11.30.2013

buzzfeed announces no negative book reviews: what that means (and doesn't mean) and why it's good

In a New York Times op-ed, I've learned that BuzzFeed has announced the hiring of its first book editor, and will start publishing book reviews. But it will not run negative book reviews. Isaac Fitzgerald (formerly of The Rumpus and McSweeney's) said:
BuzzFeed will do book reviews, Fitzgerald said, but he hasn’t figured out yet what form they’ll take. It won’t do negative reviews: “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.” Fitzgerald said people in the online books community “understand that about books, that it is something that people have worked incredibly hard on, and they respect that. The overwhelming online books community is a positive place.”

He will follow what he calls the “Bambi Rule” (though he acknowledges the quote in fact comes from Thumper): “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
This is welcome news for serious readers.

It doesn't mean, as Wired thinks (or pretends to think), that Fitzgerald "will only accept warm and cuddly" reviews. It doesn't mean books won't be reviewed critically. Critical does not equal negative. There are valid criticisms of any book, and we should know what they are.

What it does mean, or at least what I hope it's intended to mean: no more book reviews that are really just excuses. An excuse for the reviewer to savage a writer she dislikes. An excuse to climb on a political soapbox. An excuse to name-drop. An excuse to show us the very clever insults the reviewer came up with.

In other words, no more reviews that are really about the reviewer, instead of the book.

Perhaps many readers don't realize this, but out of the vast numbers of books that are published, only a very tiny percentage get reviewed. Why waste space telling us what not to read? Why not use our limited reading time and attention spans to bring worthwhile books to our attention?

The New York Times Book Review has a longstanding tradition of assigning political books to reviewers from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Perhaps they imagine this is more impartial (unlikely; they're not stupid), or perhaps they are trying to stir controversy. Either way, it's a waste of a book review spot. If I want hollow, knee-jerk arguments, I can turn on CNN.*

I don't read book reviews to learn about the reviewer's politics or their facility with language. I read book reviews to answer one question: is this a book I might like to read? (Or, if I'm thinking as a librarian, is this a book I'd like to see in my library?)

What's the book about? What is the writer's style like? Is it accessible or dense, breezy and light, or heavy going? Is the book rich in characterization, full of wild plot twists? Is it suspenseful? Does it follow in a literary tradition, and if so, how well does it pull off that tradition? If it's nonfiction, is it well researched and argued? Thought-provoking, eye-opening? What are some of the author's main arguments? Does it do what the author set out to do? And so on.

When I first started blogging, I decided I would only write about books I enjoyed. Just because I don't like a book, doesn't mean it doesn't have merit. I know something about what it takes to write a book - the time, the effort, the commitment, the risk, the inevitable disappointment, and in many cases, the personal sacrifice. Why should I denigrate another writer's craft?

I'd rather help readers find books they might like. That seems like a much better use of my time, and yours. So I was glad to see that someone agree. Well done, BuzzFeed!




*Actually, I can't, but you know what I mean.

11.29.2013

update on kimberly rivera and how you can help

Three days ago, Iraq War resister Kimberly Rivera gave birth to a son, Matthew Kaden, in a military hospital in San Diego. As soon as her hospital stay ends (which may have already happened), Kim will be taken back to prison. Her newborn baby will stay with his father and his siblings... but his mother will be forced to finish her prison term. Her release is scheduled for mid-December.

The US Army has rejected all appeals for clemency, and is insisting Kim serve the final weeks of her sentence, even though it means separating a mother and a newborn infant.

On Sunday, December 1, people of peace and conscience around the world will be holding actions in solidarity with Kimberly and her family.

See Free Kimberly Rivera on Facebook for updates on vigils and actions.

In Toronto, a vigil will be held at 12:00 noon at the US Consulate, 360 University Avenue. Please note this is the correct time. Actions in most other locations are taking place at 3:00 p.m.

If, like me, you cannot attend a vigil, you can still help.

- Write Brigadier General Michael A. Bills and urge him to grant clemency to PFC Rivera. Kim's lawyer has filed the official clemency request, but says that letters can still be written in support.

Brigadier General Michael A. Bills
c/o Fort Carson Public Affairs Office
1626 Ellis Street
Suite 200, Building 1118
Fort Carson, CO 80913 USA
(Fax: 1-719-526-1021)

Sign a petition on Kim's behalf.

Donations to assist the Rivera family can be made here.

You can send words of encouragement to Kim at:
Kimberly Rivera
P.O. Box 452136
San Diego, CA 92145-2136
USA

I hope with all my heart she will soon have a new address.

canadian woman refused entry to u.s. based on confidential health records

According to this news story, a Canadian woman named Ellen Richardson was refused entry into the United States because of a prior medical condition. That is, when the US border guards swiped her passport, information taken from her health records came up.

Now, the US can refuse entry to any non-citizen for any reason or no reason. The more important question is why was a Canadian's confidential medical information in the Department of Homeland Security database?? How did it get there? How many of our health records are in the DHS database? You don't need to wear a tinfoil hat to ask these questions, and imagine the troubling scenarios they raise.

When Richardson and the Toronto Star asked for an explanation, they were told:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection media spokeswoman Jenny Burke said that due to privacy laws, "the department is prohibited from discussing specific cases."
How's that for irony? Richardson contacted her Member of Parliament.
MP Mike Sullivan said what has happened to his constituent is “enormously troubling. . . . How did U.S. agents get her personal medical information?"

He said he will be getting in touch with federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart “and demanding to know how this happened. We’re very concerned if Canadians’ personal medical information is being communicated to U.S. authorities."

Richardson has also spoken to her lawyer, David McGhee, about what she believes to be a “breach of privacy" as well as an act of discrimination against people with mental health issues.

McGhee has sent a letter to Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews asking how this breach could have occurred.

“The incident in 2012 was hospitalization for depression. Police were not involved,’’ McGhee said. “I’ve asked Deb Matthews to tell me if she’s aware of any provincial or federal authority to allow U.S. authorities to have access to our medical records. Medical records are supposed to be strictly confidential."

U.S. authorities “do not have access to medical or other health records for Ontarians travelling to the U.S.," said health ministry spokeswoman Joanne Woodward Fraser, adding the ministry could not provide any additional information.
This is not the first time a story like this has surfaced. But each time it does, it is presented without context or explanation... and then we all move on. These questions are ripe for some investigative journalism, from someone who can afford to do such things. The Toronto Star, for example, might be interested.

