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5.31.2015

action bronson, hate speech, and protest: rape culture vs. freedom of speech

As part of the NXNE concert series in Toronto, rapper Action Bronson was slated to perform a free concert in Dundas Square. Bronson is apparently known for lyrics and videos that degrade women and glorify rape. He has also bragged about assaulting a trans woman. Many people felt that this performer was inappropriate for a headliner act and a free event in the heart of Toronto.

A petition was circulated calling for NXNE to cancel the Dundas Square show. Eventually they did. Their statement says they will try re-book Action Bronson as a ticketed event in a different venue.

That seems like a good decision.

However, I was less disturbed by another misogynist shock act than by some of the reaction I read on Facebook, from friends and their contacts. It seems that many progressive people believe that what Action Bronson does should be illegal. Others believe that even speaking in support of such expression should be illegal. I find that deeply troubling.

The people in this discussion seemed not to distinguish between a hate crime and hate speech - or indeed between expression and act, at all.

Most were willing to concede that expression condoning and celebrating rape is not the same as rape itself. But because this expression contributes to rape culture, because it perpetuates and normalizes violence against women, it should be illegal.

I recognize rape culture. I resist it and I detest it. And that's one reason I believe we shouldn't criminalize speech.

Shutting down hate speech doesn't make hate go away. But it does shut down all possibility of education. It allows the speaker to play the victim. It may make our society more polite and pleasant - on the surface - but it does nothing to further a society where all women are valued as equals. And inevitably, it will be used against us.

Throughout history, laws banning or criminalizing expression have been used by the powerful against the less powerful, by the dominant culture against the minority. That's why gay literature was labelled as pornography and banned, while male-dominated, heterosexual porn flourished. It's why the Harper Government can call David Suzuki an extremist, and try to ban criticism of the state of Israel.

When speech and expression are curtailed, history shows us who suffers: radicals, dissidents, peace activists.

If we want to be free to protest and to express political views that are offensive to the powerful, we should be prepared to defend potentially offensive expression for everyone. Criminalizing any expression threatens all expression - and it threatens progressive activists most of all.

And what of fantasy? For many, erotica/porn includes bondage, simulated rape, and all manner of acts that would be criminal if nonconsensual. And of course these acts are depicted in literature, photography, video, and the like. Many people find it triggering and offensive. Shall we ban that, too? (Or is it only offensive if it subjugates women?) If we roll back that clock, all our rights are going with it.

Here is some of the Facebook conversation. Indented text is quoted from commenters. I'm quoting liberally in order to not quote out of context, with my own comments below.
If he wrote that song for an individual, and sent that video to them in the mail, it would be considered a hate crime. So what's the difference between that, and releasing his song to the public? The fact that it's not targeted to an individual? His hate is targeted towards the entire female gender. I think we're talking bullshit loopholes and technicalities here.
Protection of public expression is much more than a technicality. If an individual is targeted - threatened, harassed - that is a crime. (Although not rape. Still not rape.) But we distinguish between those private, targeted actions and public expressions - songs, movies, books, poetry, video. In my view, people must be allowed to express whatever they want in those forms, and not do so in fear of arrest.
Hate speech impedes on people's right to live a life free from worry of abuse. You can't be pro freedom of anything if you support hate speech because it prevents people from having certain freedoms - one of those freedoms is the right to feel safe. Bronson's lyrics are hate speech and add to the pre-existing rape culture problem that is plaguing our society. Bronson also publicly admitted to assaulting a trans woman and misgendering her. THIS IS AN ACT OF VIOLENCE. He's a white man whose violent, misogynistic lyrics and music video imagery specifically target women of colour. . . . The KKK are still allowed to have their say, and operate under the guise of "freedom of speech" and look what's happening! You have cops who are KKK members on the Ferguson police force spreading their views and encouraging whites to shoot up innocent black kids by constantly portraying them as thugs. They get away with it because the media has done everything in its power to instil anti blackness into the minds of whites and non-black people of colour.

The freedom to protect hate speech under the guise of freedom of speech only benefits and serves the white rich cis straight able bodied man. They do not suffer from any forms of systematic oppression.
In the society described above, which I readily recognize as reality, which hate speech is more likely to be protected, "Women are bitches" or "Death to cops"? Once certain expression is illegal, who defines and decides what stays and what goes?

Commenters also noted that the expression in question is without artistic value. That may be true, but in my opinion that is (a) subjective and (b) irrelevant. One person's erotica is another person's smut, and to someone else, it's all garbage.

Other commenters noted that speech that promotes rape culture is as bad as rape. What can I say. It takes a luxury of ignorance to express such hyperbole, and it minimizes the trauma and suffering of every rape survivor.

