2.26.2014

the ndp: so sad, so frustrating, so maddeningly predictable

Where oh where has the NDP gone?

One of the most wonderful things about Canada, for me, has always been the presence of a viable third party on the left. When we first moved here, it was so amazing to hear Jack Layton, Libby Davies, Peggy Nash, Paul Dewar, Olivia Chow, Linda Duncan, and many others defend the rights of working people, speak out against war, stand up for democracy, and in general represent the interests of average Canadians. Sometimes I would hear a speech and think, that's an elected MP speaking! People say things like that in Parliament here!

I feel strongly about the limits of electoral politics on its own to create real social change. Change originates from people's movements; without our movements, there is no counter-weight to corporate and industry interests. But in our present system, our movements need a voice and a vehicle in government. The NDP is supposed to be that voice.

The late Jack Layton led the NDP to its greatest victory and the height of its power. He lived just long enough to see his party become, for the first time, the Official Opposition. And he didn't do it by pretending to be a Liberal. He didn't do it by nibbling at the edges. The NDP of Jack Layton wasn't truly a socialist party. It was a party of reform, to be sure. But it knew which side its bread was buttered on. Layton knew he needed to offer a clear alternative to both the corrupt, anti-democratic Conservatives and the wannabe-Conservative Liberals.

After Layton's death, the party had an opportunity to choose its direction, and choose they did. They dropped the word "socialist" from their constitution, and they elected an MP from the right-most end of their party. And now we have the predictable outcome. Murray Dobbin writes:
On February 22nd, in the aftermath of a “boring” budget Thomas Mulcair’s NDP undertook a National Day of Action – a welcome idea that’s been long in coming and has the potential over time to be a political game changer. If developed more and replicated it could be the beginning of moving the NDP away from being simply a campaign machine to actually being, like its CCF predecessor, a movement party engaged in communities year round.

And yet the potential in this first experiment of engaging Canadians between elections seems to have been squandered by the focus of the day of action. How is it possible that the NDP would finally understand the importance of this kind of engagement and at the same time completely abandon any substantive ideas with which to start a conversation? The whole day of action is one huge political contradiction – engaging citizens but only after you have redefined them as consumers.

The theme of the day of action consists of a handful of consumer issues, some of them almost pathetic in their level of triviality. The Big Five issues that the NDP presents are ATM fees, interest rates on credit cards, the usury of the ‘payday lending’ industry, the collusion of the oil companies on gasoline prices and finally – and this is really scraping the bottom of the barrel – the fact that companies add a couple of dollars to the invoices they mail out to customers each month.

The campaign is billed as helping “make life more affordable” for Canadians but these measures do almost nothing to accomplish that goal. The banks’ ATM charges amount to an average of $21 a year per adult Canadian. The extra $2 charge on hydro and cable bills amounts to just over $100 a year. Credit card interest rates are outrageous – but surely a progressive party should at least raise the question of the wisdom of racking up tens of thousands of dollars on credit cards while living beyond your means. If you are going to have a day of action and national conversation why not talk about the real causes of poverty and inequality in this country?
On the provincial level, the situation is even worse. While opposition leader Tim Hudak tries to rewrite the rules and bust unions in Ontario forever, Andrea Horwath stays mum. She has refused to join the fight for the $14 minimum wage, instead talking about tax cuts for small business owners... who are not even really that. Michael Laxer:
...the ONDP's apparent reluctance to take a strong stand on this issue consistent with its alleged social activist and labour allies.

To date, while some of its caucus members have been slightly more outspoken, the leader driven party has not strayed from its message of boutique appeals to minor consumerist middle class issues and its pandering to the fiction of the small business "job creator." While it is true that small businesses create many jobs, it is also true, especially in the absence of an industrial or neo-industrial state job creation strategy, that the jobs they create are often not even worthy of the term "McJob." They are, overall, without any question the lowest paying jobs and rarely have any benefits of any meaning.

The ONDP also distorts what a "small business" is. When it calls for a reduction in the small business tax rate, as it does, it fails to mention that this applies only to incorporated "small" businesses, which are often not even the romanticised vision that some have of "Mom and Pop" businesspeople toiling away long hours for their "community." Many incorporated "small businesses" are professionals attempting to minimize taxes, small landlords, etc. It is a designation that is about liability and tax law; nothing else. Many, many, small retail business people, like corner store owners, small coffee shops, independent online retailers, etc., are not incorporated at all and function instead as self-employed sole proprietorships or partnerships under tax law.

Not only does the ONDP's proposed "small business" tax cut not cover them (not that they actually need a tax cut, given that round after round of personal tax cuts have them covered), the party disingenuously claims to represent them with this policy when it does not.

Never mind that despite holding the balance of power, the ONDP has done nothing to force the minimum wage issue. Horwath and the ONDP have also been working for many years, however, to distance themselves from being seen as a programmatically leftist party backing systemic changes of any meaning, and have instead focused on traditionally right wing ideas of placing emphasis on the "cost of living" in a consumerist sense as opposed to on the traditionally leftist notion of alleviating poverty and social inequality through comprehensive social programs.
Even the Liberal-loving Toronto Star gets it, in this editorial criticizing Horwath for a complete lack of punch.
...Horwath has adeptly advocated micro-policies like the 15-per-cent auto insurance reduction that the minority Liberals adopted last year in exchange for NDP support in the minority legislature. But unlike Wynne and Tory Leader Tim Hudak, Horwath has done everything possible to avoid having policies on tough issues that require political bravery.

Indeed, defying all expectations, Horwath has been silent on minimum wage increases – a social justice issue that might have benefitted from NDP support. After all, the Wynne government recently raised the basic wage to $11 an hour after a four-year freeze but that won’t do a lot to help the working poor escape poverty.

Horwath’s recent suggestion of consulting with business on wage increases is clearly redundant, given the fact that a panel of business and labour leaders just filed such a report — after months of discussion.

In the absence of ideas, it’s unclear what the so-called party of the people favours....

So far, Horwath has rejected Wynne’s bold suggestion of taxes to fund a massive improvements in public transit (the premier later abdicated idea that to an advisory panel) in favour of corporate tax increases. While that idea could be part of the mix, the NDP still hasn’t shown it’s prepared to offer serious solutions to the region’s biggest – and most divisive – problem. Ontarians should have time to evaluate the solutions put forward by all three parties, not guess what they might come up with.

And what about Horwath’s response to Wynne’s push for a made-in-Ontario pension plan? Silence. Or her plans for a sustainable provincial energy plan? The NDP has expressed opposition to nuclear energy and gas plants, but hasn’t offered a vision of its own.
The absence of daring ideas hasn’t hindered Horwath. Astutely, she has avoided the controversy that followed Wynne’s suggestion of toll roads or Hudak’s frankly anti-union stance.
The Star is thinking in terms of elections, but I'm more concerned with policies. As Ontario's unions have been mobilizing against the union-busting threat, Hudak claims to have backed off. We can believe him just long enough to relax and return to business as usual, and Ontario will become the next Wisconsin. [More on this in a subsequent post.] But where is the party of the working class when we need it?

* * * *

In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail, Jared Diamond explores cultural practices that are extremely harmful to the environment. Although I read the book many years ago, I recall the stories of how the Norse culture tried to settle Greenland as if it were European, and destroyed themselves, and how colonists treated Australia as if it were Britain, and destroyed the land. In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt tries to prove how conventional wisdom is often completely wrong. And while I didn't like the book, I do agree with that premise. "The way it's always been done" or "everyone knows that" is not a good reason to pursue a course of action.

All my life I've heard that a left-of-centre party must hide its liberal tendencies, must move to the centre - that is, must move to the right - in order to broaden its appeal. The left, it is said, will continue to vote for this party, because it has no choice, but those all-important centrist voters must be won at any cost.

In the United States, this has been an unmitigated disaster. The Democratic Party's abandonment of its liberal roots is surely not the only reason for the collpase of liberal policies in the US: being a corporate puppet while claiming to be the party of the people is a clear conflict of interest. But the ongoing, decades-long quest for the coveted swing voter - that mythical centre always just out of reach, a moving target, moving ever rightward - has left the Democrats a party bereft of principles. US liberals vote for them, cynically and dutifully, them blame fringe parties and actual leftists for their own demise.

Please, NDP. Don't go there.

2.23.2014

freedom to read week 2014: celebrate your freedom to read

Image from Freedom to Read website
Freedom to Read Week 2014 runs from February 23 to March 1. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Freedom to Read Week in Canada.

