and an understanding of why ordinary people may be driven to make bad decisions in an unjust world. Even in the criminal underworld, it's the little guy who takes the fall, while the rich and powerful do the damage and enjoy the good life.

There's a special place for the police in these novels, and it is not on a pedestal. Spade and Marlowe harbor a deep distrust of the police, and believe that in order to find justice, one must work outside the system, because the system is always corrupt.

In a world where the working class is always on the defensive, a man with a bit of power might just be tempted to overcompensate -- and we usually see police through this lens. Cops must be distrusted because they do the bidding of the ruling class. A good cop must prove himself to be one; he doesn't get the benefit of the doubt. Good cops are rare, but in this world, good men and women of any station are always rare.

Towards the end of The Big Sleep, a decent police captain explains:
I'm a copper. Just a plain ordinary copper. Reasonably honest. As honest as you could expect a man to be in a world where it's out of style. That's mainly why I asked you to come in this morning. I'd like you to believe that. Being a copper I like to see the law win. I'd like to see the flashy well-dressed muggs like Eddie Mars spoiling their manicures in the rock quarry at Folsom, alongside of the poor little slum-bred hard guys that got knocked over on their first caper and never had a break since. That's what I'd like. You and me both lived too long to think I'm likely to see it happen. Not in this town, not in any town half this size, in any part of this wide, green and beautiful U.S.A. We just don't run our country that way.

The edition in our library.
Some might find these books sexist, as women are often portrayed as deceitful and dangerous, but that's not my reading. The women of Chandler and Hammett are not helpless ragdolls in need of rescue; they're not dependent on men for identity or status. They are free agents -- free to love, free to act on lust, to lie, to murder, but always free to make their own choices. The women of the hardboiled mystery are not be trusted -- just like the men. Both men and women do stupid things under the influence of love or lust, Marlowe and Spade included.

Men and women, working class or ruling class, guilty or innocent -- character traits cross all lines. There is honour and deceit on all sides. There is abuse of power everywhere. There is deep sorrow, and there is addiction. Indeed, I came to see alcohol almost as a character in these books.

At bottom, the hardboiled mystery, at least as practiced by the masters, is a study in power. The upper class, the criminals, the cops, the guards -- everyone is trying to get power, to use it, and to keep it. Only an honest man or woman cares more about doing the right thing than about power.

That's why class consciousness permeates everything: because the playing field is grossly tilted. The ruling class and their minions always have a giant head start. That's why the detective needs to stand up for the little guy. It's also why the detective hero must be wily and super-smart, why he needs to work outside the system, why he must often consider the means against the ends. He is a justice warrior amid an universal imbalance of power.

* Working in a library has greatly expanded my reading. More on that another day.

7.05.2017

the great whole foods experiment of 2017

In our home, shopping at Whole Foods was once reserved for special dinners or used a stop-gap during an extremely busy week. Then slowly, over time, it became habit -- and a big one. For a long time now, we've had two regular shopping days each week, one at Loblaws and one at Whole Foods. Sometimes we end up at Whole Foods multiple times in one week.

This has been expensive, of course, but I felt it was worth spending more for better quality, and even more so for convenience. Because of Whole Foods' prepared food, we've been able to spend less time on food preparation, but still eat healthfully. Where prepared food in most supermarkets consists of rotisserie chicken and mayonnaisey pasta salads, Whole Foods carries an array of fresh, healthy, delicious -- expensive -- choices. Over time we relied on this more... and more.

I did determine that some prepared food was actually no more expensive than if I had made it myself: see my post about Roman tuna salad. Now I suspect that tuna salad is either a loss leader, or an outlier.

Several months ago, Whole Foods' prices shot up. A bag of groceries that once cost $65 now runs $95 or as much as $120. I rationalized it for a while, but even I, the Queen of Rationalization, can no longer ignore the obvious. But what do we do instead? What did we do before Whole Foods came to Mississauga...? The answer is: lots of different things that all involve more effort and less variety.

Hence the experiment. We won't shop at Whole Foods for one month, then we can decide if the money we don't spend is worth the effort we do spend. This also has an added benefit: the owner of Whole Foods is notoriously anti-union, so this is an opportunity to align my spending with my principles a bit more.