Some commenters mentioned the general offensiveness of the Action Bronson act. Well, freedom of expression is easy if you're raising money for kids with cancer or posting cute puppy videos. Freedom of expression is tested when the expression is most offensive. A society that values freedom of expression allows space on the fringes. A society that values conformity and politeness more than free speech narrows the field.

That's when I realize that Canadians, as a society, do not really value freedom of expression. They value a quietly polite society, where hate is ignored and so said not to exist.
A few of my classmates were having a discussion about "Game of Thrones" One of the women said "I don't like the show, it glorifies rape." One of the men responded, "what is the big deal, rape is everywhere..." The fact that those words flowed so easily from his tongue..... I am an artist, a woman and someone who has been victimized. Free speech, like art, comes with responsibilities and to abuse that freedom is demonstrating a reckless disregard for others. THAT is a crime. It is no different, in MY opinion, than knowingly getting in a car and driving while drunk.
Criminalizing speech completely shuts down the possibility of education. If we arrest the man who said "What's the big deal about rape?" we lose all opportunity for dialogue, not just with that one man, but with every person who now must suppress his or her speech in order to avoid arrest.

These rape-culture thoughts don't go away, but they remain unchallenged. All the arrest teaches is forced conformity. As much as "what's the big deal about rape" pains me deeply, I would rather that thought be expressed openly - I would rather see an atmosphere cultivated where people are free to express any thought - so those thoughts can be challenged, examined, and potentially changed. Perhaps the person who expressed the thought would not be changed, but some listeners to the debate might be.

There is also the very huge issue of who decides what speech is criminal. In our society, it will usually be people like Stephen Harper.
but I think if enough people boycott and protest against his music, it will send the message that this type of hate speech is not tolerated.
Boycott and protest? Absolutely! We should, and we must. But if the expression is declared illegal and banned, we lose the opportunity to protest. We lose a huge opportunity for education. Plus the speaker becomes the victim. The only thing we gain is not having to hear something - but those thoughts are still in the person's brain and heart. The hate hasn't gone away.

* * * *

Update. Some of the people involved in one of the several conversations that led to this post feel they were misrepresented, even ambushed. I believe they think I participated in the Facebook conversation as research for my own writing. This is being characterized as deceptive and hypocritical, and contrary to my own principles of free speech.

The reality: after the discussion on Facebook, I had more to say, but - not wanting to use someone else's Facebook page as my own soapbox any more than I had already - I went to my own venue to continue writing.

This post reflects nothing more than my desire to express myself further. People often leave one venue to discuss ideas further elsewhere, both online and in person. It's not unusual, and certainly not duplicitous.

The opinions quoted and referred to in this post are culled from several different Facebook threads. The indented quotes were copied and pasted directly from one thread, but I found those opinions echoed many times over in many places.

I note, too, that one friend retracted her call for Action Bronson to be prosecuted for hate speech, and felt my blog post should reflect her changed opinion. I note that most people who I saw expressing this opinion did not similarly retract it.

I am inviting the parties who believe themselves misrepresented in this post to explain themselves further in comments. We'll put all their comments through moderation, and of course all wmtc readers will be free to respond.

5.30.2015

joseph mitchell, master writer of the master city

My desire is to get the reader, well, first of all to read it. That story [“The Bottom of the Harbor”] was hard to write because I had to wonder how long can I keep developing it before the reader’s going to get tired of this. Here and there, as I think a fiction writer would, I put things that I know—even the remark the tugboat men make, that you could bottle this water and sell it for poison—that are going to keep the reader going. I can lure him or her into the story I want to tell. I can’t tell the story I want to tell until I’ve got you into the pasture and down where the sheep are. Where the shepherd is. He’s going to tell the story, but I’ve got to get you past the ditch and through these bushes.

Every writer of nonfiction who has struggled with the ditch and the bushes knows what Mitchell is talking about, but few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell. 
. . . Mitchell’s travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat. . . .

Much has been made of the fact that after “Joe Gould’s Secret” Mitchell published nothing in The New Yorker, though he came to the office regularly, and colleagues passing his door could hear him typing. I was a colleague and friend, and I always assumed that the reason he wasn’t publishing was because he wasn’t satisfied with what he was writing: he had been producing work of increasing beauty and profundity, and now the standard he had set for himself was too high. Mitchell spoke of James Joyce, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Ivan Turgenev, D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot as writers he read and reread. This was the company he was in behind his closed door. We should respect his inhibiting reverence for literary transcendence and be grateful for the work that got past his censor.
If you share my love and reference for the work of Joseph Mitchell, you'll want to read Janet Malcolm's long-form review of a new biography of Mitchell, from which this is excerpted, published in The New York Review of Books.

If you haven't read Joseph Mitchell, and if you love great writing, you can now find all of his work lovingly reprinted. Start with McSorley's Wonderful Saloon and go from there.