Freedom to Read Week - called "Banned Books Week" in the United States - encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, a human right guaranteed to us under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For me, it is also a time to celebrate the library as a bulwark against censorship, and for library workers to reflect on our jobs in a broader political context.

FtRW 2014 is especially important to me, because it's my first FtRW as a librarian. I chatted with the Freedom to Read organizers at the recent OLA Conference, and will tweet this post for their collection. There are some wonderfully creative FtRW displays. Yellow caution tape is very popular, as are books in chains. Some libraries have done "mug shots" of customers and staff holding challenged books. In a library particularly beleaguered by community censors, a program where local writers and readers take turns reading passages from challenged books is a good awareness-raiser.

I created this display of challenged books - books that people wanted removed from public libraries - in the Mississauga Central Library. It incorporates two of my personal display goals: mixed collections (fiction, nonfiction, youth fiction, and graphic novels, all in the same display), and visually accessible signage. I had a great time researching titles, making signs, then trekking through the library with a cart and a clipboard, pulling books. (I love my job!)




















2.20.2014

dispatches from ola 2014, part 2: a year of tween programming

Tweens - older kids who are not yet teens - are among my favourite library customers. Tween books are my favourites to read, and a tween audience is my most natural writing voice.

Sadly, tweens are often underserved at libraries. Library programming often focuses on either pre-school kids or youth, usually defined as ages 12 and up. The 8-12 group is too old for baby stuff, but usually too young for the real teen scene. And libraries are often desperate for tween programming ideas.

To that end, two librarians from the Oshawa (Ontario) Public Library, Brianne Wilkins-Bester and Tiffany Balducci, ran an entertaining and enjoyable OLA session, walking us through a full year of tween programming. At this website, they detail everything needed to run each of the 12 programs. They also have a book coming out about tween library services.

All the programs they talked about were fun, creative, and new to me. The best had a library or book tie-in. May's "Greek Out" tied into the summer Olympics, the super-popular Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan, and Ancient Greece school curricula. Kids made nametags using Ancient Greek symbols, "consulted an oracle" (a spin-wheel) to be assigned a god or goddess, then did a bit of research and told the group about their deity, "forged" a cardboard shield with a duct-tape handle, and made toilet-paper togas.

For February, they showed an anti-Valentine's Day program, celebrating BFFs and anti-bullying. This is becoming increasingly popular, especially for tweens, pushing back at pressure to be looking for romance at an ever-decreasing age.

However, one component of these anti-Valentine programs has encountered some backlash: kids were encouraged to "vandalize a romance novel". Author Vicki Essex wrote an open letter to the Toronto Public Library about the sexism and classism of our culture's response to romance novels. Jezebel covered it here.
Furthermore, this is an endeavor that's doomed to lead to embarrassment. Think, for a second, about what would happen if teens were given Sharpies and romance novel covers and told to go to town in an authority-sanctioned environment. It doesn't take a Masters in Library Science to understand that this stunt can only end in Fabio face after Fabio face covered in oversized cartoon dicks.
I have to agree that trashing anyone's choice of reading material - at a library - is counter-productive at best. At worst, you're shaming young readers who might want to try these books. It's also - and obviously - sexist. You'd never see this done with science fiction or crime novels, many of which are as formulaic and improbable as any bodice-ripper.

But book-trashing aside, anti-Valentine's Day programs are a great idea. One game was a new-friends version of the old "Newlywed Game". Kids interviewed each other, then answered questions to see how well they knew their new friend. Friendship bracelets are a good craft project, and a light-hearted but Goth version of a Valentine's Day party would be a hit.

One of the presenting librarians happily admitted to being obsessed with pop culture - generally a good thing for a children's librarian - and many of the program ideas leaned heavily on TV shows and pop music. That's fun, but for my money, it can be overdone. You won't catch me doing a library version of "The Price is Right," encouraging tweens to drool over electronic gadgetry and all-inclusive vacations. I imagine someone could make an argument that this is an economics or math exercise, but do tweens really need more consumer culture in their lives? I'd like the library to be a haven from consumerism.

The best part about this program was walking away with tons of ideas. These kind of information-sharing sessions are a huge help for library programmers who need new ideas but don't have time for the proverbial wheel-reinvention.

You can see a pdf of the OLA Tween Scene presentation here, and their Tween Scene website is here. Hopefully when their book is out, they'll have a better web address!

2.19.2014

ny times letters on the movement against israeli apartheid

The New York Times recently ran a heavy dose of letters in support of the movement against Israeli apartheid, many of them written by Jewish North Americans.

Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss suggests the Times is seeking to balance two recent articles it ran about the boycott, divest, sanction (BDS) movement. (Weiss incorrectly notes, based on a reader's comment, that these letters appeared only in the international edition of the Times; they actually appeared in all editions.)
First, I sense that the Times editors are seeking to balance two articles it ran describing BDS as anti-Semitic. Columnist Roger Cohen said that the BDS movement harbors anti-Semitism, because it would deny “the core of the Zionist idea,” that Jews have a national home (p.s. Roger Cohen has led a worldly life of accomplishment in New York and London). And reporter Jodi Rudoren wrote a piece quoting rightwing Israelis, saying BDS is immoral and anti-Semitic and reminiscent of Nazi tactics (with Omar Barghouti quoted from the other side).
I agree with Weiss that such a large number of letters, many of them in support of BDS, running under the headline "Is a boycott of Israel just?" is a positive occurrence, but I wouldn't expect more balanced reporting from the Times anytime soon.

I'm re-running the letters in support of Palestinian freedom below. I am omitting two short letters in support of the status quo, one strongly anti-BDS letter by an Israeli, plus one letter about academic freedom. You can read all the letters at the link below.

* * * * *

Regarding “In boycott, a political act or prejudice?” (Page 2, Feb. 12): It’s galling that in a piece on the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement, launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society in response to Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, Jodi Rudoren frames her story in terms of B.D.S. echoing the anti-Semitic boycotts of Nazi Germany, quoting several Israelis harshly critical of B.D.S. and just one Palestinian supporter. Ms. Rudoren even seems to endorse allegations that B.D.S. is anti-Semitic and directed at Jews rather than Israel and Israelis, writing, “Avoiding a coffee shop because you don’t like the way the boss treats his employees is voting with your wallet; doing so because the boss is Jewish — or black or female or gay — is discrimination.” Contrary to what Ms. Rudoren and the quoted B.D.S. critics suggest, the movement does not target Jews, individually or collectively, and rejects all forms of bigotry and discrimination, including anti-Semitism. B.D.S. is, in fact, a legal, moral and inclusive movement struggling against the discriminatory policies of a country that defines itself in religiously exclusive terms, and that seeks to deny Palestinians the most basic rights simply because we are not Jewish.

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Ramallah, West Bank

The writer is a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and head of the P.L.O. Department of Culture and Information.

*

The B.D.S. movement has nothing to do with animus toward Jews. Many American Jews, myself included, are vigorously working in support of B.D.S. — and there are more and more of us with every passing month. We target Israel for boycott not because we believe Israel is the worst human rights violator (we don’t), but because Israel is the single largest recipient of American foreign aid, more than $3 billion a year. As Jews, as taxpayers, as people of conscience, we have not only the right but the moral obligation to use boycott and divestment as strategies of nonviolent resistance to Israel’s systematic, racist mistreatment of Palestinians being done on our nickel and in our names.

Hannah Schwarzschild Arlington, Mass.

*

The Palestinian boycott call was initiated in 2005, decades after Zionists evicted Palestinians from the lands of the future Israeli state, after all of Palestine came under Israeli control and occupation, and after thousands of Palestinians had been tortured, detained or killed. International institutions have pointed to Israel’s violations of international law. Yet the United States and Western countries have ignored the harsh realities of Palestinian life and the widening system of superior privilege for Jews in Palestine. From the Israeli-Jewish cocoon it looks like an attack on Israel and the Jewish nation when the criticism of Israeli actions against Palestinians grows after decades of singular support for Israel and total silence on the Palestinian issues. Israel needs to learn to follow international law. The boycott is a teaching tool, nothing more.