11.28.2013

wmtc movie and series season is open, please post your suggestions here

What with the Red Sox winning the World Series (!!!) and Allan's book being completed (available for pre-order on Amazon!!!), I forgot to announce the official opening of Movie Season.

Since changing to streaming-only, and since I'm out one or two nights a week, we really don't binge on movies anymore - no more three movies a week for months on end - but we still need a go-to list.

Movies: well-made documentaries, quirky indies, suspenseful noir, crime thrillers or capers, mind-benders, smart comedies - post them here.

Series: We are psyched for the long-awaited Sherlock S3! We're going back to The Wire; we've seen Season 1, and a bit of S2, now we'll restart S2. We're in the middle of Downton Abbey S4 but I've lost interest, as any pretence to historical drama has been tossed, and now it's just a soap opera with cooler clothes. We liked the first two or three seasons of The Big C and Weeds, but gave up both when they stopped being great. House of Cards seems like a possibility. No Game of Thrones, please. We might watch Breaking Bad one day in the future, when no one talks about it anymore.

For me: Know any really good detective series? I need more, preferably with lots and lots of episodes. Absolutely loved Prime Suspect and Wallander, thanks to wmtc readers. Still enjoying Luther. Love love love Inspector Lewis and will probably watch the entire series again. Watched MI5 for about five minutes; cannot stand anti-terrorism shows. The Inspector Lynley Mysteries seems to have potential, but I have no source for the whole series yet.

My Star Trek adventure has come to a close. Watching the entire original series in order was so much fun! And I hugely enjoyed TNG, was sad when I came to the end. But after six or seven episodes of Voyager, I still didn't like it, and I couldn't make it through the pilot of Deep Space Nine. Oh well, it was really fun while it lasted! I could use another series like that, something engrossing but that I don't take too seriously. My favourite is still Xena TWP. Many people have recommended Firefly... or is Serenity? What's the deal?

And finally, my comedy-before-sleep routine has really benefited from streaming. I finished both The Office (US) and Malcolm in the Middle, which just might be the best kids' sitcom ever. (I plan to write more about that soon.) I'm still watching Futurama, but when I reach the end of that... Community? I've seen a few eps and it has potential. I'd prefer to switch off between two shows. Got any?

11.27.2013

thoughts on "the central park five": new york city, the central park jogger, and me

We've just seen "The Central Park Five," the Ken Burns film about five young men of colour who were wrongfully arrested, indicted, and convicted of rape and attempted murder, and who served seven, and in one case, thirteen years, in prison for a crime they didn't commit.

There was virtually no evidence linking the five teenagers to the crime, and enormous amounts of evidence showing they could not possibly have committed it. They were convicted on the strength of illegally obtained, coerced, false confessions.

In one sense, this story is one of the oldest in the United States. As former Mayor David Dinkins says in the film, it's Emmett Till. In another sense, that this happened in the late-20th-Century New York City still has the power to shock.

Indelible memories

I feel connected to the events depicted in this film through the timeline of my own life. Even before watching it, I could recall every detail. The "other rape" that occurred the same night, of the black girl who was thrown off the roof in Brooklyn. The real Central Park rapist raping someone else, stabbing her in the eye, as five innocent young teenagers were interrogated and bullied and coerced - without an adult present, without being read their rights - into confessions.

I remembered Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer, how I used to admire them. In the movie, one of the young men describes how he thought of his father as a superhero. That's how I thought of Linda Fairstein, a woman who prosecuted rapists and murderers, and wrote crime novels to boot. I won't say that Fairstein never did good for the world, but for me, her complicity in this nightmare taints everything she has ever done or ever will do. She helped rob these boys of their lives, and allowed a serial rapist to continue to prey.

I remembered, years later, when I met Trisha Meili, her halting speech, her occasional blank stares into space. I remembered Meili describing how she learned how to talk again, how to add simple numbers, how she struggled to remember her old life. In the early 2000s, she described her brain damage as permanent.

I remembered reading details of the assault that were only made public after the original convictions were overturned: how Meili was tied up with a rope with complicated knots, how the drag marks at the crime scene were only 18 inches wide. Clearly not the marks of five or more teenagers on a crime spree.

Points of intersection

In 1989, when "the Central Park Jogger" was raped, I had just begun to come out of the closet as a rape survivor. I was volunteering with an anti-rape group in Brooklyn called BWARE, my first foray into the anti-violence world. When CNN and other media came around, looking for survivors and activists to talk to, organizers sent them to me. (My segment was bumped because of the Tiananmen Square massacre! We didn't have cable TV and I never got to see it.)

The anti-violence-against-women community was rocked by the case, not so much by the rape itself as by the reaction and the aftermath. Brooklyn alone was logging three or four reported sexual assaults per day - and it's thought that anywhere from one in five to one in ten rapes are reported - but the media treated this as a rare anomaly. We were horrified at the racism permeating all discussion of the attack. We were heartbroken for the survivor, but we were heartbroken for every survivor, not only the young white professional who was supposedly assaulted by dark-skinned "monsters," as the young suspects were frequently called.

More than a decade would pass before I met Trisha Meile, after her book came out, and she attended some meetings at SAVI, the anti-violence group I worked with, and then later spoke at a SAVI fundraising gala. Many of us were surprised to realize that Meile didn't identify as a rape survivor; because of the traumatic brain injury she sustained in the assault, she has no memory of it. She identifies much more strongly as a survivor of traumatic brain injury. She very generously donated time to SAVI and spoke at the gala, and she acknowledged the great support she received from SAVI and from other rape survivors. But our experiences were worlds apart. While the rest of us had to learn to live with our memories, Meili had to learn to live without them.

A film that doesn't need to exaggerate, but does

"The Central Park Five" is an excellent movie in many ways. It demonstrates quite clearly how people come to make false confessions, and it makes fully clear the gross injustice done to the five men and their families by New York City police and prosecutors.

"The Central Park Five" is also a flawed movie, in ways that may seem minor but which bothered me. The film's opening depicts New York City in the 1980s as a crime-ridden wasteland, where residents scurried from home to work and back again, breathing desperate sighs of relief when they made it safely. I lived in Brooklyn and commuted to Manhattan during this time, and I can tell you, that is just bullshit.

Much of the footage the filmmakers used in this sequence seems to have been from the 1970s, when the state of decay was much more obvious. The film goes so far as to show scary-looking subway cars covered in graffiti, something very rarely seen in the 1980s. There was crime, of course, most of it in low-income neighbourhoods. A few people interviewed in the film do make that point. That has always been, and still is, true.