5.21.2015

this year's garden-ette


This year's crop: two tomato plants, basil, beans, and strawberries. Beans and strawberries are both new for us. 

I love that we're still planting our little garden, with no thought to expansion, just trying a couple of new things each year. And since we should all be boycotting Driscoll's, we are growing resistance berries. ¡Si, Se Puede!

Plus, bonus Tala, with her favourite Orbee.


why are ontario public school teachers on strike?

Public school teachers in our area are on strike, part of a series of rolling strikes hitting different regions throughout Ontario. If the province doesn't back down before the beginning of the school year in September, we can expect all Ontario public school teachers to strike.

The roots of this struggle stretch back to 2012, when the provincial government stripped teachers of their right to collective bargaining, unilaterally imposed a contract, then repealed the law taking away their union rights.

My partner and I spoke with some striking teachers last week, and this is what they told us.
...Before we went on strike, we weren’t allowed to negotiate. Our contract finished in August of 2014, and before we announced we were going on strike, the Boards actually met with our union for four days. And they were short meetings. Nothing much was accomplished. As soon as we announced that we were going on strike, and we gave our legal notice, they were negotiating every day.

We still didn’t accomplish as much as we had hoped, we are still on very different sides in terms of reaching an agreement, but striking at least brought us to the table and convinced the Board to actually talk with us. That’s a big deal. In 2012, our contract was imposed on us. There was no negotiation, there was no care or thought for what is best for the students, what is best for the teachers. That was under the McGuinty government.

Kathleen Wynne has said she is not going to take those measures, but at the same time, the open communication and negotiation just hasn’t been happening throughout the year. So our Peel OSSTF felt that this was the only way to actually move forward. And it has been positive in terms of bringing out our issues, and getting bargaining days.

There are also lots local issues that we are concerned about. Things like the amount of support for our special ed students. Control over the school day – right now, the board is proposing that principals have the authority to dictate every minute of the teacher’s day, what they do during their prep periods, what they do after school. That’s really hard for teachers. We’ve always worked really hard to provide the best that we can for our students, giving help during lunch, giving help after school, managing our own days around the students' needs. To have that taken away, or to have that even questioned - that we’re not using our time effectively - it’s really hurtful.

[What would they impose on you?]

It could be mandatory professional days. It could be something like, 'Everyone who has fourth period lunch today, you’re going to the library and you’re going to learn about some new assessment policy that we want to put into place.' And so now teachers don’t have time to prep their lessons, to do their marking, to do all the stuff they need to do to be good teachers. So many of us are involved in so many voluntary things throughout the school. We’re coaching teams, we’re running clubs, we’re sitting on committees for assessment evaluation or safe-school policy. We’re doing so much in our time that we need to have it available to us. And we need the respect that we can make our own decisions with our time. We need to feel that we’re valued and respected and I don’t think that message is coming across in the negotiations right now.

[What other issues are there, such class size?]

Class size is a provincial issue. We have two-tiered bargaining. We bargain on the provincial level with three parties - the government, the School Board of Ontario, and OSSTF provincial board. So the three of them are bargaining some major issues – pay, class sizes, the bigger issues that affect everyone. The local unions bargain issues that are local to teachers in our constituency - which for us is Peel Region, meaning Mississauga, Brampton, and Caledon.

Teachers in Durham Region are individually bargaining with their own School Board for the issues that affect the Durham schools. Things like how many periods are given for special ed. Teachers are released from teaching in the class room so that they can monitor and support special ed students. how many Educational Assistants are assigned to schools with special needs students. These are things that are decided locally.

So right now we are at an impasse at a provincial level. There are big discrepancies in terms of pay, the salary grid, the amount of time it takes to reach the maximum salary for teachers, when movements up the pay grade happen.

[Where does class size fit in?]

The province sets the standard. Right now for academic high school classes, it’s 30 students – and for applied level/college level students, it’s 18 students, which is more manageable in terms of the number of people, bodies in the class room, but in terms of the trying to be a great teacher and reach students and support them, even 18 special needs students is a challenge.

So what’s on the table now is to remove that guideline altogether and make it open to the needs of the school, as determined by the principal. That means a principal could say, this class now meets in the cafeteria, period 1, and there are 200 students in it.

That’s an extreme example and I hope it would never come to that, but there are no rules, no guidelines. They want the rule to be removed. And maybe the rule is removed this year and then slowly, slowly, the numbers just creep up.

Right now high school teachers teach three periods a day and then they can have up to half a period each day of extra duties, such as covering the lunch room or the hallways during a lunch period, or covering another teacher’s class; if another teacher is away, they might cover half of that class. So teachers would be actively teaching 3½ periods a day. And that’s the same for occasional teachers; supply [i.e. substitute] teachers would do the same.