Martina Lauer Chesterville, Ontario

*

Ms. Rudoren notes that Mark Regev, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, believes the B.D.S. movement is holding Israel to a higher standard than any other country in the world. Actually, the opposite is true. Israel itself likes to portray itself as having higher standards than most, while at the same time violating these standards with apparent impunity. Israel is a signatory to the Declaration of Human Rights, yet has violated almost all of its articles. Israel, in its Declaration of Independence, promised to provide equal rights and justice to all residents of Palestine-Israel, but apparently never had any intention of doing so. Israel promised, as a provision of the United Nations recognition of their state, to adopt a Constitution, but has never done so.

In view of the massive unquestioned support of Israel by the American government, one might assume that Israel would be more cooperative in the search for peace and justice. This has obviously not happened. Resorting to proclaiming anti-Semitism every time there are questions as to the policies of the Israeli government is the fallback position when all else fails. This should not be allowed.

Doris Rausch, Columbia, Md.

*

The Israelis claim that anti-Semitism is behind the boycott, but they don’t see the real reason: the occupation of Palestinian lands and the subjugation of the Palestinians over the years.

Lillian Laskin, Los Angeles

*

Regarding “The B.D.S. Threat” (Opinion, Feb. 11): Roger Cohen cites the fact that my brother, Omar Barghouti, received a degree from Tel Aviv University to conclude that Israel affords more rights to minorities than other regional states. But minorities receive higher academic degrees in all neighboring states.

More important, Mr. Cohen argues that while it was acceptable for the Jewish people to exercise their right of return to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine after 2,000 years of diaspora, the Palestinians should not be allowed to exercise the same right after 66 years of exile from their homeland. That said, he claims to be for “equality in the Jews’ national home.” What kind of equality would that be, exactly?

If a state defines its legitimacy on the premise of denying the indigenous people their right to live within it, then what choice do the indigenous people have but to delegitimize that state? To deny the Palestinians the right to fight for their right of return is to say they are not equal to Israeli Jews.

Dr. Nasser Barghouti, San Diego

*

The writer mentions the divestment of firms from the West Bank as potentially positive, as it may bring an end to the occupation. He also acknowledges his agreement with that aim. But there is a difference between refusing to fund the occupation and actively participating in the B.D.S. movement; the largest Dutch pension fund and the largest Danish bank are not followers of B.D.S. They, like many of us who support a two-state compromise, refuse to send money to an occupation that is detrimental to both Israel and the Palestinians. If Israel wants to be on the list of free and democratic countries, it should look to the advice of its friends, like Secretary of State Kerry, not to those who’d like to see it dismantled.

Nathan Hersh, Brooklyn, N.Y.

*

Mr. Cohen writes that the United Nations gave an “unambiguous mandate” in 1947 for a Jewish state. But that mandate came with specific borders based on where Jews resided in sufficient numbers to have a majority. Instead of retreating to these borders at the end of the 1948 war or allowing for a reconfiguration of boundaries based on population, Israel insisted on keeping the land it conquered, which included half the land that had been designated for an Arab state. With expanded territory, there was no way Israel could allow Palestinians to return and still be “Jewish and democratic.” The United Nations did not give a mandate for expanded borders, ethnic cleansing and mass expulsion. Allowing Palestinians to return is necessary for the healing of this conflict. A novel solution — two states with identical borders — would enable Palestinians to return and have self-determination, while allowing Israel to remain a Jewish state and haven for Jews. The two states would have equal power.

Esther Riley, Fairfax, Calif.

*

The writer says that of the three goals set by the B.D.S. movement, the first (ending the occupation) “is essential to Israel’s future,” the second (full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel) “is laudable,” but the third (the right of return for all Palestinian refugees) “equals the end of Israel as a Jewish state.” One of Israel’s Basic Laws, the Law of Return, guarantees automatic Israeli citizenship to any Jew living anywhere in the world, a provision that was not envisioned in the 1947 United Nations partition resolution, which provided for the creation of a state for Jews “resident” in Palestine. United Nations Resolution 194 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Israel accepted as a condition of United Nations membership, both establish the right of refugees to return to their homes.

Mr. Cohen’s embrace of full equality is insincere because he justifies an unequal law. Inequality and guarantees of ethnic/religious supremacy are endemic to the notion of a Jewish state. Such a state can never be democratic, because in a democracy the people are sovereign. The state belongs to all its citizens.

Rod Such, Portland, Ore.

*

The B.D.S. movement may indeed have a negative economic impact, but it is probably the most effective way to get Israel to make any kind of deal at all with the Palestinians. If its backers can actually force an accord that creates a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, then more power to them.

Robert Haufrecht, New York

*

What Mr. Cohen’s argument boils down to is a belief that civil equality and human rights are less lofty ideals than the perseverance of a Jewish majority state. I wonder, would you ever publish an opinion article voicing concern over the end of America as a white state? What would Mr. Cohen make of the demographic realities within Israel’s 1967 borders: the 20-percent-and-growing population of Arab-Palestinian citizens in Israel? What does that reality suggest for the sustainability of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state? To preserve a Jewish majority, would Mr. Cohen push his argument further to call for the removal of Israel’s Palestinian population?

Bayann Hamid, New York

2.13.2014

read dave kopay's open letter to michael sam

Did I celebrate Michael Sam's coming out on Facebook and Twitter, and forget to mention it on wmtc?? Ack! Social media run amok!

The news that a top NFL prospect has come out as gay in advance of the draft is electrifying. The support for Sam among NFL players is awesome. At first, there was a conspicuous silence among NFL owners, but Giants owner Steve Tisch and Dolphins owner Dolphins owner Stephen Ross have stepped up. Perhaps more will follow.

Here's an excerpt from an open letter to Michael Sam from Dave Kopay, a former NFL player who came out as gay after he retired.
Not only am I excited for you, I am excited for the NFL. I know the SEC is thanking its lucky stars that a player like you has succeeded and developed, and it would be a significant thing for the entire sports world and for you to continue on your path in the National Football League. But know that now that you are "publicly out" as a gay man you must focus on doing your job and don't let any naysayers bring you down. You are no wallflower and you can handle whatever crap comes your way. You will bring it like you never have before. For a moment, let's just remember how far we have all come.

When I first attended college in 1960, the University of Missouri was only three years into having its first black football player. It was a school where the Confederate flag was still flown for touchdowns. Many SEC schools were still years behind accepting black players. "No Negroes allowed," they said. This got my blood boiling and I can only imagine how so many of my teammates -- both black and white -- at the University of Washington reacted on seeing those words.

I entered college as a high school three-sport letterman, somewhat of a gifted athlete compared to most high school players, and got by on my natural athletic ability. Unlike you, I was not a naturally "tough" guy. I certainly had no idea the toughness it would take to really play on a team that had just won two Rose Bowls. I started my sophomore year and, as I had pledged a fraternity, got the attention of a particular pledge brother, Ray, who would become the love of my life. But in those days I was part of the invisible world. We could never talk about our love for each other let alone how we made love. As a junior, after I had not played to the standards of toughness my coaches required, I got benched. I pledged that I would rise back to the top and I did, by playing 48 minutes a game, making some league honors and getting elected co-captain of our Rose Bowl team as a senior. Ray became a Marine Captain and was killed in Vietnam. We could never talk about anything dealing with our love for each other, but at least for a moment I was to know love and what a wondrous thing it is.

I tell you this to alert to the fact that there are those out there that will get in your way to succeed or to love as you see fit. I was in Green Bay in 1972 when I got the news of Ray's death. I told coach Dan Devine that I had a friend killed in Vietnam and that I wanted to go to his funeral in Seattle. He strongly objected. We normally had Mondays off, with a light practice on Tuesday and I told him I must go, and I would be back for practice from Seattle either Tuesday or Wednesday. I couldn't believe he would object me going to honor a dear friend who had just given his life for his country. I went to Ray's funeral and I was back for practice. I was cut from the squad the next year.

cherry-picked data and undisclosed bias: the failure of freakonomics

Allan came home from one of his used-book sale sprees with copies of both Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics. I had read so many excerpts from, and reviews of, these books over the years, and their appearance was a reminder to actually read them myself.

You're probably familiar with the general premise of Freakonomics. Steven D. Levitt is an economics professor at the University of Chicago, and Stephen J. Dubner is a well-known writer and editor. The two teamed up to write an unusual mix of story, statistics, and surprises for a popular audience, using research and statistics to draw unusual conclusions. Freakonomics' stories challenge conventional wisdom and seek to demonstrate how we often ask the wrong questions, thereby drawing the wrong conclusions.