Ken Burns needn't have resorted to hyperbole. The assault on Trisha Meili and the injustice done to Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, and Yusef Salaam were horrific enough.

Belief and disbelief

When the story of the vacated convictions broke, a co-worker of mine - a rabid rightwinger - absolutely refused to believe that the teenagers were not guilty. No matter what the evidence, he remained convinced that the boys were set free "for political reasons". I saw evidence of this man's racism on a daily basis. The (false) story of this crime and punishment meshed perfectly with his worldview, and no amount of evidence would change that.

At the end of the film, historian Craig Steven Wilder contrasts the media frenzy at the arrests, prosecution, and convictions with the relative silence - no more than a murmur - when the truth was revealed. It just wasn't a juicy story.

Another take: The Central Park Jogger Case Had Six Victims, and Only One Was the Jogger, by Jason Bailey in The Atlantic.

11.22.2013

what i'm watching: ken burns' "prohibition", an excellent documentary

This week we finished Ken Burns' excellent documentary "Prohibition," and I recommend it highly to everyone who enjoys history. Most of us know at least something about Prohibition, especially how it failed, but I'd bet that much of this film will be eye-opening.

And, if you aren't a regular viewer of Ken Burns' documentaries, this three-parter could serve as a wonderful introduction to his signature style. It's on US Netflix, on PBS, and probably at your local library.

I did know that the early movement against alcohol was deeply rooted in the early US women's movement. Women's anti-alcohol groups, especially the Women's Christian Temperance Union - which still exists! - were the first women to speak out publicly about domestic violence. In the pre-Prohibition United States, the saloon was a male-only domain. Men drank away their family income, then came home and abused their wives and children. Organizing against alcohol was a way of asserting women's and children's rights to live free of abuse. Some amazing feminists drove the women's movement forward through the fight against alcohol.

However, one thing I didn't know was that incredible feminist organizing was also instrumental in getting Prohibition repealed. The "Prohibition" film introduced me to Pauline Sabin, a wealthy New York socialite who used her formidable organizing, fundraising, and speaking skills to leading the movement for repeal. (The repeal movement was also fueled by the Great Depression, as the return of legal brewing, distilling, and winemaking would return millions of Americans to employment.) Another terrific woman you'll meet is Lois Long, who wrote what surely must be the godmother of "Sex and the City", for The New Yorker, under the pen-name "Lipstick".

Here's something else I didn't know: the temperance movement was also deeply rooted in religious and anti-immigrant bigotry. White, Protestant, rural Americans who had been in the country for a few generations sought to curb the behaviour of Irish, Italian, and German immigrants who lived in the teeming cities and gathered in saloons and beer halls. After all, those immigrants were dirty, vulgar, Catholics! The extent that Prohibition equalled anti-Catholic organizing may surprise you.

And, like you, I knew something about the unintended consequences of Prohibition - the speakeasies, the bootleggers, the violence. But I had no idea how widespread it was - how much money was involved, how completely corrupt the whole system was, how many deaths it caused. There was considerably more alcohol being sold and consumed during Prohibition than before or after it. And the attendant crime - politely referred to as organized crime or racketeering, but more properly called gang violence - was beyond anything I had imagined.

Canada figures in this story, of course, from the supply side, but alas, the country gets only a brief cameo. The film doesn't mention the Bronfman family, founders of Seagram, who amassed their first fortune as bootleggers, or Hiram Walker's distillery, conveniently located in Windsor, a very short, bribed boat ride from Detroit, or the many Canadian border towns that thrived off the Prohibition trade.

The parallels to the criminalization of marijuana are obvious, but I saw another contemporary parallel. The Prohibition movement could have been much more successful had it been more flexible. During the movement for Repeal, "wets" gave "drys" many opportunities to amend the Volstead Act to make it less extreme, while still leaving strong restrictions in place. The "drys" refused to compromise. For them, it was full Prohibition or nothing. And because of that, they commanded little popular support. This reminded me of the current anti-abortion-rights movement, hell-bent on alienating potential allies with their extremism.

11.19.2013

the sad tale of an oil stain, or how i was misled by the internet

Last week, while enjoying a lovely lunch at a restaurant with my mom and my partner, an oily sauce jumped out of a bowl and splattered on my shirt. All right, it didn't actually jump out, truth is I can be a clumsy eater. But the sauce went on my shirt. Ugh.

This wasn't one little dot, which can be annoying enough. This was an entire collection of splats, re-decorating the front of my shirt. Double ugh.

Because I was busy with family and friends, I wasn't able to immediately soak or stain-treat the shirt. It ended up sitting for a couple of days before I washed it.

When I got home a few days later, I stain-treated and washed the shirt several times. I used my preferred stain-removing spray, OxiClean, and also soaked the shirt in a solution of OxiClean powder, each time putting it in the washing machine on warmer water than I would normally use. The stains did get lighter, but they did not come out.

Next I Googled "how to remove oil stains from clothing". I found answers at: WikiHow, Wise Bread, About.com/Laundry, and a blog called the Northern Belle Diaries. There were other sources, but I judged these four to be most reliable. (Another source that is generally good, eHow, recommended what I had already done.)

One method was common to those four sources: putting 10W-40 or other motor oil on the stain, letting it soak in, rinsing it out in hot water, then laundering in the washing machine again.

It seemed strange and a bit shocking to put motor oil on my shirt. But the shirt was unwearable in its present condition, so I felt I had nothing to lose.

I followed instructions.

The stain did not come out.

Neither did the motor oil.

My shirt now has huge black oil stains all over it.

If the stain had not come out, but the shirt was in no worse shape, I could have tried another method. But now it's too late.

On reflection and hindsight, I might have tried a less drastic method before resorting to the 10W-40. Some sites mentioned baking soda or baby powder. However, I have tried those methods in the past and found them useless.

So what happened?

Is this idea of removing oil with more oil a myth, kind of like using tomato juice to remove skunk odor from a dog's fur? (Trust me, it doesn't work. Use baking soda and hydrogen peroxide.)

Does that mean people publish how-to articles on sites like About.com and WikiHow without actually trying it first?

Are these websites simply repeating what other sites publish, the way people do with Wikipedia, potentially spreading misinformation along with good information?

Does this method actually work, even though it didn't work for me?

I wish I could post before, after, and after-after photos, but, not knowing that my shirt would be ruined, I never thought to take a pic. Just imagine a lovely cobalt-blue, hip-length, gathered-V-neck cotton shirt (similar to this) with motor oil all over it.

Sigh.