The government is suggesting making occasional teachers teach four periods a day, so they would teach the entire day, their only break would be at lunch. And as you can imagine, as an occasional teacher or supply teacher, it’s a stressful day, you’re on the ball, you’re on those kids, you’re not sitting back at your desk while they work quietly, that doesn’t work. It wouldn’t work for a group of adults. You’re engaging them, you’re encouraging them, you’re sitting with them and working with them, so to do that for the whole day straight without a break... It’s unfair to suggest this change. But again, that’s a provincial issue that’s being negotiated at the provincial table. We’re striking in response to local issues and our right to bargain.

Our bosses do not respect the front line staff anymore. It seems like everyone is replaceable. The only thing that matters is the bottom line. It’s not efficient. You’re not going to work hard if you don’t feel respected. Morale becomes low, and then people really start just phoning it in because they are not respected. And ninety percent of teachers get into this because they really love the job. We do so much on our own time, and they just want to push it so we do more and more.
From another striking teacher:
We’ve been without a contract since August 2014 – and that contract wasn't negotiated fairly, it was imposed on us. It was passed by government legislation against our approval and despite our objections. That’s no way to negotiate any sort of agreement.

There are issues dealing with class sizes. They want to remove the cap on class size. There have been numerous studies proving that an increase in overall class size has resulted in a direct loss of quality of education. Students in large classes get much less one-to-one time, much less progressive assessment throughout the year. And as a result, they’re not getting the quality standard of education that they and parents expect.

In addition to that, the government wants to pass legislation regarding prep time. What teachers can do with prep time. They are trying to set it up so that administrators can assign duties to teachers during prep time, duties which may have nothing to do with their course or their lessons or may not even have anything to do with teaching.

[So when are you supposed to do your prep time then?]

Well, that’s it. That time is time we need. We’re not just sitting around doing nothing. We’re marking, we’re doing lesson plans, we’re preparing activities, we’re even meeting students for one-to-one assistance, for extra help that they may need.

So again, this results in a loss of quality for the students’ education and for their individual lessons. As a result, they are getting a watered down quality, with lowered expectation, for their education. And we have a real serious problem with that.

5.18.2015

welcome to the world, sophia




This beautiful little girl is the newest member of our family, the first of the next generation. Meet Sophia, brand new baby daughter of one of my nephews and nieces(-in-law).

My brother and sister-in-law are thrilled to be grandparents, and my mom the great-grandma is over the moon.

We hope to meet Sophia in person early next year, as part of a Big Trip we are planning. Stay tuned.

5.17.2015

we movie to canada: wmtc annual movie awards, 2014-15 edition

Thanks to everything-on-demand media, and no thanks to my schedule that doesn't permit me nearly enough time for baseball, Movie Season now runs all year, at least marginally. These annual awards now document the movies and TV series we've seen from Opening Day to Opening Day.

To recap my silly rating systems:
- Canadian musicians and comedians (2006-07 and 2007-08)
- my beverage of choice (2008-09)
- famous people who died during the past year (2009-10)
- where I'd like to be (2010-11)
- vegetables (2011-12) (I was out of ideas!)
- Big Life Events in a year full of Big Life Changes (2012-13),
- and last year (2013-14), cheese!

This year's ratings revolve around my favourite pastime, the moments I live for: travel. We can loosely call this theme types of holidays and vacations.



I have always dreamed of traveling for an extended period of time - life on the road. My dream of extended travel probably dates back to reading Travels with Charley when I was 12. But ever since Allan and I traveled by RV in Alaska in 1996, my desire to pack up our family for life on wheels has captured my imagination, sometimes obsessively so.

This is the best life I can dream of. And these are the best movies and series we saw this year.

Boyhood
-- This marvel of film making is utterly absorbing, a tour de force of directing and acting. Truly an experience.

Blue is the Warmest Colour
-- Another lengthy coming-of-age journey, and well worth the ride. Rarely do I feel directors have enough to say to justify lengthy films, but these first two have opened my eyes. Plus gorgeous, frank, and extended lesbian sex. (Naturally this led to a firestorm of criticism, but I disagree.)

True Detective
-- Creepy, scary, suspenseful, weird, excellent.

Justified, final season
-- In its sixth and final season, this show returned to greatness. At times the suspense was almost unbearable. Plus a perfect ending.

Obvious Child
-- Finally, a fictional movie depiction of abortion without apology, as a normal and positive need in a woman's life. The movie itself is a solid wmtc "3" - above average, very well done - but this film scores the highest honour for its politics.

Citizenfour
-- The documentary about Edward Snowden, one of the great heroes of our age, should be mandatory viewing.