Freakonomics is easy to read, and I found the stories entertaining and interesting enough, but every so often, an inaccurate word or phrase would jump out at me - a broad assumption would be asserted, without evidence - a bias would be exposed, but not stated. At first I thought I was nitpicking, but as these trouble-spots added up, I came to doubt the validity of the authors' work altogether.

Correlation versus causality in the unconventional wisdom

Early on, Levitt and Dubner remind us of the difference between correlation and causality.
... just because two things are correlated does not mean that one causes the other. A correlation simply means that a relationship exists between two factors - let's call them X and Y - but it tells you nothing about the direction of that relationship. It's possible that X causes Y; it's also possible that Y causes X; and it may be that X and Y are both being caused by some other factor, Z.
Levitt and Dubner say that conventional wisdom often confuses correlation with causality, or assumes causality where none may be present. I agree. Unfortunately, their proofs often do exactly the same thing.

You may recall the Freakonomics highlight that created a huge amount of buzz: the authors revealed a correlation between the precipitous drop in violent crime in the US in the mid-to-late 1990s, and the legalization of abortion in 1971. According to their analysis, the conventional explanations for the decrease in crime - better policing methods, tougher sentencing laws, and so on - were merely coincidental. The real reason for the drop in crime was that fewer unwanted babies were born.

After showing us many statistics about abortion rates and about crime rates, they write:
What sort of woman was most likely to take advantage of Roe v. Wade? Very often she was unmarried or in her teens or poor, and sometimes all three. What sort of future might her child have had? One study has shown that the typical child who was unborn in the earliest years of legalized abortion would have been 50 percent more likely than average to live in poverty; he would have also been 60 percent more likely to grow up with just one parent. These two factors - childhood poverty and a single-parent household - are among the strongest predictors that a child will have a criminal future. Growing up in a single-parent home roughly doubles a child's propensity to commit crime. So does having a teenage mother. Another study has shown that low maternal education is the single most powerful factor leading to criminality.

In other words, the very factors that drove millions of American women to have an abortion also seemed to predict that their children, had they been born, would have led unhappy and possible criminal lives.
The authors then note in passing that legalized abortion brought about many social consequences, and they list some, including a sharp drop in the number of white, American-born babies available for adoption. (This, in turn, gave rise to an increasing in international adoptions.)

Here's what Levitt and Dubner do not say. Since the legalization of abortion in the US coincided exactly with a marked decrease in (white) babies available for adoption, it is highly likely that many of the women who chose to terminate pregnancies (after abortion was legalized) would have surrendered their babies to adoption (before legal abortion). Therefore, those children would not have been raised in poor or single-parent families, since adoptive families are highly unlikely to be either. This is still true today, but was even more true in the 1970s.

This important qualifier was omitted from the Freakonomics equation. In other words, the authors demonstrate a correlation between legalized abortion in 1971 and a drop in crime in the mid-1990s, but in trying to prove causation, they cherry-pick the evidence. Is it possible that the big bombshell revealed in this book, a correlation between legalized abortion and crime, is not causal after all?

The more I read Freakonomics, the more I had the nagging feeling that Levitt and Dubner do exactly what they tell us the wrong-headed, knee-jerk, and short-sighted among us do. They don't flat-out assume causation, but neither do they examine factors that disprove their theory. Instead, they posit a question that challenges the status quo, then find the evidence they need to prove it.

Language matters... and so does full disclosure

Word choices troubled me. Rhetorical questions angered me. And undisclosed conflicts of interest call integrity into question. Here are a four examples: on abortion, public schools, white-collar crime, and sexual assault.

Abortion. When writing about abortion, Levitt and Dubner use the expressions "pro-choice" and "pro-life". As you know, I believe the term "pro-life" has no place in good journalism, except in the name of organizations or in a quote. It is one of the most successful pieces of propaganda of all time, and a journalist who uses the expression has agreed to be manipulated.

Perhaps the authors felt that if they used the term "anti-abortion," they would be forced to also write "pro-abortion," which of course is not the same thing as pro-choice. Or perhaps I am being overly generous: the section on the link between abortion and crime contains many unattributed, "some experts feel" statements about the "violence" and "death rate" of abortion, although their general conclusion is that government should let women decide what to do with their own pregnancies.

Whatever their bias, the language solution is simple. It requires the addition of only one word: pro-abortion-rights, anti-abortion-rights. Or pro-legalized-abortion, anti-legalized-abortion. In other words, word choice that accurately describes, rather than adopts, a position.

Public schools. In a segment examining cheating on standardized tests, the authors claim to prove that some Chicago public-school teachers helped students cheat, and insinuate that such cheating is supported by teachers' unions.

The mention of unions seemed so strangely out of place - a completely gratuitous shot - that I searched online to see if there was a connection. I quickly found it. Levitt was involved in the drive to privatize the Chicago school system, which of course includes union-busting.

The very question Freakonomics asks, "Do school teachers cheat on standardized testing?", is itself biased: it is a weapon wielded by the movement to discredit public schools. The discredited public schools are then replaced by so-called "charter schools" - schools run by private, for-profit companies. (Test scores at these private schools are often higher, because students who can't keep up are simply expelled - more cherry-picked statistics.) This push to privatization is itself linked to Levitt's Chicago-school, neoliberal economics.

Levitt tells us that the data gleaned from standardized test scores proves that some teachers were cheating. But he doesn't tell us that the reason he examined the data in the first place was to find (or manufacture) evidence against public schools and teachers' unions, in support of privatization.

A professional writer like Stephen Dubner knows that this connection must be disclosed. But he does not disclose it.

White-collar crime. In a paragraph about white-collar crime, Levitt and Dubner ask:
A street crime has a victim, who typically reports the crime to the police, who generate data, which in turn generates thousands of academic papers by criminologists, sociologists, and economists. But white-collar crime presents no obvious victim. From whom exactly did the masters of Enron steal?
Really, Steven Levitt, free-market economist? You really don't know from whom the Enron execs stole? Perhaps you should consult Wikipedia. Emphasis mine.
Enron's shareholders lost $74 billion in the four years before the company's bankruptcy ($40 to $45 billion was attributed to fraud). As Enron had nearly $67 billion that it owed creditors, employees and shareholders received limited, if any, assistance aside from severance from Enron. To pay its creditors, Enron held auctions to sell assets including art, photographs, logo signs, and its pipelines.

In May 2004, more than 20,000 of Enron's former employees won a suit of $85 million for compensation of $2 billion that was lost from their pensions.
In the opening paragraphs of this post, I refrained from identifying Levitt's affiliation with the Chicago School of Economics, the free-market-worshipping, public-sector-hating cabal whose political cronies have caused untold suffering around the globe. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Benefit hereby withdrawn.

Sexual assault. In a paragraph about statistics that become accepted as common knowledge, but which have no basis in fact, Levitt and Dubner write:
Women's rights advocates, for instance, have hyped the incidence of sexual assault, claiming that one in three American women will in her lifetime be a victim or rape or attempted rape. The actual figure is more like one in eight - but the advocates know it would take a callous person to publicly dispute their claims.
Let's pause here while we imagine my eyes popping, my teeth gritting, as I force myself to put down the book and breathe deeply...

Fact: the one-in-eight figure is an FBI statistic. It counts rape and attempted rapes that are reported to a municipal police department. How many sexual assaults are not reported to the police? Estimates range from 50% to 70%. Most reported rapes are those perpetrated by strangers; most so-called date or acquaintance rapes are not reported. How likely is a girl or woman raped by someone she knows - a date, an acquaintance, an ex-husband - to go to the police? Estimates range from a high of 30% to a low of 5%.

The FBI's one-in-eight figure does not include violent sexual assault where no intercourse or attempted intercourse occurred. The one-in-eight figure does not include rape-murders. If a woman is raped and murdered, the crime is entered into the Uniform Crime Reporting figures as a murder, only. Statistically, the rape does not exist. You see where I'm going here.

In truth, I cannot say where the one-in-three or one-in-four figure originated. I believe they are based on many different data-collections over a long period of time, and an extrapolation about unreported rapes. But I can tell you this: the FBI's one-in-eight is merely a piece of the picture. Levitt and Dubner write, "...but the advocates know [that no one will challenge the statistics]". How, may I ask, do they come to this conclusion? Did someone in the anti-violence movement actually tell them, "I know these figures are false, but who's going to challenge me?" Not likely. It's much more likely they are making an unfounded assumption.