Update. Catching up on impudent strumpet, I've learned there's a word for the internet phenomenon I was trying to describe above: citogenesis, courtesy of the inimitable xkcd.

11.18.2013

low-wage workers rising: strikes and demos planned for the day after u.s. thanksgiving

Low-wage workers in North America are on the move. This movement has been building for more than a decade, and it's beginning to reach a critical mass.

And could any workers need it more? Fifty-two percent of fast-food employees’ families rely on public assistance to put food on the table or to get medical care. McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC - hugely profitable, multibillion dollar corporations - are being subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of almost $7 billion a year! Ordinary working Americans are picking up the tab so that these corporate giants can pay poverty wages. (Don't believe it? Watch what happened when a long-time McDonald's employee called the company's help line.) We're not talking about teenagers picking up pocket change. A full 89% of low-wage workers contribute at least 50% of their family budget.

It would be a full-time blogging job to keep up with all the organizing, between Walmart workers, fast-food workers, retail workers, and baristas, but when I open my email from the various mailing lists, I'm overwhelmed with respect and solidarity.

The workers' efforts have produced some tangible gains. California will raise its minimum wage to $10 by 2016 (just as Ontario workers begin the fight to raise our $10 minimum to $14). Walmart has committed to allowing more part-time workers to transition to full-time work, which would not only increase their pay considerably, but make them eligible for health benefits. (This was widely reported as "Walmart Commits to Hiring 100,000 Veterans".)

These results have fueled greater activism, which in turn helps workers in other states and provinces, and other industries, find their courage, too. Baristas in Halifax, fast-food workers in Chicago and New York (and more than 50 other cities!), Walmart workers in Los Angeles... the list goes on. There have been ongoing protests, including civil disobedience with dozens - in some cases, hundreds - of arrests. Workers have been threatened, intimidated, and harassed, and they have continued to organize, willing to lose their jobs to improve working conditions for others. In the cases I know of, solidarity actions and legal actions have been successful at getting those courageous workers reinstated.

If you don't think these actions are vitally important for workers, for our communities, and for our entire society, you may not understand the nature of this workforce. The blog I Can't Believe We Still Have To Protest This Shit, written by Trish Kahle, has some amazing research on fast-food workers: "Everything you think you know about low-wage workers is wrong".
Myth #1: Low-wage workers are mostly teenagers, college students with summer jobs, or people who are only supplementing a second income.

Each of these statements is categorically false. 35 million workers in the US make less than $10.55/hour. That’s 26% of the total workforce. 57.4% of low-wage workers are over 30. Only 16.6% of minimum wage workers are teenagers. While low-wage jobs are known for their high rate of turnover, that rate has declined significantly since the beginning of the recession five years ago. And finally, 89% of people with low-wage retail jobs contribute at least 50% of their family budget.

The statistics disprove the myth, but I think it’s important to also confront the logic behind it, which is that it’s morally and economically acceptable to ruthlessly exploit some people and not others. . . . .

Myth #3: Raising the Minimum Wage/Providing Living Wages Would Tank the Economy, or $15 an hour isn’t realistic.

. . . .I did some math, and the store I work at could afford to pay us $30/hour and still be making more than $10,000 in profit each day. Another store I investigated could pay its employees over $50 and maintain a profit margin.

And once again, I would like to point out that workers didn’t tank the economy five years ago. Banks did.
I highly recommend reading this post, not only for the facts Kahle has so painstakingly sourced, but for her razor-sharp analysis: go here to read and see links.

In a week or so, things are going to get really interesting. The strange non-holiday called "Black Friday" by some - also known as National Buy Nothing Day, and for me merely "the Friday after (US) Thanksgiving" - has become a flashpoint for Walmart workers and low-wage workers everywhere. As we are so often told, this is the biggest shopping day of the year in the United States. It will also be the biggest low-wage protest day in history. You can support "Black Friday" actions with a small donation, or better yet, by joining a protest on Friday, November 29, 2013. Find an action near you at Black Friday Protests.

Fight for 15

Low Pay Is Not OK

OUR Walmart

Walmart Watch

Black Friday Protests

"What if the minimum wage were a living wage?", from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

11.17.2013

the war continues to kill: the wounded survivors, and those killed by their own conscience

Here are two excellent, heartbreaking stories about what happens to those who survive and don't survive war.

The first, excerpted from Ann Jones' book They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story:
An older Army officer calls me over and gestures toward the empty seat by his side. He sits ramrod straight, wrapped in his blanket, and speaks through tight lips as if he fears what might come out of his mouth. “I’ve been in the Army twenty-six years,” he says, “and I can tell you it’s a con.”

He has been an adviser to the chief counterterrorism officer in Iraq. It’s hard even to imagine what’s involved in work like that, but his version of his job description evidently failed to match the official checklist of his boss. He doesn’t think much of military bosses or politicians or Americans in general who send the lowliest 1% to fight wars that make the other 1%, on the high end, “monu-fuckin’-mentally rich.”

He says he’s going home for “psych reasons” caused by “life,” and he is never going to deploy again. He has two sons, 21 and 23, in college, “They won’t have to serve,” he says. “Before that happens, I’ll shoot them myself.”

I ask if he has any particular reason to dislike the military so intensely. “War is absurd,” he says. “Boys don’t know any better. But for a grown man to be trapped in stupid wars — it’s embarrassing, it’s humiliating, it’s absurd.”
Read it here: US soldier: My sons won’t serve. “Before that happens, I’ll shoot them myself”.

The second story was written by the parents of a member of the US National Guard who deployed to Iraq, and eventually committed suicide. He left a note, included in the article, detailing why: his forced participation in war crimes in Iraq, and then being forced to cover them up. I say it again: war resistance saves lives: On Losing a Veteran Son to a Broken System by Howard Somers and Jean Somers.

justin doolittle in salon: stop thanking the troops for your freedom. they didn't give it to you.

Justin Doolittle, writing in Salon, takes down the military lovefest currently enveloping professional sports in North America: "Stop thanking the troops for me: No, they don’t “protect our freedoms!”"