Show Me Love (Fucking Amal) (1998; re-watch #1)
-- I fell in love with this film when it came out in 1998, and I was so pleased to love it just as much today. As beautiful a film about teenage life and love you'll ever see.




I love to fly, because it means I'm going somewhere good - or maybe best of all, someplace new. Despite cramped quarters, the indignities of airport security, and everything else most people complain about, for me flying is a pleasure. Only one thing makes this kind of vacation imperfect: I miss my dogs. These films are ever so slightly less than perfect.

Of Gods and Men
-- When you're in the mood for something quiet and contemplative, this film is moving and very satisfying.

Compliance
-- This depiction of a real-life Stanford Prison Experiment is almost too disturbing to watch, and almost too shocking to be true. But it is true. And you should watch it.

12 Years a Slave
-- After all the hype, I didn't expect much from this. I was wrong. It is gripping, moving, and beautifully made.

Howl
-- Part period piece, part biopic, part poetry. I love all things Allen Ginsburg and this was no exception.

Route Irish
-- Ken Loach and Paul Laverty turn their keen gaze on the Iraq War, and its deadly legacy at home. Gripping and disturbing in all the right ways.

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?
-- This totally engaging, entertaining doc examines art and authenticity from all angles. A joy to watch, and so well done.

After Tiller
-- An important film for everyone who cares about reproductive rights, and about justice. If you are inspired by moral courage, here you go.

The Wire, Season 3
-- Three seasons on, this great show keeps getting better. It's perfection.

Finding Vivian Maier
-- An obsession, a legacy, an enigma. As fine a documentary as you'll see. Really on the cusp between the RV and the plane travel.

Broadchurch, Season 1
-- A gripping, suspenseful murder mystery, with more than its share of complex characters, and full of compassion, humanity, and difficult truths. Absolutely excellent.

Bill Cunningham New York
-- A beautifully made film about a unique, obsessive genius, plus a view of New York you're unlikely to see anywhere else. A must-see.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali
-- This excellent documentary about the political life of the great Ali would be in the RV category but for one complaint. The filmmakers depict almost nothing of the political and social context of Ali's struggles; watching this, you would never know that an entire movement of Vietnam War resisters existed. Still an excellent film and a must-see for lovers of history and of peace.

Oslo August 31st
-- A day in the life of a man struggling with addiction. Quiet, dark, and moving.

The Normal Heart
-- Larry Kramer brings us to 1980s New York City, the birth of the AIDS crisis, and of the first organized response to it. Love, loss, rage, resistance, identity.

Say Anything (1989) (1989; re-watch #2)
-- This quirky, funny, sweet, authentic story of teenage love holds up perfectly. It was a great film then, and it's a great film now. Sadly, a scene that was once achingly beautiful is now a tired internet meme. That's not the movie's fault.




On the road! It's not green but I love it. If our travel plans include a long road trip, I'm happy. If you see these films, you'll be glad you did.

Stories We Tell
-- This film by Canadian Sarah Polley unfolds and surprises, and raises interesting questions about the interplay of past and present. I got a little tired of the visuals - it almost works better as an audio documentary - but it was very well done.

Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle
-- This PBS doc looks at the dawn and evolution of the comic book hero. Terrific.

The Guard
-- Brendon Gleeson stars in this very dark, very Irish comedy by John Michael McDonagh. Not your usual cop-buddy movie. Really really good.

Calvary
-- Brendon Gleeson inhabits another film by John Michael McDonagh. This one is very nearly plane travel. It's an odd, moving film, and Gleeson's performance is off the charts.

Maidentrip
-- A documentary about a 14-year-old girl trying to sail around the world? Sign me up! I dare you not to fall in love with Laura Dekker, at least a little.

Ida
-- A quiet, sad redemption story. Very good.

The Immigrant
-- A vivid, melodramatic redemption story. Also very good.

We Are the Best!
-- Lukas Moodysson ("Show Me Love", above) directs this fun, smart film about a girl punk band.

Her
-- I expected a cliche about the hazards of over-reliance on technology. Instead I got a complex meditation on human relationships. Funny, sad, and profound. Great discussion fodder.

Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird'
-- An examination of the book, the movie, its cultural context, and what we can know about Harper Lee. Won't knock your socks off, but an interesting view into the creation of one of the most enduring novels of all time.

Gloria
-- An older woman, on her own, making peace with herself and her alone-ness. Nice movie. Many points for non-beautified older-person sex.

Smashed
-- Addiction, recovery, and relationships. Often funny, not too heavy, very honest. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is amazing.

Nebraska
-- A nice film about family and redemption. Overrated, in my opinion, but still worth seeing.

The Spectacular Now
-- After reading this youth novel, I wondered how badly the movie would be botched. Surely no one will make a movie for teenagers with such a bleak, hopeless ending. But the film was good, and the ending, although considerably softened, was still ambiguous and realistic.