Ignoring their own central premise. Economics, Levitt and Dubner tell us, is based on this premise, asserted as fact: "Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life." Thus they look for hidden incentives as the key to solving various riddles. Yet when they show, for example, that most people (about 87%) don't steal and don't cheat, even when they are highly unlikely to get caught, they never explain what well-hidden incentive causes this cheery result. Because you know what? There just might be human behaviour that is not attributable to economics.

I have other examples, too, but this post is long enough. I love books that make complex ideas accessible, but not at the expense of accuracy. I used to write nonfiction for children, and I know it can be difficult to avoid reductionism. But in a book that claims the conventional wisdom is often wrong, and that better decisions can be made by looking at better statistical evidence, the authors must follow their own mandate, and be both thorough and precise. Levitt and Dubner challenge what they say is wrong-headed conventional wisdom, then they create their own wrong-headed conclusions, using whatever statistics get them there.

Criticisms from their own field

Looking online for criticism of Freakonomics, I found a series of heated exchanges - and an onslaught of posts repeating bits of those exchanges, out of context - that occurred a few years ago. (I was in graduate school at the time, ignoring much of what went on in the world.) This is not newsworthy, but it can't hurt to revisit an internet brouhaha long after the dust has settled.

Writing in American Scientist in 2012, Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung gave a long, detailed critique of what they saw as sloppy, reductionist thinking from Levitt and Dubner, who by that time were the pilots of a high-flying media brand. In Freakonomics: What Went Wrong, Gelman and Fung write:
As the authors of statistics-themed books for general audiences, we can attest that Levitt and Dubner’s success is not easily attained. And as teachers of statistics, we recognize the challenge of creating interest in the subject without resorting to clich├ęd examples such as baseball averages, movie grosses and political polls. The other side of this challenge, though, is presenting ideas in interesting ways without oversimplifying them or misleading readers. We and others have noted a discouraging tendency in the Freakonomics body of work to present speculative or even erroneous claims with an air of certainty. Considering such problems yields useful lessons for those who wish to popularize statistical ideas.
They then offer numerous examples, and say they have many more. Their story was picked up by many blogs and other outlets (although that echo would be dwarfed by a later controversy). The Freakonomics authors responded with Freakonomics: What Went Right, a long, rambling piece that lumps together both founded and unfounded criticism, and never really responds to Gelman and Fung's central concerns.

Gelman then responded on his own blog, with A kaleidoscope of responses to Dubner’s criticisms of our criticisms of Freakonomics, a thoughtful meta-type piece. He writes, in part:
Dubner lives in different worlds than those of Kaiser and me. (Levitt is in between, with one foot in the publishing/media world and the other in academia.) To the millions of readers of his books and blogs, Levitt and Dubner are the kings (and rightly so, they've done some great stuff), and Kaiser and I have the status of moderately-annoying gnats.

But I suspect Dubner realizes that, outside of his circle, he and Levitt have some credibility problems. They have fans but a lot of non-fans too. As I wrote a couple months ago:
About a year ago, I gave my talk, "Of Beauty, Sex, and Power," at the meeting of the National Association of Science Writers. At one point I mentioned Freakonomics and the audience groaned. Steve Levitt is not a popular guy with this crowd. And that's the typical reaction I get: "Freakonomics" is a byword for sloppy science reporting, it's a word you throw out there if you want an easy laugh. Even some defenders of Freakonomics nowadays will say I shouldn't be so hard on it, it's just entertainment.
Now go back a few years. In 2005, Freakonomics was taken seriously. It was a sensation. Entertaining, sure, but not just entertainment—rather, the book represented an exciting new way of looking at the world. There was talk of the government hiring Levitt to apply his Freakonomics tools to catch terrorists.

That's what Kaiser and I meant when we asked "What went wrong?" Freakonomics was once a forum for a playful discussion of serious, important ideas; now it's more of a grab-bag of unfounded arguments. There's some good stuff there but seemingly no filter.
This is what I'm talking about. When a roomful of science reporters treats you like a punch line, the problem isn't with statisticians Gelman and Fung, or with economists Ariel Rubinstein and John DiNardo, or with bloggers Felix Salmon and Daniel Davies (to name several people who have published serious criticisms of Freakonomics). There are deeper problems, some clue of which might be found by reading all these critiques with an eye to learning rather than mere rebuttal. Don't get distracted by your fans on the blog—consider that room full of science writers! Try to recover the respect of Felix Salmon and Daniel Davies; that would be a worthy goal.
And then there's climate change

In Super Freakonomics, the 2009 follow-up to the original book, Levitt and Dubner take what they call "a cool, hard look at global warming". In that segment, they acknowledge the widespread scientific consensus that the earth is getting warmer. They bemoan the difficulty of persuading humans to act in sufficient numbers when the incentives for change are abstract and in the future. And they agree that humans should stop consuming and polluting so flagrantly, and should live more sustainably. They do all those things.

However, they challenge some of the accepted wisdom of how we can best achieve that worthy goal.
That is all.

Yet this small and reasonable poke at conventional wisdom was, apparently, picked up by an environmental blogger and translated into: "OMG Freakonomics authors deny climate change!!1!!".

A shitstorm of posts and tweets ensued. Levitt and Dubner were branded Enemies of the People. And the wingnuts, the anti-environment climate change deniers, in turn, had a field day. Look how the tree-huggers react when you question their orthodoxy! All hail Freakonomics, who have dispelled the myth of climate change! Which, of course, they did not do.

Which leads me to my second, less important Freakonomics-related post: what's wrong with the internet.

About Freakonomics itself, I'd say that fuzzy thinking, imprecise language, undisclosed conflict of interest, and especially the use of statistics without explanation or context (as in the sexual assault example) call into question both the seriousness and validity of this book.

2.12.2014

child sexual abuse in context: soraya chemaly asks, "are children supposed to document their abuse?"

Soraya Chemaly places Dylan Farrow's claim in the context of rampant child sexual abuse, and the persistent myth of false rape claims.
Dylan Farrow is in a situation that thousands deal with every day. In general, people want to look away, muttering some variant of "he said/she said." But, that phrase implies an equivalence where we have a gross imbalance, because "he" is more trusted, virtually always, in every capacity, than "she."

There is a substantial body of research documenting our preference for thinking of men as more competent and moral. Researchers who studied gendered speech patterns found that people expect different kinds of lies from men and women and that women are considered more trustworthy, unless lies include another person, in which case, confidence in the veracity of what women say plummets. . . .

That everyone "knows" girls and women lie about sexual assault is a dangerous and enduring myth. A survey of college students revealed that the majority believed up to 50% of their female peers lie when they allege rape, despite wide-scale evidence and multi-country studies that show the incidence of false rape reports to be in the 2%-8% range.

Yes, there are false claims, but they occur in roughly the same numbers as false claims for other crimes. As the Equality for Women's Charles Clymer pointed out recently, based on FBI and Department of Justice information, "The odds of the average straight man (the target group overwhelmingly concerned with this) in the U.S. being accused of rape are 2.7 million to 1."

The chances of actually being sexually assaulted?

1 in 3-to-4 for girls (before they turn 18)
1 in 5-to-7 for boys (before they turn 18)
1 in 5 for women
1 in 77 for men
Chemaya also makes the connection between the myth of false rape accusations and the push for anti-abortion measures such as waiting periods: laws and customs based on the idea that women cannot be trusted. It's very worth reading; major trigger warnings for survivors. Here.

is the food movement elitist? michael pollan connects the dots between labour and our tables

In an excellent interview in Truthout, Michael Pollan responds to critics who accuse the food movement of being elitist. He very rightly credits Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation with explicitly drawing the connection between labour issues, animal issues, and our own food issues. And Pollan calls out the industrialized food industry that has been able to artificially depress food prices by paying workers sub-living wages.
When you buy cheap food, the real costs have been externalized. Those externalized costs have always included labor. It is only the decline over time of the minimum wage in real dollars that's made the fast food industry possible, along with feedlot agriculture, pharmaceuticals on the farm, pesticides and regulatory forbearance. All these things are part of the answer to the question: Why is that crap so cheap? Our food is dishonestly priced. One of the ways in which it's dishonestly priced is the fact that people are not paid a living wage to process it, to serve it, to grow it, to slaughter it. . . .