Doolittle makes the point - extremely important and almost always overlooked - that we do not owe our present "freedom" (whatever that word is taken to mean) to "the troops". (This is a point I recently quoted from Noah Richler's book What We Talk About When We Talk About War.) Doolittle writes:
Freedom has become one of those politically charged terms that means whatever people need it to mean. There is no coherent conception of freedom, though, in which it only exists at the pleasure of the U.S. military. It’s simply a non sequitur. The “freedoms” most Americans think of when they hear the term are enshrined in constitutional and statutory law. They are in no way dependent on the size, scope or even the existence of the U.S. military. If John Lennon’s ghost assumed dictatorial control of the U.S. government tomorrow and, as his first order of business, disbanded the entire military, Americans’ “freedoms” would not suddenly vanish.
Doolittle also speaks to another concept that critically thinking people should always bear in mind: anything emanating from the dominant culture is seen as neutral and apolitical, while anything challenging the master narrative is branded as "political". But everything has a point of view. Everything carries political perspective, even if that perspective is so commonplace that it is normally invisible. Thus Canadian right-wing MP Julian Fantino can call the white poppy "an offensive attempt to politicize Remembrance Day", but his own government's incessant exhortations of Canada's "sacrifice" at Vimy Ridge, and its re-telling of the War of 1812, are seen as uncontroversial facts.
Often, the spectacle of public gratitude to the troops reaches comically absurd proportions. During the 2013 World Series, Bank of America, that beacon of patriotism and benevolence, sponsored an initiative called “Express Your Thanks.” For each photo, message or video submitted that expressed thanks to the military, the bank donated $1 to nonprofits that support service members, veterans and their families. On the program’s website, several such expressions are highlighted, including, most prominently, a message from Melissa, who, on behalf of her family, offers thanks to the troops for “safeguarding our freedom.”

“Express Your Thanks” received considerable on-air attention during the World Series itself. Before Game 1 at Fenway Park, Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski threw out the ceremonial first pitch. He was joined on the mound by three veterans, all of whom are Medal of Honor recipients. In an interview with MLB.com after the game, Yastrzemski contrasted the universal gratitude felt toward the military today with an earlier, less seemly time, when our heroes were subjected to an annoying diversity of opinion:

“In ’67, you had a very anti-war thing,” Yastrzemski told MLB.com after bringing the Fenway crowd to a roar. “Not right now where they’re supporting our troops and things of that nature. So it’s very different times.”

The undercurrent of all this is that “support” and “gratitude” for the military and those who serve in it is intrinsically apolitical. It’s just something that all decent Americans understand and respect. This approach serves a very important purpose, which is to further blur the lines between patriotism and support for the military. Americans of conscience who do not “support” the troops, particularly those who volunteer to fight in wars of aggression, are not allowed a seat at the table in this paradigm. Their existence is not even acknowledged, in fact. These are “very different times,” in the words of Yastrzemski, and our society has progressed to the point where such shrill voices are no longer relevant.

Supporting the military, though, and expressing gratitude for what the military is actually doing around the world, are nothing if not explicitly political sentiments. To suggest otherwise is fundamentally dishonest. It reduces sincere dissent on these matters of such tremendous consequence to our culture and our politics to nothingness.
I thank Justin Doolittle profoundly for this excellent piece! I hope you'll read it and share it: Stop thanking the troops for me: No, they don’t “protect our freedoms!”

11.16.2013

what i'm reading: nw by zadie smith

If you haven't read anything by Zadie Smith, I highly recommend finding White Teeth, her debut novel, and diving in. Smith wrote White Teeth while still attending university, and it was published to great acclaim when she was only 25 years old. It's a wonderfully sprawling novel, by turns wry, satirical, and poignant, crammed full of vibrant characters, multiple themes and threads, and brilliant, surprising language. It deals with the cultural clashes and changes of immigration, generations, and class differences.

If you read White Teeth and didn't like it, stop right there; you're not going to like anything else by Zadie Smith. I loved White Teeth - despite its strange and problematic ending - and I'll probably follow Smith down any literary path she travels.

I've just finished NW, Smith's fourth novel. NW is another polyphonic trek into northwest London, and it is another masterpiece. The book is full of finely drawn, fully realized characters, startlingly vivid writing, and shifting points of view. The literary critic James Wood, who loved this novel, has called Smith an "a great urban realist", but I feel that sells her short. There is no doubt that Smith is a genius at capturing the complicated, multi-layered, gritty and often beautiful realities of life in a great urban city - no small feat. But she is also a genius of the human heart, of motivation, of self-identity, of inner conflict. Ultimately, for me it is not Smith's London that makes me recommend her so highly. It is her people.

Like most novels I love, NW is not plot-driven. It is not a page turner; it is a novel in which many readers would say "nothing happens". Depending on your tastes, that may be warning or recommendation.

I have also read and greatly enjoyed Smith's On Beauty, which, among other things, is a modern retelling of E. M. Forster's Howards End. (I didn't know that when I read it, and it's certainly not necessary to know Forster's novel in order to appreciate Smith's.) I haven't read Smith's second novel, Autograph Man but it's on The List.

11.11.2013

11.11: lest we forget, let's not forget: there is no glory in war.

For Canadians who fear and distrust the steadily growing militarism suffusing the culture of our country, two recent books are indispensable: What We Talk About When We Talk About War, by Noah Richler, and Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift.

Richler's book focuses on the re-writing and re-framing the distant past. And as the title (with its homage to Raymond Carver) suggests, Richler focuses on language. He analyzes how Canada's image of itself, in relation to war-making and the military, has been radically altered, bit by incremental bit.

The book is not a play-by-play of the process; Richler assumes you know the general outline and the major players. It's a deep analysis of the language and symbolism of a right-wing cabal intent on discrediting Canada's history of peacekeeping, and changing its national self-image through revisionist history, from the War of 1812 to Vimy Ridge to Remembrance Day, right on up to the recent "mission" - never a war, merely a mission - in Afghanistan.

The forces behind this movement shouldn't be powerful enough to affect such a massive and wholesale change. But they (a) are unchallenged on a wide scale, (b) are echoed uncritically in the mainstream media, and (c) emanate from government or with the weight of government behind them.

What We Talk About When We Talk About War is a dense book, and not particularly easy to read, but enlightening, and rewarding, and important.

McKay and Swift's book is also dense and veers towards the academic. Where Richler looks to the past of Pearson and peacekeeping with a clear admiration (although with his eyes open, and not uncritically), McKay and Swift see Harper's Canada as exchanging one set of myths for another, more dangerous master narrative.

Both books site the same group of academics, militarists, journalists, and politicians, ubiquitous in the Canadian media to anyone who has followed this shift: Bercuson, Granatstein, Hillier, Blatchford, and so on. McKay and Swift call them "the New Warriors". Both McKay/Swift and Richler decry the same trends. An uncritical view of history, a mass dissemination even of a historical record that has been proven false. A discrediting of the value of discussion, compromise, and peacekeeping. Worship of all things military, coupled with the jingoistic notion that criticism or even questioning is unpatriotic, and that genuine debate about the purpose of a war somehow puts Canadian troops at risk.