Enough Said
-- A second-time-around older person's romantic comedy. Good acting, some truly nice moments, and less hokey than I expected.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Word
-- Total fun and entertainment.

Star Trek Into Darkness
-- I could have lived without the overt 9/11 references, but at least the message was about choosing peace over revenge. Fun and entertaining.

The Rise and Fall of Penn Station (PBS American Experience)
-- A solid documentary about the building of the first rail lines to Manhattan. Not really about Penn Station, the building that died so that others might live.

District 9
-- A little heavy-handed and obvious for my tastes, but a good sci-fi look at bigotry and xenophobia.

It Might Get Loud
-- A cynic might see this as a marketing ploy to capture three demographics. A more generous review might see an exploration of music and musicians across generations. I'm somewhere in between. Worth seeing and some great music.

The Fall, Season 2
-- Not the incredibly suspenseful and scary excitement of Season 1, but very good.

The Best of Men
-- This biopic of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a pioneer of spinal cord injury treatment and rehabilitation, chronicles an important piece of disability (and veterans') history. A made-for-TV feel, but still worth seeing.

Faded Gigolo
-- John Turturro makes a Woody Allen film. Nice.

Trance
-- This Danny Boyle crime thriller is at times clunky and non-credible, but it's still suspenseful and fun to watch.

West of Memphis
-- A solid documentary about a modern-day witch hunt, and the banality of injustice.

Hateship Loveship
-- A small, quiet, lovely film that explores the complexities of human relationships. Sweet and romantic, but thoroughly unsentimental and unpredictable. Kristin Wiig turns in an amazing performance. The whole cast is excellent. Really worth seeing.

The Importance of Being Earnest
-- If you like Oscar Wilde, you'll enjoy this. If you don't, what is wrong with you?!

The Ides of March
-- Money, politics, scandal. It won't shock you (unless you live in a cave) but it's a decent movie. Plus PSH.

The Search for Michael Rockefeller
-- This doc about the search for the young, disappeared Rockefeller leaves you with more questions than answers. Worth a look.

-- Heathers (1988; re-watch #3)
I remembered how funny this was, but not how dark. Such a good movie.



One word away from David Foster Wallace, here's a supposedly fun thing I'll never do. I can think of few things less appealing than taking a vacation on one of these things. But if I did, I'd probably find some redeeming value, like swimming in a nice pool, or a chance to read a lot. These films had some shred of saving quality that kept them from the scrap heap.

The Golden Compass
-- After reading the book, I thought I should see the movie. It was all right.

Inside Llewyn Davis
-- A passable period piece about a mediocre musician and the 1961 New York music scene. One of the most over-rated films I've ever seen.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball
-- This is a great story, and I really wanted to like the film, but the 20th time you hear someone say the same thing...

Abandoned America
-- A one-episode version of the "Forgotten Planet" documentary. Overheated narration with no context.

Broadchurch, Season 2
-- A huge disappointment! They should have stopped after Season 1.

Laurence Anyways
-- I want to support every trans story out there, but a bad film is a bad film. A confused mess.

The Art of the Steal
-- A crime and con caper about art thieves. Sounded great. Was not.

But I'm a Cheerleader
-- Maybe this was good when it came out in 1999. Won't kill you, but for satirical fun and gay romance, you can do much better than this.

Blue Jasmine
-- How sad to dislike a Woody Allen movie so much. Despite some very fine performances, this film was tedious and annoying.

Silence of Love
-- Perhaps much of this movie, about a man coming to terms with the loss of his wife, was lost in translation. It was a hodge-podge. A mess. I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt by keeping it out of the bottom category.

The Secret in their Eyes
-- A failed attempt to make peace with the past, in a movie that started strong and ended with a splat.

I'm So Excited
-- How it pains me to put not one, but two films by Almodovar in the bottom categories! This lame attempt at campy fun is occasionally fun to look at. Otherwise it is dreadful.

Fever Pitch (1997)
-- Sports part good. Romance part bad.

They Call It Myanmar
-- You might glean some interesting facts and views of Burma/Myanmar from this bad documentary, but then again, you could clean out a closet and feel like you accomplished something.

CBGB
-- With Alan Rickman as Hilly Kristal, this film had a lot of promise. Yet it was a tedious bore. Some nice-ish moments.

A Fantastic Fear of Everything
-- Sadly, the presence of Simon Pegg does not guarantee a good movie. One or two chuckles.

The Interrupters
-- This doc has great credentials: Steve James, who made "Hoop Dreams" and Alex Kotlowitz, who has chronicled inner-city America in books such as There Are No Children Here, make a movie about activists trying to staunch the violence in their community. Despite this and great reviews, I found little more than a series of cliches strung together without context.