...We need to pay people a living wage so they can afford to pay the real cost of food. Cheap food is really an addiction for an economy and for a society. Cheap food is one of the pillars on which our economy is based. It is what has allowed wages to fall over the last 30 or 40 years, the fact that food was getting cheaper the whole time. In a sense, cheap food has subsidized the collapse in wages that we've seen. Part of repairing the whole system will involve paying people more and internalizing the real cost of producing this food.
It's an excellent story that I highly recommend: read it here.

2.11.2014

shirley temple black, breast cancer activist, former child star, 1928-2014

Shirley Temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson
Growing up watching old movies, I was a big fan of Shirley Temple, whose dimples, singing, and tap-dancing charmed my parents' generation.

Temple danced with some of the tap greats, African-American men who Hollywood cast as servants, yassuh-ing their way into the dance scenes. The popularity of the adorable child star opened the back door for many talents.

When I was a young teen, Shirley Temple, then known as Shirley Temple Black, spoke out about undergoing a radical mastectomy. This was unheard of, and took enormous courage in a time when breast cancer was considered shameful - and fatal. She was a real trailblazer. She was also a United States
Ambassador to more than one country.

I was sorry to see that the wire-service obituary referred to Black as "Shirley Temple," and made no mention of her later accomplishments.

2.10.2014

today: call your m.p.! stop the (un)fair elections act!

I trust by now you've all heard about Stephen Harper's latest plan to undermine democracy in Canada, his electoral reform bill that the chief electoral officer of the country has called an affront to democracy.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand told CBC: "My reading of the act is that I can no longer speak about democracy in this country." Now, as per usual, the Harpercrats want to pass the bill before it can be properly debated. It was just introduced a few days ago, but could be adopted by the House of Commons as early as today or tomorrow.

The so-called Fair Elections Act would:


- make it more difficult for people to vote,

- would disproportionately impact students and youth, Indigenous people, seniors, people on low-incomes, and people who didn’t vote Conservative in previous elections,

- do nothing to bring to justice the people behind the widespread election fraud in 2011, and

- would actually make it harder to catch perpetrators of election fraud.

The Council of Canadians sent an action alert about this on Friday, and in just 24 hours, an astounding 20,000 people signed a petition calling on Stephen Harper to "investigate and prevent electoral fraud with a truly fair Elections Act". You can sign the petition here.

Now the Council is asking us to (literally) voice our concerns. Today, Monday, February 10, there will be a mass call-in to all Members of Parliament, asking them to take the time to properly study this bill and address its many shortcomings.

If you live or work in Ottawa, you can grab your cell phone and join the Council of Canadians at 12:30 p.m. on Parliament Hill. MP Craig Scott, Official Opposition Critic for Democratic and Parliamentary Reform, will be there to accept the petition.

Everyone else, please take a few minutes today and call your MP. Tell her or him you expect to see open debate on a bill of this importance, and you want to at least see the worst aspects of the bill scrapped.

Click here to find your MP using your postal code.

2.09.2014

myth-busting and truth-telling: challenging the govt's claims about refugees

The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers has a great page that counters every single one of the Harper Government's statements lies about refugee claims in Canada. At the site, click on any of the statements to read more.
Challenging The Myths: The Truth About Canadian Refugee Law

The Federal government’s refugee laws and policies are shrouded by myths and misinformation. The circulation of these myths is one of the biggest barriers to understanding the issues affecting asylum seekers and refugees in Canada.

This page highlights some common myths about refugees to correct the record and provide accurate information:

1. Canada is not being “overwhelmed” by refugee claims

2. Canada does not take more than its “fair share” of refugees

3. Refugee claimants are legally entitled to arrive in Canada without papers. They are not “illegal” or “fraudulent”

4. Refugees need not “wait their turn” to be resettled from refugee camps abroad

5. Rejected, abandoned, or withdrawn refugee claims are not “bogus”

6. Harsh tactics like mandatory detention are not effective in combatting human smuggling

7. Refugee claimants who arrive in Canada by boat are not “queue jumpers”

8. Roma refugee claimants face real threats of persecution; they are not “bogus”

9. Refugee Claimants do not pose a threat to Canada’s security

10. Canada’s new refugee regime is neither fair nor balanced

11. There is no such thing as a “safe” country for refugees

12. Health care has been drastically cut for refugee claimants; they do not enjoy “gold plated” care

13. The new system does not preserve Canada’s human rights record, it undermines it.
Read and share!

2.07.2014

an olympics for every protestor, and rainbow flags from canada... but not from rob ford

I started compiling my usual "why I can't watch the Olympics" post, when I read Dave Zirin... and stopped writing.
At every Olympics, you can cue the complaints, getting in the way when all we’re trying to do is enjoy a good luge.

Yet it took a visionary like Vladimir Putin, a man with the pecs to match his steely will, to finally figure out a way to unite the world and make the Olympics something for everybody. Everyone, thanks to Putin, has something to care about during the 2014 Sochi Games.

If you are a person with even the mildest concern for anything outside the five feet in front of your face, then this Olympiad is for you. No matter your cause, no matter your passion, Vladimir Putin has given you something to perk up about.
Something for everyone: LGBT rights, labour, the environment, genocide, cruelty to animals, free speech. Read "The 2014 Sochi Olympics: Something For Everyone!" on Edge of Sports, or at The Nation. It's truly priceless.

I was happy to hear that many Canadian cities have raised the Pride flag over their City Halls, to protest the homophobia and persecution of LGBT people around the Sochi Games. Jim Watson, the mayor of Ottawa, went a few steps further.
Of course, Mayor Crack continues to embarrass himself and Toronto. Seriously, does anyone actually say "sexual preference" anymore?

In The Globe and Mail, Brenda Cossman reminds us that the Olympics have always been political, and has some suggestions on how we can push the issue.

And from the wmtc archives, my Olympics disgust: Beijing, Vancouver, and generally, London.


2.05.2014

dylan farrow and woody allen: a feminist, a rape survivor, and a woody allen fan weighs in

Wmtc friend and reader Dharma Seeker writes:
Some of my discussion groups have been blowing up since Dylan Farrow's open letter to actors in Woody Allen films. My brain is muddled trying to sort out the various issues. I'd love your thoughts and hoped you might blog about it, although if you've not read it yet Dylan's open letter should come with a trigger warning.

If the allegations are true, does that mean that actors have a moral obligation to boycott his films?

Do movie lovers have a moral obligation to boycott his films?

Where do we draw the line that separates the personal failings (to put it mildly) of the artist and appreciation of the art they produce?

I really would love to know your thoughts. I don't want to "support a pedophile" but I can't help thinking it's not that simple. I know you and Allan love Woody Allen films, your enthusiasm for them actually put me on to them. In particular I love Whatever Works and Vicky Christina Barcelona. I've yet to see Blue Jasmine but as you may know Cate Blanchet is nominated for an Oscar for her role, so she seems to be taking a lot of heat for working with him.

Which brings me to my next question... why do so many conversations seem to center around shaming women for working with him? There are already a dearth of good roles for women actors. Why is it ok, in some people's minds, for Larry David to work with Woody but it's not ok for Dianne Keaton? It reeks of patriarchy. To her credit Dylan Farrow did call out a couple of male actors as well. ...

If you feel it's something you'd be comfortable weighing in on I'd love to know what you think, because I respect your opinions and also because you are such a huge fan but also because of your perspective and experience with the subject matter.
I was glad to get Dharma Seeker's email, because it has moved to me to write about this. As she says, it's a natural topic for me: I'm a Woody Allen fan who is also a feminist and a rape survivor. So far I've pushed the topic to the background of my thoughts. The only way for me to fully examine my thoughts and feelings on any subject is to write about it. So here I am.

For reference:

An Open Letter From Dylan Farrow, published by The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof. I did not find this triggering, as the story is completely dissimilar to mine, but survivors of incest and child sexual abuse may find it so.

Choosing Comfort Over Truth: What It Means to Defend Woody Allen by Jessica Valenti in The Nation. I include this as representative of what I've read from many feminist writers.

The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast by Robert B. Weide, who made a documentary about Woody Allen, writing in The Daily Beast. I suggest reading this story, rather than reading about it.

• I believe Dylan Farrow. Why would I not? She is a survivor of sexual abuse and she is coming forward, very publicly. In doing so, she helps all survivors, everywhere, and, I hope, she helps herself, too. Every time a survivor comes forward, she or he must be believed. Dylan Farrow is no exception. Because her perpetrator is a famous person, her public statement is amplified millions of times over. I hope this has turned out to be a positive thing for her. I imagine it is also a burden, but I hope it is more liberating than confining.