Why does any of this matter? This week in Canada, we see the slogan everywhere: "Lest We Forget". It might as well say "Let's Forget". Because under Harper and the New Warriors, Remembrance Day has become a collective act of forgetting.

Forgetting that millions upon millions of lives were lost for nothing.

Forgetting veterans and their families suffering from the effects of PTSD and traumatic brain injury.

Forgetting that war has never solved anything.

Forgetting that war is glorious only for those who stay at home and make speeches.

Forgetting that the peace that Canadians enjoy was not won on a battlefield, but hammered out through compromise.

Forgetting that what made Canada a great country, what gave Canada peace and prosperity, was not war. Never was war.

Lest we forget: never again.

11.08.2013

noah richler on the language of war propaganda, and the dishonesty of present ideology

From Noah Richler's What We Talk About When We Talk About War:
We have a duty to be honest and rigorous, with ourselves and with others, and to be able to brook contradiction and argument in our discussions of past wars and the present one in Afghanistan. But instead, in today's Canada, we have arrived at a point where the use of any language that is not euphemistic is greeted as an assault on the work of soldiers, on a singular view of our past, and therefore on the character of the nation itself. Ideology thrives. History hardly comes into it.

. . . .

Among the traditional words and phrases prone to high diction that [Paul] Fussell [author of The Great War in Modern Memory] lists are:

Friend... comrade

Obedient... brave

Earnestly brave... gallant

Cheerfully brave... plucky

Bravery considered after the fact... valour...

Not to complain is to be... manly

A soldier is a... warrior

The legs and arms of young men are... limbs

The dead on the battlefield are... fallen

The object of deliberate semantic confusion behind these turns of phrase is familiar to anyone who has followed the reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such deftly evasive and ultimately propagandistic terms have only proliferated over the course of a century in which mass communications have been on the rise and the best fightback of government needing to dampen the emotive effect of war's bloody truths spreading via newspapers, then radio, television and the Internet, has been to control words and images, and to the extent that is is able, the media that proffer then.

The first Gulf War and the earlier one in Vietnam added to the deflecting lexicon greatly, even before the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Collateral damage, a euphemism believed to have originated in the Vietnam War, is probably the most notorious of these terms. . . Friendly fire is another stellar euphemism (and one that has acquired a particular resonance in Canada) that describes the inadvertent shooting of one's own troops.

. . . An appendix to Fussell's list, easily added to after a trawl of the Web, would include these and others terms accumulated over the course of the Vietnam, Gulf and Afghanistan wars:

Torture... enhanced interrogation

Torture by interrupted drowning... waterboarding

Bomb... soften up

Bombing... air-campaign

The use of preponderant force against an enemy interspersed with a civilian, usually rural, population... asymmetric warfare

Lethal precision bombing... surgical strike

Journalists who cover a conflict in the prescribed company of armed forces and according to strict rules of censorship... embedded

Sending terrorism suspects to states that practise torture... extraordinary rendition

Prisoners... detainees

Popular uprising... insurgency

Escalation of a war going badly... mission creep

Occupation... liberation

Kill... neutralize

Government overthrow... regime change

noah richler: canada was shaped by discussion and compromise, not through war

[The over-emphasis on Canadian military history] distorts and downplays the significant roles that Canadian politicians, diplomats, jurists and a variety of other civilians (such as artists) have had in shaping not just the domestic Canadian polity but abstract, universal ideas about statehood that have served as examples internationally - in Scottish constitutional development, for instance, and of course in the development of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in 1948.

The nature of this contribution is significant specifically because the truth of Canadian history is that our military's stake has not been inordinate. Resolution through discussion and compromise, and the recognition of the interests of others that such an approach entails, is seen to contribute to the greater good and to have characterized not only the relationship between the government and Aboriginals, between English- and French-speaking Quebeckers (and between the British government and the conquered French colonists before that), but those between Aboriginals and the original Canadians and brokers and fur traders of the Company of Adventurers of England into Hudsons' Bay since before the modern nation-state and its apparatus of government was founded. Effectively, the only country Canada has ever sought to colonize has been itself, negotiation mostly the tactic. In 1885, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald sent troops to the end of his incompletely built railroad in order to suppress Louis Riel and the M├ętis and put an end to the Northwest resistance in present-day Manitoba and Saskatchewan, with the aid of Lt.-Col. "Big Tom" Strange and his rapidly assembled Alberta Field Force, though with only dubious results. Today, it can be argued that the colonization effort continues, most notably in the North and in Quebec, though through economic and not military means. This is not an accidental outcome but a consequence of our history.

The legacy of Canada being founded on the back of the business of the Hudsons' Bay Company is that the model of the corporation reigns. Rather than the imperatives of the military and a dynamic of conquest, the forces of pragmatism and regulation (and the monopsonistic power of the powerful company that also, to an extent, provides) are what have shaped Canada today. Canada, once Prince Rupert's Land, is a sum of land claims greater than its parts, a country legitimised in courts and boardrooms as much as, if not more than, through soldiering.

Noah Richler, What We Talk About When We Talk About War

11.07.2013

what i'm watching: the office (u.s.) finale

In my fine tradition of watching TV shows and movies - and then writing about them - months or sometimes years after their release, I recently finished the final season of The Office (U.S.).

I had seen many episodes of this show in re-runs and in random order over the years. When we started streaming Netflix, I re-started the whole series from S1e1. (Watching shows and movies end-to-end is my favourite thing about streaming. I'm completely gaga over it.) There was a brief pause while I waited for the final season (S9) to hit Netflix, then I finished it last week.

I was surprised by how satisfying I found the final two episodes of the show. But I was not surprised to see that these episodes were written by Greg Daniels, who developed the US version of the show.

When I first started the final season of The Office, I thought the show had jumped the shark. The writers were resorting to cheap gimmicks and repetition, not to mention the dreaded New Characters Out of Nowhere. I was still going to watch: I had come that far, and I need my half-hour-before-sleep TV viewing. So I persisted, but it wasn't very funny.

Then to my surprise, as the season went on, I began to find The Office compelling again. There were problems: Ed Helms' character often devolved into a faux Michael Scott, and some of the Schrute family farm adventures were too contrived for my tastes, among other issues. But as the story arcs moved towards closure, I once again found the show funny and sweet and credible in all the right ways.