We Cause Scenes
-- Maybe one day someone will make a good movie showing all the funny and clever things that Improv Everywhere does. Unfortunately, in this movie, Improv Everywhere tells you how great Improv Everywhere is.

The Monuments Men
-- So this is what star-studded, over-produced, manipulative, obvious Hollywood movies look like. Plus some artwork.

Museum Hours
-- Two people develop an unlikely friendship in Vienna. Boring, but with artwork.

The Inbetweeners Movie
-- Loved the show. Movie, no.

The Princess Bride (1987; re-watch #4)
-- It's kind of cool to see the origins of an internet meme, but other than that, I couldn't remember why everyone loves this movie. Saved from the bottom category by an all-star cast.




Yes, that's right, I'd rather go on a commercial cruise than go camping. I love nature, but I need to sleep in a bed and take a hot shower in the morning. I hated camping even before I was too old to sleep on the ground. Camping sucks and so do these movies.

The Skin I Live In
-- Almodovar, how could you? Multiple rapes, torture, mustache-twirling villains, and completely non-credible plot twists. Absolutely awful.

The Devil's Knot
-- Do yourself a favour: see "West of Memphis," and skip this dreadful fictional version.

Locke
-- This was like a bad off-off-off-Broadway play. Luckily I could turn it off.

Stranger by the Lake
-- Once you know your lover is a serial killer, why do you continue to hook up with him? I sure as hell don't know. Close-up gay sex, full of penises, might rescue this for some people. But it's a really bad movie.

* * * *

This year's solo binge watching:
Farscape (finishing from previous year)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Longmire
The Good Wife (watching now)
Murdoch Mysteries, more seasons

This year's binge watching that didn't work:
Doc Martin
The Gilmore Girls

Future potential binge watches:
Angel
Brothers and Sisters

This year's comedies:
Bewitched
Parks and Recreation, more seasons
The Vicar of Dibley (re-watch)
The Mindy Project
Bojack Horseman
Brooklyn 9-9
The Inbetweeners
30 Rock (watching now)

5.03.2015

what i'm reading: salt sugar fat by michael moss

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss is an excellent addition to a bookshelf that includes works by Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Marian Nestle and others who write about the health of our food and the un-health of the industrial food system. Moss lifts the curtain on the giant corporations that engineer and market convenience foods and processed foods. What he reveals is largely invisible to us on a daily basis, yet affects our society significantly - and catastrophically.

Moss is a seasoned investigative reporter - he was the first to expose trans fats, and more recently "pink slime" - and this book is a tour de force of research. Moss takes you to the laboratory and the board room, where chemical engineers and marketing executives contrive to get North Americans eating more and more of everything unhealthy. (The book is written in a US context, but it is equally relevant to Canada.)

Salt Sugar Fat is full of wonderful mini-histories of corporations like Kellogg's and Kraft, and eye-popping demographic data about what North Americans eat. You'll learn how our food has become increasingly sweeter, increasing both our tolerance and desire for ever-sweeter food. How we eat three times as much cheese as we did 40 years ago, now that cheese - or more accurately, a processed substance distantly related to real cheese - is used as an additive in countless foods. And especially, the myriad ways that the holy trinity of salt-sugar-fat is used by food engineers to encourage overconsumption.

Here's an example of a little gem I gleaned from this book. I've always scoffed at fruit drinks that are cynically marketed as containing "10% real juice," meaning, of course, that they are 90% water and sugar. For people accustomed to drinking soda (pop), 10% real juice may seem like a healthy improvement. But Moss describes the how the "juice" in those drinks is created.
At is extreme, the process results in what is known within the industry as "stripped juice," which is basically pure sugar, almost entirely devoid of the fiber, flavors, aromas, and any of the other attributes we associate with real fruit. In other words, the concentrate is reduced to just another form of sugar, with no nutritional benefit over table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Rather, its value lies in the healthy image of the fruit that it retains. ... A company like General Foods can use this stuff and still put the comforting words contains real fruit on the box.
Much of Salt Sugar Fat is about economics. Moss quotes a parade of food executives - whistleblowers and industry faithfuls alike - who are all caught in the same trap: reduce the amount of salt, sugar, or fat, and the product's taste will suffer drastically. Therefore consumers will buy less. Therefore consumers will buy the competitor product without the reduced additives. And therefore the company cannot reduce the additives.

When reductions are possible, they are immediately offset. It is a principle of the processed food industry - the first commandment, the sacrosanct law - that a reduction in one of the trinity must be countered with an increase in another. Is the product lower fat? Then it is higher in salt. Is it slightly lower in salt? Then it is higher in sugar. Without copious amounts of these three ingredients in various engineered forms, processed food would be completely inedible.