• I believe Dylan Farrow, and when she says that Woody Allen's success has felt like a personal rebuke, I must believe her, because those are her feelings. No one can deny how another person feels. I not only believe her, but I can understand it. I can imagine it.

• When Dylan Farrow rebukes actors for working with Woody Allen, I disagree with her. She is absolutely entitled to feel that way, of course, and perhaps I would feel that way if I were her. But in our professional and working lives, we cannot examine the inner lives of our employers and colleagues and decide where and with whom we will work based on our discoveries. If people are judging female actors more harshly than male actors on this issue, that's the usual sexism at work. But neither male nor female actors owe a debt to abuse survivors, to be paid in the form of turning down work.

• Dylan Farrow rebukes Woody Allen's fans, and although I can imagine where she's coming from, I disagree with her there, too. I have been watching Woody Allen films since the 1970s. I love many of them, am indifferent to some, but my opinions and feelings are already part of me. I can't delete them from my brain because of something Woody Allen did. Dylan Farrow's disclosures are disturbing. But I don't experience art based on what I know or don't know about the artist.

I was talking about books with a friend from the library. I mentioned I had re-read Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls before I went to Spain, and how much I enjoyed it, how it made me appreciate Hemingway in a whole new light. My friend said, "I won't read anything by him. He was a bad person - a womanizer, a drunk, a disloyal friend." She had read The Paris Wife, a novel based on Hemingway's relationship with his first wife, and now she will not experience the man's art.

Let's leave aside the fact that The First Wife was a novel; in this case, it doesn't matter if the novel was 100% factual or not. I was amazed that someone would choose not to experience art because of something they know about the artist. The implications of this are enormous - and absurd. Shall we lay bare every artist's life story, examine their motives, their worldview, their moral code, pass judgment on them, then if we find the artist to be upstanding moral citizens, read their books, see their plays, view their paintings? I don't subscribe to a stereotype of the artist as outside the bounds of morality, but neither do I set myself up as judge and jury. When it comes to art, I'm not there for the artist's personal life. I'm there for the art. An artist may choose to infuse her work with morality, but the personal moral code of the artist is irrelevant.

• At the beginning of Choosing Comfort Over Truth: What It Means to Defend Woody Allen, Jessica Valenti tells us straight off that she has never seen a Woody Allen film. Her parents shunned Allen's movies because of his relationship - which she puts in quotes - with Soon-Yi Previn. Personally, if my parents had told me not to watch a director's films, I'd be trying to rent, borrow, or download as many of his films as I could. But Valenti has chosen to respect her parents' judgments. She sees Allen as a pariah, and she sees his defenders as either abusers, liars, or tools of patriarchy.

I read Valenti often, and I often agree with her, but from this piece I read: "My parents told me not to watch these films because they were made by a bad man", a statement both juvenile and useless. What purpose does boycotting Woody Allen films serve? Who does it help?

When Valenti writes--
Because no matter how much we know to be true, patriarchy pushes us to put aside our good judgment—particularly when that good judgement is urging us to believe bad things about talented, white men.

I believe...that people are skeptical of abuse victims because “the truth and pervasiveness of sexual violence around the world is overwhelming. Why would anyone want to face such truth?” I also believe that deep down people know that once we start to believe victims en masse—once we take their pain and experience seriously—that everything will have to change.
-- I agree with her.

However, there are two aspects of her column with which I disagree. One, she claims:
Or, as one of Allen’s friends did in a shameful article for The Daily Beast—we simply insinuate that the protective parent is just a slut, so how can you believe anything she says anyway?
I read Robert Weide's article in the Daily Beast. I don't understand why Valenti would misrepresent an article that we can all read for ourselves, and I don't know how she comes up with her analysis of the story. Weide actually praises Mia Farrow for her undeniable talent and her humanitarian work. He does mention Farrow's relationship with Frank Sinatra, when Farrow was 20 and Sinatra was 50, but that is a fact, not an accusation. Weide mentions Farrow's other relationships (Andre Previn, etc.) but how is that slut-shaming? Unless Valenti is engaging in some kind of reverse sexism or prudishness, I don't know why facts about Farrow's relationships would disturb her.

More importantly, though, I note that Valenti's parents kept her safe from Woody Allen's movies not because Allen had abused Dylan Farrow, but because of his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn. Valenti segues seamlessly from Soon-Yi Previn to Dylan Farrow, as if they represent the same issue. I find this disturbing.

• I understand that many people find the age difference between Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn hideous and disgusting. This, in my opinion, is a bias; it has more to do with social norms than with anything inherently wrong with the relationship. I also understand people think that Allen and Previn committed an act of treachery and betrayal against Mia Farrow. And I have no doubt that from Farrow's perspective, it seemed that way. But facts are facts. Woody Allen was not Soon-Yi Previn's parent, or guardian, or custodian. Note I do not say, and I am not implying, the qualified "he was not her real father". I am not distinguishing between adoptive and biological. Allen was not her father at all. He was her mother's boyfriend, and while that may seem to many as a crime, it is not child abuse. And Mia Farrow, who did have a relationship with Frank Sinatra when she was 20 and the singer was 50, should know that. I think we all should know it.

• Conflating Woody Allen's relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, now a married couple of 17 years, and a sexually inappropriate relationship with the young Dylan Farrow is unfair and a bit ridiculous. One is consensual, but outside social norms and distasteful to the prudish. The other is child sexual abuse.

• People claim that the age and power difference between Allen and Previn, and Previn's age when they first became involved, negate the possibility of consensual sex. I find that insulting to young women. Teenage girls can make up their own minds about whether and with whom to have sex. They may make mistakes, but that doesn't mean they can't give consent.

• There do seem to be some unusual issues and inconsistencies around the sexual abuse of Dylan Farrow by Woody Allen. I don't think it's wrong to look at those with clear eyes. Refusing to look at possible circumstances doesn't further the cause of survivors of sexual abuse. I believe what Dylan Farrow writes, but I can still read Robert Weide's column and wonder how the two fit together.

• When revelations about Allen and Soon-Yi Previn first surfaced, some co-workers of mine said things like, "He is so sick and twisted. Just look at his movies, you can tell what a freak he is! This just proves it." If there are people who see Woody Allen's movies as evidence of freakishness or sickness, I can only imagine that their view of the human condition is so narrow and constricted as to admit very little outside their own experience.

If, like Valenti or my friend who won't read Hemingway, one chooses not to experience a person's art because of the artist's choices or moral code, that is one's right, of course. But to state or imply that people who do otherwise - people who will continue to enjoy Woody Allen's movies - are somehow complicit in child sexual abuse is to wrap oneself in a cocoon of moral judgment that is both convenient and self-righteous.

The implication that the next time I watch a Woody Allen film I am standing with abusers and betraying survivors doesn't stand up to scrutiny. What other films shouldn't I watch? Is there a list of morally pure directors I can refer to? What about musicians, architects, painters? And, remind me, how does boycotting Woody Allen help survivors?

Of course Dylan Farrow can't stand to see her perpetrator celebrated and feted, and her pain dismissed as ambiguity or lies. But for viewers - or non-viewers! - to sit in judgment of actors or other movie-viewers, as if the decision to not watch a movie is something more than a personal choice, as if that choice bestows some sort of moral superiority... give me a break. And conflating Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn with Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow is, at best, fuzzy thinking. At worst, it's sexist, paternalistic, and insulting.

2.03.2014

healthy slow-cooker recipe of the week: i finally make delicious lentil soup, thanks to you

Last summer, I asked for help in turning my drab lentil soup into something more yummy and enticing. Thanks to wmtc readers, I've done it. Yesterday for the first time, I made lentil soup that I will actually look forward to eating (as opposed to tolerating because I made it and don't want to throw it out).

Here's what I did.

I switched from chicken stock to beef stock.

I took out the celery and added mushrooms.

I added something acidic, in the form of the tiniest drop of Tabasco sauce. This made an appreciable difference, and now I understand why soup recipes often call for a splash of vinegar or the juice of a lemon. When readers suggested Tabasco, I was skeptical, because I don't want the soup to be spicy, but you were right: a tiny bit added flavour without heat.

I also balanced out the other seasonings, which I had overloaded in an unsuccessful attempt to give the soup more flavour.

At this point the soup was much improved, much tastier. If I wanted to keep the soup very low fat, I could have stopped there and it would have been all right.