The final two episodes were great. I loved the Dwight and Angela wrap-up, loved Mindy Kaling and B. J. Novack's ridiculous, hilarious return, and I especially loved the bits of wisdom in the final interviews. Pam reminds us that beauty is found in ordinary things, and Andy wishes we could recognize the good times while we're living them. Above all, Pam recognizes the need for carpe diem.
Jim was five feet from my desk, and it took me four years to get to him. It would be great if people saw this documentary and learned from my mistakes. It would just make my heart soar if someone out there saw this, and she said to herself, Be strong, trust yourself, love yourself, conquer your fears. Just go after what you want. And act fast, because life just isn't that long.
The brilliant final episode of The Office reminded me that some of my favourite sitcoms have been workplace comedies, the ones I grew up on: the groundbreaking "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," the dry "Barney Miller," and later, "Taxi". Even "M*A*S*H", at its heart, was a workplace comedy. (I was never a fan of "Cheers". I didn't hate it, but I never really cared about the characters.) They always demand a steady suspension of disbelief, since we know they don't reflect real life. But when you can care about the characters, and when credible situations and relationship develop, they can be very compelling. I wonder if I had been able to watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Barney Miller end-to-end, if either would have held up.

An aside (since someone is sure to ask): I hated the original The Office (U.K.). I have seen very little of it, because I absolutely Could. Not. Stand. Ricky Gervais' character. While Allan insisted that my revulsion demonstrates how good Gervais really is, I maintain that if something causes you to turn off a show, that something cannot be construed as a positive. It was certainly a surprise to enjoy an American spinoff more than a British original.

more moyers: democracy and plutocracy don't mix

I found the preceding rtod post buried in Blogger drafts, something Allan saved there years ago. I never got around to posting it, but I never had the heart to delete it, either.

If you're not familiar with Bill Moyers, he is an American independent journalist, producer, and public intellectual. Earlier in his career, Moyers served as White House Press Secretary under the Johnson administration, but he's better known for the many shows he has produced and hosted on PBS.

Moyers has always been liberal, but over the past decade, he has become increasingly radicalized as he reacts to the excesses of endless war and unchecked capitalism. (That's my own observation. I've never heard Moyers describe himself as radicalized, and I doubt he would.)

The thing about Moyers is he rarely thinks or speaks in sound bites. To follow him, you must be willing to read or to listen at length. In that sense, he reaches a small minority. On the other hand, the more that minority - i.e., us - understands these issues, the stronger it becomes.

I encourage you to read or listen to the Moyers' 2010 Howard Zinn Lecture in its entirety. Moyers writes from a US context, but in our global economy, these ideas are relevant to everyone on the planet. Here's a good excerpt.

* * * *

Between 2001 and 2008, about 40,000 US manufacturing plants closed. Six million factory jobs have disappeared over the past dozen years, representing one in three manufacturing jobs.

. . . .

They found that from 1950 through 1980, the share of all income in America going to everyone but the rich increased from 64 percent to 65 percent. Because the nation’s economy was growing handsomely, the average income for 9 out of l0 Americans was growing, too – from $17,719 to $30,941. That’s a 75 percent increase in income in constant 2008 dollars.

But then it stopped. Since 1980 the economy has also continued to grow handsomely, but only a fraction at the top have benefited. The line flattens for the bottom 90% of Americans. Average income went from that $30,941 in 1980 to $31,244 in 2008. Think about that: the average income of Americans increased just $303 dollars in 28 years.

. . . . .

Matt Krantz reports in USA TODAY that "Cash is gushing into company’s coffers as they report what’s shaping up to be a third-consecutive quarter of sharp earning increases. But instead of spending on the typical things, such as expanding and hiring people, companies are mostly pocketing the money or stuffing it under their mattresses." And what are their plans for this money? Again, the Washington Post:
Sitting on these unprecedented levels of cash, U.S. companies are buying back their own stock in droves. So far this year, firms have announced they will purchase $273 billion of their own shares, more than five times as much compared with this time last year… But the rise in buybacks signals that many companies are still hesitant to spend their cash on the job-generating activities that could produce economic growth.
That’s how financial capitalism works today: Conserving cash rather than bolstering hiring and production; investing in their own shares to prop up their share prices and make their stock more attractive to Wall Street. To hell with everyone else.

Hear the chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Ethan Harris, who told the Times:
There’s no question that there is an income shift going on in the economy. Companies are squeezing their labor costs to build profits.
Or the chief economist for Credit Suisse in New York, Neal Soss:
As companies have wrung more savings out of their work forces, causing wages and salaries barely to budge from recession lows, “profits have staged a vigorous recovery, jumping 40 percent between late 2008 and the first quarter of 2010.”
Just this morning the New York Times reports that the private equity business is roaring back:
While it remains difficult to get a mortgage to buy a home or to get a loan to fund a small business, yield-starved investors are creating a robust market for corporate bonds and loans.
Now, most people know what plutocracy is: the rule of the rich, political power controlled by the wealthy. Plutocracy is not an American word and wasn’t meant to become an American phenomenon – some of our founders deplored what they called “the veneration of wealth.” But plutocracy is here, and a pumped up Citigroup even boasted of coining a variation on the word— “plutonomy”, which describes an economic system where the privileged few make sure the rich get richer and that government helps them do it. Five years ago Citigroup decided the time had come to “bang the drum on plutonomy.”

And bang they did. Here are some excerpts from the document “Revisiting Plutonomy;”
Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper… [and] take an increasing share of income and wealth over the last 20 years. . . .

…the top 10%, particularly the top 1% of the United States – the plutonomists in our parlance – have benefitted disproportionately from the recent productivity surged in the US… [and] from globalization and the productivity boom, at the relative expense of labor.” . . . 
… [and they] are likely to get even wealthier in the coming years. Because the dynamics of plutonomy are still intact.
I’ll repeat that: “The dynamics of plutonomy are still intact.” That was the case before the Great Collapse of 2008, and it’s the case today, two years after the catastrophe. But the plutonomists are doing just fine. Even better in some cases, thanks to our bailout of the big banks.

As for the rest of the country: Listen to this summary in The Economist – no Marxist journal – of a study by Pew Research:
More than half of all workers today have experienced a spell of unemployment, taken a cut in pay or hours or been forced to go part-time. The typical unemployed worker has been jobless for nearly six months. Collapsing share and house prices have destroyed a fifth of the wealth of the average household. Nearly six in ten Americans have cancelled or cut back on holidays. About a fifth say their mortgages are underwater. One in four of those between 18 and 29 have moved back in with their parents. Fewer than half of all adults expect their children to have a higher standard of living than theirs, and more than a quarter say it will be lower. For many Americans the great recession has been the sharpest trauma since The Second World War, wiping out jobs, wealth and hope itself.
Let that sink in: For millions of garden-variety Americans, the audacity of hope has been replaced by a paucity of hope.