One such tale from within Kraft Foods said it all. A group of high-level insiders was very concerned about the health implications of the company's products. There was no getting around it anymore: these processed foods are contributing to skyrocketing rates of hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. (Moss refers to this as "the obesity epidemic," but it is actually about health, not weight.) These Kraft insiders fought against a deeply entrenched corporate culture, risking their livelihoods, to force their colleagues to face these facts. They worked very hard, and succeeded in reducing some of the salt-sugar-fat in the company's products by a tiny bit. Only a tiny bit, one might say, but a start.

Then the sales figures came in. These concerned insiders were immediately slapped down by the board of directors, speaking for the shareholders. Wall Street reminded the company that they are not in the business of caring about what consumers eat. They are in the business of making money. The executive behind the internal movement was demoted, her career significantly curtailed.

Are companies trying to do better? Moss crunches the numbers.
"In Capri Sun alone we took out 120 billion calories," [Kraft executive] Firestone said. ... "We've looked at the amount of sodium we've taken out. Last year was six million pounds, and we're going to add nine billion servings of whole grain between now and 2013..."

If those numbers sound impressive consider what Michelle Obama manged to wrestle out of the entire processed food industry in 2010, after asking for their help in fighting obesity. "I am thrilled to say that they have pledged to cut a total of one trillion calories from the food they sell annually by the year year 2012, and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015," she announced. ...

The math on all this, however, is less compelling. If everyone in America consumed the standard 2,000 calories a day, or 730,000 a year, the 1.5 trillion in saved calories would reduce our collective eating by not quite 1 percent. It's actually bleaker than that, according to some health policy experts. In reality, many of us consume far more than 2,000 calories, and processed foods make up a large part, but not all, or our diets. So the real drop in consumption from those 1.5 trillion calories is likely much less than that 1 percent. Still, it's a start.
Is it? Salt Sugar Fat leads one to question a system that would rely on these industries to safeguard consumer health. And what about the government agencies tasked with keeping the industries in check? They are a significant part of the problem.
With the American people facing an epidemic of obesity and hardened arteries, the "People's Department" doesn't regulate fat as much as it grants the industry's every wish. Indeed, when it comes to the greatest sources of fat - meat and cheese - the Department of Agriculture has joined industry as a full partner in the most urgent mission of all: cajoling the people to eat more.
Moss frequently notes the connections between the processed food industry and the tobacco industry. Kraft and General Foods - the two mega-giants of processed food - were for a long time owned by the Philip Morris corporation. Kraft and General Foods, now one company, are no longer owned by Big Tobacco, but the marketing and engineering principles of that industry informed the companies' cultures and decision-making. The language of addiction and the view of salt-sugar-fat as narcotics run through this book.

When reading Salt Sugar Fat, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is, at bottom, an economic problem. Moss touches on these issues; for example, he mentions more than once the class divide between the food industry executives, who never eat their own products, and their customers. But I wish he went further. For example, Moss writes about the convenience stores overloaded with processed foods, selling no fresh foods at all, and the insidious (and invisible) industry practices that cause this. But he mentions only once, in passing, that these same neighbourhoods are usually food deserts, making processed food laden with salt-sugar-fat the only option for many low-income families.

Another economic factor Moss alludes to, but doesn't examine, is something we hear about all the time in a non-economic context: families are so busy now, both parents work (usually portrayed as "more women are in the workforce"), families don't have time to cook proper meals. That's worth examining, too. Why are families so much busier now, why do both parents work? One principal reason: for most people, it's impossible to raise a family on one income, because the cost of living, especially housing costs, has far outstripped wages.

For anyone writing about the food industry and overconsumption, economic factors are an intrinsic part of the picture. Moss understands that. I just wish he went further.

It's not only an economic issue, of course. It's also an education issue. In my workplace yesterday, a colleague left some "healthy" cereal out to share. Its packaging was full of claims like "no preservatives" and "all natural". Everything about it, down to the colours and fonts used on the packaging said "healthy" and "alternative". The first four ingredients, in order, were: sugar, wheat, corn syrup, and honey. That is, three of the four top ingredients are sugar. And the wheat is not even whole grain, so the human body processes it largely as sugar.

In the end, Moss concludes that we have a choice. We control what we buy. We control what we eat. We can choose to not eat processed food and convenience food.

That is technically true. But it is also incomplete, reductionist, and disingenuous, as Moss himself has shown in more than 400 pages of excellent writing and impeccable research. The individual consumer must be extremely motivated, and blessed with a mighty will, to withstand the economic, social, cultural, and biological forces stacked up against her. The stuff is engineered to make us over-consume, our bodies are biologically programmed to like the stuff and want more of it, and many of us cannot afford to do otherwise.

Despite these critiques, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us is page-turning, eye-opening, thought-provoking book that I highly recommend.