But my friend and cooking guru M@ gave me several beef bones and smoked ham hocks. I threw a ham hock in the slow cooker and the effect was just about miraculous. I realize now that the bones impart more than flavour; the added fat gives the soup a wonderful texture and thickness.

There's not much extra fat, either. After the soup is refrigerated overnight, excess fat would have risen to the top for easy skimming and removal. This morning, there was no visible layer of fat on the soup.

I now understand why, when I tried to make my mother's mushroom and barley soup without marrow bones, the soup was thin and boring. When I made the same simple recipe with bones, it was the thick, rich, flavourful soup I remembered from my childhood.

This has been a fun learning experience for me. Thanks, everyone! And here's my non-vegetarian lentil soup.

1 litre low-sodium beef broth
1 cup lentils
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 large carrot, cubed
8-10 cremini mushrooms, quartered
4-5 cloves of garlic, crushed
3 bay leaves
thyme, allspice, salt, and pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon of Tabasco sauce
1 pork or beef bone

Throw everything in the slow-cooker for 8 hours on low. Remove bay leaves, bones, and any gelatinous pork skin. Enjoy!

2.02.2014

philip seymour hoffman, 1967-2014

If you care about independent film, you've been following the career of Philip Seymour Hoffman since the early 1990s. For a while, he was nearly ubiquitous, appearing in one brilliant small role after the next. When PSH achieved star recognition, it was as if a well-kept secret had been discovered, like hearing a song by your favourite unknown indie band suddenly sweep the pop-radio charts.

He was a phenomenal actor. He also directed, but acting was his true talent. Although "Capote" is being celebrated as his best role - and he was incredible in that film - there were dozens of high points: "Happiness," "Owning Mahoney," "Charlie Wilson's War," "Moneyball," "Magnolia," "Almost Famous," all the way back to "Scent of a Woman".

PSH turned in incredible performances as a supporting actor. He would inhabit the role, quietly perfect.

How very, very sad that he is dead at the very young age of 46.

dispatches from ola 2014, part 1: makerspaces, libraries, and me

Yesterday I attended one of the most exciting and inspiring sessions of the OLA Super Conference, one of three that I will write about. It was a presentation by two people from MakerKids, one of the world's only makerspaces dedicated to and for young people - and lucky for us, it's in Toronto.

Makerspaces... and MakerKids

In this previous post about attending "OLA" for the first time, I listed "Maker Culture in Action" as one of the sessions I wanted to attend. A reader asked what that meant, and a little discussion ensued: here. That was a good reminder that the makerspace concept, which I only discovered in library school, is not necessarily a part of the general consciousness.

My favourite definition of a makerspace is "a community centre with tools". A makerspace is a public workshop where people use materials and tools to create things. The maker movement is related to old-fashioned tinkering, but it's more social - something that takes place not in your own basement or garage, but in a shared space, within a community. And in addition to standard, old-fashioned tools like hacksaws and pliers, makerspaces usually offer open-source electronic components and 3D printers. (3D printers are a mainstay. If you haven't seen one in action, here's a video.)

The makerspace ethic encourages people to try things with which they have no experience, to experiment, to explore, to participate rather than watch, to create rather than consume. There's an emphasis on education, community, and shared resources.

There's tons of information online about makerspaces; I'll quote one snip from Victoria Makerspace in Saanich, BC.
A Makerspace is a shared space where people can come together and collaborate while sharing tools, resources and knowledge. One tool can be effectively duplicated many times over by sharing it, in the same way that someone's learning experiences may be shared.

When you walk into a typical Makerspace, your first thoughts might be, "Wow, I could make anything here, if only I had the knowledge." Then after talking to a few people, you realize the vast amounts of experience and knowledge that exists. Anything you would like to know about, someone has either done it or has a really good idea how to do it. It soon becomes apparent that almost anything is possible.
Kids? Not so much

Makerspaces may be many wonderful things, but one thing they're usually not is kid-friendly. Despite the no-experience-needed ethic, beginners won't find step-by-step instructions to guide them, and certainly not the kind of encouragement and support a young person needs when using unfamiliar tools and equipment. Safety is an issue, of course. In general, most makerspaces would be too intimidating and potentially dangerous for young people, not a place a parent could drop off a child for an afternoon.

Enter MakerKids, located in Toronto's west end, one of the only makerspaces for young people in the world. Through camps, after-school programs, and workshops, MakerKids lets kids create things using 3D printing, electronics, and woodworking. In their words: "Kids learn how to make their own creations come to life using real materials and real tools."

The presentation I attended emphasized a value system adopted from the Montessori education model, where adults are mentors and guides, and process is valued over product. Learning happens through exploration and discovery, in a "prepared environment" that offers youth of varying ages and abilities a chance to try a wide range of activities. The idea is: don't be afraid to fail.

At its core, the MakerKids philosophy is about helping kids move away from being passive consumers, and towards being active creators. Think of what that paradigm shift can do for people of all ages: the feelings of accomplishment and confidence it can build. Now imagine how enriching it could be for children, especially in an environment of mutual respect and shared responsibility. It's a powerful concept.

The MakerKids presenters described parents who warned them about their children's terrible behaviour problems, only to stare in wonder at how beautifully their child cooperated and focused in this new environment. Many of the kids in the MakerKids programs have mental health diagnoses, and kids personally attest to feeling better - and they act better - when they're absorbed in creating. It's clearly a program that builds confidence and instills a love of learning by doing.

If you're interested, here are a few videos (of varying quality) that illustrate MakerKids more fully than I can explain it here.

Here's a short intro.


Here's a promo from local TV news.


If you're very keen, this is a video of a longer presentation. The presentation I attended was more focused and refined, but this is still a good introduction.


From The Globe and Mail: Remaking the Way Children Learn and Play.

Libraries...

Libraries and makerspaces are a perfect fit. People have always come to the library to learn how to do things, borrowing books and DVDs on knitting, cooking, cabinetry, and so on. People also come to the library to use technology and equipment that they don't have access to at home. A library with a makerspace is an extension of this idea. It turns the library from a place where people come to consume (media, information) to a place where people come to create.

Earlier this year, I attended a "webinar" about how libraries can get started in this movement. The speaker suggested we think of what our libraries are already doing that fits with the makerspace ethic. We have several: our hugely popular Saturday-morning drop-in Lego program, a thriving partnership with a high-school robotics program, and tons of drop-in craft programs. A makerspace would extend this even further.

The MakerKids presenters have thought a lot about the obstacles libraries will encounter, and already have solutions and best practices. For example, installing new applications on public-use computers can be fraught with issues. The MakerKids folks introduced us to Tinkercad, a web-based 3D modeling program. One of the must-buys for any real makerspace is a 3D printer, which produces your 3D model. But 3D printers heat up quickly and can be dangerous to use with kids... except one that does not. One of the most exciting notes of the whole session was learning that MakerKids offers training sessions for educators.

Here are a few articles on makerspaces and libraries.

Forbes: First Public Library to Create a Maker Space.

Medium.com: Shifting from Shelves to Snowflakes: Libraries shift from consumption into creation with makerspaces.

BoingBoing: Makerspaces and libraries: two great tastes that taste great together.

...and me

Unlike makerspaces and libraries, makerspaces and this librarian are not a natural fit! And I've decided that's exactly why I should get involved.

Take the monthly teen DIY program that I'm planning. My first thought was: "I can't do this. I will look foolish! The stuff I make will be crap!"

Next I tried to think of how I could plan and present the program without actually doing the craft.

And only next did I realize that I'll participate in the program along with everyone else, learning as I go.

Finally, I realized that I will be modeling the exact kind of attitude and behaviour that we want to encourage: the person with no experience and not a lot of confidence, who tries anyway, and creates something. When I was a volunteer tutor at a youth centre, I did the math exercises along with the young people. If we came up with different answers, we didn't assume mine was correct! That's the spirit I want to bring to youth programs.

I grew up in a home with tinkerers, but I was not encouraged to do anything crafty myself. The few times I tried, my father grabbed the tools out of my hands so he could it "properly". Not a big confidence builder. In general, in our home, we were encouraged to do the things we had natural aptitudes for, but not to explore beyond our comfort zones. (I'm not complaining or blaming; this is just a fact.) We were encouraged to "do our best", but not just to "do".

Lack of experience breeds lack of confidence. Sitting in the MakerKids conference session, I realized that I have a real lack of confidence in my ability to make anything with my hands. Here's my chance to improve that, and to model that attitude for young people.