Time for a confession. The legendary correspondent Edward R. Murrow told his generation of journalists that bias is okay as long as you don’t try to hide it. Here is mine: Plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. Plutocracy too long tolerated leaves democracy on the auction block, subject to the highest bidder.

[Read the lecture here.]

rtod

Revolutionary thought of the day:
The Gilded Age returned with a vengeance in our time. It slipped in quietly at first, back in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan began a "massive decades-long transfer of national wealth to the rich." As Roger Hodge makes clear, under Bill Clinton the transfer was even more dramatic, as the top 10 percent captured an ever-growing share of national income. The trend continued under George W. Bush – those huge tax cuts for the rich, remember, which are now about to be extended because both parties have been bought off by the wealthy – and by 2007 the wealthiest 10% of Americans were taking in 50% of the national income. ...

You will hear it said, "Come on, this is the way the world works." No, it’s the way the world is made to work. This vast inequality is not the result of Adam Smith’s invisible hand; it did not just happen; it was no accident. As Hodge drives home, it is the result of a long series of policy decisions "about industry and trade, taxation and military spending, by flesh-and-blood humans sitting in concrete-and-steel buildings."

Bill Moyers
October 29, 2010, in the Howard Zinn Lecture Series at Boston University. See the entire speech and following Q&A here.)

11.05.2013

the harper government's vision of canada, in our passports and in our wallets

Some years ago, I analyzed the "Discover Canada", the most recent guide for immigrants studying for the Canadian citizenship exam. I compared the booklet to the previous citizenship guide, "A Look At Canada", and found within its pages the Harper Government's vision of Canada.

Later, we learned that the citizenship exam itself uses a significantly higher reading level than past exams, and functions as a barrier for many newcomers who wish to become citizens: "jason kenney gets his wish: the anglicising of canadian citizenship".

More recently, columnist Heather Mallick analyzed the new Canadian passport. Unsurprisingly, she found the Harper Government's fingerprints all over it. Mallick:
Canada is increasingly becoming unrecognizable to me. I don’t mean this just in an abstract sense, when I read about shameful things like Ottawa trying to avoid taking in refugees who have been tortured, because they require extra medical care. Foreigners who wake up weeping, with bone chips floating around their spinal cords, I hear you, Stephen Harper, these people are costly.

No, I mean Canada is literally foreign. Alert reader Martin Foster had emailed me about the details of our new passport, and I hadn’t believed him. But he is right.

The passport, good for 10 years and packed with security features so novel they’ll be useless by 2015, is now being mailed out. But which nation issued it? It is a distant country of which I know little. It is Harperlandia.

The passport contains 22 visual watermarks portraying the essence, the uniqueness of Harperlandia. There are, by my count, 98 images of males, six of females. There are various landscapes, from the north, the Prairies and Newfoundland, plus Niagara Falls. There are football players and hockey players, a warship, three war memorials, the RCMP and a soldier. But there is no image of Toronto or Vancouver and no aboriginal Canadian. Apparently only one Canadian verging on our lifetime (Terry Fox) has ever distinguished himself.

According to the government, we are white guys, rural, warlike and sporty, but not literate. Our landscapes are bleak, our buildings drab, our statuary undistinguished. These are not propellant images. In most, we are either stationary or plodding.
Many Canadians will never see the citizenship guide, and many do not have a passport, or may not look closely at the one they have. But almost every Canadian will have the opportunity - in fact, daily opportunities - to see the new look of Canada, each time they take out their wallet.

When I first moved to Canada, I loved the difference between Canada's currency and the US's. Not only is Canadian currency large and colourful in the European tradition, but it wasn't adorned with the stoic images of dead male leaders. Imagine, money that boasted of aboriginal artwork, and children playing hockey and skating on a frozen pond! I thought it was wonderfully Canadian. So doesn't it figure that the new polymer bank notes issued by the Bank of Canada feature a monument to none other than Vimy Ridge, the bloodbath we are told transformed the British North American colonies into Canada. (Much more on that subject coming soon.)

Apparently the Bank of Canada considered more modern symbols of Canada - and found broad public support for them - then rejected them.
The Bank of Canada considered celebrating gay marriages, black hockey players, and turban-wearing RCMP officers on its new plastic bank notes — but eventually nixed them all in favour of the more traditional images of a train, a ship and a monument.

Internal documents show that focus groups and a Bank of Canada team reviewed a series of currency images intended in part to reflect the diversity of Canada’s population, particularly the country’s varied ethnic character.

Images that were considered included a Chinese dragon parade, the swearing in of a new citizen, Toronto’s annual Caribbean festival, children of different ethnic backgrounds playing hockey or building a snowman, and a person in a wheelchair playing basketball.

The image catalogue was drawn up in 2008 by The Strategic Counsel, a market research firm hired for $476,000 to help the Bank decide how to illustrate its new series of polymer $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. The first note, the $100, began circulating in November 2011.

Drawing on focus-group discussions and workshops with Canadians in six cities, the consultant found strong support for themes of “diversity, inclusiveness, acceptance of others/multiculturalism.” Eventually, 41 image ideas covering several themes were tested and given scores.

Among the highest-rated images were those of children of different ethnic backgrounds building a snowman; faces of individuals from different cultures celebrating Canada Day; an image of a hand of many colours; and children of different ethnic backgrounds playing hockey. These selections were then presented by the Bank of Canada team to officials at Finance Canada for further vetting.

Many images proposed at the start of the process did not make the cut. Rejected were illustrations of a gay marriage, an RCMP officer wearing a turban, and “hockey with a twist … with a black player.”

The reasons for early rejection are not clear in the heavily censored documents, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The images that were finally approved for the reverses of the five new bills — the last two denominations, the $5 and $10, are being released later this year — lack reference to Canada’s diversity of ethnicity, culture and colour.
In a future post, I will look at the rewriting of Canadian history that lies at the heart of Canadian Conservative project, as I write about at two books on that subject: What We Talk About When We Talk About War by Noah Richler and Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift.

For now, please enjoy this lighter take on the new citizenship guide by the good folks at This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Thanks to Dharma Seeker for the video and to Rachel A for the Mallick piece.